Phil, I was rather shocked by your sudden turn about, as up until your last post, you were strongly agreeing with me. So, I have looked back over my post to see what might have suddenly caused a change of heart.
The first thing that crops up is a possible disagreement over whether St Paul’s concern over circumcision was central or peripheral. I argued that it was central and gave evidence of its frequent mention in so many of his letters. I am not backing down from that point; and as further evidence I would point to the descriptive label used by both Paul and his opponents of themselves. We might call them Judaizers, but in the New Testament they are called “the circumcision”. When we think of all the different labels that could have been used of themselves, it is extraordinary that they used this one. They could have called themselves “Jews” or “Israelites”, or “the people of the Book”, or “the orthodox”, but they chose the label of “the circumcision”. That tells us a lot about what was central to their faith, and what was central to St Paul’s rejection of them.
I came to this discussion because an email landed in my inbox from BioLogos saying that a lot had happened since my last visit. When I clicked on the link, I ended up with this discussion near the top of my page, and an apparent attempt by some to find a recommendation for circumcision on the eighth day. I thought to myself, “Surely not!” Some “wanna be” Christians obviously get confused as to whether they are Christians or Jews. As St Paul said, if anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. That is Paul’s spiritual objection to circumcision.
Christians are not a bunch of “modern primitives” hankering after a tribal past. The resurrection comes to us as an anticipation of the eschaton. The gift of the Holy Spirit comes to us as an anticipation of the eschatological Spirit. That means that Christians live out of the future, not the past. Every day brings us closer to God. Every advance in science helps us to understand what God is really like, from studying his Creation.
The “spiritual” is not about casting a topic out to the periphery where it becomes so nebulous it does not upset us. Paul’s conflict with “the circumcision” was an extremely emotional one. An inscription from those times declared that any uncircumcised man entering at that location would be killed. Being prepared to commit murder in order to promote circumcision reveals a highly-charged situation. On the other side, Greek and Roman authorities ruling Judea found the practice so abhorrent they tried to ban it. St Paul’s suggestion that the people who promoted circumcision should go all the way and castrate themselves carried a two-barrelled impact. In addition to the association of circumcision with castration, it also alluded to the pagan worshippers of the goddess Cybele, who at the height of their worshipping frenzy, did actually castrate themselves. St Paul really did know how to insult people!
So, what’s the point of saying this? Well, we in the West are so arrogant, and I include myself in this, that we imagine that all issues are decided by cold, intellectual rationality. (Let’s ignore the trap pf “rationalisation”.) This is how we think we “know” the truth about something. But the other side of being human is the emotional side. Can we really understand the meaning of Paul’s words without entering into the emotional space that he and his opponents shared? I don’t think we can. So, if any of my posts have stirred up strong feelings, I make no apology. That is part of the pathway to understanding the Scriptures.