Justification and Judgment Day: Part 4, How Much of Paul Have We Never Seen?

In Part 2 we spent some time trying to explain how Jesus could be a prophet of both mercy and judgment. That's a difficult task, and most people just bail and pick the Jesus they prefer, conveniently ignoring the parts of the gospels that unsettle their settled opinions about who Jesus was and what he was up to. 

When we turn to Paul we're faced with similar challenges. On the surface, Paul's letters are full of tensions and seeming contradictions. Many scholars chalk this up to the fact that Paul was firing off situational pastoral letters in a complex missionary context. Paul wasn't writing treatises on systematic theology. He was solving problems. Plus, we should also consider that Paul's thought was developing over time, and that we are getting snapshots of that development as we read his letters. And, finally, if you're so inclined to consider this, there's also the debate about which of Paul's letters are authentically his. That's not to say the letters not authored by Paul aren't canonical, they are, just that those letters might not agree 100% with Paul's authentic letters. All this is simply to say, the textual "data" of the entire Pauline corpus is complex, messy, and hard to completely reconcile.

My use of the metaphor "data" here, as it was in Part 2, is intentional. We can approach the biblical text like a scientist approaches observations. Scientists collect data/observations and look for connections among them. Scientists make hypotheses and these hypotheses aggregate to create a theory. The goal of a theory is to account for and explain all the relevant data in a way that is comprehensive, consistent, and parsimonious. By parsimony I mean that the theory is simple and compact. And by comprehensive we mean that the theory explains all of, or most of, the data and observations on hand. Of course, there are always loose ends, anomalous data points that can't be explained or shoehorned into the theory. Regardless, the goal of a scientific theory is to have a simple explanation that explains a whole lot of data with as little contradiction as possible.

We approach Paul in a similar way. For example, Calvinism is a theory we use to explain the "data" of Paul. Talk to a Calvinist and they will marshal biblical texts and organize them in a pattern that supports their theory. Those who debate with Calvinists, by contrast, will point to the anomalous texts that seem to contradict the Calvinist theory. And this isn't to pick on the Calvinists, everyone who reads the Bible has a theory, a set of ideas that help you organize and arrange the biblical text into a comprehensive, self-consistent whole. 

One of these ideas, a theory of reading Paul, is that in Paul justification and judgment are synonymous. Phrased differently, as discussed in the last post, the theory is that justification functions proleptically: justification is vindication at the Judgment which is then backdated and operative today. Because I will be vindicated then I stand vindicated now

That's the theory. But does it explain all the data? Are there anomalous texts that suggest a different hypothesis? 

Here's a passage to consider, from 1 Corinthians 4.1-5:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
Is justification acting proleptically in this passage? Is that the simplest, most obvious way of making sense of the text? 

It doesn't seem to be. Judgment seems to be an open issue, something still pending. The stewards of God must be "found faithful" at the judgment. How humans judge this faithfulness is of little import, for it will be "the Lord who judges." Crucially, neither is your own clean conscience, how you judge yourself, determinative. As Paul says, "I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted." It's pretty clear that Paul thinks his "acquittal" on Judgment Day is still an open issue, still pending. "Acquittal" isn't a done deal, operating proleptically. Paul makes that point clearly: "Do no pronounce judgment before the time." And when the time does come "each one will receive his commendation from God." Presumably, to go back to the top of the text, those receiving commendation from God are those stewards who have been "found faithful."

Now, as mentioned above, no single anomalous text is a death knell for any theory. Every reading of Paul has its hard to explain texts. But as we turn to Paul in this series, today I simply wanted to draw your attention to your own theory of reading Paul. 

Specifically, I doubt, before today, anyone has given 1 Corinthians 4.1-5 a really hard look. It's just not a text that's been on anyone's radar screen. And the reason for that is because whenever we've read 1 Corinthians 4.1-5 we never actually read it. Instead, we had our theoretical glasses on and read right past and through this text. This text never interrupted us because we knew what it said already

And if that's true of this text, just how many texts are there in Paul exactly like this one? 

How much of Paul have we never seen?

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