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

The last chapter in volume one of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, reviews for us Tom’s answers on the who, what, when, where, why etc. questions (pp. 538-69). On the ‘who’ question it will be noted that Tom is perfectly comfortable in saying that Paul could call any and all Christians ‘the Jew’ as well as ‘the seed of Abraham’ and ‘Israel’. The middle of these three terms is clear enough, the other two controversial. Tom has to concede that this doesn’t quite work with the use of Israel in Rom. 9-11, for example, and indeed when we look at a passage like Gal. 1, Paul refers to Iudaiosmos as a way of life that Paul left behind. Even in regard to his own individual identity, he is prepared to say in 1 Cor. 9 that he has to ‘become the Jew to the Jew’ from time to time for mission sake, but what this implies of course is that he is not simply a Jew any more, at least in terms of praxis. I would suggest there is a very good reason Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, does not address is congregations as ‘the Israel of God’ (and no, that is not happening in Gal. 6 either). Rather he calls them the ekklesia or assembly of God in this place or that. The new people of God are Jew and Gentile united in Christ, not simply Jews. And when he distinguishes his mission from that of Peter he says Peter goes to the circumcision, I to the uncircumcision. He is not simply happy to call his largely Gentile converts ‘the circumcision’, though of course the metaphor about circumcision of the heart could be applied to any convert. It is precisely because I agree with Tom that the ekklesia tou Theou is central to Paul’s worldview that it is important to be very careful about what we say about Paul’s terminology is about that entity. And there is reason for Paul’s reticence when it comes to the use of what today might be called supercessionist (or even hostile take over) language– the story of non-Christian Israel is not finished yet, and was not completed by the first coming of Jesus or his death and his resurrection. Rom.11 says otherwise. It is a story still awaiting a better resolution, when it is enfolded into the story of the ekklesia when Christ returns and ‘all Israel is saved’. Paul’s Gentile converts have been taken into the patrimony of Abraham through Christ Abraham’s seed, not into the story of Israel. Were the latter the case, the Judaizers would have had a case— Gentiles need to become Jews to be followers of the Jewish Messiah. Due attention needs to be paid to 1 Cor. 9 where Paul even says he becomes as one under the (Mosaic) Law for those who are in such a state, indicating that this is not his normal modus operandi, and then he goes on to talk about being under the law of Christ— clearly something else again.

On p. 543 we hear: “The people to whom Paul reckons he belongs could almost be defined as those who tell the Scriptural story, the great story of God and Israel, as their own story now fulfilled in, and transformed by Messiah.” But has this really taken the measure of Gal. 3.28 where Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Israel nor any pagan ethnic identities? Has the ekklesia really hijacked the story of Israel, or does it still have some time to play out and some future to conclude? In Paul’s view, the answer to the latter is yes. Yes the ekklesia is the Messiah’s people, Jew and Gentile united in Christ. Yes, there are Jews who have rejected their own Messiah and refuse to participate in the ekklesia, and according to Paul have temporarily(underscore that word) been broken off from the people of God (with Jewish Christians being seen as the ‘root’ in the Christian era). But as Paul clearly says— they can be grafted back in (just as the Gentiles if unfaithful can be broken off again). It’s a fluid situation.

Tom’s answers to the questions What is wrong, and What is the Solution? are uncontroversial, and have already been stated before. The problem is not just individual human sin, it is also the fallenness of all of creation which needs to be rectified. As that great philosopher Sting once said– what good is a resurrected body living in a decaying and dying world? As Tom stresses, the solution is the return of Christ to enact his restorative judgment, which the saints will assist with, and the spread of Christ’s rule over the earth, not to mention the renewal of the earth itself in the end.

p. 551 addresses the issue of When, and Wright quotes Phil. 3 to good effect– maturity consists in recognizing one has not yet achieved maturity, completion, perfection. The actual bodily resurrection has not happened yet for believers. The discussion of the already and not yet in Paul on pp. 552ff. is helpful in clarifying Wright’s own vision of the future, as Paul outlines it. Clearly Paul was not guilty of either over-realized or under-realized eschatology. Equally clearly, he believed Christ had already inaugurated the end times, ‘the ends of the ages’.

