Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Week Twelve: Is it important to profess that all writings in the New Testament were, in fact, written by those to whom they are ascribed?

            Personally, I do not think it is important to profess that the writings of the New Testament were written by those to whom they are ascribed. This issue is especially relevant in discussing the Pauline corpus, with scholars debating Pauline authorship of many of the letters (Van Voorst 417). With a strong majority of scholars denying Pauline authorship of Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus (Van Voorst 417), readers of these books are left to decide between the knowledge of modern biblical scholarship and the words on the page of the biblical text. While this is an important decision, I do not think it is a decision between faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the message and intention of the text; rather, the choice to profess the findings of biblical scholarship, that Paul himself likely did not write all of the letters in the Pauline corpus, is a choice to respect both the words on the page as well as modern knowledge. This is the case because biblical scholarship doubts Pauline authorship precisely because of the words on the pages of these letters. For example, one of the reasons why scholars believe that Colossians was not written by Paul is because the language used in the letter portrays followers of Christ as already raised with Christ, standing in contrast to the traditional Pauline concept of believers being in the process of being saved, as illustrated in the undisputed Pauline letter to the Romans (Brenneman 3/30/11). Thus, while it may seem like scholars are going against the words on the pages of these letters that ascribe them to Paul, by pointing out the likelihood of pseudonymity, they are actually being faithful to the words and message of the letter as a whole.
            It seems to me that the issue of truth stands at the core of this question. I imagine that many of the difficulties people have with accepting the fact that Paul did not write all of the letters ascribed to him are related to beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible. I can certainly understand concerns that if one sentence of the Bible is not true, how can the rest of its message be trusted? However, these concerns are related to a very literal reading of Scripture, and in that case, there are much larger issues than Pauline authorship (i.e. the historical accuracy of the exodus and conquest). Even the history books of the Bible are theological and cannot be read as historical or scientific facts. The Pauline corpus is no different; as readers, we must understand the original context and original intent of the author, whether or not that author was Paul. Further, we must understand the practice of pseudonymity in the ancient Near East; when we read pseudonymous Pauline letters, we must keep in mind that the author of the letter meant to honor Paul with the words. Thus, acknowledging that Pauline authorship of the disputed letters is not a literal truth is not dishonoring the truth of the text, but honoring the truth as well as the author’s intentions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Week Ten: Why does Paul emphasize freedom in the letter to the Galatians?

            In the letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes freedom in order to illustrate the way in which Christ sets us free from sin and death (Van Voorst 321). One of Paul’s main themes is that Christ saves us from “the domination of sin,” which is a reality of the flesh— something all humans experience (321). This theme echoes loud and clear in Galatians with Paul’s emphasis on freedom; Paul boldly says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5.1 NRSV). While this may sound redundant at first, closer examination of this verse brings yields a vision of Christ’s saving, freeing action and its result of freedom. This freedom is not simply a reality yet to come, it is also a reality in which believers can live in the present (Brenneman 3/14/11). Ultimately, this freedom is about freedom from sin and death in Christ, for the sake of living in freedom, in Christ, in the here and now. This concept of freedom has many facets for Paul; first, it is an action— Christ’s action. Second, it is a reality which is the result of Christ’s action, a reality in which believers are invited to live. Third, freedom is active rather than passive— Paul exhorts the Galatians to use their freedom for the purpose of love: “for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5.13-14). Using freedom in this manner, for the purpose of loving one another, leads to the final facet of freedom in Galatians— community. Freedom in Christ, made possible by the action of Christ and used for the purpose of love, builds up the body of Christ and creates community. Freedom is, in a sense, a cycle— freedom is both action and reality, interdependent and always taking place. Christ continues to free us from sin and death so that we might live in the reality of freedom, acting in love and building up the body of Christ. Freedom is always in Christ and by Christ, and true freedom acts in love for the purpose of building up the community.
            In the context of the Galatian church, freedom in Christ was especially important in contrast to the law, which the Galatians were trusting in rather than Christ. Paul asks them, “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal 3.2b-3) Here, Paul compares the law with the flesh, calling the Galatians to leave behind the law and live in Christ, since Christ is the true freedom and salvation from sin and death. I think this discourse about living in freedom in Christ rather than by the letter of the law could be applied to many of the contemporary conflicts in the church, specifically conflicts about strict traditions. Just as the Galatians have been set free from the law for the purpose of freedom and love— so, too, can living in Christ for the purpose of love help us move past arguments about strict church traditions, such as worship styles. The cycle of  freedom in Galatians offers a good framework to think about whether our practices are in line with the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection— does freedom abound? Is this freedom reflective of the reality of Christ’s resurrection? Is love our goal? Is community being built up? If we can genuinely look at our faith practices and answer “yes” to these questions, we are on the right track to living in the kind of freedom Paul is describing in Galatians 5— true freedom in and by and for Christ.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Week Eight: What sort of impression do you get of Paul from these passages?

