Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Paul’s “New Way of Life” in Imitation of Christ

I have come to realise that core to Paul’s theology is the idea of a new way of living that is in imitation of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems that Paul’s statements about this have often been misinterpreted as the idea that Paul was trying to get people to believe in Christ.

Paul’s fundamental logic is fairly basic:
Christ lived a certain way, and was vindicated by God because of it. Hence if we live in that same way then we will receive the same blessings.

Look at how Paul formulates it:
Christ was “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:8-9).
The clear implication is that if we live obediently to the point of death, God will give us similar blessings. Paul makes this explicit:
“I want to know Christ… and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11)
Paul’s reasoning is quite simple: If it is at all possible to get a resurrection like Christ’s then it could be obtained by living the way Christ lived. A few verses later he says:
“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…” (Phil 3:17-18)
How can someone live as an enemy of the cross of Christ? Simple: By having a lifestyle that is fundamentally in opposition to the lifestyle exemplified by Christ in his obedience to the point of death on a cross.

“joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:17)
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faithfulness.” (Heb 13:7)
The basic reasoning is the same: We see certain people living a certain way and receiving blessings, hence we know that if we live that same way, we’ll receive the same blessings.
“[Be diligent] so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faithfulness and patience inherit the promises.” (Heb 6:12)
Some people by their faithfulness and patience obtain blessings, so if we live like they did we will obtain blessings like they did.
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…. in every place your faithfulness to God has become known.” (1 Thes 6,8)
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1)
“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.” (1 Cor 4:16)
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1)
“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,” (2 Thes 3:7)
Paul gave his basic principle in Romans 2:7-8, different lifestyles receive different responses from God:
“to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom 2:7-8)

The same reasoning applies with Abraham – he lived a life of faithfulness and so was justified. If we live a life like that we expect the same results.
“[Abraham is] the ancestor of all who are faithful without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faithfulness that our ancestor Abraham had.….Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who are faithful to him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:11-12, 23-24)

If we imitate Christ’s lifestyle, if the same faithfulness is in us that was in Christ, the same obedience is in us that was in Christ, then can be said to live Christ’s life:
“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:10-11)
“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1 Cor 1:30)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
We die to our old lives and live a new life that is like Christ’s was. We are “in Christ”, because we are living his life. This makes a lot of Paul’s confusing rambles about dying and living in Christ a lot clearer.

This whole notion of “equal blessings by equal lives” (if we can call it that) has been almost completely ignored by scholars. Why? I think, because it fundamentally doesn’t fit with standard Protestant theology. Why do I say this? Well, in Protestantism the basic notion is that we put our trust in Christ and His work saves us and the blessings He earned are transferred to us by some semi-magical process, and we ourselves cannot earn or achieve any blessings from our own lives. This is diametrically opposed to the notion that we should be doing the same things as Christ and thereby attaining the same level of righteousness and the same blessings. I offer that as a suggestion for why Protestant scholars for the last 400 years have been unable to understand Paul’s theology, because this central core of his thinking is heresy to them. But as anyone who has studied the early Christian writings will know, the idea of “imitation” (mimesis) and becoming Christ-like (deification) formed a huge part of their theology. They grasped this point of Paul’s thinking with bells on. (It’s not like I’m the first in history think Paul taught this… rather it took 1500 years for Christians to forget that he did.)

This concept has very powerful implications for understanding what Paul is saying in many passages, so please bear it in mind as you read. Sadly, all too often Paul’s meaning is seriously obscured because the translators have not grasped it, eg instead of translating something “you ought to have the faithfulness of Christ”, we get “you should have faith in Christ”, because they assume that Paul thinks Christ is the object of our faith rather than the exemplar of it. Several key passages of Paul often end up translated in ways I consider to be horribly wrong as a result (eg Rom 3:21-31, Gal 2:15-21, Phil 3:9 etc).


Anonymous Nato said...

I was under the impression that most modern evangelicals believe (or at least would agree with someone who suggests) that we should imitate Christ. Can you further explain what they've done wrong?

Blogger Andrew said...

The point under dispute is not that we should imitate Christ, but that by doing the same things as Christ we acheive for ourselves same level of righteousness that Christ achieved. That is what I am saying Paul's doctrine was. No evangelical would advocate that, because it is completely the opposite of the evangelical teaching that what we need faith in Christ so that his righteousness is transferred to us. It would be considered works-based salvation, Pelagian, Catholic, heresy.

I am saying that what evangelicals have done wrong is:
a) Think that our righteousness is achieved by Christ not us
b) Think that Christ's righteousness is transferred over to us when we have faith
c) Think that the target of our faith is largely Christ rather than God, and hence translate/understand passages that say "faith of Christ" (referring to our imitation of Christ's faithfulness to God) as "faith in Christ" (referring to our belief in Christ/his substituionary death)
d) Fail to perceive the level of importance that Christ as an example plays in Paul's thinking. To Paul this is a major part of what makes Christ's life and death itself the Gospel, and why "the gospel" when explained in evangelical tracts today looks nothing like the 4 Gospels in the bible.
e) Think that such "works-based salvation" is unpauline by misreading Paul's statements about Torah-Observance ("works of the law"/"deeds of the Torah") with being about human effort and good works - and thus creating a Christianity that is majorly contradictory with the book of James and is ironically thoroughly unpauline. (Though this point I didn't really touch on in this post, I have in previous posts on The New Perspective)

There may be more, but that list off the top of my head will do for starters.

Blogger SubversNZ said...

I agree that traditional protestant interpretations of the atonement and justification (and the resulting ethics) have been lopsided, but I think you risk becoming lopsided the other way.

Christ as an example does not preclude some sort of representative substitution.

I thing that without the atonement we would not be able to imitate Christ. In Christ we are free from the guilt and power of sin to live freely as Christ did.

Perhaps Paul never questioned his own salvation before his conversion, just as many effectively nominal Christians do not question theirs, but after Paul's conversion he recognised that it was Jesus (as opposed to the Law) that saved him.

Being "in Christ" cannot be the same as being like Christ. We are made like Christ (by the Spirit) by being in Christ, not the other way around.

Blogger Andrew said...

Christ as an example does not preclude some sort of representative substitution.
Agreed. I am unsure though as to whether or not Paul does have any representative substitution in his thought.

I think that without the atonement we would not be able to imitate Christ.
I agree if you mean "if it were not for the example and power of the message of Christ then we would still be living the old way of life and stuck in our sins." But I suspect that you're thinking of some sort of representative substitution acheived by Christ... what precisely? In what way would the lack of such an atonement prevent us from imitating Christ?

In Christ we are free from the guilt and power of sin to live freely as Christ did.
Interestingly I was reading last night about the fact that Paul never talks about the idea of "guilt" or us being freed from guilt, and that the whole traditional Jewish terminology of repentence and forgiveness is lacking in Paul's writings. Certainly Paul calls us "transgressors", but his reason for doing so is never stated as "therefore we are guilty before God and need our sins forgiven", rather it is that we are all "under the power of sin" (Rom 3:9) and therefore need to be freed from it. Do you take "the power of sin" to be a metaphor for guilt? Why would Paul never mention the word "guilt" itself if that's what he meant?

Being "in Christ" cannot be the same as being like Christ.
Why? Do you have verses and/or an argument for this conclusion?


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