Saturday, June 06, 2015

Philippians 3 as Example of Train of Thought

I did a brief study at the beginning of class most mornings this past week. The purpose was half-devotional, half to illustrate the tool of the previous day's session.

On Tuesday, I put Philippians 3 on the screen and we looked at what seemed to me to be its train of thought.
The bulk of Philippians 3 is a bit of a puzzle in the flow of Philippians as a whole. The chapter begins with encouragement to "Rejoice in the Lord" (3:1). Then Paul surprisingly begins to warn the Philippians of those who might pressure them to get circumcised: "Beware of the dogs." The shift is so unexpected that some have even suggested that Philippians 3 might actually be from a separate letter Paul sent to the Philippians. [1]

The chapter continues with somewhat of a resume. Paul gives his credentials, as it were, as a Jew. Paul was circumcised like other Jewish males (3:5). He can give his tribe--Benjamin.

Then his self-description gets very interesting (3:4-6). He was a "Hebrew born of Hebrews." He was a Pharisee. These are descriptions that no doubt at one point had been matters of great pride to Paul. He had not been your run-of-the-mill member of Israel. Even though he was born in Tarsus, away from the homeland, his family were apparently Aramaic-speakers of Jerusalem stock. [2] He was not a mere "person of the land." He was a Pharisee.

In the past, there has been a tendency to see these self-descriptions as negative. In our world in front of the text, Pharisees are usually flat, stock characters. They are bad guys rubbing curly mustaches with their fingers, pure legalistic evil. Real people are more complex than such caricatures. The New Testament, even though we do get some strongly negative portrayals (e.g., Matt. 23), is not negative toward every Pharisee. [3]

Indeed, Paul gives us qualities about which he might actually boast, at least in human terms (Phil. 3:4). In what must be one of the most ignored statements in Paul's writings, he notes in 3:6 that, "as to righteousness under the law," he was "blameless." [4] Apparently, Paul did not feel like a miserable failure at keeping the Jewish Law before he came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Apparently, he thought he kept the Law very well.

So when we get to Philippians 3:7, it is a very good resume that he is laying aside. It is not his past sins that he is forgetting and leaving behind in 3:13. It is things that were to his gain from a human perspective. It is not that his past was bad in comparison to Christ. It is that it was completely insignificant. The things he has lost for the sake of Christ are like rubbish or dung in comparison.

Paul has come to realize that his own righteousness does not, in the end, count for much. It is not a righteousness of his own that will count before God but a righteousness that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus on the cross. [5] It is a righteousness credited from God rather than one that Paul himself can boast about. [6]

Now we arrive at some verses in Philippians that I have found fascinating to break down and observe carefully. Later in this chapter, we are going to talk about developing good skills of observation and learning how to observe what we might call the "train of thought" of a passage, how the thought of one sentence in the Bible flows into the next. The next few verses in Philippians (3:12-16) are fairly familiar, but how much of that familiarity comes from our contemporary traditions of interpretation, the world in front of the text, and how much of it is actually what Paul was thinking?

Philippians 3:10-11 express Paul's desire to experience the power of Christ's resurrection. Apparently, after expecting in the earlier part of his ministry to be alive when Jesus returned (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:15; 1 Cor. 7:29), Paul now more expected to die before it happened. He wants to be part of the resurrection (Phil. 3:11). He apparently sees suffering for Christ as part of what he must do to follow Christ. He continues to be faithful, "if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (3:11). [7]

It is at this point, 3:12, that many contemporary readers of Philippians make a clean break between what precedes and what follows. Philippians 3:12-16 is a classic passage on the idea of "progressive sanctification," that we are on a never-ending journey of spiritual improvement as Christians. We are not perfect, just forgiven. We mess up, we repent, then we forget what is behind and keep pressing on. We cannot help but fail, but what is important is that we keep improving.

This interpretation fits well with contemporary culture, the world in front of the text. "Every day in every way, I'm getting better and better." [8] When an interpretation fits so well with our world in front of the text, it is extremely difficult to hear anything else in a passage. [9] Indeed, you might argue that the Holy Spirit is involved in such cases and that what Christians are hearing in those instances is inspired in its own way for the Church today.

Nevertheless, it is surely valuable to have some sense of what Paul might have actually meant too, and developing skills in following a train of thought are one way to hone in on the most likely option...

[1] Cf. for example. David Garland, "The Composition and Unity of Philippians: Some Neglected Features," NovT 27 (1985). The early Christian Polycarp, writing in the mid-second century, indicates that Paul wrote letters, plural, to the Philippians (Polycarp, Phil. 3.2). The theory is that, as these letters were shared with the broader church, they were joined and copied together. In the end, it would be difficult to prove such a theory. It is speculative, even if possible.

[2] A great biographical study which tries to read Paul on ancient Mediterranean and Jewish terms is Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey's Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[3] For a recent exploration of who the Pharisees were, see N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 80-196.

[4] One of the most transformative articles for my entire understanding of Paul was Krister Stendahl's, "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1976 [1963]). He explores the full significance of this verse for reconstructing the pre-Christian Paul.

[5] There is much debate about whether Paul meant the phrase, "through the faith of Jesus Christ" to refer to Jesus' faith or human faith in Jesus. I have come down with those who see this lead-off expression as a reference to Jesus' faithfulness to death, while believing that Paul then regularly builds off the ambiguity of the phrase to proceed to talk about human faith in God. See my "2 Corinthians 4:13 and the πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate," CBQ (2008): 524-37.

One of the best inroads into this debate are twin chapters in Pauline Theology, Volume IV: Looking Back, Pressing On, David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997). The chapters are by Richard B. Hays, "ΠΙΣΤΙΣ and Pauline Christology: What Is at Stake?" and by James D. G. Dunn, "Once More, ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ."

[6] Although most scholars now see the phrase, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 as a reference to God's righteousness, Paul actually uses the preposition from in Philippians 3:9. So what he is saying here is more akin to what he says in Romans 4:5-6. You will find a good inroad to this discussion in N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 95-111.

[7] Many translations of Philippians 3:11 obscure the conditional nature of the underlying Greek. Chapter 3 will dip a little into how you can get insights and clarifications from the original languages without knowing much about them. The number of open, free resources in this regard seem to multiply with each new year. In the meantime, comparing several versions often will give you some sense of the main options for how a verse might be translated from the original languages.

[8] A motto that comes from the French psychotherapist Émile Coué (1857-1926).

[9] Another passage that fits in this category is Romans 7:14-25. Although most current Romans scholars would agree that Paul is not describing his current state in these verses, or the normal state of a believer, it is immensely difficult to convince the typical person in the pew--or pastor--differently. We will mention this section of Romans in chapter 5 on surveying blocks of biblical text.

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