The Christian Imagination According to Paul

In her recent book, Sin: The Early History of an Idea, Paula Fredricksen contrasts Jesus and Paul’s notions of sin and salvation (though they are not identical, they share important assumptions) with those of later Christian thinkers, notably Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. In characterizing the difference, she describes a shift from views of salvation that are “temporal, bodily, and communal” to views characterized as “spatial, spiritual, and individual.”

Think about how you would define salvation. Which set of terms best characterizes your views? My hunch is that you begin with the spatial, spiritual, and individual. Salvation, in other words, is a word that primarily refers to your status as an individual. Some of you would say that this is primarily based upon an internal or spiritual state. You might say that it depends on faith, for instance, and say things like “baptism is the outward symbol of an inward reality.” And my guess is that the problem to be solved in relation to salvation is the distance between you and God. You think a lot about the “nature” of God and human “nature,” and this is the gap that needs to be overcome in salvation. This is an example of what Fredricksen means by “spatial.”

Am I right? If I’m right about you (and me), and if Fredricksen is right about this shift, then we have more in common with Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine than we do with Jesus and Paul. And I’m not ok with that.

I’m particularly interested in this business about temporal and spatial. Is the primary determinate of how we experience reality time or space? Clearly, both are factors, but one or the other tends to take the lead in how we understand being. The understanding of being is what philosophers term “ontology.” And a guy named Martin Heidegger, writing mid-twentieth century, suggested that the history of philosophy in the West, all the way from Plato and Aristotle up to his time, was based on a spatial imagination, or what he called a substantialist ontology. For Plato, what was at the heart of being was enduring substance, and Westerners have been figuring out the world as the relationship between objects ever since–which would include seeing persons primarily as individuals. We’ve been influenced to think about things primarily in spatial terms ever since. Even the growth of Western languages has been influenced by this way of conceiving reality, so much so that Heidegger tries to invent language to express time as the primary referent for being.

For Fredricksen and others, the thought of Jesus and Paul is conditioned more by Jewish concepts that are “temporal, historical, and communal.” That is, fundamental to what God is doing is a notion of history where God is bringing all things together in a relationship of peace. Salvation refers to this entire drama, not just the status of an individual.

It is common now among scholars of Paul’s writings to suggest that at the heart of his theology lies Jewish apocalyptic notions. That is, Paul sees things like gospel and salvation through a particular understanding of how God is related to history. For instance, he describes Christians as those upon whom the end of the ages has fallen, or will talk about being saved from this present age, or about salvation being nearer to us than the day we first believed. This emphasis on Paul’s apocalyptic gospel is a move away from seeing justification by faith as the center of his thought, the view of the Reformation and the primary way most of us think of Paul’s theology. We have been drawn to focus on the justification of the individual as the pre-imminent Pauline issue in large part because we view the questions of salvation through a “spatial, spiritual, individual” lens.

Christiaan Beker, like Paula Fredriksen, says that this happened very early and that we see the pressures toward a spatial imagination at work in Paul’s letters due to the fact that the recipients of his letters “inhabit the world of Hellenistic cosmology.” His readers think in “spatial-vertical categories rather than in temporal-historical categories of apocalyptic thought.” Paul doesn’t budge. Beker sees the apocalyptic framework of Paul’s thought as a necessary aspect of his understanding of the gospel. If you switch the frame to “spatial-vertical,” if you spiritualize it or individualize it, you have a different gospel.

“For Paul, the ‘material content’ of the gospel is inseparable from the ‘linguistic medium’ of apocalyptic thought; in fact, the coherent theme of the gospel is unthinkable apart from apocalyptic. In that sense, apocalyptic thought patterns are not to be demythologized or regarded as incidental linguistic ‘husk’ that can be transposed in to a non apocalyptic metaphysic.”

I know, easy for him to say. But basically he’s saying that turning the gospel into a individualistic, interior encounter between “God and me” is for Paul a different gospel altogether. You can’t simply translate it into a spatial category without losing its fundamental content–at least, according to Paul.

If Beker’s reading of Paul is correct, and I think he’s pretty persuasive, then our imaginations have a long way to go to be in line with his. At the very least, we should read Paul again as if what is at stake is God’s righteousness as revealed in relation to the consummation of all of creation.

The payoffs here are potentially huge. One of the difficulties in contemporary Christianity often attributed to Paul is the difficulty of holding together faith and works. If salvation is only about an individual’s status, then these two things are mutually exclusive. You’re either saved by grace or by works. Salvation is a binary thing, like being pregnant. You either are or you’re not. It’s either faith or works. I see in evangelistic tracts all the time detailed instructions about how to “get saved”–that is, change your status before God– with little or no emphasis on what it means to live as a Christian. Salvation is one thing, ethics is another. Likewise, salvation is one thing, the church is another. This simply does not square with what we find in Paul’s letters. A shift to a temporal imagination defines these issues differently and in ways that I find far more satisfying.

And I hope to write more about all of that in future posts.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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3 Responses to The Christian Imagination According to Paul

  1. Jon Mullican says:

    Credit (blame?) Pat Bills for pointing me toward you and your blog. I enjoyed this very much. Would it be appropriate to say that my upbringing (Western, U.S., CofC) has created a lense through which I see everything, and therefore to see things differently (as Paul, Jesus), I must learn to remove this lense or replace it with something else? Different perspectives certainly can bring richer texture to all sorts of things, perhaps especially scripture.

    Blessings to you,

    Jon Mullican

  2. Michael Brummett says:

    Which work by Beker are you referencing?

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