Reflection: The Indelible Image – Paul The Paradigm Setter

Witherington’s latest work is an 800 page masterpiece. In order to help me keep track of my thoughts on this book, and in part to showcase more of the book than a review, I am posting ‘reflections’ on each chapter.

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Witherington moves into the discussion Paul, by far is the most controversial figure in the New Testament, not least for a perceived departure from the ‘Jesus message.’ Witherington handles discussion with admirable skill and passion. The author’s work on Paul is a radical defense of the Apostle’s work in light of the ‘Christ Event.’

One of the most interesting feature of this chapter is Witherington’s detail of Paul’s ‘storied’ life, stating five stories upon which Paul bases his interaction with the Christ event. I have to say, this idea of a ‘storied’ ‘thought world’ leaves ample room for exploration by scholars, theologians and everyone else, especially when we realize that we in the West have often left the idea of a ‘storied’ world. No more do we entertain myths, or folktales, legends, etc… but generally seek a way to either destroy them or correct them in some way.

For Paul, according to Witherington, his world was one bound in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is only natural. The author employs narrative criticism and sees and wide variety of narratives in the Pauline Corpus. In illuminating the corpus, he doesn’t spend time on either defending or refuting Pauline authorship, as he did with John and his gospel, but readily accepts the books as received for their theological merit. It is quite refreshing to read Witherington’s work which seeks only to dig out the value of what is written.

He remains squarely in the New Perspectives on Paul, interacting, although not always agreeing, with notable scholars in the field, especially James Dunn. I find that his position on Judaism, Christianity, and the issues involved with such passages as Romans 9-11 as one remarkably succinct and palatable. He is fair to the sides of issues as they develop.

Reading his view on Paul and Justification, with which he starts by saying, ‘The Reformer’s views about “justification” may need some reforming.’ While Witherington receives the understatement of the year, he moves on to tell you why, in detail, in terms devoid of the great theological words and concepts which often accompany these discussions. The author leaves me wondering how he can express my thoughts in such a clear form and fashion than I, especially in the areas of salvation, election, and very much so, faith and works. BW3 reveals himself to be rather harsh on the ethical requirements, the morality, the works, piety and deeds of believers, more so than would be suspected.

In one section of this chapter, Witherington takes on the New Perspectives on Paul. I think. While he praises¬† Dunn and others, he does take on what he perceives as the weaknesses of the position. He leaves with the mediating position of Francis Watson. While much of BW3’s writing seems to be a development of the NPP, some of which he later rejects, he doesn’t allow the reader to nail down his position fully.

Moving into Paul’s actual ethics, he explores holiness and sanctification according to the ancient writer and comes away with a position similar to many of those who practice holiness today. Through Witherington’s eyes, Paul is seen as one who focuses on the corporate primarily and the individual secondary in living a life devoted to Christ. If Christ is the legislator of the new Law (of Christ) then Paul is the administrator, setting policy in accord with what has been given divinely.¬† Paul clearly takes his cue from the Christ event, building his actions and his expected reactions around what Christ taught, which is maintained as something familiar to the epistle writer.

Masterfully handled is the inception of reforming ideas regarding works, community fellowship, and relationships to forces, such as empire, outside of the Christian community. Further, ‘love’, which the guiding force for both Christ and Paul is not seen as a free-for-all but as a scalping ethic meant to pull people together, tightening the bounds of what it means to be a child of God.

Witherington does his job well in connecting Jesus and Paul in the message of ethics associated with theology. While others see a stark difference in the message of the two, Witherington, if not else is accomplished, dispels that long persisting rumor and shows that Paul was well in line with the message of Christ.

This means that Paul believes that the teaching of Jesus is apropos outside of its original setting and audience. It also means that he sees his own teaching as prophetic in its own right and as having its own divine authority. (p272)

The author reinforces the ‘tenses’ of salvation which I believe is a reforming effort needed today for those English speakers who read only one tense in their translation.

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