Author Topic: More NT Wright - "A freshly crafted symbolic universe"  (Read 554 times)

Mark Brown

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More NT Wright - "A freshly crafted symbolic universe"
« on: August 25, 2014, 06:26:32 PM »
“Paul’s revising of the Jewish symbol of Torah in terms of food and table-fellowship, then, was clear, if necessarily complex.  First, all those who belong to the Messiah, and are defined by Messiah-faithfulness and baptism, belong at the same table: this, as we shall see, is a constitutive part of his most central new positive symbol.  Second, Messiah-followers are free to eat whatever they wish, with that freedom curtailed only (but strongly) when someone else’s ‘weak’ conscience is endangered.  Third, Messiah-followers are free to eat ordinary meals with anyone they like, but not with someone who professes to be one of the family but whose behavior indicates otherwise.  Fourth (an extra but important point), Messiah-followers are not free to go into pagan temples and eat there.  To do so would be to stage a contest with the Lord himself.  All this is not just ‘ethics’.  It is a matter of a freshly crafted symbolic universe.  (p361, NT Wright, Paul & the FOG)”

That is as tight and powerful a paragraph on at least Pauline if not biblical fellowship as I have ever read.  Just picking it apart a bit or restating it.

1.   This stuff is not simply ethics, but metaphysics.  It is not rules but a description or mirror of reality.
2.   The first move is one of trust and confession.  The community receives to the same table all who are baptized and faithful, with faithfulness defined as those confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’. (916ff)
3.   Seeing as the community is being drawn in a new way, things that used to be forbidden (Bacon Cheeseburgers, meals with Centurions) are now indifferent, unless you hurt your brother.  The new community only expresses its freedom at the pace of the weakest conscience.
4.   If someone is obviously and notoriously living opposite their confession, the fellowship community has a responsibility to make reality clear.
5.   There are things that should be obvious fellowship breakers.

There are so many applications.  Take for example cake bakers and gay weddings.  Normally I would think that would fall under Christian freedom.  You want to sell a cake, make a good one.  But there are large numbers of Christians who don’t see it that way.  So, depending on your community you might not be free.  You might have conversations to have within the community before you bake that cake.  But then you move to Wright’s third point.  If the people asking for you to bake that cake claim to be messiah-followers, you can’t bake that cake.

I want to explore that for a second with what might be something more shocking.  Let’s turn to works of mercy.  The standard phrase is that we can join in charity even with deep disagreements.  And let’s bracket out all the old doctrinal disputes about the sacraments for a second.  If you are following Paul per NT Wright, I think the conventional wisdom gets things wrong.  You want to do good works with say the Red Cross, have at it.  We are indifferent.  The Red Cross does not claim to be doing the work of the Lord.  But, you want to do those same acts with a body you think is making an ongoing hash of their confession, you can’t.  And this is not just ethics.  Why are we having trouble with para-church orgs?  Because those involved aren’t actually from the same table.  Sort out the divisions or stop the work together.  I just received the latest Thrivant magazine.  In one sense the generic do-gooder vibe that surrounds it – “making wise use of money” with a very generic definition of wise – makes it less problematic.  If some Thrivant chapter wants to fund Planned Parenthood, I might mourn what once was, and as long as it claims to be what it was and funds PP, I have a problem.  But if it is just a warm-fuzzy org for anybody (Fortune 500!) then I have freedom to take or leave over-priced insurance with a side of good-feelings.
His fourth point is simply that when you get to these things that break fellowship they are obvious – the equivalent of walking into the temple of Bacchus daily while saying Jesus is Lord.  What underlying reality do you believe?  The Sermon on the Mount, or the mystic crewe of Comus.

“Paul’s revising…was clear, if necessarily complex.”

Now the only question is really, do we have the authority to remix?  And contrary to the old arguments I bracketed out earlier which tended to be different theological ways of interpreting the same action: transubstantiation, consub, memorial meal, mumble-mum it’s just there, the new arguments are can we do this now and do we have to do that?  What represents the underlying reality better – what the church has followed more or less for 2000 years, or our new symbolic universe?

Randy Bosch

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Re: More NT Wright - "A freshly crafted symbolic universe"
« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2014, 06:41:48 PM »
Thanks for sharing that paragraph and your analysis, both of which for me were clear...if necessarily complex.  I will continue to ponder.
Simply put (too simply), as an old mentor of mine noted, "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it isn't a puppy dog.".

Matt Staneck

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Re: More NT Wright - "A freshly crafted symbolic universe"
« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2014, 07:56:19 PM »
Great citation, Mark!

I haven't started the second volume yet (partly to digest the first, mostly because I have other things to tend to), but having finished volume one, I think you have given a fair summary and have even begun to fairly apply his words/thought.

I wonder, is it the church's responsibility to place family standards on those who are not part of the family (to, I think, go along with your baking a cake example)? Or (and/or?), is it the church's responsibility to closely guard the family of faith because we now have new life in the Messiah, while simultaneously engaging with the world as if they were family, because the Messiah has died (and rose) for them too? There is a fine distinction in here to be sure, and this point is why Wright would see a distinction between ordinary meals and the Eucharist. He would not advocate excluding actual family members, but inviting non-family to the Table. But I think the family aspect helps us parse some of these discussions we are having in our own contexts.

At any rate, thanks for helping me marinate on volume one!

M. Staneck
Matt Staneck, Pastor
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Queens, NY