The Logic of Paul’s Ethics (Paul Sampley)

More than two decades after V.P. Furnish’s Theology and Ethics in Paul, another Methodist scholar, J.P. Sampley, set out to write a book on Paul’s moral logic. 

Walking Between the Times: Paul’s Moral Reasoning (Fortress, 1991).

This much shorter treatment (120 pages, compared to Furnish’s 300+) has a clear focus even in the title, where ‘walking between the times’ refers to life lived in the period of theological history that is marked by the overlapping of the ages.  Clearly Sampley shares an eschatological focus with Furnish, but he articulates its significance quite differently.  Whereas Furnish seems to focus on apocalyptic eschatology – the destruction of hostile powers and the sole claim of God for posession of his people, Sampley’s perspective takes more interest in chronological eschatology (or pure eschatology) where Paul’s symbolic universe is marked by the two time-specific events: the death/resurrection of Christ and his return.  Thus, ‘Paul is concerned with how believers behave, or walk, between these two times’ (v).

Within this eschatological framework, Sampley is interested in the question of how Paul approached moral issues (logic) and ‘what resources did he think were available to those who were in Christ’ (empowerment; see v).  Of course, like Furnish, Sampley’s view is theo-centric in the sense that Paul is always concerned with ‘how the justified person is to discern what it means to walk properly before God’ (3).

Coming back to the issue of Paul’s symbolic universe, Sampley reinforces the important socio-scientific insight that how groups construct their ‘thought world’ affects how they behave.  In that sense, it is clear that Weltbild affects Weltanschauung which drives behavior.  So, ‘I presume that no genuine understanding of Paul’s moral reasoning can be gotten to without seeing it consistently planted in the heart of Paul’s symbolic universe’ (2).  Sampley, I think, would agree with Richard Hays’ conclusion that Paul always encourages a ‘conversion of the imagination’ in his moral and theological discourses. 

Sampley, as already noted, delineates the boundaries of this universe temporally in terms of two events.  The first one, the Christ-event, is ‘the primary reference point of Paul’s thought world’ (7).  It is, as it were, a hermeneutical lens to re-conceive past, present, and future,  Regarding the past, Christ has enabled a new freedom from sin, law, and death (cf. Furnish).  But, in the between-times, there is still the threat of sin’s deception.  ‘[Paul] thinks of sin as if it were a power stalking about looking for a beachhead…from which to launch a campaign to take over someone’s life’ (13).  Because of the Christ event, though, sin is weak and believers are empowered to overcome.  Thus, Sampley points to ‘gratitude’ as a major factor in why believers do what they do morally.  But, there is a second factor – ‘anticipation’ of the return of Christ and ‘the fullness of glory that will be granted when one’s stewardship is certified at the judgment day’ (101).  In many ways, then, ethical behavior is not a contemplation of how to do good as the final goal, but it is a response to God: ‘The central issue in the moral life is whether one lives appropriately with regard to what God has done and is doing in one’s life and among the faithful community’ (104).

To help illuminate the significance of Paul’s eschatological perspective, Sampley compares and contrasts the Apostle’s writings to Apocalyptic literature.  Paul agrees with jewish apocalypticists that the present age is beset by evil and that God must intervene.  He also agrees that suffering is a mark of the times for the faithful and that God’s true people must remain patient and steadfast knowing that God will judge the wicked and vindicate his faithful (10).  Where Paul would diverge from traditional Jewiah apocalypticism is in terms of how Christ has effected a change in the world where the new aeon ‘has begun to break into the middle of the old aeon in a decisive way in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection’ (10).  Sin’s power has been broken and thus ‘God’s redemptive purposes gained a beachhead’ (10).

In the overlapping ages, Sampley focuses on the category of participation in Christ: ‘Paul thinks of believers’ relationship with Christ in terms of solidarity with, participation in, or belonging to Christ’ (12; note ‘belong to’ is an emphasis of Furnish’s).  Being ‘in Christ’ is ‘the locus of new life, the space made possible by God’s grace’ (39).  As a way of expressing the importance of identification with Christ in the between-times, Sampley draws attention to the Lord’s Supper which ‘marks the boundaries within which believers live’ as they celebrate his death (past) until he comes (future). 

Though Sampley is more focused on the chronological eschatology of Paul (and the believer’s ‘conformity’ to the new age’), he also acknowledges the apocalyptic agon themes that Furnish is so interested in.  For Sampley, then, slavery/servitude is inevitable: ‘all humans are slaves of some power or force external to themselves…Life without some master, lord, or authority is really unthinkable in Paul’s time’ (32).  This realization impels the believer to actively submit to God in obedience.

When addressing the actual process of moral reasoning, Sampley, like many others, admits that Paul is not interested in a casuistic approach to ethics.  Paul’s approach is contextual, relational, and requires discernment.  Believers do have certain resources in their pursuit of moral obedience to God.  First, Sampley points to the community as ‘the primary context for thinking about believers’ (37) as it is ‘the matrix within which individual lives of faith are nurtured and maintained’ (37, 43).  In decision-making, Paul always advocates those decisions that benefit the group, even if it means inconvenience or difficulty for the individual.  The individual must go with what is best for the community.  Sampley also points out the resources of the Holy Spirit which reckons proper behavior.  The relationship between Spirit and community is underscored, for Sampley, by the importance of spiritual gifts. 

In particular, Sampley looks at the gift of faith and how that affects one’s behavior.  One’s measure of faith is not how Christian they are, but to what degree they can withstand certain temptations.  So, when Paul refers to the strong and weak in Romans, the strong have more ‘faith’.  One is not ‘better’, but moral reasoning must account for how much faith one has (i.e., will it cause me to stumble if I do this).  But, more important than the personal question (i.e., is the action in keeping with my measure of faith) is the criterion ‘is it beneficial to others’.  Sampley sees the Corinthians, for instance, as confident in the first question, but ignorant and negligent of the second.  A major principle that Sampley finds in Paul is the centrality of love, which is ‘acting in careful consideration for the well-being of others’ (62).  Such an ethical director ‘functions as the governor that sets limits to what might otherwise be runaway individualism’ (62).

Reflections

In many ways, Sampley reiterates what Furnish has already written (eschatology, christology, theology).  However, Sampley does offer some important extensions on what others have done and taken some insights in new directions.  There is more reflection on spiritual gifts in Sampley’s work, and his dual criteria (personal faith, edification for others) is helpful.  His focus on the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as reflecting on the past (Christ’s death/resurrection) and the future (Christ’s return; the resurrection of the baptized) confirms his primary point in focusing on eschatology.  Also, the chronological eschatological perspective is more concentrated on judgment and reward for faithful stewarship in Sampley’s treatment.  He has also given more attention to how (social) identity affects ethos.  Here he only briefly touches on social identity theories, but it makes way for others (like Meeks) to develop more sophisticated approaches.

Finally, the title itself, with the idea of ‘walking’ gives the book a Semitic flavor and captures the biblical notion of life as a journey (and not a series of hypothetical decisions in need of philosophical-ethical response).  There is a covenantal-feel to the idea of morality as ‘walking’.  This comes closer to the Pauline notion of moral obedience to God.  Indeed, Sampley’s highlighting of moral-reasoning as ‘gratitude to God’ would have certainly made Philo happy and it fits the general character of Paul’s letters.

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