Paul Takes on the Philosophers (acc to NT Wright)

Paul Takes on the Philosophers (acc to NT Wright) February 24, 2014

What did Paul say to folks on the Areopagus? What would Paul have said to a philosopher like Seneca? NT Wright, in chp 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, ponders precisely these sorts of questions and it makes for engaging reading.

When we ask, as we must in this chapter, how the Paul we have come to know might have responded to the philosophical world of his day, we might be forgiven for thinking that he would sweep it all away with a single wave of the hand:

The word of the cross, you see, is madness to people who are being destroyed. But to us – those who are being saved – it is God’s power. This is what the Bible says, after all:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the shrewdness of the clever I’ll abolish. Where is the wise person? Where is the educated person? Where is the debater of this present age? Don’t you see that God has turned the world’s wisdom into folly? This is how  it’s happened: in God’s wisdom, the world didn’t know God through wisdom, so it gave God pleasure, through the folly of our proclamation, to save those who believe. Jews look for signs, you see, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we announce the crucified Messiah, a scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, the Messiah – God’s power and God’s wisdom. God’s folly is wiser than humans, you see, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans.3

Another fine rhetorical flourish announcing the folly of all human rhetoric! Perhaps, though, this is more than a simple dismissal; as usual, Paul writes at more than one level. God’s folly, he goes on to say, creates its own new genres of ‘wisdom’:

We do, however, speak wisdom among the mature. But this isn’t a wisdom of this present world, or of the rulers of this present world –those same rulers who are being done away with. No: we speak God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery. This is the wisdom God prepared ahead of time, before the world began, for our glory.4

That, in a measure, is the story of the two letters to Corinth: a firm denial that Paul’s gospel owes anything to human wisdom, coupled with a careful construction of an alternative ‘wisdom’ which, hidden for long ages, has now been revealed. We see the same thing in one of his central discussions, when he dismisses ‘knowledge’ of the merely human sort. It puffs you up, he says, but love builds you up. Thus

If anybody thinks they ‘know’ something, they don’t yet ‘know’ in the way they ought to know. But if anybody loves God, they are‘known’ – by him.5

This trumping of human knowledge by divine knowledge, and by the ‘love’ that is the proper name for the latter, recurs as a theme in the exquisite poem of chapter 13:

Love never fails. But prophecies will be
abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too,
be done away. We know, you see, in part;
we prophesy in part; but, with perfection,
the partial is abolished . . .
For at the moment all that we can see
are puzzling reflections in a mirror;
then, face to face. I know in part, for now;
but then I’ll know completely, through and through, even as I’m completely known. So, now,
faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and, of them, love is the greatest.6

There is, then, an epistemological revolution at the heart of Paul’s worldview and theology. It isn’t just that he now knows things he did not before; it is, rather, that the act of knowing has itself been transformed. This has been an important sub-theme in some recent writing on Paul, but it has not always, in my judgment, been explored to the full, or necessarily helpfully.7 Ordinary human wisdom, ordinary human knowledge, is not just cancelled. It is taken up into something at one level similar and at another level radically different. Paul’s name for the new ‘something’ is agapē, love (1354-1356).

The philosophers cut it all into three: physics, ethics, and logic.

Paul turned this inside out and upside down, beginning with logic and making physics an element of theology. That is, God knows and through God’s revelation we can know the world and know God in Christ and therefore know how to live. Thus, 2 Cor 5:16-17 is crucial. Paul operates with an eschatological view of creational monotheism.

How then to live? His ethics?

The difference between Paul’s ethics and those of his philosophical contem- poraries can be summed up easily. They believed that once one had discov- ered 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 that the world had been renewed in the Messiah; that those who were themselves ‘in the Messiah’ had also been renewed as image-bearing human beings; and that the task of such people was to live in accordance with the newworld, rather than against its grain (1371).

There are differences and there are similarities. Notice how Paul finds ways for the churches to live respectable lives.

 In particular, Paul anticipates the second-century apologists in wanting the followers of Jesus to make a good impression on the society around them. They are not to be awkward or snooty; they must not give the appear- ance of thinking themselves superior.70 ‘Think through’, he says, ‘what will seem good to everyone who is watching’, and if possible live at peace with everyone.71 They are to ‘behave wisely towards outsiders’, or ‘in a way that outsiders will respect’, buying up every opportunity to do good to all, and to speak a fresh, clear word in answer to any challenge. They are to give no occasion for sneers or grumbles, for instance by not paying bills on time.72 Though their primary obligation of care is to fellow Christians, if they get the chance to be of benefit to others they should take it eagerly.73

This, I suggest, is the context within which we should understand the ‘household codes’, lists of guidelines for husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves (1375).

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, imagebearing humanness (1376).

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