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One of the better essays on Paul that I’ve read in recent years was written by Timothy Gombis in a new book about how the New Perspective affects our understanding of the life in Christ: The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective.
It seems that the writing of books on Paul has no end, and I’m struggling to keep up. Heck, I’m still working through N.T. Wright’s two volume set from a couple years ago, as well as the recent massive release from E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought, and the wonderful Paul and the Gift, by John M. G. Barclay. That right there is more than I read on Paul in seminary, and I took specific courses on Pauline theology!
What’s uniquely important about The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is that it begins unraveling the implications of NPP teaching on what it means to live as a Christian under this theology. The contributors to this volume believe that a New Perspective reading on Paul can offer “a fresh and rich approach as one grapples with the apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian life” (Introduction)
Gambia’s chapter offers a signal example. We will examine what he says in two parts, today and again one day next week. His article is called, “Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit.”
He begins with a helpful reminder: Paul was not a systematic theologian.
The revolution in Pauline studies over the last four decades initially challenged and now has broken the dominance of a singularly Protestant reading of Paul focused on justification by faith. One result of the reconfiguration of the interpretive field is the reminder that Paul did not write a systematic theology, nor are his letters works of abstract theological reflection on the character of salvation as applied to the individual Christian. He wrote letters to churches, giving them counsel toward fruitful community dynamics, and the theological notions he brought to bear were determined by his knowledge of the situation and his relationship to that church. When we reflect on how Paul regarded topics such as the Christian life, we are reminded that we are answering this question from our reflection on Paul’s letters as contingent documents. (p. 103)
Let me highlight an important section of that paragraph:
…nor are his letters works of abstract theological reflection on the character of salvation as applied to the individual Christian. He wrote letters to churches, giving them counsel toward fruitful community dynamics…
This is a key insight that New Perspective theology makes clear. The so-called “Old” Perspective, growing out of the Protestant Reformation, developed into a systematic theology with individual justification and soteriology at its heart. “Sometimes an old-perspective reading of Paul can simply get “stuck” with the implications and aspects of individual salvation or chase the whole of Paul’s thought through what is often called the ordo salutis” (Introduction). However, newer studies of Paul observe that Paul was concerned most about “individuals-in-communities.”
I will argue that the focus of Paul’s reflection on the Christian life is the church, the new-creation people of God made up of individuals-in-community. Paul does not conceive of individuals living the Christian life in isolation from the community. (p. 104)
The rest of Tim Gombis’s essay develops two “big picture” ideas to ground this point and its implications for Christian living and mission.
- The communities to which Christians belong derive their identities from the biblical storyline: from creation through Israel to Jesus to the church to new creation. Gombis shows how the Christian life fits within this narrative and God’s creation purposes.
- The starting point for Paul in thinking about the Christian life is “baptism into Christ by the Spirit.” As he says, “The Spirit unites believers to God in Christ and unites them vitally to one another. This twofold work of reconciliation stands at the center of Paul’s theological vision and is certainly at the heart of his pastoral impulse.” (p. 104)
Today we’ll give an overview of the first point. How does the Christian life fit within the narrative development of the Bible and its revelation of God’s purposes?
Genesis 1–2 indicates that God established creation as his temple, the place that would manifest the glory of his sovereign kingship. God created humanity as “the image of God,” which meant that humanity would depict the reign of the creator God in all their activity. God called humanity to reproduce over the face of the earth, to fill it and subdue it (Gen. 1: 26, 28). Their overseeing the spread of shalom on behalf of the creator God, along with their relating to one another, was the manner in which they carried out their identity as “the image of God,” a synonymous expression to “the glory of God.” (p. 105)
Here Gombis resonates with the point I have tried to make in my teaching on Genesis. God put humans in the world as his priestly representatives (“in his image”) and called them to multiply and spread his blessing throughout the whole world — “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
Note that spreading his blessing involved “subduing” the earth. The world we enter in Gen. 1-2 was not paradise but an imperfect world (though good). Evil was present and needed conquering. The original purpose for God placing humans in this world was to repair and bless the world (tikkun olam). God planned that the persistent spread of humans representing his rule throughout the world would bring healing and blessing — shalom — to the earth.
What Adam and Eve lost in the “fall” was not simply their innocence, but the opportunity to give access to the tree of life to the whole world. From Genesis 3-11 we see that “death spread to all” (Rom. 5:12) rather than shalom.
Abraham & Israel
It is at this point that God chooses Abraham and gives him a similar promise to the one given the first humans.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Abraham is the beginning of the specific story of Israel. And their calling was in sync with God’s original plan as well.
The point of this all-too-brief summary of the scriptural narrative is to note that God’s intentions with Israel were completely consistent with God’s purposes with Abraham— to bless the nations of the world through him. And these were consistent with God’s creational intentions— to have all humanity filling the earth, ruling it on God’s behalf, manifesting his sovereign rule over all things by overseeing creation’s flourishing. (p. 107)
The Faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah
For Paul to announce that salvation is found in Jesus Christ is to make a claim about the unfulfilled promises to Abraham about the blessing of the nations. And it is to make a claim about God’s redemption of the failed narrative of Israel as God’s own possession and the national agent of God’s blessing of the nations. Finally, reaching back in the narrative before Abraham to the failure of Adam and Eve, Jesus is the true human who renders to the creator God a faithful obedience embodied by a life of self-giving love for others. Jesus Christ, then, and his relation to the entire range of God’s redemptive purposes, becomes the context within which the Christian life takes place and the template for what it involves. (pp. 108-109)
Jesus redeems the failed vocation of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, who brings the fulfillment of God’s promises to bless the nations. Jesus is the “true vine” (John 15:1), that is, the true Israelite, whose life of self-giving love, ultimately displayed on the cross, becomes the “light to the nations” that Israel’s story failed to exhibit.
Individuals-in-Communities in the Messiah
…the presence of Jesus fills each church community by the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit has been poured out, and it is the Spirit of Jesus (Phil. 1: 19), filling churches with God’s own life-giving presence to produce in them and among them the life of Christ embodied through corporate behaviors of self-giving love (2 Cor. 3: 18; Eph. 4: 15– 16). Just as Jesus is the true human, the life of Jesus is being produced in these communities so that the lives of Christians and the corporate life of Christian communities resemble his true humanity. Paul speaks of Christian existence as believers being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8: 29) and participating in the renewed humanity created “according to the likeness of God” (Eph. 4: 24). This language alludes specifically to God’s creation intentions for humanity and indicates that the Christian life has everything to do with the recovery of God’s original purposes for “the image of God.”(pp. 109-110)
A New Perspective understanding of how Paul sets the Christian life within the narrative arc of scripture brings out the central focus of God’s plan from creation to new creation — to have a community of people, God dwelling in their midst, who are united to him and to one another, practicing tikkun olam and spreading God’s blessing throughout the world. Jesus is, of course, the key to this, for the individuals-in-community who are called by his name are shaped by his life, death, and resurrection and empowered by his Spirit to live lives of self-giving love as he did.
God does all of this in the effort to install on earth his own life through human agents loving one another and overseeing the spread of shalom. (p. 110)