NTWright, Paul, the Law and Jesus

Once one opens reading Paul through the Story/stories at work, everything falls into place. Such an approach, followed by NT Wright in his new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, permits Wright to explain two major, major issues: the law and Jesus.

Where does the Torah/Law fit in all this? It all begins with a recognition that when Paul said “Law” he meant the Jewish Torah and not the “law principle” of life. So when Reformed theologians speak of the “covenant of works” or when Lutherans pose “law against gospel” we are looking at un-Jewish modes of thinking. For Paul the word nomos refers to the Torah of Moses. To comprehend it we need to see how it fits in the story, not to see how it fits into a generalized religious disposition or human condition.

To understand Torah, then, we have to know how it fits in the grand story, and it can’t be understood aright apart from that story. Here it is, with a final summary later in the post. First, Torah is a gift of God to Israel to help it be the light to the nations. Then, second, because of sin Torah becomes Israel’s opponent. Roman  8:3 — where “weak through the flesh” refers to Israel’s failure to obey. Third, the Torah has a limited temporal function: once the building is built its preliminary function ends. Fourth, this Torah then puts to death the “I” of Romans 7, or Galatians 2:15-21, which is all about Israel’s discipline so the mission to the nations can occur.

The point is that God’s plan, through Israel, for the rescue of the human race (and thus for the rescue and restoration of the whole creation) meant that Israel had to become the place where ‘sin’, the personified power opposed to God’s plan and purpose, would be ‘increased’, would ‘appear as sin’, would ‘become exceedingly sinful’. And Torah was playing its God-given role within that strange purpose” (510).

On Romans 7:14-23:

Nothing whatever is gained, exegetically or theologically, by supposing that the ‘law’ in the last few lines of that passage is a ‘principle’ or ‘system’. The whole passage has been about the law, the Mosaic law, the Torah; and the frustration the passage expresses is neither (a) the psychological torment of the young Jew, discovering law and lust at the same time, nor (b) the puzzle of the existentialist, trying to seize life by the performance of the categorical imperative only to discover that this produces inauthenticity, nor yet (c) the frustration of the Christian, wanting to serve God wholeheartedly but find- ing that sin continues to clog the wheels (510).

Leading to yet another point about the Torah: Jesus, the representative Israelite, does the Torah and dies, and the Spirit is sent so the Torah is now done by the people of God. Wright expresses this in his usually fast paced and side-glancing manner:

There, through the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and by implication (7.6) the work of the spirit (which will be spelled out more fully in chapter 8), a people has been constituted ‘in the Messiah’, a people who have themselves died ‘in him’, thereby leaving behind the soli- darity of Adam, and the solidarity of Torah-under-Adam where Israel according to the flesh continues to languish (6.14). It is this people, this in- Messiah people, this led-by-the-spirit people, this died-to-sin-and-living-to- God people (6.11) that now, with great but comprehensible paradox, simul- taneously find themselves (a) ‘not under Torah’ (6.14) and also (b) ‘fulfilling the decrees of Torah’ (2.26). This new-covenant people is ‘not under Torah’ in the sense that it is not ‘Israel according to the flesh’, living in the place where Torah goes on pronouncing the necessary and proper sentence of condemnation. But it ‘fulfils the decrees of Torah’, and indeed ‘keeps God’s commandments’, insofar as it is the Deuteronomy-30 people in whom what had been impossible under Torah, because of Israel’s fleshly identification with Adam, is now accomplished by the spirit (513).

Or, as he now sums it all up:

Once we grasp how the plots and sub-plots of the story work, then, we can be quite clear that for Paul Torah is the divine gift which defines and shapes God’s people. God’s people follow their strange vocation through the long years of preparation, through the period (particularly) of failure, curse and exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which Paul sees both as the fulfilment of all the earlier promises and the new creation which has arrived as a fresh divine gift. Torah accompanies them all the way, like a faithful servant doing what is required in each new eventuality, taking on the different roles demanded by and at the different stages of Israel’s journey, and finally attaining a new kind of ‘fulfilment’ in the heart-circumcision promised by Deuteronomy and supplied by the spirit. At one moment in the narrative the moon is waning; at another it is full; at another, it helps to bury the dead. This narrative framework frees Torah from the burden of always playing the villain in a Lutheran would-be reading of Paul, or the hero in a Reformed one. It offers, instead, a chance for Torah to be what Paul insists it always was: God’s law, holy and just and good, but given a task which, like the task of the Messiah himself, would involve terrible paradox before attaining astonishing resolution. The Torah shines with borrowed light, and the horned dilemmas it has presented to exegetes are only resolved when the complete cycle of waxing and waning has played itself out (516).

Now what about Jesus, where does he fit in the story/stories?

At the same time, it is important to stress that ‘the story of Jesus in Paul’, were we to tell it, would always appear as the denouement of some other story or set of stories. Paul does not introduce, or appear to think of, Jesus as a character facing a task or problem, finding it difficult or impossible, need- ing to seek fresh help or to ward off difficulties, and finally succeeding in the task or surmounting the problem. As with Torah, only in quite a different mode, everything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories, of the story of the creator and the cosmos, of the story of God and humankind and/or the story of God and Israel. Because these three layers of plot interlock in the way I have described, what Paul says about Jesus, and what he could have said were he to have laid out his worldview- narrative end to end for us to contemplate, makes the sense it does as the crucial factor within those other narratives. Thus there really is, in one sense, a Pauline ‘story of Jesus’, but it is always the story of how Jesus enables the other stories to proceed to their appointed resolution (517).

