Paradigm Shift

definitionwrongIf you look up the definition of a paradigm shift in Merriam-Webster, this is what you find:

formal: an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way
This discovery will bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of evolution. [=will cause people to understand evolution in a completely new way]

So a paradigm shift is a some important change that causes us to understand something in a whole new way. I experienced one of these recently. I was reading N.T. Wright’s Magnum Opus Jesus and the Victory of God when Wright first mentioned that this passage in Galatians might not mean what I think it means.

  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22)

I have read this passage I know at least a hundred times and that’s no exaggeration. I think I even translated some of it when I was taking Greek in seminary. I have mediated on the fruits of the spirit on many occasions (okay, maybe not many but at least a few.) I’m sure many of you have done so as well. You may have memorized the fruits of the spirit in Bible camp, or Vacation Bible School, or Sword Drill or whatever friendly competitions Christians use to incentivize the memorizing of scripture. But here’s a question, did you ever consider the fruits of the spirit as virtues within the Christian fellowship rather than individual ones? What I mean is that when you read “patience” did you (like me) think of patience toward your boss or patience in traffic? Did you (like me) recite the fruits of the spirit as a way of reminding yourself to be kind to that kid with the nose ring who gives you attitude at the video store, gentle with your children when they use crayons to decorate their room , or joyful in the face of taxes? Me too.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the paradigm shift. Wright intimated that the fruits of the spirit were not about individual virtues that the spirit manifests in our lives but rather the spirit creates these virtues among the Christian community that allows us to serve God as a community. So the patience isn’t an individual patience with finding a job but rather patience with other Christians who are driving you crazy. The joy is communal joy that comes from worship. The peace is not some inward sense of calm but rather peace between Christians who faced a world quite hostile and did not need infighting thank you very much.

Now that really stretched my paradigm. I was suspicious. After all, N.T. Wright is not an evangelical. He could be smuggling in some Anglican, semi-papist, reading of Galatians. But I noticed Wright referenced someone whose command of Biblical Greek I did respect: F.F. Bruce. In his commentary on Galatians, Bruce affirms Wright’s interpretation. To see why you only have to look at the context. Paul first lists the sins of the flesh in 19-21:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Count how many of those are communal vices–vices that we commit against others. Factions, envying, disputes. Bruce maintains that these are communal vices–sins that Christians commit against each other within the fellowship of the church. Whoa. Talk about paradigm shift. In context, the evidence of the spirit is the absence of disputes, factions, envying, carousing among the body of Christ (shades of 1 Corinthians and the people getting drunk at the Church community meals.) The fruit of the spirit is love toward one another, joy in fellowship with one another, peace with one another, kindness toward fellow Christians . . . etc. Sort of changes the way we look at it doesn’t it? This is of course not to say that inner peace and kindness toward strangers isn’t called for. Its just that in looking at these verses through what J.P. Moreland calls a narcissistic Christian lens, we miss the importance of this verse for the Church community. If its one thing evangelicals are perhaps guilty of its emphasizing the individual aspects of faith at the expense of the communal nature of the Church. We read the bible as if it pertains only to my life. The liturgical tradition (Anglicans, Orthodox, etc) is guilty of just the opposite.

There is one fruit of the spirit, however that Bruce thinks we should read as an individual virtue solely for us to develop in concert with the Spirit and Paul saves it for last: Self-control. As believers we are to exercise self-control and this will be evidence of the Spirit working within us. I’m not quite sure how that works out in my own life and I would be arrogant to think I could apply to your life but as always, Dear Reader, I invite your comments and I work through this with fear and trembling. I would especially like to hear from those who think Evangelicals interpret other verses individualistically when they should be interpreting them communally.


Paradigm Shift — 4 Comments

  1. Excellent piece – we all come to the Bible with our own ideas, which in part are products of our culture – such as the individualism of both modern society and evangelicalism. But that leads to misunderstanding, even twisting, the word of God. I know that NT Wright’s studies have led him to realise how communal the understanding of faith was in Biblical times, and his thoughts on the fruit of the spirit are totally consistent with this. The true message of the Bible, once again, challenges us in many ways.

    I am aware that some of NT Wright’s views, such as on justification and the atonement, and on women’s ministry, have provoked disagreement and controversy from some in the church. But he is, quite frankly, the greatest new testament scholar of our time, and they won’t have been arrived at lightly. So I’d suggest we should take him very seriously indeed.

  2. With the current identity crisis in the Church today, many don’t know who they are (as individuals) in Christ, let alone who the Church community is.

    If they are indicatives not imperatives, does it really matter? After all, they are of the Spirit (God) not the flesh. Maybe the answer is both.

  3. Donald Grey Barnhouse on these verses:
    “Love is the key. Joy is love singing. Peace is love resting. Patience is love enduring. Kindness is love’s touch. Goodness is love’s character. Faithfulness is love’s habit. Gentleness is love’s self-forgetfulness. Self-control is love holding the reins.”

  4. Clearly, the passage is inclusive of the 9-fold fruit of the Spirit both individually as well as corporately, horizontally as well as vertically (toward God). It ought not be limited to one “paradigm” or the other. cf Ephesians 3:14-19

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