Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

By Abraham Johannes Malherbe | Go to book overview

TRANSFORMATION OF THE MIND
AND MORAL DISCERNMENT IN PAUL

Luke Timothy Johnson

In this essay I examine the possible connection between two kinds of language in Paul’s letters about the way human behavior is directed. The first kind of language is explicitly and obviously religious in character. It aligns human agency with a transcendental spiritual power. The second kind is moral or paraenetic in character.1 It advocates the practice of virtue and the avoidance of vice. Is there an intrinsic link between these two modes of discourse? Does Paul himself indicate such a link? Is a connection to be inferred from language that Paul himself does not explicate?

To put the question another way: Does Paul allow his readers (whether ancient or contemporary) to appreciate any role for the human

(“soul”) between the power of the (“spirit”) that comes from God and the disposition of the (“body”) by human persons?2 The question concerns consistency in Paul’s thought, the way in which he did or did not think through his convictions concerning human relatedness to God (expressed in the symbols of Torah) and his directives concerning human moral behavior. The question is also critical to the appropriateness of speaking of “character ethics” in Paul.3

As always when asking such questions of Paul, the shape of the Pauline corpus makes methodology an issue impossible to avoid. The occasional character of Paul’s correspondence means that we have in each composition only so much of his thinking on any subject as has been raised by the circumstances he considered himself to be addressing. The fact that many of the letters traditionally ascribed to Paul are

1 No one in our generation has done more to make us aware of this dimension of Paul’s letters than Abraham J. Malherbe, among whose students I am proud to be included; see especially Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).

2 For the use of these terms in Paul’s anthropology, see R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. K. Grobel (2 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951) 1:191–220, and J.D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)70–78.

3 An earlier draft of this essay was delivered to the Character Ethics in the Bible Consultation of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 1996.

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