Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Eighty Six


There is something to be said for the argument (see pp. 1378-79) that in Rom. 7.13-25 Paul is framing his discussion with one eye on what the pagan moralists said about the ethical dilemma of knowing better but not doing better. Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 7; Ovid, Met. 7.20f “I see the better and I approve it, but I follow the worse.’ This is not because, contra Tom’s exposition on those pages, this has anything to do with the Jew under Torah. Paul is not talking about the Jew specifically here, he is talking about all those in Adam, all of humanity outside of Christ. Paul is talking about the problem of fallen humanity with a bent will, knowing better, but actually unable under their own steam to do better. Seen this way, the text makes much better sense, and the parallel with pagan moralizing works much better. Paul is talking about the general human malaise and ethical dilemma, not specifically about a Jew’s struggle with Torah. The attempt to read the story of Israel into all of Romans 1-8 must be said to have failed. It doesn’t work. Sometimes Paul is just talking about Gentiles, sometimes about Jews, and sometimes about Christians, and it doesn’t help to mush all those things together. The story of Romans 7 is in the first instance about Adam in vss.7-13 and about those in Adam in vss. 14-25, as cued up for us by the discussion in Romans 5.12-21 where the only two categories are first Adam and last Adam, and those who are in each. Israel is not part of that discussion, and no wonder. The majority of the audience in Rome are Gentiles, and Paul will address them directly as something distinct from Israel (see Rom. 9-11), though heavily indebted to true Israelites, such as Jesus and Paul.

I agree however with Tom, that Paul has no quarrel with the pagan philosophic attempt to understand the nature of reality, figure out its logic, and then pursue a virtuous course of living that is in harmony with all this. A genuine striving after accuracy and clarity of thought, genuine truth seeking is a good thing, not least since all truth is indeed God’s truth. Paul agrees with ideas about moral progress as well, though he would see this only happening by the empowerment of the Spirit. He agrees that virtue doesn’t happen automatically one has to strive to practice it. Most of all Tom is right that the attempt to shoe horn Paul into some pre-existing Stoic ethic or Cynic ethic or Epicurean ethic doesn’t work. There are parallels, but the overall framework and pre-suppositions are different. “He therefore provides in terms of ‘logic’, a ‘physics’ and an ‘ethic’ reshaped around the gospel of Jesus, the larger framework within which what he says about politics and religion make the sense they do.” (p. 1382). You can’t fit the Jewish, or in this case Jewish-Christian worldview, into the pagan one, especially when you start talking about a crucified and risen savior, Jesus.

It is for this reason that Tom finds the work of Engberg-Petersen truly off the mark when he does the comparison of Paul and Stoicism. Tom is right that if one is going to compare ethical remarks one needs to compare centers with centers, not say the periphery of Pauline thought with the center of Stoic thought (p. 1386). But I also agree with Tom that Paul’s audiences’ ears would have perked up when they heard words like pneuma, which they already had ideas about. They may have thought of it as the divine spark or identity at the heart of all things, “the hot breath that would eventually consume all things” (p. 1384), but if so, Paul is engaging in redirection here, since his view of Spirit comes from the Scriptures and Christian experience and has to do not with what is inherent in all things, but what one gains when one becomes in Christ. Then too, Tom is right that for Paul ethics is not about being yourself, or a journey of self discovery and knowing self, its about displacing the self at the center of one’s thought world and replacing it with Christ (p. 1385). And truly, as Tom says, there would be no place in pagan philosophy for what was central in Paul’s– a crucified and risen Jew who had become the savior of the world.

