A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Paul, justification, the Grand Narrative, and word usage

Good ole Chris Tilling wrote a post addressing justification in the context of the NT Wright/John Piper debate, in which he writes:

If words like ‘righteousness’, ‘Law’, ‘justification’, ‘promise’, ‘righteousness of God’ etc. are put in the context of Luther’s question about how to find a gracious God, they will tend to mean one thing. But if these words are placed within a story which is about God’s covenant promises to Israel, her purpose through God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to the clans of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3), her exile, the Prophetic promises in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel of return from exile, the vindication of God’s faithfulness and his covenant people, the gift of the Spirit, the universal acknowledgement of YHWH and the renewal of the covenant etc., those words will potentially mean something different, something bigger which includes that beat of God’s gracious and redeeming love, which Luther so poignantly grasped.

Let it be said that I neither agree with Piper or Wright fully on the issue of justification. Let is also be said that I think Wright’s work is brilliant in analyzing the big picture of Second-Temple Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. Matter of fact, he is the one author I have read enough of that I agree with the most (hopefully Wright will believe I am not trying to defame him!). Yes, even more so than John Wesley.

But one of my criticisms of Wright is that while he does a great job of seeing the big picture, he assumes that such a grand narrative is at the conscious forefront in its entirety (or at least the majority of it) in writings such as Paul’s. But that grand narrative is ‘authored’ by God (or for skeptics, the purposeful or accidental authoring of person or persons), whereas Paul and others are writing on a different level. The grand narrative is the belief in the historical past and direction of Gods’ creation as display through the passing of time and witnessed to by the Bible. As such, it is a great organizing schema for understanding the different smaller narratives, letters, exhortations, etc. written by people. Furthermore, it is probable that the persons themselves recognized the grand themes of exile, vindication, covenant, the Spirit, etc., or were at least subconsciously influenced by it.

However, seeing as the grand narrative is a more abstract generalization, it is problematic to state that Paul’s letters as such are direct expressions of that storyline. The problem is that word usage is derived more from the context of the other words and their immediate referents (and all their usages in other contexts), and only secondarily influenced by the larger context. But even then, the usage within the larger context reflects a purposeful usage of the author. To attribute to Paul a certain definition of dikaiow and dikaisunH based upon an abstract idea that is unlikely to be at the conscious level is problematic. The burden falls upon those who think the abstract grand narrative is being expressed consciously to show that within the texts in such a way that it can not be seen as merely a subconscious, or scripted, expression. If it is not a conscious expression, then it is unlikely a direct influence upon word usage.

As a result, I find the story about the grand narrative to be too distant to be helpful in exegeting at the micro-level. I do not think “righteousness of God”, “justification”, etc. should be understood along the lines of the grand narrative and covenant faithfulness as Wright would have it. Nor do I think that Piper’s and classic Protestantism’s emphasis upon the forensic ideas and forgiveness are correct, as I think they fail to fit within the whole of Romans (Luther’s emphasis of grace, while derived from the text, is not the only theme within Romans). Rather, I think it is more ethical in its nature, referring to the behavior (or future behavior in the context of Romans 4:6) of persons who place their trust in God in the manner that Jesus did, culminating in belief in resurrection. This fits within the constant theme of obedience leading to blessing and sin leading to cursing within the Torah, and are expressed on the textual level. It also fits within the ethical emphasis of Hellenic philosophy (Romans takes upon the character of a philosophical treatise). It has its forensic implications, and it fits within the grand narrative by illustrating part of the means of the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness. However, in my opinion it neither suffers from too narrow a focus (Luther and grace) or too abstract and broad a focus (Wright and the grand narrative).

Now if anyone can understand what I just wrote, I will buy you a cookie. 🙂


February 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

2 Corinthians written after 60 AD?

A lot of scholarship assumes that 2 Corinthians is written soon after 1 Corinthians, perhaps approximately a year later (for instance Introducing the New Testament by Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson). However, there are a few problems with that, if we take both Paul and Acts as providing reliable accounts of Paul’s own travels.

First off, Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians that his upcoming visit is going to be his third visit (2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1). However there are only two places that Acts can be seen as  a visit to Corinth: Acts 18:1 and 20:2. Acts 18:1 clearly precedes even the letter of 1 Corinthians, as Apollos is mentioned in 1 Corinthians but he does not come to Corinth himself till Paul had come back to Ephesus (Acts 19:1) from Syria (Acts 18:18). 1 Corinthians itself is delivered from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8).  Paul also mentions making another visit in the future (1 Corinthians 16:5-7), from which he would head towards Jerusalem with the collection that was to be taken (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).

But in 2 Corinthians we see that Paul had promised to make two visits to church in Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 1:16, Paul says the plans were to go to Corinth to Macedonia and then back there back to Corinth to then head back for Judea. This first of those visits would not be the visit he had already made, as Acts doesn’t record a trip to Macedonia occurring on the way to Syria (which incidentally, it isn’t recorded that he goes back to Judea either). Nor would it make sense to go north up the Aegean sea if one was on a trip back to Syria. So the two visits Paul planned and spoke of in 2 Corinthians 1:16 would have been, if they have been made, at least the second and third trips. But it is apparent that things did not go according to plan, hence Paul has to defend himself (2 Corinthians 1:17). If Paul hadn’t made either of these trips, then the upcoming trip spoken of in 13:1 wouldn’t have been the third trip. If Paul had fulfilled the plans, there would have been no mention of it the context that it is. It seems logical then that Paul fulfilled the first half of the plans but did not return to Corinth to set sail for Syria, as Acts 20:1-3 indicates.

