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Monday, September 23, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (The Imitatio Christi as the Meaning of Discipleship)

Discipleship in the New Testament and in the earliest generations of the Church evolved from the practice of following a physical master and learning from his teachings to one of growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ through the imitation of more mature believers. The transition from disciple-as-follower to disciple-as-imitator is the essential shift in Christian discipleship that enabled Christianity to continue through the tumultuous first centuries of its existence.
            The shift in discipleship identity is identified by a shift in terminology. Whereas maqhthjV had been used in the ancient near east as a general term for one who follows a master both physically and intellectually,[1] new terminology was developed to better encapsulate the nature of following a spiritual Master in the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Several words in the New Testament and in the Fathers represent this idea: mimevomai,[2] mimhthvV,[3] and summimhthvV;[4] the idea of imitation for discipleship purposes is present in certain verses, too, though not spelled out explicitly by using the words above.[5]
These terms were themselves co-opted into the Christian vocabulary from the surrounding ancient cultures, much as maqhthvV had been.[6] Imitation of heroes or philosophers was a common theme in ancient literature because those ancient authors found that personal examples served better for moralistic instruction than other rhetorical devices.[7] Ancient biographies of morally upright people did “more than inspire those who read or hear them; they assist in the study and imitation of virtuous acts, thoughts, and character.”[8]
Literature and biographies both served to present virtuous heroes to be imitated in the absence of the one being beatified, which is especially important to the developing literature of Christian devotion in the absence of Jesus’ physical presence.[9] The necessity of imitation was grounded in ancient pedagogical practices, which emphasize, “that the role of the teacher is not only to instruct by his words but to be an example of what he teaches.”[10] The relationship between the teacher and the disciple, therefore, was contingent on the reality of the moral teaching that the disciple observed in the life of the teacher. What made a better lesson, then, would be the virtue of the teacher; the more “perfect” the teacher the better.
Evidence of imitation for the purposes of discipleship can be found in ancient Jewish literature, as well. Hellenistic Jewish wisdom literature emphasizes that the “virtuous life is the path to immortality, and the godly imitate it.”[11] The literary setting of much Wisdom literature sets a teacher or “father”[12] over a pupil who listens silently to the virtuous master. It is central to the form and content of ancient Jewish pedagogy that a disciple should imitate the life and teachings of a master, whether they physically sit at their feet or not.[13] 4 Maccabees 9:19-25 demonstrates imitation unto martyrdom as a revolutionary ideal, and later in that same text (chapter 13) the account in the canonical book of Daniel of the “three youths in Assyria” (Daniel 3) is held up as an encouraging example to be imitated during contemporary persecutions.[14]
The use of imitation language in the New Testament is, therefore, not an outlier in the history of discipleship, but rather an integration of non-Christian vocabulary and meaning. The very form of the Gospels could be understood as imitation literature in the tradition of Hellenistic biographies and Jewish persecution literature.[15] It is important to see that the theme of imitation in the New Testament is the intentional and valid appropriation of contemporary rhetorical style, a style that was essential to the understanding of discipleship in the generations after Jesus’ ascension.
            As was demonstrated in the Introduction, discipleship in the Letters and in the Patristic writings concentrated on the theme of imitation as a suitable substitute for the Hellenistic concept of disciple. Let us explore in more detail the nature and implications of imitation cum discipleship through an examination of the concept in Philippians, selected Patristic documents, and some modern interpretations.

In Philippians[16]
            Philippians 2-3 contains two critical references to the idea of imitation as discipleship in the New Testament.[17] First, Paul invites his readers to imitate Christ Jesus by having the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.[18] Secondly, Paul enjoins the Philippian believers to imitate the Apostle himself, as well as “those who live according to the example you have in us.”[19] These two references to imitation are complex and deserve a much more thorough treatment than this Project will provide, but it is helpful for our purposes to examine the major implications of Paul’s use of this specific language of imitation.
