30 December 2008

The New Creation in Paul: Summary Observations

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:16 pm

Based on the Pauline passages describing the “new creation” and “new man” on which I’ve posted here, here, here, here, and here, I draw three general inferences. First, the new creation constitutes a radical departure from what preceded it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the event that marks the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Second, perhaps the most important hallmark of the new creation is that the traditional distinctions between groups of people no longer hold. Jew or Gentile, circumcision or uncircumcision, male and female, freeman or slave – the “Christ event” has rendered these differences irrelevant. By implication, the Old Testament’s structural division of humanity into microcosm (Israel) and macrocosm (everyone else) is an old-creation concept that died on the cross. Third, for Paul the old and new creations overlap not just in space and time but in the lives of individuals. The historical Christ event is binary: his death brought an end to the old creation, while his resurrection ushered in the new. But the individual’s subjective participation in the Christ event is always a matter of here and now, of continually and simultaneously dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the breadth of Paul’s thought isn’t fully encapsulated in these five crucial but brief passages. It’s clear elsewhere that Paul does distinguish between believers and unbelievers. While believers may experience a chronic internal split between the old man and the new man, unbelievers presumably define themselves solely in terms of the old man. So, while Paul insists that the wall separating Jew from Gentile has been demolished in the cross, he seems to lay the groundwork for building a new division between Christian and non-Christian. Though the post-crucifixion entrance requirements may have changed, the practical upshot may be the same: a chosen microcosm arises from within a failed and dying macrocosm.

The most important question concerns the nature of the barrier separating inside from outside.

  1. Following the Jewish precedent, is the division between Christianity and non-Christianity a structural one, marked by distinctly Christian confessions, worship rituals, creeds, moral codes, fellowship with one another, dedicated physical spaces, and so on?
  2. Is the distinctive mark of the Christian primarily a matter of an ongoing subjective experience of dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man?
  3. Do Christians distinguish themselves by their working together in filial love and resurrection hope to manifest collectively the new creation throughout the world?

If I were to choose based on the Pauline new creation texts, I’d say that the second and third options more closely correspond to Paul’s expressed thoughts on the matter.

Relegating most of the human race to the status of a failed experiment, subject to termination at a moment’s notice by the Experimenter, might be okay if you happen to be one His laboratory assistants, but for us rats running through the maze the whole concept smacks of fascism. Having read, thought about, and discussed Paul’s descriptions of the new creation, I think it’s not only possible but scriptural for Christians to disavow this sort of antagonistic us-versus-them mentality as a relic of the old-creation thinking that Jesus’s death and resurrection rendered obsolete. I came not to judge the world but to save it, Jesus said (John 12:47). It would seem that, for Christ’s fellow-heirs and co-workers and participants in his death and resurrection, saving the world is the work that still needs to be done.

* * *

In reviewing these passages I wanted to determine whether Paul said that the pathway into the new creation passes through Israel, and whether he emphasized the “peculiar people” idea for separating the chosen people collectively and structurally from the macrocosm. I think it’s fair to say that he does not. That Jesus was a Jew isn’t a mere matter of happenstance, inasmuch as he did play a pivotal role in Israel’s national project. However, in the aftermath of his death and resurrection Jesus’ Jewishness is irrelevant: in the new creation there is neither Jew nor Gentile, as Paul is repeatedly at pains to emphasize.

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28-30)

So now we have to think about a different way of characterizing the in/out distinction (again, presuming there is one). For Paul the way in passes through the person of Christ, and in particular through his death and resurrection. Jesus experienced these events personally, and it’s through personal identification with these events that the individual enters into the resurrection life of the new creation. The “Christ event” isn’t universal, happening to all nations through a multicultural array of different saviors. Rather, the specific event attains its universality by opening up a personal subjective possibility for everyone, a possibility that’s actualized by faith. One can of course draw the inference that the subjective possibility is nullified by lack of faith, thereby establishing the in/out criteria of traditional evangelicalism. But Paul seems to emphasize the observation that even the people of faith often act in ways that are indistinguishable from those who have no faith. At the same time he emphasizes the idea that Christ died for all, that all might be saved. It seems that Paul wanted to exercise caution in erecting a new set of criteria for separating sheep from goats.

