Christ is the beginning and end of Christian experience. In the closing chapter of the Bible, from the lips of Jesus we hear: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13)
Below is a graphic representation of the number of times Jesus quotes the Old Testament in the New Testament. There are some interesting patterns here.
Firstly, note how the the Gospel of Matthew is the most quote heavy of the four all and that there’s considerable focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. This supports the common claim that his gospel is the most Torah focussed.
The Gospel of Mark also puts substantial weight on the Torah, and it’s the only gospel that references Ezekiel and Joshua. For such a brief and action focussed gospel its surprising how many quotes it references.
On the flip side, note how the Gospel of John, the last to be written, is the least intertextual of them all, only referencing Psalms and Isaiah.
Studying such interconnections between these books can help us to get a better feel for the concerns and intentions of the authors of each gospel.
A saying attributed to St. Columba: My Druid is Christ, the Son of God, Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In his Reflections on Druidic Christology, Rev. Alistair Bate comments that, “As an example of orthodox Christology finding its way into Druidic ceremonial I would like to consider the benediction at the end of the traditional (O.B.O.D.) ritual for Imbolc; ‘May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light. ….’ In this case, the writer (probably Chief Nuinn / Ross Nichols, Chief of the Order of Bard, Ovates and Druids and Celtic Orthodox Deacon) was obviously inspired by the opening verses of St John’s gospel.” He then goes on to point out, “A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be ‘May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us.'” I find I am very much in agreement with this conclusion.
Jew believe the word through which God spoke creation into existence was Hebrew. Muslims believe the word through which God spoke creation into existence was Arabic. Christians believe the word through which God spoke creation into existence was Jesus. I think that goes a long way to explaining why Christians have no sacred language.
Three things we have no need of:
As we already have them all in Christ
A study of the Biblical bases of prayer.
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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Christian people have long struggled to understand prayer and to participate in prayer in a meaningful way. Many have viewed prayer as if it were
“some poor earth denizens reaching up to some distant Father in some remote heaven, very uncertain about the answers they will get, taking many a shot in the dark, not even always sure that their prayers reach above the ceiling.”1
Much of the misunderstanding of prayer stems from legalistic, mystical and superstitious misconceptions fostered by religion. There is a dire need among Christians to establish a Christocentric theology of prayer that will serve as a foundation for practical participation therein.
The objective of this study is to briefly and concisely articulate a Biblical and Christocentric understanding of prayer that will then serve to provide the denial of the religious concepts of prayer that are so prevalent. In order to do so we must commence with a theology that is Christ-centered or Christocentric.
Christ: The Basis of Christian Prayer
Christian prayer, as distinguished from general and religious concepts of prayer, is necessarily predicated upon and connected to the life and work of Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ’s historical work and the continuing function of the risen Lord Jesus there is no such reality as Christian prayer.
Jesus Christ lived the perfect life as God intended for man here on earth by deriving all that He did from God the Father. “I do nothing of My own initiative” (John 5:30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10), Jesus said, “but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:10). Jesus lived the life of the Perfect Man2 for every moment in time for thirty-three years by constantly living in the prayer of faith. He chose to be receptive to the activity of God the Father in all that He did and said. Karl Barth explains,
“He became the first One properly to take and receive the divine gift. He takes up towards God the position of One who has nothing, who has to receive everything from God. He trusts in God that He will in fact receive it from Him. He entrusts everything to Him. This is how He lives…a life controlled and upheld by the grace of God. In all His life as a man Jesus was only and altogether a Suppliant. As the Son of God He is Himself altogether the divine gift and answer. God triumphed in this man. He did it because this man actually asked, and asking took and received; because this man sought, and seeking found; because this man knocked, and as He knocked, it was opened to Him. In this way God triumphed in the asking. This man prayed. He prayed to God for His unspeakable gift.”3
Living in faith and praying in faith Jesus expressed the character of God in all that He did. In so doing He was “obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8) on behalf of all mankind. His perfect life of faithful prayer was not for the purpose of providing a matchless example, but that He might become the spotless sacrifice, vicariously taking the death consequences of men’s sin in order that He might provide mankind with His limitless life.
By His redemptive payment He became “a merciful and faithful high priest…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He was the High Priest who offered the ultimate offering for all sin in the sinless sacrifice of Himself, and has now “taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb. 8:1). He is “the one mediator between God and man…who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:5,6). On the basis of His High Priestly mediation, Christians who receive Him and His work by faith are “reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10; II Cor. 5:18). Such a reconciled relationship between God and man allows the Christian to approach God directly and immediately in prayer. “We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19), “drawing near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). In the most intimate of personal relationships, we can address God “as sons, by which we cry out ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
The redemptive payment not only allowed for a reconciled personal relationship with God through Christ, but served as the basis for the restorational provision of God’s life restored to man, so that man could function as God intended. Jesus came not only “to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28), but “that we might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That life is His life, for He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The Christian life is the life of Jesus Christ; “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The living Lord Jesus is to be the basis of all that we are and all that we do as Christians. He has “granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3). “All things belong to us” (I Cor. 3:20,21) in Jesus Christ. “Every spiritual blessing in heavenly places” is ours “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3); the “summing up of all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10). All that Christians do in their Christian lives is to be the functional expression of the indwelling Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prompts and empowers our Christian behavior and Christian ministry; our worship, our intercession and our prayer.
Christ: The Pray-er of Christian Prayer
The Christian life is not what we do, but what He does in and through us. Everything in the Christian life is Jesus Christ in action as we derive all that we are and all that we do from God in Christ by His Spirit. Since Christian prayer is an essential part of Christian life, it must be concluded that the living Lord Jesus is functioning in our prayers. Norman Grubb indicates that “prayer is the product of our union with Christ. He in us is the Pray-er.”4 T.F. Torrance explains,
“Through Christ we have access in one Spirit to the Father because He has sent His own Holy Spirit to dwell in us, the same Spirit by whom He lived and prayed in our nature and through whom He offered Himself without spot to the Father, not for His own sake but for our sake. Thus the presence of His Spirit in us means that Christ’s prayer and worship of the Father are made to echo in us and issue out of our life to the Father as our own prayer and worship. While it is we who pray, we pray not in our own name but in the name of Christ, and yet it is not we but He who prays in us, so that the prayer which we pray in the flesh we pray in the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20).” 5
Somewhat more philosophically and with less Christocentric emphasis, C.S. Lewis writes,
“Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.”6
“He is the ground of our being. He is always both within us and over against us. Our reality is so much from His reality as He, moment by moment, projects into us. The deeper the level within ourselves from which our prayer, or any other act, wells up, the more it is His, but not at all the less ours. Rather, most ours when most His.”7
Only when Christians recognize their spiritual identity in Jesus Christ, that “Christ is their life” (Col. 3:4) and that as “Christ lives in them” (Gal. 2:20) He must of necessity “pray in them,” will they begin to develop an effective Christocentric theology of Christian prayer. Otherwise their orientation to prayer will always have a somewhat deistic separated concept which over-emphasizes the transcendent distance between God and man, failing to recognize the immanence of Christ’s indwelling and the Christian’s spiritual union with the Spirit of Christ.
