December 20, 2009

Good as the privation of evil?

I've been focusing my reading on Pauline studies for the last year or so, and it's been a blast. One of the key issues that comes up again and again, in Paul's letters no less than in the vast literature they have spawned, is the meaning of righteousness, especially God's righteousness. So this has got me reflecting on what I think it is. I think, for many Christians, the answer would involve something revolving around God's holiness, understood as God's perfection and total absence of sin. It is something (akin to a pristine state, innocence) that God imparts to us as a gift. Now, I can't think of anything at all wrong with any of that (though I know some people would certainly quibble with it), but I also think it's woefully incomplete.

In Pauline studies, there is a big discussion of God's righteousness as understood objectively (a righteousness that God possesses and gives to believers) or subjectively (a quality or activity of God that brings about or entails or results in God's saving work). And while I think something of both positions carries valid and important truth, I think there is immense value in looking at God's righteousness subjectively, as something like God's faithfulness and his saving action. I think this helps us go beyond a perspective of good (held implicitly or explicitly) as that which is without evil (though that is a perfectly fine affirmation) to fill that most excellent category of God's righteousness with some amazing content: God's loving faithfulness, his saving grace, his patient purpose.

These few reflections certainly don't even begin to scratch the surface of the exegetical issues entailed in the discussion, but I hope they can be some valuable reflection on Christmas, and God's loving gift in sending his Son. For in Jesus God's righteousness is surely revealed.

December 14, 2009

Paul and Church Order—J. D. G. Dunn

Continuing my multi-author look at church order in Paul's letters takes me to James D. G. Dunn's perspective as displayed in the chapter, "Ministry and authority" in his massive Theology of Paul the Apostle. Dunn begins his characteristically thorough treatment with a survey of some of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussion around the issue, highlighting especially the discussion about the church structure mirrored in Paul's letters as one of "office" verses one of "charism," a debate which occurred largely in protestant circles but also emerged in Roman Catholic ones, especially as can be seen in some of the changes that took place in Vatican II. Dunn concludes that the importance of Paul's "charismatic" vision can't be questioned but that a further step must be taken, in looking at how Paul's churches actually implemented that vision, since his understanding of the church as a charismatic community shouldn't be taken as a complete ecclesiology or a complete set of instructions on church order.

Dunn's first step, after the historical survey, is to look at Paul's own apostolic authority and how it was exercised. A few insights prove helpful here. One is that Paul exercised his authority from within the community, to equip the community. Dunn observes that Paul exercises a lot of restraint in the use of his authority, rarely if ever calling for "obedience" to him but instead seeking to convince and persuade. A second salient point is that Paul sees even his own authority as subordinate to the gospel and limited in scope to his own apostolic commission.

With regard to other leaders in the congregations, Dunn makes a number of observations. One that is quite interesting is that apart from the possible mention in Phil 4:3, Paul makes no appeal to church leaders to fix a situation or handle a problem, nor does he rebuke the leadership for the failure of a church on a particular issue; instead he makes his appeals to the gathered assemblies in toto. While there are clearly people who take up certain roles or hold various leadership positions in his churches, Paul seems to envision his congregations as an integrated whole who are all responsible for these important matters. (The situation of the Pastoral Epistles is slightly different here; Dunn regards them as later developments in the Pauline tradition, but even considering them Pauline doesn't change the aforementioned situation too much since the type of authority being exercised by Timothy or Titus is more akin to Paul's own authority that it would be to that of a local elder or overseer.)

A second observation Dunn makes is that there is a careful interplay between charism and office, with the former spoke of more than the latter. Prophecy serves as a good illustration of this: Dunn asserts that "prophetic authority derived from prophetic inspiration," and "prophets didn't prophecy because they were prophets; they were prophets because they prophesied" (582). He goes on to assert that prophetic authority also wasn't limited to prophets (others could seek this gift as well), and further, that prophetic authority was subject to the assessment and discernment of others. The position of "teacher" functions similarly.

To me, this seems to mean that, while clearly envisioning a position of "authority" for those designated "prophets," this paints a much more fluid and interdependent picture of how that particular position worked than we might think of today, with categories like ordination and office being more natural and familiar to our thinking about church order.

Dunn concludes by reflecting that the canon includes both Paul's earlier letters and the later Pastoral Epistles, meaning we must hold the two together in some way, even though he sees somewhat divergent tendencies, but he concludes that while we the Pastorals show some level of routinizing and institutionalizing of the more charismatic structure evident earlier, the two elements can and must be held together.

Paul and Church Order—Gordon Fee

I have the privilege of participating in a great class on church eldership and leadership through my church, using curriculum from the Center for Church-Based Training in Dallas. And one of the issues we have been addressing early on has been the role of elders, specifically as seen in the NT. So I've been taking this opportunity to do a little reading on that particular subject. The first author I've dug into on this question has been Gordon Fee, from his book Listening to the Spirit in the Text, a spectacular collection of essays focused especially on things Pauline. In it he has two essays concerned with church order.

A few key emphases come up in Fee's discussions. The first is that Paul envisions leadership as something that is exercised from within the people of God (that is, the "laity") as opposed to something that was exercised from without, by a particular person or class of people set apart from that people (a departure, driven by christology and ecclesiology, from Israel's system of priests). Hand in hand with this emphasis is that leadership is envisioned much less (if at all) as exercising authority than as service: while it is true that churches are exhorted to submit to their leaders, the focus that emerges from Paul's vision of leadership is one of service to the body, exercising of spiritual gifting to build up and equip. A second key emphasis is on the distinction that must be made between "office" and gifting. Paul's concern with overseers and deacons seems to focus on the recognition of the Spirit's gifting of people in these areas and the congregation's role in discerning and recognizing that gifting. I would interpret this to mean much less focus on the particular "offices" that each church must fill and selecting the proper people to do so (though the latter is not necessarily an illegitimate enterprise, though it must be understood at least to some extent to be something that goes beyond the specifics of the text). A final emphasis that comes out in Fee's writing is the assertion that leadership at the local level seems to always have been plural: he is quite critical of a strong divide between "clergy" and "laity" at this point. (This last discussion is complicated some by the recognition that Paul envisioned two types of authority: an apostolic, itinerant sort that was exercised by the Jerusalem apostles, by Paul himself, and by his deputies Timothy and Titus, and a local authority established in each church.)

Fee's reconstruction of church order in Paul's writing is I think a very helpful corrective to some assumptions that many of us may bring to the text. Especially enlightening are his emphasis on the fact that "office" is of less importance than it is often accorded today. Fee is also very good on hermeneutics, and makes the point that Paul doesn't seem to be dictating a specific model of church order (that doesn't seem to be his concern) nearly as much as focusing on the character of leadership that is exercised. In a sense, that means many of our modern questions about how to organize a church are underdetermined by the evidence in the NT, though clearly there is much of relevance here. Thus, we must be careful to articulate and consider the question of the nature of the evidence we are given in these letters and how we transfer that information to our current context: how do we relate the "spirit" of the instructions to the "letter" of Paul's instruction, how do we travel from one cultural context to another, from one historical situation to another? And how does the setting and situation we infer from the text serve as God's authoritative word to us (if it does and to what extent) or how is it just the background into which that authoritative word functions. In short, these two essays provide a vast amount of food for thought, with deep exegetical insight paired with relevant hermeneutical reflection. They help us chasten our reading of the text by investigating our assumptions and also help us act as faithful members of God's people seeking to carry out God's will as expressed in his word for his gathered people.