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jesus the radical pastor | exploring the life and mission of the 1st century Jesus for our 21st century » Blog Archive » Imitating Jesus: Part 3- Paul

As we move up in our metaphorical archaeological dig from “the event of Jesus,” the bedrock, we come to the layer of Paul and his letters. Burridge asks, in effect, was Paul a Jesus-follower or the founder of a new religion? Arguing from Paul’s own words, Burridge establishes that Jesus reshapes both “Paul’s own biography” and “Paul’s theology.” Taking in account studies in the “new perspective” of Paul, Burridge establishes that Paul’s “theology” was essentially the Jewish story redrawn around Jesus (86 emphasis his). Underlying Paul’s letters is “the biographical narrative about Jesus Christ and what God has achieved in him” (87) “summed up in one of Paul’s most programmatic verses: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19).”

Paul offers a Christology that is more functional than ontological, that is, it is more important to understand what Jesus as “the Christ” has done than to speculate on debates about who Jesus is (88). I was really struck by this idea: “Futhermore, not only does Paul stress how Jesus participates in the life of God [preserving Jewish monotheism], but he also has a very corporate approach to Christology as we all participate in the divine life of Jesus, as the phrase en Christo, ‘in Christ,’ occurs eighty-three times in the Pauline corpus…”(88-89). Participation “in Christ” is a key Pauline idea.

For Paul, then, a God-centered ethics are a Christ-centered ethics, because we are responding to the story of what God has accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth. The scholarly consensus is that “Paul grounds his ethics in his Christology” (89 quoting Richard B. Hays).

Paul wrote ‘occasional letters,’ not intending to be a systematic moralist or a systematic theologian (90). Paul does not write “a single complete ethical primer,” but is responding to  “a mixture of contingent inquiries” (90). Burridge discusses Paul’s use of the Old Testament and Jewish sources, and in light of the studies by E.P. Sanders and others, Burridge concludes, quoting M.D. Hooker, “Christ himself is the key to the meaning of scripture…all scripture can be used, because it is all Christological” (95). Paul also drew upon Hellenistic sources (e.g., the Household code, Haustafeln), Hellenistic terms and ideas, yet all this is viewed through his Christological lens.

Burridge offers new light on the old ‘doctrine/duty’, ‘indicative/imperative’ bifurcation view of Paul’s letters, suggesting that this superficial split does not take into account the interpenetration of Paul’s thinking. While not directly quoting Jesus’ teachings nor making reference to specific Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Paul’s theology and ethics are grounded in the grand narrative what God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth (see NT Wright’s works on Paul). Christians are “in the Christ” and his life has become theirs. Paul is not a writer of ethical instructions but unpacks what it means to respond fully to and follow God in Christ. This response requires participation in the new community that is living “between the times,” that is, in the eschatological tension of the in-breaking, yet still coming “kingdom of God.”

This Christ-centered life together is guided by the greatest commandment–the law of love. This love is incarnate in Christ and followers of Jesus live and love as Jesus did. How does love respond to the state/empire [Burridge’s assessment of the debated views of Romans 13:1-7 is eye-opening (especially with the case of apartheid looming in the background). Misunderstandings of Romans 13:1-7 have caused more misery and unhappiness in the world than any other verses in the Bible. These verses do not “give license to tyrants.”], to enemies, to trials, to misunderstanding and injustice? How does love revision the family, slavery, women’s value and place, sex and marriage, money and property? Paul extrapolates from Jesus and his life, death and resurrection the ways of love among the odd and inclusive mixture of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women comprising the growing church. This love is not self-serving and antinomian, but is the “fulfilling of the law.” Jesus the Christ is the completion of the Law, the ‘climax of the covenant’ (NT Wright).

Plainly and with great passion, Paul calls the church to be “imitators of God” who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul himself is an example of one who simply “wants to know Christ,” to follow the Jesus way and Paul calls others to “follow me as I follow Christ.” Contrary to those who see Paul as a stern advocate of patriarchalism and oppressive ethics, Paul is seeking to live and teach the revolutionary love of God in Christ.

This was a complex section of Burridge’s book and I have tried to do a fair summary of a whole lot of material. I hope you’ll get a copy and work your way through it. 

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