Living in Union with Christ
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Living in Union with Christ

Paul's Gospel and Christian Moral Identity

Macaskill, Grant

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eBook - ePub

Living in Union with Christ

Paul's Gospel and Christian Moral Identity

Macaskill, Grant

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Leading New Testament theologian Grant Macaskill introduces Paul's understanding of the Christian life, which is grounded in the apostle's theology of union with Christ. The author shows that the exegetical foundations for a Christian moral theology emerge from the idea of union with Christ. Macaskill covers various aspects of Christian moral theology, exploring key implications for the Christian life of the New Testament idea of participatory union as they unfold in Paul's Letters.

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Información

Año
2019
ISBN
9781493419944
Categoría
Biblical Studies

1
Scholarly Contexts for the Present Study

Attempts to Revise Our Understanding of Justification and Sanctification
This chapter will outline some of the academic debates about Paul’s gospel that bear on the topic of this book. As I noted in the introduction, those readers who have no interest in those debates or feel overwhelmed by the technical scholarship they involve may want to skip this chapter and move straight to chapter 2, where my own reading of Paul begins. Although what is discussed here is not essential as background to the later chapters, I think it is important to include it for two reasons. First, some readers will undoubtedly encounter these debates in the context of their own academic development as they are exposed to critical scholarship on Paul, so it will be helpful to position my own reading with respect to this larger field. Second, elements of these debates have filtered down into more popular discussions, particularly within evangelicalism, where ideas are often transmitted without awareness of their academic origins or of the scholarly criticisms that have subsequently been leveled against them. Where the ideas in question involve significant revision of the gospel, as traditionally understood, that can be highly problematic for the life of the church. In some cases, evangelical scholars, including scholarly pastors, have recognized these revisionist accounts of Paul’s gospel to be problematic and have openly argued against them. In other cases, evangelicals appear to have embraced the revisions, perceiving them to be important correctives to the deficiencies of their tradition, the diminutions of which I spoke in the introduction. As will be clear from my own discussion, I am less persuaded that the revisionist accounts are satisfactory, though in each case there are elements that are important to affirm.
One common element to many of these revisions is the conviction that Luther’s reading of Paul—centered on the concept of justification by faith—has distorted the interpretation not just of the apostle but of the whole NT throughout the modern period. Luther’s reading is dismissed as an exercise in unconscious projection or transference of his own situation and his own “hang-ups” back onto Paul’s writings.1 When Paul is read with more historical care against the background of Second Temple Judaism, it is claimed, or when we think more rigorously about the theology of divine grace, then the justification-by-faith model—at least, as traditionally understood—appears foreign to Paul’s own thought. Several eminent NT scholars have recently defended Luther’s reading and with it much that is considered vital to Protestant theology,2 but those accusations against the Reformers continue to be sounded, and their validity is largely assumed by biblical scholars.
This issue is important to the task of the present book because the revisionist approaches to Paul affect how we think about the Christian moral life. The issue can be put like this: the revisionists claim that our way of thinking about justification has to be altered to fit Paul’s representation of the transformed Christian life; my claim is that our way of thinking about the transformed Christian life has to be altered to make it consistent with Paul’s representation of justification. The key is that both justification and transformation are constituted by our union with Jesus Christ by his Spirit. Those who have defended Luther against his accusers have recognized this coherence to be at work in his thought, though there are elements in Paul’s writing that, in my view, they continue to pass over too quickly.
The New Perspective on Paul
The first of the movements that we need to consider is the “New Perspective” on Paul, which is often traced back to the publication of E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders challenged the assumption that Jews of the Second Temple period were, if you like, card-carrying legalists who explicitly taught that one is saved by meticulously keeping the law. Carefully examining writings from the Second Temple period and the traditions preserved in the later rabbinic collections, Sanders argued that Judaism could be broadly characterized by the label “covenantal nomism”: God establishes his covenant graciously with sinners, and once they are members of the covenant, their lives are regulated by the law, including its multiple provisions for what is to be done when sins continue to be committed. The language famously associated with covenantal nomism is that one “gets in” by grace but “stays in” by observing the law, though the law itself accommodates imperfection