October 17, 2017

Paul among the Philosophers

PFGBut in essence, Wright’s argument in this part is fairly simple. Paul needs to be understood against all of these backgrounds — Greek, Jewish and Roman, imperial and local, philosophical and cultural — but primarily, he is a second-temple Jew, and a Pharisee at that.

• Andrew Wilson
A Review of Tom Wright’s Paul and
the Faithfulness of God (Book I)

• • •

It has been a long while since we’ve looked at N.T. Wright’s two-volume study, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but today we’ll take it up again.

I included the quote above to remind us all of where we are in Book I. Part one of the first volume of PFG introduces us to Paul’s world, the cultural contexts in which he lived and fulfilled his vocation as an apostle.

In the last post (back in April), we looked at what Wright says about Paul’s Jewish roots and his identification with the Pharisees, who were “zealous for the Torah.” But, as we all know, Paul became “the apostle to the Gentiles” and we are most familiar with his role as one who journeyed around the Greco-Roman world proclaiming the good news of Jesus the Messiah, forming faith communities in his name, and building them up in faith, hope, and love through personal ministry and written epistles.

That means he lived and served and breathed in the air of the Greek philosophy and Roman religion, which dominated the ancient world as well.

In chapter three of Book I, Paul takes up “The Wisdom of the Greeks,” giving a brief overview of the history and ethos of the four major schools of Greek philosophy and discussing how Paul interacted with the common teachings of his day.

n-t-wright-265x300But if Paul did not derive the central themes and categories of his proclamation from the themes and categories of pagan thought, that doesn’t mean that he refused to make any use of such things. Indeed, he revels in the fact that he can pick up all kinds of things from his surrounding culture and make them serve his purposes — much as philosophers of his day could quote rival schools in order to upstage or refute them. There are, I suggest, two things going on here. First there is direct confrontation; perhaps the most vivid examples are in the realm of Jewish-style monotheism as it confronts pagan polytheism, and Jewish-style sexual ethics in contrast to the practices of the pagans. But second, there is adaptation. Here again we have a programmatic Pauline statement: “we take every thought prisoner,” he declares, “and make it obey the Messiah.” This is not simply a cavalier attitude, grabbing anything that looks useful. It is based on Paul’s robust creational monotheism: all the wisdom of the world belongs to Jesus the Messiah in the first place, so any flickers or glimmers of light, anywhere in the world, are to be used and indeed celebrated within the exposition of the gospel. (p. 201)

In particular, Wright shows how Paul interacted with Stoicism, which was the “default mode” of thinking for a large number of Paul’s hearers. He even suggests that, for many in the ancient world, the whole Christian movement might have appeared to have been more of a “philosophy” than a “religion” as they understood it —

  • Presenting a case for a different order of reality, told through stories about a creator God and the world.
  • Arguing for a particular way of life.
  • Constructing communities which transcended normal ties of kinship, geographical identity, language, gender, and class.

“Philosophy” was not an academic discipline in Paul’s world as it is in ours and Wright thinks we are not wrong to view Paul’s place in that world, at least in the eyes of others, as a kind of philosopher: teaching a way of viewing and living in the world. “We must never think of the ancient philosophers as working out schemes of ideas detached from everyday life. Philosophy, in the ancient world, was ‘everyday life,’ lived, reflected upon and interpreted in this or that way. Each of the traditions inculcated a way of life, and what each meant by ‘reason’ or ‘wisdom’ was a meaning which nested within that totality.” (p. 232). Wright notes Paul’s affinity with Seneca and Epicetus in particular, quoting passages from the latter that use the exact “diatribe” style and wording that Paul uses in the epistle to the Romans.

Paul’s relationship to “wisdom” is somewhat complex. At times it seems that he simply dismisses the philosophies of his day:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Corinthians 1:18-25)

However, at other times as an apostle and pastor uses terms from the Greek schools of thought quite freely:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

This final quote sets forth a good summary of what Wright says about “Paul among the philosophers”:

St_-Paul-iconWhatever. Paul believed that he had been given insight into all things, all wisdom, through the divine pneuma, the spirit of the Messiah. This kind of wisdom already made “the wisdom of the world” look like foolishness to him. But precisely because this spirit was the spirit of the one God who had made the whole world — already we glimpse large areas of disagreement to be explored in due course — Paul expected that there might be points of overlap, of congruence. He would indeed regard it as his right and calling to “take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah,” but there were plenty of thoughts out there which, he might have judged, would be ready servants if only they were set within the right household. Not only thoughts; methods. How this plays out we must explore later on. (p. 236)

In the next installment, we’ll look at what Wright says about Paul’s engagement with the religions of the empire.

Comments

  1. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

    One of my `favorite` verses. Philosophy or not – it is simply great advice.

    Much of our culture has done the white-picket-fence thing for so long, pretending the darkness isn’t there, the inverse temptation seems strong – to dwell on the darkness, to rummage around in it seeking understanding. But understanding is something the darkness always snatches away the moment it seems near; and specter hope skitters further into the black. I rejoice at the recent movements to recognize darkness and to openly stand before it – such as Hodges Hart’s “Knowing Darkness”. But it is light we can see – what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise – that ultimately must be our focus. Personally, I had to descend into the mirk for years in order to come to understand how beautiful the crumbs of light that we have truly are; and to learn to enjoy the humor and irony of the unlikely places and souls within which they are often found.

