At the Heart of the Apostle Paul: The Story

Symbols and praxis need a story in a worldview to make sense. Famously, Bultmann stripped the New Testament of its mythology, but notice how N.T. Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, describes Bultmann’s agenda:

The main problem with Bultmann’s proposal, in addition to the muddling of different senses of ‘myth’, is that when he insisted that we should strip the early Christian world of its ‘mythology’ he meant not only that we should express the existential challenge of the gospel without its pre- Enlightenment scientific assumptions, but also that we should re- conceptualize the gospel in a non-narratival form, reducing it to the pure existential challenge of every moment, in which one is called to hear God’s word now rather than think in terms of the waste, sad time stretching before and after (457-8).

What Bultmann was to recode that message into a saving narrative characteristic of Protestant (Lutheran) theology, ramped up by 20th Century German existentialism as well. The impact, and this is characteristic of many forms of soterian thinking, is to de-Judaize the Bible (I’m using Wright’s use of de-Judaizing). For Wright, this whole New Perspective debate is all about whether or not someone embraces the Story of Israel into its theology or not. He observes the irony that Sanders erased that narrative and — this is well-known — colonized Paul into a soteriology. He sees the same in Dunn.. Wright then takes on those who deny narrative/story as a retelling in Paul and emphasize, in various ways, proposition or a more vertical theology (JC Beker, Watson, Barclay). With Wright stand Richard Hays and many others, including Morna Hooker. There has been a rather stubborn, if not productive, pushback against the importance of operating within, or explaining Paul within, a narrative framework. Wright’s discussion then ought at least to offer a response. For me it offers a counter to a tiring discussion. When Paul says his gospel is “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David … this is my gospel” then denial of a narrative plot fails at the start.

In fact, NT Wright argues for stories within the story, plots within the plot. The outer story is about God and Creation. God is creator, he made humans, they have a purpose, they thwart that purpose, there is a work to undo the thwarting, etc, Age to Come, etc… this redemptive work of God has already begun in the Present Age.

New Creation has invaded … all a hint to a large underlying story at work here for the entire cosmos. Death is the enemy and is and will be defeated. The evil forces — demons — are in need of conquering. So this story has a theme of judgment, and this judgment is connected to a coming Davidic king.

From pp. 484-5: So how does this ‘outer story’, this framing plot of creator and creation, function in relation to all the other things Paul is talking about in his letters? Is it just a loose, wide framework, so big, so unrelated to the detailed concerns of his churches, that for the most part it has little or no effect on what he actually says, on the line he takes, on what he urgently wants his congregations to reflect on and to embody?

That might be said (for instance) about the Stoic belief in the great periodic Conflagration. The serious philosopher can see the connection in theory, and can live ‘in accordance with nature’ in the light of it. But for most of the time Stoic ethics, as we saw, has no need to look beyond the horizon of the particular human being and, perhaps, the particular polis. One may well be able to develop the classic virtues without being too concerned about, or even conscious of, living in a universe that may one day go up in smoke and then, phoenix-like, reappear and repeat the entire story. One can believe in that framing story without it having an immediate impact on day- to-day living.

But with Paul it is different. This framing story, though it appears only seldom, functions dynamically in relation to the other stories, precisely as an outer story in a Shakespearean plot might function in relation to the smaller stories that nest within it and are joined to it by all kinds of subtle threads. To explain this next move we need to go slowly and carefully. We must ask: what are Paul’s sub-plots, and how do they relate to the main, overarching plot itself?

To make life easy as things get more complex, I shall now do what good storytellers would never do, and reveal in advance the shape of what is to come. The first sub-plot, I suggest, is the story of the human creatures through whom the creator intended to bring order to his world. Their failure, and the creator’s determination to put that failure right and so get the original plan back on track, demands a second sub-plot, which is the story of Israel as the people called to be the light of the world. This is the level of plot at which the Mosaic law plays out its various roles, like the complex but integrated roles given to the Moon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then, because of Israel’s own failure, we find the third and final sub-plot, which is the story of Jesus, Israel’s crucified and risen Messiah. His work, at the centre of Paul’s narrative world, resolves the other sub-plots, and provides a glimpse, as we have just seen, of the resolution for the main plot itself, the creator’s purpose for the whole cosmos. It is only when these various levels of plot are ignored, confused or conflated that problems arise. Allow each to do its proper job, and the Pauline story will work.

So there you have it: how the God and Creation plot shapes the whole of Paul’s story-telling and stories within the Story.

