Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Forty Four

It would be difficult, in a work so large, to pin point certain sections that were most crucial to understanding Tom’s approach to Paul, but certainly one of them must be pp. 852-60, which are the subject of this post. Here Tom is dealing with the crucial proposition or thesis statement found in Gal. 2.11-21, or vss. 15-21 depending on whether you see the transitional comments about Peter in Antioch as part of the thesis statement or not. There is a definite coherency to Tom’s argument here, and if you accept his presupposition about covenant and covenantal faithfulness, the argument makes good sense of this passage, and related Pauline passages.

Here are some of the virtues of the interpretation in these pages: 1) Tom is right in insisting that Paul has now redefined the people of God around Christ, who is both the Jewish messiah and the savior of Gentiles, whereas previously the people of God had been defined around Torah. One caveat about this– pre-70 the Jewish people of God did not have a singular focus on Torah. They were defined by Torah, Temple, and Territory, not just Torah. And one could say the people of God as followers of Christ are still defined around Torah, Temple, and Territory, if by that one means Christ is now the new Temple, the locus of the presence God, and Christ’s law is now the new Torah for the people of God, and eventually Christ will come to rule the earth, and claim not just Israel but the world as his Kingdom. 2) Tom is right that the term Judaizer is not wholly apt for Jews trying to make Gentiles ‘Judaize’ because elsewhere the term refers only to Gentiles who are Judaizing (and so in Gal. 2 Peter is accused not of being a Judaizer, but of forcing Gentiles to be such); 3) he is also correct that both the justification language and the participation language can be understood as not alternative ways of describing the new reality, but as both aspects of describing the new covenant relationship with God. They are not dueling banjos, but both subheadings under a larger category. He goes on to maintain that ‘being in Christ’ is not = to justification, but is the basis of it, just as ‘Christ being in you’ is not= sanctification, but is the basis of it. In other words, as I read him, the relational category is primary for Paul, the soteriological benefits that flow from it secondary.

Where does his exposition then head off in a wrong direction? Firstly, he is wrong that Paul is retelling the story of Israel as his own story in Gal. 2.15-21. No, he is retelling his own story, which is A-typical of Jews, quite frankly. Only a small minority were then followers of Jesus. Only a small minority previously could claim to have Paul’s kind of pedigree as described in Phil. and 2 Cor. And only a minority of Jews appear to have been card-carrying Pharisees. No, Paul is not retelling the story of Israel past or present. He’s telling his own story which is a-typical. Of course Tom is right that Paul is not waxing eloquent about his own story in the way modern people talk about their ‘religious experience’. Of course not.

And here we come to a more fundamental fly in Tom’s ointment— Tom puts it this way on p. 852: “Paul is not here recounting his own ‘religious experience’ for the sake of it. He is telling the story of what has happened to Israel, the elect people of God– and he is using the rhetorical form of quasi-autobiography because he will not tell this story in the third person, as though it were someone else’s story…” First of all, he is not using biography to talk about a whole people’s story. Israel has not been dying and rising in Christ. That is precisely the problem. Only a few isolated Jews like Paul have done so. Furthermore, Gal. 1 should have warned us off from such a reading– for there Paul in a very personal way talks about is own unique experiences– God’s Son was revealed in him, he went off to Arabia, he visited Jerusalem twice over, he had a head on collision with Peter– all of this is part of Paul’s unique autobiography and that whole discussion culminated in 2.15-21. So no… he is not telling the story of Israel here AT ALL. He is telling the story of a singular Jew who is a ‘brand plucked from the burning’ by God.

Secondly, when Paul wants to talk about the people of God, Jew and Gentile united in Christ, he never calls them Jews, never calls them Israel. He calls them the ‘ekklesia tou theou’ or simply speaks of those ‘in Christ’. The former term is crucial for him, and he may have even been the first to apply it to ‘Jew and Gentile united in Christ’. It is in fact a multivalent term appropriate for this new entity because ekklesia is both the term used for qahal, the assembling of God’s OT people, in the LXX, and it is the term Greeks used for their own democratic assemblies in Athens and elsewhere. It is in short precisely the right kind of term to use for the new entity of Jews and Gentiles united in Christ. And of course the most important reason Paul is absolutely not going to call the ‘church’ Israel, is because as Rom. 9-11 makes clear, Israel’s story is not over. It has not simply been co-opted or even enfolded into the story of Jew and Gentile in Christ. Israel’s story will not come to final resolution until the second coming of Christ, not through just the first coming of Christ. Christ still has work to do to fulfill the mission of Israel and for Israel and by Israel. So, no….. Gal. 2.15-21 does not support Tom’s argument about Israel being the church. Is election being redefined around Christ Jesus? Yes it is, but that is a story and work in progress– neither the full number of the Gentiles or the Jews have as of yet come into that elect group according to Rom. 11.

On the bright side however, Tom is correct that: 1) Paul distinguishes between sin and transgression (the latter being a violation of the known law). 2) he is right that Paul is arguing that if Peter withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles, he is rebuilding up the Mosaic wall between Jew and Gentile, a wall that Christ’s death was intended to tear down. I would add that this is because the Mosaic covenant and its law has come to fulfillment and an end in Christ. It is not being renewed or carried on in the new covenant. Paul emphatically denies that Gentiles have to become Jews in order to be in Christ or among his people, which is what the Agitators were insisting who came behind him in Galatia. Indeed, the whole of Galatians is arguing against the Gentiles getting themselves circumcised and keeping the Mosaic covenant. It is not an argument primarily about justification or right standing, but about ‘how then should we live in light of the fact that we already have from the Spirit, what the Agitators suggest we can only fully get by keeping Torah’. If one rebuilds the Mosaic Law, and still has fellowship with Gentiles, that turns a sinner into a trespassor, and Paul rejects that approach.

P. 860 is an important page, and I would urge you to read and contemplate what is said there. Tom is right that Gal.2.15-21 is as crucial to Paul’s argument about the redefinition of the people of God around Christ crucified and risen, as 1 Cor. 8.6 is crucial for his reformulated notion of monotheism. More anon.