Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright— Part Twelve


In the last major section of his book, Tom turns to a quarter many Pauline scholars have never explored or commented on, namely the analysis and use of Pauline material by modern philosophers. He begins (p. 308) by pointing out…
“The apostle Paul has reemerged as a force on the contemporary philosophical scene. Some of the most powerful recent affirmations of nonrepresentational, materialist, and event oriented philosophies repeat topics and tropes of the ancient apostle. Paul is appropriated both for and against Kantian cosmopolitanism, psychoanalytic models of subjectivity and power, Schmittian political theologies, Derridean messianism, political universalism, and an ongoing refashioning of identity politics within postsecular contexts. This is a book précis blurb on the book Blanton,W., and H. de Vries, eds. 2013. Paul and the Philosophers. New York: Fordham University Press.”

Tom finds some of this contemporary philosophical analysis of Paul fruitful. For instance in regard to Blanton’s work he says (p. 312)….

“his own project has in my view grasped one of the most important
things about Paul (important, that is, in terms of how he is retrieved for our
day): that he was not a Platonist. Blanton is reacting, in a sustained if dense
argument, against the assumption of Nietzsche, Freud and others that
Christianity was ‘a Platonism for the masses’. Hence the title of Blanton’s
book: A Materialism for the Masses, reading Paul as passionately concerned
with the material world. Thus while a line of thinkers from Nietzsche to
Derrida has misread Paul, the former seeing him as the arch-purveyor of a
dehumanizing glorification of ‘weakness’ and the latter lampooning him for
his ‘retrograde dualistic metaphysics’, Blanton asserts that such a way of
reading ‘Paul’obscures a materialist philosophical engagement with a crucial swath of Western religious and philosophical history, thereby obscuring important resources for a new materialist philosophy of life which is a pressing need within our biopolitical or posthumanist epoch.”

Or consider what he says about the work of G. Agamben who in 2005 produced a remarkable commentary on Romans “The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Tr.
P. Dailey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.: “Paul articulates this new kind of time, neither as mere chronological succession nor as the blank denial which belongs to end-of-the-world speculation, but as a moment to be taken hold of, to be ‘bought up’ or ‘redeemed’, indeed, to be ‘seized’: Messianic time is the time that time takes to come to an end, or, more precisely, the time
we take to bring to an end, to achieve our representation of time. This is not the line of
chronological time (which was representable but unthinkable), nor the instant of its end
(which was just as unthinkable); nor is it a segment cut from chronological time; rather it
is operational time pressing within the chronological time, working and transforming it
from within; it is the time we need to make time end: the time that is left us.”

Tom astutely observes that the American philosophers seem to be trying to recognize their own day in Paul’s whereas the Continental philosophers are trying to hermeneutically appropriate Paul for their own time! (p. 320). Either way, Paul is not being analyzed on his own terms, his own turf, and in his own time period.

What was Paul’s vision of a new society. Here Tom interacts with the work of the famous philosopher Milbank. We can only give one little taste to how he responds to Milbank’s analysis of Paul:

“On the one hand, he [Paul] would explain that idolatry is based on a mistake. The Almighty does not
live in houses built with hands. I think that Paul, faced with twentieth- and
twenty-first-century political constructions, might well conclude that a good
deal there was idolatrous, attempting to translate vox populi, vox Dei into
vox populi, domus Dei: the voice of the people turning itself into a shrine
where worship and sacrifice would be offered. And I think, on the other
hand, that Paul, faced with the normal tyrannical claim to supreme power
by means of supreme force – in other words, the threat of violence and ultimately
death – would affirm once more that the creator of all has fixed a day
on which he will call the world to account, and has given assurance of this,
and of the identity of the coming judge, by raising him from the dead.
This, for Paul, was no ‘counterfactual’, however much it was for the
Athenians, who knew their Aeschylus. It meant what it meant in Isaiah 11,
and for the reasons specified in that prophet and in the Psalms: the root of
Jesse ‘rises up to rule the nations’. Ultimately, Milbank has only taken the
argument halfway. The resurrection of Jesus is not the foundation for a
‘heavenly’ or ‘supernatural’ faith. It is the sign of God’s kingdom on earth as
in heaven. That, rather than supposed new scientific evidence, explains the
heavy resistance to the idea of resurrection in the post-Enlightenment
world. In that world, the claim that ‘religion’ has been ‘subtracted’, leaving
only the ‘secular’ behind, created space for the construction of a new sort of
empire. Such an empire has needed to challenge the notion of resurrection
for the same reason that the Sadducees did: it threatened their position of
power. The resurrection does indeed challenge what Milbank and others
call the ‘biopolitical’.” (p. 335).

“Thus, ironically perhaps – and it is a similar irony to what we see in that quotation
from Galatians! – the more ‘Jewish’ we make Paul, within the larger world
we know from detailed historical study, and the more we break out of the
‘religious’ straitjacket into a fuller social world in which ‘religion’ plays its
part without dominating the landscape, the more credible it is to suppose
that Paul really did occupy what he saw as a messianically defined but contested
space, claiming to be at the very centre of the divine plan for Israel
and the world but, by that very claim, with its radical corollaries for Torah,
knowing that he was an anomaly, bound to be seen as deviant or
transgressive.” (p. 336)

After such reflections, Tom turns in the end back to discussing Paul himself and draws the following conclusion about recent discussion of the Apostle.

“Is ‘justification’ central to Paul, or is ‘participation’ the
centre? The line from Schweitzer to Sanders to Campbell says, Participation
(perhaps in an ‘apocalyptic’ context). The line from Baur to Bultmann to the
old perspective says, Justification. Paul says, Both, and both within a larger
context; because the word ‘love’, in biblical usage, is itself a direct pointer to
the theme which will occupy him in the next chapter, namely, the divine
covenant. Within that covenant, and the family whose sociological dimensions
indicate just this kind of new unity, and the transformed lives shaped
from within by the Messiah’s cross and resurrection, the Abrahamic promises
now fulfilled through the Messiah mean that there is neither Jew nor
Greek, neither apocalyptic nor salvation history, neither participation nor
justification: all are one in the Messiah.” (p. 346).

We have here a valuable, sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising book from Tom Wright. It is surprising because of some of interlocutors Tom chooses to dialogue with, for example especially in the last main chapter of the book. It is predictable in various ways since Tom continues to beat the drums we heard playing at maximum sound in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. As it turns out, it appears that Tom in various ways is very indebted to American Pauline scholars like Wayne Meeks and Richard Hays and E.P. Sanders, but also has learned much from British scholars like David Horrell or Jimmy Dunn. For my money, more should have been made of the work of John Barclay, but that is a story for another day. This book is lively, and it involves interesting interaction with other Pauline scholars, including those who have most influenced the discussion over the last 3-4 decades. It’s well worth the read.

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