Thursday, July 16, 2009
Anthony Thiselton on Identity and Behavior
The connection between identity and behavior is central to the work of Anthony Thiselton who argues for the ‘inseparability of Christian identity and Christian lifestyle, or of theology and ethics’ (2000: 458). He understands Paul’s rhetorical strategy to be ‘stabilizing the corporate identity and structure of a community’ with the cross as the foundation for Christian identity (94, 147-48). Unlike Richard Hays, Thiselton specifically addresses social identity (cf. 1 Cor 1:27-29) and incorporates discussions of honor/shame and that ‘which deprives the self of its social identity’ into his interpretation (187). The experience of being in Christ is central to the life of the community, however, for Thiselton the presence of God and the work of the Spirit are also that which ‘constitutes the identity of the people of God’ (cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 310, 317; cf. Volf 1996: 176-78).
For Thiselton, communal identity is Paul’s primary focus, who ‘does indeed want “to hold together” a corporate Christian identity founded on the death and resurrection of Christ, which applies Christ and the cross as a criterion and critique of freelance claims to be “spiritual persons,” or “people of the Spirit”’ (372 emphasis original). Though not intentionally excluding individual concerns, Thiselton understands Paul to be preoccupied with forming the communal identity of the Corinthians. There may be room for a slight corrective here, for example, when dealing with the moral issue in 1 Cor 5:1-13, which appears to be quite focused on the individual. Thiselton concludes that Paul does not want ‘persistent immorality of a notorious kind to compromise the corporate identity of the community (5:5, 7, 13)’ (381).
Thiselton also interacts with current approaches to power in that discussion of identity formation leads to questions concerning authority, power, and the potential for domination (372-76). His work also all too briefly discusses how texts, such as 1 Corinthians form identity, especially in relation to how their response to the text unmasks their identity (296). Thiselton also understands Paul’s ethical exhortations to be sourced in the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting Rosner, Paul ‘showed himself to have Scriptural structures of thought, such as the notion that identity must inform behavior’ (446; Rosner 1994: 121; emphasis original). Paul was forming an alternative community with a distinct ethos in comparison with the broader culture, so one would expect analogs for Paul’s guidance to emerge from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than for example, the moral philosophers. Thiselton concludes ‘that Christian corporate identity has a distinctive foundation and a distinctive lifestyle as against Graeco-Roman social, political, and religious traditions’ (446-47; 450-51). This coheres well with the presupposition that Paul was thoroughly embedded in Judaism and argued as such. Thiselton’s work shows a high degree of complexity in relation to identity studies and his influence on my work is quite obvious.
Rosner, Brian S. Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.
Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.