The previous posts in this series are:
Continuing to follow Goicoechea’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Goicoechea’s project is to outline the various competing models in the New Testament and reconcile them through the lens of agape love. It is of utmost importance that the secular reader understands the differences and tensions in the New Testament when debating Christians who think in terms of systematic theology. Goicoechea writes:
- This question of the coming of the Kingdom is a major problem for each of the New Testament writers and just as there will be nine different models of the Kingdom and the Cross, so there will be different models concerning the Parousia or the fullness of time. Once more we will see that there are many different and opposing voices within the New Testament…One of the great problems of reconciliation is to work out a model for reconciling the very different voices within the New Testament. (87-88)
Paul’s own understanding of love is going to follow from his belief that the return of Christ is imminent:
- Paul is apocalyptic and teaches that the Lord will soon come to establish a Kingdom of love, justice, joy and peace so that the Christians with him are thinking about the immediate future when this will happen…But Paul is not interested in changing the social customs of his day, for the Lord will do that when he comes very soon. Paul is urgent about personal justice and virtue but he is complacent about social justice and virtue because the Lord will take care of that. Paul urges the Thessalonians to mind their own business and to let the Lord take care of his. (91)
For Paul all people can be lovable because the principal cause of evil is Satan.
- Paul tried to visit the Thessalonians, “but Satan prevented us” (2:18) and he has been afraid that “the temptation might have tried you too hard, and all our work might have been wasted” (3:5). So the battle seems to be between Christ and the tempter. They are at war in the hearts, souls and bodies of all persons but all persons are loveable and should be constantly prayed for. (pp. 91-92).
For example, we are continuing use the category/lens of selfless love (agape) to reconcile the many disparate and conflicting voices making up the New Testament. Paul, originally coming from the birthplace of the Stoic Enlightenment, following his conversion came to believe the Roman and Stoic idea of universal love can really happen through Christian selflessness. Goicoechea comments:
- Paul loves the Thessalonians like a mother, like a father and like a brother. He writes: “Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so protective and devoted to you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well” (1:7b–8)… Paul distinguishes maternal and paternal affection as self-sacrificing in its nourishment and protection as distinct from guiding, teaching, encouraging and appealing. The criterion for Paul’s paternal ethics is being worthy of God…the ultimate motivational goal that Paul as a fatherly figure aims at for his children is to be worthy of God and the glory of his Kingdom. In that Kingdom there will be the affection of brotherly love. “As for loving our brothers, there is no need for anyone to write to you about that, since you have learned from God yourselves to love one another” (4:9). (84)
A second way of loving those selflessly, especially your enemies, is through prayer:
- Prayer for others is a way of cultivating love for them, for Paul does not think we have to love people but not like them. For him love as affection is a joy and pleasure in the other. Some might wonder how we can love unpleasant others on demand. But prayer can cultivate that special atmosphere of love: by praising, adoring, worshiping and loving, by begging for forgiveness, healing, deliverance and salvation; by abiding in a spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude and by asking God to mother, father, brother, sister all of ours and especially enemies. Prayer is always positive and it cultivates positivity in the heart of the one who intones and envisions the other in the heart of God. Paul believes that his prayer will help the Thessalonians to grow in their love of love for one another and the whole human race… Prayer is a loving communication with God who is love and his Thessalonians will cultivate love if they constantly pray even as Jesus and Paul prayed especially for those in need. (85-6)
We’ve been trying to distill the Christian-ness of the many conflicting voices in the New Testament, and are asking about the question of Love in Paul’s Love Letter to the Thessalonians. Next time we will consider Goicoechea’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I think these are important questions because perhaps in Goicoechea’s leap beyond “either/or” opposites logic of critical biblical scholarship to “both/and” opposites reconciliation logic of postmodernist philosophy, he will inadvertently run aground on the shoals of “neither/nor” logic. I had once asked him whether Catholic priests should be allowed to perform LGBTQ marriage ceremonies and he said no because society would look down on children from such unions. Clearly, my next question was what societal prejudices has to do with social justice? In many ways, Goicoechea was an apologist for his Catholic Universalism, but there is much in his writing that is a helpful clue for un-earthing original Christianity, both in its many differences, but also in its unity. For instance, as I always say, Mark’s Jesus is not Luke’s, but the crucified Jesus who says to God: “Please take this cup from me, but your will, not mine” in Gethsemane transfigures the Roman soldier in both gospels.
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