            These two chapters of Philippians are crucial to the purpose of Paul’s desire that the believers in Philippi would live in greater unity on the basis of the model of Christ.[20] By holding up these examples Paul is demonstrating a new pattern of discipleship, one that “is less a matter of belief than of practice…less a matter of how one thinks than how one lives. It is, in fact, imitating the model of life exemplified by Jesus himself – that is, cutting the cloth on one’s life according to the pattern for authentic living that has been given by Jesus Christ and so following his example with respect to one’s attitudes and actions.”[21] Here is evidence of the transition from maqhthvV to mime;omai as the model for post-ascension discipleship: following Jesus becomes about imitating the life of Jesus and those who are more experienced in that imitation rather than the copying and transmission of teachings that the master himself had been taught.
            The imitation of Christ is central in Philippians, but that nature of Paul’s imitation emphasis is debated. Todd Still sums up two competing perspectives on Philippians 2:5-11: “Those who follow the RSV…will likely read 2:6-11 as a hymnic rehearsal of the story of Christ that his followers embrace and exclaim. This interpretation of 2:6-11 is known in academic circles as the soteriological or kerygmatic reading of the passage. Alternatively, readers of the NRSV are led to understand 2:6-11 along “ethical” lines. That is, Paul is enjoining believers in this passage to emulate Jesus’ way of thinking and acting.”[22] These two ways of interpretation are important to the nature of imitation in Philippians. Is Paul asking the believers to imitate the mind of Christ because they are now “in Christ” or is he holding Jesus up as a moral exemplar to be physically copied in word and deed? Commenters fall on both sides of the argument,[23] but Still points out that “either construal of 2:5-11 makes eminently good exegetical and theological sense…it is certainly possible to understand the verse as a call both to think as Jesus thought (the “ethical” reading) and to think as those who are in Christ ought to think (the “soteriological” reading.”[24]
            There is no need to “die on the hill” of either an ethical or soteriological reading of 2:5-11. What is crucial for this Project is the nature of the imitation of Christ that Paul hopes his readers will begin to practice. Still is right in conjoining the two sides of the argument, saying, “To be sure, Paul does not reduce Jesus Christ to an ethical ideal one should imitate; nevertheless, he does gain certain moral moorings and behavioral bearings from the earthly example of Christ Jesus. Indeed…Christ’s renunciation of his inherent rights and his demonstration of humble obedience, both of which are central to the gospel that apostle proclaims, serve a paradigmatic function for Paul and the Philippians.”[25]I agree with Still, however, that the ethical interpretation is more compelling, that is, “the primary purpose of this passage…is to set forth Christ as a model for the church to emulate in its life together. That Paul would set forth Jesus as both Master and Model does not prove problematic; on the contrary, the gospel is made more credible by virtue of the fact that believers venerate the very one they seek to emulate.”[26]
            What is this paradigm? Christ is described as “being in the form of God” (greek), he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (greek) but “emptied himself” (greek), taking on the “form of a servant” (greek). Being found as a human, he “humbled himself” (greek) and became obedient. This is the pattern of discipleship that Paul seeks for the Philippian believers, to “forego their own personal ambition and arrogance and selfishness – and, on the contrary, to follow the example of their Lord and in humility begin to regard others better than themselves. He [Paul] holds up the attitude and actions of Jesus Christ as the pattern for the attitudes and actions of all those who claim to be “in Christ,” and so followers of Christ.”[27]
            Paul does not only establish Christ as an ideal to be imitated in the lives of the Philippian believers; he has as examples two disciples already seeking after the mind of Christ with whom the Church at Philippi will soon become intimately acquainted – Timothy and Epaphroditus. The location of Paul’s “letters of introduction”[28] immediately after the Christ Hymn in 2:19-30 suggests that Paul is putting “flesh” on the abstract ideals he demonstrated in the Incarnation immediately prior.[29] Timothy and Epaphroditus appear in this conspicuous location in the letter could be cited as evidence for the piecemeal construction of Philippians overall. However, it is much more thematically appropriate to understand the location of these biographies as supporting Paul’s central theme of imitation in the letter.[30]
            Here is the entrance of a second-level imitation: Paul holds up Christ as the ultimate Example in faith and humility, but knows that flesh-and-blood examples will speak even more sharply to the disciples struggling to begin a journey of faith. Therefore he dispatches these two relatively mature disciples to dwell among the faithful in Philippi that they may see what living in the mind of Christ looks like. It is understandable for the Philippians to be overwhelmed by the prospect of imitating Christ. Paul thus writes two biographical segments to “further underscore the thesis that it is possible to pattern one’s life according to the model of Christ’s life.”[31] These two disciples are living examples of the ideals demonstrated in the Christ hymn. Timothy is concerned for the welfare of others, more concerned about Christ’s interests and those of others than even his own.[32] Epaphroditus, likewise, left the safety and security of home and almost suffered death for the cause of the gospel, thereby risking his own life to serve.[33] These two men are concrete examples of the archetype Paul established in the life of Christ earlier.
