Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Corporate and the Individual in Paul: A Plea for Realism

Ok, so sometimes scholars make no sense.

Right now, I am studying Paul more in-depth. That means I am reading through his epistles every day and devouring as many books on Paul as possible. All of the books I have read have been very informative and helpful thus far.

However, one thing really bugs me about some recent Pauline scholarship--they make really stupid dichotomies.  For instance, in the very good book Justification: Five Views, the traditional Reformed position is attacked by pretty much every other view as placing too much emphasis on the individual when Paul was clearly more interested in the corporate. James Dunn particularly champions this as one of the strengths of the New Perspective.

Similarly, I just read a chapter in the very good book Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction His World, Letters and Theology, that talks about how Paul was predominately focused on the corporate church. They likewise have a little blurb in one of the sidebars about how individualistic our reading of Paul has become.

Ok. So I get it. Paul wrote to churches. He saw us all as a unified body. Here is my beef: who makes up the corporate body? Individuals. Yes, when one individual was out of line Paul saw it as affecting the entire church. No doubt. I think sometimes we do get far too individualistic when attending churches, thinking that it is just me and my family. But the it still goes back to this: an individual could bring down the group.

When Paul was talking about moral purity in Colossians 3 was he talking to the corporate body or to the individual? Yes. There is no way any person in that church thought to himself, "Oh Paul is talking about the church here...not me." The corporate doesn't work like that.

Similarly, when people talk about election in purely corporate terms, it makes no sense. Who makes up the corporate group? Individuals. So when Jews boasted in their election, yes they were boasting about their corporate election. But they were also boasting about their individual election as well that contributed to the whole.

I think Paul would have stated something like this: "There is no 'I' in church. But there is no 'church' without 'you'." In other words, individualism would have been chided by Paul if by individualism you meant going off and doing your own thing and living in sin without thinking of the larger ramifications.

But then that leads us back to this: Paul wrote to address how individuals ought to live in light of the corporate church. The two really are inseparable and both were addressed constantly in Paul's letters.

If someone charges that churches today are too Western and individualistic, I would say that that is probably too true. But I think that most preachers do a good job of reminding us that our individual sin impacts the larger body. I don't think individualizing Paul's words is bad because God was talking to individuals.

The whole thing strikes me a weird sort of straw-man argument launched by recent scholarship.