Monotheism in a Christian Framework: NT Wright

At the heart of Paul’s theology is classic Jewish monotheism (not so much later philosophical and theological monotheism), and NT Wright opens with a sketch of Jewish monotheism and then shows how Paul reframes Jewish monotheism.

  1. First Century Jewish Monotheism

Wright begins with Akiba being martyred, and in the act of dying reciting Shema as his expression of loving God with his “life” (naphsheka).

As we saw earlier, the most intimate and personal way of ‘taking on oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven’ was the praying of the Shema, two or more times a day. Invoking YHWH as the ‘one God’ and determining to love him with mind, heart and nephesh, life itself, meant a total commitment to the sovereignty of this one God, the creator, the God of Israel, and a repudiation of all the idols of paganism and the cruel empires which served them. That is, more or less, the very heart of what ‘monotheism’ meant to a devout Jew of the period (620).

And from 623-624: If what we loosely summarize as ‘monotheism’ is to be clarified in terms of the world of thought and practice we may safely ascribe to Saul of Tarsus, we should expect to find it, not in the realm of fine-tuned religious or philosophical speculation, not in debates about how many angels are permitted in the divine entourage before they compromise the divine unity, but in the sphere of Israel’s aspirations, Israel’s kingdom-of-God expectations. Monotheism of the sort which fired Saul of Tarsus meant invoking God as creator and judge, and also as the God specifically of Israel, and doing this within a framework of actual events, including not least the fierce opposition by pagan tyrants, leading in some cases to torture and death. Jewish monotheism was rooted in prayer, particularly in praying of the Shema. To pray this prayer was not to make a subtle affirmation about the inner nature of the One God, but to claim the sovereign rule of this One Creator God over the whole world, and to offer oneself in allegiance of mind, heart and life itself in the service of this God and this kingdom.

This kind of Jewish monotheism, so rooted in actual realities, is an affirmation not of ontological dualism but the goodness of creation and the created order as well as opposition to idolatries. This kind of monotheism formed itself into a community, Israel.

2. Paul’s Re-Affirmed Monotheism.

From p. 634: The central claim of this chapter, and in a measure of this whole book, is that Paul clearly, solidly, skilfully and dramatically reworked exactly this ‘monotheism’ around Jesus the Messiah and also around the spirit. It is for the sake of Jesus, and in the power of the spirit, that Paul faces, and knows that his ekklēsiai are facing, the equivalent challenges to those faced by the Maccabees before him.

We see Paul’s robust monotheistic faith in Romans 8:28-39, and in 2 Corinthians 4, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians — the interlocking themes of suffering and Jewish monotheism are held together as they are found from the Maccabees to Akiba. Allegiance to Israel’s one God means opposition from the surrounding world.

Then, too, we see the same monotheism in God as creator and God as judge. From p. 638: “Monotheism of the second-temple Jewish kind, as we saw, was the belief not so much that there was one supernatural being rather than many, or that this God was a single and indivisible entity, but that the one true God was the creator of the world, supreme over all other orders of being, that he would be the judge of all, and that in between creation and final putting-to- rights he had a single purpose which arched its way over the multiple smaller stories of his creation and, not least, of Israel.

In practice, classic Jewish monotheism also means one people. P. 641: “A further tell-tale sign of Paul’s foundational commitment to his ancestral Jewish monotheism comes in a couple of short but crucial passages. In all of these we see Paul drawing on the basic monotheistic heritage to argue for the unity – not indeed of ethnic Israel, but for what he saw as the renewed people of God in the Messiah.” Here Abraham comes to the front of Wright’s discussion — the Abraham in whom the new family finds its home, e.g., Galatians 3:27-29.

 

About Scot McKnight

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

  • mark

    It’s early still, but I have several quibbles, if you will:

    To pray this prayer was not to make a subtle affirmation about the inner nature of the One God, but to claim the sovereign rule of this One Creator God over the whole world, and to offer oneself in allegiance of mind, heart and life itself in the service of this God and this kingdom.

    I don’t think there is any opposition between the two. In point of fact, the “claim” that the One Creator God is the sovereign ruler over the whole world is a fairly subtle affirmation about the inner nature of the One God. Now, as readers/students of the work of Mark S. Smith will understand, this affirmation did come to expression in the context of Israel’s life and death struggle (or so it seemed at the time) with the great Mesopotamian empires. Nevertheless, as Smith also shows, there was also a broader context of development that began before Israel’s confrontation with those empires and continued after those empires had disappeared (to be replaced, to be sure, by other empires). The point is, just because Israelite forms of expression differ from those of the Greek thought in which the Western philosophical/theological tradition is steeped doesn’t mean that the thinkers of ancient Israel were not, in their own way, wrestling with the same issues and often in remarkable similar terms–even if that similarity is sometimes masked (cf. Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel).

    This kind of monotheism formed itself into a community, Israel.

    Modern historical scholarship seems to be agreed that Israel was formed into a community well before it could really be said to have embraced monotheism in any sense of that word that would be meaningful to us. Although I don’t know that NTW actually makes this statement, it’s the type of thing he does regularly in his recent writings: sidesteps historical issues (which I’m sure he’s well aware of) in favor of the larger purposes of his GRUNT. This tension, between history and meaning, is a major unresolved tension in his GRUNT.

    “A further tell-tale sign of Paul’s foundational commitment to his ancestral Jewish monotheism comes in a couple of short but crucial passages. In all of these we see Paul drawing on the basic monotheistic heritage to argue for the unity – not indeed of ethnic Israel, but for what he saw as the renewed people of God in the Messiah.”

    I’m not sure “renewed people of God” is really the right way to put it, even if it’s the wright way. Paul is pretty clear that membership in “Israel” is based in faith–is and always has been, as I understand Paul. From what Paul writes, I believe he would be quite open to the idea that “pagans” could be members through faith. That certainly appears to be the direction he was suggesting in his address on the Areopagus.

  • Dianne P

    “This kind of Jewish monotheism, so rooted in actual realities, is an affirmation not of ontological dualism but the goodness of creation and the created order as well as opposition to idolatries. This kind of monotheism formed itself into a community, Israel.”

    An epiphany that I had on reading this… at that time, monotheism was not just about one God versus many, nor Israel’s God versus their god (Baal, etc), but rather one God who is the creator and source of ALL. Revolutionary in the ANE? This might be a “duh” moment for some, but for me, this is set against the concept of compartmentalized gods – one for fertility, one for crops, one for whatever, etc. And of course, we/I continue to compartmentalize in our modern, materialistic world. The one true God eliminates compartmentalization in our spiritual life, which is now to say, our whole life. The saying of… who you are and whose you are… it’s now all one. The grand unified theory (GUT) of life.

    I’m not too sure I’ve made my distinction clear. Maybe I’ve had too much coffee (is there such a thing?)


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