What is the Center of Paul? A Three Corded Rope?

21 05 2010
Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854
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A friend of mine (Jason Hood) is in the process of writing an article about the kingdom of God as the center of Paul’s thinking -If I’ve understood him right. This is an age old question, but after I wrote a response to Jason, I thought it might be worth posting it for others to interact with…

Jason, you have emphasized the continuity of the concept, i.e. suggested how other key ideas and expression (eschatology, union with Christ) may be consumed under the kingdom of God. I would like to hear about the discontinuity too – why in the  Pauline corpus do we see him choosing this expression when he does, over against another descriptor. I.e. in the absence of a passage which explains why this particular expression IS a summary of these other ideas (I don’t know of any passage that brings them all together), why does Paul choose to use other expressions besides this one and why does he choose to use this expression where he does.

My only concern as I have thought about this subject myself (I start my lectures on Paul’s letter with three full weeks on the center of Paul) is a pedagogical one. Kingdom is quite an impersonal concept, as are redemptive history and eschatology. Union with Christ is a REALLY personal way for Paul to say things. Maybe this (in part) answers the question of “Why this expression?” (above), but there is also a pedagogical rub with what you are trying to say in your article. If someone says to me that “kingdom of God is the center of Paul” It sounds very corporate – which of course many today would be happy about! But given the VERY personal nature of “with/in Christ” how in your article can you capture the idea that the center of Paul is (in fact) very personal?

For what it is worth, I teach that the center of Paul is a three corded rope – union with Christ, redemptive history & eschatology. You may then state this three different ways depending (pedagogically) on what you/Paul wants to emphasize 1) The center of Paul is Jesus, who fulfills redemptive history by ushing in the eschaton; or 2) The center of Paul redemptive history, which now finds its fulfillment in Jesus ushering in the eschaton; or 3) The center of Paul is eschatology, which in Christ is the beginning of the end for redemptive history. Perhaps the redemptive history side could be restated as kingdom, since this is OT language for the hope of Israel, which finds finds a subversiveness expression in Christianity in that the way the eschaton works out and also the nature of God‘s Christ. It is this subversive edge as well as Paul’s desire to be personal, which perhaps explains why he must add the other two cords to this rope.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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10 responses

22 05 2010
Richard Fellows

Paul had to be careful not to write anything that his enemies could use against him. If he had become openly political he would have been reported to the Romans. I have always assumed that the term “kingdom of God” was too subversive for Paul to put in writing, except in certain safe contexts. No?

24 05 2010
Bruce

Good comments Richard. An argument of similar kind to the one used for why Paul did not use “church” in Romans, except in Romans 16. What would you say about the comment by Neil about Acts… and the possible politics of this, given its similarities to Roman histories and Josephus – suggesting that it may have been written (like Josephus) as a general historical apologetic for Christianity being “true Judaism”? Seems that if Luke (given his general readership[?]) was willing to use this expression it may not have been quite as subversive.
Bruce

22 05 2010
Mike Bull

All of the Bible is structured according to ancient literary conventions, and in particular, the pattern of Covenant. This is especially the case with the New Testament. I have found that all the NT writers use terms that fit into these structures. Identifying these is a real help in comprehending why the New Testament books are worded and arranged in the way they are.

24 05 2010
Bruce

“Narrative Criticism”… (see Bruce Longnecker’s book)? Is that the kind of thing you are talking about by “ancient literary conventions”, i.e. where the meta-narrative of Jewish covenantal structure maps its content (e.g. N. T. Wright’s commentary on Romans & Grieb, “The Story of Romans”).

22 05 2010
Neil Foster

Not sure where it takes us, but it is really interesting that while Paul seems not to use the phrase “kingdom of God” very much, Luke in Acts actually starts and ends his book using it- it is said to be the theme of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching in Acts 1:3, and then used a way of summing up Paul’s teaching in Acts 28:23, 31. Also used to summarise Paul’s teaching in Acts 14:22, 19:8. So from the point of view of someone who was presumably a close companion of Paul, “kingdom of God” was not a bad summary. For us it needs to be unpacked, and of course that is what Paul does in his letters.

24 05 2010
Bruce

These are good comments I think Neil! It is obviously rare in Paul and the start and end of any book or letter is worth focusing on clearly as it often has extra significance in highlighting key terms or ideas!!! As I mention above this could (for Luke) have something to do with what he’s trying to achieve -map out a history of true Judaism -something in a Roman context which would have been important, as shown by Josephus’ attempt to do the same. C.f. “Against Apion” and its similarities in beginning, volumes 1&2, c.f. Luke and Acts. (See “Jesus and the Heritage of Israel” – lots of great articles!!!)

So Luke is still really interested in emphasizing how God’s empire has developed and its character. Any thoughts?

[Sorry Richard (see above), I meant Longnecker’s book “Narrative Dynamics…”]

25 05 2010
Richard Fellows

I agree that Luke-Acts was written by Paul’s companion (see here) but I think it was probably written after AD70. After the uprising of the Jews against Rome had been crushed there was no possibility of bringing in a new kingdom by force, so the term “kingdom of God” might not have worried the Romans so much. If the Christians were known to have declined to participate in the war it would have been safe for Luke to use the term “kingdom of God”. When Paul wrote, however, people did not know what position the Christians might take on the question of independence of the Jewish homeland, so Paul had to choose his words carefully, especially in writing.

Could this explain why the term “kingdom of God” appears in Luke-Acts more than in Paul’s writings?

10 06 2010
jason b hood

That’s interesting, Richard.
Sorry I’m late to the conversation, everyone. Interesting thoughts, Neil and Richard. (Mike, I agree on covenant; you might note that a covenant is actually a way in which a sovereign/Emperor/King administers his kingdom.)

The article is actually on biblical theology as a whole! Bruce, I just sent you the bit on Paul–playing defense as it were, trying to make the case there (if you can make it there, you can make it everywhere).

I love the threefold cord of centrality, so to speak, you lay out above. I think that this all squares well with kingdom; among other blessings, union means that we inherit everything (Rom 4:13; chap 8; this can be expressed as kingdom, Gal 5:21, 1 Cor 6:9-10, etc); we are united with Messiah ( = Davidic King) and enthroned in him in heaven (Eph 2:6); we are in the new Adam so that we can be restored to reign in life (Rom 5:17) as God intended for the first Adam (Gen 1:26-28, Psalm 8). Redemptive history and eschatology both can be summarized in kingdom language. Given that Jesus is King (Christ, Lord, Son of David and Jesse), placing him at the center means placing kingdom at the center. I think that’s how Goldsworthy puts it in his article on the kingdom and biblical theology in SBJT (2008) which is now available online.

Lastly–Bruce I am so very sorry I didn’t place a wager with you re: Australia and the USA in our soccer match!

10 06 2010
Bruce

🙂 Don’t think I’d bet against the US. The way I look at it I now have two countries I can cheer for! I’m not feeling too optimistic about Australia’s chances, so I’d better have a backup plan.

10 06 2010
jason b hood

Hah! I think you’d be better off backing England–that’s better than US and Australia put together mate!




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