There is a splendid discussion of what ‘expectation’ means for Paul on p. 554–drawing on Thiselton he points out– “expectation is not simply a mental state nor a matter of making calculations or dreaming imaginatively about the future. Expectation consists…of ‘appropriate conduct or behavior in a given situation’ To expect as guest to come to tea does not mean to imagine a guest’s arrival; it means to put out cups, saucers, plates, to buy cake, and perhaps tidy the room and to begin to boil the kettle’ For the Thessalonians to expect the coming of the Lord means that ‘they must seek holiness and work hard.’”

One of the things that makes Tom Wright such an interesting NT scholar is that he is not afraid to pursue lines of argument that are somewhat speculative, and may, or may not bear fruit. One such exploration takes place on pp. 557-59 where Tom explores whether Paul may have thought of the present inbreaking rule of God as establishing some sort of sabbath here and now. If now is the day of salvation, the day which all the world has been groaning for, then now as well is the time when shabbat shalom, is or should be happening, in this case through the ministry of Paul. Now is the time of the new creation. This however is a yes and no proposition. No, the creation itself has not yet been set free, yes, there are already new creatures in Christ. No, the world has not been released, nor have human bodies become exempt from disease, decay, death, suffering, sin, sorrow. But yes, there is something new already happening the renewal of hearts, minds, wills, emotions, the inner self of those in Christ. And on the larger scale— yes, the turning point in the war vs. the powers and principalities has happened in the death and res. and exaltation of Christ, but no such powers have not been eliminated or prevent from continuing to do harm in this world. It must be said that the book of Revelation suggests that the final sabbatical rest and restoration does not happen now, but after the second coming, and indeed after the millenium and the final disposal of enemies. It is however interesting that the term ‘rest’ can refer to God finally ‘residing’ with and in the midst of his people, which John Walton suggests is in mind in the Genesis tale about six days creation followed by God taking up residence in his temple— his creation. Wright is correct that getting the balance right between the eschatological already and the not yet is tricky– the Scylla being a pessimism grounded in seeing just how little the world looks like a new creation, and the Charybdis being the cock-eyed optimism that thinks that because the resurrection has happened that everything has already begun to turn up roses. “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and misery of the present age….The mature mixture of times is foundational to Paul’s entire worldview.” (p. 562).

Wright brings us to the end of Part II, by reminding us of the peculiar nature of Paul and his calling— no one else was claiming to be THE apostle to the Gentiles (p. 564), and in Wright’s view this means he saw himself in a sense as the special agent of a Messiah who was the suffering servant of God who had as his vocation to complete the vocation of Israel to be a light to the nations. Thus Paul takes on this messianic vocation in his mission, and sees himself living into and out of the story of the Christ who is the light. Part III of this huge and groundbreaking work will deal with Paul’s theology proper, and Part IV with Paul’s aims and intentions (all in the enormous Vol. 2 of this work). Here (p. 566) Tom explains why it is important— “Theology for Paul was quite simply essential if the worldview, especially the united and holy ekklesia which was its central symbol, was to stand firm and remain in good repair.” Interestingly, Wright stresses that the reason theology became so crucial for early Christians like Paul was because they had rejected the symbols the boundary markers of Judaism, and at the same time were not going to embrace pagan symbols and boundary distinctions either. Therefore, they need to have deep and profound theological roots to sustain the faith. The faith could not be sustained simply by praxis, or the central symbol of the church. It needed to think, to have a renewed mind, and a profound grasp of what it believed, and indeed of the necessity of belief in order to be saved. This helps account for a major difference in focus between Judaism, which focused on orthopraxy and assumed as part of its worldview monotheism, and Christianity which focused on orthodoxy, and needed to define theological terms in detail.

Finally, as Tom says on the last page (p. 569), Paul was not interested in doing all our thinking for us, but rather teasing our minds into active thought, and goading us and guiding us to contribute to the task of doing theology and ethics in the Christian tradition. Or as Tom aptly puts it— ‘give someone a thought, and you help them for a day, teach them to think (theologically) and you transform them for a lifetime’.

The Impressionists at the Art Institute-- Part Three
Whistler, without his Mother, at the Art Institute
The Impressionists at the Art Institute--- Part One
Ellis Peter's The Piper on the Mountain