Monday, August 29, 2011

Paul's Argument in Galatians 5:1-12

1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (NIV)

In many ways this section presents the whole letter in a nutshell. He begins by reiterating what he has said in several different ways in chapter four. If you think that anything other than faith in Jesus is necessary to be a full member of the people of God then you're mistaken. Any attempt to conform to Jewish identity in order to ensure full acceptance undoes the work of Christ on the cross and makes it worthless for you. For Paul both non-Christian Jews and pagan Gentiles are in the same boat, on the outside of God's new creation and looking in.

The issue for Paul here is one of identity. Where is your identity found? The teachers were telling there converts that they needed to add Jewish identity onto their identity as followers of the Messiah (this isn't as ridiculous as it sounds - the Messiah, and Paul, and the 12, and Abraham were all Jewish). In verse three Paul warns the Galatians that you only get one identity. It's all or nothing. The status we hope for isn't manifest here and now by practices of the Torah (or any other cultural standard of morality), rather it's in an active faith. Verse 6 is probably a quick mini response to the claim that not requiring works of Torah would lead to sinful behavior. No, because faith in the Messiah expresses or manifests itself in actions that mirror the way of life of the Messiah.

Verses 7-10 have the function of softening some of the blow that he has periodically laid on the Galatians. He's called them foolish among other things. Here he places the blame squarely on the Teachers for this debacle. He encourages them to resist and even tells them that he knows that they'll make the right decision. One of the toughest verses to crack in the entire letter is verse 11. The most likely interpretation (Dunn provides a nice overview pp. 278-80) is that the Teachers told the Galatians that he did not preach circumcision to the Gentiles (this interpretation implies that the congregation is largely Gentile - which makes sense overall) but that he did to the Jews. This may be based on his circumcision of Timothy reported in Acts 16:3. Still it's hard to know what they thought this, and Paul is shocked by the suggestion too.

Paul closes the section with a rather ribald joke. It's important to understand, additionally, that eunuchs and those with deformed penises were excluded from the Jewish assembly. Dunn summarizes this verse well, 'It has the force of a reductio ad absurdum argument: one slice of the knife = acceptability to God; another slice of the knife = total unacceptability to God' (284).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More Thoughts on the Relationship Between Theology and History

In my last post I asked what the relationship between history and theology should look like. I have two brief points to further that discussion, and neither of them novel (sorry). First, our theology needs to be informed by historical exegesis as NT Wright among others has reminded us. In particular, the church has repeatedly fallen through the trap door of de-Judaizing the Bible. The story of the Bible is a thoroughly Jewish story (and even that's imprecise as it's several Jewish stories from across centuries) and is only understandable as a Jewish story. It also is the story of Israel. If we don't wrestle with those realities then our theology will be (at best) tangential to, rather than reflective upon the revelation of the speaking God we find in the Scriptures.

At the same time, I feel as if historians want to put everybody in a straight jacket. Theology (as Dale Allison points out) has to deal with far more than history or even historical exegesis. History plays a role in illuminating the original intentions of the writers of the New Testament. The role of theology is then to construct from that basis and to use many other tools at its disposal. Theology must be allowed to go beyond the text. It must use Scripture creatively and demonstrate faithful improvisation. Our gaping distance from the world of the Bible doesn't make it irrelevant, it simply reinforces that history and original meaning ain't even close to enough.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dale Allison on the Relationship Between History and Theology

I have just finished Dale Allison's latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. It is a great book and I'll hopefully write two or three posts reflecting on elements of it. First, I'd like to briefly discuss parts of the last three paragraphs of the book, as for me they were the most significant.
We should be grateful, then, that the so-called historical Jesus is only one of numerous theological resources, and far from the most important. Consider the present volume, which, if the author is any good at introspection, is much more the product of historical curiosity and professional habits of mind than of theological aspirations. Even if, let us say, a Christian reader is cheered by my case that Jesus had an exalted self-conception, christological reflection is much more than what the first-century Jesus is likely to have thought or said about himself. Would that it were so easy. Christology must wrestle with Paul, study the Cappadocians, engage modern philosophy, and do much else besides...To do history is not to do theology.