One plot is about the redemption of humans — purposed to reign for God in this world. They must be redeemed to reign, they must turn from their ruling on their own to rule for God. Here’s how it all fits together, from p. 489:

Thus the story of humankind falls, like the most obvious sub-plot in a play, within the larger plot, and cannot properly be understood (in Paul’s terms at least) independently from that larger narrative. The plot and the first sub-plot thus fit together as follows, explicitly in Romans 5—8 and 1 Corinthians 15 and, because these are so obviously central for Paul, by implication elsewhere as well:

1. The creator’s intention was to bring fruitful order to the world through his image-bearing human creatures.

2. Humans fail to reflect God’s image into the world, and the world in consequence fails to attain its fruitful order; the result, instead, is corruption and decay.

3. God intends to restore humankind to its proper place, resulting in the rescue and restoration of creation itself.

So far, so good – though of course we have not yet explored the question of how the creator will accomplish Stage 3. This three-stage outline is not yet, in point of fact, a complete narrative, though it has the shape of one. There are many blanks still to be filled in. The passages we have already glanced at contain the clues, which we shall follow up presently.

What is so often neglected in what I call soterian approaches is that the story stops here and the whole thing gets reduced: we lose Abraham, Israel, Jesus as Messiah, and it all gets reduced to personal salvation, and here I’m rehearsing what Tom Wright is saying in this chapter. The story of Abraham is how God chose to reinstate humans in this world — Israel, then, is central to the Story. If Israel, so also David (that’s from me).

What happens if we ignore this narrative, and never enquire about its placement within Paul’s largest story, that of the creator and the cosmos? The answer is obvious, because a great many readers of Paul have done exactly that. First, it will then be assumed that Paul is talking, not about the plight of creation, but simply about the plight of humans. Second, it will be assumed that when he appears to speak of a ‘solution’ to this ‘plight’, this solution is basically something to do with Jesus and his death and resurrec- tion, seen in isolation. Insofar as Paul refers from time to time to Abraham, he is simply a ‘predecessor’, someone in the scriptures who had faith (or: the right sort of faith!). Instead, I propose, and shall now argue, that Paul’s entire theology gains enormously in coherence and impetus if we see that he affirmed, even though he radically redrew, the particular second-Temple Jewish narrative which we studied in chapter 2: the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation. This makes sense of so many passages in Paul’s letters that it ought not to be open to doubt that Paul had this narrative in mind, and gave it substantially the same meaning it had within his native Judaism – except, of course, for the radical redescription to which he had come through the shocking and totally unexpected way in which the story had in fact reached its denouement. But to read the same story with new eyes as a result of its surprising ending is still to read the same story (495).

How so? Though the faithful Israelite, namely, the Messiah.

Wright explores how the Story of Israel fits into this Story … and it’s all about that singular divine intent to save the world through Israel, its failure to do just that and the expansion of Israel into the church … but in this section Tom finds a new expression that God has a “rescue operation [Christ] for the rescue operation [Israel].” Nice turn of phrase that will, I predict, become like “life after life after death.”

Enough for today. Come back Thursday for more.

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  • Phil M

    to save the world through Israel, its failure to do just that and the expansion of Israel into the church

    So that’s going well then…

  • From this description, N.T. sounds ‘right to me. He could have saved me a lot of trouble though

  • if he had written this forty years ago. I have had to spend all these years unlearning what I was taught in seminary.

  • JohnC

    What a tragic, though not surprising, thought. God help us!

  • RJS4DQ

    Well, I wish I had the book(s) and could be working through it in parallel. Amazon estimates arrival Nov. 7-9. I have a number of questions here – beginning with the framing of the story as a rescue operation for a rescue operation. Did Paul really think like this? I have a problem with the idea of a “rescue operation.”

  • scotmcknight

    No, and I don’t think NTW thinks Paul thought quite that way but there it is: Israel is to rescue/save the world as a light to the nations, they don’t succeed, so God “rescues” the rescue operation in Jesus. It’s concentric circles with Jesus as the inner circle. Something along that line. Jesus, though, for Tom is the one true Israelite so Jesus is not a 3d thing but the one original person.

  • Graham

    Despite the fact most of this is going over my head, it seems to make a lot of sense; but due to the fact most of it is going over my head I can’t actually tell you why……NT Wright has a habit of doing that, looking forward to the next part Scot, you’re now my translator lol

  • RJS4DQ

    Jesus as the one true “adam” and the one true Israelite seems embedded in the story behind Paul’s thinking. But “rescue operation” is a different matter. For me this conveys a notion of God’s plan gone wrong … and I don’t think that is the right way to think of the biblical story. Now humankind going wrong (constantly), that is a different matter.