There are, then, three interlocking stories, diagrammed on p. 521:

Here is the point of all these pretty little diagrams, and I hope this exposition functions redemptively in their direction too, after the scepticism even of some of their former users. When we understand the triple narrative which forms the basis of Paul’s worldview, we can see the way in which, bewildering though it often seems to us, Jesus the Messiah functions for him in relation to all three stories simultaneously. As Israel’s Messiah, he has accomplished Israel’s rescue from its own plight, passing judgment on the evil that has infiltrated even his own people. As Israel-in-person, which is one of the things a Messiah is (see below), he has completed Israel’s own vocation, to bring rescue and restoration to the human race, passing judgment on human wickedness in order to establish true humanness instead. And as the truly human one (Psalm 8, blended with Psalm 110, as in 1 Corinthians 15) he has re-established God’s rule over the cosmos, defeating the enemies that had threatened to destroy the work of the creator in order to bring about new creation. Jesus does not have an independent ‘story’ all on his own. He plays the leading role within all the others. He is Adam; he is Israel; he is the Messiah. Only when we understand all this does Paul’s worldview, particularly its implicit complex narrative, make sense (521).

There are then three interlocking stories:

1. Creation was supposed to be looked after by Adam, but he sinned and so lost ‘the glory of God’ (3.23). He is replaced not just by the Messiah but by ‘those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of covenant membership, of “being in the right”’: they will ‘reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah’ (5.17). By this means, crea- tion itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption (8.18–26). That is the big story, the overarching plot. This is how creation itself is to be renewed. This is the ‘cosmic’ story.

2. Humans in their sin, which prevents them from attaining their true vocation, are rescued through ‘the obedience of the one man’. Here, ‘obedience’ has taken the place of ‘faithfulness’, in 3.22 and elsewhere, as a summary of the Messiah’s completion of the work marked out for Israel.189 This is the (perhaps unhappily named) ‘anthropological’ story, which is not to be played off against the ‘cosmic’, which it is designed to serve. It is because humans are rescued from their sin that they are able once more to play their part in God’s worldwide pur- poses.

3. The specific problem of Israel, highlighted and exacerbated by the arrival of the Torah (5.20), has been met, and more than met, by the grace which has abounded in the Messiah. He has done on Israel’s behalf what Israel could not do, and also has done for Israel itself what Israel needed to be done. His Israel-work rescues Adam’s people; his Adam-work rescues creation itself. This is the ‘covenantal’ vision, which again must not be played off against either the ‘anthropological’ or the ‘cosmic’ stories. It is because the Messiah has fulfilled Israel’s calling that humans are rescued from idolatry, sin and death (531).

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  • JohnC

    Amazing. Surely this will help untie the many knots that we have in our interpretations of Paul. In hindsight, it does make one wonder why scholars have been so blind to this kind of approach in the past. What blinds us, ignorance? I also wonder how long it will take for the effects of this book to be felt by the church on the ground? And what will that effect be practically??

  • Phil Smith

    I find it hard to accept a cosmological impact of “Adam’s” sin. St Paul was, surely, unaware that there were millions of worlds out there in the cosmos. It’s almost certain that there is more life out there, and potentially intelligent life also. Our universalizing (at the galactic, or universe scale) of St. Paul’s “cosmos” (which surely didn’t account for other worlds) poses many problems for this kind of theology does it not?

  • My first impression from this summary is that my views of Jesus and Paul which have long differed from those of Luther, Calvin, etc., will mostly survive under Wright’s profound reworking of how the Bible holds together in Christ. But there is no honorable escape from my taking a long, careful journey through Wright’s book

  • Phil Miller

    Makes a lot of sense to me (except the silly diagrams… I’ve got to say, whenever Wright uses these things they make absolutely no sense to me, they might as well be Sanskrit 🙂 ) But I do appreciate his three summary points at the end.

  • Phil Miller

    It could I suppose. Saying that there is other intelligent life in the universe is a matter of speculation as well, though. Personally, I think it could be a possibility, but it’s probably something we’ll never know for sure because of the vast distances we’re talking about.

    That being said, if we grant that Paul’s vision of the cosmos really didn’t go beyond what we think of as the planet earth, it could still be argued that Adam’s sin had profound and lasting affects on the life of planet earth that needed to be dealt with in some way.

  • Phil Smith

    “That being said, if we grant that Paul’s vision of the cosmos really didn’t go beyond what we think of as the planet earth, it could still be argued that Adam’s sin had profound and lasting affects on the life of planet earth that needed to be dealt with in some way”

    Here I’m inclined to agree. If Paul is talking about the possibility for the redemption of this Human history then I agree with St. Paul too. the question then remains, does the redemption occur within history itself (that is, within the continued universe, subject to existing physical laws) or does that redemption happen in a “replaced universe” and if that is the case, what happens to the rest of this universe that had no part in Adam’s transgression?

  • scotmcknight

    Phil, actantial graphs do nothing for me either, and I like visuals.

  • I agree about the diagrams. I can never make heads or tails of them!

  • mark

    All of Wright’s Grand Unified Narratival Theology (GRUNT) is sadly unconvincing. It is unconvincing because NTW has forsaken sound, painstaking historical studies for such dubious constructions as “Psalm 8; blended with Psalm 110.” Of importance in this context is that NTW appears to have no interest in questions such as: Where does Torah come from in Israelite thought, and what does it become? Are there analogues to Torah in the thought of other cultures, and do those analogues shed light on the meaning of Torah for Israel? Does that meaning change over time, in different periods of Israel’s history?

