Paul's Master Story and the New Testament Gospel
Paul has a master story. A master story is a piece of one's worldview that is evidently central, in that it regularly becomes explicit in expression or can be adduced as the foundation of many other assertions and associations. Sometimes master stories happen accidentally, sometimes they are intentional. Paul's master story is something he wants to become the master story of Christian churches and the individuals that comprise them. Paul's master story is summarized clearly in Philippians 2:6-11. Mike Gorman gives four reasons for identifying this section of narrative as central for Paul:1
- It is comprehensive in scope, beginning prior to creation, including Israel, the life of Jesus, and the future glory of God.
- It is creedal and counter imperial (Jesus is called Lord).
- It includes many themes Paul elsewhere develops about Jesus.
- It constantly reappears in different forms in Paul's other letters.
I would add that, though this is Paul's master story, this is definitely not some abstract, codified version of it. It is rather a full, but summarized adaptation of it for the needs of the church in Philippi. Paul wanted them to see how Christ displayed God's character by counting others above himself, but to do so, he gave them a point by point summary of the whole gospel message. One obvious piece of evidence that this is not the sum total of Paul's thought is that this expression of his master story only implies the atonement, which is fairly explicit in Paul's much shorter, truncated master story/gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. But the point is that Paul gives his most fully-orbed summary of his gospel here and he expected it to resonate with the Philippian readers because of “what you have learned, received, heard, and seen in me (Philippians 4:9).”
Why is this information important for Christians?
- Because Paul's gospel is the gospel that saves us from our sins.
- Because Paul's gospel summary is exactly a shorter version of what we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the sermons in Acts, but with startling conclusions about what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection means about our understanding of God.
- Because Paul thought that Christians who were mindful of Jesus' mindset here would stop having conflicts over stupid things.
- Because if you get an idea of Paul's master story, the most important piece of his worldview, then how he responds to his culture (in ways that are similar and in ways that are startlingly different) make sense. His letters come alive when we see that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is precisely the pattern for a life that glorifies God, but not only so, that God will only be glorified as he brings all peoples to call Jesus, “Lord.”
- Because once we find this story to be central to Paul, Acts, and the gospel we can find much more unity in the New Testament than many surface level readings allow.
helps us to see that the gospel is precisely about Jesus, God,
Israel, world history, and about our own lives. The gospel has to be
big, but it has to give hope to the individual.
So, try to memorize this passage. As you read Paul's letters think about the fact that his gospel is the whole Jesus story (like what we find in the four gospels) and that it carries with it the mindset of humility that Jesus himself wants us to emulate. Read Philippians, looking for places where Paul's command in 2:5, "Have this mind in you, which was in the Messiah, Jesus..." makes sense when you see the example of Jesus, who though/because he was God, died for us.
Appendix: The Greek Text and My Translatino
ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,
ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·
καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος
γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου,
θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.
διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα,
ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων
καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.
Who [Jesus, the Messiah],
because he existed in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God a matter of exploitation,
instead he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
existing in the likeness of humanity.
Then, being found as a man,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedience until death,
even death upon a cross.
For this very reason,
God highly exalted him and has given him the name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bend in the heavens, upon the earth, and under the earth and every tongue might confess that Jesus, the Messiah, is Lord, for the glory of God the Father.
1Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, Theosis, and Paul's Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 1-13.