The Apostle Paul on Jesus and “Shit”

vicious-dog-attackWhat is theological anthropology?  Put simply, it is the attempt to study the nature of humanity in light a proper understanding of God.  So it differs from a secularist approach to anthropology in the sense that it does not simply seek to determine what has been common amongst human beings across space and time.  Consequently, theological anthropology often stands in stark contrast to its secular peer, as it builds upon theological foundations that necessarily put it at odds with the prevalent humanist ideologies of our culture.

Several days ago, I attempted to initiate a conversation on this subject by posting a provocative quote by Stanley Hauerwas.  In the midst of a rich and insightful interview that is well worth your time, Hauerwas argued that the core of Christianity could be reduced to the following maxim:  “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

Not surprisingly, the few comments that did come in on my initial post largely sidestepped the intended conversation in favor of commenting upon Hauerwas’s use of vulgar language.  So today, we are going to turn our attention to the Apostle Paul and his letter to the church at Philippi.  For in this letter, we see the great Apostle laying the foundation not only for Hauerwas’s central contention, but for his idiosyncratic use of language as well.

“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!  For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials – though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee.  In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless.  But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.”

Paul begins his discussion by warning his readers against those that insist upon the Gentiles’ need to be circumcised so that they might be truly saved as part of the chosen people of God.  Notice how he calls these individuals out as “dogs.”  As Gordon Fee in his commentary on Philippians rightly points out:

“A culture that spends millions of dollars on dogs as pets can scarcely appreciate the basic contempt that ancient society had for dogs, who were both scavengers (eating whatever street garbage they could find) and vicious (attacking the weak and helpless).  They get nearly universally bad press in the Bible and thus are metaphorically applied to humans only pejoratively.”[1]

So where modern English readers see a mild insult at worst, ancient readers saw an opening linguistic salvo that only gets more inflamed as Paul builds to his stunning conclusion.  Look now, if you will, to his warning to “those who mutilate the flesh.”  The Greek word for “circumcision” (v. 3) is περιτομη (peritome), which means “to cut around.”  But the word for “mutilation” is χατατομη  (katatome), which means “to cut off” or “to cut to pieces.”  So what Paul is rather aggressively suggesting here is that the Christians are the “true circumcision,” while those that ironically insist on an actual, physical circumcision are actually mutilators of the flesh that have metaphorically “cut off” their genitalia.  This dovetails rather nicely, of course, with a similar conversation that Paul has with the church of Galatia.  In his often biting letter to that community, Paul actually goes as far as to say that he wishes these troublemakers would go so far as to castrate – or “mutilate” – themselves.”[2]  In other words, if we were writing this letter today, it might read something like this:

“If you’re going to insist on circumcision, than I wish you would just go all the way and cut the whole thing off.  Then I’d know that you’re serious about following the law!”

As you can see, Paul isn’t mincing any words with his early Christian audience.  He sees something extremely dangerous at work in those that are trying to add to the Gospel by making Gentiles into Jewish law-followers; and he pulls upon the strongest of language to make his point.  But before he reaches his rhetorical and linguistic climax, he wants to be sure that his Jewish agitators are listening closely.  And this is why he gives us his resume, which is cleanly captured by N.T. Wright in his fresh translation of this passage:

“Mind you, I’ve got good reason to trust in the flesh.  If anyone else thinks they have reason to trust in the flesh, I’ve got more.  Circumcised?  On the eighth day.  Race?  Israelite.  Tribe?  Benjamin.  Descent?  Hebrew through and through.  Torah-observance?  A Pharisee.  Zealous?  I persecuted the church!  Official status under the law?  Blameless.”[3]

So what Paul is saying here is this: “You think you’re protecting the Jewish roots of the Christian faith by insisting on circumcision.  But in truth, you are wild dogs that would do well to castrate yourselves.  You think you’re Jewish and you’re in the covenant.  But I too am Jewish and I too was under the law.  And I have come to see that all of it – indeed, I have come to see “all things!” – as nothing more than a liability.  In fact, I have come to see it as σκυβαλον (skybalon).

So what is the meaning of σκυβαλον in Koine Greek?  Well, according to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament and to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, σκυβαλον is a vulgar term for human excrement.  Indeed, notable scholars such as Kennedy, Hawthorne, Silva, O’Brien and Hays have all written on this subject and they all maintain that this word carries the strongest of connotations.  In other words, as Peter T. O’Brien, a conservative, Reformed theologian, succinctly puts it:

“[The Apostle’s] choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation.  [And] although the apostle’s language is stark, it is inappropriate to weaken its meaning because of embarrassment, as some of the early Church Fathers did.”[4]

So what we have in the Hauerwas quote that was posted on Friday is essentially a restatement of Paul in Philippians 3.  For when Paul is faced with describing his “blamelessness” that came before his conversion in light of the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus the Christ, he dismisses it as “shit.”  In point fact, he goes one step farther to dismiss “all things” as “shit” in light of Jesus.

And thus, we return to the original question that I posted at the conclusion of the previous post.

Do you think most modern Evangelicals agree that the claim of Jesus as Lord necessarily reduces everything else to “bullshit?”

And what about his claim that we – you and I – are the one’s that compete with his Lordship?  Do 21st century American Christians see their own quest for personal autonomy as a counter-claim to Jesus’ rightful claim to be the king of creation?

[1] Gordon D. Fee, NICNT Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 295, footnote 44.

[2] Galatians 5:12.

[3] Philippians 3:4-6 in N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.

[4] Peter T. O’Brien, NIGTC The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991), 390.

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15 Responses to The Apostle Paul on Jesus and “Shit”

  1. Rebecca says:

    If you don’t think those rough fisherman dropped the 1st Century equivalent of the f-bomb when they couldn’t get their nets over the side…I have a bridge to sell you.

