Reading, preaching, and teaching Paul requires us to think on three levels at the same time. The first, widest, and most fundamental horizon within which we must read Paul is apocalyptic. That’s a slippery word, of course, susceptible of various meanings. I use it here though in a very basic core sense to point to Paul’s governing conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus the turning, indeed, the end of the ages, has dawned and new creation has begun. Galatians 6:14-15 is characteristic: “But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (CEB). New Creation, then, is the most comprehensive and hermeneutically decisive level of Paul’s thought.
The church, the New Community of the New Creation, forms the second level on which we must read Paul. His eye is always on the church and how this community of faith participates in and points to the New Creation which is now the reality of this world. Paul’s verb are predominately second person plural (“Y’all” in southern parlance). The church comprises the Abrahamic people God intends to use to bless the world (Gen.12:1-3) and constitutes the demonstration of truth and reality of God’s New Creation. Reading Paul requires a second glance at how his letters address the New Community as the people of the New Creation.
The third level is the personal. “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Cor.5:17 CEB). As “part of the new creation” each person bears gifts and has roles in the church that necessarily and at the same time help each person grow into who God intends them to be as well as equipping the church to discharge its mandate to be and carry God’s blessing everywhere. Here the personal (I don’t say individual for no such thing exists) and the vocational are two sides of the same coin! In a way analogous to Karl Barth’s view of act and being as equally basic in God, Paul sees human being and doing as poised in a dynamic reciprocal dance of bearing and reflecting together God’s image in the world.
This way of reading Paul constitutes a challenge to our usual ways of reading, preaching, and teaching him. We tend to start and stop with the individual (as if such a thing exists). Little wonder that Paul seems so alien to so many in the church. We’re not talking his language, so to speak. Thus we cannot grasp the perspective he brings to bear or the moves he makes in expounding our life in Christ. In my view, only by reading Paul in this tri-tiered way can we truly begin to make sense of him and find him the resource for New Creation discipleship we so desperately need!
Paul’s Tri-tiered Mindset
New Creation Church
New Creation Disciples
We must ask of a Pauline text, first, how it reflects or is seasoned by the irruption of New Creation in the world through Christ? Second, how does it instruct the church in bearing witness to that New Creation? And lastly, what do persons in the church need to do to share and participate in this New Creation through the New Creation Church?