When Jesus Christ serves as the Pray-er of Christian prayer, we allow Him to express adoration and praise to God the Father through us. We have “been filled with the fruit of righteousness through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11) “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Since Jesus is “the High Priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1), He continues to serve as the Confessor who prompts our confession in Christian prayer. As He is one with the Father He agrees and concurs with God to “say the same thing” (homologeo) about our sin and His sufficiency. “Through Him…our lips are confessing to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Likewise, the Spirit of Christ expresses thanksgiving to God in the prayers of our lives. Christians “thank God through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:8; 7:25), recognizing the “good grace” (eucharistia) of God in all that He does.
Christ in the Christian also serves as our Supplicant in prayer. Martha was quite convinced that if Jesus asked for us, God would undoubtedly hear and grant such requests. “I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22). Karl Barth was also convinced of such:
“In His Son God has become man, and therefore He has actually taken our side and become our Brother. And in His Son we are actually raised as His brethren to the side of God. Now if the Son asks Him, how can the Father possibly fail to hear Him? How, then, can the Father fail to hear and answer those whom His Son calls His own, who are together with His Son His children, who ask Him in company with His Son, with whom and for whom the Son asks? How can there be even the smallest interval between asking and hearing? As Jesus Christ asks, and we with Him, God has already made Himself the Guarantor that our requests will be heard.”8
Not only as our Supplicant in personal petition, but also in intercession for others Jesus serves as Intercessor in our Christian prayer. “The Spirit helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26,27).
The indwelling Lord Jesus Christ who is the basis of our Christian lives is the Pray-er of Christian prayer. Jesus is both the subject and the object of Christian prayer. Christian prayer is not an activity that we initiate by human effort, but is prompted by the One who lives in us as our Life in response to the personal invitations of God to avail ourselves of His grace.
With this Christocentric understanding of prayer in mind we can better understand what Jesus meant when He said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). As we remain, reside and settle-in to the reality of Christ being our life, then our supplications will be His supplications through us and certain to be enacted as His will. This also explains other comments in the Upper Room Discourse when Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do” (John 14:13,14; 15:16), for we are praying in His Person, as the expression of His Being in Christian prayer, and He is certain to act consistent with His character and desires. This is also the best interpretation of “praying in the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 6:18; Jude 20), for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and in Christian prayer we are praying by means of the Spirit of Christ operative within us. When James refers to praying “according to His will” (James 5:14), we can be assured that the expression of Jesus Christ is always the will of God, and when Jesus Christ functions as Pray-er in our Christian prayers He will prompt only that which is consistent with Who He is.
Christ: The Answer to Christian Prayer
Jesus is not only the subject and the object of Christian prayer, but the answer to such prayer as well. God answers all prayer with the activity of His Son Jesus Christ, who always serves as the expressive agency of God. The answers to our prayers will be but the manner in which God wants to apply the life of Jesus Christ in our particular circumstances.
The complete provision of God for man is in Jesus Christ. God has nothing more to give than what He has given and is giving in Jesus Christ. If God had more to give than Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ is insufficient. If God could express Himself other than by Jesus Christ, then Jesus “died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21). If God had any answer other than Jesus Christ, then Jesus is superfluous. God forbid that we should think that there is anything to be added to the work of Jesus Christ. This was the basis of the great Reformation plea for sola Christus; Christ only and Christ alone as our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). We are “complete in Christ” (Col. 2:10).
“Of all the things that are needed by man, and needed in such a way that he can receive them only from God,…there is one great gift,…there is one great answer. This one divine gift and answer is Jesus Christ.” 9
The gift of God is in Jesus Christ (John 4:10; Rom. 5:15; 6:23; Eph. 2:8;). The love of God is in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Rom. 5:5; II Tim. 1:13). All the blessings of God are in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3). The grace of God is realized through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). The will of God is Jesus Christ. The answer of God to all prayer is Jesus Christ.
When Christians pray for wisdom, as they are instructed to do (James 1:5), they are praying for what they already have in Jesus Christ (I Cor. 1:24,30). When Christians pray for discernment, they pray for what they already have by the Spirit of Christ (I Cor. 12:10; I John 4:1). When Christians pray for patience, gentleness, kindness or love, they are praying for what they already have in the character fruit of the Spirit of Christ (Gal. 5:22,23). When Christians pray personal petitions for perceived needs in their lives, the supply for such is already promised in Jesus Christ (Phil. 4:19).
“What does the Christian not have, what can he possibly lack, when he can have Him? What can disturb or hinder or confuse or devastate him in life as a Christian when he can live with Him, in communion with Him? What need is not already met in Him, what difficulty is not already removed in Him, what help is not already present in Him, what word of comfort that he needs is not already spoken in Him, what direction that he awaits is not already given in Him? In Him, the Christian has already attained, he is already at the goal, and he can look back and down upon all his distress as already alleviated. 10
(but the) Christian has not yet realized in what fullness the divine gift and answer is already present and near to hand, and with what joy he can avail himself of it, and in what thankfulness he can acknowledge the fact.”11
Using the familiar acrostic of A.C.T.S. representing prayer as
we can further explain how Christ is the answer of all Christian prayer.
In our prayers of adoration and praise we recognize and affirm, “I am not righteous, good and holy; only You are righteous, good, holy, perfect, pure, etc. We express our appreciation of God’s nature and character, and the activity that derives out of that character in Jesus Christ. Both verbally and behaviorally we are concerned about expressing the “worth-ship” of God’s Being, Person, character and Name in the worship of Christian prayer, as Christ functions through us.
Our prayers of confession recognize that “I can’t be or do what I am designed to be or do; only You can manifest Your character in me. I can’t glorify You God for I am inadequate, insufficient and sinful; only You can cause me to be what You designed me to be, allowing Jesus Christ to be my sufficiency (II Cor. 3:5) in order to manifest Your character unto Your glory.” Thus we “say the same thing” (homologeo) as God about our sinfulness (I John 1:9), and about our identity and sufficiency in Jesus Christ.
Prayers of thanksgiving are those in which we recognize that “I do not take credit for what has taken place; it is only what You have done by Your “good grace” (eucharistia) in Jesus Christ. I have not worked or performed meritoriously; only You have done and are doing what is of any value in my life, for Jesus said, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing.'” (John 15:5). Therefore we seek to “give thanks for all things” (Eph. 5:20) and “in everything” (I Thess. 5:18).
Christian prayers of supplication take the form of both personal petitions and intercession for others. In these prayers we are saying, “I seek, ask and request about these particular needs and wants, both for myself and for others; You have “supplied all of our needs…in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).” We “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16), recognizing that such mercy and grace are realized in Jesus Christ (John 1:17).
In all of the forms of prayer the Christian recognizes that Christ is the answer to all Christian prayer. We see our inadequacy and His sufficiency. We recognize and affirm that our only response can be the prayer of faith that responds to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
A doration “I am not…; only You are…”
C onfession “I cannot…; only You can…”
T hanksgiving “I do not…; only You do…”
S upplication “I seek…; You have supplied…”
It is not that there is any inherent power in the ACTS of prayer, or that prayer ACTS, but prayer causes us to continue to recognize and assent to God’s ACTS in Jesus Christ. Over and over again, moment-by-moment, “without ceasing” (I Thess 5:17) we remember and recognize the grace/faith relationship in which we function as Christians.