  • Norman

    Thank goodness for biblical scholars today like Wright who know the importance of narrative/story as it relates to Paul and the NT Gospel!

    However I do think Wright skips back and forth ever so slightly between a literal hermeneutic application and a metaphorical viewpoint. I happen to believe he needs to stay within the metaphorical application of creation more in the end which I believe is a more accurate Jewish representation. Example: Wright has no qualms of coming to grips with the metaphorical (do a degree) of early Genesis setting aside the YEC literal viewpoint. However he then eventually appropriates the literal for the NT and Revelation regarding the same Creation motifs and embraces a return to a literal restored Garden of Eden (earth) that he rejects in Genesis.

    I don’t think Wright has allowed himself to be pushed on this issue sufficiently yet, thus his obvious dissonance. This has huge ramifications in how one reads Romans 5-8 and 1 Cor 15 and IMO is critical to reconstructing an even more accurate Pauline understanding than even Wright presents, although Wright is likely one of the most consistent biblical scholar of our age across the board. Scholars need to take Wright and build on his foundational work as there is still work to accomplish
    By the way, I think Wright misses on his “life after life after death”, i think Paul and the Jewish concept is simply “life after death” which is the overriding theme of messianic redemption. The creatio has been freed from Israel’s death which brings life now.

  • Norman

    I think Jesus rescued Israel from itself, not from God’s misadventure. I think Paul believes it was a restoration to set things right.

  • mark

    The problem with NTW’s approach is this.

    Wright adopts a Christianized version of “the story of Israel,” ignoring modern social science scholarship that would shed light on the crucial question of just how the religion of Israel fits in with the overall meaning of man in history, as expressed by man in history through his religious thought. By doing this, he fails to do justice to Jesus’ critique (I speak in human terms) of that history–a critique which Paul attempts to express in his own way, especially in the first few chapters of Romans.

    What NTW is doing, of course, is attempting to “save the appearances”–to misappropriate a phrase from CSLewis. He is attempting to save the appearances of Evangelical Protestant theology while framing his “narrative” in terms familiar to modern thought.

    Obviously I haven’t read his big book on Paul yet, but NTW has helpfully outlined his new “narratival” theology in much shorter form in his popular book “How God Became King.” FWIW, I have engaged in a multi-part critique of that book at my blog, Meaning in History–a critique which I need to complete. I also provided a precis of that critique in several comments at a recent Jesus Creed post, NT Wright and the Supersessionism Question.

  • AlanCK

    You raise great questions. How do we get at a true “framing story” that doesn’t overwhelm and relativize the symbols and praxis in the foreground? I think you are on the right course in bringing up Jesus as “embedded” (shall we call him the “foundation”?) as Paul seems to reconstruct the “framing story” in light of his experience of Jesus Christ.

  • DMH

    Hmmm….. not really. But it seems to me that God is slow- really, really slow- he has been at this creation thing now for billions of years. No doubt he thinks he has time yet to work it all out. I suspect, and hope, he will in the end.

  • mark

    Glancing through some of the comments, below, I’m struck that commenters such as Phil and John are very much aware of the importance of NTW’s enterprise. Despite my criticisms, I’m fully aware of that, but it is an enterprise that is bound to fail–despite the fact, repeat, fact that Wright is one of the best qualified persons to undertake that enterprise. The shortcomings of his approach are unfortunate, but my hope is that critique and analysis of his failed effort will lead to progress.

  • Norman

    Mark, I may agree that there is an element of “saving Protestant” in Wrights work but part of the challenge is portraying these concepts so that they can resonate with evangelicals/Protestants. That’s a hard road to walk and keep an audience listening to you in order to influence them. Not sure where else you are coming from (agenda?), so will try to read some of your links if I get a chance.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Wonderful stuff. Thanks for reviewing this book in such detail. A tiny observation:

    “Death is the enemy and is and will be defeated.” Even our biology offers a reflection of this. We often hear the lament of the apparent crudeness of predation, parasitism, etc. associated with evolution. And yet, once life began, we have no evidence of it ever being extinguished – mightily threatened and altered in massive extinction die offs – but never extinguished. This too is a story of life-death-life.

