Monday, January 16, 2012

Long Live the King

Those close to me know that since my seminary journey concluded I’ve drifted towards and have become convinced by the New Perspective on Paul.  Of the many things that it has changed in my thinking is my former belief that Paul’s primary soteriological agenda is to get individuals to merely put their faith in Jesus so that He can save their souls. 

Because James’s Dunn has argued, I think convincingly, that Paul speaks of “works of righteousness” not as the moral effort referred to by James chapter 2, but rather ethnic boundary markers erected by an identity barren postexilic Jewish faith, this has liberated me to ask deeper questions about the nature of the participationist faith Jesus calls us to.   Instead these works of righteousness refer to the (chiefly) circumcision, Sabbath observation, and food regulation.  So when Paul condemns works of righteousness, he is not attacking the moral effort that forms us but specific identity markers that Jews had put in place to remind gentiles that they were insufficiently Jewish.

Alas a large problem for the early church of mixed ethnic backgrounds was the looming question what exactly does it mean to be the people of God?  Do the gentiles need to be circumcised?  Do gentiles need to follow kosher food laws?  You can imagine the racial tension that might have crept up in those early communities. 

Two things consistently strike me as I now read the epistles.  1. How often when Paul speaks of “works of righteousness” “being saved by faith”—immediately this discussion is followed by questions of ethnic relationship.  Thus faith in Jesus is not a magical confession leading to double imputation, but rather a confessional starting point that justifies and begins our journey of participation in the community of God. 2.  How often Paul moves from this discussion to a call for the church to be whole, one, unified or most popularly “reconciled.” 

Thus as we theologize about the New Testament and more specifically Paul we must confess that one of the loudest themes of the cross and primary objectives of atonement is not just the salvation of the individual sinner, but also the reconciliation of God’s good creation—played out in the instance of the church between the ethnic relationship between Jews and gentiles. 

So on this, a day when we remember the Reverend Dr. MLK, I thought it appropriate that my devotional reading from Ephesians should yield this, 

So on this day we celebrate a saint who practiced the reconciling vision of the cross better than most.  Long live the vision of the King.  Double entendre intended. 

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