Ktismatics

26 December 2008

The New Man in Ephesians 4

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 8:44 am

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old man, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:14-24)

In Ephesians 2 Paul said that Christ had created the Jews and the Gentiles into one new man. Here Paul tells his readers that the new man is created in the likeness of God. But wasn’t the first man created in God’s image and likeness? Does this passage imply that man lost the imago Dei in the Fall, and that now it’s being restored? Or is it possible that the original imago wasn’t complete? Genesis 1 focuses exclusively on God’s creational activity, implying that man is like God specifically in being able to create. At the end of Genesis 3 God says that man, in acquiring knowledge of good and evil, has become even more godlike. Here in Ephesians 4 Paul links the likeness of God specifically to His righteousness and holiness — yet another aspect of the imago.

Paul tells his readers that they’re acting like the Gentiles: ignorant, hard-hearted, impure and greedy. This sort of behavior Paul associates with the old man. Is Paul contradicting himself from two chapters earlier by now saying that the Gentiles are the old man and that the Jews, or perhaps the Christ-following Jews, are the new man? I don’t think so. Paul addresses his readers as “Gentiles in the flesh” (2:13) who through Christ have been joined together with the Jews into the one new man (2:15). Now, however, Paul sees evidence of his readers relapsing into their old ways, as if they were still defining themselves according to the old fleshly distinctions between peoples. The old Gentile way of life is characterized by enmity, ignorance, and immorality — in short, it’s a life that doesn’t manifest God’s holiness. Presumably Paul would levy the same criticisms against those “Jews in the flesh” who slipped back into their old Jewish ways.

Apparently it’s possible for a follower of Christ to slip back and forth between the old man and the new man. Though Christ has already created the new man, the old man persists, even among those who follow Christ. Paul enjoins his readers to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new man, as if the transition were as easy as changing one’s clothes. If Paul was talking here about a distinctly new human nature having been implanted in believers, one would expect him to use different imagery. For example, if the old man is a fleshly, surface-level identity whereas the new man is deeper and truer, then Paul might exhort the backslider to lay aside the old man in order that the new, true man might shine forth. Alternatively, if the old man is deeply ingrained in human nature, then Paul might suggest that his readers put the new man over the top of the old man as a means of disguising or ritually purifying the old. Instead Paul seems to regard the old man and new man as interchangeable. He also assumes that the reader possesses an autonomy independent of the old man and the new man, a constant and continuous self that can take off the one and put on the other.

The old man and the new man are not static entities: the one is “being corrupted,” whereas the other is “being renewed” (Eph. 4:22f.). More precisely, Paul encourages the reader to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man.” It would seem that, in Pauline psychology, the mind has a spirit that can either be corrupted or be renewed. Here in Ephesians the old man and new man are envisioned as alternative life trajectories or mindsets, and the individual self can at any given time be guided by either the one or the other. A person who sets his life course by the new man must put aside the traditional intercultural enmities (2:15f) and the ignorance and callousness (in Greek it’s “analgesia,” the numbness to pain) that lead to impurity and greed. Instead the person participates in the ongoing life of God (4:18), a way that leads in the opposite direction, toward peace, knowledge, sensitivity, purity, generosity.

walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God… (Eph 4:17-18)

The old man is aimed toward corruption and death; the new man, toward renewal and life. Paul isn’t enjoining his readers to assume a new personality or nature. He’s asking them to respond appropriately to the singular twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection, to “walk in a manner of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). It’s possible not to respond appropriately, to “put on the old man” even if you’re already a participant in the “new man” that Christ created in the cross. Those believers who put on the old man act just like those who never responded to Christ’s calling in the first place.

* * *

The unbeliever and the believer who is currently “wearing the old man” — are they the same? In other words, is there anything that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian? Is it the initial statement of faith, or is it the walk, that identifies someone who has life in the Spirit? Or is neither of these subjective responses definitive? Is it instead the “Christ event” itself that creates the new man in the flesh and the new life in the spirit? Whether you acknowledge the event or not, whether you live inside the new man or not, is it the event itself that has already changed everything?

I think that for Paul the subjective response is determinative because the “Christ event” is itself the emergence of a new kind of subjectivity, a “subjectivation” that continually renews itself in spirit and in life. Paul’s injunction to lay aside the old man and to put on the new presumes the kind of free subjectivity that the resurrected life in Christ makes possible.