  • mark

    You’re right, of course. Part of the good that NTW may be doing with his work is that he is opening Evangelicals to broader issues than they have been used to considering. He is, as I said, one of the best qualified persons to undertake that task, especially because of his philosophical sophistication. As you suggest, I think he is trying to keep an audience listening to him, and to that extent I don’t believe he shows his hand, completely.

  • Norman

    Mark, just read some of your comment from your links. I likely would come down closer to Wright concerning modern scholars input than perhaps you do, even though I consider the tension between the two camps as be benificial to the overall process. I think Wrights narrative approach gets us closer to Paul’s worldview than the typical modern scholar’s does. IMHO;)
    What biblical scholars tend to do is portray the various dimensions of Jewish thought which is interesting of course, but does it really tell us why so many in the first century we’re coalescing around Paul’s narrative. I have a hard time believing that Paul changed the hermeneutic messianic game plan so much. I believe 2nd t Judaism had already created the hermeneutic environment that fostered Paul’s OT application for messianic application. I think Wright indeed helps us see how that occurred.

  • mark

    Let me try to express my critique of NTW in a slightly different way.

    Part of what I’m saying is that NTW is not doing justice to the sophistication and penetration of Paul’s insights–which are firmly based in the good news of Jesus himself.

    Paul may have lived in the 1st century AD, but in his own way he was very familiar with “narratives,” as anyone who reads his letters can readily appreciate. Nevertheless, contrary to what NTW is suggesting, for Paul as for the other early believers in Jesus, Jesus was not primarily about any narrative–not even the “story of Israel”–but about a crucified and resurrected Jesus. When push comes to shove and Paul’s Jewish interlocutors object that the cross is a scandal that is NOT a fulfillment of Israel’s story, Paul’s response is not: No, no, no, you don’t understand the narrative! It’s: Jesus is risen! That’s the game changer.

    But, as Paul in his genius realizes, this game changing fact has real implications for “narrative,” for “the story of Israel” that NTW is so keen on. I believe Wright has at least an inkling of what’s going on with Paul, as I have mentioned before with reference to Wright’s earlier work–and as NTW has himself pointed out. Specifically, in “The Climax of the Covenant” NTW addresses some of these issues as they arise in Galatians, but it is in the first several chapters of Romans that I believe Paul tries–outside the confines of “narratival theologizing”–to address the place of Israel within the history of the universal human race. How successful Paul is is a topic for another discussion. I believe he is largely successful, and more so than NTW is.

  • mark

    Thanks, Norman, see above–just posted.

    I’m not advocating for the “typical modern scholar.” However, I would definitely suggest that NTW is far more “modern” than many of his followers understand. Perhaps a better way to put that is that he is far more engaged with modern thought than his followers realize, far more influenced even as he pushes back against “Enlightenment” ways of thinking. He’s an interesting guy, and part of my frustration with his work is that I believe he is not following out some of the implications of his earlier work.

  • Phil Miller

    When push comes to shove and Paul’s Jewish interlocutors object that the
    cross is a scandal that is NOT a fulfillment of Israel’s story, Paul’s
    response is not: No, no, no, you don’t understand the narrative! It’s:
    Jesus is risen! That’s the game changer.

    But it doesn’t make sense to speak of something as a “game changer” unless we have an idea of how the game was going to play out. I’ve read what you written about Wright in your comments in these threads, and I can appreciate what you’re saying, but I guess I don’t quite understand what the alternative is. I don’t see how we can avoid talking about narrative. We all live inside some sort of narrative.

  • Phil M

    There must be some way to think about “rescue” (redemption, forgiveness, etc.) without it necessarily being thought of as a plan gone wrong. Those themes do seem to run through scripture, but perhaps it’s not a plan gone wrong if it was always part of the plan.

    A simplistic example would be letting my son/daughter embark on an activity that I know they are going to need some kind of assistance with at some stage (rescuing) – but that will be ok, it’s just part of the plan and will be beneficial to them. Not a solid analogy, but hopefully it get’s my meaning across.

  • danaames


    Wright doesn’t frame it as “God’s plan gone wrong” – it’s that the humans in question didn’t live into the calling God gave them – which is ultimately to become Truly Human Beings, faithful in loyalty to the Creator God – and also, on this side of “the fall,” saved/delivered/healed from slavery to death & corruption.


  • danaames

    Graham, try reading Wright out loud. In the times he seems over my head, this helps me tremendously.

    That said, Scot is a good “translator”.


  • mark

    Thanks for the helpful comments, Phil.

