Friday, October 20, 2006

Paul Jesus and Christian Ethics

This Is an essay I wrote for my Pauline Theology Paper. Tell me what you think.

Living an ethical or ‘good’ life is an important issue for Christians today. Many Christians look to the life and death of Jesus to find an example of how they live their life, but often in churches, it is not Jesus’ teaching that Christians are being taught, but the writings of Paul and his interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. An important question needs to be asked: are Christians following the teaching of Jesus or are Christians inadvertently following Paul’s Christian beliefs and practice, which could be completely different from what Jesus originally intended? In my essay I discuss this issue making reference to both the maximalist and minimalist readings of Paul’s epistles and come to the conclusion that Paul knows of Jesus Christ’s life and teachings. I then discuss possible allusions to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ in the writing of Paul, with reference to Paul’s ethical teaching in Romans 12:9-21 and the hymnal material in Philippians 2:6-11. I then discuss how Paul deals with the issue of the law and how he uses the Christ Event to show that this fulfils the requirements of the law, and argue that for Paul the will of God is fulfilled by living a life that conforms to the image of Christ – it is a life which is cruciform – self sacrificial and loving. I argue then that the only way that a Christian can live an ethical life is by the saving love of Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit working in their life to conform them to the image of Christ.

The range of opinion on whether or not Jesus’ teaching influenced Paul’s thought falls across a massive continuum. Some scholars have tended towards maximising Paul’s knowledge of Jesus, while others have tended towards minimising Paul’s knowledge of Jesus. Rudolf Bultman in particular has argued that Paul knew little about the historical Jesus.[1] Bultman argues that Paul was more concerned with the fact that Jesus actually existed rather than what Jesus actually said and did.[2] Bultman bases his argument on the fact that Paul hardly ever refers to the historical life of Jesus and there is hardly any mention of the pre-Easter teaching of Jesus in Paul’s writing. Paul refers directly to Jesus’ teaching only six times, three of which are not mentioned in the Gospels (1 Cor 7:25; 14:37; 1 Thess 4:15-17). Another is concerned with the words of the Lord’s Supper and was probably learned from a Eucharist tradition of the church (1 Cor 11:23-25). The other two concern Christian divorce and payment of Christian ministers (1 Cor 7:1-11; 9:14), which could have come from early church ethical teaching rather than Paul’s personal knowledge of Jesus’ teaching.[3] Paul also fails to use direct references to Jesus’ teaching in many cases where it could have been used to persuade people to his point of view. Because Paul doesn’t make reference to Jesus in these arguments it has been argued that Paul was ignorant of Jesus’ teaching. The third argument is that in the light of the event on the road to Damascus, Paul did not need to know about the historical Jesus as he had received the gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ”, and as a result Paul did not need to consult with human beings about the revelation of Jesus Christ.[4]
In light of the minimalists’ claims that Paul knew little about the historical Jesus, the maximalists have argued with evidence from Paul’s epistles and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles that Paul was concerned with knowing Christ and living the example set by Christ and he wanted his own church members to follow Christ’s example. In several passages, Paul claims to “imitate the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6, 2 Thess 3:7-9) To imitate someone was the highest form of praise in antiquity. When Paul was a Pharisee, he would have strove to imitate his master, Gamaliel. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul strove to imitate his Lord, Jesus Christ[5] – it is hard to imitate someone if you know nothing about them. Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’ teaching is hard to pin down, but we can glean some points from his own epistles and from Acts. As a Pharisee, he knew enough of Jesus’ life and teaching to conclude that Jesus was an apostate and his followers needed to be suppressed (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:5; 1 Cor 15:9, Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 23:6; 25:5). After his conversion, Paul spent a considerable amount of time in the Church at Damascus (Gal 1:17-18, Acts 9:19-25), presumably spending time learning from other Christians about their beliefs and faith and soaking up their traditions. Later Paul became a member of the community in Antioch, which was founded by refugees from the Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church, who would have brought knowledge of Jesus’ teaching. Three years after his conversion Paul had a fifteen day visit with Peter, the lead disciple of Jesus, and Jesus’ brother James (Gal 1:18-19). The conversation would have involved Paul trying find out about the historical Jesus.[6] Paul then used the tradition that he had learned about Jesus and interpreted it for the situation that he was writing to. Paul lived in a different situation than Jesus; he taught to a mainly Hellenistic cosmopolitan community made up of people from all social classes, while Jesus taught to a Jewish audience and his ministry was mostly focused on those based on the social margins. As a result, Paul had to interpret Jesus’ life and teaching in a way that was relevant to the community of believers he taught. [7]

