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

The discussion between p. 500 and the end of the chapter at p. 537 present us with some of the most critical and also controversial elements in Wright’s analysis. We need to bear in mind that Wright is hear talking about worldview, and stories that are part of the worldview, that which lies beneath and undergirds the theologizing. For example, Deut. 27-30, which is so fundamental to Wright’s argument is treated as something of a long range prophecy, not merely a narrative account, revealing the pattern of sin, judgment (which Wright calls exile) and then redemption beyond judgment on God’s people.

The real controversy lies with Wright’s analysis of the story Israel and it’s relationship to the story of the Messiah, and not surprisingly how the Mosaic Law fits into these stories hinges on whether one accepts, or not, Wright’s understand of Christ as Israel. For the record it should be stressed that while Paul does indeed call Christ the last or eschatological Adam, he does not call Christ the last Israelite, or even true Israel. Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, and indeed he will fulfill the vocation of the Jews to be a light to the world, but the story of Israel is not simply incorporated into the story of the Messiah, or vice versa. This becomes especially clear in Rom. 9-11, but one could back up to Wright’s exposition of Rom. 7 where he thinks the text is speaking of Israel and the Law. I would suggest rather it refers to Adam and those in Adam, from a Christian point of view. In Rom. 9-11 the Messiah comes from Israel, but does not circumscribe Israel. Thus Paul can refer to Israel after the flesh and true Israel and in neither case refer to Christ (see Rom. 9-10). Even later in Rom. 11 the full number of Gentiles come in, and then Paul says, ‘and in like manner all Israel will be saved’ (not are being saved, but in the future will be saved). The quotation from the OT makes perfectly clear that the impiety of Jacob (i.e. Israel) must be turned away when the Redeemer comes forth from heavenly Zion. That is, the story of Israel is not completed in Christ’s previous actions on earth. It still has a future, and that future is for Israel to be re-joined to the largely Gentile people of God, regrafted into the olive tree, to use Paul’s metaphor, when the true gardener returns— Christ (not Paul).

On p. 508, does make clear that he sees the paidagogos metaphor in Galatian indicating that the Torah, as Mosaic covenant law has a temporary function in relationship to Israel. Its necessary preliminary role is finished once Christ comes. Torah (p. 510) shows that Israel is the people of God, but also makes clear that Israel is still in Adam, and so the law turns sin into trespass. Tom says clearly on p. 511 that the Law is never seen as a bad thing by Paul, its a good thing but frustrated in its purpose by sinful flesh. That however is not the only problem. He should have added that the Law in no case had the power to enable a person, whether Adam or a fallen person, to keep it, to obey it. The Law could inform a person but not transform a person. The Law could tell a person what to do, but not enable them to do it. So for Tom, he suggests we have to read Rom. 8 as a continuation of Rom 7 such that “Now that the ‘sinful flesh’ has been dealt with in the death of the Messiah, Torah is able at last to fulfill its original purpose– through the death of the Messiah and the power of the spirit.” (pp. 511-12). But this is to dramatically underplay the contrast at the beginning of Rom. 8 which says “what the Mosaic Law could not (indeed never) do, God’s Spirit has done. Tom thus wants to read the word nomos in Rom. 8.2 as referring to the Torah but this will not do. It won’t do because already in Rom. 7.13-25 we have a contrast between the ‘law of my mind’ and ‘a different law ruling in my flesh’ Sometimes Paul does indeed mean a ‘ruling principle’ rather than the ‘Mosaic Law’ and this is clear enough in the contrast in Rom. 7.13-25. The Law of the mind may well be God’s Law, or more narrowly the Mosaic Law (if Paul is thinking of a Jew outside Christ) but this Law is being opposed by the ruling principle of human fallenness in a persons flesh. God’s law is not that unruly, unholy principle. So too in Rom. 8.2 ‘the ruling principle of the Spirit of life’ is something different from the good but impotent Mosaic Law, and Paul makes this contrast quite clear here. In short, the attempt to take ‘nomos’ anywhere and everywhere in Paul to mean ‘Torah’ doesn’t work, any better than trying to suggest Christ is the true Israelite, or Israel. The new covenant is not the Mosaic covenant renewed. It is a new covenant connected to the one with Abraham. The story of the Mosaic covenant comes to an end in Christ himself who fulfills its purpose bringing it to an end, and does not extend its license to rule the life of the believer. There is a ‘law of Christ’ but this is the law of the new covenant and it is not simply a continuation of Torah.

Thus I must say no to the conclusion of Tom when he says p. 513– “The new covenant people is ‘not under Torah’ in the sense that it is not ‘Israel according to the flesh’, living in the place where Torah goes on pronouncing the necessary and proper sentence of condemnation, But it ‘fulfills the decrees of Torah’ and indeed ‘keeps God’s commandments’ insofar as it is the Deuteronomy 30 people in whom what had been impossible under Torah because of Israel’s fleshly identification with Adam, is not accomplished by the Spirit.” Wrong. The new covenant are not under Torah in any sense, if by Torah one means the Mosaic Laws. Nor has it any need to fulfill Torah’s decrees, since that covenant is defunct, having been fulfilled in and by Christ, and brought to an end when he inaugurates the new covenant on the cross. God’s people are not under two covenants at once, only one, and that one is the new covenant with the Law of Christ, which among other things involves many mandates from Jesus not only not found in the Mosaic Law, but in fact superceding what the Mosaic Law says, for example about the lex talionis— ‘the eye for an eye’ principle.

Thus while it is helpful to some degree when Tom says (p. 517), that everything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories..the story of the creator and the cosmos…the story of God and humankind…and the story of God and Israel, this deserves a yes and no response. The story of Jesus brings some new elements into the over-arching narrative, and while it is true that Christ enables the story of God’s people to carry on, as well as the story of the cosmos and humankind in general, this is not all the story of Christ does, and in some respects, he brings the subplot of the story of Israel under the Mosaic covenant to an end. It does not continue, being once fulfilled in Christ. More helpful is his remark that “Israel’s Messiah brings Israel’s history to its strange and unexpected conclusion, precisely so that he can then bring God’s justice [or better said mercy] to the nations.” (p. 518).

On p. 525 Tom rightly stresses that the rescue operation Christ is involved in is a rescue from the present evil age, not a rescue from the world of space and time. Equally helpful, is the preview of coming attractions on p. 530 when Tom stresses “that the supposed clash or conflict between two models of salvation in Paul, the forensic or the juristic on the one hand and the incorporative on the other, is also a category mistake, the result of a failure to see how his different stories actually work.”

A misstep happens on p. 534 when Tom sees the story of Adam alluded to in Phil. 2.5-11 (see Dunn on this view). Adam did not pre-exist, nor was he ‘in very nature’ God. And the key term here means ‘take advantage of’ not ‘snatch at’ something one doesn’t have. To be sure, Adam did the latter, but Phil. 2.5-11 says that Christ did something else– he did not take advantage of his divine prerogatives.

At the end of this important chapter (p. 536), Tom explains why he does not deal with the story of the church, or Christians, in this long discussion of worldview. He says it is because that story occurs on the surface of Paul’s texts, not embedded down below. But clearly enough various of these other stories rise to the surface of the text as well, from time to time. And if, as Tom says “the ekklesia itself…constitutes the central symbol of Paul’s worldview (emphasis mine), then it should have been dealt with here, and in these preliminary chapters.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!