Like many others, I cannot reconcile myself to the “ungenerous” elements in the Old Testament story. Retaining a generally high view of Scripture seems to demand that the reader accept the editorial stance of the Biblical writers when they assert that Israel perpetrated mass genocides and enslavements on God’s explicit order. In the early days of Christianity the Marcionites, appalled by Yahweh’s vengeful bloodthirstiness, concluded that Jesus represented a different God altogether and that his mission was to save the world from Yahweh. (Marcion was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the elders in Rome, but his particular Christian variant enjoyed considerable popularity for a couple of centuries at least.) Many evangelicals acknowledge their own revulsion at the Canaanite genocide recorded in Deuteronomy 7 without explicitly endorsing or disavowing it. At minimum I would hope that Christians would reject the genocidal Scriptural passages as tragic misrepresentations of God’s intentions, or perhaps even as an ill-chosen strategy in God’s historic dealings with Israel. At least it should be clear that, following the “Christ event,” this sort of divisive policy has no place in the new creation.

When God encourages Noah and Abraham and Israel to be fruitful and multiply, He’s echoing the blessing He bestowed on the original creation narrative of Genesis 1. Though the words are never explicitly stated in Scripture, I can see how one might regard these blessings as repeated efforts to renew the original creation. However, Paul speaks not of yet another renewal of the old creation but of a new creation. Disjunction rather than continuity characterizes Paul’s language. In this new creation Paul says that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and that in Christ’s crucifixion he reconciled the two into one new man. (Gal. 6, Eph. 4). Paul speaks not at all here about the work of Christ bringing about another renewal of Israel as a microcosm and another destruction of the surrounding macrocosm. Rather, addressing himself explicitly to the Gentiles, Paul says that Christ destroyed the dividing wall that had previously separated these two mutually antagonistic subdivisions of the old creation (Eph. 4). While Paul elsewhere acknowledges God’s distinct blessings on Israel, I see nothing in these passages to indicate that he regards Israel as retaining a distinctive microcosmic status in the new creation.

In Gal. 3 Paul contends that the whole era of Israel and the Law constituted not a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, but rather a temporary measure instituted “because of transgressions.” The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment not in the national identity of Israel but in solidarity with the dead and resurrected Christ. It’s a blessing that extends not to just one nation but to all, as envisioned in the original promise. Paul pointedly does not say that the Gentiles have become part of Israel; rather, the two, formerly divided by a wall of enmity, have been merged together into something altogether new. Paul regards those who believe in Christ as a blessing to the whole world. But God’s particular blessing on Israel, setting them apart as “a kingom of priests and a holy nation,” is precisely what Paul sets aside. This sort of spiritual aristocracy is old-creation thinking that’s been nullified in Christ.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between the Genesis 1 creation narrative and the blessing on Noah. These parallels highlight the continuity between the two events, both of them playing in the same register. From within the corrupted world God chose Noah and his family to embark on a renewal and a purification of the old creation. Periodic renewals and purifications are characteristic of the Old Testament narratives, most of which deal specifically with Israel as the chosen microcosm: their separation from the world as a chosen people; their periodic disobedience, punishment, and repentance as indicators of God’s continual and specific concern for their well-being; and God’s use of the unchosen macrocosm as his usually unwitting agents in dealing specifically with Israel.

This is all old-creation stuff, says Paul; it died on the cross. Paul never uses the biological be-fruitful-and-multiply formula in describing the new creation. That sort of language is inadequate to describe the radical break created in Christ’s death and resurrection. Also, repeating the old-creational tropes would likely trigger old-creation associations especially among his Judaizing readers, and Paul is relentless in insisting that the old paradigm of separation and purification of a chosen race no longer holds.