Although I have no desire to contract the circle of my readers, it seems to me both vain and inane that a book such as this can contribute to our knowledge of God, or that it should draw much attention from the theologians. Even though the quest has served many of us a s a wake-up call from our dogmatic slumbers, it is no substitute for constructive theology. It can be, at best, only prologue.

While it may be an "emotional necessity to exalt the problem to which one wants to devote a lifetime," and while I am proudly a historian, I must confess that history is not what matters most. If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope, and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible (462).
I won't comment much on this quote except to say that I think it's largely right. To borrow a metaphor from NT Wright, I want to do theology with all of the pieces of the puzzle on the table. That assuredly includes the pieces that result from historical study, even if they're a minority of the pieces. However that does not get us all (or even most) of the way there. We need to remember (as I've written before) that ultimately the Jesus of the church is the Jesus of the canonical gospels, not the Jesus of modern historical reconstructions. So what role does history play in the task of theology? I'll discuss that next time. But for now I'd like to express my appreciation for the work of Dale Allison. I've always found his historical work to be a helpful aid for theological reflection.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Who is opposed by God? 1 Cor. 15:32 and Isaiah 22

Sorry for my lack of posting these days. Numerous factors (including laziness) derailed my blogging. Hopefully I'll be back on the ball for a while.

A few weeks back I as reading Isaiah on the train in the morning and I read the source of Paul's quotation in 1 Corinthians 15:32, in Isaiah 22. The traditional interpretation that I've heard preached is that if there is no resurrection then we may as well party up because there's no hope for anything beyond this life. This is all we have. I'm not so sure that this is an adequate interpretation and reading the context of Isaiah 22 gave me a little different picture.
8 The Lord stripped away the defenses of Judah,
and you looked in that day
to the weapons in the Palace of the Forest.
9 You saw that the walls of the City of David
were broken through in many places;
you stored up water
in the Lower Pool.
10 You counted the buildings in Jerusalem
and tore down houses to strengthen the wall.
11 You built a reservoir between the two walls
for the water of the Old Pool,
but you did not look to the One who made it,
or have regard for the One who planned it long ago.

12 The Lord, the LORD Almighty,
called you on that day
to weep and to wail,
to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.
13 But see, there is joy and revelry,
slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
eating of meat and drinking of wine!
“Let us eat and drink,” you say,
“for tomorrow we die!”

14 The LORD Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: “Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for,” says the Lord, the LORD Almighty. (NIV)

When we situate the quotation in its original context, yes, the residents of Jerusalem are partying up because they have no hope. But that is what they're judged for. In fact I think you could even call it the last straw.

When you read the book of Judges (and elsewhere in the OT) you see the same pattern repeated: the people sin, God sends a foreign nation to judge them, the people cry out in mourning and repentance, and God saves them. In Isaiah, as well, the people sin, God brings them to the brink of destruction, but rather than turn, they party on. Their eating and drinking becomes the last straw, the, 'sin that will not be atoned for' (Is. 22:14).

I want to suggest that perhaps Paul is bringing along with him the entire context of the Isaiah passage when he quotes Is. 22:13. If the dead are not raised then Paul is misrepresenting God. God had not vindicated Jesus and will not vindicate his followers (though from a different period than Isaiah, this would be akin to the Jews trusting in Egypt to save them from Babylon). Under that scenario, Paul should have realized that the opposition he was receiving was opposition from God. God was trying to stop his preaching, but his continual pressing on in his sinful activity meant that judgment was coming and Paul's sin could not be atoned for. I think that this explanation may make it clear why Paul chooses to narrate his own trials immediately preceding the Isaiah citation. If the punishment was from God then Paul has abandoned the God of Abraham by preaching Jesus.

I hope that makes clear that the quoted phrase is not Paul's actual suggestion to the Corinthians. Rather it's used as a catchphrase to bring to mind the wider context of Isaiah 22. In this way Paul also turns the tables on the Corinthians who did not believe in the resurrection. In fact, Paul wasn't mistaken, and his trials were not God's punishment intended to bring him to repentance. Rather it was the Corinthians who didn't believe in the resurrection and had fallen into licentious living (here I'm in line with Hays and Fitzmyer) who were the true enemies of God and were in danger of falling into a state from which their sin could not be atoned for.