    In fact thinkers in Israel–even though they lacked the formal tools of historical criticism–did understand that these were real issues, they did consider these questions, and they did attempt to provide answers to them. A prime example is the thought surrounding what is known as the Noahide or Noachic commandments.

    Paul was no less interested in these matters than his contemporary Jewish thinkers, and no less acute. It is certainly significant for Paul’s understanding of Torah–both as it relates to Israel but also to the Gentile cultures–that Paul invokes this Jewish thought in his own attempt at a Grand Unified Theory of the Good News: his letter to the Roman church.

    All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

    Wright (as presented by McKnight) is surely correct to begin with the question: “Where does the Torah/Law fit in all this?” But it is just as surely a drastic over simplification to facilely posit:

    It all begins with a recognition that when Paul said “Law” he meant the Jewish Torah and not the “law principle” of life.

    That fails utterly to do justice to the sophistication and acuteness with with ancient Jewish thinkers approached Torah, and to Paul’s own acute insights into these issues–which, to be sure, draw freely on earlier and contemporary Jewish thought. Wright’s GRUNT also fails utterly to do justice to huge advances in social science scholarship. His GRUNT is not the solution to the difficulties facing Evangelical thought that so many hope it will be.

  • This is amazing! The complexity and depth of his thinking are profound, and yet he weaves it all together so as to make his proposals completely reasonable…simple, even. Wright treats Paul like a person, with all of the complexity that comes along with that, rather than like an object that can be distilled down to an unrealistic simplicity, which is what we have been living with in Pauline studies for too long.

  • Norman

    I agree with Wright whole heartily and I’m glad to see someone with skill present these concepts. The next thing to o is to reduce this message into the readability for the common church goer and allow them to being the process of understanding these overarching biblical narratives.

    IMO if one doesn’t understand the early Christian concept of setting aside Mosaic Torah they are not going to understand Paul and the earliest Christians. A simple examination is to perform a NT word search of Moses in the NT and pay attention to how the concept of setting aside Moses and the Law was comprehensive not only with Paul but with the Gospels and the other writings. Our Jewish Messianic Christian brothers today who want to “kick against the goads” concerning this idea and continue to embrace Mosaic Torah have missed the boat as far as the intent of the coming of Messiah as conceptualized by the first Christians and primarily Paul.

    Indeed I would posit that Paul in Romans 5-8 equates the Mosaic Law with “The Sin” that must be refused because it has no strength to overcome the fleshly nature thus keeping one under the bondage of their sins thus “death” or separation from the face of God and without right standing. Also keep in mind the typological implications; that within the OT narrative regarding Moses that he died outside the Promised Land which IMO represent the messianic recognition by the authors that Moses and the Law was not the way to Israel’s true resurrection. The authors of the Torah story embedded within it the full recognition that Israel under the Law was a failure which would require another one like Moses to come and set things right. This is why Christ says to them that Moses spoke of Him. Ezekiel 34 says it would be God Himself who would come and become the shepherd akin to David.

    The only difference I would have with Wright might be in the idea that we are still awaiting the fullness of creation to be set right. With Judgment of Israel came finality and Christ told the rulers they would see him coming on the Clouds in His Fathers Glory and within the lifetime of some of those standing there. We mistakenly look for a 5’8” Jew to have been manifested within the physical clouds, yet Christ is drawing from the judgment language of the OT to represent His authority to dissolve the Old system the High Priest represented. Coming on the Clouds in judgment is what God did against Nations under condemnation and Christ accomplished this with his prophecy against the Temple and old Israel. The Axe was already laying at the Root of Mosaic Jerusalem.

    We indeed have the fullness of the new covenant as our inheritance today. We become fully human by putting on the Image of God through Christ and becoming to the world what Adam and Israel failed to do.

    Bravo N. T. Wright

  • mark

    Andrew, no intent to put you on the spot, I’m just sorta piggybacking on your comment.

    I couldn’t agree more that Paul exhibits all the complexities of a truly extraordinary person. Unfortunately, as I’ve been saying, NTW appears to ignore much of that extraordinary complexity in order to manhandle Paul’s thought into his (NTW’s) own GRUNT (Grand Unified Narratival Theology).

  • Shane Scott

    Thanks for these summaries, Scot. I think one of the great blessings of the “New Perspective” is that it brings together the picture of and teachings of Jesus in the gospels with the letters of Paul. In older, Lutheran or Reformed constructs, it is almost as if the story of the gospels is irrelevant to the theology of Paul. The NP, at least of the sort that Wright represents, makes the New Testament, and for that matter, all of Scripture, a more holistic story.

  • mark

    I apologize if I’ve got something mixed up here. I was under the impression that Phil had written as I quote below, but his comment seems to have disappeared. So I’ll post as a separate comment. Sorry if that’s a problem:

    Only a tiny portion of the populace of the earth, in all human history lived under Torah anyway. The impact of Torah following people (practicing Jews) on human history at the global scale prior to the first century was minuscule.

    Unless we can show that the “sin” which was being identified through Torah was somehow indicative of universal human struggling then the attempt to identify the overall musicological (even in human terms) significance of Torah observance or otherwise seems trivial.