In support of this is the fact that Paul records his trip to Troas and then his trip to his present destination of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). However, Acts doesn’t record a trip to Troas to Macedonia, but rather a only trip in the reverse direction of Phillipi in Macedonia to Troas (Acts 20:5-6).

We are left with three options then: either Acts fails to record a third trip and a trip to Troas to Macedonia, or Paul’s plan for the third trip never occurs, or the third trip occurs at least 2 years after Paul arrives in Rome. Without good reason to accept any of the first two options in my opinion, it leaves us with the most reasonable option that 2 Corinthians was written a couple years after Paul arrives in Rome. In which case, it make sense of Paul’s mention of his numerous sufferings (2 Corinthians 10). And considering Paul saw Festus in 58 AD and was sent to Rome where he lived for two years (Acts 26, 28), 2 Corinthians would be written after 60-61 AD. Assuming the the first trip to Corinth occurs around 50 AD, this gives plenty of time for their to be enough converts in the whole province of Achaia for Paul’s greeting in 2 Corinthians to include the saints of Achaia, wheras 1 Corinthians only makes mention of the church of Corinth. If 1 Corinthians was written around 56 AD, there is at least 4-5 years (and probably more) of seperation between the two letters to Corinth that we have.

February 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Interesting quote on Paul

From page 134 of Cities of God by Rodney Stark:

But what about Paul? Did is missions have an independent effect on Chrisitianization? Or was it that he went where the pickings were best and, in fact, where all the Christian missionaries went- as is suggested by Paul’s constant conflicts with interloping competitors? An answer to this questions requires regression analysis (Regression 5-2).

Looking at the data, we see that Paul’s missionizing had no significant, indepedent effect on Christianization, while the importance of Diasporan communities was quite significant. These results strongly suggest that Paul’s impact on the spread of Christianity was incidental to the general receptivity  of the Diasporan communities to Christian missionizing.

Echoes of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (NRSV)

I have more to reflections on Rodney Stark’s Cities of God for later.


January 31, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Discontinuity of Election between Judaism and Paul

As I trek out to try to read (again) Judgement & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by VanLaningham, I feel there is one important note to make in the relation between Judaism and Paul.

While there is definitely some continuity between the Jewish Scripture’s view on election and Early Judaism with Paul, Paul himself gives a reason to attribute as least some discontinuity. In Romans 11:1-4, Paul speaks of the remnant that God preserves from those who did not commit idolatry in worshipping Baal. In verse 5, Paul affirms that there is a remnant that remains at the present. However, Paul explicitly speaks of the choice being by grace and, as he continues in verse 6, “no longer by works.” Paul offers a clear contrast there, as if to say that election now differs from election then.

However one is to interpret Paul’s precise understanding of election and its relationship to justification and eternal life, there is for Paul a discontinuity between election in the Old Testament AND with Israel’s view (as seen in Romans 9:31), allowing that Israel may refer to specific groups and not every Jewish sect. In other words, reading pre-Christian primary source material of Judaism may offer some light to the situation,  one must be ready to draw a line in the sand and say that Paul offers a different view in some manner (at least with some of the prominent Jewish views) beyond merely adding Jesus as the Messiah.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Hans Küng on Paul the theologian

Referring the responsibility of Paul for making Christianity a “universal religion of humankind”, Hans Küng writes in Christianity: Essence, History, and Future:

That does not make Paul the founder of Christianity, but it does make him the first Christian theologian, who gave a brilliant theological explanation of what Jesus had in fact said and done implicitly, and put into practice. Here Paul, a Roman citizen of Tarsus (in Asia Minor), with a Hellenistic education, made use not only of his rabbinic training and exegesis but also of concepts and notions from his Hellenistic environment… We have seen that Paul’s theology maintains continuity with the preaching of Jesus. But in his letters – unfortunately we do not possess his original catechesis – it at first appears in a somewhat off-putting light. Why? Because it has been remoulded into quite different perspectives, categories and notions: it has been transferred into a quite different overall constellation, into another, Hellenistic paradigm!

Different from the view that was revealer of further revelation, or that Paul was the creator of another religion. Paul was simply applying God’s revelation to Christ, in light of the Torah, Tanakh, and Israel, into the world wide arena, uniting it with experience (Romans 1:18-32 is an argument from experience), placing his ideas into a verbiage that his audience could understanding.

He doesn’t remain simply content to restrict his message to what Jesus spoke, but to apply it and stretch it forward, to a world where Jesus did not appear. But this does not make him a creator (either in conjunction with or apart from Jesus) of a religion. Paul is like a scientist who presses a theory of another to further applications to different areas of knowledge. He does not create, but applies. He does not reveal, but argues. But his source of application and argument is centered upon the crucified, raised Messiah.

January 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment