We 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.
A Summary of Paul’s Worldview
We’ve considered in the recent posts some of the elements that Wright focuses on in Paul’s writings as indicating his worldview — both pre- and post-conversion. In particular, Paul thinks in terms of God’s story (the following is my summary of some of Wrights points) –
* God is one. Wright refers to this as “creational monotheism,” that is, there is but one God and he created the heavens and the earth. He’ll discuss this in more detail in Vol. 2.
* God created man and woman in his image and likeness, intending that they will reign over his creation as his representatives.
* Adam and Eve sinned and so brought a curse on not only mankind but also creation itself. The curse not only interferes with their relationship with God but prevents them from properly reigning over the creation.
* God entered into a covenant with Abraham, which God has been faithful to even when Abraham’s descendants have not been. The covenant includes a promise to bless “the nations” through Abraham’s “seed,” as well as a promise to give Abraham a nation. And this covenant would be based on faith.
* The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is foundational for Paul’s thought — not only because the exodus shapes much of the story of God and Israel, but also because Paul sees Christianity as recapitulating the story. That is, Paul sees the Kingdom as an escape from slavery in order to gain an inheritance from God.
Indeed, much of Paul’s vocabulary is borrowed from the exodus story: God’s “redemption” of his children, the “election” of the church, our “inheritance,” God’s “dwelling” within the church and his children, “sons of God,” etc. You will miss much of what Paul is saying if you fail to recognize this.
* Deuteronomy 27-30 describes the rebellion of the Jews against God, God’s sending the Jews into exile, and then God ending the exile and circumcising the hearts of Israel so that they will love God and obey his commands. Thus, Paul sees himself as living at the beginning of Deu 30:6 times — as prophesied by Moses.
(Deu 30:1-6 ESV) ”And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.“
Again, although Paul occasionally explicitly refers to these passages, more often he simply assumes that the reader is familiar with these prophecies.
* As a result, as was typical of Second Temple Judaism, Paul considers the exile to have continued long beyond Ezra and Nehemiah. Although a minority of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, the Jews as a whole remained scattered and God had not yet fulfilled his promises regarding the Kingdom. To Paul, the exile ended at Pentecost, when God established his Kingdom and the many Kingdom prophecies began to be fulfilled.
* Israel was called by God to represent him to the nations. And Israel failed in its calling. Again, this is not obvious from Paul’s writings, but if you’ve studied the opening chapters of Deuteronomy, you see that God intended to reveal himself to the nations through Israel.
* God promised to bring about his “kingdom” — the announcement of which would be “good news” — at which time God would pour out his Spirit.
* The dead will be resurrected with spiritual bodies like the body Jesus was resurrected with.
* God’s Kingdom includes not only the Promised Land, but the entirety of the heavens and earth, which would be freed from the curse (both the curse of Gen 3 and the curse of Deu 27-29, that is, the curse of exile) at the end of the age.
* We live in an “age” distinct from the age up to the time of Jesus. Jesus brought about a new age that would culminate in the return of Jesus and the purging of all wickedness by the consuming fire of God’s wrath. This is an already/not-yet age, during which the Kingdom has come but not in its fullness.
* God’s good news is for the Jew first, but the prophets anticipated that only a remnant of the Jews would be in the Kingdom — ironically meaning that the Kingdom long promised to the Jews would not include a majority of the Jews and would ultimately be broadly accepted by the Gentiles.
* Torah is a gift of God to his people, revealing his will and, much like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, providing Israel with greater knowledge of right and wrong — and hence making them more accountable for their sins than those without the Torah. Nonetheless, God’s grace abounded in response to the increase in accountable sin.
I could go on … and Wright does in great detail. But by now, the point should be clear: you cannot interpret Paul while ignorant of the Law and the Prophets — not to mention the First Century background of Second Temple Jewish thought.
The beauty of Wright’s teaching is that it ties the Bible together. It all fits together. No longer is the Old Testament just for children’s stories and moral lessons. Now the Old Testament matters, and in ways that we never imagined.
Better yet, our understanding of the New Testament is revolutionized. Not only do we see its roots in the Old Testament, but we understand much better such concepts as “election” and “inheritance.” The language of Paul (and Jesus, in fact) now carries much deeper, richer meanings. We no longer filter Paul’s words through Reformation disputes. Rather, we can now read Paul much more as a First Century reader would.
This allows Wright to reject much of 20th Century Pauline scholarship and establish a better way of reading Paul that, to me, is both much more conservative and truer to what the Spirit always intended.
In short, Wright’s work is revolutionary. So far, Volume 1 ties together materials already available in Wright’s previous writings. But by patiently tying it all together at the metanarrative/worldview level, Wright is able to destroy much of 20th Century theology. Indeed, for those of us with a Restoration Movement heritage, seeking to return to First Century understandings and practices, Wright’s work should be celebrated.