    Phil, obviously you’ve put a pretty fair amount of thought into these issues. I suggest that you reread what you just wrote and then compare that to the passage from Romans 2 that I quoted (below). To me it seems clear that Paul has a greatly expanded concept of Torah–expanded beyond the usual notion of “Jewish religious law,” or something of that sort. It also seems clear to me that Paul’s theory of human nature and of human history–as presented in Romans 1-2 but consistent with what he writes elsewhere–does indeed view “the ‘sin’ which was being identified through Torah [as] somehow indicative of universal human struggling.” The key, I think, is to realize that Paul’s understanding of the nature of Torah is different and more comprehensive than Wright seems to believe. Further, I believe that Paul is quite correct in believing that his views are consistent with those of the good news as proclaimed by Jesus–I believe that a thorough examination of Jesus’ statements regarding Torah will bear that out.

  • One nit (that I see Mark hit on below): in Moo’s magisterial Romans, he writes in an excursus on “‘Works of the Law,’ and First-Century Judaism” the following (please forgive the length):

    We conclude, then, that Paul criticizes Jews for thinking that the Mosaic covenant is adequate without that perfection in “works” without which any system of law must fail to bring one into relationship with God. The Jews become, as it were, representative of human beings generally. If the Jews, with the best law that one could have, could not find salvation through it, then any system of works is revealed as unable to conquer the power of sin. The “bottom line” in Paul’s argument, then, is his conviction that sin creates for every person a situation of utterly helpless bondage. “Works of the law” are inadequate not because they “works of the law” but, ultimately, because they are “works.” This clearly removes the matter from the purely salvation-historical realm to the broader realm of anthropology. No person can gain a standing with God through works because no one is able to perform works to the degree needed to secure such a standing. This human inability to meet the demands of God is what lies at the heart of Rom. 3. On this point, at least, the Reformers understood Paul correctly. ( last emphasis mine, p. 217)

    As fun as Wright is to read, he gets the dunce cap time and again for his woeful historical theology.

  • scotmcknight

    A little strong, Chris. Do we need to put a “dunce” cap on Wright? “Woeful”… sure some might say that but the fact is that Tom knows Calvin decently, so he’s not uninformed, but instead, a historian who challenges theological formulations out of line with his perception of history. (We all use perceptions, not the issue.) That paragraph in Moo is clearly contested by many in the new perspective so the point is one that needs to be established, not assumed. We know how the Reformers read Paul; the issue is what did Paul mean in his context. The generalization of works of the law into the principle of works, and next the covenant of works … well, all his is deserving of careful re-examination.

  • Okay, okay. A little strong, indeed. [putting the rhetoric dunce cap on myself now]

    In defense of Moo, he gets all that, as you know, and appropriates much of it (the NPP). But, Moo doesn’t presume upon the blind-spots of these historical figures in the maddening way that Wright does. All for the deconstruction of an unhelpful and esoteric covenant theology, but also all for extrapolating the very biblical principles that support much of it, principles that even Wright commends and thinks he’s doing something new (when really he’s often simply saying the same thing differently, which is also maddening). Whence Ridderbos?!

  • scotmcknight

    Chris, so much of this is rooted in a perception of Judaism, not just the NT letters of Paul. That is, Judaism was a works-based religion all concerned about merit etc.. Once that is denied, stuff shifts … the whole system, in my view, was rooted in that view of Judaism.

  • BradK

    “The whole passage [Romans 7:14-23] has been about the law, the Mosaic law, the Torah; and the frustration the passage expresses is neither (a) the psychological torment of the young Jew, discovering law and lust at the same time, nor (b) the puzzle of the existentialist, trying to seize life by the performance of the categorical imperative only to discover that this produces inauthenticity, nor yet (c) the frustration of the Christian, wanting to serve God wholeheartedly but finding that sin continues to clog the wheels.”

    It may be overly simplistic of me, but when I read this it causes me to ask “then what is it?” A great deal has been written about the three views Wright references here yet he presents each of them in a one sentence nutshell. Does he do likewise with his own view, Scot? Or could you present a similar nutshell of his view?

  • I’m not convinced they’re mutually exclusive, Scot. For my part, I think Moo is a good example of that—his exegesis of Rom 2, 7, 9, etc., are all solid (and helpful departures from the received tradition, which you fairly note is rooted in that old view) and hardly contradictory when compared side by side to Wright’s commentary. Yet, he ties it all together; he “saves the phenomena” of the Reformation, and rightly so.

  • Phil Miller

    I find it interesting that Moo uses the phrase “find salvation through it”… That seems to me to be a phrase that is very much influenced by Reformed thinking. Would it even make sense to a Jew? Were they thinking of “finding salvation”? I guess that’s the biggest thing I find beneficial in Wright. He may not be right on everything (no one can be), but he’s at least getting people to look at these things through a lens that’s different than what they’re used to.

    Is Paul’s concern in Romans really about who has “standing with God”? I don’t think so. I think Paul’s concern is showing that God hasn’t forgotten His promises to the Jewish people despite of their unfaithfulness, and that God is within His rights, as it were, to expand his covenant to those who were thought to have no business being invited.

  • Sure, it’s probably anachronistic, but Moo makes it clear he understands that by “salvation” in this context we’re talking about YHWH rescuing the world through his chosen people, Israel—not simply going to heaven when you die.

    (Assuming you haven’t), do read Moo’s commentary on the purpose of the letter; it’s more robust and incorporates the elements about which you write above, even if it doesn’t offer as neat a narrative as Wright’s intro.