    First, I think that Paul really does have a pretty good idea of how the game is now being played out. Second, I think Paul’s alternative is largely embodied in the first few chapters of Romans–as well as in other places, as NTW has pointed out.

    It goes without saying, I hope, that we have today better tools for coming to grips with these issues than Paul had in his day. And yet, I think it’s a tribute to Paul’s real genius–sparked by his encounter with the risen Jesus–that his alternative/theory/explanation/theology stands up still in its fundamental outline. If you prefer to attribute that to the working of the Spirit, that’s OK by me.

    As you know, I have an alternative that’s spelled out in perhaps excessive detail on my blog, but which I believe is in fundamental, indeed essential, harmony with Paul. And Paul, of course, understands himself to be in fundamental harmony with Jesus and thus with his Church.

    I’ll try a somewhat different tack when I’ve finished my lunch. Thanks again.

  • danaames

    Hi Mark-

    I see that you have read “Climax of the Covenant.” That was Wright’s earliest large academic work. He began the “Christian Origins” series (the Big Books) after that. Have you read those? (The NT & the People of God, Jesus & the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God) I believe that the Christian Origins books are the core of Wright’s theology, and everything else Wright has written has been an explanation/elaboration of point/s he has set down in those “big books.” So many people jump into Wright’s books on Paul, but the real place to start is with the Chr. Or. books. If you know what he is saying there, you know what he is getting at with the entire corpus of his work, including “Climax,” though it came earlier.

    I didn’t read your series on “How God Became King” – don’t have that time today. But I did note that you said:

    “Wright seems to maintain that Jesus simply “revised” or “reworked” that narrative of “national righteousness” and fulfilled the “revised” narrative, Paul then following Jesus. I contend that 1) Jesus was not preoccupied with fulfillment, and 2) Paul understood that fulfillment of
    ancient Israelite scrolls was not the key to Christian faith–rather, Jesus resurrected is the key.”

    Mark, Wright contends exactly what you do, and to me that is very clear from the Chr. Or. books. Jesus was “not preoccupied with fulfillment,” or with the revision or reworking of a “national righteousness” narrative. What Jesus was about was simultaneously different than “the narrative of national righteousness,” and something deeper in it, expressed in the scrolls but not always apprehended, to which it ultimately pointed. And for Wright, Jesus resurrected is most definitely the key to Christian faith. It’s certainly possible that I don’t understand you completely, but I think you are not as far apart from Wright in this as you seem to believe you are.

    I do agree with you about flowers 🙂 though I don’t have much of a green thumb. And I do agree that culture is at the very least an expression of finding meaning in existence.


  • mark

    Thanks, Dana. I’ve read most of what Wright has written in book form, with the exception of the humongous tome on Resurrection, which I more or less skimmed. My experience has been that it’s fairly easy for people like me to believe that they’re in agreement with NTW, but over time I came to realize that his position is not quite as straightforward as I thought. Big topic.

    You’ll be disappointed to learn that a little over a month ago I rooted out most of those roses–the exceptions being Abraham Darby, Rose de Rescht, The Mary Rose, and Sir Thomas Lipton. That’s a big topic, too, but I ended up replacing them with a variety of shrubs that I hope will eventually provide a satisfying alternative. Till then, though, the link to the roses remains. Believe me, it was wrenching.

  • mark

    OK, NTW has his New Perspective, I have my new tack. First of all, thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my comments. I understand that a lot of people have difficulty coming to grips with where I’m coming from, something that requires a change in … perspective. So I’ll try to induce that change of perspective, as an alternative to simply saying, hey, read my lengthy blogs.

    This is a purely rhetorical question: how many of you think that NTW actually believes any, all, or most of the following proposition:

    That all humans are descended from just two parents, Adam and Eve;

    That Abraham really existed in some form similar to the accounts in Genesis;

    That God really told Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test of some sort–or maybe just a slightly sadistic joke;

    That God told Abraham that he and his descendants should all cut off their, um, foreskins–for some reason or other. Maybe to get title to Middle Eastern real estate, I forget.

    That Moses really existed and God gave him some actual stone tablets, as well as allowing Moses and the elders of Israel to see his (God’s) feet while they were having dinner on the mountain.

    Or do you think that NTW sees these accounts and many more like them as “narratives,” or maybe as glommed together with narratives from umpteen other books into one overarching “meta-narrative”? My view is that he sees them as narratives, but that he consciously elides the difference.

    My problem is this: supposing that Jesus appropriates to himself symbols (Temple, Torah, etc.) drawn from these narratives or this meta-narrative, what value is there in fulfilling narratives? And why should we believe that the Jews have their narrative wrong but Wright has it … right?