We are encouraged to persistence and perseverance in prayer because God wants Christians to ever remain in the context of that grace/faith position, wherein the dynamic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is applied to everything. Nothing is impossible in God’s responses to our prayers of faith (Matt. 17:20), when we allow the divine dynamic of God’s activity in Jesus Christ to be applied to such. On the other hand, “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6), for we disallow the activity of Jesus Christ both in us and in the situation.
Since so many of the Biblical statements and admonitions represent prayer as supplicatory asking, requesting or petitioning (Matt. 7:7; 18:19; Mk. 11;24; Lk. 11:9,10; John 14:13,14; 15:7,16; 16:24,26; Rom. 1:10; Phil. 4:6; I Tim. 2:1; James 1:6; 4:2; I John 3:22; 5:14,15), Karl Barth and others have regarded such as central to the understanding of Christian prayer.
“Prayer is petition, ..asking, a seeking and a knocking directed towards God; a wishing, a desiring and a requesting presented to God.” 12
“The most intimate thing in Christian prayer is the fact that the Christian both may ask and actually does ask. The Christian is able to ask and to take because God gives him Himself and all that He possesses. He freely gives us all things (Rom. 8:32). The true worship of God is that man is ready to take and actually does take where God Himself gives, that he seeks and knocks in order that he may really receive. This receiving is Christian prayer in all its centrality as petition. It does not derive from the self-will of the Christian himself, ..it derives from what the Christian receives from God.” 13
“If man simply lays his need before Him and therefore comes to Him as a suppliant, he thereby renounces all arbitrariness towards God, confessing that there can be no question either or representing himself as worthy or of presenting anything worthy to God. When he comes to God simply with his request, he comes with empty hands. But empty hands are necessary when human hands are to be spread out before God and filled by Him. It is these empty hands that God in His goodness wills of us when He bids us pray to Him.
The Christian understands God as the unique source of all good and himself as absolutely needy in relation to Him. He has nothing either to represent or to present to God except himself as the one who has to receive all things from Him.” 14
The supplication of our personal petitions and intercessions for others constantly keeps us in the faith frame of mind, wherein we repeatedly recognize that it is not what we do, but what God does, that comprises the Christian life.
Christian prayer provides the connectivity of obedience and faith in the entirety of the Christian life. That can only be understood, though, when we have a correct understanding of both obedience and faith. Jacques Ellul explains,
“Our intellect, always defective in the things of the Spirit, will trick us into thinking that if there is obedience then there must be an obligation, a compulsion, a duty to pray. Then we fall back into the confusion between law and commandment. Obedience in Christ is the opposite to a duty or an obligation. There is no compulsion. There is the hearing of a word which I receive and which commands me, before which it is mine to obey without pressure or penalty. There is not a duty to pray. Duty sterilizes prayer; it kills the possibility of pray, for duty is impersonal and sterilizing.” 15
“We are summoned, invited by God, with the possibility always open of refusing the invitation, yet knowing that this commandment offers something which previously we had thought impossible.” 16
Obedience in the Christian life is not to be understood in the context of a legal and juridical framework. We are not obeying an externalized Law which demands that we are to love or to pray. Such a conception casts prayer back into a self-effort to please God, for which we are most inadequate. Christ is the end of the forensic law (Rom. 10:4), for the law and character of God is placed within our hearts (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). The primary Greek word for “obedience” in the new covenant literature of the New Testament is hupakouo, meaning “to listen under.” We obey when we listen to God’s direction in our lives, expressed by the Spirit of Christ, and respond in faith, the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5: 16:26). Thus “keeping His commandments, we ask and receive from Him” (I John 3:22).
Likewise, faith must be redefined from its popular misperception of “mental assent to the veracity of propositional truth.” The “prayer offered in faith” (James 5:15) is the prayer in which we respond to God in “our receptivity of His activity” having obediently “listened under” His personal and individualized commandment to us. When we pray “believing” (Matt. 21:22), and “ask in faith” (James 1:6), we are receptive to God’s activity in Jesus Christ and “believe that we have received” (Mk. 11:24) for we understand that God truly wants to give us everything in the Christian life. Barth notes that when
“the Christian prays, he asks, with a strong assurance that he will be heard even as he asks. He does not need a great faith to do this. He needs only real faith. Without faith the Christian cannot pray, just as without faith he cannot be a Christian at all.” 17
Prayer is the breath of the Christian life. “The prayer of the Christian to God is the basic act of the obedience engendered in faith.”18 Christians engage in prayer because it is the only way to live the Christian life constantly aware of our receptivity of His activity in faith and obedience. Ellul cautions,
“If, for the Christian, prayer becomes impossible, dead, troublesome, uncertain, … the sole basic problem is that we do not make the decision to obey, since we do not take the commandment seriously, and if that is the case it is because we are not living the faith which has its foundation in Jesus Christ.” 19
“The absence of prayer and the difficulty of praying are the evidence for the absence of faith.” 20
“Since it is a real encounter with God, the lack of prayer forces us to consider the lack of reality in our faith.” 21
Prayer is the continual process whereby we live in faith and obedience. It need not even be expressed in the verbalization of words, for it becomes a lifestyle of prayer.
“While we do not know how to pray or what to pray as we ought, the ascended High Priest sends us His own Spirit who helps us in our weakness by making the prayers and intercessions of Christ inaudibly to echo in our stammering in such a way that our prayers and intercessions become a participation in His before the throne of the Father in heaven.” 22
Some have objected that such a view of Christian prayer can lead to passivism. If we are living in the awareness of our grace/faith relationship with God, and affirming the Lordship of Jesus Christ by saying, “Yes Lord; not my will, but Thine be done” (Matt. 26:39), does this cause people to cease to pray? On the contrary, it should cause them to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17), for we need constantly to recognize that it is not what we do, but what God does, that constitutes and enacts the abundance of life (John 10:10). It should be noted, though, that an appeal to a perennial attitude of receptivity in a lifestyle of prayer should not be used as an excuse to refrain and abstain from particular occasions of prayerful intercourse with God. In both our specific times of prayer and in the general receptivity of a constant lifestyle of prayer, we continue to recognize that the Person and activity of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to all Christian prayer.
Inadequate Forms of Prayer
The foregoing explanation of Christocentric prayer necessarily forms a denial of the general or religious forms and ideas of prayer that are so prevalent today. A brief listing must suffice to explain that:
Christian prayer is NOT an activity in which we engage in order to please and appease God. God is pleased and appeased by the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and what He has accomplished in His “finished work” (John 19:30).
Christian prayer is NOT a meritorious performance or “work” that God expects of us. Christ’s performance and work on our behalf is the sole basis of our being credited, imputed and imparted with righteousness.
Christian prayer is NOT something that we do for God or offer to God. God needs nothing done for Him. He “lacks nothing.”
