Sunday, November 16, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life: Paul

Initial Difficulties

Any attempt to place Paul's vision of the good life next to Aristotle must deal with several complicating factors. The first is the dramatically different vocabulary of the two authors: like England and America in Shaw's quip, Paul and Aristotle are two writers divided by a common language. The single most important word in Aristotle's ethical vocabulary, υδαιμονία, does not occur in the New Testament, and Paul uses other critical terms like λόγος or ρετ either infrequently or with dissimilar meanings. Any comparison of the two must focus on the concepts they communicate, and not on the words they use to express them.

The second difficulty is that Paul was not a philosopher, nor even a theologian in anything like the modern sense. If the typical form of an Aristotelian argument was a syllogism, Paul's writings were closer to a diatribe (Stowers 1992). Paul saw himself as an apostle, an envoy with an assigned mission, and even his most systematic writings are occasional in both form and substance. To put it in Aristotelian terms, the τέλος of Paul's letters was not clear exposition of a system of categories, but rather the edification and expansion of the body of Christ. Comparisons between the Aristotelian and Pauline worldviews will thus remain somewhat inexact, and must depend to a great deal on inference and sympathetic extrapolation. Nevertheless, the two writers are not incommensurable, and a discussion of their similarities and differences is possible.

A third difficulty is that, apart from the letters which are undoubtedly Pauline (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon), there is little agreement on the authorship of the remainder of the Pauline corpus. My current view is that the evidence, on balance, favors Pauline authorship even for the so-called deutero-Pauline letters, but addressing that question is somewhat beyond our current scope. For the purposes of this paper "Paul" means simply "the individual or individuals who stand behind the letters traditionally thought to be authored by Paul."

Common Ground

Not surprisingly, Paul would have found a great deal to affirm in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics . For Paul as for Aristotle, the good life is bound up tightly with community and fellowship (see Rom. 12:9-21; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; and many other places). Furthermore, Paul would agree with Aristotle's critiques of naked hedonism (NE III.11; X.2): while Paul has nothing against physical pleasures in the right context (1 Cor. 7:1-9), he would deny that they define the good life. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die", Paul quotes, with obvious disapproval (1 Cor. 15:32; see Is. 22:13). Virtue is the result of practice and self-discipline (1 Cor. 9:24-27; NE II.1). Both shared an appreciation for σωφροσύνη (Titus 2:12; NE III.10-12) and disapproved of homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27; NE 1148b30). Nature is often the standard in Aristotle, as "nothing that is contrary to nature is noble" (Politics 1325b10), and Paul periodically employs φύσις in a similar fashion. Homosexuality is wrong because it abandons "τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας" (Rom. 1:27), and "ἠ φύσις αὐτὴ" teaches us that long hair is dishonorable for men (1 Cor. 11:14). While Paul only sometimes shares Aristotle's teleological vocabulary, it's clear that his ethical standards are oriented towards normative goals. "Having been enslaved to God, your fruit is sanctification, and your goal [τέλος] is eternal life" (Rom. 6:22). "Through the Spirit, and by faith, we await [ἀπεκδεχόμεθα] the hope of righteousness" (Gal. 5:5).

Eschatological Happiness

Nevertheless, the "infrastructure" supporting Paul's vision of the good life differs dramatically from Aristotle's. How Aristotle arrives at his eudaimonism is quite typical for an Aristotelian treatise: he surveys the common views, discusses the difficulties to which they give rise, and then provides an overarching, a-historical account which preserves as much common sense as possible and yet solves the noted difficulties. In contrast, Paul's account is profoundly historical in character, and takes its cue directly from the narrative structure of the life of Christ. As a Jew, Paul's theological vision presumes the narrative of the Hebrew Bible: creation, fall, covenant, exodus, law, kingdom, exile, and restoration. But Paul rereads each of these narrative events through the lens of Jesus Christ. All things were made through Christ (Col. 1:16). The human race is now represented by Christ in redemption, as it was once represented by Adam in failure (Rom. 5:12-21). Christ's sacrifice initiates a "καινὴ διαθήκη" (1 Cor. 11:25) which supersedes the covenant at Sinai (Jer. 31:33ff). Jesus is the "τέλος νόμου" (Rom. 10:4), the anointed son of David (Rom. 1:3), and Israel's hope in exile (Rom. 10:16-21). In Jesus, the messianic age, the age of the Spirit, has been inaugurated (Rom. 8:1ff).

Crucially, Paul applies this narrative framework to the life of each Christian. Christians are, of course, "in Christ" , and as such, they participate in his life, death and resurrection. We have been baptized into Christ's death, Paul says, and will be united with him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:1-10). "Χριστῷ συνεσταύρωμαι", Paul reiterates in Galatians 2:19, and seems to mean it. Thus the cosmic narrative which backgrounds Jesus' history corresponds to the personal narrative of each Christian. As the human race first sinned then found redemption in Christ, so each of us has a story which begins in sin but may be followed by repentance and membership in the body of Christ. Both the cosmic and personal narratives find their fulfillment, their τέλος and their ἔσχατον, in Christ: not only Christians, but all of creation, longs for this final redemption to be achieved (Rom. 8:23). Thus if Aristotle's account is primarily teleological, it may be said that Paul's is ultimately eschatological: the good life is to be united with Christ in his death, to experience proleptically in this life the power of the Spirit, and to live in the new creation with the full power of Christ's resurrection.

