Paul and the Faithfulness of God: The New Perspective

FaithfulnessofGodWe are considering N. T. Wright’s newly released Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God) – a massive and masterful consideration of Paul’s theology.

Beginning around page 110, Wright re-argues the case for the so-called “new perspective,” which calls for a deeper, truer understanding of the Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament.

A bit surprisingly, I’m sure, the tipping point for many theologies is the teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus, of course, roundly criticized the Pharisees. Paul wrote extensively against the Judaizing teachers, who are generally considered to have been Christian converts from among the Pharisees.

And yet Paul himself claimed to a Pharisee quite late in his career –

(Phi 3:3-6 ESV)  3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–  4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Notice the grammar carefully. Paul says that he has more reasons for confidence in the flesh — present tense. He’s not claiming to have left the Pharisees. Rather, he remains a Pharisee, but has reinterpreted the purposes of Pharisaism in light of Jesus.

Wright argues,

The basic Pharisaic story [metanarrative or framing story] was not, then, about the sort of question that has exercised western theology over the last half millennium. The reason a Pharisee studied and elucidated Torah, and tried both to keep it himself and to get more and more other people to do so, was not because of some moralistic scheme, designed to enable him to earn favour with a potentially angry deity and so to reach a “solution” which was basically an other worldly salvation. …

Reading through (say) Josephus, the [Dead Sea] Scrolls, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and indeed the rabbis, this is simply not how they were thinking. They were not asking about ‘life after death’. Continuing life of some sort was assumed by most first-century Jews, except for the Sadducees. What mattered far more … was ‘the age to come’; and this did not mean ‘life after death’ but ‘life after life after death’; in other words, a period of being ‘dead’, however that is described, followed by [bodily] resurrection into God’s new creation. And the reason first-century Jews, especially Pharisees, were interested in resurrection was because they believed in a God who was the creator of the whole world. … God’s faithfulness to Israel (the birds hovering over Jerusalem) would be reflected in his faithfulness to all creation (the bird hovering over the waters).

(pages 110, 113).

(Gen 1:2b ESV) And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

(Isa 31:5 ESV)  5 “Like birds hovering, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it; he will spare and rescue it.”

(I quote these verses because Wright does not give the citation for his allusion to the hovering of the Spirit/birds.) By the way, “protect” in Isa 31:5 is the word used for “passover” in Exodus. (I just love reading the Prophets and finding these things.)

Wright breaks the argument down further –

First, there  is every indication that the kind of Jew who became a Pharisee was implicitly aware of living in a continuous story going back to Abraham, perhaps even to Adam, and on to  the great coming day, and of being called to be an actor within that drama, to play a particular  part in bringing the story forward into its final, decisive moment.

Second, there is every indication that Pharisees, like other Jews of the period, did not expect that decisive moment to involve the collapse or disappearance of the universe of space, time, and matter. It would involve, rather, the transformation, redemption and renewal of that universe.

Third, there is every indication that Pharisees, like many other Jews of the period, saw their own time within this narrative as one of continuing exile awaiting the final promised rescue. The exile in Babylon has only been the first stage of a much longer process of God’s people being enslaved to pagans. The real redemption, coupled with the long-awaited return of YHWH to Zion, still lay in the future.

(pp. 113-114; italics in original).

As you can see, Wright is setting up an argument, built from history, that shows that Jesus and Paul did not throw away the Law and Prophets and legislate new answers. Rather, the Jews had correctly read the Scriptures, in a very broad sense, and so weren’t shocked when Jesus appeared declaring that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They’d been expecting, even praying for, the coming of the Kingdom for hundreds of years!

Moreover, it’s not surprising that the Gospels can record Jesus preaching “the gospel” long before anyone had been taught about his death, burial, and resurrection. You see, “good news” is a term used by the Prophets to speak of the coming the Messiah, the establishment of the Kingdom, and the outpouring of the Spirit.

(Isa 52:7 ESV) How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Of course, there were elements of Jesus’ ministry that came as a huge surprise to the Jews, especially his death on a cross. No one expected the Messiah to be killed, buried, and resurrected.