“Prayer consists less in man offering something to God and doing something for Him than in turning to Him, seeking, asking and accepting from Him something he needs. It is our longing for Him and for what He alone can give.” 23
Christian prayer is NOT a duty or an obligation based upon a legal concept of obedience, wherein our self-effort proves our sincerity or “earns points” before God.
Christian prayer is NOT an exercise designed to make us better, stronger, more knowledgeable, or more “spiritual.” Jesus Christ is the basis of our strength, knowledge and spiritual maturity.
Christian prayer is NOT for personal interest and pleasure (James 4:3), or for the self-aggrandizement that makes us “look good” before God and others. God knows our hearts!
Christian prayer is NOT for the purpose of developing subjective “good feelings” and emotions which prove cathartic or therapeutic in psychological adjustment.
Christian prayer is NOT a process of psychological gymnastics whereby we work ourselves into a subjective state which we might think is “faith” which will insure the granting of our prayers.
Christian prayer is NOT self-instruction whereby we gain a knowledge of ourselves and God’s will. Such is anthropocentric prayer, rather than Christocentric prayer.
Christian prayer is NOT a means of eliciting or soliciting more “blessings” or “benefits” from God. “God has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:3).
Christian prayer is NOT a means of presenting God with information. We must not deny the omniscience of God, for “your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:32).
Christian prayer is NOT asking God to “engineer” a situation to the particular plan that we desire to see enacted.
Christian prayer is NOT an evasion of the problems and anxieties of contemporary existence here on earth. We want to see how Christ is working in the midst of such.
Christian prayer is NOT a superstitious, mystical or magical trance, wherein we seek to enter into a spiritual fusion of oneness and unity with God.
Christian prayer is NOT a “power tool” that always works when we push the button of the inexorable “law of prayer” or employ the “power of prayer.”
Christian prayer is NOT a “discipline” or devotional exercise that will in and of itself lead us into godliness.
Christian prayer is NOT a method, program or system, the techniques and procedures of which will guarantee results.
Christian prayer is NOT an instrument that we use, such as a “heavenly telephone” with a “hot line” to God.
Christian prayer is NOT man “laying hold of God” and demanding of Him or commanding Him to act.
Christian prayer is NOT a persistent and “shameless” (Lk. 11:8) haranguing of God until we get we we want.
Christian prayer is NOT an expression of undue care or anxiety for oneself or others. We are to “cast all our cares and concerns upon Christ.”
Christian prayer is NOT external actions that are pretentious and ostentatious “in order to be seen by men” (Matt. 6:5,6).
Christian prayer is NOT the verbosity of “meaningless repetition” (Matt. 6:7) in the saying of “long prayers” (Matt. 23:14; Mk. 12:40).
Christian prayer is NOT the mechanical ritual of repeating rote formulas, somewhat like spinning the Tibetan “prayer wheel.” C.S. Lewis noted that “simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well.” 24
Christian prayer is NOT an activity that can be executed “on command,” as a form of social convention in litanies, rosaries, invocations and the like.
Christian prayer is NOT event-centered in a prescribed place, at a prescribed time, utilizing a prescribed procedure.
Christian prayer is NOT a communicational language or discourse that can be analyzed by the content of the words. It does not depend on our ability to speak the language (Romans 8:26).
Christian prayer is NOT pedagogical, polemic or proclamatory. It is not prayer if it is addressed to anyone other than God.
Christian prayer is NOT passivism, acquiesence or inertia that concludes that “God is going to do what He’s going to do anyway; Thy will be done!”
Christian prayer is NOT resignation, avoidance or indifference which says, “Go your way; I will pray for you” (James 2:15,16).
Christian prayer is NOT limited to a punctiliar “point in time” or an existential “affair of the moment.” It can be the constancy of a lifestyle wherein we “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17).
These denials should serve to refocus our understanding of Christian prayer as Christocentric prayer. The dynamic reality of the life of Jesus Christ makes Christian prayer radically different from all forms of religious prayer. Christ is the basis for the divine/human intimacy of Christian prayer. He is the Pray-er of Christian prayer as the Spirit of Christ activates and empowers all that we do as Christians. He is the answer to all Christian prayer, for all that God does He does through Jesus Christ.
The words of Jacques Ellul serve as a fitting conclusion to such a study on Christocentric prayer.
“Theology can tell us what prayer is, can enlighten us on the meaning of the revelation concerning prayer and on the place which prayer occupies in the revelation. It can describe for us accurately ‘what man does when he prays.’ But all this comes to nothing when man does not pray.”25
Joining with the disciples, our petition might be, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
1 Grubb, Norman, God Unlimited. Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade. 1972. pg. 158.
2 cf. “The Perfect Man” in manuscript Man… As God Intended. by James A. Fowler. Fallbrook: CIY Publishing. 1994.
3 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics. Vol. III, Part 3. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. 1960. pg. 275.
4 Grubb, Norman, op. cit., pg. 162.
5 Torrance, T.F., Theology in Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1975. pg. 209.
6 Lewis, C.S., “The Efficacy of Prayer” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays by C.S. Lewis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Pub. 1960. pg. 10.
7 Lewis, C.S., Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 1963. pg. 68.
8 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics. Vol. III, part 4. Edinburgh: T&t Clark. 1961. pg. 108.
9 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics. Vol. III, Part 3. pg. 271.
10 Barth, Karl, Ibid., pg. 273.
11 Barth, Karl, Ibid., pg. 274.
12 Barth, Karl, Ibid., pg. 268.
13 Barth, Karl, Ibid., pg. 270.
14 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics. Vol. III, Part 4. pg. 97.
15 Ellul, Jacques, Prayer and Modern Man. New York: Seabury Press. 1970. pg. 111.
16 Ellul, Jacques, Ibid., pg. 112.
17 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part 3. pg. 283.
18 Barth, Karl, Ibid., pg. 283.
19 Ellul, Jacques, op. cit., pg. 117.
20 Ellul, Jacques, Ibid., pg. 118.
21 Ellul, Jacques, Ibid., pg. 119.
22 Torrance, T. F., op. cit., pg. 213.
23 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part 4. pg. 87.
24 Lewis, C.S., World’s Last Night. pg. 6.
25 Ellul, Jacques, op. cit. pg. 52.
One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment – N.T. Wright
My aim in this paper is to examine a theme and context which is often marginalized but which, arguably, stands as close as any other to the heart of Paul’s theology. I refer to the question of meat offered to idols, discussed in 1 Corinthians 8-10. My argument is, I hope, fairly simple. It is that Paul, in this passage, offers the Corinthian church, surrounded as it was by paganism, a Christological center for its belief and action, which relates directly and in a challenging manner to the task of confronting paganism with the gospel. Though the question of meat offered to idols has often been thought to have little contemporary relevance, I hope to show that the passage is not only exegetically fascinating and theologically thought provoking, but possesses more potential relevance to the church and the world of the late twentieth century than might at first sight be imagined.