Paul explicitly addressed his Epistle to the Romans to a Gentile audience. In chapter 9 he shifts his attention to “my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” who are Israelites. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I could imagine that the Gentile believers wondered whether, in light of the “new creation,” God had abandoned Israel. As he did also in the Galatians letter, Paul shifts the temporal context back in time, from Israel to Abraham, emphasizing that

it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:8)

In other words, the Abrahamic promise isn’t fulfilled through the biological “be fruitful and multiply” apparatus of the old creation — the means by which the nation of Israel attained distinction — but through some other channel altogether. Specifically, the biopolitical collective entity called “Israel” is not that channel, and it never was. Why? Because the channel passes through Christ and is apprehended not by biological inheritance nor by moral superiority but by faith in a resurrected Christ — the same channel by which Paul’s Gentile readers have entered into the new creation.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him. (Romans 10:12)

Paul begins Romans 11 by distinguishing a chosen and faithful remnant of Israel — a microcosm within the microcosm one might say. But he says this narrowing of Israel is a temporary measure, intended to make possible the expansion of the promise far beyond the geographic and ethnic boundaries of Israel. When Paul speaks metaphorically of the olive tree (11:17ff.), he’s again referring not to Israel according to the flesh but to the descendants of Abraham according to the promise. While some of the “natural branches” — i.e., Israelites according the flesh — have been pruned from the branch, they can be grafted in again through faith.

…a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles have come in; and thus all Israel will be saved. (Rom. 11:25-26)

Is Paul saying that “all Israel” is a newly-pruned olive tree of the spirit, consisting of a faithful remnant selected from among Jews and Gentiles alike? Or is he saying that all Israel according to the flesh will eventually be reconciled and regrafted into the spiritual descendants of Abraham, along with the “fullness” of the Gentile descendants? It’s hard for me to say, but Paul wraps up his excursus on Israel, embedded within this longer letter to the Gentile believers in Rome, with this:

For just as you [i.e., Gentiles] once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these [i.e., Jews] also now have been disobedient in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all. (Rom. 11:30-32)

As I read this extended passage, Paul contends that the pruning of the Israelite branch down to a remnant constituted a temporary measure. The pruning was implemented in order to make possible the explosive growth and flowering of the whole tree, Jew and Gentile alike, fulfilling the expansive promise made to Abraham long before Israel had even sprouted. Participating in this promised expansion — call it the “new creation” — is achieved by faith in God’s grace and mercy bestowed despite disobedience, or even because of it, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

To regard Israel as any sort of model for building the new creation in Christ seems fundamentally ill-conceived. A radical spiritual exceptionalism in which God acts with benevolence on behalf of only a small subset of humanity while dismissing the rest as degenerates worthy of enslavement and destruction: I suspect I’m not the only one who regards this sort of thing as barbaric and fascistic. It’s the ideology of separation, elitism and violent suppression of infidels that has fueled so much destruction and insular self-absorption in the name of Christ over the centuries, and that still motivates the American religious right’s “crusades” in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. As a collective force of militant separatism, Christianity presents itself as an imminent threat to outsiders, bent on eventual world domination and the concomitant destruction of its enemies. This radical anti-humanistic aggression might be an inescapable feature of Christianity in all its guises.

* * *

In looking carefully at those five passages I was tentatively exploring the possibility of discovering a more all-embracing version of Christianity in Paul’s writings, one in which grace and resurrection life replace judgment, punishment and insular separatism as the basis for new life in Christ. If those five texts are a valid indication, then Paul regards Christianity as a radical break from the old us-versus-them paradigm. He does not commend anything about Israel — its ethnic purity, its law, its separation from the other nations — as exemplary of the new creation. When he looks for a precedent he hearkens back before Israel to Abraham and the expansive promise God made through him to all nations. He speaks of grace and faith and an explosive opening outward of God’s benevolence.

The reason I react with such vehemence to distinctions between microcosm and macrocosm, between sheep and goats, between regenerate and degenerate, is that on all these divides I occupy the position of the rejected “other.” I would have been one of the Canaanites slaughtered by the Israelites in the name of their God; I am the one whom many evangelicals regard as unregenerate and under condemnation; I am the one who will presumably be swept away in the last judgment so that the regenerate microcosm can fill the whole earth.

Now my condemnation might be justifiable if this particular God really exists: His ways are beyond our ways, the clay can’t question the potter, etc. The radical barrier distinguishing membership in the regenerate microcosm consists in believing that this God does exist, that He is right, and that one should cooperate with Him — even if it means actively helping Him slaughter entire nations or affirming His right to destroy everyone who doesn’t believe in Him. From the non-believer’s standpoint this sort of radically non-humanistic theism is fascistic by definition. And the barrier is a rigid one: join us, believe what we believe, or our Leader will execute you. Of course one can choose to believe in order to save one’s skin, but isn’t there more integrity in upholding one’s beliefs even under threat of death?

