Thursday, February 28, 2008

the Way of Interchange

Last week I was reading N. T. Wright's commentary on Philemon (a letter I've apparently never looked at hard enough), and I stumbled onto a familiar idea that I was hardly expecting to read there:
Philemon is to learn in practice that koin┼Źnia means an 'interchange' between those who are Christ's. Paul first identifies himself closely with Philemon (vv.1-7): then he establishes the closest possible ties between himself and Onesimus (vv.10-14). The result of this 'interchange' are that Onesimus and Philemon are brought together - in Paul (vv.17-20).

At this point I--and any other self-respecting student of the Inklings--must stop and say "Aha! Charles Williams."

Charles Williams and Exchange
Williams had three really central concepts in his understandings of both Christianity and existence: co-inherence, substitution, and exchange. These three are hard to distinguish between sometimes in his thought, and indeed they're very closely related. His essay "The Way of Exchange" explores that single concept pretty-well in depth, with the appropriate mentions of the other two along the way.
There are several scriptures that C.W. references in relation to exchange; some are returned to again and again in the essay, others, though important as well, only come up in-passing (the man had a way with using quotations in his works and speech... he very fluent in it and did so frequently; even those that seem to be random, spurts of literary filigree, have a heavy meaning in Williams's schema). The most-heavily emphasized verse--indeed, Williams saw this as the particular expression of the Christian idea of duty towards a neighbor--is Galatians 6.2: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
It encouraged, indeed demanded, a continual attention to the needs of one's neighbor, to his distresses and his delights. And it defined "neighbor" as meaning anyone with whom one was, by holy Luck, brought into contact. It required, then, and active "sympathy," and it spoke of something still higher, of an active and non-selfish love. It went even farther. It declared a union of existences. It proclaimed that our own lives depended on the lives of our neighbors. Saint Anthony of Egypt laid down the doctrine in so many words: "Your life and your death are with your neighbor."

This last line begins to bring up his idea of "co-inherence", of things existing in one another. He saw this principle at work on all levels of being: the persons of the Trinity co-inhering with each other; the people of God co-inhering with God (1 John 4.13); even the people of God co-inhering with each other (Rom 12.5, Eph 4.25).
The collision of co-inherence and the command to "bear ye one another's burdens" wrought his idea of exchange. Williams felt the "thing was put plainly enough" in a passage from the records of some followers of Saint Anthony's:
A certain old man used to say, 'It is right for a man to take up the burden for those who are akin (or near) to him, whatsoever it may be, and, so to speak, to put his own soul in the place of that of his neighbor, and to become, if it were possible, a double man; and he must suffer, and weep, and mourn with him, and finally the matter must be accounted by him as if he himself had put on the actual body of his neighbor, and as if he had acquired his countenance and soul, and he must suffer for him as he would for himself.'

In practice Williams saw this "way of exchange" as Christians relieving others of their anxieties, their infirmities, etc. "by a compact of substitution" made "as simply and as effectually as an assent is given to the carrying of a parcel. A man can cease to worry about X because his friend has agreed to be worried by X."
It has to be noted that Williams still held this to be the work of God: "No doubt this is only a part of casting all our burdens upon the Lord; the point is that it may well be a part of it." Ultimately this is all tied to the nature of God and the work of God through Christ.
The divine Word co-inheres in God the Father (as the Father in him and the Spirit in both), but also he has substituted his manhood for ours in the secrets of the Incarnation and Atonement. The principle of the Passion is that he gave his life "for" us--that is, instead of and on behalf of--ours. In that sense he lives in us and we in him, he and we co-inhere. "I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me" said Saint Paul, and defined the wev of universal power towards substitution.

Just a side note: some of Williams's descriptions of this exchange at work in the essay are absolutely beautiful. I've had to leave out nuances and digressions in his thought here also, so I heartily recommend the original work to you.

Interchange in Philemon
Now let's turn back to Philemon. Wright describes what is at work in the epistle as "interchange", a term that he borrows from M. D. Hooker and his essay "Interchange in Christ".
The essay, from the Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 22, 1971, is chiefly about the role that 'interchange' plays in the Incarnation and Atonement--some of the primary scriptures that Hooker is exploring are Galatians 3.13, 2 Corinthians 5.21, 8.9, and Romans 8, "all of which are in the same general form--Christ become what we are, in order that (in him) we might become what he is."
At the very end of the article, however, Hooker briefly approaches the concept of an "exchange" that the believer shares in by being "in Christ" that "overflows into the lives of others", where "Paul shares in the experience of interchange, and in turn shares his experience with others." Hooker then offers a plethora of passages from 2 Corinthians illustrating this: 4.10-12; 6.10; 13.9; 13.4; and 1.4-6.

This is what N. T. Wright sees in Philemon: "an interchange between those who are Christ's."
"Paul plays Christ in the drama, identifying himself with both sinner and offended party, so making peace." Paul accomplishes this by associating himself with Onesimus in a sort of exchange of persons; it's all not unlike Williams's description of Christ's work, except here Paul "has substituted his manhood" for Philemon's. Look at verses 17-18:
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

He is interchanging himself with Philemon through their joint faith in Christ and membership in the Body. Paul is picking up Onesimus's tab, so to speak, and the escaped slave is taking the apostle's place of welcome with Philemon. They're bearing one another's burdens, though some may seem more burdensome than others.

All of this has served to give me a new and deeper appreciation of Philemon. Hopefully, more than that, it will also serve as a kind turn for Charles Williams. The man's theology, for all its eccentricities, gets little attention at all today; yet here we see it anticipating Hooker and Wright. Perhaps, just maybe this brilliant Inkling deserves another, longer, more thorough look today. Some of his thought will certainly never be considered orthodox, but beneath it all there's no telling what you may find that's worth saving--especially if, as Hooker concluded, "the interchange of experience--with Christ, within his own life, and with others--is something which ought to be known by every believer."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Yes, I would agree, Charles Williams deserves a good long look. The article you mention by Morna Hooker was subsequently developed into (half a) book-length form. The whole first half of the book "From Adam to Christ" is about "interchange in Christ". I think LSU has it, that's where I first found it (I think I copied the whole book). That is scripturally a great study, and anybody with one foot in the world of C.W. cannot help but feel that imaginative vision of things expanded and grounded by Hooker. Thanks for the reminder.