In mounting this argument I shall draw on two other studies. The initial focal point of the passage is 1 Corinthians 8: 6, which is one of Paul’s most remarkable Christological formulations. I have expounded the technicalities of the verse elsewhere, and here presuppose some of that detailed argumentation.1 Similarly, I have argued in a forthcoming work that the task of the contemporary church involves a serious addressing of the multi-faceted paganism that is rapidly replacing post-enlightenment Deism or atheism as the major feature of modern Western culture, and I likewise presuppose some of that discussion.2
II. THE CORINTHIAN SITUATION
Studies of Corinth have abounded recently, and for our purposes amount to the obvious and major conclusion: Corinth was a thoroughly pagan city, typical of many in the ancient world.3 This did not, of course, mean merely that most of the inhabitants went from time to time to worship at pagan shrines and temples. It meant that the world view of the entire town was dominated by pagan assumptions, that the visual appearance of the town was dominated by pagan symbolism, that the normal mind set of the average Corinthian was dominated by pagan ideas, pagan hopes, and pagan motivations, and that the normal life style was dominated by pagan practices. Although the modem Western world is, I believe, moving towards a rediscovery of paganism at quite an alarming rate, it still requires something of a mental effort to reconstruct the picture of a city such as Corinth.4
There was, of course, a sizeable Jewish population in the town, as was true pretty well all around the Mediterranean. How influential this community was we have no means of knowing. Nor is it clear to what extent the Jewish community in Corinth would have clung to some kind of Pharisaic orthodoxy in their belief and behavior, or to what extent they would have been open to new, perhaps Hellenistic, ideas. It is clear, though, that their twin beliefs, monotheism and election, cut clean across all the normal assumptions of paganism. It is in this clash between Judaism and paganism that we find the true background to Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians, not least in chapters 8-10.
Jewish monotheism in this period was not a speculative doctrine about the inner being of the one true god.5 It was the polemical belief that there was only one god, the creator of the whole world, and that all other gods were simply idols, human inventions with possible demonic associations. This belief is to be clearly distinguished from other ancient varieties of monotheism, notably Stoic pantheism. There is all the difference in the world between saying that there is one god because everything that exists is god, and saying that there is one god who made everything that exists. And this Jewish creational monotheism was linked closely with the belief that this one creator god had called Israel to be his special people. Israel’s central theology thus equipped her to face the ravages of pagan oppression in the period between the Babylonian exile and the first century, and indeed the events of this period served to strengthen her grip on the belief in her god as the one true god, who would eventually vindicate his name and his people against all other gods and their adherents.
The choices facing Jews in the pagan world were therefore quite stark. One option was to withdraw from contact with the world, to retreat into the ghetto. The problem with this was the strong Jewish belief in the goodness of creation: treating large areas of the world as off limits went against the grain (for instance) of the Psalms with their celebration of the created order. Retreat into dualism, though it often happened, could never represent a wholeheartedly Jewish solution. The other option was of course to assimilate. Jews from that day to this have faced this possibility, and we may presume that then as now some would lose their identity completely, while others would find various compromise solutions. But at the heart of the whole issue we will always find the theological and ethical questions which serve as shorthand for these large socio-cultural issues. Questions of monotheism versus polytheism, questions of the identity of the people of the one God, and questions of behavior with respect to food, drink and sex: these are not merely matters of an abstract theology or ethics, but relate to the entire world view, the entire way of being-in-the-world, of people in the ancient, and I believe the modern world.
III. THE HEART OF PAUL’S RESPONSE: CHRISTOLOGY
With this, we turn to the substantive issue that faced Paul. Should Christians in Corinth eat meat that had been offered to idols? We should be clear how far-reaching the question actually was. Though there is some debate about details, it seems likely that almost all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other; and idol-temples served not only as butcher’s shops but also as restaurants.6 To avoid idol meat altogether might, then, mean de facto vegetarianism (an option forced on some in any case by economic circumstances). For a Jew, facing this question would pose quite sharply the options we just noted. One major Jewish position regarded pagan worship as idolatry, and insisted that genuine monotheists must not flirt with it. Another major Jewish tradition said that idols were non existent and irrelevant, and that the one creator god claimed as his own all that idols have usurped. This second way may well have been helped by the kind of speculative Jewish gnosis according to which one’s relationship to the one true god elevated one above the problems of the pagan world.7 The first way could lead to dualism, the second to assimilation. Paul carves out a way which avoids both.
He refuses to discuss the question in terms merely of a practical agenda. He goes (much more readily than some of his commentators) to the substantive issue that lies behind it all, that is, monotheism and idolatry. He does not work with the categories of a post-Reformation agenda, asking whether the “law” is a good thing or a bad thing, debating earnestly about whether “ethics” and “morality” somehow compromise the gospel of free grace. And, despite some recent writers who have suggested that he is simply shooting from the hip, offering haphazard and inconsistent solutions to problems as they come up, I suggest that his solution is actually clear, theologically grounded, and strikingly relevant.8 He offers the church a redefinition of monotheism and election, both achieved by means of his central Christology; and he shows how this redefinition of fundamental Jewish theology enables the church not merely to survive and maintain its identity vis-a-vis paganism but to take on paganism and, in a sense, beat it at its own game. He offers, in short, an incarnational theology for a church in a pagan environment.
This helps to explain the beginning of the argument (8:1-3). Paul responds to the claim to gnosis by insisting on the primacy of Jewish style allegiance to the one true god, as expressed in the central Jewish prayer, the Shema (“‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God.”);
Concerning idol meat, we know that “we all have gnosis.” Gnosis puffs you up, but love builds you up. Anyone who claims to “know” something does not yet have the necessary “knowledge”; but anyone who “loves God” is known by God. (vv. 1-3)
Paul is about to quote the Shema explicitly, in v. 4, but he clearly has it in mind already. The question at stake in the discussion of idol meat is, who are the people of God? The Jewish answer is: who says the Shema? Paul begins by affirming this answer, before introducing a striking new dimension:
Concerning meat offered to idols, then, we know that “there is no idol in the world,” and that “there is no god but one” (v. 4).
Monotheism is what matters. But this credal statement by itself hardly addresses the situation on the street in Corinth, so he continues:
Well, though, there may be many so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth- just as there are many “gods” and many “lords”-. .. (v. 5).
The pagan pantheon is not irrelevant. It must be confronted. One cannot retreat from paganism, just as one must not assimilate. One must instead worship the true God, the one whom paganism parodies. This, I shall suggest, is in fact the heart of the whole argument. And for Paul this true God is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
In what is surely one of the most striking Christological formulations ever written in any century, Paul takes an argument which is about monotheism, and takes the Jewish formula which is the most basic expression of Jewish monotheism, and places Jesus at the heart of it. Instead of
Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One
But for us:
the father, from whom are all things and we to him
and one Lord
Jesus the Messiah,
through whom are all things and through whom are we. (8:6)
This is all the more striking when we put the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 6:4 beside the Greek of Paul’s formula:
akoue Israel, kyrios ho theos hemon eis estiv
What Paul seems to have done is as follows. He has expanded the formula, in a way quite unprecedented in any other texts known to us, so as to include a gloss on theos and another on Kurios:9
eis theos ho pater
ex ou ta pavta kai eis autov
kai eis kurios Iesous Christos
di ou ta pavta kai hemeis di autou
Paul, in other words, has glossed “God” with “the Father,” and “Lord” with “Jesus Christ,” adding in each case an explanatory phrase: “God” is the Father, “from whom are all things and we to him,” and the “Lord” is Jesus the Messiah, “through whom are all things and we through him.” There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world. The Shema was already, at this stage of Judaism, in widespread use as the Jewish daily prayer.10 Paul has redefined it Christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of Christological monotheism.
