We spent last night in a rather posh resort hotel in the cosmopolitan city of Atalya on the Mediterranean coast. A lot of the other guests were Russians who were pretty clearly well off. Late into the night, we were serenaded by Turkish jazz from the night club below. It was actually just wonderful, albeit loud.
Today we traveled to Laodicea and Hierapolis, neighbors of Colossae. Paul’s relationship with them may have been indirect, mediated by Colossae but that site has not yet been excavated. The three congregations clearly interacted, sharing Paul’s letters with one another. The ruins of Laodicea were impressive in that they are excavating and reassembling the large city (it had a population of 150,000 or so) at a rapid rate. Hierapolis had a lot more touristy stuff, but Hierapolis was like that in Paul’s time too. By the end of a long, tiring day of touring -- though todays’ lectures were not about these places – I found a connection between what I saw and what we had learned in those lectures that gives me a new slant on Paul’s whole message. It feels as if I have never really understood Paul until today. Of course I’ve got a lot more to learn but this feels like a quantum leap and it is because of the connection between Paul’s “virtue ethics” and the Triune God.
The first lecture was on Paul & The Law. Protestant Reformation theologians made much of Paul’s theology of justification by faith and not by works. Biblical scholars since Albert Schweitzer have cast much doubt on whether Paul said that, and if he did whether that is a central concern for him. Clearly he had a lot to say about the law, most directly early on in Galatians and much later in Romans. His pastoral writing about moral issues in between addresses the question obliquely. The basic issue is whether he is for it or against the Law. Bottom line: it’s hard to tell. He seems inconsistent. This may be because he is writing to different people for different pastoral reasons that call for a different approach. It may also be that he was trying to think through the whole thing while he was writing.
But Paul’s approach to the law becomes coherent if we see two points. I addressed the first one in LIVE FROM ANATOLIA PART I. Paul is committed to universal inclusion. To that end, he wants to draw the whole world to Jewish moral values, so that part of the law is actually quite good. He does not want anyone cut off from relationship by Jewish ritual purity and cultic worship requirements. So that part of the law is “a curse,” “a yoke,” the “cause of sin,” etc.
But even with regard to the moral law, there is an issue. Morality is a very basic question: how shall we live? What should we do? What should we refrain from doing? The Jewish law was a guide. It said, “Do this. Don’t’ do that.” There were rules – not nit picky stuff like we find in ritual purity regulations, but really valid rules that reflected the values of caring for others instead of harming them. These rules amounted to the Halacha, the way of life. Paul unequivocally shared those values but he did not like rules and he was quite averse to following rules to get a reward or avoid punishment. Carrot and stick religion was not for him.
So Paul basically threw out the rulebook and replaced it with something else. He replaced it with a relationship – or better, a network of relationship – that turned our hearts, changed our motivations, and redirected our behavior from self serving to serving Christ and others. Galatians 5 is for my money one of the most important parts of the Bible. There he proclaims “For freedom Christ has set us free . . . . . You, my brothers and sisters were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to serve the flesh (meaning ego -- not the body); rather serve one another humbly in love.” Paul goes on to list a series of “works of the flesh.” They are often not translated well but if they are rightly translated it is crystal clear he equates those “works of the flesh” with selfishness and egotism. In contrast he lists “fruits of the spirit,” which are attitudes of care for others. Galatians 5 has a nifty list but it flowered into Paul’s immortal hymn to love in I Corinthians 13.
A moral philosopher would say that Paul has simply shifted from rule-based ethics to virtue-based ethics. He is not saying, “Do this. Don’t’ do that.” Instead he is saying. “Be this way. Assume this attitude, and you will then do the right thing from your heart. Do not be that way because if you do, bad will come of it.” That would be right. But it doesn’t’ quite get it. Paul’s virtue ethics flows out of the new relationship we have with God in Christ. That relationship with him changes our relationship with each other.
What clicked from me today is that this relationship-virtue ethic is rooted in our belief in the Triune God. That brings us to the second lecture – The First Two Ecumenical Councils. Arius was a priest trying to explain God. He took the metaphor of Father to mean that the Father is God from all eternity. The Son comes along before the creation of the world, but the Son is secondary to the Father. Metaphorically speaking, “There was (a time) when he was not.” The Son’s existence depended on the Father, but not vice versa. That made the Father God and the Son a kind of lesser heavenly being.
The problem with Arianism is that it makes God an individual being. Such a God may give orders. Such a God can make rules. But Trinitarian theology says that God is a network of relationship. God is the love dance among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their divinity does not reside in themselves but in the love flowing among them. It is there love that makes them God – together! If God were an individual being, then he might be a powerful ruler of and judge over the universe. But instead Christianity portrays God as loving beauty. We become like the God we worship and our path to becoming like God is by treating each other well.
Paul’s relationship-virtue ethics, instead of a rule-based tit for tat transactional stay out of hell and go to heaven by following the recipe ethics, is grounded in this understanding of God. Paul had not fully articulated this way of talking about God yet. But his writings were foundational for the folks at the Councils of Nicaea and Cappadocia who did.
All this brings me back to Laodicea-Hierapolis-Colossae. It was to the family in whose home the Colossae church met that Paul wrote his shortest (only 445 words) letter, Philemon. I used to wonder how this little letter made it into the Bible. Today I see it as showing Paul’s approach to morality with crystal clarity.
Paul is a prisoner when he sends this letter to Philemon and his family by a messenger Onesimus. For centuries, we have understood from the text that Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave.[i] If Paul were being godly (godlike) and God were an all-powerful individual, then Paul might command Philemon to do the right thing and emancipate Onesimus. But Paul has a different kind of God than that, so he writes, “ . . . I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do; yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is none other than Paul – an old man and now a prisoner for Christ – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus who became my son while I was in chains.” Paul does not claim his authority as an apostle but appeals, without any claim of power as he is a prisoner, on the basis of love. Paul urges Philemon to similarly relinquish his power, authority, and even legal rights. He asks him to give up Onesimus as a slave that he may receive him back as a brother.
Do you see how Paul is urging Philemon not to emulate Arius’s God but rather the Triune Love of the Creeds, to dance in the relationship of love instead of cling to power? It appears that Philemon emancipated his slave because sometime later Paul sent to the Colossians his more famous epistle, which was also intended for Laodicea and Hierapolis, by way of his friend Tychas who “is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you.”
[i] The text plainly states Onesimus is a slave but some contemporary scholars think this is metaphorical language and imagine Onesimus may be Philemon’s brother. I don’t see that supported by the text at all. It seems clear from the letter to me that Onesimus is a runaway slave as everyone has said since John Chrysostom in the 6th Century.
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