Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Nine

Chapter Three of Tom Wright’s magnum opus is a first rate summary of Greek philosophy insofar as it has relevance to understanding the thought world and writing of Paul. Particular focus is given to Stoicism (including helpful discussions of Seneca and Epictetus of course). Such a precis is important because, as Tom stresses, Paul believed he was offering an essentially Jewish message to a largely pagan world (p. 200) and he wanted it to be a word on target, a persuasive word. The one thing I wish could have been included in this chapter was a discussion of the interface between philosophy and rhetoric as it has a bearing on the understanding of Paul. After all, Aristotle himself was not only the father of much subsequent philosophy, he was the father of rhetoric in various ways as well and saw the latter as the proper way to present the former.

One of the reasons this sort of background chapter is important is to remind us that while in the modern era we often separate politics and religion, this was hardly the case in antiquity, and it is often a mistake to treat ‘religion’ as if it were something hermetically sealed off from the social world and political life of the Empire. To the contrary, religion, especially in the case of the Emperor cult, was an expression of politics in Paul’s world. As Tom puts it “religion was what kept the wheels of the state turning in the right direction” (p. 203). And what Paul was preaching would have sounded more like a philosophy than a religion (bereft as it was of temples, priests, and literal sacrifices). “Saul of Tarsus was born into a world where eight hundred years of Hellenic culture was alive and well, and where, in particular the philosophies of four centuries earlier were making a considerable come-back” (p. 211). This was especially true of Stoicism, the classic form of pantheism.

Tom draws interesting analogies between Deism in the modern west and ancient Epicureanism, in that the vision of god or the gods in the latter involved remote deities not much interesting in dirtying their hands with the affairs of humankind. Interestingly, he then adds “whereas the default mode of most westerners is some kind of Epicureanism [not only in regard to the remote deity bit, but also in regard to the living a self-centered life in pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure and happiness], the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism” (p. 213)… i.e. that God was everywhere and in all things as the sort of guiding force, elan vitale, essential spirit of it all. A Stoic might have said ‘if it’s all god, then its all good’ and what seems to be evil is mere lack of understanding on our part. The Epicurean by contrast sees much in the world that is genuinely evil and retreats to his garden, his safe spot, his sanctuary to dedicate himself to true pleasure— life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

“The aim of the Stoic was to engage in a progress [I think he means process] of continual moral enlightenment, with the goal of becoming a sage, a truly wise, well-formed character, able to live in accord with nature…in this divine sense becoming self-sufficient, impervious to the nasty tricks which life can play” (p.214). The Stoics saw our senses as basically reliable so one could make sense of the world to a good degree, where as the Skeptics felt the human senses were basically unreliable. For the essentially theological nature of Stoic thought, see p. 217 (and here Wright differs strongly from the analysis of folk like Engberg-Petersen, as do I).

There is a nice series of quotations from Epictetus in this chapter including the remarkable peon of praise where Epictetus insists that the ‘chief end and aim of humankind should be to praise god’ (see pp. 226-227). Here again Wright differs from Engberg Petersen in saying that theology is right at the heart of Epictetus’ exposition of Stoicism, and he is correct about this. The attempt to denude Stoicism or Paulinism of theology is an exercise in futility. Tom concludes that Paul would have assumed that the default mode of most of his audience’s thought would have been the Stoic development of Platonic thought (p. 232).

As a sort of precursor to what we find in Paul (which is an interesting blend of Jewish thought in Hellenic thought forms and modes of expressions) Tom fruitfully explores the Wisdom of Solomon where essentially Jewish thought is expressed in ways user friendly for a world long since Hellenized.

This is my favorite chapter thus far in this book and I will use it as a summary of important data for my students.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    It’s hard not to notice that the way Paul develops his arguments in Romans is reminiscent of Plato. The chain of reasoning in Romans 10:14-17, (“How are they to call on him … how are they to hear …”) The positing of hypothetical situations (the hypocritical Jew in Romans 2, for instance). The development of an idea through the widening of a word’s meaning, as in Romans 7 with the word “law.” It’s true that reading Plato and his ilk is great preparation for reading Paul.

    However, I cannot agree with Wright’s assumption that Paul was delivering “an essentially Jewish message.” That would be like saying Luther was delivering an essentially Catholic message. Their backgrounds were certainly Jewish and Catholic, respectively, but their messages were not designed to complete their former theology, but to turn it on its head. The law of Moses was now the ministry of death (2 Cor 3:7), no longer an object of hope (Ps 119:43). No more distinction between Jew and Gentile, an absolute horror that had to be overcome by the Jewish converts. The man was Jewish, but his message, no.

  • BenW3

    This response will not do. You are confusing a critique of a particular covenant (the Mosaic one) with a critique of Judaism in general. In fact, Paul’s theology is profoundly Jewish, based as it is in Jewish messianic and eschatological thinking. Plato has nothing to say about a Jewish messiah or about resurrection at all. The influence of Plato is minor compared to the influence of both OT and intertestamental Jewish thinking. You seem to be confusing Paul’s use of Greco- Roman rhetoric and a few philosophical comments, with the substance of his thought.

    BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    But don’t you agree that understanding Paul’s rhetorical style leads us to understand the substance of his thought? I didn’t mean to imply that Paul borrowed ideas from Plato. Yes, it is easy to see that the resurrection is a key idea of Paul’s gospel, and that it is also a Jewish one. But of what importance is that compared to the replacement of the Mosaic Covenant with something that was obviously radical thinking (notwithstanding Jer. 31:31), that was the stumbling block to the Jews? We have to focus on the stumbling block, the cornerstone of our faith, which was not the Messiah per se, but what he brought with him, the new way of living by the spirit and not under the law.