IV. CHRISTOLOGY, THEREFORE LOVE
It would be easy, though mistaken, to get so excited about Paul’s astonishing Christological innovation that one would miss the point of this Christology within the over-all argument. We have already seen that he is reasserting Jewish style monotheism over against the pagan polytheism of Corinth. But what practical difference does this redefinition make, when it comes to the question of idol meat?
The question, as we saw, was first and foremost an issue of the definition of the community of the people of god. Living as we do in a period of atomized individualism, it is necessary for us to think our way back into the first century, where individual behavior was seen for what more recent sociologists of knowledge have been insisting it really is: one function of communal life.11 Paul addresses the issue at this level, applying his reformulated monotheism to the question. What does it mean to be the true people of this one god?
It means, clearly, that love and concern for other members of the community is to be placed ahead of all attempts at personal self-realization. In 8:7-13 he spells this out in terms precisely of the Christ who has become part of the definition of the one god, the Christ who is identical with the Jesus who died on the cross:
Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall (vv. 7-13).
The gnosis of which some members of the community are proud, namely, their knowledge of the one true God, must, if it really is the true God they are worshipping, bring them immediately to the realization that this true God, in the person of the Messiah, died to rescue both them and the rest from precisely those evils of which paganism is clearly symptomatic. Though the word agape itself does not occur in this passage, that is what it is all about: the love of the true God for his people, and the consequent love that this people must show, not only for him in private religion, but also for him in the persons of the rest of the family. The corporate sense of Christos is clearly visible under V.12: sinning against a member of the family is sinning against the Messiah, in whom this family is summed up.12 And the whole effect is to put into practice the Shema itself: there is one God, one Lord, and his people are defined as those who love him, and who love their neighbors as themselves. The allowance for the weak is not a mere ad hoc concession. It arises from the heart of Christian theology itself. Hence I Corinthians 13 can be seen as a climax of the whole letter, a full dress exposition of what is needed when facing the pagan world.
V. CHRISTOLOGY, THEREFORE ABANDONMENT OF RIGHTS
It is at this point that 1 Corinthians 9 makes its proper impact. The sudden change of topic, from a discussion of idol meat to a discussion of Paul’s apostleship and its outworking, has inevitably led some scholars to question the integrity of the passage. This has been further compounded by the fact that the advice in chapter 10 on the subject of idol meat does not seem the same as that in chapter 8. But if we follow the line we have begun, we will discover that beneath these apparent discrepancies there is a coherence born of the theology which Paul is in fact expounding, and which usually goes unnoticed.
The reason why Paul suddenly launches into a discussion of his apostleship may have something to do with a defence against those who are marginalizing him and looking to some other leader(s) instead (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-23). But if this is so it is strictly a subplot to the main theme of the passage. Paul’s basic intention is to offer himself as the example of how to approach such issues, where one has a right to do something but deliberately makes no use of that right for the sake of the gospel. He sums this up in 11.1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Here again the redefined monotheism of 1 Corinthians 8:6 works its way out into actual practice.
If it were not for 11:1, this conclusion might be resisted. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians 9 does Paul say explicitly that in abandoning his rights he is following the example of the Messiah.13 But here a parallel passage comes to our aid. In Philippians 2:1-11, we find first (vv. 1-4) a clear exhortation to do exactly what Paul says in our present passage that he is doing himself, namely, to give up one’s rights for one another’s sake; and that passage is at once buttressed by Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul describes Jesus the Messiah as the one who did precisely that. Moreover, Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the other two passages in Paul (the third one is Colossians 1:15-20) in which Paul takes explicit Jewish monotheistic texts and themes and puts Jesus at the middle of them.14 The incarnational Christology of Philippians 2:5-11 thus undergirds explicitly the appeal that Christians should give up their own rights for one anothers’ sake. What we have in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, I suggest, is the same theme spelt out in one particular way. To the question, should we exercise our God-given liberty and, scorning idols as nonexistent irrelevancies, go ahead and eat meat that has been offered to them? Paul makes three replies:
1) First get your monotheism straight; it is true that there is only one God, but this God is now made known in and through Jesus the Messiah, and in loving this God you may find that there are other more pressing duties than showing your contempt for idols by eating their food without caring.
2) Then recognize that among these more urgent need needs is to care for those who are struggling in the faith, and that this may mean happily forgoing your demonstration of monotheism in terms of eating idol meat in favor of a demonstration of this redefined monotheism in terms of abstaining from idol meat.
3) then recognize that in this abstention, too, you are demonstrating that you are the people of this one true God, since in Jesus this God gave up his rights to come and rescue you too.
The cross, therefore, stands clearly underneath this argument. For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus does not simply have to do with the attaining of individual salvation. It means the remaking of the community of the people of god in a particular fashion, namely, as the community that is given such security in the love of the true god that it is able to forgo all human privileges and rights to which it might otherwise lay claim. What is more, Paul saw clearly that the cross, in achieving this, offers the most fundamental challenge to paganism at every level. This is, I believe, the real subtext of our present passage. Instead of asking “how far can we go?” in apparent assimilation to paganism, Paul shows a different agenda altogether. The monotheism which has been redefined so as to have Jesus, and hence the cross, at its heart, is the monotheism which not only provides a way for its adherents to live within a pagan world with integrity, but which also issues to that pagan world a decisive and devastating challenge (compare 1 Corinthians 2:6-8). Instead of merely pursuing a path of private spirituality within the world, the church is to pursue a path of mission to the world. And the victory which is to be won by that mission is the victory of the cross.
Paganism, at its heart, powerfully reinforced the boundaries of nation, family and tribe, of geography and gender, that crisscrossed the ancient world. It is a striking fact that, apart from within Judaism, we have little or no evidence in the ancient world of what we today call “charity”; there was no sense of obligation to the poor, except to the poor among one’s own kin or among those who might be of political usefulness. Though the word “charity” has of course become cold and hard, we might pause to imagine a world from which the very notion had been removed. It would be colder and harder yet. And that is the world that Paul was challenging with the gospel of Jesus. The church is summoned, as the very stuff of its life, not as an added extra when private spirituality has been sorted out, to incarnate that love, that charity, just as the God it professes to worship had done. And in that process the church must watch out for the signs that underneath a professed adherence to monotheism there is not a self-centeredness that must itself be challenged by the cross: “I punish my body and enslave it;” writes Paul, “so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” 1 Corinthians 9:27. A spirituality that does not contain at least the possibility of such an attitude stands under the warning that, though professing Christianity, it may in fact have embraced some form of paganism.15 Insisting on one’s rights, even insisting on one’s rights as a Christian, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped. The Christology of 1 Corinthians 8:6 thus undergirds the exposition of paradoxical apostleship in 1 Corinthians 9, and prepares the way for the return to the main topic in 1 Corinthians 10.
