Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Eighty Five


Physics, logic, ethics. What was the connection in ancient philosophy, and how did Paul respond to it? Tom provides us with a very helpful summary on p. 1371– “They believed that once one had discovered and understood (‘logic’) what the world was, how it worked and what human beings actually were (‘physics’), it was the task of humans to live in accordance with that, rather than against its grain (‘ethics’). Paul believed the world had been renewed in the Messiah, that those who were themselves ‘in the Messiah’ had been renewed as image-bearing human beings; and that the task of such people was to live in accordance with the new world, rather than against its grain.” Of course what this meant is that the philosophers were wrong in key ways about all three of these things physics, logic, ethics. However, and it is a big however, since Paul believes that God is renewing the existing creation, we should not be surprised there is considerable overlap between Pauline ethics, and for instance Stoic ethics (not, for example Cynic ideas of ‘getting back to nature’, since of course nature, in Paul’s view is just as fallen as human nature). Good ethics did not look like allowing ‘the word to squeeze one into its mold’ or ‘being conformed to the form of a world that was passing away. Rom. 12.2. The body was not the prison house of the soul, indeed the body itself was coming up for renewal in the resurrection. The problem of course with Stoicism for the likes of Paul was not just their body/soul dualism, but pantheism— the idea that the divine spark was inherently in all things, and that after all the divine was not an independent personal being, but that force or spark of life within us all. As Tom notes “The God in whom Paul believes was present to and within the world, and especially to and within human beings but he was not contained within the world or humans. Rather he was present alongside, and in a sense over against, the world and humans, guiding, calling to account, challenging, and enabling.” (p. 1369). Creational monotheism of course stands over against the basic assumptions of both Stoicism and Epicureanism. The world is created by an independent deity, indeed Paul would insist it was created by and through both God the Father, and as Tom likes to put ‘God’s second self’ God’s Son, indeed the world was created by, for and through Christ (see Col. 1).

Thus while there is a superficial similarity between how a Stoic would talk about the presence of God everywhere and the Christian notion of omnipresence on closer inspection there is a world of difference. God is not inherently in all things. Rather all things are present to God, because God, to put it mildly and metaphorically, is much bigger than the material universe he created (see for example Ps. 8 where the planets and stars are seen as mere works of God’s fingers). Furthermore, God continues to care about creation, it is not heading for a final burn out, like the Stoics thought, nor merely winding down into oblivion either. It has come up for renewal. The eschatology of Paul and his vision of the future of creature and creation differs from that of the Greek philosophers at key points, not least because Paul did not think that a person ceased to exist at death, as Epicureans seemed to have done. Finally, while Paul shares pneuma language in common with the Stoics, by the term Paul means a personal being, the living presence of God called the Holy Spirit, not merely a divine force or spark.

Tom does a good job, on the whole, of balancing the similarities and differences between the Pauline ethic and the philosophical ethics of the day. On the one hand there was much good to affirm in the ethics of the day and Paul tells Christians to do so, when it comes to whatever is noble, virtuous, praiseworthy, true, holy, upright, in the world in general. Christians were to be good neighbors and commend their neighbors who behaved in such ways. However, and it was a big however, at the heart of the Christian ethic was agape, and other non-pagan virtues such as humility, chastity, and to some degree patience. To this I would add that when one spins out the meaning of agape, it also involves non-violence, turning the other cheek to the neighbor etc. It meant not participating in the rivalry conventions of the day, not engaging in behavior that divided communities and individuals, it meant not indulging prejudices and hatreds of various sorts. It is as important to notice the differences as to notice the similarities between the Pauline ethic and the ethics in the Greco-Roman world. Christians are to be honest, pay their bills and taxes without grumbling, not least because they needed to be a good witness for their evangelistic religion. The world was watching.

[As an aside, sometimes when I see Christians today all wrapped up in fighting ‘higher taxes’ when in fact we Americans have the lowest tax rates in the Western world, fighting doing their civic duty by serving on juries etc., anathematizing the whole notion of government, particularly central or national government, I am frankly ashamed of what I see, and I am sure Paul and Jesus would have winced at such attitudes as well. This is a classic case of being a bad witness to a watching world.]

I agree with Tom pp. 1375-76 that Paul walks a fine line between affirming what he can about existing mores, while insisting on certain Christian distinctives as well. In regard to the household code we can see him trying to changing existing fallen patterns of behavior within the context of the Christian family, loading up the head of the household with a whole series of imperatives as to how he is to behave and use his power in a way that we don’t find in Plutarch for example. At the same time that Paul is working to change the slave system within the Christian community, and the patriarchal system within the Christian community and household, he doesn’t simply do the revolutionary thing of simply condemning the existing institutions totally. Rather he puts the leaven of the Gospel within the existing structures and lets it do its work. To some degree Tom is right that Paul’s basic fall back position was ‘give no offense, save that which is inherent to the Gospel’.

“The point seems to be, above all, that he believes in the rehumanizing power of the Gospel of Jesus. The Gospel is not meant to make people odd or less than fully human; it is meant to renew them in their genuine image-bearing humanness.” (p. 1376). This is exactly right. “We can find plenty of shrewd and wise words about drunkenness, sexual misbehavior,, anger, and violence, lying and deceit, honesty and hard work in Cicero,Seneca, Epictetus as well as in Paul.”

What about ‘autarkeia’, a favorite virtue of Stoics, Cynics,and Epicureans? The word itself means ‘content’ in the sense of self-sufficient, or not really needing outside things. We see Paul’s version of this in Phil. 4.11-13. Godliness with contentment is great gain. I like Tom’s translation of this passage on p. 1377— “I’m not talking about lacking anything. I’ve learned to be content (autarkes) with what I have. I know how to do without, and I know how to cope with plenty. In every possible situation I’ve learned the hidden secret of being full and hungry, of having plenty and going without and it is this: I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power.” You will notice he did not say “I can do all things in my who strengthens me.” I would say a better translation is ‘I can endure all things in him who strengthens me’. In other words, enough with the superman translation of Phil. 4.13. I would add that Paul believes not in self-sufficency, but finding his sufficiency not in the things of this world but in Christ. Paul affirms the goal of contentment, but says the means is dependency on Christ, not self-sufficiency. So as Tom adds Paul affirms neither the Epicurean goal of ataraxia, or the untroubled life, nor the Stoic/Cynic goal of ‘apatheia’, the state of being immune to suffering. And here is a real difference— the philosopher assumed you could come to true knowledge by avoiding suffering, Paul assumed you needed to endure suffering to get there.

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