The Theology of the Apostle Paul | James D. G. Dunn (§15)

Now that we’re through that monster chapter on “justification” (the foci of the new perspective), let’s move in a more mystical direction: en Christō.

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Chapter 5: The Beginning of Salvation

§ 15: Participation in Christ

The phrase “in Christ” is a more natural way to understand Pauline Soteriology than the “justification” metaphor. The emphasis on “in Christ” began with the 20th century:

  • Adolf Deissmann: The “in Christ” phrase is “the most intimate possible fellowship of the Christian with the living and spiritual Christ” (391).
  • Wilhelm Bousset: Pauline piety expresses “the intense feeling of personal belonging and of spiritual relationship with the exalted Lord” (391).
  • Albert Schweitzer: “Dying and rising with Christ is for him [Paul] not something merely metaphorical, . . . but a simple reality” (392).

Albert Schweitzer took Pauline mysticism to the extreme, even playing it off as a polemic alternative to the justification metaphor. Unfortunately, this extreme perspective undermined the phrase and it faded from public discussion. We will attempt to bring back the importance of the “in Christ” motif by integrating it with justification, the gift of the Spirit, and with baptism.

The phrase en Christō (in Christ) is found 83 times in Paul’s letters, not counting the times it’s contextually implied with a pronoun. En kyriō (in the Lord) is found a further 47 times. These phrases are spread throughout his letters, with the early Thessalonian letters using a primitive “in the Lord Jesus Christ” construction and the Pastorals only using “in Christ Jesus”. This prevalence makes its lack of emphasis in contemporary Pauline theology surprising. The phrase is used in three general ways, but these blend into each other:

  1. Objectively: referring to the redemptive act that happened in Christ (e.g. Romans 3:24).
  2. Subjectively: referring to believers being in Christ (e.g. Romans 6:11).
  3. Referring to Paul’s own activity (e.g. Romans 9:1).

Deissmann and Bousset were right to stress this metaphor. At the heart, “in Christ” describes an experience. In a real way, Christ’s presence was a constant factor in Paul’s life. Under the rubric of Christ-mysticism, it’s also important to note that Christ is found in us (e.g. Galatians 4:19). Christ’s mystical presence is found both inside and outside the Christian and the Christian community.

The phrase “with Christ” is no less of a striking feature of Pauline theology, especially when you add the forty compound words (syn-) that describe our life with Christ. While some of the phrases mean “in the company of” Jesus, there is a real sense of mystical togetherness conveyed by the language. Romans 6:4-8 and 8:16-19 are notable examples of this concept. Life in Christ is a shared experience that unites us with others and with creation itself.

Five other mystical variations must be reviewed:

  1. Into Christ: This phrase is particularly important with respect to baptism (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  2. The Body of Christ: This phrase describes people related to each other who become Christ’s own body.
  3. Through Christ: While this begins to move away from mystical imagery, it still overlaps with preceding phrases.
  4. Of Christ: Romans 8:9 is a good example where “belong to him” is literally “of him”.
  5. Christ and Spirit: There is occasional overlap between Christ and Spirit (e.g. Romans 8:9-10 where “in Spirit,” “have Spirit,” and “Christ in you” are complementary).

After reviewing this language, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how Paul conceptualized the risen Jesus. Just as there are many metaphors for justification, Paul employed many metaphors to describe the exalted Christ. Not only is he a person, he is a location the believer is placed in. It’s best to let the metaphors speak in all their glory and to avoid creedal reductionism.

To wrap it up, it’s important to note areas where the salvation process is linked to participation in Christ. We find this primarily in to places: we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and we participate in Christ when we first believe. This participation is corporate—in Christ means in community, and has corresponding ethical implications. Finally, participation in Christ launches us into eschatological and cosmic dimensions—In Christ, there is new creation.

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It’s amazing to me how much this all-pervasive participation language of Paul has been neglected in order to focus on the justification metaphor. I suppose the dethroning of the forensic ideology implicit in the new perspective on Paul will help to clear the road for more all-encompassing participatory models of salvation.

< § 14: Justification by faith

§ 16: The gift of the Spirit >

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