No Serenity Now? Hunsinger on Philippians 1:2

Bernardino Mei, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to the beneficence of this blog’s editor, I’m now perusing George Hunsinger’s fine commentary on the Epistle to the Phillipians, a volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. (No remuneration, monetary or otherwise, was offered in exchange for blogging about this book.) The distinguished Karl Barth scholar and Princeton Theological Seminary professor offers his text as an “exercise in ecclesial hermeneutics” (p. xvii) and, more specifically, it is also an essay in creedal hermeneutics. That is, he is attempting to honor the integrity and coherence of the scriptural canon within the heuristic framework of the ecumenical Christian symbols of faith. This book also is an homage to Hunsinger’s teachers at Yale Divinity School – Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Brevard Childs. Such a confessional orientation for biblical exposition remains contested -- as do all readings of scripture -- but it is salutary for an author to be up front about it.

Philippians, By George Hunsinger (Brazos, 2020).

What first grabbed my attention was Hunsinger’s commentary on the terms “grace and peace" (charis kai eirēnē) that appear in Paul’s salutation in Phil. 1:2. Hunsinger finds it theologically significant and normative that “grace” is the first term of the pair. Both terms, in his reading, pack eschatological punch. The notion of “peace” retrieved here is quite incongruous with any quietism or resignation in the face of injustice. Recall that John’s Gospel (in typically cryptic fashion) has Jesus say: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). I wonder, what might such unworldly peace look like for us today – an era in which a billionaire can glibly drop a sound bite about “World War III,” a time when racist violence and rhetoric are on the ascent, a moment when millions of people can downplay a pathogen that has taken more than a million lives in the United States?

Following Paul’s lead, Hunsinger asserts that Gospel peace is “an apocalyptic concept,” and thus intrinsically conflictual; like grace, it manifests itself “in spite of” the sin and death that afflict the reigning world order (p. 6). “Peace with God means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God” (ibid.). As such peace remains “restless to the end” (p. 7).

It is a peace that opposes death and the things that make for death. It is a peace that enters into death and in the midst of death perseveres (ibid.)

In this vein, Hunsinger delivers a bit of shade toward what is, next to the Lord's Prayer, perhaps the most famous prayer in the United States.
It is a peace that has the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (pace Reinhold Niebuhr) (ibid.).

Hunsinger refers, of course, to Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.” (Richard Wightman Fox's stunning biography of the most eminent U.S. theologian of the 20th century, to my mind, puts to rest the controversy about whether Niebuhr actually wrote it.) To be sure, this prayer may have have empowered generations of 12-steppers to come to terms with intractable addictions, but perhaps the Gospel offers a more profound way of seeing the true struggles and hope of the world than does the Seinfeldian mantra “Serenity Now!”

Hunsinger writes:
Grounded in the apocalypse of grace, peace necessarily takes its bearings from the end of all things (ibid.)
Elsewhere, Hunsinger has published a volume of essays on Barth titled Disruptive Grace. Now he complements this notion with an equally provocative one -- disruptive peace. This is a peace that peace lives from eruptive grace, not from works -- not even the work of passive acquiescece -- lest anyone should boast.


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