The “Christ event” has two parts to it: death and resurrection. The new man is one, but this unity participates in both parts of the event. There’s a continual dying of the old man and his concerns for fleshly distinctions, laws and desires; and there’s also a continual resurrection of the new man and his freedom to act in faith, hope and love. Is there something distinctive about the individual who participates in this sort of bivalent subjectivity, or does everyone engage in these same ongoing struggles to become a free subject in the world? Sometimes I see it one way, sometimes the other, but I’ll be damned if I know which is true.

I have a sense that many, perhaps most, at least occasionally consider living a life concerned less with inconsequential distinctions and more with truth, beauty, justice, love. I also think that, at best, people vacillate repeatedly and perpetually between the two. In this regard I’m not personally persuaded that those who proclaim themselves Christians are qualitatively different from those who do not. But this is idle speculation of one observer of the human condition and not a systematic treatment of Paul’s writings.

Awhile back I wrote some posts about contemporary continental philosopher Alain Badiou’s little book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, which explores issues we’ve been addressing here. Badiou contends that Paul offers not a universalist expansion of the traditionally exclusivist Jewish faith but rather “the possibility of universalism.” Paul doesn’t point either to a universally true set of philosophical propositions nor to the universally commendable life that Jesus lived on earth, but rather to the distinctive event of Christ’s death and resurrection, an event that was in its very nature subjective, experienced by Christ alone. This intensely private event offers the possibility of universal truth and love not to those who abstract its truth or who testify to its miracle but rather to those who participate subjectively in the event itself. So, paradoxically, it’s a universalism that depends on subjective participation.

Drifting again, this time into sociology, it seems that Christianity — or is it Christendom? — has established itself as a kind of universal cult, with its rituals of initiation, its creeds, its liturgies, its moral codes, its communitarian festivals, and other structural apparatuses for distinguishing inside from outside, Christian from non-Christian. It’s a sort of synthesis between Jewish excusivism and Greco-Roman inclusivism. While this is the use the church leaders made of Paul, and while Paul himself may have encouraged this sort of thing in the interests of rapid expansion, I’m not sure it’s what he really had in mind.

In reading these Pauline texts one by one we discover that, instead of reinforcing the boundaries between micro and macro, Paul insists that the boundaries have been torn down — neither Jew nor Gentile. The old and new creations overlap in the world; now in Ephesians 4 we find that they overlap even in the lives of individuals who have already declared their faith in Christ. For Paul it’s less a matter of in versus out and more a matter of how one lives one’s life that’s at stake.

Maybe even Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 6 against being unequally yoked with unbelievers isn’t about unbelievers being sinful while believers are holy. Maybe it’s about the hazards of living inside a dark and dead reality defined by law in which everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, falls under condemnation. Maybe it’s not the unbelievers whom Paul is calling satanic, but the satanic “old creation” in which they find themselves inextricably mired. The important thing is to die to that dead reality in order to live inside the resurrection reality. Again and again the dead old life keeps coming back — the return of the repressed and the death drive in Freud’s formulation. Paul wants his readers to recognize what’s happening. When the old man returns, don’t condemn yourself for backsliding, don’t conclude that the old reality is the only valid existence possible, don’t repress that which you’ve unsuccessfully tried to repress so many times before. Paul seems to invoke a kind of cognitive-behavioral intervention: in Eph. 4 he asks his readers simply to lay aside the old man and put the new man back on. Maybe that’s the best he could do in written correspondence with a bunch of people he probably had never met.

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5 Comments »

  1. You are plowing ahead at your usual pace while I’m still chewing through your earlier postings! Well, I think I largely am in agreement with you except for one small quibble and that is the concentration on death and resurrection.

    I agree that Paul is referring to more than just an experience of a “Christ event” or a meeting with the risen Lord such as we know he himself experienced. “But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus…” seems to refer to a cognitively active process of teaching and learning perhaps a particular tradition, which may just be the existing oral tradition of Jesus’ own teachings and way.

    With 2Cor6 and other such passages I think one can’t argue that there was not an us/them divide in Paul’s mind. Here I think the cause is the practical fact that in preaching Christ the response is the 3 way response that many NT writers refer to – “you are mad”, “I need to think about this”, and the experience of being “startled by sudden faith”.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 29 December 2008 @ 12:19 am

  2. Regarding the pace, you’ve already seen earlier versions of these exegeses at OST, Sam, so in a sense it’s a rerun for you. One of the odd features of a blog is that the top post in the queue generates most of the attention because it’s what the reader sees when he clicks onto the blog. Building a prolonged case means moving forward systematically, but displayed on a blog it’s hard to sustain the logic from one post to the next.