In the 16th Century, Protestantism rejected any notion that salvation means entry into a continuing story (a true story, of course) with continuous history stretching back to Abraham, or even Adam. Rather, Christianity became almost entirely focused on personal salvation, with the goal of evangelism being to change someone from a damned to a saved condition, and with the saved being left to await death or the Second Coming, when they could escape the fallenness of God’s creation. (For example, see this article on Pietism and this personal testimony.) In this form of Christianity, the world is wicked and so Christians are to be rescued from the broken world when Jesus returns.

In a strange parallel, the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and Rome’s brutal suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132-135 AD caused the Jews to give up their attachment to the Promised Land. The rabbis were much less focused on the coming of a messiah and a kingdom. Instead, the rabbis rethought Judaism as a personal relationship with God — with no sense of a continuing story.

Wright doesn’t make this point, but it’s true that Christianity and Judaism were closely tied for quite some time after the apostolic age, as shown by Oskar Skarsaune in In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (a great read and resource). It would not be surprising that the early church might have forgotten much of the narrative that it inherited from Judaism if Judaism was at the same time leaving its narrative behind.

Of course, Jesus and the apostles taught the coming of the Kingdom, but the Jews believed in an earthly kingdom headquartered in Jerusalem.

Christianity’s spiritual kingdom was largely rejected by the Jews, who clung to the dream of an earthly kingdom until the Romans killed something like 500,000 Jews, sold hundreds of thousands more into slavery, and destroyed over 1,000 Jewish towns and villages in retaliation for the Bar Kochba revolt (led by Simon ben Kosiba, who claimed to be the Messiah). The Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem, except for one day a year, and until the death of Emperor Hadrian, Roman policy was to exterminate the Jews and Judaism.

Thus, Christianity — especially Protestantism — became self-focused — with converts being told to live in their own stories, each one of having a “personal relationship” with God that has little to do with God’s promises to Abraham, the promises of the Prophets, or our place in God’s plan to redeem his creation.

And so, Christianity becomes purposeless, that is, if the whole point of Jesus and the apostles and the New Testament is convert someone to faith, baptize them, and have them thus be saved, what’s the point of life after baptism?

For many Christians, the only purpose of life after baptism is evangelism — some going so far as to declare that you aren’t really a “disciple” unless you’re actively engaged in personal evangelism — an obvious turn toward a works-based religion, driven by the need to find a purpose for Christian living.

For others, the gap is filled in with a never-ending list of “marks of the church” or “tests of fellowship” that mandate that a saved person properly sort out God’s will on these issues to preserve his very tenuous salvation. Again, one thing that drives this sort of thinking is the need for a purpose beyond merely getting saved. The logic is that, if Christianity is not about getting the rules for worship and church organization right, then what would be left? For those caught up in this kind of legalism, there would indeed be very little left of their Christianity if they gave up their search for rules and regulations.

Some denominations have rejected this sort of legalism and this extreme push for evangelism, and find themselves having become little more than book-study clubs. They gather each week to talk about the scriptures, hoping to find guidance for their personal lives, but still find no purpose in life beyond going through the motions — and as a result, their children and grandchildren are preferring to sleep in and play golf on Sundays, figuring they can learn morality from books and the Internet.

You see, the loss of God’s story — his great metanarrative — has left us — fundamentalists, evangelicals, and mainline denominations all — with a greatly impoverished religion.

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11 Responses to Paul and the Faithfulness of God: The New Perspective

  1. The old Covenant scriptures certainly have more value to us than to provide moralisms to teach in Sunday school or in sermonettes”!

  2. Steve says:

    Jay, thanks for the appropriate application of Wright’s insights to our own movement. I just received my copy of Wright’s newest work but I haven’t had time to more than read the table of contents. I look forward to reading your thoughts and working through Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I’ve read just about everything else Wright has written and I’m just wrapping up a class on the afterlife where we looked at Wright’s thoughts on the new heaven and earth being a “transformed physicality.”

  3. Gary says:

    It is ironic in the extreme that a fellowship that enthusiastically took the book of Acts as its constitution was blind to the explicit evidence in Acts of Paul’s ongoing religious practice as a Jew. Paul shaves his head in Acts 18:18 in fulfillment of a vow. He is arrested in the Temple having paid for sacrifices to be offered. And he unashamedly declares that he is, not was, a Pharisee. The ironclad CoC doctrine that a Christian can not also be a practising Jew and participate in any religious practise that was a part of Judaism or self identify as a member of any human religious movement or organization was the root of a host of wrong turns and wasted efforts and needless barriers separating Churches of Christ from the rest of Christ’s Church. And it was all so needless. Paul’s Judaism and Pharasaism while also a Christian apostle is as plain in Acts as “repent and be baptized” in Acts 2:38.

