Did Paul contemplate suicide while imprisoned? Listen again to Philippians 1:22-24: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” It does, in fact, sound like Paul is contemplating an option: “Yet what shall I choose?” Life or death?
Several scholars have noted the striking resemblance between Paul’s own speech and ancient writings, which also describe death as a “gain.” These ancient writings consider death a gain because it sets the person free from worldly troubles. Moreover, other scholars have noted that Paul was not, in this imprisonment, facing “imminent execution.” In other words, death was an ultimatum Paul seems to have given himself. These two considerations combined suggest, according to some, that Paul must have been contemplating death by his own hand.
I just received the newest issue of JETS and was glad to see that they’ve published the plenary papers from the 2010 meeting (Schreiner, Thielman, and Wright on justification). As he works through some preliminary points in his paper, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” Wright touches briefly on method in Protestant theology in response to some of his critics:
Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.” I’m not sure what that is, exactly. What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture. To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious. To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse. To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history. I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said? On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (p. 51).
Guest Blogger: L. Ann Jervis
Note: When beginning an extended discussion with a particular book, such as At the Heart of the Gospel, we invite the author to participate in the dialogue for our accountability and to enrich the discussion. In the following comments, L. Ann Jervis responds to the “nagging Christological question” I posed last week regarding atonement and participation:
I think that Paul takes conformity to Christ very seriously: the lives of those ‘in Christ’ are to follow the pattern of Christ’s life – in our faith, which is Christ’s faith, and in our lives before our physical deaths, which are to be lived in Christ’s suffering and death and in hope of Christ’s resurrection.
Where Christ and those ‘in him’ differ is that Christ is the one who made possible what believers can know; and that Christ has already experienced what we can only hope for. Continue reading
As we saw yesterday, Jervis (At the Heart of the Gospel) makes three interwoven claims from 1 Thessalonians. First, she connects Christologically the suffering of Christ to the suffering of believers through Paul’s exhortation to “imitate” Christ in 1:6. In some mysterious way, she urges, God actually uses the suffering of believers toward his redemptive ends (I have some concerns here, see my comments from yesterday).
She follows with two further claims:
(2) A Spiritual-Pneumatological Claim:
Paul understands the threads of holiness, which are faith, hope, and love, to be threaded through the needle of affliction. Living in faith, hope, and love does not mean one is protected from pains…By accepting the word of the gospel (1:6) and determining to lead lives worthy of God (2:12), the Thessalonians became both people who exhibited faith, hope, and love and people who suffered. Their faith, hope, and love are expressed as they suffer (p. 20).
“[T]he Gospel is wrapped not just in joy, but also in affliction” (p. 16).
Today, we begin our discussion on human suffering by way of L. Ann Jervis’ book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (see “Up next” below for preview). Before proceeding let me say a few words about our topic.
This will not be an “ivory tower” interaction with the issues, questions, and challenges surrounding human suffering. I have and continue to walk with many people who suffer greatly and I do not take their pain lightly. In fact, it is because of the gravity of human suffering – its gravity for our Maker and therefore its gravity for us – that we take it up here. We might say something like this: to reason well theologically about human suffering contributes to theologically rich life in the midst of and for those who suffer. Continue reading
A dear friend of mine has been bravely enduring great physical suffering for some time now. It was her situation that prompted us to blog through this book on suffering; for the sake of the church, we need to think well theologically about suffering.
In At the Heart of the Gospel , L. Ann Jervis reminds us that suffering is often understood “as the absence of God; our response, whether intellectual or visceral, to suffering’s cruel bite is to feel that God has abandoned us” (1). If you’ve seen I am Legend, Will Smith’s character plays out this response. Jervis’s intention here, however, is not to engage the “why” questions that orbit human suffering, but learn from Paul how we might respond to suffering.
Paul’s energies are spent on moving the furniture of our minds and imaginations around so that we can see that our suffeirngs take place in a space embraced by God’s love and that they are destined to be swallowed by glory (2). Continue reading