What is it that we truly are?

Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus to know, along with a litany of other things, that God has made Christ “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). In February 1922, Karl Barth lectured on this passage. His words, as usual, provoke us to recognize the vitality of the biblical text. The church, he writes, is Christ’s

pleroma, the filling up of the empty form, which he signifies, in contrast to all that is human and the true fulfillment of all that is human…Because they are in Christ, because they are the ekklesia, called together by him, they are truly the object of God’s blessing. Will the become what they truly are?

I can only imagine being a student at the University of Göttingen during this lecture. What would you say if Barth paused after that loaded question, looked at you, and asked, “And what is it, precisely, that we truly are?” 

9780802873941“In Paul” in Christ (Eerdmans, 2018) offers twenty essays that wrangle with that question insofar as Paul gives us the basis for an answer. Whatever we “truly are” is whatever it means to be “in Christ.” The contributors to this volume have taken on the ambitious task of introducing the reader to the ways Paul speaks about being in Christ, the way people have interpreted, and how Paul might guide our theology today.

The bulk of this book consists of essays that interact directly with Paul’s writings. These essays take a variety of shapes. For example, Joshua W. Jipp’s essay tries to unpack the framework for Paul’s use of “head” and “body” in the Letter to the Ephesians as a whole whereas Susan Eastman narrows her focus to the Spirit in Romans 8. Other chapters follow a theme throughout Paul’s writings, such as baptism or faith. 

The following section traces the idea of “participation”—this is the word of choice for describing how we are “in Christ”—as it is engaged by major theological figures in their interpretation of Paul. These essays are intriguing and useful. They are intended, as the section title indicates, only to be “highlights.” I’d have enjoyed this section a bit more, I think, had it offered us overview essays of periods or schools as opposed to dealing with individual figures. For example, how rich are the contributions of, say, the Cappadocians or the mystics or liberation theology to our understanding of participation? Yet, they have no room here to shine. 

The final section is three short chapters that reflect on the theological implications of being “in Christ.” 

I have already found this volume to be immensely helpful in my pastoral setting. Paul’s conception of being “in Christ” moves us from thinking about Christian faith like we might think of a membership to a club or belief in an idea to speaking of faith as participation in Christ. I am constantly grasping for language to lay before my congregation that opens the eyes of their hearts to the deeper reality of our faith. Douglas Campbell, for example, gives me one way of speaking: “It seems reasonable to infer [from Paul’s own logic] that the love of Christ animates Christian love for others.” We are animated, brought to life because we are in Christ. Christian faith doesn’t simply make us nicer or better people. Faith animates us.

Another example comes from Jipp’s chapter on participation in Ephesians, the letter Karl Barth was lecturing on. Jipp cogently draws out the Old Testament echoes that sing throughout Ephesians. He places these echoes alongside political writings by ancients like Seneca to show that the emperor or king was understood as a a “head” or “mind” for the people. The head of the people was meant to work for their good since what harmed them would also harm the head. Jipp reveals, however, that participation in Christ extends beyond this. Christ is not just a head who feels a duty to do what is good but is a head who draws the body into itself. “God…gives resurrection life to his people by means of the Messiah, that is, by means fo enabling them to share in the Messiah’s resurrection life” (italics original). Christ’s headship displaces all other heads for the lives of Christians because Christians “truly are” in Christ, not as a figure of speech but as a reality made possible by God’s grace.

This book is worthy of study for pastors and would be a great supplement to sections of classes on theology or Pauline studies. The reader will be introduced to an array of thoughtful, pastorally sensitive scholars whose books will extend what has been introduced here. Perhaps, Lord willing, they will even give you something to say, should the fictional question I imagined Barth asking his students be asked of you. 

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