There are a number of places in the writing of Paul where we can read between the lines and see allusions or echoes to the ethical teaching of Jesus. One in particular is Romans 12:9-21. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul explains in a set of short, concise phrases what types of attitudes a Christian should expound.[8] Paul’s teaching and exhortations are not only influenced by the Old Testament and other Jewish teachings, but also the life and teaching of Jesus. Paul believes that the best way to deal with the disunity in the Roman church is to appeal to Jewish scriptures as his foundation, but also to show how the actions of Jesus fulfil the requirements of the Jewish scriptures and the will of God.
Throughout Romans 12:9-21 the ideal of Agape (sacrificial love) is central to Paul’s teaching and ethics (cf. Gal 5:6; Rom 13:10; 1 Cor 13).[9] It was also central to Jesus’ teaching as can be seen by Jesus’ infamous reiteration of Lev. 19:18. Paul himself believed that the death of Jesus on the cross was the supreme example of Jesus’ love for humanity (Gal.2:20).[10] Paul believed that sacrificial love is central to Jesus’ teaching because it fulfils the law and is also the solution to pride and hypocrisy. In Jesus’ teaching, he told his opponents to stop looking at their outward appearance as a sign of their holiness, but to look at the inward condition of their hearts.[11] In Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42, the hypocrite condemns his neighbour and their shortcomings, but fails to notice his own shortcomings or do anything about them.[12] Paul did not want the Roman Christians arguing between one another about who was the most holy but wanted them to realise their dependence on each other, serving and showing the love of God in their actions (Mk. 3:35//Mt. 12:50//Lk. 8:21). The believer is to be a humble servant to their fellow followers in the body of Christ.[13] Paul’s teaching can be linked to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 23:12 and Luke 14:11, for example.[14]
Romans 12:12 and its call to persevere in suffering can also be closely linked to Jesus’ life and teaching. For example it is closely linked to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:12, as well as in Matthew 10:22; 24:13 and Mark 13:13. This teaching is rooted in the story of Jesus life (Mt. 5:12) and his death on the cross, and the experiences of early Christian apostles who took joy in their suffering because it was the will of God (cf. Acts 6:17-42).[15] Paul’s final comments in this section on ethical teaching deal with Christians participating in the needs of the saints and being hospitable to strangers. This can be echoed in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:35: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Hospitality was an important virtue in antiquity: Jesus himself had relied on it in his itinerant mission, and he had commended hospitality and a model of divine generosity that his followers should follow (Mk. 2:15-17; Mt. 11:19//Lk.7:34; Lk.14:1-24). Christians are to be kind to neighbours and to strangers, showing them the love of Christ, and providing for their needs.
Loving one’s enemies is also linked to Jesus’ ethical teaching being deeply imbedded in the synoptic tradition (Lk. 6:27; Mt. 5:44). But Paul bases his teaching as much on the Old Testament tradition as on Jesus’ teaching, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 and Proverbs 12:20 in Romans 12:19. This is because the idea of loving one’s enemies as a common theme throughout the Old Testament scriptures (Ex 23:4-5, 1 Kgs 3:11; Prov. 7:14; 34;17-18,19, Lev. 19:17-18,34; Deut. 10:18-19 and Jonah). The main reason for doing this is to show the reliance of Christian ethics on the Old Testament and that their fulfilment is found in Jesus’ life and death.[16] However, the verses Romans 15-16 particularly take a radical step further than the Old Testament. Paul tells the Roman believers that it is their obligation to bless and show love and compassion for their enemies, and share in their joys and in their sorrows[17] – they are to repay evil with good, and in the process show God’s righteous, loving, merciful character in their actions.
Paul’s teaching on Christian behaviour does not make explicit reference to Jesus. But it could be that Jesus’ example is implied in these scripture, and there is evidence that Jesus’ teaching influenced Paul’s thought and teaching in Romans. Indeed, David Wenham has found Romans 12:17-20 and Matthew 5:38-43 to be very similar, showing that Paul is interpreting Jesus’ ‘new Pentateuch’ in a way that would fit the situation of the Roman believers. Wenham has argued that these passages are both dependent on a pre-synoptic dominical tradition that is also found in Mathew and Luke.[18] James Dunn argues that the fact that it is later followed by the command in Romans 13:14 to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” confirms that Paul is referring to the life example and teaching of Jesus Christ and that Paul wants the Roman Christians to conform to the image of Jesus Christ.[19] The solution to the Romans’ division is to “put on” the characteristics of Christ, showing love to one another.
Another example of Paul linking his ethical teaching to the example of Christ is in the hymnal material of Philippians 2:6-11. Paul uses Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as an example of how to live an ethical life in a hostile environment, and also to encourage the Philippian community. Paul explains that when Jesus took on human form, he did not hold onto his rights, but gave up his exalted place in heaven and took on the image of a servant when he came to earth.[20] Jesus humbled himself, and rather than believing that he had the right to give orders he took orders and became obedient to the will of God while he was on earth. For Paul, death is not a personalised power that Christ is subject to, but is the extent to which Christ went to be obedient to God.[21] The example of Christ is used to explain the way the Philippians should act toward their persecutors and toward one another. The believers should be unified, not fighting within each other, and should be of one mind living together in selfless unity.[22] Paul urges the Philippian Christians to put on the virtue of humility – shown by the precedent set by Christ (cf. 2:5). The Philippians should give up all partisanship and conceit, and become humble servants, not obedient to their own will, but conforming to the will and image of Christ. [23] In Philippians 2:12 Paul then reminds the Philippians of their past obedience, and asks them to continue to obey. Through their obedience the Philippian community will fulfil the will of God, and will be vindicated from their suffering, just as Christ was, and bring glory to God.[24]