  • Phil Smith

    Romans 1 is far from clear, I try not to rely on it for much in the way of theological insight, by virtue of its messy nature. It reads like something written by someone in hurry. One could, however, read it thus; http://girardianlectionary.net/special_series/Romans1-3_read-in-light-of-Campbell.htm

  • Norman

    I think Paul in Romans 5-8 and especially in Chp 7 is using himself anthropomorphically as Israel/Adam to illustrate commentary upon his concept of the Garden fall and eating of the Tree of Good and Evil. (Rom 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing).

    Just as Adam was once alive in the Garden until he encountered the commandment/Law so was Israel until they went off track following the Mosaic Law. Go back to Rom 5 again to see where Paul begins these concepts he is “fleshing” out in 6, 7 and 8. Paul’s whole thesis here is that our weak flesh has been inadequate from the get go to bring about righteousness thus the need for Christ the Last Adam.

    Paul is looking for the Garden restoration that he sees as the completion of the Creation in Romans 8 that has been groaning under the weight of the Law.

    These themes are also found heavily throughout OT literature and the Genesis Flood account resonates with the same theme in which God will destroy all flesh (as is most of Genesis to be taken typologically) except for the remnant few. All throughout 2nd Temple and NT literature the Flood becomes a template mainstay for their literature of messianic deliverance. Paul is simply reflecting what has been percolating for hundreds of years in Judaism and causing tension amongst the various groups. Some like the power structure and some like Paul and the Christians deem it an aberration to the purity and truth of God’s love.

  • mark

    I would definitely disagree with the idea that Romans 1 is “messy” or in any way incoherent and would, instead, suggest that the difficulties that so many readers encounter derive from attempting to force Paul into a preconceived pattern of thought that isn’t Paul’s to begin with. Well, in the West that’s been going on for the better part of 2 millennia, thanks in no small part to the Augustinian misinterpretation, aided by the Vulgate’s mistranslation of 5:12.

    Anyway, I did read through the “rendering” of Romans 1. I thought the author makes some good points, but that he, too, is approaching Paul with preconceptions that get in his way. For example, I would argue that his entire approach to Paul’s “dikaiosyne” falls into that category of preconceptions. Very briefly, since I’ve discussed this before, I think John Ziesler’s work regarding “dikaiosyne” is key. In most contexts, excepting the use of “dikaiosyne theou” (but related to it), “dikaiosyne” is best understood as describing the establishment of a relationship with God–which Paul maintains is initiated by faith, belief in Jesus. The life “in Christ” is thus a life of relationship to God based on faith/belief in Jesus. I’m sure that sounds obvious, but my point is that the language of “justice” obscures that basic human experience.

  • I haven’t read this book by Wright (has it even been released for sale yet?… I’ve not been following) or much of his earlier work, and I am, for many years now, a former Evangelical with a much more progressive view of the Bible and orthodoxy. So I’m wondering if he even addresses, as a sometime challenger of Evangelical viewpoints, what I see as a major “weak link” in the chain of support for “divine revelation” in the Bible.

    I refer to the fact that Paul’s claims of authority (i.e., speaking as from God) are almost completely, in final analysis, merely his own. If one weights his own statements about this issue and related ones heavier than those in Acts when there is seeming conflict or confusion (as one clearly should), then his theology can’t be said to have come from or been well-known by the “Jerusalem Pillars”, particularly the “Church” leader, James. Even Acts itself “admits” this (see final Jeru. visit).

    Basically, Paul was off on his own from very near the beginning, with initial accompaniment by Barnabas, who may well have split off exactly for theological reasons, mainly. James seems to have sent representatives to bring corrective (or that was the end result) to Paul’s teaching. At the very least, it appears he had little way of getting verifiable info on just what Paul believed and taught. Paul certainly wasn’t very forthcoming directly to him or the Apostles/leaders, though very confrontive in his letters, meant for his own followers.

    I don’t know how Wright addresses this, if at all, but I’d think, even in his system, he’d be looking for basic continuity and agreement on core concepts about the role of Jesus and the place of the law after his death, between Paul and the direct followers of Jesus (i.e., during his life). While Acts tends to mostly obscure the situation, even it seems to indicate that the latter group’s views did not at all find harmony with the Cosmic Divine Savior concept I’d say was “invented” by Paul…. Paul standing only on his own authority, bolstered by that given him “after the fact”, particularly after the Jerusalem “Church” effectively disappeared during or after the war of 66-70 (creating a great vacuum for Pauline ideas and followers to fill).

  • mark

    Howard, I’m responding as a non-never-have-been-Evangelical. In fact, as a “cradle Catholic.” I’m also responding as one who is pretty critical of Wright.

    Although Paul does, admittedly, make rather a point that his authority as an apostle is based on his direct experience of the risen Lord, in his letter to the Galatians Paul also makes a point of telling the Galatians that he has made sure that the gospel he preaches was approved by the “pillars.” In context, this appears to be in effect his clinching argument–because otherwise, if the “pillars” had not approved his gospel, he might be “running in vain.” I regard that as an acknowledgement of Paul’s dependence upon Church authority. In addition, Paul is also adamant in his letters that he is handing on what he himself had received (1 Cor 15). While it’s true that earlier in the same letter Paul claims to be passing on what he received personally from the Lord by way of revelation, in the context–the enumerated facts–it seems clear enough that Paul is referring to matters that were handed on to him by the Church, matters that were already well known in the Church, not revelations from the Lord. For Paul, it’s clearly important that he be seen as adhering to those traditions (i.e., things “handed down”).

