Friday, May 06, 2005

Paul's New Way of Life, part 2

Perhaps explaining at least some of the reasoning that lead me to the view expressed in the previous post would help people understand it more clearly.

I was reflecting on an argument Sanders makes in Paul and Palestinian Judaism around page 475 in which he argues that most systematic theologies of Paul are "backwards". He points out that they generally start out by explaining the problem - the falleness of man, how man is under sin etc. Then they move to looking at Christ, and how the problem is solved in the work of Christ. ie they go problem then solution, ie man then Christ. They do this generally because its a logical progression and it's what Paul does at the start of Romans. But Sanders argues this is not helpful in understanding Paul's thinking because it's almost certainly not how Paul's own thinking developed.

Paul, it is fairly safe to presume, didn't spend his life as a Pharisee worried about the fallenness of man, about how salvation was impossible under the law. Why? Because Jewish religion was quite firm about the fact that salvation was possible, that it didn't require a perfect keeping of the law, and that it was practically possible to be saved and Paul the Pharisee would have been pretty well certain of his own salvation. What happened to Paul was that once he had his conversion he was convinced of the importance of Christ. He was convinced that in the person of Jesus Christ, God had been at work. He started with Christ, and given the fact of Christ would then have pondered what Christ had been doing or achieving. Hence, starting with Christ as the solution, he would proceed to work out what the problem was the Christ was solving. Hence his line of thinking moved from Christ to man, and solution to problem. Hence, Sanders argues, the standard way of trying to piece together Paul's thought by starting with the assumption of the fallenness of man and asking how Christ solves that well-defined problem is inherently backwards: Paul started with the facts of Christ's life, death and resurrection and moved to asking what the problem was that this well-defined solution is a solution to.

Now we might reasonably quibble with Sander's logic a little and say: Perhaps Paul didn't do this reasoning himself, perhaps he was just taught Christian doctrine by other Christians and didn't really make up much of his theology himself. It doesn't really matter: Someone or some group(s) of people went through something resembling this throught process at some stage between Jesus and Paul and it is the results of this thought process that we find in Paul. For the sake of argument, let us grant Sanders the assumption that it was Paul himself who thought this way.

I was reflecting on this. I suggest you do too - imagine you are Paul: There was this man named Jesus, who was widely acclaimed as a teacher and prophet who taught, did miracles, tended to criticise the religious leaders regarding their legalism, was eventually crucified by them, and then God had resurrected him. So what? What conclusions can be drawn from this?
Well, of primary importance, I think, is the fact of the resurrection. Many Jews looked forward to a resurrection of the righteous on the Day of the Lord, when God judged the earth based and established an eternal kingdom for the righteous. The fact of the resurrection testifies about God's judgement of Jesus - it says something about Jesus' righteousness, namely that God approved of Jesus' life. So, a major thing that we have gained here is knowledge of what God approves of. The resurrection is proof that the way Christ lived is what God approves of. The next obvious step seems to be to apply that to us: If we know what God approves of, how then should we ourselves live? Answer: Like Christ. If we can isolate the things God approved of in Christ's life and emulate them in our own lives then we will be just as approved by God as Christ was.

Looking at Paul's writings, is there anything to suggest he followed the above logic? Yes. I listed a few of them in the previous post. The fact that Paul does have this in mind can perhaps be seen most clearly in Philippians 2:5-9:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
A simple reading comprehension exercise: Why did God reward Jesus? The answer seems to clearly be: Because of humility and obedience - "Therefore God also highly exalted him..." The implicit logic is that if we have humility like Christ's we will receive blessings from God like Christ's. The seems to be what Paul is after in Philippians 3:10-11:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul's reasoning seems to be that if he can become sufficiently like Christ, he might be able to attain a resurrection from the dead like Christ had. The same thinking appears to be happening in Romans 8:17 where Paul speaks of rewards if we have similar sufferings to Christ's:
joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Those three passages were the ones that immediately came to mind when I first thought "Did Paul perhaps follow this reasoning?". But a few computer searches and rereadings of Paul's writings made me quickly realise that Paul's writings are absolutely full of this thinking. It took me three days to compose the previous post because I was finding too many passages that exemplified this reasoning and I had to try and trim down my list of quotations and put them all into some comprehensible order.

Interestingly I learned something else in the process of doing this: The words "in Christ" often kept popping up in or near verses that I was increasingly inclined to view as utilising the logic above. Several months ago after doing a study on "in Christ" I had decided it just meant "part of the Church" and was basically a spiritualised way of saying "Christian" (a word that wasn't invented/didn't become common until after Paul's time). So, I wondered, what if "in Christ" can refer to living like Jesus lived? At that point whole swathes of passages started making sense, and I started finding examples of the logic all over the place to the point where I getting totally overwhelmed in them. It's a bit like a combination lock I suppose - you know when you've got it right when it suddenly opens up.

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