For Paul, humans can not become righteous through their own efforts; it is only through Christ’s saving act on the cross that humanity can begin the process of being transformed to the image of Christ. Humanity is totally reliant on Christ and the cross to change. This can be seen in Romans, where there is a significant link between Romans 6, which talks about the importance of the saving act of Christ, and Romans 12, Paul’s ethical teaching.[25] Paul holds a pessimistic view of humanity. In Romans 3:9 he concludes that 'all men, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the power of sin’. (cf. 6:6,20; 7:14). The way of Adam – and all humanity – is bondage to the power of sin and thus living in disobedience to God.[26] Paul had realised from his own life as a Pharisee that the law does not ensure freedom from sin. Paul’s zeal to follow the law led him to become a persecutor of the church (Phil. 3:6; Gal. 1:13) and thus led him to act against the will of God.[27] For Paul, liberation from sin and fulfilment of the will of God is only made possible through the Christ Event. The coming of Christ proves to be a turning point in history; Christians are no longer slaves to the old order of sin and the flesh, but live in the new era of relationship with Christ in the Spirit, living a life of love and conforming to the image of Christ. (Rom. 8:4; 12:8-10; Gal. 5:14).[28] The heart of Romans 12:1-2 is to see the Roman Christians not conformed to the image in the present world and their old life, but transformed by the renewal of their minds to the image of Christ, so that they might fulfil God’s perfect will.[29]

Dealing with the question of the law and its relation to Christian ethics is vital to Paul. Paul’s main concern is to make Gentile inclusion in the Christian community possible and free Jews from the bondage of the law (1 Cor 9:20-21).[30] Paul’s view is that the law of God that was given by Moses was an expression of the will of God. The problem with the law is that it was never given to produce righteousness, but was given to reveal humanity’s reliance on God, and convict them of their sin.[31] But with the death and resurrection of Christ, and the coming of Spirit – which produces love and obedience in the heart of the believer – there is no need to live according to the Mosaic law, but a call to live a life in accordance with the ‘Law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2). The Christian no longer lives by the letter of the Mosaic law, but by the fruit of the Spirit.[32] The fruits are given to Christians by the spirit of God, and their purpose is the edification and service of others (1 Cor 12:7; 14:1-5).[33] The Spirit to Paul is the Spirit of Jesus and the fruit of the Spirit is above all love.[34] The law of Christ is fulfilled by living a life in which the Christian serves and loves his neighbour self-sacrificially – conforming to the image of Christ.[35] The law implies that for a person to be declared righteous they need only to fulfil the standard - but this is not love. Love is an action, not a formula that must be fulfilled and achieved.[36] The question is not how well you fulfil a set of standards, but how your heart responds to God’s righteousness. The heart of the Christian responds to the love shown to them by God, giving themselves and living their life in obedience to God and conformity with Christ, guided by the Spirit, it is not a grudging acceptance of a set of moral precepts.[37]