    The cumulative thrust of these several Pauline passages is that the new creation and the new man emerge from the death and resurrection. So how would you incorporate Jesus’s earthly teachings with this idea, Sam? Was the pre-crucified Jesus seeing himself as already dead and resurrected? I find it hard to see this theme in Jesus’s teachings as recorded in the gospels. As you imply, maybe there was another oral tradition in which Jesus sounded this theme. Maybe there are apocryphal gospels that purport to relay Jesus’s post-resurrection teachings. If he spent 40 days on earth teaching his disciples before ascending to heaven, somebody who listened to him must have remembered something and told it to others.

    The other variant to consider, which I alluded to previously in relation to Hegel, is that the earthly Jesus regarded himself as already dead, in the sense that he acted without fear of death. Metaphorically speaking he would then have been living life after his own death; i.e., his own acknowledgment of and existential victory over the inevitability of death. Given that I regard it as a near certainty that Jesus did not experience bodily resurrection nor any sort of afterlife, this sense of psychologically going beyond the fear of death is the only value I personally can derive from Paul’s new creation teachings. Fear is a great motivator and a powerful restraint on freedom. For most of us who don’t live under the shadow of mortal danger it’s mostly the fear of psychological death that dominates us: fear of rejection, misunderstanding, indifference, disdain, etc. To be able to push through, not denying the reality of the fears but rather to experience all these things one is afraid of, to undergo psychological death at the hands of others, and still to be able to come out the other side of the grave — what must this be like?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 29 December 2008 @ 4:02 am

  3. K: Here in Ephesians the old man and new man are envisioned as alternative life trajectories or mindsets, and the individual self can at any given time be guided by either the one or the other. A person who sets his life course by the new man must put aside the traditional intercultural enmities (2:15f) and the ignorance and callousness (in Greek it’s “analgesia,” the numbness to pain) that lead to impurity and greed. Instead the person participates in the ongoing life of God (4:18), a way that leads in the opposite direction, toward peace, knowledge, sensitivity, purity, generosity.

    And related to this is your comment on 2 Cor 6, which we discussed elsewhere: Maybe even Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 6 against being unequally yoked with unbelievers isn’t about unbelievers being sinful while believers are holy. Maybe it’s about the hazards of living inside a dark and dead reality defined by law in which everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, falls under condemnation. Maybe it’s not the unbelievers whom Paul is calling satanic, but the satanic “old creation” in which they find themselves inextricably mired.

    I like this summary interpretation of 2 Cor 6. Granted, Paul’s language is a bit inflammatory, and at first it is difficult to see why. However, if he is absolutely equating the “unbeliever” with the mindset of death, then it makes Paul’s rhetoric a bit more palatable.

    Perhaps the question that arises, then, is whether or not a non-believer can be “in Christ” without knowing it. In other words, presuming that the whole God-exists-and-Jesus-died-and-rose-again thing is true (or else somewhat verisimilous), then can a non-believer be participating “in Christ” and evidence this by participating in the resurrected life…..I’ll draw on your similar question and then Badiou’s thought:

    Is there something distinctive about the individual who participates in this sort of bivalent subjectivity, or does everyone engage in these same ongoing struggles to become a free subject in the world? Sometimes I see it one way, sometimes the other, but I’ll be damned if I know which is true….This intensely private event [Christ event] offers the possibility of universal truth and love not to those who abstract its truth or who testify to its miracle but rather to those who participate subjectively in the event itself. So, paradoxically, it’s a universalism that depends on subjective participation.

    I’ll be damned if I know, either….but I do wonder if it is possible to “participate” in the Christ even without realizing it….or perhaps while cognitively disbelieving its actual reality and efficacious-ness.

    Like

    Comment by erdman31 — 11 January 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  4. I think John has led us to ask similar sorts of questions! My answer is Yes, and conversely that a lot of folks who think that they are ‘believers’ having missed completely the spirit of Christ are actually “living inside a dark and dead reality”.

    I do believe that God is a secular as well as a personal God, and in Her/His own way probably quite particular, though I have little by way of hard evidence to support such a thesis. The creator aspect remains to be delineated by science. Certainly ’cause and effect’ seems to be an adequate theory for what we know of the physical world, but is there such a thing as immanence?

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    Comment by samlcarr — 11 January 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  5. Hi Sam,

    Yes, I like your phrase: “God is a secular as well as a personal God.”

    Like

    Comment by erdman31 — 12 January 2009 @ 7:34 am


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