  • Thanks, Mark,
    I realize things aren’t completely clear re. all of Paul’s sources and his claims. As a short-hand brief reply, I’ll say that I see him being a pragmatist/opportunist in terms of “received” tradition and authorization by Jeru. leaders. He realized he needed to stand in a tradition (long Jewish one, then quite brief “Jesus-as-Messiah” one) to get anywhere and that at least perfunctory submission to James et al was necessary… but note his strong sarcasm toward them as well, and seeming outright opposition… A tricky business of utilizing “authority” and yet over-riding it at the same time.

    I do think (without re-examining it thoroughly in context) his “running in vain” concept was probably such an expression of pragmatism… that if he didn’t sufficiently line-up, his work might be “undone”…. He knew the weight of authority was in Jerusalem. Almost all of the Israel-based Jesus-followers were Jews (at least partially law-observant, apparently, per Acts) as well as many of his yet-relatively-small following. And James was sending out not only Peter but others to main cities including where he’d founded small churches. So, to a degree he HAD to adhere to what was handed-down, tho such were mainly basic rituals and the matter of resurrection. On the latter, his experience and description does not line up closely at all with those in the Gospels. (And we don’t have ANY written documents from/by original disciples as to WHAT their resurrection experiences and beliefs actually were… If the Epis. of James is by the Jeru. leader, the Resurrection wasn’t much of a core point to him… not that it seems to have been by him, likely.)

  • scotmcknight

    Which quotes I provide.

  • scotmcknight

    I can tell you Moo doesn’t talk about Wright the way you do. Speak with respect and civility if you want the same given to your views.

  • scotmcknight

    When Moo uses “anthropology” we see the dividing line in this debate: is Paul talking about the anthropological condition? That, so it seems to me, is the big issue that often divides the Reformed/Lutheran view from the NPP. To go to “human inability” moves it from Jewish failure to anthropology. When I was working on Galatians that’s the pressure point I found all the time.

    Why move to “any system of works”? Why does one go in that direction? Is there an anthropological issue at work in Galatians? (the earlier sketch)

  • scotmcknight

    I have always benefited from Doug’s Romans, and was there when he was writing it … and there when it came out and then got transferred into the NICNT.

  • BradK

    That’s his nutshell, eh? Well, this is Wright. 😉

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’m not sure I’d be so cynical as to call Paul “an opportunist” but I think regardless of the pillars granting him their approval of him preaching to the Gentiles, if we are to take Paul at his word, his contact with the Judaic Christian Church after he became a Christ follower was minimal at best, and as seen in Galatians (and 2 Corinthians with his comments on the “super apostles” which I think are likely from the Jerusalem side), riddled with conflict. I think it’s fair to say that Paul developed in that time-span what could be called a unique (‘Pauline’) Christian theology.

    The non-Pauline Christian sources from the 1st century we do have are quite limited (the re-constructed Q, Didache, Gospel of the Hebrews excerpts, Epistle of James etc.) but from what can be gauged, they have some clear differences from Paul; for starters as Howard notes, there is little to no mention of Resurrection. Not that “Jesus is risen” wasn’t preached by the Jerusalem Church, but it doesn’t seem to be given the cosmological importance Paul gives it (including Paul’s atonement theology) It also speaks of the Law still being in effect, but simplified/refocused to basically be about the moral precepts espoused by Jesus (for what its worth, this was the belief of the 2nd century Jewish Christians lambasted as heretics). One thing that is striking in James (and I agree it wasn’t likely written by James but I do think it was based off his sermons or written by a follower) is how much of it mirrors the ministry of Jesus in the Synoptics.

    As for the other ‘markers’ of the Law, it’s clear Peter and James thought that Gentiles should AT LEAST follow Noahide law per the ‘Godfearing’ Gentiles already accepted by some of the Jewish community. It’s a shame history has not left us with any testimonial accounts of those derided by Paul . . .the NT as it is gives a very one-sided story (with James being the only echo of a pushback), and the Church of course always assumes Paul was right. Maybe he was, but it would be fascinating to hear the other sides of the story.

  • scotmcknight

    Rare to find nutshells in NTW, but these quotations get pretty close. Maybe it would: Torah has multi functions in the dynamics of the Story.

  • scotmcknight

    Not sure I’d say “riddled with conflict” — some tension, sure, but plenty of support too.

    Nice set of ideas, ones needing pages and pages to unpack and discuss.

    Notice in Acts Peter immediately does not require circumcision for Gentile converts. And the newer shape of some scholars is that Paul was observant … in other words, Torah is sustained. NTW has not taken this head-on in the book in what I have read.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well I concede, that wording was perhaps exaggerated, and to clarify I don’t think there was some complete disconnect between Paul and the Jewish-Christian Churches like some have hypothesized (like Robert Eisenman’s conspiracy theories . . ugh). Paul clearly knew “some” teachings of Jesus, although he certainly doesn’t emphasize them in his Epistles.

    But my main point remains that given Paul and the Jewish-Christian community’s infrequent contact (again, taking Paul at his word and using some logical deduction), one can clearly see some significant divergences in what Paul says and what is emphasized in those Jewish-Christian sources mentioned.

    As you’d probably guess, I think most of the historicity of Acts (which IMO is, along with the Pastoral Epistles, the latest writing in the NT) is extremely questionable, and actually see its narrative as one rewriting parts of history to bridge the Pauline and Jewish-Christian church histories so that they complemented each other more (in the face of rising heresies which sought to disown one tradition or the other.) Joseph Tyson’s thesis on this, as time has passed since I read his book, becomes more and more probable to me as I learn more about the history of the time-period.

