Bodily Resurrection and Identity Formation in Paul

What does future bodily resurrection have to do with present life in the body? Do Paul’s pastoral goals shed light on his attitude toward resurrection? Does hope for resurrection bear on the formation of group identity in the Pauline communities? These are the questions that energized my doctoral research, which is now available electronically from the University of Gloucestershire Research Repository. Here’s the abstract:

This study investigates how Paul’s attitude towards future bodily resurrection functions in relation to his expectations for believers’ use of their bodies in the present, both as individuals and as a community. I argue that embodiment is essential to Paul’s anthropology, and that Paul understands future bodily resurrection primarily in social terms. Drawing on insights from the social sciences and rhetorical studies, I also argue that future bodily resurrection functions in the letters under consideration as a future possible social identity that contributes to Paul’s persuasive strategies with regard to his expectations for believers’ behavior. In general, it will become clear that Paul expects his recipients to use their bodies in ways that stand in continuity with the resurrection-oriented future social identity. After an introductory chapter orienting the reader to questions, method, and relevant scholarly discussion, chapter 2 sheds light on the social dynamics of Paul’s attitude toward future bodily resurrection in general and the function of the resurrection-oriented future identity in particular through a close reading of 1 Cor 15:12–58; 6:12–20; and 2 Cor 4:7–5:10. Chapter 3 offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between resurrection and practice in Rom 6:1–23 and 8:9–25 to argue that Paul’s understanding of that relationship provides a framework for understanding table fellowship as bodily practice in Rom 14 and 15. Chapter 4 takes up Phil 3:12–4:1 and argues that Paul’s language of resurrection fosters a common ingroup identity that serves the letter’s double goal of mitigating faction and strengthening the recipients to persevere in the face of persecution. A final chapter synthesizes the overall findings of the research.

If that strikes your fancy, you may want to read the whole thing.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

New Post: Resurrection Makes Us Holy (@OfficialSeedbed)

During my recent trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to film another episode for Seedbed‘s growing Seven Minute Seminary series. This one explores the relationship between future bodily resurrection, Christian identity, and holiness. These three themes were at the heart of my PhD research, and I’m grateful to Seedbed for making some of that available more broadly. If you receive this via an email subscription, click here to watch the video. And be sure to check out my other contributions to Seven Minute Seminary over on the video page.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect on Facebook or follow @mporeilly.

The Dual Focus of the Resurrection

What is the significance of the resurrection? According to J. Christiaan Beker:
For Paul, the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and its “bodily” character are crucial. The historicity of the resurrection signifies its eschatological-temporal significance, that is, it is a proleptic event that inaugurates the new creation. The “bodily” character of the resurrection manifests the resurrection as an event that not only occurs in time but also signals the “bodily” ontological transformation of the created order in the kingdom of God. Therefore, the resurrection of Christ is both crucial and yet provisional. It is crucial because it marks the beginning of the new creation; it is provisional because it looks forward to the consummation of that beginning.
From Paul the Apostle: The triumph of God in Life and Thought (Fortress, 1980), 159.

Schweitzer’s Significance

It is impossible to study the history of New Testament scholarship for long without encountering the work of Albert Schweitzer and being confronted with his importance for the discipline, especially with regard to Pauline studies. And sometimes you come across such remarkable praise of a person’s work that it is striking and makes the point more clearly than you’ve heard it made before. Reading Robert Jewett’s Paul’s Anthropological Terms last night, I came across just such praise and thought I would share it here. Jewett says,
Schweitzer’s extraordinary thesis throws light on almost every aspect of Paul’s theology. It accepts and makes sense out of the Pauline understanding of the body in a way which no earlier interpretation could match. That it has been so little accepted and emulated is due in part to the utter strangeness of the conceptions which he sets forth; modern man does not appear to possess the philosophical assumptions to grasp such ideas of somatic unity. And this is what stamps Schweitzer’s interpretation as a contribution of the highest order, because it grasped and interpreted thoughts so completely alien to those held by the exegete himself. But it is not the mere strangeness of the ideas which convinces one that Schweitzer has made a vitally important discovery; rather it is the fact that he can follow the clear sense of Paul’s argument in crucial passages…” (Leiden: Brill, 1971, p. 215, italics mine).
Jewett does take exception to some aspects of Schweitzer’s interpretation of Paul, but he goes on to say, “Under no circumstances however are the insights of his exegesis of the σῶμα (body) concept to be cast aside simply because of these difficulties. His work on this problem remains a beacon of light of historical exegesis” (p. 216).
So, Schweitzer’s treatment of the text was supremely brilliant. However, the presuppositional narrow mindedness of the guild caused his work to be under-appreciated. High praise, indeed, along with some thinly veiled criticism.