From pp. 1386-1407 we have a somewhat detailed critique of the proposals of Troels Engberg-Petersen in regard to Paul and Stocism. There are two books in particular being critiqued— the book Paul and the Stoics (2000) and Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul (2010). In fairness to Engberg-Petersen, he does not think Paul is either a philosopher or particularly a Stoic, as Tom admits. Engberg=Petersen is attempting a socio-historical analysis of Paul, and he professes indebtedness to the New Perspective, though he does not analyze Paul in light of Judaism. He in fact is trying to do something of a non-theological analysis of Paul’s thought world because according to him “to read with theological intent is to lose the historical-critical edge’ (Paul and the Stoics p. 2). In this respect he sounds a bit like Horsley
analyzing Jesus. In various respects he is reacting to what he sees as the over-theological readings of Paul in European scholarship. He also wants to get beyond the Tubingen Judaism/Hellenism divide. Again, Engberg-Petersen believes that Paul draws on both Jewish and pagan ideas in his worldview, but it is Tom’s analysis that basically he sees Paul as operating within the essential structure of Stoic ethics. Again Tom suggests that to Engberg-Petersen much of Paul’s apocalyptic Jewish context doesn’t make sense, so instead Engberg-Petersen will analyze him in philosophical categories, both ancient and modern (Stocism, and Foucault and Bourdieu!!!). There is a hermeneutical edge to this because he also wants to operate with ideas and beliefs which constitute ‘a real option for us’. In odd ways this sounds rather like Bultmann’s pronouncement that since modern people can no longer believe in things like miracles and bodily resurrection we need to re-read the Scriptures through the categories of existentialism in order to get some live ammunition that will still have some force in today’s world.

At the heart of Tom’s critique is this– Engberg-Petersen is guilty of the sin of historical anachronism, reading modern ideas back into Paul. He puts it this way— “The deepest problem is this: what is this notion of a ‘live option’ doing within an historical analysis of Paul and historical relation he might or might not have had to historical Stoicism?….Unless I am much mistaken, it is the task of the historian to get inside the mind of, and be able to expound the thought of, people whose worldviews, mindsets, aims, motivations, imaginations, likes ans dislikes are significantly different from our own, at potentially every point.” (p. 1388). Exactly, and as a footnote, I would say this is the very problem I have with some of the practitioners of studying Paul through the lens of ‘the new rhetoric’ which of course Paul himself could never have known.

Engberg-Petersen at the close of his first book (Paul and the Stoics) suggests that Paul’s belief in the Christ event in the direct form in which he understood it was false. But he adds that we can emulate the kind of theologizing Paul was doing, and admire that. What this boils down to is jettisoning Pauline theology, but retaining some of his anthropology and ethics. Needless to say, Tom will have none of this, and again this sounds rather like Bultmann’s program, who amazingly spent most of his time analyzing Paul’s key theological terms as if they were just manifestations of anthropology. Tom says much the same on p. 1389.

Tom further suggests that Engberg-Petersen makes the mistake of assuming that what is central in Pauline thought is his anthropology and ethics ideas, and that these he chiefly derives from Stoicism. This seems to be favoring or privileging the ideas one actually resonates with, and bracketing out or marginalizing the apocalyptic and theological ones one doesn’t. The category ‘what is a live option for us’ seems to be the controlling factor in the analysis, according to Tom, and I would agree. On p. 1391, Tom points out that Engberg-Petersen thinks that Paul’s conversion involved a total change, no already-not yet situation. He thinks Paul has simply left the fleshly body behind, and suggests something may have happened to Paul’s body at conversion, though he doesn’t say what. The term pneuma looms large, and Engberg-Petersen follows Dale Martin in suggesting pneuma means for Paul a material substance as did Stoicism, and in contrast to Platonism which saw pneuma as a non-material reality. We might have expected an exposition on the cosmos, in his second book, but in fact he focuses on an overall theory of the human life, and in particular on the self.

The major critique begins on p. 1392 and the first salvo is that Engberg-Petersen is guilty of terminological confusion— he uses metaphorical and literal to mean abstract and concrete. Tom rejoinds— “the fact a word is used metaphorically tells us nothing whatever about whether the entity to which it refers is material or non-material, and the fact that a word is used literally likewise tells us nothing about the physicality or otherwise of its referent. One can use a metaphor to refer to a concrete object and one can speak literally about abstract, non-material entities”. I quite agree. Tom goes on to complain about Engberg-Petersen’s fuzzy use of the term cosmology (see above).

The confusing of terms continues when it comes to the use of the phrase salvation history, which Engberg-Petersen takes to mean the history which moves forward from the time of Jesus to the ultimate end, and this is seen like the Stoic view of time moving forward to the final conflagration, which apparently is also seen as a kind of salvation history idea. It’s not just terms that go fuzzy or get redefined in non-Pauline ways, on pp. 1394-95 Tom complains that real exegesis is lacking when he attempts to analyze Pauline texts in detail. More in the next post.

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