  4. Adam says:

    That last paragraph on church being a book club is soooo true. Why can’t churches get it?

  5. While it is clear that the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) decreed that Gentiles did not have to adopt the unique identifiers of the Jews, it is also clear that the Jewish church, especially in Judea, did not drop its Jewishness when it came to Jesus as Lord. In discussing Paul’s actions in Acts 21 (participating in fulfilling a vow through bloody sacrifice), a friend observed, that this must show that either Paul sinned or that Christians have much more liberty than most of us are willing to accept. Gary is right. It is ironic that we overlook the continued Jewishness of the Jewish church as we go beyod them in “binding” inconsequentials that God has never bound on his people – and then use these as identifying marks of the one and only true church.

  6. R.J. says:

    Is he saying that none of the Pharisees were not legalistic???

    The present tense in that verse could simply be knowlic present(also called aorist present) or even historical present.

  7. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    The Pharisees covered a range of doctrine, but had certain attitudes and teachings in common. Some Pharisees, such as Nicodemus, were disciples of Christ. Some were opponents. I think the Judaizing teachers within the church had been converted from among the Pharisees, myself.

    Wright’s point is that the Pharisees’ understanding of the OT was not nearly as incorrect as we sometimes argue, but he is not saying that they were right. Rather, they did hold to certain positions that we should agree with. They were wrong but not entirely wrong.

    Thus, for Paul to convert to Christianity, he had to rethink and redefine much of his understanding as a Pharisee. But many of the broad categories of Jewish teaching were true, if properly understood and redefined.

    For example, the Pharisees considered the Exile to be ongoing, because the prophecies regarding the end of the Exile had not yet come true. They were right, but they expected an earthly kingdom not a spiritual kingdom. They expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans rather than being crucified and resurrected — demonstrating that the Romans’ could not defeat him by utterly unexpected means.

    And so, Paul could (and did) continue to hold to many teachings of the Pharisees, but only as re-interpreted in light of Jesus’ work on earth and teachings.

  8. rich says:

    jay

    (Phi 3:3-6 ESV)

    NET BIBLE
    u might want to take into consideration….paul”s summation statement

    1.
    3:6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless.
    2.
    3:7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 3:8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! 10 – that I may gain Christ,

    4.

    ” 3:9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness

    3:2 Beware of the dogs, 2 beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 3:3 For we are the circumcision, 4 the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, 5 exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials 6 3:4 – though mine too are significant. 7 If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, 8 I have more: 3:5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 9 3:6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 3:7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 3:8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! 10 – that I may gain Christ,

    3:9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness 11

  9. rich says:

    OOPS
    3:9

    3:9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law,

    but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness 11

    – a righteousness from God that is in fact 12 based on Christ’s 13 faithfulness.

    SORRY BOUT THAT

  10. R.J. says:

    I wonder if N.T. Wright has anything new to say about Colossians 2:23.

  11. Ray Downen says:

    It is good to not overlook that Paul was led to criticize Peter severely for his choosing to “not eat with” Gentiles after some of these brethren came claiming to represent the Jerusalem church and calling for Gentiles to live as Jews did. Paul was a Gentile when among Gentiles and chose to live as a Jew when among the Jews (in Jerusalem). But all along he was faithful to JESUS who had called him to be the apostle to the GENTILES. So Paul was not looking to Moses to become righteous. Nor was he pointing to the Law of Moses for cleansing. Not for an instant. Paul was loyal to Jesus and considered HIM Lord.

    I’m not sure what Wright has in mind. I’m not sure what Jay is saying. I’m sure that Paul was secure in walking with JESUS in the Way set up by Jesus as the Way to God. His desire to win Jews to Christ was not diminished as he aged. What he did in Jerusalem was not because of faith in the Law but because of his love for his Jewish brethren. He wanted to win them to Jesus.

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