The Theology of the Apostle Paul | James D. G. Dunn (§20)

We now turn the corner from the question of Israel to Paul’s broader understanding of the church. Funny coincidence: I just finished reading the papers from the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference on the works of N. T. Wright. In a tantalizing foretaste of his big book on Paul, Wright questions why so many Pauline theologians leave ecclesiology to a chapter at the end of the book. It looks like Wright is starting his Paul book with Philemon!

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Chapter 7: The Church

§ 20: The body of Christ

It’s easy to assume that Paul contrasts the particularism of Israel’s relationship with God in Romans 9-11 with the universalism of broader Christianity in Romans 12 and following. That’s a twofold misreading of the text. First, God’s call of Israel was a universal call which was to be extended as a light to the Gentiles. Second, Judaism didn’t corner the market on restrictive entrance requirements: Christianity required converts to believe in Christ and to be baptized in his name. § 20 will proceed by examining four main categories of church imagery in Pauline theology.

Category One: The Church of God. Paul frequently addressed his letters to the church (ekklēsia) of ___. It’s best to find Paul’s understanding of ekklēsia in Jewish rather than Greek background. The LXX used ekklēsia about 100 times in the phrases “assembly of YHWH” and “assembly of Israel”. When Paul spoke of the ekklēsia of God in reference to both Jew and Gentile believers, he understood the church of Jesus to stand in continuity with the Old Testament’s assembly of YHWH/Israel. This undercuts the false idea that Paul used ekklēsia as an antithesis to synagoge. Paul’s understanding of church is rooted in a specific location. While he did, in later letters, move towards a more universal notion of Church (Colossians 1:18, 24), he regularly spoke of the church in a specific location. This location was often a house church of no more than 40 people. Above all, the Church of God is, by its very nature, an assembly of people. Wherever people gather in Christ, there is ekklēsia.

Category Two: The Community Without Cult. After three chapters spent considering the role of Israel (Romans 9-11), Romans 12:1 is a dramatic passage. Paul deliberately rewrote the boundary-markers which the Jewish people used to form their identity. He used the technical language of the cult (sacrifice, worship) to describe day-to-day Christian existence. In one mere sentence, Paul took the holy centre of Israel’s existence and extended it to all life. This rewriting of the significance of Temple and sacrifice is found elsewhere in Paul’s theology. Paul argued that believers are now the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Believers have unhindered access to grace (Romans 5:2), words that evoke the idea of access to grace via the Temple cult. Paul commonized the language of priesthood (Romans 15:16). He also challenged the categories of clean and unclean (Romans 14:14, 20). Dunn sums it up perfectly:

Paul evidently saw the new Christian assemblies as an extension of the assembly of Yahweh, but now without any of the cultic features so characteristic of Israel’s temple cult, and without any category of priest as a function different in kind from the priestly ministry of all who served the gospel. (547)

Category Three: The Body of Christ. Paul’s most frequently used image for the people of God is that of a body. Many backgrounds for Paul’s use of this metaphor have been proposed, but only two are worth considering. Paul’s sacramental imagery in 1 Corinthians 10-11 connects Christ’s broken body with the church as his body. More important is the way this metaphor has been used in contemporary political philosophy. The body politic was only effective when each of its diverse members was recognized. The body of Christ is similar, though united by Christ—not geographic location or ethnicity.

Category Four: The Charismatic Community. It’s important to recognize that every time Paul spoke of the church as Christ’s body he also spoke about the charisma of the Spirit. The charisma are gifts of the spirit which function in the body of Christ in various ways for the common good. Eight things can be said about the Spirit’s charisma:

  1. They come in different types: of both speech and action.
  2. They include mundane tasks such as organizational roles.
  3. They are mutually independent. For example, tongues requires interpretation and prophecy requires discernment.
  4. They are neither fixed nor well defined. This suggests that Paul could recognize a variety of other things as the charisma of the Spirit.
  5. They all demonstrate the character of an event: function, act of service, activity, manifestation.
  6. They embody a divine charis (grace). All charisma are rooted in Christ’s ultimate charisma of the cross.
  7. Every body is an active member—the charisma are spread out.
  8. Baptism into the Spirit is related to the charisma of the Spirit.

The church of God, the body of Christ, the charismatic community actually grows out of it’s shared experience of the Spirit. The church is no mere human creation!

This vision of the church may sound idealistic. Remember that Paul expounded this view in the face of division amongst his congregations. Then, as the church moved through time, charisma became qualified and subjugated to proper church order. The ideal remains: the body of Christ is a radical unity in diversity which celebrates and experiences the charisma of the Spirit.

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Once again I finish a section of Dunn’s work not only intellectually challenged but inspired. Us evangelicals, especially in the Western world, are known for having a very weak ecclesiology. Our understanding of church seems to get subjugated to individualism and our “personal relationship” with Jesus. I’ll be preaching some of this material very soon!

< § 19: Israel

§ 21: Ministry and authority >

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