Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Learning to Be Faithful: The Church and Paul’s Life-and-Death Gospel

The Following is a Summary of "Paul Among the Postliberals" by Douglas Harink

“In the cosmic war for this new creation, the world created and ordered by the rebellious powers and principalities of “the present age” had to be invaded by the one Creator God of Israel and Reordered to his purposes.”-236

In the introduction to this ambitious and stimulating book, Harink establishes his project as one of theology primarily, though it draws extensively upon the field of Biblical studies. Harink seeks to reinterpret Paul in light of post-liberal and post-modern thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. The book is broken down into five chapters represent a concept or doctrine that Harink finds pivotal to Paul’s theology. Thus each chapter builds towards the fifth which both examines Paul’s cultural setting as well as our own. Harink does this so that Paul’s radical call to be participants in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, standing in the faith of Jesus, might again be taken up and formative for the church.
The first section engages what protestants have deemed the paramount concern of the apostle Paul; Justification. While Harink does not negate the importance of Justification he rejects the fundamental dichotomy presumed by nearly all interpreters after Luther. The Paul of Luther arises, in large part, out of a faulty interpretation of the Greek phrase Pistis Christou. This phrase is within the genitive case, and thus should be translated the Faith of Christ, Yet since Luther, who translated this phrase as Faith in Christ. This difference is the foundation for the misconception Harink approaches, though it is not the sole issue at work within the generally accepted Pauline narrative, which reads Paul as contrasting “works righteousness” with an objective “Faith in Christ.” Thus setting up a primarily anthropocentric (albeit one with a forceful theologic) understanding of Salvation. One must move cognitively toward God and place our Faith in Jesus, who is the Son of God. In this way we are no longer bound to the law, but rather given “grace” to grant us eternity. In this framing, the individual is the one who has the faith (even if it is a gift from God) in order to place that Faith objectively upon Jesus Christ. Rather Harink asserts that the Faith of Christ is rather the faithfulness God works out in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to reconfigure Justification, Harink will look to post-liberals Barth, Hauerwas and Yoder.
In Barth’s commentary on Romans Harink sees a more promising evaluation of Pauline justification. Barth writes that “ The faithfulness of God is established when we meet the Christ in Jesus.” So faith is first a move of God, displayed in the obedience of Jesus, even unto the cross and then vindicated in the resurrection. This is apocalyptic, an action that is decisive. It “dissolves the world” and at the same time constitutes the New Creation that God inaugurates in the resurrection of Christ. Yet it is not only the faithfulness of Jesus, “Jesus Christ becomes also the pattern of human faithfulness…” It is thus the movement toward the imitation of Christ. “In effect, Barth’s entire doctrine of reconciliation is an exposition of the meaning of the Pauline phrases in Christ and In the Holy Spirit.”
Next Harink turns to Yoder, who reads Paul’s Justification as one element of a thoroughly sociopolitical gospel. The classic protestant reading of Paul is as “legal fiction” where God declares one righteous (imputed.) Yoder forces us to see that the “immediate” effect of Justification is not the righteous individual, but rather the ekklhsia. Harink finishes this chapter on Justification by engaging Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas brakes down the barrier between works and faith, by tearing down the barrier between doctrine and ethics. Indeed the protestant reformation has created a false dichotomy between works and faith. This initial chapter paves the way for the subsequent chapters challenging the church to reject a Paul of the individual, and recover a Paul, which calls us to the faithfulness of Jesus that will justify the nations.
Subsequently we see the nature of the church, as an apocalyptic polity, emerge. Harink begins with Hauerwas who reminds us that “we are in a life-and-death struggle with the world.” It is this struggle, namely today with liberal democracy that this chapter reads side by side with Galatians. The “Apocalypse” or “revelation” is Jesus Christ, who through faithful death and resurrection shows us the world as it truly is, “there is no reality that transcends the reality of Jesus Christ.” In Galatians we see this apocalyptic message “ The whole point of Paul’s Letter is to expose in the light of God’s apocalypse of Jesus Christ that this other gospel is false and as such stands under God’s judgment.” Paul is focused on Christ, who reconstructs all reality. In the same way Hauerwas asserts that the narrative of the liberal democratic nation can subtly imperialize the Church (by putting it in an antiseptic vacuum) and triumph over it. The answer to this is the apocalyptic reality of Jesus Christ.
As we are now constituted by the ultimate reality of Jesus Christ, the Church must be engaged as a new polity. This is the reading of John Howard Yoder; Harink explores, test and ultimately promotes this reading of Paul. The Church becomes the christocentric witness of a people who are called out to live lives counter to the power structures of the world. It is this existence in the world, and yet lives constituted by different practices such as Eucharist, which is “ economic sharing” that cement the political nature of Paul’s message. This is seen in texts such as Romans 12-13 which “begins a call to nonconformity. ” Harink explores the validity of the churches non-assimilation, questioning the typesets that are adopted from the outer culture before affirming that these texts (Paul) are indeed unique. Even in “oppressive” socio-economic climates the church can witness to the transforming reality of Jesus Christ by standing in continuity with Christ’s “revolutionary subordination” to the powers.
As this recovery of Paul solidifies the Church as a political people, there is also a movement to regain the irrevocable election of Israel. Harink does this by the extensive critique of N.T Wright, who represents a supersessionist opinion. This is the understanding that Israel essentially failed their mission to witness to the nations, and in the Church has been superseded. This stands against the apocalyptic reading of Paul previously established. Wright, guilty of much according to Harink , paints Israel as fundamentally eschewed by their ethnocentrism. By contrast Yoder see’s the election and narrative of Israel as the model for how the Church may be sustained within the world. It thus becomes a “positive model for the Church’s own faithfulness.” By reading this in a new way, Harink also fundamentally challenges the false dichotomy between “works righteousness” and “justification by faith.” He concludes by affirming that Paul supports the irrevocable election of Israel and through Jesus Christ, the Church.
After the foundations for the recovery of a Paul’s apocalyptic, political gospel have been laid, Harink looks to engage our own cultural context. He does this by paralleling Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. This is especially applicable because of the radically pluralistic worship setting of Corinth and the formation that Paul sought for them, in order that they constitute a faithful witness. Paul did this by announcing the invasion of God into the world, and the release that God offers to those who are bound and held captive by the hallow idols of this world. It is only accomplished through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who conquers all through his death and resurrection. This is a “new cultural reality.” This was the message that could bind the people of Corinth together as a political refutation of the powers of this world, and it is the message, which Harink proposes can teach us to be faithful at the end of modernity and Christendom. This means an engagement with the other that values their particularity while longing for the other to have fellowship with the Church in the fullness of reality: Jesus Christ. Thus the focus of Paul is not on human experience, but upon the power of God, through the Holy Spirit to elect a people who live according to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

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