            Beyond even these concrete examples, Paul invites the Philippian readers to join in imitating the apostle himself.[34] While modern and post-modern readers have interpreted this as the pinnacle of arrogance,[35] Paul’s presentation of his own character as an example for the Philippian believers to imitate is firmly in the tradition of other ancient authors who are both moral teachers and moral exemplars.[36] The master/disciple relationship that was established as Paul founded and grew the Philippian church “necessitates this kind of relationship,” that is, the people would have expected their teacher to embody the virtues he taught; he had to practice what he preached.[37] What should be noted is that Paul invites his readers to “join” (summimhtaiv) in imitating him. The implication is that there are already some in Philippi who have begun the journey of imitation by internalizing the values Paul has proscribed. Kurz says, “The sentence extends imitation of Paul to imitation also of those at Philippi who follow Paul’s way.”[38] Further, Paul includes those believers in Philippi who are more mature in his gathering of imitation-worthy disciples. Still comments that Paul is inviting his readers to pay careful attention to the more mature believers in the community, saying, “Such people are to serve as spiritual models. While Paul regarded himself as an example for other believers, he did not think of himself as the only individual who could model Christ to the church.”[39]
            Paul, like the two disciples he is commending to the Philippian church, is embodying the virtues of Christ spelled out in the Christ Hymn of Chapter 2. Hawthorne comments that, “…the preexistent Christ had humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, and Paul was glad to follow the lead of his model by experiencing the humiliation of imprisonment – with the possibility of that imprisonment also eventuating in his death.”[40] His autobiographical section (3:4b-16) sets up his imitation invitation much as the Christ Hymn reinforced his enjoinder to have the “same mind as Christ Jesus” in Chapter 2. Further, Paul’s situation in prison is itself demonstrative of his exemplary intent. Just as Hellenistic Jewish literature often referenced virtue in the face of persecution, so too does Paul’s letter of encouragement to the Philippians bear the fragrance of persecution and the chance that if the readers are indeed faithful to Christ, they will imitate his suffering in the same way that Paul presently endures.[41]
            Paul, therefore, has in mind the long-standing tradition of imitation when he writes Philippians. This model of imitation has been demonstrated as both a transitional description of Christian discipleship and as a pre-existing frame of reference among both Hellenistic and Jewish readers of contemporary virtue literature. To imitate Paul, Timothy, or Epaphroditus, then, is to imitate the Christ whom they themselves set as the exemplar of virtuous conduct. For the believers in Philippi, then, to emulate these believers who are more mature in their journey of faith is the very essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in their era. [42]

[1] See my discussion of maqhthjV above.
[2] “to use as a model; imitate, emulate, follow.” Cf. 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 11.
[3] “one who imitates someone else; does what that person does.” Cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; Heb. 6:12.
[4] “one who joins with others in following an example.” Cf. Phil. 3:17.
