Putting Paul in Perspective: Corporate & Individual

(This is the fourth article in a series concerning the New Perspective on Paul)


One of the great problems that we face when discussing the NPP is our tendency to speak past one another rather than to one another. All sides have tidy definitions for theological terms and neither side wants to abandon them. The greater problem arises when neither party wants to acknowledge that they are using them in such a way. This is not to say that there is not significant disagreement between the two positions. It is only to point out that if I am maintaining that light consists of particles and my interlocutor is adamant that light takes a wave form we will both be in the dark if we don’t admit to the presence of nuance and categorical distinctions.

NPP advocate Michael Thompson says that a close reading of Paul’s letters reflects more of an emphasis on relationship between groups of people, and more specifically, Jews and Gentiles within the body of Christ, than on the individual’s relationship to God.

This appears to me to be something of a category confusion—different people are talking at different levels about different things. Some people are talking about eggs and other folks are talking about omelets. When I am cooking breakfast, it appears to me to be misdirected and confused to ask if my “focus” is on eggs or omelets. I have no way of making sense out of this kind of question. There is no tension between the living Temple and the living stones, or between a flock of sheep and a sheep in the flock. Those who talk about corporate entities over against individuals have created a quite unnecessary distinction, and a stumbling block to go with it. Corporate entities are composed of distinguishable heads that number 1, 2, 3, 4, ad infinitum.

In spite of all the caterwauling from the cheap seats, N.T. Wright does acknowledge that groups of people are indeed made up of actual people, and so contrary to the assumption of many he affirms individual justification as a theological truth. This means my difference with Wright at this point is not theological, but rather exegetical. Simplifying somewhat, he thinks that the text is all omelet, but that eggs can (and must) be theologically inferred. For example he writes in, What St. Paul Really Said:

Some still use him [Paul] to legitimate an old-style preaching of the gospel in which the basic problem is human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ. Others, without wishing to deny this as part of the Pauline message, are struggling to do justice to the wider categories and the larger questions that seem to be a non-negotiable part of Paul’s whole teaching. This, indeed, is the category into which I would put myself, as the present work will make clear.

While I agree with Wright theologically in principle, I disagree exegetically on some of the particulars. In contrast to Wright’s statement, I see a direct exegetical basis for an application of justification to individuals. In other words, I think the text sometimes talks about eggs, as well as omelets. But even so, in Scripture, when the omelet is mentioned (the church), the eggs are always in view (the individual members) And when the eggs are mentioned (the members), the omelet has not been forgotten. Breakfast really is the most important meal.

The NPP has done a fine job of pointing out the corporate realities that are present throughout the New Testament, particularly when it comes to the important categories of Jew and Gentile. Many modern readers miss this emphasis altogether. Discussions of justification (as an abstract mechanism for saving sinners) without reference to Jews and Gentiles are discussions which are obviously not dealing with the text. For instance, when was the last time that you heard anyone deal with Paul’s confrontation with Peter over table manners as a “gospel issue” that touches the very heart of justification? I’ d dare say that it’s been a minute.

But, at the same time, there are numerous places, where individuals, considered as such , are mentioned also, and not just in passing. When they are mentioned, the category to which they belong is not forgotten. And when the category is mentioned, neither is the individual erased. The two are in complete harmony, and the dislocations and fragmentations of the postmodern mindset are what create the problem for us. In the following example, the emphases are mine.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it . For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26).

Among others, Jesus was talking about Smith, the guy standing there in the second row from the back. But in no way does this neglect the corporate reality of the church at all. Jesus said this, after all, to His disciples.

Allow me to change the illustration. Suppose that a school of theology arose which maintained that when God said, Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated, He only meant that He was rejecting the corporate nation of Edom. Suppose further it was pointed out that this citation comes from Malachi, where the prophet actually is contextually talking about the nation of Edom. Then suppose that this corporate emphasis is supposed to preclude an emphasis on individuals.

This is like saying that the airliner crashed into the side of a mountain and was consumed in a terrible explosion. This is the emphasis we ought to have. We should not shift our emphasis to say that passengers were therefore killed. It was the airplane that crashed, after all, and not the passengers. Surely you see from this reductio ad absurdum that distinguishing between the plane and its passengers doesn’t destroy the identity of either.

Of over against the “corporate onlyists” you have the “lone rangers individualists.” And these pietistic individualists are no better. They have hundreds of passengers smacking the side of the mountain, and no airplane. Basic questions arise here also. How did they get up there? It would be utter folly to suggest that planes exists without people to build them. But it would be just as ludicrous to think that people fly from Boise to Bangkok by simply flapping their arms really fast. These are the types of conclusions one must draw if one cannot make distinctions between corporate/individual realities without totally collapsing them.

Aside from the logical problems with all this, we also have a fundamental problem with the texts. Suppose for a moment that the individual self or personality was invented by Shakespeare, or by some other figure from the Renaissance, as trendy-thought now has it. What are we to make of Augustine’s Confessions? More to the point, what are we to make of the plain statements of Scripture?

Krister Stendahl started a trend in contemporary biblical studies by saying that the “introspective conscience of the west” has been anachronistically projected back onto Paul, and is really the result of Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius and Martin Luther’s conflict with the Roman Church. Because of these historic dust-ups, we have been subsequently trained to be spiritually introspective, and to think that Paul had the same problems with morbidity that we do. Simply put, we think in guilty individualistic categories so we foist them onto our reading of Paul.

But if there were an inventor of individual personality in history that inventor would have to be the Lord Jesus. He is the One who taught us that there are two ultimate destinations for human beings, Paradise and Gehenna, and that we go to our respective places one-at-a-time. The divisible unit here is the individual, not the family, not the city, not the nation. He also taught us that the standard for making the cut was a strict one. We will be brought under judgment for every idle word we utter (Matt. 12:36). When the sheep and the goats assemble before Him (in their corporate roles), a large number of particular events are brought up (Matt. 25: 33-46). When, throughout our lives, we give individual glasses of water to those who are individually thirsty, the fact is noted by the Lord Jesus. If a strong concept of the individual had not existed before this (from Adam to Jesus), I cannot imagine a better recipe for calling such a concept into being.

That being said, revivalistic individualism needs to abandon its neglect of the covenant people, the Church. The biblical word for such an abandonment is repentance. Pietism has clearly driven us into the ditch on the left side of the road. But at this point, advocates of the NPP need to recognize that the ditch water on the right side is just as cold. It would be better if we wouldn’t about teeter like a drunken man, ambulating from one dirty ditch to the other.


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