From Worldview to Theology, NT Wright

From Worldview to Theology

NT Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, volume 2, opens up with a sketch of his plan, which I will sketch briefly before we get to Wright’s own proposal: Paul’s theology is thoroughly Jewish from top to bottom, and it therefore revolved around three major themes:

Monotheism: God is one and it is the God of Israel.

Election: God formed a covenant with Israel by his own will, a covenant that grabbed this nation among the many and gave to Israel a mission to the world. This election and covenant form the soteriology of Israel’s theology.

Eschatology: again, God has a plan for history to rule this world with Israel having formed a special role.

Paul’s theology though takes these three themes into new territory in reframing each through Jesus and Spirit — thus, a christology and pneumatology give the monotheism, election and eschatology reshaped focus.

Paul’s mission was to engage both Judaism and the Roman Empire with its paganism in forming churches across the Empire.

So now to Wright:

My particular proposal in this Part has a simple outline, unfolding in three stages.

  1. I take as the framework the three main elements of second-temple Jew- ish ‘theology’, namely monotheism, election and eschatology. I am aware, as I have said before, that second-temple Jews did not characteristically write works of systematic theology… (610). “I am equally aware that many essays in ‘Pauline theology’ have assumed that its central, dominant or even sole theme will be soteriology, and that my proposal may appear to be ignoring this and setting off in a quite different direction. However, as will become clear, I believe that the theme of ‘election’ is the best frame within which to understand Paul’s soteriology, and that ‘election’ in turn is only properly understood within the larger frame of beliefs about the One God and the promised future (and the particular problem of evil which only emerges into full light once the reality of the One God has been glimpsed). Soteriology thus remains at the centre” (611).
  2. This brings us to the second stage of the hypothesis. I shall argue, in the case of each of these three central and correlated topics, that Paul rethought, reworked and reimagined them around Jesus the Messiah on the one hand and the Spirit on the other (612)….
  3. The third stage of the hypothesis is to demonstrate that this christologically and pneumatologically redefined complex of monotheism, election and eschatology was directed by Paul in three further ways, which we postpone to Part IV of the present book. I list them here in the reverse order in which they appear in that Part. — First, it was what drove and governed the main aims of his letter-writing…. Second, though, if Paul was indeed redefining the central beliefs of second-temple Judaism, we might expect to find, at least by implication, a running debate between him and others within that world, focussed not least on how they were reading scripture (613)…Third, this christologically and pneumatologically redefined Jewish theology was in reasonably constant engagement, again sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, with the pagan world of Paul’s day.

So he is taking 2 Corinthians 10:5 at Paul’s word: the man was capturing every thought for Christ.

And all of this ends up in a local church, in the ekklesiai of Paul:

The result of all this (again, this will come in chapter 16) was the founding and maintaining of communities which, in terms of the first-century world of Diaspora Judaism, were bound to look extremely anomalous.On the one hand, they would seem very Jewish, indeed ‘conservatively’ so. On the other hand, they would seem very ‘assimilated’, since they did not practice the customs and commandments that marked out Jews from their pagan neighbours. But these communities, Paul believed, possessed their own inner coherence, due to the freshly worked elements in the theology which he expounded, elements that were not bolted onto the outside of the parent Jewish theology as extraneous foreign bodies but were discerned to lie at the very heart of what that theology had most deeply affirmed (614).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Norman

    Paul’s engagement of Judaism and the Roman Empire found its roots all throughout the OT and 2nd T periods so in essence he is not introducing anything new to Judaism; except for the veracity of the resurrected Messiah. This he ties in with the expected OT breath “Spirit” that would raise faithful Israel to the standing that she was in need of (Eze 36-37)

    We see similar Israel and Pagan themes and their judgment at hand even in the book of Revelation in which the Beast from the Sea (pagan Rome) and the Beast from the Land (Corrupted Israel) are judged using apocalyptic language familiar to that audience. These NT writers including Paul are reflecting the Jewish 2nd T worldview that a Risen Messiah has empowered. Paul like the writings of Hebrews, John , Peter and the Gospels are all reflecting similar concepts except from their own particular expressive modes. I realize that some modern biblical scholars like to discount this congruence by stating that Paul influenced all these supposedly later authors whoever they are and thus attempt to discount that harmonious recognition by disbelieving any independent similarity

  • mark

    As before, I disagree with this exposition of Wright’s GRUNT (Grand Unified Narratival Theology). I’ll try to keep this brief, so let’s look at the second element, or “key theme” that Wright (in McKnight’s summary) identifies in Paul’s theology–or as I would call it, Paul’s thought:

    Election: God formed a covenant with Israel by his own will, a covenant that grabbed this nation among the many and gave to Israel a mission to the world. This election and covenant form the soteriology of Israel’s theology.

