Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Paul and Cultural Engagement in Philippians

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise,
dwell on these things.

Philippians 4.8 is a familiar verse to many.  There is a short enumeration of virtues which should occupy the Christian mind.  What may not be so familiar is some of the background to the language being used.  Paul is picking up the language and ideas of the Greco-Roman culture and using it in a distinctively Christian manner. Some standard commentaries bring out the relevant background information.

Gordon Fee (Paul's Letter to the Philippians NICNT) writes:
What is striking about this sentence is its uniqueness in the Pauline corpus.  Take away the "finally, brothers and sisters," and this sentence would fit more readily in Epictetus's Discourses or Seneca's Moral Essays than it would into any of the Pauline letters--except this one.  p. 415
Fee is quick to deny that Paul is a Stoic or is slavishly enmeshed in pagan ethics.
That Paul is not embracing Stoicism or pagan moralism as such is made clear not only by his own theology everywhere but in particular by what he does with the Stoic concept of "contentment" in vv. 11-13 that follow.  There is uses their language and intends the same general perspective toward circumstances as the Stoics.  But he breaks the back of the Stoic concept by transforming their "self-sufficiency" into "Christ-sufficiency."  So here, using language the Philippians would have known from their youth, he singles out values held in common with the best of Hellenism.  pp. 414-415
Gerald Hawthorne (Philippians WBC) writes:
The apostle does this listing in much the same way that the moral philosophers of his day taught by reciting catalogues of virtues and vices.  This fact, added to the fact the many of the words in Paul's list are not elsewhere used by him, or at least not by him in the same sense as here, seems to confirm the suggestion made above that Paul probably at this point has taken over these qualities, these "virtues," from popular moral philosophy familiar to his contemporaries in order to show that there was much in heathen views that might and ought to be valued and retained by Christians.  p. 187
Markus Bockmuehl (The Epistle to the Philippians Black's NT Commentary) writes:
Christ and pagan culture are at odds in many respects, but here Paul shows that Christ nevertheless addresses pagan culture about the world in which it lives and in language it can understand.  In these words, Paul uses familiar concepts of ethics, aesthetics, and (v. 9) instruction by example with which his Gentile Christian readers had grown up, which they brought with them into their Christian catechesis, and which they continue to encounter daily among pagan compatriots.
The implications of this approach are profound--for evangelism, for Christian teaching, and above all perhaps for an apologetic that is prepared to countenance Christian truth as public truth, relevant to a Christian ethic that can at least in part be formulated in openly accessible terms.  p. 250
Paul's Christ-centered gospel reigns supreme even in his appropriation of the language of the surrounding culture.  Everything is seen through the lens of Christ.  Yet it still is noteworthy that Paul seems to very self-consciously use this language that would have had very clear cultural resonance with the Philippian believers.  It might be like if Paul were to write to a church in America and call forth for the believers to dwell on those things that are in line with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  We, as Americans, would recognize those "virtues" as having a certain background--a certain cultural and historical resonance.  These are virtues that could be interpreted and lived within a Christ-centered context.  It would also say something about Paul's approach to our culture.  Namely, that he wasn't demonstrating a wholesale rejection of our culture.  Similarly, this is how it functions for the Roman colony of Philippi.  Gordon Fee attempts to draw some application from Philippians 4.8-9 with these words:
If our interpretation is correct, three things happen simultaneously in these concluding and summarizing exhortations: (a) that they embrace what is good wherever they find it, including the culture with which they are most intimately familiar; (b) but that they do so in a discriminating way, (c) the key to which is the gospel Paul had long ago share with them and lived before them--about a crucified Messiah, whose death on a cross served both to redeem them and to reveal the character of God into which they are continually being transformed.  It is hard to imagine a more relevant word in our post-modern, media-saturated world, where "truth" is relative and morality is up for grabs.
The most common response to such a culture is not discrimination but rejection.  The text suggests a better way, that one approach the market-place, the arts, the media, the university, looking for what is "true" and "uplifting" and "admirable"; but that one do so with a discriminating eye and heart, for which the Crucified One serves as the template.  Indeed, if one does not "consider carefully," and then discriminate on the basis of the gospel, what is rejected very often are the mere trappings, the more visible expressions, of the "world," while its anti-gospel values (relativism, materialism, hedonism, nationalism, individualism, to name but a few) are absorbed into the believer through cultural osmosis. This text reminds us that the head counts for something, after all; but it must be a sanctified head, ready to "practice" the gospel it knows through what has "been learned and received."  p. 421
Consider that are essentially three broad ways for Christians to interact with the culture around them:
1.  Immersion: This is where the church becomes thoroughly entrenched in the culture.  The danger here is accommodation to non-Chistian thought forms to such a degree that the church loses its distinctiveness.
2.  Isolation: This is where the church completely rejects the culture around it.  With this rejection there is a corresponding lose of penetration into and influence upon the culture.
3.  Interaction: There is a path of Jesus-centered engagement with the cultural thought forms.  This is what Fee refers to as "discrimination" in which "the Crucified One serves as the template."  
Paul recognized himself and the church at Philippi as being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3.20) but he also saw himself a citizen of Rome.  In Acts 16, which narrates Paul's first incursion into Philippi, we see Paul defining himself as a Roman (Acts 16.37) and appealing to the legal protections of the Roman civil code in an effort to further the gospel.  The New Testament, and Paul in particular, give us the rudiments from which to build a platform for critical, cross-centered engagement with culture.

Note: Just to head off any confusion--nothing above should be construed to be endorsing a "two-kingdoms" perspective that some in the Reformed community are promoting.  For a brief statement that I find compelling see John Frame's In Defense of Christian Activism.