    • Robert F says:

      As one for whom it always seems impossible to enjoy and appreciate the simple, light-filled things, even when I see them and know they are there (this tendency has produced barriers to deep relationships in my life, and has also hurt those I’ve managed to establish, for instance, with my wife) (I’m aware of the existence of clinical depression; I’ve been down that path, and though treatment helps, it doesn’t resolve the underlying disposition of my psyche and soul, which have formed around inescapable experiences and habits of doing and seeing), I can only say that the catalogs of philosophical virtues and affirmations do not light me up inside at all, at least, I don’t perceive that they do. Only words of hope that arise out of experience and acknowledgement of contradiction and darkness seem real to me, words that help me imagine the light, though I cannot see it.

      I’ve come to the point where my faith that that light exists has become firm. I trust as one who is born blind might come to trust, based on what she has been told by others, that there is indeed a world of light and vision, though I’ve had no experience of it. My trust rests on a word: the word of the Cross, Jesus’ cross.

      Words and experiences that do not come to me through that darkness, the darkness of the Cross, are invisible light that I have no awareness of. The lists of virtues that Paul offers, some of which he borrowed, or expropriated, from the ancient philosophers, have no meaning for me unless they are refracted through the Cross.

      I might wish it were otherwise, but that is the way it is with me.

      • Though you are saying more than this, with which I also agree, I want to express agreement that, the older I get, the more I find I benefit from stories and incarnate examples, rather than words that represent concepts.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Much of our culture has done the white-picket-fence thing for so long, pretending the darkness isn’t there, the inverse temptation seems strong – to dwell on the darkness, to rummage around in it seeking understanding.

      “There are two errors we fall into regarding the race of Devils; either we deny their existence, or take an unhealthy interest in them. The Devils are delighted by both, and hail a Materialist or a Magician with equal delight.”
      — C.S.Lewis (from memory)

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Indeed. However devils and daemons are well above my pay-grade. I prefer to think of it in terms of C.S. Lewis’ Man & A Bicycle – his first, second, and third man. The first man [youth] is chivalry and heraldry and riding into sunsets, “true love”, the moral clarity as well as the fever of youth. The second man embittered, wounded, and disillusioned, resentful – it is all rubbish, conspiracy, and meaningless pomp. But the third man has a perspective which includes and recognizes the truth in both former men [which includes the ability to laugh at both of them, recognizing the absurdity in the extremism of both]. The third man knows “true love” more than the first, for he is more equipped to love the truth of what someone or something is.

  2. It is Paul’s engagement with these cultural contexts that makes me think of James K A Smith’s new book, How (Not) To Be Secular, For clarity, it is a summary of reading Charles Taylor. Definitely thoughts and methods on how to live in our times. Very interesting( and I would say Paul-like) approach to philosophy, history, religion, and apologetics.

  3. Asinus Spinas Masticans says:

    When I last frequented Reformed precincts at the cusp of the millenium, the name of NT Wright had an almost talismanic significance. His “New” Perspective on Paul was hotly disputed in the OPC and PCA by theological “types” within the Church, and was supposed to either save the Reformation from its internal contradictions or drive the final nail into its coffin.

    The only exposure I’ve had to anything he’s actually written have been what has been quoted here and elsewhere, and I am delighted by the uncommon good sense and clear thinking he brings to the subject, although to be honest, nothing he says challenges my already established prejudices. What I get out of him was that Paul was primarily what he hld himself out be; a man in Christ from a particularly advantageous background that made him capable of being a hermeneutés for a wide number of people in his time and culture.

  4. ““we take every thought prisoner,” he declares, “and make it obey the Messiah.” This is not simply a cavalier attitude, grabbing anything that looks useful. It is based on Paul’s robust creational monotheism: all the wisdom of the world belongs to Jesus the Messiah in the first place, so any flickers or glimmers of light, anywhere in the world, are to be used and indeed celebrated within the exposition of the gospel. (p. 201)”

    This understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:10 that Wright espouses is new to me. I really like it. It fits the flow of the passage better than other explanations I have heard or read.

    • This interpretation is also strikingly (and pleasingly) different from the way one sometimes hears it explained: as a taking captive of whatever thought manages to well up spontaneously in one’s own mind. In this interpretation, one’s mind is in a kind of divine lock-down, where you are seizing whatever appears there and banging it into submission. It’s an inward-directed action, with an emphasis on shaving things away that are undesirable.

      Wright’s take on Paul’s meaning is 180 degrees off from the picture of ‘capturing thoughts’ as a pietistic, inward activity, narrowing activity: Paul is looking outward, and gleaning what he finds worthwhile (and, I suppose, rejecting what he does not find worthwhile). That doesn’t exclude rigorous internal self-reflection necessarily, but it is a more expansive view than one which focuses mainly on this.

      • I hadn’t thought about “capturing thoughts” that way before. In Evangelical/Fundamentalist teaching, the “thoughts” are an internal thing you come up with. Also, it is seen as exclusively a negative thing. You have these thoughts, that are always bad, and you are supposed to “capture” them before they can do any harm. The possibility of there being good thoughts that one might “capture” is never mentioned.