VI. CHRISTOLOGY AND THE TRUE FEEDING
Rather than simply sketch out a position which helps Christians to get round the problem of idol meat, Paul now goes boldly on to the attack. He puts at the center of the picture the true Christian eating and drinking, of which pagan feasting is a mere parody. This is, in fact, his regular critique of paganism. Avoiding pagan life styles by avoiding the raw material in which they deal is dualism; assimilating to those life styles is to abandon allegiance to the one God. The genuine alternative to both ways is to embrace the gospel as the reality of which paganism is the distorted copy. And this means seeing pagan feasting in the light of the eucharist.
I am not aware that 1 Corinthians 10 is normally read in this light, but I suggest that it ought to be. The whole chapter is about religious meals, how they function, and what they imply. Paul begins with the Jewish meals, the “spiritual” feeding in the wilderness (vv.1-13), and moves on to the Christian eucharist (vv. 14-17), in order then to draw out his final, nuanced, response to the problem at hand (vv. 18 – 11:1). In doing this he is, I suggest, following a pattern of argument similar to that which we observed in the foundational passage, 1 Corinthians 8:1-6.
First, he claims the Jewish ground. Just as in chapter 8 he began with the Shema, so in chapter 10 he begins with Passover. Monotheism in chapter 8 is thus balanced by the wilderness feedings in chapter 10 (“our ancestors… all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv. 1-3).) Faced with paganism, Paul always begins his thought as a loyal Jew. In both cases, the overtones of Passover are not far away. The Shema recalls the god who brought Israel out of Egypt. The desert feedings result from the same great act of liberation. Passover and Exodus likewise come together in the Christian antitype, the eucharist.
Second, he shows that this approach by itself did not save the Jews from assimilation to pagan practices. In the earlier passage, this comes by implication: the Jewish Hellenistic gnosis of which some are so proud will lead them, if they are not careful, into assimilation. In the present passage, in explicit detail, he shows that the earlier feeding of the Jews did not prevent idolatry (v.7), immorality (v.8), treating the Lord as a pagan deity (V.9),16 and grumbling that their god had not behaved properly towards them (v.10). So, while claiming the Jewish heritage not only for himself but for his erstwhile pagan converts (“our ancestors,” v.1), he sees that one must go further. Judaism by itself is not enough.
Third, he goes on to assert the Christian truth which is, in his view, the fulfillment of the Jewish truth, and which thus claims the high ground that paganism had been trying to occupy. In 1 Corinthians 8, this move consists in his redefinition of the Jewish Shema so that it becomes the answer to pagan polytheism. The religion of “gods many and lords many” is replaced by the one God, the one Lord. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, this Christology opens up to reveal, in a nutshell, the meaning of the Christian eucharist, containing as it does echoes of older Jewish liturgies,17 and offering the decisive alternative to all pagan ritual meals:
The cup of blessing which we bless
is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break
is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body
for we all partake of the one bread.18
The redefinition of monotheism by means of Jesus has given birth to a redefinition of the one people of the true god; and this one people is revealed precisely in their sharing of the meal by which they constitute themselves as such. If there is one God, and one Lord, then those who celebrate and worship this one God and Lord become one people, transcending differences of race, gender, class and geography. This celebration resembles pagan feasts simply in the way that the sun is like a lightbulb: the former is the reality of which the latter is a copy invented by humans.
To modern Protestant or rationalist eyes, Paul’s description of this celebration could look as though it was sailing close to the wind of assimilation, that is, assimilation to paganism. Just as critics of Paul’s incarnational Christology have accused him of selling his Jewish birthright for a mess of pagan or gnostic polytheism,19 so critics of his eucharistic theology are bound to accuse him of making the eucharist just like a form of paganism. But at this point Protestantism, rationalism and Judaism, if they make this accusation, are standing on dangerously dualistic ground. From Paul’s point of view it is paganism that apes the true sacramental worship, not the other way round. The function of this eucharistic passage within the present argument is to say: in the central Christian mystery you become one family through sharing in the blood and body of Christ, so how can you then share in the cup, or the table, of antigods, of nongods, or of demons? Verse 16 is explicitly applied in verse 21:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
The argument of chapter 10 as a whole, then, pivots on the eucharistic passages just as chapter 8 pivoted on the Christological reformulation. Those who take the redefined monotheism seriously are bound to follow it through by their love for one another. This Christology, and this love, find their ritual expression in the eucharist; and those who take this redefined community meal seriously are bound to follow it through into a life of holiness, in which attendance at idol temples is abjured.
A note at this point may be in order about Paul’s exact view of idols. He has already agreed with the “strong” in Corinth that idols have no existence as such (8:4), and he is clear in the present passage that he is not retracting this earlier point (10:19). But this does not rule out the possibility that malign nonhuman entities not only may exist, but may gain power through pagan ritual and then exercise that power over humans, even over Christians. Paul (or one of his earliest interpreters) dearly believed that Christians take part in an ongoing battle to implement the victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20; Colossians 2:15). To worship in an idol’s temple would therefore be to flirt with, or give the appearance of flirting with, the very powers that continue to enslave and distort human existence. These powers ought, instead, to be challenged by the gospel of liberation and healing. Such powers are not to be thought of as rivals to the one God, one Lord. That is the message both of 1 Corinthians 8.4-6 and Colossians 1:15-20. To forget this is to court dualism indeed. But this does not mean that Christians must not take the powers very seriously. Instead of asking as the Corinthians’ question implicitly asks, to what extent one is allowed to fraternize with them, one ought to be asking how their remaining power over humans can be broken.
Paul’s answer to this question comes in the radical application of the cross to all human and Christian life. Victory over the powers comes, not from human wisdom, from success in human terms, but from the forswearing of all kinds of human power and authority, privilege and status. When Christians in Corinth and elsewhere give up their rights, they are not merely retreating from human possibility out of generous concern for one another. They are striking a blow against the paganism which offers humans a spurious self-worth, an inflated self-identity.20 They are offering a direct challenge to paganism, based not on their own new-found religious self-assurance but on the revelation of the one god, one lord which they have discovered in the cross. They are doing what (I suggest) all Christian confrontation of paganism must do. Instead of either assimilating or retreating into a dualistic ghetto, the church must seek to build shrines for the true god on ground at present occupied by paganism. Only so can the dehumanizing and distorting power of paganism be broken, and replaced with the healing and restoring love of the creator and redeemer god.
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians’ problem can therefore be set out as follows:
1) What is at stake in the issue of idol meat is the question of monotheism and election, over against paganisim.
2) Embracing Jewish-style monotheism is the true challenge to paganism, and this monotheism finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
3) Creational monotheism means that all meat is in principle edible by Christians.
4) The Christological redefinition of monotheism means, however, that for the sake of those with weak consciences one may be under obligation to forgo this right.
5) The redefined monotheism is expressed in the redefined celebratory meal, which is the true alternative to pagan celebrations.
6) This meal must issue in holiness and wholeness.
7) Therefore, though eating meat bought in the market is in principle all right, eating in an idol’s temple is not.