    Paul wrestled with similar questions, as NTW is well aware. Paul’s Jewish interlocutors maintained that Jesus was NOT the fulfillment of “the story of Israel,” that the “narrative” of Christian faith was a scandal. Paul’s response came at a number of different levels. One level, which NTW has discussed, was to respond that the Jewish “narrative” of Israel was a form of “paganism,” similar in its own way to the Roman “narrative” of “empire.” For anyone who has had the patience to read my blog re Mircea Eliade’s theory of “archaic ontology,” you’ll see the significance of Paul’s response and will marvel at the keenness of his insight–he is contextualizing Israelite religion in the history of man; as practically the first theorist of “comparative religion” he is placing Israelite religion in what I would call an experiential contrast.

    But on another level Paul basically grants that it doesn’t truly matter whether Jesus “fulfill’s” the “story of Israel” or any other “narrative. What truly matters is that Jesus is risen. The result is that, on the one hand, for those who believe there is no need to “pay[] attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.” For some, that will strike a chord with the words of Jesus about the “traditions of men.” On the other hand, Paul frankly grants that if Christian faith isn’t factually true, if Jesus be not risen, then we are the most pitiable of men.

    This is the context in which we must understand Paul’s use of “narratival theology.” It’s also the reason why, when Paul decides to set forth the gospel that he preaches to the church in Rome, he largely abandons narrative in the first several chapters. There he presents a Christian anthropology as his alternative to “the story of Israel.” Mankind is universal; human nature is one; Jews and Gentiles alike are part of the universal history of man. Thus, Jesus is presented not as being born into a “narrative,” but born into the living history of the human race. That’s the meaning and the experience behind Paul’s famous declaration: If Christ be not risen …

    Phil, in an earlier comment, posed the question: what is the alternative? I think Paul gives the alternative, as theory rather than narrative. The history of man is always in a sense the same. It’s the history of man’s attempts to come to a knowledge of God and of how to live in accord with the human nature that God has created–this is what Paul is addressing in so many words in Romans. What, then, is the place of Israel in that history, what place does the “story of Israel” have in Christian faith? I believe that the history of Israel (not the “story” as NTW uses the term) is the history of how one nation gradually came to a clearer understanding of God and of God’s creation such that a place was prepared for God’s self revelation, his full revelation of his identity–in Jesus. That’s why we are not called to observance of Torah, of the traditions of men as Jesus says (and Paul, too). We are called to faith in the God who is the father of Jesus and all that that means for the entire human race–as Paul makes clear in Romans. This is the essence of the history of Israel, it’s true trajectory. The rest, as Jesus (and Paul, following Jesus) makes clear, is culturally conditioned traditions.

    I hope that from this it will be clear why I believe NTW’s “story” of Jesus is missing the essence of it, because he fails to truly address the relationship of Christian faith to “narrative” as Paul did. Paul did in faithfulness to Jesus, whom he had encountered as risen.

    I should add as a sort of footnote that I feel greatly indebted to Mark S. Smith, whose work has been discussed off and on recently at Peter Enns’ blog.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Mark, I have perused your blog but haven’t been able to read your blog post on Wright entirely (I have read your responses posted here). Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp exactly what your main point is, and I mean that as constructive criticism. From what I have read, I have a few retorts:

    i) You make a sound critique of Wright’s work, and I share some of those critiques, especially about him wanting to “have his cake and eat it too.” But above and in your blog, you talk about the historicity issues with much of the OT accounts and note how challenges to their historicity must be taken into account when developing a theological framework deriving from them. Agreed.

    2) But then you appear to take the Gospel accounts at face value (apologies if I’m misreading you here) and don’t bring up some of the challenges to their own historical grounding, particularly with what Jesus claimed about himself and his relation to Judaism.

    Given that a majority of mainstream scholarship places the Gospels as being composed in the aftermath (or with Mark, could be during) of the Jewish-Roman war amidst the subsequent bitter breaks between Christian and Jewish communities (including expulsion from the Synagogue) along with the Christian Church becoming increasingly dominated by Gentile converts, and one can easily see the Gospel accounts exaggerating Jesus’s non-Jewishness and conflicts with Jews. In addition, the claim that Jesus ever demanded “faith in him” or that Mark contains a Christology akin to John’s IMO requires special pleading of the text and ignoring the clear Christian apologetics (against Judaism) that infused much of the Gospel narratives.

