(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

How Paul made up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions

One of the passages that crops up in discussions of what Paul meant when he talked about being conformed to or transformed into the image of Christ—and to whom that language applied—is Colossians 1:24. Davo mentioned it in a comment recently, and I have been meaning to get back to it.

The ESV translation of this verse is fairly typical: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church….”

On the face of it, Paul appears to be saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient and that he himself needed to suffer in order to make up the deficit.

The Christ-encomium of Philippians 2:6-11 and “Christian” formation

It was put to me by Crispin Fletcher-Louis on Facebook that my argument about being—or rather not being—transformed into the image of Christ is at odds with the general scholarly view these days that the so-called “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6–11 is “determinative of Christian identity at every stage”. The objection is basically that Paul makes the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication a universal model for Christian formation and ethics. Christian faith is inescapably cruciform. Crispin certainly knows a thing or two about these matters, but I will try to explain why I disagree.

Jesus the great high priest: no deep magic involved

I started looking at Hebrews 10 in order to reply to a comment from Chris Wooldridge, who cited the chapter as an example of how Jesus’ death is treated not only as a historical event but also as a theological or metaphysical event.

But you quickly discover that Hebrews 10 is part of a long, dense, tightly woven, intertextual (i.e. it draws extensively on the Old Testament) argument about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the community of Jewish believers (presumably) to whom the letter is written.

You can’t prise a few statements about Jesus’ death as a one-off sacrifice from it and expect them to stand up on their own as general theological propositions. They don’t. They fall over.

Moses, the apostles, and transformation into the image of Christ (are we there yet?)

In his excellent essay on mystical transformation in Philo and Paul, Volker Rabens says of 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Many who have tried to grasp the nuances of Paul’s argument in this passage have at times felt that they themselves have a veil over their minds” (297-98). A.T. Hanson called it “the Mount Everest of Pauline texts as far as difficulty is concerned”. I will gladly take that as an excuse for my own vacillation over the interpretation of this passage in the last few posts (see the list below).

Anyway, here is another attempt to recapitulate Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3:14-18, with a further emendation prompted by Volker’s comment on my reading of “we all” in verse 18.

We all are being transformed into the same image—a correction (of sorts)

In the previous piece on being transformed into the image of Christ, I included 1 Corinthians 3:18 in a wider pattern in Paul whereby conformity to the image of Christ means specifically sharing in his suffering and resurrection:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding (or reflecting) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as from the Lord, the Spirit.

This view needs modifying (after a fashion).

Who is being transformed into the image of Christ? Not me

I’ve just got back from a missions conference at which the idea that believers in general and “missionaries” in particular are being—or should be—transformed into the “image of Christ” got a lot of airtime.

I can see what people are getting at. The assumption is that Jesus represents either an ideal way of being human or an ideal way of doing ministry. He’s Jesus, after all! Therefore, to grow towards spiritual maturity is to be conformed to his image.

It’s a central plank of evangelical piety. Tim Challies quotes Jerry Bridges: “Christlikeness is God’s goal for all who trust in Christ, and that should be our goal also.”

A pragmatic non-theory of the atonement

The title of the previous piece (“The death of Jesus: not as difficult to understand as you might think”) was perhaps a mistake. I suspect that many people found my narrative-historical reinterpretation as baffling as the classical theories of the atonement, if not more so.

In my defence I would say that the difficulty lies not in the narrative-historical account itself but in the amount of unthinking that we need to do—the mental effort involved in discounting a mountain of redundant conceptuality in order to see the narrative for what it was.

It’s a case of not being able to see the wood for the wall that has been built in front of it.

The death of Jesus: not as difficult to understand as you might think

Peter Enns has written in his characteristically provocative style about two issues in the Bible that are really important but not at all clear.

The first has to do with Israelite origins. We can be reasonably confident about the broad outline of Israelite history back to the reign of David, but earlier than that things are decidedly murky. “Historically speaking,” Enns writes, “we really don’t know where the Israelites came from, and the exodus and conquest stories, which are so central to the biblical account, are particularly problematic.”

The second issue is of a very different type: “Why did Jesus die?”


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