Paul has addressed a complex situation with a clear theology. Paganism is to be challenged with a redefined doctrine, and practice, of monotheism and election.
VII. CONCLUSION: CHRISTOLOGY IN PRACTICE
It should have become clear by now that the reconstruction of Pauline Christology, and the detailed exegesis by which that task is to be accomplished, is very far from being a matter merely of antiquarian interest. Nor is it simply a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of some abstract dogmatic scheme. It has to do with the very practical matter of living out the gospel within a pagan society. And that, I suggest, is increasingly the concern of the church in the modern Western world. Those of us who cut our exegetical teeth on Galatians and Romans, dealing as they do with questions at issue between Christianity and Judaism, may now find ourselves invited to get to grips with those parts of the Pauline correspondence where the battle with paganism is more specifically joined. We must hammer out the whole Pauline world view, not just a few abstract theological issues, in terms of Paul’s central redefinitions of Jewish monotheism and election by means of Christ and the Spirit. And we must remember as we do so that the point of monotheism and election in the first place was that it was the creator’s answer to paganism. All of this results, I think, in four closely related agendas.
First, the church must recapture the sense of celebration within the eucharist. At the risk of being thought (by dualists) to be sailing close to the wind of paganism, we must celebrate in bread and wine the true God of whom any corn-king or Bacchus is simply a parody. We must participate in the Messiah by feeding at his table and drinking his cup, aware that in doing so we are drawing upon his own risen life to sustain us in our own struggle against the powers of paganism. (Is it significant that the countries in which rationalistic Protestantism has made most advance have been those where overt paganism has given way, until recently, to Deism?) In the eucharist we not only remember a past event. We worship, and participate in the life of, the living god and lord revealed in the gospel.
Second, we must work out this celebration in terms of a practical holiness. Holiness has all too often been thought of in dualistic terms, as abstention from things which are so tainted with misuse as to be thought evil in and of themselves. In reaction to this, the cult of modern Western self-fulfillment has pursued a path of personal wholeness, in which self-denial plays little or no part. What we need to do, and can do with the Christology and sacramental theology of 1 Corinthians behind us, is to embrace, articulate and exemplify a life path which embodies both. No idolatry; no immorality; and no dualism, either (10:7,8, 23-7). “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
Third, we must comprehend, and work out in terms of Christian life and church structures, the bracing agenda of 1 Corinthians 9. What might it mean for Christians zealously to seek not to stand on their rights? The question is so enormous, and in our culture so novel, that it is difficult to answer. But one result would certainly follow. Such action would constitute a powerful challenge to the paganism which is gaining ground in our culture, as it prevailed at Corinth. It would be far more effective than “marches for Jesus” or fulminating sermons, both of which can easily become a cloak for insecurity and pride, which feed on one another within a church that has not fully grasped its own central Christology.
Finally, we must recapture the sense of excitement that ought properly to accompany serious Christological work. Those of us who grew up leaming how to distinguish homoousios from homoiousios in Patristic debate may have come to feel that such tasks, however important both in their time and as an abstract exercise in thinking clearly and Christianly, are not strictly relevant to contemporary attempts to bring the gospel to the world. But we cannot retreat from the challenge that faces us in our own day, a challenge to grasp and articulate a Christologically redefined monotheism over against the paganism, the polytheism, and also the resurgent dualism within our own culture and church life. Paul discovered that the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus contained “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:24). We in our generation would do well to rediscover it too.
1. See Wright 1991, ch. 6. I am also presupposing the work of commentators such as Conzelmann 1975 (1969), Fee 1987, Barrett 1971 and Bruce 1971, and studies such as Willis 1985. [Editor’s note: See bibliography at the end of the article for titles of these works.] return
2. Wright 1992. return
3. See Theissen 1982; Meeks 1983; Murphy-O’Connor 1983; and e.g. the introduction to Fee’s commentary 1987,1-4. return
4. On paganism see particularly Lane Fox 1986. return
5. In discussing the beliefs of pagans, Jews and Christians in the first century, it seems to me highly misleading to use the modern idiom of capitalizing the word “god,” as though the word were univocal. return
6. See Erhardt 1964, 279; Lane Fox 1986, 70. But cf. too Tomson 1990,189. return
7. So Horsley 1978,1980; see my discussion and critique in Wright 1991, ch. 6. return
8. E.g. Sanders 1983,1991. return
9. See Wright 1986, 208; Hurtado 1988,97 f return
10. Cf. mBer. 1 ff, etc. return
11. See e.g. Berger and Luckman 1966; Berger 1969; Wilson 1982; and the discussion in Thiselton 1992, ch. 16 section 2. return
12. See Wright l991, chs. 2 and 3. Compare l Cor. 1:13; 12:12. return
13. Verse 21 is a possible exception, where he speaks of being “under the law of Christ,” but this by itself is too cryptic to be used as clear evidence. return
14. See Wright 1991, chs. 4 and 5. return
15. I think not least of the work of Matthew Fox, eg. 1983. return
16. Ignoring for the moment the nest of problems, textual and otherwise, in this verse. return
17. On the “cup of blessing” as a Jewish formulation see Strack-Billerbeck 3. 419, 4. 627-36; see too Fee 467 f return
18. I reserve judgment on whether this passage is or contains a pre-Pauline eucharistic formulation. What matters here is its function within the total argument of the chapter. return
19. See particularly Maccoby 1986,1991. return
20. The phrase “puffed up,” from the root phusioo is a feature of 1 Corinthians: cf 4:6,18,19; 5;2; 8:1; 13:4. return
21. These conclusions are reinforced by the sequence of thought in chs. 5-7. There, as here, Paul sets his face against pagan practices, and also against the kind of asceticism that rejectss the proper use of creation, and reaffirms the Jewish view (in this case, the goodness of marriage) within a Christian framework.
I have been giving a lot of consideration lately to the political divisions within Christianity and it has got me wondering if the Christological heresies of the past haven’t disappeared so much as taken on new guises.
Conservatives show some distinct Docetic and Apollinarian tendencies at times. They can be much stronger on the divinity of Jesus than they are on the humanity of Jesus. I have witnessed many lose touch with the particularity of Jesus, with his Jewishness, with his socio-political context, with his real life texture. He can be reduced to a theological object, rather than a subject; as someone we can worship, but not practically model our lives after.
Progressives, on the other hand, show some distinct Ebionitic and Arian tendencies at times. They can be much stronger on the humanity of Jesus than they are on the divinity of Jesus. I have witnessed many lose touch with the universality of Jesus, with ability to challenge us cross culturally, with the uniqueness of his identity and achievements. He can be reduced to a one teacher among many; as someone special, sure, but not that special.
I am prompted, therefore, to consider the need for a renewed focus on Christology, on the possibility that Christianity’s divisions can only be reconciled with a renewed focus on Christ. That we need to more adequately explain and explicitly affirm both his humanity and his divinity, both his cultural rootedness and his transcending challenge.
Three ways Jesus helps us:
He guides us,
He empowers us,
And he intercedes for us.
Three things Jesus achieved:
He revealed the way of life,
He released us from tyranny,
And he restored our standing before God.