    I will simply repeat my contention that in Paul’s most systematic exposition of his gospel, Romans, an objective reader will not find anything really even remotely like what Wright is claiming for Paul. Rather than talk of a covenant and a mission of Israel to the world, what we find embedded within Paul’s overall anthropology and theory of man in history is talk of Israel being a “vessel,” a potter’s creation.

    But note well–Paul stresses that the call comes before the covenant, and that the call is for all, irrespective of nationality. The call is a call to faith in God, and the measure of faith is the willingness to conform oneself to God’s law–as knowable from God’s creation for Gentiles and as revealed in Torah for Jews. But all are equal before God, if they seek God sincerely. Further, as to covenants, what kind of a covenant could it be “with Israel” if membership in Israel is conditioned on faith, with the result that Gentiles may belong and Jews may not! Israel, true Israel, is for Paul not an ethnicity–neither Jew nor Greek–nor, on principle has it ever been so.

    To be sure, Paul sees ethnic Israel as having a special role–as keepers of “the oracles of God.” (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ–I quote the NSRV) I submit that that role is different than the “mission” of Wright’s GRUNT.

    My contention is that Israel’s role in Paul’s thought is better understood through Paul’s image of the olive tree, which grows and develops. You will not, I submit, find in Paul the idea of a mission of Israel to somehow convert the nations–that is part of Wright’s “redefinition” of the Israelite scriptures, which amounts to a Christianized (and unhistorical) rereading of them–which is, precisely, why Paul’s gospel was a “scandal” to some of his Jewish interlocutors. To “redefine” is precisely to change. I may redefine Socialism to make it identical with, say, Libertarianism, but to then to apply that redefinition to past history is no longer a study in history.

    No, the olive tree that was Israel was the growing and developing knowledge of God’s identity throughout the history of Israel, from West Semitic concepts to something like creational monotheism. In the fullness of time, when the tree of this knowledge had attained sufficient maturity, the full revelation of God’s identity was grafted into that tree in Jesus. And this revelation was completed in Jesus risen. God would never have been so unreasonable as to give Israel an impossible mission–the mission of converting the world could only come with God’s entrance into history and into humanity (if the free will of man, God’s creation, were to be preserved).

    I urge a careful rereading of Romans–and all of Paul’s letters, but Romans is the most systematic.

    BTW, this has implications for the first theme–Monotheism: God is one and it is the God of Israel. As with all of Wright’s GRUNT, this is an oversimplification. As always, the work of Mark S. Smith is a useful corrective.

  • OwenW

    While I await NT Wright’s work being made to the broader public before I could read and say anything about how he would respond, I would address the question of ‘redefinition.’ Change could either be in grand sweeping changes, that is from socialism to liberalism, or subtle (but still significant) restructuring of the same basic concepts and how they relate to each other to include something new, the Christ.

    One is a total paradigm shift, whereas the other is an internal shift and change; that was exhibitted with Judaism as the various sects of Judaism did not all interpret the Scriptures and relate the concepts of each other (such as covenant, redemption and judgment) in the same way. Paul was doing nothing different than his fellow Jewish contemporaries did, except interpret the Old Testament in light of the Christ (which even that that is related to Pesher intepretation, which itself was a Jewish style of intepretation).

    NT Wright’s argument from all I have read of him seems to fall what I would call a subtle restructuring, not the dramatic transition like socialism to libertarianism. The same notions of monotheism, election, and eschatology are present, but they are restructered/redefined.

    And I would urge caution on giving any one metaphor primacy in interpreting Paul, like the metaphor of the olive tree. A) Most thought does not work that way and B) that is a concept/metaphor used only once with Paul, thus exhibitting a minor role. The concepts of pistis, charis, sarx, pneuma, nomos/Torah, are all much more present, along with the metaphors of family (which is related to pneuma for Paul).

    Also, if Romans is systematic, then it is unlikely there is one overarching concept/metaphor, but it is a conglomeration of concepts and metaphors working in conjunction. And that is precisely what one would expect with a change in thought due to historical events, where the whole set of concepts and beliefs adjust and accommodate themselves to the new understanding within historical experience, because the central point of the new definition comes from history, that is the Christ, and not a metaphor.

  • OwenW

    To add from anthroplogical/cognitive psychology framework:

    A network of related concepts are generally realized (that is, subconscious/unconscious feelings being made more conscious) and reinforced (strengthened what is already believed), but not necessarily newly generated, by narrative. Furthermore, later narratives can build upon and modify previous networks of concepts. So the (hi)story of Jesus modifies and builds upon the narrative of Israel.

    New concepts, on the other hand, tend to be generated by metaphors and analogies from experiences. For instance, gnosticism seems to be largely a work of interpretation around metaphors, and as such represents a distinctly novel development in thought.

    Hence, I would suggest there is a tension between the centrality of narrative and the centrality of metaphors/concepts. But the pattern for Paul fits better with a redefinition of a network of concepts, since a person is the focal point of his theology, rather than a concept.


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