One of the things I most appreciate about Tom Wright’s work, including these new volumes is that Tom, like Paul himself, is a global thinker. And when I say a global thinker, I’m not just referring to the whole field of theology, but rather to the fact that Tom is interested in get right the whole mindset of Paul not just in regard to his theological ideas, but in regard to his praxis, and his symbols, and his stories. He is equally critical of the reductionism of the left (say e.g. the attempts by Richard Horsley and others to reduce theology to anthropology or sociology or even worse to politics) as of the reductionism of the right (that wants to abstract theological ideas from Paul and sort them into some kind of logical sequence or presentation, and then privilege certain major ideas, say justification, as ‘the essence of Paul’s thought’ and the like). To give one illustration of the kind of reductionism he is most peeved about when it comes to Evangelicals he says this “justification by faith has come to mean justification by believing in the proper doctrine of justification,a position which, in attempting to swallow its own tail, produces a certain type of theological and perhaps cultural indigestion” (p. 42, and compare his book on Justification, responding to his critics).
Tom instead wants a thick description of Paul’s thought world and praxis and stories and symbols, and this includes taking into account social history and Paul’s rhetoric. You will not be surprised to hear that I am especially pleased to see him appropriate the benefits and recent gains of socio-rhetorical analysis in these volumes on Paul.
When I say that Tom is a global thinker, I also am referring to the fact that he wants to take a holistic approach when it comes to Pauline ethics as well as Pauline theology. The two need to be discussed together, indeed the two belong together and are co-entailed. In one sense ethics involves the living out of one’s theology, living out what God is working in the community to live and to do. Belief and behavior are two sides of one coin, in one sense. Or as Tom puts it in regard to Philemon, the reason it is necessary for Philemon to do what Paul is urging him to do is because of who Christ is— a God who is reconciling the world to himself, and wants reconciliation to be the signature of the relationships within his community.
Tom’s account of Philemon stresses that the main point of the letter is to get Onesimus and Philemon reconciled, back sharing koinonia, as it were. He takes it as possible secondary implications that: 1) Paul wants Philemon to manumit his slave, and 2) to perhaps send him back to Paul to work with him.
I actually think this does not go far enough. When Paul says quite literally in vs. 16 that Philemon should receive Onesimus back “no longer (ouketi) as a slave but above and beyond (hyper) the slave category as a beloved brother in Christ, especially so to me, and how much more to you even in the flesh and also in the Lord” he is indeed making an emancipation proclamation that comports with the implications of Gal. 3.28. In Christ there should be no slave or free (see the work of Scott Bartchy, especially his article published on this blog months ago).
While I agree with Tom that Paul is not like a modern Fredrick Douglas nor is he an ancient capitulator to the existing slave system. He is instituting reform within the context of the Christian community, not in society in general. And in this case the reform involves a fundamental principle– if one is a brother in Christ he should be treated as a person, and no longer as a piece of property, a slave. And Paul is insistent on this matter, speaking of Philemon’s obedience and threatening a coming visit. I take the ‘you will do even more’ to mean even more than manumit, namely sending him off to work with Paul.
What I especially find strange in the sublimating of Paul’s spinning out the social implications of reconciliation is that Tom is one of the big proponents of Paul’s anti-imperial rhetoric. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Christ is the reality of which Caesar is the parody, and so on. But it is precisely that imperial ideology that had led to the enslaving of a huge portion of the population of the Roman Empire. Most slaves became slaves as fortunes, or better said misfortunes, of war.
Paul surely knows this, and since Paul was a global thinker he surely would have realized that opposing imperial ideology involves opposing the enslaving of much of the world. If Caesar is not the Christian’s lord, then Christians do not have to obey the dictates of Caesar when it comes to the slave trade. Paul is working for change within the context of the Christian community, not in society at large, but he is working at it, as Philemon shows, and as C.F. D. Moule was to say, Philemon provided the ammunition in early Christianity for a strong opposition to the contradiction in terms implied in having a Christian slave. Moule in fact suggests Paul provides here the depth charge which would eventually blow up the institution of slavery.
It is important however to end this post on a positive note, as there is so much to learn from Tom’s excellent reflections in his first major chapter (74 pages long). It is useful to remind ourselves of Tom’s helpful reiteration of his approach to texts and realia both ancient and modern– namely critical realism. Here is what he says it is, “a self-critical epistemology which in rejecting naive realism which simply imagines we are looking at the material with a God’s-eye view, rejects also the narcissistic reductionism of imagining that all apparent perception is in fact projection, that everything is really going on inside our own heads. Critical realism engages determinedly in a many-sided conversation, both with the data itself and with others (including scholars) who are also engaging with it. The conversation aims not at unatttainable objectivity, but at truth nonetheless, the truth in which the words we use and the stories we tell increasingly approximate to the reality of another world, in the historian’s case, the world of the past.” (p. 51).