Did Paul Write Letters or Speeches?

The study of Paul’s letters in light of classical rhetoric has gained a significant foothold in the larger field of New Testament studies. Nevertheless, the analysis of the Pauline letters on the basis of Greco-Roman rhetoric remains somewhat controversial and continues to be criticized in a variety of ways. One of those criticisms declares that classical rhetoric is a method for writing and evaluating ancient speeches, and, since Paul wrote letters, the suggestion that the canons of classical rhetoric should be used to analyze his writings is simply a category mistake, a barking up the wrong tree. Paul’s letters should be studied as letters, it is said, not as speeches. This, of course, raises the question: What exactly did Paul write? Letters or speeches?
Several points should be made here. First, Paul’s letters are remarkably dissimilar from typical letters in the ancient world. They don’t look much like the other letters of his day. For example, Paul’s letters tend to be a good bit longer than other epistles from the Greco-Roman world. This might suggest that while the documents that bear Paul’s name were certainly addressed and delivered as letters, there may be something else going on as well.
Second, given this dissimilarity between Paul’s writings and other letters of the period, there are limits to what can be done when his letters are analyzed on the basis of ancient epistolary convention. The beginnings and endings of Paul’s writings can be compared to other ancient epistles, but little is to be gained beyond that.
Third, we know that Paul’s writings were delivered to the various churches to be read aloud when the congregation assembled. Thus, when the original hearers first encountered the Pauline documents, they encountered them as speeches. When added to the evidence considered above, it is entirely plausible to suggest that Paul’s writings are certainly much more than letters. They are really manuscripts of speeches made in the presence of the addressees, speeches that Paul might have made himself were he present with the assembled congregation.
If Paul’s letters are indeed speech manuscripts, then the study of Paul’s letters in light of Greco-Roman oratorical standards is warranted. The letters are persuasive documents that were read like speeches; we should study them as such. Despite the ongoing criticism from some quarters of Pauline studies, rhetorical criticism is worth the time and attention of students of the apostle. Given the many rhetorical studies of Paul available, the question remains: where do we go from here? 

Embracing Eschatology

J. R. Daniel Kirk posted recently on the importance of embracing the biblical vision of the future; his exhortation: Don’t give up on eschatology. He writes:

With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.

But, of course, it wasn’t.

Neither was 1994 or 1982.

When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.

But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.

Kirk is addressing this post to many who have simply given up on eschatology because of being overwhelmed and exasperated by some of the unusual and unbiblical eschatological constructs out there. The post struck me because it resonates with my own experience. There was a time in my own theological journey when I, like many, simply avoided eschatology. There was too much; it was too confusing; too fearful.

I soon realized, though, that a pastor who avoids eschatology won’t have much to say to the Church about our certain hope, and I finally gave myself to the study of the biblical vision of the future. What I discovered was deeply satisfying and mysteriously wonderful. I soon learned that God’s plan for his world was not one of doom, gloom, and destruction but hope, joy, and redemption. Eschatology was not a fearful thing; it was the glorious reality of Christ’s promise to come and restore all that has been tainted or damaged by sin. I fell in love with biblical eschatology, and it has even become a significant portion of my own research in New Testament. Kirk’s post is much needed and right on target.

Read the rest here.
Image: Tom Curtis/

A Novel Idea?

From the opening chapter of Tom Oden’s book, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology:
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.”
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to “think creatively” so as to make “some new contribution” to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages – “to make no new contribution to theology” – Laus Deo (22).
It would seem, according to Oden, that the thing most needed by present-day theological studies is a revival of interest in the ancient and historic teaching of the Christian faith. Oden is certainly right that the task of passing on what has been handed down goes against the grain of contemporary theological studies where every graduate student is charged with making an “original contribution to knowledge” in his or her specialized discipline. My question is this: is there any wisdom for the practice of ministry in this statement from Oden? Where is the balance between finding new and effective ways to reach new people and ensuring the preservation of what we have received?