    3) Now that said, I’m not sure Jesus saw himself as “fulfillment of Israel’s story” insomuch as continuing in the tradition of the protesting Prophets who sought to radically reform Judaism (and thus you could saw, stealing your line, “save Israel from itself”) through intense focus on the interior of human beings and not exterior ritual/sacrifice and focus on cleanliness. Coupled with this was a declaration of God’s Empire which directly affronted and protested Roman occupation (you can’t decouple the religious and political in 1st century Judea).

    4) Paul, IMO, is simply not consistent with his ideas of how the Christ revelation fit into Judaism and I think he had some major internal conflicts about this which spill over into his epistles. But, and I guess this throws me into the ‘apocalyptic camp’ on Paul, but you can’t decouple his statements about salvation through faith and the reversal of Torah’s prominence from Paul’s belief that Jesus defeating death was the beginning of the END! Time was short . . .

    So in total, I agree with many of your points but I fear you go too far in “de-Judaizing” Jesus, whereas Wright tries to fit everything into his “Israel’s story is our story and all will be made whole when the events of Revelation occur” framework which sounds nice but IMO has some significant historical/theological shortcomings.

  • mark

    It’s late, so I’ll have to be brief–not so much my style.

    1. Re the de-Judaization of Jesus. I have no interest in that. I haven’t written much on issues surrounding the gospels, but it would be my contention that any de-Judaization of Jesus would be more characteristic of an earlier generation of scholars (such as Bultmann, whom Wright criticizes) and that current scholarship no longer sees the gospels as de-Judaizing Jesus. Rather, I think Wright and the mainstream of current scholarship see the gospels as affirming Jesus’ Jewishness. I’m certainly on Wright’s side in that respect, FWIW. Off hand, I can think of at least one instance in which I discuss that Jewish connection, in a post re Original Sin called “Paul and the Yetzer-ha-Ra.”

    2. Re the historical reliability of the gospels–I try not to take a naive approach to that issue. Again, I haven’t written much specifically on this topic, but I am aware of the issues involved. Without more specifics, I won’t go into it further.

    3. I would maintain that your view of the Prophets is lacking in proper historical grounding, that the dichotomy of a supposed religion of the spirit (interior) advocated by the prophets as opposed to the ritualism of the Temple cult (exterior) is over simplified–at best. That view is, again, based on what I believe is an older generation of scholarship and I doubt that Wright would subscribe to it, any more than I would. Not that I place myself in his class, but I believe I’m correct in saying this.

    4. I disagree re Paul’s consistency. As I tried to explain, I believe that Paul is actually quite consistent. The appearance of inconsistency–which I can certainly understand–comes from a failure to appreciate the context of his writings, which were largely topical, directed to specific audiences for very specific purposes and rely on a rhetorical drawn from Paul’s Judaic formation to make their points. As I argued, however, I believe that Paul himself was aware of different levels of argumentation within his thought-world and that he had a number of basic positions that were, for him, unconditional. Those positions served as unifying principles for the rest of his thought, subsuming the rest of his thought under those principles.

    5. I’m glad we share wide areas of agreement.

  • mark

    May I just say how shocking I find the common explanation of NTW’s “narratival theology”? And, mind you, I’m not saying these explanations are incorrect. I’m saying that they’re shocking, just as NTW’s theology is. It sounds so reasonable, until you sit back and think a bit about what is actually being said. Here are examples of what I mean:

    I have a number of questions here – beginning with the framing of the story as a rescue operation for a rescue operation. Did Paul really think like this? I have a problem with the idea of a “rescue operation.”

    Well said–I have the same problem.

    Israel is to rescue/save the world as a light to the nations, they don’t succeed, so God “rescues” the rescue operation in Jesus. It’s concentric circles with Jesus as the inner circle. Something along that line.

    “Not quite that way” but “Something along that line.” That shocks me, because to me it makes God seem unreasonable.

    Phil expresses the dilemma well:

    There must be some way to think about “rescue” (redemption, forgiveness, etc.) without it necessarily being thought of as a plan gone wrong.

    And I think he hits on the obvious explanation:

    A simplistic example would be letting my son/daughter embark on an activity that I know they are going to need some kind of assistance with at some stage (rescuing) – but that will be ok, it’s just part of the plan and will be beneficial to them. Not a solid analogy, but hopefully it get’s my meaning across.