  • correction: “. . . talk about Wright the way I did that one time in that first comment up there” (which I happily decry).

    I’ve been reading him for years and have never once made a disparaging comment about his work that bordered on ad hominem. In fact, in the midst of all the hyperbolic hand-wringing over his early 2000s work on Paul, and as one surrounded by the “truly Reformed” crowd, I went on record suggesting that his critics were not giving him the benefit of the doubt (post originally published elsewhere).

  • Regarding the first point, again, I don’t see the move to human inability from Israelite covenant breaking to be contradictory at all. To be sure, if one tenaciously clings to the former without giving the latter its due in the reading of Romans, then the exegesis will suffer. But whoever said a particular bit of writing is always and must be understood in the same way for all audiences? The “bottom line” to which Moo refers is a principle (“sin creates . . . utterly helpless bondage”) that Paul’s Gentile readers could easily identify with, and, indeed, have for many centuries after its writing. Who’s to say that Paul had no intent of “killing two birds with one stone” in this letter?

    Regarding Galatians, no doubt it’s narrowly dealing with Israel/Torah failure. But does that mean I can’t extrapolate from it principles that clearly challenge semi-Pelagians? What is semi-Pelagianism if not covenantal nomism?

  • Re. “opportunist”, your remark made me realize I was maybe not clear on the proper def. of it. The one dict. I checked includes “…without regard to principle or later consequences”. So I’d not go that far myself… was thinking more just in terms of someone who is quick to take advantage of an opportunity to further their ends (even unselfish ones).

    I do see Paul as motivated for the good of humanity and those whom he served… apparently able to serve selflessly and bond deeply, etc., along with being a real firebrand and, to me, overly confident in what he believed. Either he was too independent and resistant to accountability and being “checked”, OR he was indeed hearing clearly straight from God, authorized by God to lay out theological truth (I personally have little doubt as to which, a very gradual reversal of a long-held other view).

    I like how you lay out the other issues you cover. I agree that the Epis. of James probably does reflect his thought fairly closely, and that closely follows Jesus’ teachings, but not much of Paul’s… in fact the dynamics of inner spiritual power are quite different, not just “faith and works”.

    You’re spot on re. “other side of the story” largely missing and that being aided strongly by Luke’s fairly transparent agenda…. It’s not really hard to spot, and maybe Wright has seen it for what it is and is pointing it out, as only an “insider” like him can…. I.e., for Evangelicals to at least give it a hearing and start re-examining.

  • Luke Breuer

    Nothing whatever is gained, exegetically or theologically, by supposing that the ‘law’ in the last few lines of that passage is a ‘principle’ or ‘system’. The whole passage has been about the law, the Mosaic law, the Torah;

    It strikes me that any finite system of laws will have exactly the weaknesses of Torah, if not more. Romans 10:4 intrigues me:

    For Christ is the telos of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

    The word telos (G5056) is translated many ways: culmination, purpose, end, consummation, fulfillment, termination. I found an article by Doug Ward, PhD fascinating. What if Jesus is the telos of the law in the same way that ‘2’ is the telos of 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + …? Spoken more plainly, what if the true Law is infinite in description, and that the true Law (Nomos) is part of the Logos? We know that the world was created through the Logos and that it is upheld by the Logos and that it will be judged by the Logos. Maybe I have a conspiracy theorist mind, but the connections are just too strong for me to ignore.

    If it’s the case that the true Law is infinite in nature, then there is exactly one way to obey it: to want it. To want Jesus. To want to follow him. To love him. To love what (who) God loves. I was blown away when Francis Schaeffer points out that the law which undoes Paul in Romans 7:7 is “Thou shalt not covet.” You see, it is impossible to covet unless you either don’t want things, or want what is ok to want. If you’ve ever met a Jew, the former just doesn’t work. (Paul says this! Rom 10:2) But wanting what God wants us to want is the same as following Jesus. They are identical.

    If you’re with my crazy so far, I’m going to channel Dr. Ruthven in his 2011 What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology?, where he mentions that at various points in time and especially in Jesus’ time, the Jews adopted the Not in Heaven doctrine, partly derived from Deut 30:12. The doctrine said that God wasn’t going to provide any new instructions or interpretation of what he had said already. It was just legal work from then on. It is this which Paul castigates in Rom 10:5-13, especially vv6-7. It was the Not in Heaven doctrine which ossified the Torah into a forever-finite set of laws, with no new hearing of the Holy Spirit. Upon reading this, my mind was blown.

    The problem is if we try and live by the letter of the law to get our salvation, while really just striving to get the things we want to make us happy. The problem is that we don’t really want what God wants and yet think that if we do enough of what he wants, he’ll still be happy. The problem is we are prone to be like the Israelites in Deut 5, asking for someone else to be in relationship with God so we don’t have to. Yahweh desires to be your God and my God and her God and his God. He will not rest until this is so! For this purpose we were created.

    with great but comprehensible paradox, simul- taneously find themselves (a) ‘not under Torah’ (6.14) and also (b) ‘fulfilling the decrees of Torah’ (2.26).

    With my rant above, I think the ‘paradox’ here is vaporized. Maybe that’s just pride speaking, but I think that following Jesus means following Law which means we obey the law. But we don’t obey it out of obligation, we obey it out of desire. We desire what God desires, and the way to get that is through Law.

