Sunday, June 22, 2014

Paul among the Philosophers

Raphael Paul in Athens (1515) courtesy Wikipedia
Ch 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God is called The Foolishness of God: Paul among the Philosophers. Tom Wright begins with "Somewhere among the historical novels waiting to be written is a fresh account of the fictitious but potentially illuminating meeting between Paul and Seneca."  Even by tom's high standards this is a particularly interesting chapter, and I offer a few gems:
  • The philosophers...divided their investigations into three: physics, ethics and logic. 'Theology'...was subsumed under 'physics'; it was part of 'what there was'.
  • If we are to give Paul free rein to address the philosophers...he would want to challenge the basic tripartite scheme itself...to take the idea of 'god' out of the category 'physics'...seeing such placing as itself a failure to realise who the One God actually was.
  • Instead of humans acquiring knowledge of a variety of things within the whole cosmos, gods included, there is 'One God' who takes the initiative. God's 'knowing' creates the context for human 'knowing'; and the result is not a 'knowledge' such as one might have of a detached object...  The result...is love, agape. [1 Cor 8.1-3 and Gal 4.8f]
  • Paul's overall point [is].. the problem of true knowledge is not merely that appearances deceive or that people make wrong inferences, but rather that human rebellion against the one god has resulted in a distortion and a darkening of the knowledge that humans have, or still ought to have....Paul believed that when his powerful gospel was proclaimed it opened people's eyes top the reality not only of the one god and his Messiah but also to the realities of the rest of the world, including those areas where they would have obligations and duties.
  • He might have recognised in Aristotle's argument for a 'prime mover' an analogy at least to his own view...but he would certainly have rejected the dry, impersonal vision of this creator.
  • Paul believed that the world had been renewed in the Messiah; and that those who were themselves 'in the Messiah' had also been renewed as image-bearing human beings.[Rom 12.2 Phil 3.18-21]
  •  Paul does indeed teach what we may call a virtue ethic...but at the head of his list of virtues he regularly places agape...[and] adds three other virtues which, like agape itself, were more or less unknown in the world of paganism: patience, chastity and humility.
  • The philosophers suppose one may come to true knowledge by avoiding suffering; Paul, by embracing it.
  • Paul, like the mature Mozart, was quite capable of writing several different musical lnes to be sung at the same time, and we must not be put off by the spiritual heirs to the Austrian Emperor who complained that there were 'too many notes'.
  • They mocked in Athens, and they mock still. Take away the resurrection, and the picture falls apart.
  • Any self-respecting Greek or Roman with even a smattering of the noble philosophical traditions would be horrified at the idea that the ultimate revelation of the one true God might be the ugly judicial lynching of a young Jew.
He also  brilliantly critiques a Danish writer called Engberg-Pedersen who claims that Paul was some kind of Stoic, based on a "philosophical exegesis" which only uses ideas that "are a real option for us" (who "us" might been E-P doesn't say, but he seems to mean contemporary secular liberals).

Tom conlcudes his Chapter with a summary of Part IV: Paul in History:
Paul began as a Jew, went out from there into the world of non-Jewish ideas, religions and political systems. he firmly believed he was called to be Apostle to the Gentiles; and with that historical starting-point in mind we have gone back through those systems, practices and ideas, looking for the ways in which the Paul we have come to know in Parts II and III would have engaged, and did in fact engage, with those aspects of non-Jewish culture.

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