Sunday, January 18, 2015

Adam, the Apostle, and Authority: Paul's Authoritative Ministry

1      As we’ve seen, Peter Enns (and others) acknowledge that Paul (and others—Jesus, Luke) believed in the historicity of Adam.  For Enns this is not determinative.  Paul is a man of his time and the understanding of his time.  Enns seems to think that on this issue Paul was simply another second-temple Judaism interpreter who is bounded by the same constraints as any other first-century person.

With respect to the Adam story, Paul was hardly the first Jewish interpreter to try to come to terms with it, and there was considerable diversity in how the story was read…When viewed in the context of the larger Jewish world of which Paul was a part, his interpretation is one among several, with nothing to commend it as being necessarily more faithful to the original.[1] 

Mark D. Thompson affirms Paul’s authority in an important essay: Mark D. Thompson “The Missionary Apostle and Modern Systematic Affirmation” in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission edited by Peter Bolt and Mark D. Thompson (IVP, 2000).  Although Thompson is not directly dealing with the historicity of Adam his comments have relevance. Thompson's remarks are especially important in answering those who would seek to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul--no matter what the issue.

Paul’s apostolic commission demands that we recognize that his letters derive ultimately from the risen Lord and are thus eschatologically positioned, not just historically located.  As Paul wrote or dictated his epistles, he was doing much more than simply sharing his experiences or even using the Old Testament to construct ‘an argument in support of what on the basis of his missionary experience he thought was right’.  He was fulfilling his commission as a spokesman for the risen Christ, conveying the address of God to men and women in the last days.  His epistles to individuals and congregations caught up in the great eschatological ingathering of the nations are part of the final act of divine self-revelation before the end.  This is why, for all the incidental and occasional remarks, his words, arguments, and overall theological perspective cannot be confined to the immediate situations he faced in the mid-first century Mediterranean region.  The continuing relevance and authority of Paul’s epistles are tied to his particular role in the purposes of God.[2]

It is Paul’s apostolic commission which sets his epistles apart from other letters in the first century.  As letters of an apostle, indeed the apostle to the nations, they are placed alongside the other apostolic documents and continue to exercise a unique and normative role in the church of Jesus Christ.  The Pauline epistles should not be viewed as simply as some of the earliest ‘unchallengeable instances’ of gospel-speaking.  In and through their undoubted particularity the risen Christ continues to address his people.[3] 

What is more, Paul himself did not see a qualitative difference between his personal teaching ministry and his letters (2 Thess. 2:15).  His words, whether spoken or written, carry the authority of the one who had commissioned him, an authority that later theological reflection does not share.  Paul’s letters have an eschatological context and not simply an historical one.  These are the words by which the divinely appointed apostle to the nations addresses men and women in the last days concerning the gospel and its implications.  Whatever other particularity may attach to them, they have a unique role in the eschatological ingathering of the nations.

Herein lies a second inadequacy in modern theologies.  They frequently fail to realize that Paul writes to our situation.  We too are people of the last days, and our common eschatological position with his first readers underlines the truth that these words of Paul are the word of God to us.  Of course, the twenty-first century is significantly different from the first.  The cultural and intellectual challenges to the gospel in our own time comes from quarters our forbears could hardly have imagined.  Conversely, the earliest Christians faced particular struggles that were later resolved in one way or another.  Nevertheless, in the later terms of God’s eternal purposes we, like they, stand between the ascension and the promised return of the Lord.  The context of our Christian thought and life is similarly the eschatological ingathering of the nations.  Among other things this means we must test our proclamation of the gospel, our reflection upon its implications, and our lives lived as gospel people against a responsible reading of the words of Scripture, not least among them the words of Christ’s apostle.[4] 

The apostle Paul did not see himself as providing merely human commentary on the events of Jesus’ life in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Nor was this the understanding of the other apostles who have contributed to the New Testament (2 Peter 3:14-16; 1 John 4:4-6).  Their unique commission invested their writing—as is did their preaching—with a particular authority tied to their distinctive role in the eternal purposes of God.  In fact, their writing even enabled the Old Testament to be seen in its proper light as preparation for and predictive of the Christ who has now been identified as Jesus of Nazareth.  The eschatological framework into which both Testaments are now properly set ensures that the genuine particularity of each component is respected without insisting that the relevance of each part of Scripture be confined to its original audience.  Furthermore, such a perspective will not allow the Scriptures to be treated as simply one early voice among many others.[5] 

[1] Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, p. 98.
[2] Mark D. Thompson, “The Missionary Apostle and Modern Systematic Affirmation” in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission edited by Peter Bolt and Mark D. Thompson (IVP, 2000), p. 369.
[3] Ibid., p. 370.
[4] Ibid., p. 373.
[5] Ibid., p. 376.