Paul and Narrative

This is some reflections on the second plenary session at Reclaiming Paul. It was entitled, “Paul and Narrative,” and it was given by Steve Fowl, Professor of Theology at Loyola College in Baltimore.

Steve began by looking at Philippians 3:4-14. In this passage, Paul reflects on his own life, almost a short autobiography. From this, we begin to understand Paul’s context, and thus, begin this movement from a propositional reading of Paul to a narrative style. Paul saw himself as a part of a much bigger story both pre- and post-conversion. Although, as any rudimentary reading of the New Testament would suggest, this metanarrative or over-arching story was dramatically different.

Dr. Fowl began by looking at the similarities between the metanarrative in Saul and Paul. One point of continuity was that the world is God’s creation and was created as shalom (Hebrew for peace, complete, fullness, or lacking nothing). And after the fall, God was committed to the restoration of his creation to this state of shalom. The first step of this restoration process was God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham (Dr. Fowl pointed out that this covenant was central to Paul’s theology of Christ). The Jews, including Saul, had ideas of how this covenant would be fulfilled. And yet, it came in the most unexpected fashion – through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both Paul and Jesus saw the kingdom of God (or heaven) as a continuation of the covenant with Abraham. Thus, as we can see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are ‘inhabitants’ of this restorative drama which God is bringing to fruition. And because of this, Dr. Fowl suggests that the key to life is to locate or inhabit oneself in God’s story of redemption and live accordingly. And this story has an ending (telos in Greek) to be working towards (the new creation). When our whole being falls into step with God’s creative, redemptive story, we are living the kingdom of heaven.

In the panel discussion following the lecture, Ross Wagner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, said that this message of Paul was about being on the way – forgetting what is behind and straining towards the telos. And what is Paul forgetting? All of his claims to prestige as found in the Philippians passage. Paul is challenging the narrative of prestige and reminds us that God is at work, even in our weakness.

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