            I have to be honest in saying that I have been raised and influenced by people whose impressions of Paul are very negative. So, before engaging these passages in the context of this class, my impressions of Paul were also negative ones. However, I have appreciated the opportunity to intentionally examine Paul’s writings and be open to new impressions. One of the negative impressions of Paul that I have always had is that he was an extremely arrogant man. As I read the passages this week, I was struck especially by the passages in which Paul shares about his life experiences. Specifically, I would like to focus on Philppians 3.4-11 and 2 Corinthians 11.21b-30. In these passages, Paul addresses the high status that he has given up for the sake of Christ. In 2 Corinthians, he says, “But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2 Cor 1.21b-22). He also details the challenges of his ministry and the suffering he has endured, such as being shipwrecked (2 Cor 1.25). In this passage, it is possible to get the impression of an arrogant Paul— he is sure to emphasize that whatever it is that his opponents are bragging about, he can match or surpass. However, by emphasizing his challenges and boasting “of thing things that show [his] weakness” (2 Cor 1.30), this passage also gives me an impression that Paul is intentional about being humble in Christ.
            Philippians 3.4-11 shares a similar pattern; Paul begins by saying, “if anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3.4-6). Paul is certainly not shy here, which resonates with my original impression of Paul as arrogant. However, he follows these statements up with his powerful declaration that “for Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3.8). With this statement, Paul counteracts his seemingly boastful statements in vv. 4-6. In a way, Paul’s statements about his Jewish status enable him to be more humble, since he makes it obvious that he has given up a great deal for the sake of Christ. On the whole, these two passages have given me a more balanced impression of Paul not necessarily as an arrogant man, but a man who has chosen the route of humility in Christ even though his life has given him great reason for pride.

Extra Credit (Week Seven): What convinced the Jerusalem leadership that Gentiles should be baptized? What was the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15.19-20, 29)? Is this still relevant for today?

           When Peter is questioned about the baptism of the Gentiles, he convinces the Jerusalem leadership by sharing his experience of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles (Acts 11.12-18). Just as the Holy Spirit came upon the Jewish Christians at Pentecost, God gave the Gentiles the same gift of the Spirit. Peter says to the Jerusalem leadership, “if God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11.17). By sharing the story of the gift of the Spirit being given to the Gentiles, Peter convinces the Jerusalem leadership that since God is the one who baptizes (11.16), if God has baptized the Gentiles in the Holy Spirit, then God has also called the church leadership to allow Gentiles to be baptized into the body of Christ, the church.
            As a result of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church, the Jerusalem Council issues a letter to the Gentile Christians informing them of the expectations of the church. The letter tells them to “to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15.20). This letter represented the Jerusalem Council’s decision about “how closely this rapidly growing movement would remain related to Judaism” (Van Voorst 292). The expectations and requirements outlined in this letter illustrate that the church leadership would not require Gentile Christian converts to become Jewish, but they would require them to respect Jewish tradition and uphold a few select essentials (Van Voorst 292).
            Even though the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is a foreign concept to the contemporary church, these experiences and decisions of the early church in Acts are relevant in thinking about any divisions in the body of Christ. Because the Gentiles were marginalized and unwelcome in the early church, this story can be applied to the story of any group of people who is marginalized and unwelcome in our churches today. The contemporary church should be open to hearing this story in Acts, a story of the outsiders becoming insiders, of the marginalized being welcomed into the center, of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit transcending even the deepest human divides. And as today’s church hears this story, the story of the Gentiles just might transform the church’s understanding of the excluded and marginalized members of the church and of society. Ultimately, Acts serves as a reminder that God is the one who gives the gift of the Spirit, who chooses and calls God’s people; the church’s role is like that of Peter in this story—simply submitting to the movement of the Spirit and humbly proclaiming, “who are we that we could hinder God?” (11.17).