So when I read attempts to come to grips with the Canaanite genocide by acknowledging God’s right to do away with whole nations man, woman and child, I regard it as a justifying an all-powerful fascistic regime whose ruler may change tactics but whose strategy (microcosm versus macrocosm) remains constant throughout history. But there are other ways of reading Paul’s new creation texts, even within a Christian exegetical framework — ways that emphasize disjunction from Old Testament fascism rather than continuity, ways that emphasize the expansiveness of the resurrection life rather than its restrictiveness, ways that destroy barriers between in and out rather than erecting them, ways that emphasize grace rather than judgment. It’s in the context of these more gracious readings that I can find at least the possibility of common cause with Christians, in which all of us retain the integrity of our beliefs in the spirit of love. Of course evangelicals aren’t obligated to make the effort; neither am I obligated to search for a version of the Christian faith that I can live with. And there’s no assurance that our efforts will bear fruit that satisfy everyone’s tastes. But I do make that effort, for reasons that aren’t always clear to me — maybe it’s masochism, as some of my non-Christian friends suggest. Sometimes I get tired of it.

* * *

It would be wise for me to stop here, but I’m interested in the practical implications. What happens when Christians explicitly to regard themselves as participants in the new creation as Paul describes it? Not being a professing Christian I’m clearly not the best man for the job, but I’ll have a tentative go at it.

New-creation Christians break down structural differences between groups of people. Wars, racial and ethnic insulation, economic mechanisms maintaining the class divide between rich and poor, legal obstacles to the free movement of workers across national and regional boundaries – these sorts of antagonistic divisions would seem to be appropriate areas for intervention.

New-creation Christians make the boundary more permeable between sacred and secular realms. That some undertaking is a church project should be less important than the nature of the project itself. Just because Israel divided the calendar between the work week and the Sabbath doesn’t mean that the new creation is irrelevant in the workplace and the schools. Instead of buffering themselves inside the microcosm, Christians can leaven the dough of the world with resurrection life.

New-creation Christians acknowledge the dividedness of the Christian self. Death an resurrection are the two moments of the Christ event; both are part of the believer’s participation in that event. The urge to self-gratify and the urge to self-justify, the desire to obey and the desire to violate, the conflict between what we think and what we find ourselves doing, the compulsion to impose barriers between ourselves and others along with obsession to imitate and to compete – the death throes of the old man are continual and perpetual. But there’s also this other self, this new man, that is continually coming alive – what is he like, I wonder? Both are part of the Christ event; both are part of the Christian’s subjective participation in that event.



  1. Amen!


    Comment by samlcarr — 31 December 2008 @ 12:54 am

  2. Sorry, but that was too brief, though it accurately conveys my reaction to this post. I’m quite sure that if Paul were to suddenly drop by today, he would be in complete agreement.

    “other ways of reading…even within a Christian exegetical framework” I think this has been attempted by folks like Miroslav Volf come to mind, but the mainstream just ignores this and keeps to the beaten path – and that’s probably the best shortcut around to hell’s back gate.


    Comment by samlcarr — 2 January 2009 @ 11:16 am

  3. Miroslav Volf — that’s a great name. What’s his approach, Sam, if you could summarize in a nutshell?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 January 2009 @ 4:12 am

  4. He’s now at Yale, a student of Moltmann’s, firmly in the pacifist camp and has done a lot for interfaith dialogue but is still surprisingly accepted as an ‘evangelical’. I think he’s Croatian or Serbian and comes from a Pentecostal background – a bit hard to characterize.

    Another that comes to mind is Hauerwas, again an interesting name…


    Comment by samlcarr — 3 January 2009 @ 9:37 am

  5. Quick links for Volf:

    But this has little directly to do with the substance of your meditations, whether through a book on creation, or otherwise you simply must write it up for all to read!


    Comment by samlcarr — 3 January 2009 @ 10:02 am

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