    • Rebecca … While I doubt that many would argue against the likelihood of the early disciples using rough language, the word σκυβαλον is a curiosity in Scripture, particularly in light of passages that warn us against abuses of the tongue. Moreover, it is actually an “hapax legomenon,” which means it only appears one time in the biblical text. So while I’m not quite sure that Paul fits cleanly into an evangelical understanding of the use of language, I also wouldn’t want to suggest or imply that he is running around dropping f-bombs in every synagogue he visits. I suspect that this is an issue of rhetorical nuance, where he is using an unexpected word-choice to hammer home a point that is of vital importance.

      • Rebecca says:

        They weren’t choir boys. They were laborers. We tend to push our Western Puritan/Reformed sensibilities back on the perception of their character. Probably shouldn’t read too much into it…Abuses of the tongue speaks, as do all the “deadly sins” to our passions. It is about control, self-control, more than words uttered, food eaten or money earned. If we cannot do anything but “react” we are not living as Christ.

  2. GS says:

    Whew! Now I can rightly use these vulgarities, as presented by Mr. Hauerwas and defended by Mr. Bryant with exegetical care, as Christian lexicons upholding Christ’s place as LORD and King. I can not lay claim to the intellectual strength that has been modeled to have answered Christ’s question to His disciple’s (Mark 8:29) in such a succinct way.

    • GS … You clearly find the posts offensive; and you are, of course, free to hold such an opinion. But I would caution you against dismissing “exegetical care.”

      • GS says:

        Disagreement does not equal offense. You are free to adopt the exegetical filter put forth by Mr. Hauerwas. It is not one that I would use. Your caution presupposes a perfect exegesis. Though I would be the first to argue against anti-intellectualism, such a conversation can not be had without cautioning against the deification of intellectualism. Perhaps my reply comes across more sardonically than intended and I have failed in politely denying where perhaps simply passing by these posts would have been best. They certainly have not led to the conversation you seem to have desired.

  3. Bill says:

    can’t get past the title. it seems so unnecessary, it sounds like kid’s who weren’t cool in grade school trying to be cool now. it just doesn’t ring true. kind of like tony campolo in the 80’s. if you have something worth saying – and i know you really do – the language in the title diminishes it.

  4. Gord says:

    So, how exactly does on differentiate the Koine Greek term for “crap” from its more vulgar relative? I’m not entirely sure that it would make a meaningful difference in the end (apart from noting that one is more acceptable to Christian ears). Not only is Christ supreme, but in comparison to him everything else that we might cling to is vulgar.

    • Hey Gordy … I think you raise a really interesting point. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “crap” was not something that many evangelical Christians felt the freedom to use. It was still on the unofficial list of words that we’re not allowed to say (or quote). But look how quickly all of that has changed. “Crap” is now as effectively neutered as the word “dung.” I would be hard pressed to come up with a Christian I know who doesn’t use the word “crap.” So the exegetical move here is to recognize the vulgar nature of the Greek term in question and find the closest English equivalent. And where “dung” or “crap” might once have served, it no longer does because it’s not viewed (even by Christians) as a vulgar term.

      Now, language issues aside, your closing comment is actually what I’m driving towards. I think far more Enlightenment thinking has crept into the church (with regards to our understanding of human nature) than we care to admit; and as such, we see less and less of a need for salvation from ourselves. I have another post coming later this week entitled: “Jesus Died to Save Somebody (But Not Me).” Hopefully, we’ll begin to move past the issues of language and onto the subject at hand.

      Thanks for checking in. Appreciate the comments.

  5. Bob says:

    Interesting that somebody mentioned Campola in the 80s because his point seems to still ring true in that Christians are more offended by the language and title of this post than the larger issues at hand. Thinking of Philippians 2 and the central passage that this blog was centered on with Christs descent. The higher we esteem ourselves within enlightenment thinking and philosophical values, the smaller and less significant that descent becomes. Earlier in his letter Paul makes and even more fantastical claim that I believe most evangelicals fail to believe (throwing myself under the bus here too!) when he writes , “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Sometimes I believe that we don’t believe that we truly need the imputed righteousness of Christ and seek to have a righteousness or goodness of our own. The prophet Isaiah certainly used vulgarity to capture the truth of our righteousness outside of Christ as “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6).

  6. Jon says:

    I think building an argument on one hard to translate word compared to the weight of the rest of scripture is somewhat weak. Was Paul strong in his language? Sure. Does that mean it translates into our day to mean that he used profanity? You are standing on a very small word while the rest of Scripture surrounds you in disagreement. I’m no prude but what it looks like you’re doing is arguing from the narrow to the wide … taking what is vague and using it to overrule what is clear.

    • Jon … Oddly enough, my intention with the original Hauerwas post was never to enter into a discussion on the use of language within Scripture. In hindsight, that was extremely naive on my part. In fact, by the time the comments starting rolling in, I realized my mistake and made a decision to write the second post on Paul. But as the conversation continues to travel down the path of how we use language, I would simply argue that this is not the lone use of “strong language” in Scripture. There are plenty of other sites that will take you on a tour of that material, but suffice to say, this is not the lone, solitary example of rough rhetoric within the Bible. So maybe, with regards to the issue of language, the better question that we need to ask is this: how do we synthesize the occurrences of “rough language” with the passages that call us to guard our tongue? Secondly, how do we account for culture’s mediation of lanugage (e.g. In my parents’ generation, “crap” was a foul word. Today, it is viewed as a minor indiscretion, if even that) as we seek to determine what is acceptable and what is not?”

      Thanks for stopping by to read and discuss.

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