  • BenW3

    Actually no, I don’t agree with that. There is law in the new covenant as well, the law of Christ, as Paul calls it. The Mosaic covenant is replaced by another Jewish covenant which takes over much of the legal rulings and fabric of the previous covenant. Of course there are many differences, one of which is a whole bunch of new commandments from Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount). BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    When Paul writes in Romans 1 that his working to bring about “the obedience of faith,” I do not take every word literally, but I am convinced I understand his rhetoric. Faith is the new obedience, it is a better way toward saving our souls than the old way of following commandments. The commandments of Jesus show us the impossibly high requirements of being good that can only be attained through faith, that is, according to the spirit, not the letter. We must be changed from the inside so that we uphold the law by our very nature (Rom 2:14-15). It’s a totally different mode of salvation that cannot be attained through extending traditional Jewish thought.

    I’ve had similar discussions with other Evangelicals, and we always arrive at this impasse. But, I’m convinced that a proper understanding of Paul’s rhetorical style in Romans will lead to a completely consistent, simple, and astonishing view of salvation that had been kept hidden until after the resurrection of Christ.

  • BenW3

    Paul goes on in Romans 12-15 to make clear that the obedience of faith involves both faith and obedience to commandments. Romans 12-14 is very clearly a reassertion of some of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and some of the emphases in the Mosaic Law. The issue is not ‘how shall we be saved’ the issue is ‘how then shall Christians live’ and the answer involves both faith and obedience to God’s commandments, not one or the other. Faith does not make obedience unnecessary, it makes it possible. This is why James is right to say faith without works is dead, something Paul would not disagree with. The reference to Spirit and letter in 2 Cor. 3 has nothing to do with a contrast between obedience and faith. It has to do with a contrast between the effects of the Mosaic covenant and the effects of the new covenant. The Spirit enables Christian obedience to God’s Word. BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    Sometimes a theological division can hinge on just one simple word. In the past I would have agreed completely with your synopsis of faith and obedience, because we both agree that a Christian life is a moral one and not just experiential. But where you say the Spirit enables Christian obedience to God, I say that it accomplishes that obedience. James’ discussion of faith vs. works is not just teaching that they lack works, but they lack genuine faith as well. “Even the demons believe.” If we have that genuine faith, then everything good, including a moral life, will flow out of that. If not, the evidence of our works will show our false faith.

    The word enables indicates a mere potential for obedience from the faithful, once they put their minds to it. We tend to think of ourselves as having separate independent compartments called the mind, the will, the heart, but what is the thing that can control them? If we have self-control, who is doing the controlling of the self? Not the flesh (probably “ego” would be the way we would express it) but the spirit, which is sustained through faith and is expressed through love. When we talk about obedience as a separate action or duty, we revert to the old way of thinking about ourselves, “according to the flesh,” or under the law. That is my understanding of Paul’s teaching, especially Romans 6,7, and 8. His exhortations in later chapters focus on the expected results of faith and spirit, and we do need to be mindful of those so that we can know if our faith is genuine.

  • BenW3

    First of all, Romans 7 is not about Christian conduct, its about pre-Christian conduct seen from a Christian point of view. Secondly, the Holy Spirit does not do ethics for us. That is not the Spirit’s role, its ours. The imperatives in the NT are addressed to us, not to the Holy Spirit, and indeed to all of who we are which involves mind, will, spirit, emotions etc— we are to love God with our whole being, and obey him with our whole being. The Spirit has no need of such exhortations, and is not a substitute for our obedience. As Paul says ‘we’ must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The Holy Spirit is not addressed here, its on us, enabled by God’s grace and the Spirit’s internal work. BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    I’m glad that we agree that Romans 7 is about the pre-Christian experience. I don’t understand why this chapter is so often interpreted differently. But it does support the overall theme of 6-7-8, walking by the spirit, by showing the futility of the contrary way of walking according to the flesh. It shows us what not to do.

    The reason why Paul says we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling is precisely because it is God who is working in us. We can no longer be our own taskmasters, as he portrayed in Romans 7. We retain our own identity, our will, our mind, but they are now harnessed to a divine element dwelling in us. We are now controlled by Christ, even though we continue to exercise the will and the mind under our own identity.

    Using the word enabling in connection with the Spirit conveys something quite different. At the very least its meaning is ambiguous, but it strongly suggests that we have been prepared for independent action. When you combine this with the usual interpretation of Romans 7 as a portrayal of our ongoing struggle with sin, the picture of Christian life is a bleak one, where we have to learn obedience through trial and error, being given just enough strength to continue in our efforts. For some, it may seem like a noble battle. The younger generation with their natural hubris and energy may not be dissuaded by this theology, but it cannot be sustained over a lifetime. It corrodes one’s faith. I’ve seen pastors who after many years of preaching this approach become overwhelmed and forfeit their calling. It is why I had to change my theology, and it’s why I am motivated to discuss this with anyone who has the patience and interest.

  • BenW3

    But Greg the Greek is pretty clear in Philippians (see my commentary on that book). God works in us, but we must work it out. There is a dual working, a co-operation if you will. We would not be able to work it out, if God was not working in us to will and to do, but it is indeed us working out, and that is a willing and doing by us. This is precisely why Paul holds individuals responsible for their own conduct— because they have done it, for better or worse. He does not suggest God has done it for them when it is good, and they have done it when it is bad. Indeed, in a text like 1 Cor. 3, he tells his fellow ministers that there work matters, and leads to rewards or the lack there of in Kingdom come. Enables is quite the right word in this case. Grace is indeed an enabler. It does not do the work for us. And the Spirit is our partner in working it out, the Spirit does not do it for us. In short sanctification is a joint effort, not a fait accompli…..
    BW3


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