[5] Samra comments, “In other passages (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:7-11; Gal. 4:12-20; Phil. 4:9; James 5:10-11) these terms are not used, but the concept of doing what another did is present. In some of these verses the person to be imitated is not physically present, whether God (Eph. 5:1), Christ (1 Pet. 2:21), Abraham (Rom. 4:12; Heb. 6:12), or the prophets (James 5:10-11). In other verses the object of imitation is someone who was or had been physically present with the readers (1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Cor. 12:18; Gal. 4:12; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 11). Two important verses combine these ideas: "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord" (1 Thess. 1:6), and "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
[6] Examples from antiquity include: Plato, The Republic, 539b; Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, 1.2.3; Wisdom of Solomon, 4:2; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8.187. See Michael J. Wilkins, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
[7] Capes, “Imitatio Christi and the Gospel Genre,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 13 no. 1, 4.
[8] Ibid, 7.
[9] For more on imitation biographies in the ancient world, see Abraham Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986).
[10] Kurz in Segovia, “Kenotic Imitation of Paul and of Christ,” Discipleship in the New Testament, 106.
[11] Ibid. See Wisdom of Solomon 4.2.
[12] Kurz comments that, “the most common use for the image of fatherhood is the comparison of teaching to paternal duties. It envisages not merely formal teaching but the total formation of the disciple.” Kurz in Segovia, “Kenotic Imitation of Paul and Christ,” Discipleship in the New Testament, 107.
[13] See Crenshaw, Education in Ancient Israel, NEED PAGE NUMBERS
[14] Capes indicates that the purpose of imitation literature in the ancient Jewish context was to “encourage the faithful during periods of persecution. Those threatened with imprisonment, suffering, or death could appeal to the lives of martyrs who, despite terrible physical torture, nevertheless remained faithful and refused assimilation” (9).
[15] See Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
[16] Note about the unity and authorship of the letter.
[17] Kurz sees imitation as the theme of the entire Philippian letter. The concrete examples of chapters 2 and 3 are reinforced by less specific references to personal examples of suffering and perseverance throughout the letter. He concludes, “the cumulative effect of all these personal examples is a powerful incentive to imitate their self-sacrifice for the interest of others.” See Kurz in Segovia, “Kenotic Imitation of Paul and of Christ,” Discipleship in the New Testament, 109-117.
[18] Phil. 2:5.
[19] Phil. 3:17.
[20] Thurston and Ryan, Philippians and Philemon, 67.
[21] Hawthorne in Longenecker, 166.
[22] Still, Philippians and Philemon, 64.
[23] Carolyn Osiek believes that Paul did not “intend to teach Christology except inasmuch as Christ is the first and best example of what the audience could be like. The entire purpose is to persuade the audience that they must give up their own preferences for the sake of the other” (Philippians and Philemon, 55). Likewise Bonnie Thurston sees the exaltation of Christ as the focus of the hymn, saying, “…the lordship of Jesus is the point of the passage. Paul calls the Philippians to follow his example and to live under his lordship” (Philippians and Philemon, 90). Those speaking up for the alternative view, that the hymn sets Jesus up as a moral exemplar to be imitated, include Gerald Hawthorne (“The Imitation of Christ: Philippians” in Longenecker (ed.) Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 166) and William Kurz (“Kenotic Imitation of Paul and of Christ” in Segovia (ed.) Discipleship in the New Testament, 112).
[24] Still, 64.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid, 89,
[27] Hawthorne in Longenecker, 170.
[28] So Thurston, Philippians and Philemon, 104, 105.
[29] Thurston, 107; Still, 91-2.
[30] Thurston rightly comments, “…while 2:19-30 appears to be simply a recapitulation of his hopes to visit them and news about companions of Paul who are known to the Philippian, the verses are, in fact integral to the appeal in this section of the letter, as each man mentioned exemplifies the qualities Paul has commended in 2:1-4. The immediately preceding appeal to live blamelessly…is followed by two examples of men who do so…” (Philippians and Philemon, 105).
[31] Hawthorne in Longenecker, 174.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Phil. 3:17.
[35] Still, 113-14.
[36] See above.
[37] Osiek, 101.
[38] Kurz in Segovia, 114.
[39] Still, 110.
[40] Hawthorne in Longenecker, 173.
[41] See above for more on Hellenistic Jewish literature of Imitation.

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