    What’s notable about Phil’s explanation is that there doesn’t seem to be a marker for Israel in his analogy, the way that NTW incorporates Israel. That gets to the heart of what I find so shocking: the notion that God entrusted a nation, an ethnic group, with an obviously impossible task–“to rescue/save the world.” What would be the point in that, beyond wasting several millennia of precious time?

    That points up the difficulties in NTW’s narratival theology. He’s not addressing the metaphor of the “fall” of man, yet he incorporates it uncritically–that is to say, naively–in his notion of Israel’s mission to “rescue/save the world.” As I said yesterday, this approach totally fails to address obvious questions such as: the nature of Israelite religion in relation to all other human forms of religious expression, and the nature of the religious expressions that we find in “the Bible.”

    Here’s my solution in 25 words or less form–well, more or less, it’ll probably be more. FWIW.

    God can no more create a perfect humanity than he can create a square circle. Why not? Because all creation is by definition finite and therefore imperfect in that metaphysical sense.

    “The Fall” is simple a metaphor (a “myth” or “narrative” if you prefer) for the human condition, a recognition of man’s imperfection. Anyone interested in the structure of such metaphorical or mythical expressions can refer to standard works such as those of Mircea Eliade.

    The significance of “the story of Israel,” as documented in the work of Mark S. Smith, is that in Israel there is a unique development of the human understanding of God’s identity in the direction of monotheism and God as absolute creator. In “the Bible,” the Israelite scriptures as we have them now, this is presented largely (but by no means uniformly) as the religion of Israel from the beginning. The reality is that it was an historical development that took Israel religion from being a fairly typical type of West Semitic religion (itself a fairly typical form of what Eliade terms “archaic ontology”) to verging on something quite different. I say “verging on,” because as Paul recognizes there remain definite elements of “archaic ontology” in Judaism.

    It is at this point in history that God enters the human story, through his self revelation in Jesus–to offer, as Phil puts it, “assistance.” That assistance comes in the form of a self revelation of God’s identity as Trinity, as loving Father, and carries with it the offer to men to enter into the divine life that Jesus is part of–through faith, through living “in Christ” in his body, the Church. This is an offer of assistance, not of a Deus ex machina “fix” of a “fallen” humanity. It is an offer that we are called to cooperate with, and it is made possible, in human terms, by the development of Israelite religion that prepares humanity for this self revelation of God by leading toward a more theoretical expression of God’s identity than is available through the forms of expression that were/are to be found in more traditional human religion (including earlier forms of Israelite religion). This is the progress of revelation, the big picture. That is what Jesus is “fulfilling”–not a “narrative” of snippets of text wrenched out of their true historical context in Israelite religion.

    My view is that this is the basic scheme that Paul is presenting in Romans.

  • I’m a bit late to the party but here’s some thoughts from a new grandmother.

    Wright uses the expression, God has a “rescue operation [Christ] for the rescue operation [Israel].” I think I might add, that God has a rescue operation (Christ) for the rescue operation, through His family and our families becoming like the Rescuer.

    And the reason that the concept of emphasizing God’s story is so important is that we can get the story wrong by starting with our salvation because it messes up the ethical implications. Wright states:

    “What happens if we ignore this narrative, and never inquire about its placement within Paul’s largest story, that of the creator and the cosmos? The answer is obvious, because a great many readers of Paul have done exactly that. First, it will then be assumed that Paul is talking, not about the plight of creation, but simply about the plight of humans.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if The Story is about “the plight of humans”” then the answer would be to get them into the door of the Church. But if God’s Story is about “the plight of creation” then that means that the Church has a call to, by the Spirit, to right the wrongs.

    Lastly, my hunch is that, yes, “symbolic praxis” has legs. Specifically, if the Church begins to recognize herself in orthodoxy as best seen in the symbol of a “missional family”—and sees orthopraxy then as intentionally displaying to the world the reality of God’s family with each individual family becoming focused outward in love, instead of having an “Us Four and No More” attitude— I think we might have revival. Families can be turned inward, which results in self-seeking, or their family ethos can be one of being a team focused on God’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus to the world. “Symbols and praxis need a story in a worldview to make sense,” Dr McKnight notes. Families likewise have generations and stories of how they came to today and what their hopes are for the future.

  • D. Foster

    What I get from reading Wright is more like Israel is called as a people to the task of enacting the “rescue plan.” Where Israel failed in that role, God himself fulfilled it by becoming a member of Israel (through Jesus).

    Jesus is not a rescue of the rescue plan, but the obedient servant who faithfully took up the mantle of the “rescue plan” when the rest of Israel didn’t.