For Paul, Christian ethics and Christian spirituality are ultimately linked as it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that Christians can be transformed. Calling oneself a Christian does not rely on one’s theological positions or ritual initiation such as baptism, but the manifest presence of the Spirit of God (Gal. 3:1-5).[38] Everyone who is in Christ is possessed by the Spirit and life in Christ is only possible by the Spirit (1 Cor 23:1-7; Rom.8:9b).[39] In Galatians Paul tells the congregation that they are to “walk by the Spirit” and through this action it is promised that they “will not fulfil the desires of the Flesh” (Gal 5:16). The Holy Spirit is given to be the power to live differently from living under the power of the flesh. Through the Spirit, the Christian lives a life where they “put on Christ” and by doing so conform to his image and the will of God.[40] Dunn argues that the ethical standards that Paul wants Christians to live by were not new ideas. Ideas such as “brotherly love” (Romans 12:10) were widely commended by other moral philosophers, so was the obligation to provide hospitality to the stranger – which was deeply rooted in Greaco-Roman Antiquity (Roman 12:13). Paul believed that through Christ, living an ethical life could become possible. As Marshall points out, “it is not so much that Christians live by entirely different standards of conduct as that they live by a new and different power that enables them to put into practice those standards which even pagan wisdom recognised to be virtuous.”[41] It must also be understood that Paul understands and appreciates the continued weakness of the flesh, and that the Spirit and flesh are at constant war with one another, in the “overlap of the ages.” But the Christ Event and the coming of the Spirit is the beginning of the salvation act.[42]

In my essay I have argued that Paul knew of the teaching of Jesus Christ and applied them to the situation that he was living in. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul’s ethical teaching alludes to the words and life of Jesus Christ. In Philippians, Paul uses the story of Jesus Christ to teach the Christians of Philippians how to deal with the situation they live in. In all his writing Paul appeals to love: a love which is sacrificial, humble and gives everything. Paul believes that living a life that loves others and is conformed to the image of Christ fulfils the spirit of the Mosaic Law and as a result fulfils the will of God. Paul believes that it is only through the saving love of Christ that we can fulfil the will of God, and that to be saved, the human must live in obedience to the will of God, as made apparent in the life of Jesus. It is through the Spirit of God that humans are given the power to live a life which conforms to the image of Christ. Jesus’ life and teaching are central to Paul, and Jesus gives the ultimate example of how humanity should act towards one another so that God’s righteousness can be established on earth.
[1] Chris Marshall, ‘Paul and Jesus: Continuity or Discontinuity, Stimulus, Vol 5, No.4, p33
[2] Ibid, p33
[3] Ibid, p.34
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid, p.39
[6] Ibid
[7] Marshall, ‘Paul and Jesus’,.pp35-36, N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective,(Minneapolis Fortress Press, 2005), p155,
[8] Michael Thompson, Clothed with Christ: The example and teaching of Jesus in Romans 12:1-15:13, (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), p.90
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid, p.91
[11] Ibid, p.92
[12] Ibid, p.93
[13] Ibid, p.94
[14] Ibid, pp.94-95
[15] Ibid, pp.94-95
[16] Ibid, p.100
[17] Ibid
[18] Ibid, pp.109-111
[19]James D.G Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), p.677
[20] Stephen E.Fowl, The Story of Christ in the Ethics of Paul, An Analysis of the Function of the Hymnic Material in the Pauline Corpus, (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), pp.56-57
[21] Ibid, p.63
[22] Ibid, p.88
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid, 1990, p.96
[25] Thompson, p.79
[26]John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. pp.76-77
[27]Ibid, p.77
[28]Wenham, p.227
[29] Wright, p.165
[30] Stephen Barton, ‘Was Paul a Relativist?’, Interchange ,No.19. p.166
[31] David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, (WM.B. Erdmanns Publishing Co: Michigan, 1995),p.227
[32] Ibid, pp.226-227
[33] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord. A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters,( Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p.126
[34] Wenham, p.231
[35] Ibid, p.224
[36] Michael Winger, ‘The Law of Christ’, New Testament Studies, Vol 46, p.539
[37] Dunn, p.644
[38] Ibid
[39] Gorman,, p.124
[40] Ibid, p.121
[41] Marshall, ‘For Me to Live is Christ’, p.107
[42] Dunn, p.630

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