  • Norman


    I think Paul is reflecting exactly what the New Covenant teaching of Christ would expect and what you are seeing as conflict is the natural tension going on within the Jewish Christian culture having to come to grips with their having to eventually leave Moses behind. I can’t emphasize enough that what Paul is espousing had been brewing within segments of Judaism for centuries and Christ was the impetus that crystalized the movement. There is another First Century piece of literature called the Barnabas Epistle which I believe is contemporary with Paul even though I know many scholars think it is later that reflects very similar concepts toward Judaism and even more aggressively than Paul does. I believe what Paul was teaching was much more ubiquitous than what some scholars are postulating, otherwise I don’t believe he could have even acquired a toe hold within the synagogues that he always went to in his travels. There absolutely had to be a Jewish acceptance at some level of his ideas to even have been allowed to teach the Gentiles.

    The problem is that from an eschatological understanding the Jewish Christians were in a 40 year transitional period in which they were still bound to Moses. If one doesn’t grasp that NT New Exodus realization for this period’s literature then of course one is going to very likely flounder trying to make sense of the Tension between Paul and the Jewish Christians. (being under the Law was seen to have an end point with the coming of Judgment upon Israel/Jerusalem as Christ taught in the Gospels). Paul knew he wasn’t bound ultimately by the Law anymore but the vast majority of the Jewish Christians as exemplified in Acts 21 were still zealous for the Law as they had been instructed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore Christ clarified that the Law would need to be kept until the time of transition was complete and the Kingdom of Christ had been fully vindicated and the Old was set aside ( this was in order to not bring reproach upon the New Christian movement by the rejecting Jews). This picture is so clear throughout especially the Hebrew letter that I sometimes wonder whether biblical historical scholars are paying close enough attention to the details that they seem to ignore.

    Now I know that many biblical Historical scholars are going to ignore this and simply state that every piece of literature that reflects Pauline theology was written by his followers including even the Gospels.

    That is how they get around much of these issues; by ignoring the high possibility that their dating of the literature is simply reflecting their already held presuppositions. All they have to do is simply not accept any of the earlier dating and unfortunately there is no smoking gun method of verifying either an early date or late date so who can argue with them 😉

  • Andrew Dowling

    Norman, we simply aren’t going to agree on this because we hold very different presuppositions. I don’t believe Mark 13 was ever proclaimed by Jesus and that all of the Gospels reflect a post 70 AD reality. I certainly don’t believe the horrors of the Roman-Jewish war were some pre-ordained divine judgment.

    And the Barnabas Epistle (also clearly written after the destruction of the Temple) does not reflect any type of hermeneutics that was common among 1st century Jews (which is why you don’t see his radical allegorization of the OT repeated anywhere in actual Jewish documents); to the contrary it’s a typical Christian apologetic document that is very hostile to Judaism as it reflects the post-70 AD split, with Christianity claiming to be the “true” adherent to the Abrahamic tradition.

  • Norman


    First off let me reaffirm that I respect you and your attempt at discerning the times. I do realize that we are not going to see eye to eye on many issues and I realize that you could be right but I also have studied these issues enough to recognize inconsistencies (IMO) regarding the approach to late dating scripture that is used to support yours and many modern scholars of the less than divine implications of the literature. Again you may be right but I challenge that thinking; because if it is true then Christianity as Paul illustrates has no value whatsoever as it is built completely upon illusion.

    Regarding the idea that Barnabas was written post AD70. This is determined by one sentence primarily in Chp 16 which appears to be alluding to the idea that the Temple has already been destroyed. However it completely contradicts the vast body of the Letter that is expecting a future judgment very much akin to the NT projections do. The author has throughout that epistle been using the historical Jews as a whipping boy which I believe he gets from just reading the OT and 2nd T literature and in fact Chp 16 very likely is speaking of the baggage the Jews have brought along by making comparison to the First Temple Destruction and has that concept in mind. I know that most scholars do not believe that Jesus could have prophesied the coming destruction of the Temple and so they must invoke the idea that all such prophecies are specious and written after the fact. However that is simply IMO reading one’s own suppositions into their analysis. But yes that idea may be correct but I’m far from convinced when the explanations are critiqued fully. Andrew you said … “does not reflect any type of hermeneutics that was common among 1st century Jews”. I strongly disagree with you in that Barnabas fits Jewish thinking to a T but simply reflects another individuals approach. I’m well-read enough on 2nd T and First Century Jewish literature to realize that your idea is simply a conjecture. All one has to do is look at some of the DSS documents to find similar comparisons against segments of Judaism. And Barnabas is not trashing all Judaism but is trashing what he calls corrupt Judaism so we need not lose sight of that context when evaluating his work. Now those who are Jewish apologist for various reasons may not like Barnabas because he goes after just exactly what the OT says was the problem with Israel is that many had become corrupt. This is not a new idea in Judaism as its own literature supports it.

    And by the way Andrew, the reason that I’m answering you is to provide readers with the recognition that not everyone agrees with everything Historical Biblical scholars put forth today. There needs to be contrary discussion in which people can see various positions. However I am in no way an evangelical apologist as I have little use for the fundamentalist hermeneutical approach they utilize. I see problems with both sides of the divide so I work from the middle ground somewhat.

  • mark

    “First off let me reaffirm that I respect you …”

    Hey, great line! Never tried it myself. 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    As you know, there’s too much of that around TEDS.