The specific content of this apocalyptic narrative of divine action accounts for many of the differences in detail between Paul and Aristotle. Because Jesus humbled himself and assumed the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7), not only craftsmen (1 Cor. 4:12; Eph. 4:28) but even slaves are full members of the body of Christ (Gal. 3:28; Philemon 15-16). Because participation in Christ's life, death and resurrection is sheer gift, the haughtiness Aristotle praised in the μεγαλοψυχός (NE 1124a19) is excluded entirely (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:27). Because we share in the death of Christ, and will one day share in His resurrection, Christians rejoice even in their sufferings (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10), and count external goods as worthless in comparison to the glory that they will one day share (Phil. 3:2-11; Rom. 8:18). Because Christ loved us and gave himself for us, love is the ultimate virtue: it is more valuable even than σοφία or γνώσις (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16; 8:1-2), and is the closest we may approach to the divine (1 Cor. 13).

Ecclesiastical Justice

Paul's apocalyptic theology also leads him to understand justice, and the good life which arises from its application, in a dramatically different fashion from Aristotle. Unlike Aristotle, Paul never provides a precise definition of this critical term, nor does he use it in an entirely consistent fashion. Nevertheless, certain key aspects of what Paul intends when he uses δικαιοσύνη and its cognates may be discerned and elaborated.

In Paul's writings, God possesses δικαιοσύνη in an exemplary fashion, and because of His justice He will necessarily judge the sinful human race (Rom. 3:9-20), both now (Rom. 1:18) and in the age to come (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Nevertheless, because of the sacrificial death of Christ, God's justice has been made available to all who believe (Rom. 3:21-26), and in this sense, God's justice is revealed not simply in His judgment, but also in the mercy proclaimed by the Gospel: "δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν" (Rom. 1:17). Indeed, Jesus Christ is our justice (1 Cor. 1:30). When Paul uses δικαιοσύνη in these contexts, it's clear that he doesn't mean "a fair distribution of goods" as in Aristotle, or even "righteousness" as many English translations have it, but rather something like "right standing before the righteous judge". When we possess this justice, we are "justified" (δικαιοῦσθαι, Rom. 3:28), or as Calvin phrases it, "clothed in righteousness" (Institutes, III.11.2). On the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment is revealed, those who have accepted this justice will be shown to be truly just.

For Paul as for Aristotle, justice is the basis for community. However, the ἐκκλησία is composed not of those who have contributed something of value, as in the πόλις Aristotle describes, but rather, consists of those to whom God has given δικαιοσύνη as an unmerited gift. Consequently, those who have received this gift are obligated to live a life characterized by self-giving love (Gal. 5:13-26; 1 Cor. 12-13; Eph. 2:19-21; 5:28-32), and the members of the Church are to use the gifts they have received from God for mutual edification (Eph. 4:1-16). Similarly, because slaves and masters alike, women and men, Jews and Greeks have all received this gift, participation in the community is extended to all impartially (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:9-11), and even slaves deserve "justice and equality" (τὸ δίκαιον καὶ τὴν ἰσότητα, Col. 4:1).

It should be acknowledged that Paul never makes an explicit effort to undermine the institution of slavery. On the contrary, he encourages slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), and once even sent a runaway Christian slave back to his Christian master (Philemon 8-18). But his inclusion of slaves as full members of the Christian community undercuts any conceivable justification for one human being to own another. Paul addresses slaves as much as their masters as full moral agents, and there is nowhere any hint of Aristotle's φύσει δουλος, a human being who lacks a moral or deliberative capacity. "Any slave called by the Lord is the Lord's freed man, and any free man called by the Lord is Christ's slave" (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Paul believed that the time until the day of judgment was short, and from this eschatological perspective, even slavery was of secondary concern (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

Like Aristotle, Paul is concerned with ἰσότης, but the form of this concern becomes clear in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Paul had long encouraged Gentile Christians to donate to famine relief in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-28; cf. Acts 11:27-30), but after a promising start, contributions from the Corinthian Christians had been underwhelming. Their lackluster response was apparently due to a perception that they were being expected to contribute unfairly, and in 2 Cor. 8:13-14, Paul addresses this concern: "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality [ἰσότης]. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality [ἰσότης]."

In this light, Paul's account of justice can perhaps be summarized with an equation similar to Aristotle's: , i.e., the value of the gifts [g()] given by God to A stands to the value of the gifts given to B as the response [r()] from A should stand to the response from B.

Two key claims are included in Aristotle's account of political justice: (1) The benefits of political participation should be restricted to classes which contribute appropriately to the community, and (2) fairness is maintained when members of that class receive the rewards of citizenship according to their individual contribution. Paul's theory, however, turns Aristotle on his head: (1) The benefits of participation in the community should be extended universally to anyone who has received the gift of justification from God, and (2) each member of the church should contribute according to how they have received. In other words, for Aristotle, the logical order of distributive justice is giving followed by receiving; for Paul, it is receiving and then giving.

The Redeemed Life

One way to summarize these differences is to imagine Paul's response if he were presented with Aristotle's definition of the good life. As noted above, Aristotle defined happiness as "an action of the soul in accordance with virtue." Paul would likely be satisfied with this definition only if he could add substantial qualifications: "The good life," one can imagine Paul insisting, "is an action of the redeemed soul in accordance with virtue, as a response to God's free and loving gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, and oriented towards the Spirit's actualization of the New Creation in the Church."

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