and sin. Paul’s criticism of those who pursue righteousness by performing “works of the law” cannot then be understood as a simple criticism of people who believed they would be saved by careful adherence to God’s commandments rather than by grace. It must instead have a more specific or nuanced meaning, understood only with reference to Paul’s new emphasis on participation in Christ, on being “in Christ.” What this new way of thinking about participation involved was famously (and with admirable honesty) underdeveloped by Sanders: “But what does this mean? How are we to understand it? We seem to lack a category of ‘reality’—real participation in Christ, real possession of the Spirit—which lies between naïve cosmological speculation and belief in magical transference on one hand and a revised self-understanding on the other. I must confess that I do not have a new category of perception to propose here. That does not mean, however, that Paul did not have one.”3 My own previous study, Union with Christ in the New Testament, took this as something of a launching point, exploring the ways that this participation in Christ is represented throughout the NT. Here we can simply note that Sanders recognized some of its key elements—the place of the Spirit and the revising of self-understanding—without really knowing what to do with them. Ironically, I think he might have found explanatory categories if he had spent some time reading Luther or the other Reformers.4
Sanders’s core claim that grace was a ubiquitous concept in Second Temple Judaism has been broadly accepted, even if often qualified.5 But his interpretation of Paul has been criticized over the decades, particularly his claim that Paul maintained an expectation of a final judgment that would hold people to account for their own works. This is really an outworking of his model of covenantal nomism: one “gets in” by grace but “stays in” by obedience. While Paul has redefined the covenant with respect to Jesus, this basic mode of covenantal operation as something that involves an obedience judged by God still continues. This, I think, is precisely the point where the acknowledged inadequacies of Sanders’s attempt to understand “participation” become visible, and my discussion of Paul within this book will illustrate some of the weaknesses. Interestingly, though, it is possible to see partial analogues to Sanders’s problematic understanding of Paul in popular contemporary ways of thinking about discipleship, in which the cross is viewed as the gracious entry point into salvation and the gracious means to deal with subsequent sin, but the believer is really responsible for obeying thereafter, even if helped by the Spirit. We “get in” by the cross, but we “stay in” by obedience, even if we need to return to the cross whenever we fail, much as a meticulous law-keeping Jew would have offered a sacrifice. At key points in this book, I will use the New Perspective language to highlight this particular irony in contemporary evangelical thought.6
At roughly the same time as Sanders, and in dialogue with his work and with the emerging publications of the Dead Sea Scrolls, N. T. Wright and James Dunn developed similar rereadings of Paul. Wright’s has probably been the more influential account, reflecting his admirable commitment to writing extensively for the church and not just for the academy.
Wright, with good warrant, has repeatedly urged readers to recognize that the New Perspective on Paul is really a family of approaches, with each representative developing their account in quite distinctive ways.7 His own account is particularly attentive to the social or horizontal quality of Paul’s rhetoric about works: performance of the “works of the law” appears to be as much about pleasing other people as it is about pleasing God. Comparing Paul to other ancient Jewish literature where similar language is found, notably one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that involves inner-Jewish polemical discussion,8 he argues that the “works of the law” are actually boundary-maintaining practices that distinguish “insiders” to the covenant from “outsiders.” They are practices that visibly set covenant members apart from outsiders, which is why they are physical or public in character (circumcision, Sabbath observance, ritual washing, etc.). Now that the covenant has been redefined in relation to Jesus, the boundaries are to be viewed differently, as indeed they always should have been, since the covenant was always intended to bring about blessing for the whole world.
Justification, then, is not about the imputation of someone else’s credit to our account but designates our insider status within the covenant. For Wright, Luther’s problem was that he projected his objections to contemporary ecclesial practices (and to the concepts of virtue that lay beneath them) back onto Paul’s language of works and thereby misunderstood the real boundary-focused significance of that language. Once that is recognized, Paul’s apparently sustained commitment to the idea of a future judgment in which we will be held to account for our works is easier to explain. Now Paul’s account of justification does not minimize or deny the importance of good works or obedience; it simply recasts these in relation to Jesus, who now defines what it means to be in the covenant. This is the element that has worried many evangelical scholars, for it would appear to be at odds with classical notions of grace and imputation, but for Wright it is an important element in a moral account that e...

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