Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Sixty One

Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Sixty One May 30, 2014

Eschatology is a tricky subject in various ways. On the one end of the spectrum one can make the mistakes we see Dispensationalism making again and again when it tries to co-ordinate contemporary events with generic or more universal Biblical prophecies about the future. On the other end of the spectrum there are those who want to subsume all the NT discourse under the general label of apocalyptic and suggest there really is no continuous narrative, as Wright keeps asserting, that is being fulfilled and finished by the Christ event, but rather ‘all things new’ is the watchword of NT eschatology. Tom avoids both of these extremes but at the same time there are some odd features to his presentation, which has so strongly emphasized inaugurated eschatology throughout, and even has suggested that even future eschatology has to some extent been brought forward in the inauguration of things by the first Christ event. Getting the already and not yet balance right is, to be sure, difficult, in any case.

What I find odd is that while Tom keeps insisting that monotheism, election, and also eschatology have been reshaped around Christ and the Spirit, at the same time Christology and Pneumatology are not the big ticket categories, the major topics of discussion. They are the change agents, but not the center of the discussion. This is especially odd since there are so many new elements that the actual story of Christ brings into the picture which are not anticipated, and so not a fulfillment of OT story or prophecy. For example a crucified AND risen messiah is impossible to find as genuine emphasized theme or major part of the OT story. It would be my view that you need to start with Jesus and Christology, and secondarily the Spirit and pneumatology if you want to understand Pauline theology properly, especially if you want to understand the new elements in it that are rather unprecedented. We need to bear in mind that Paul is our earliest of Christian writers, and so our earliest clue of how the OT was understood in the wake of the Christ event. Paul’s discussions, which mention the Christ some 450 or more times and the Spirit hundreds of times, and the Father many less times, suggests a different approach to the matter than Tom takes. Yahweh is not viewed as being Christ by Paul, he is the Father, and it was not Yahweh who showed up in the ministry of the historical Jesus. He claimed to be the Son of Man, not the Ancient of Days.
And then too there is the problem of Tom’s continued assertions about righteousness=God’s covenant faithfulness, even in a context where he cites texts that suggest clearly another view. For example, consider the citation of Tob. 14.5-7 on p. 1058— “After this they will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendor, in it the temple of God will be rebuilt, just as the prophets of Israel have said concerning it. Then the nations in the whole world will be converted and worship God in truth. They will all abandon their idols, which deceitfully have led them into their error; and in righteousness they will praise the eternal God.”

Whatever else one may say, righteousness at the end of this passage has nothing to do with covenant faithfulness. Gentiles did not already have a covenant with God before their conversion, and their beginning to worship him cannot be couched as an act of faithfulness to a re-existing covenant relationship. It is worth noting as well that this sort of early Jewish text nowhere suggests that the nations are destined to be a part of or will become the dominant group within Israel. (I do however agree with Tom’s point that ‘aion’ (see bottom p. 1059) means age and so everlasting life should really be translated the life of the new age or better said ‘the age to come’ a common Jewish phrase, which is promised).

Tom is of course right that the coming of the Messiah, and more particularly his singular resurrection in advance of the resurrection of the righteous has led to a bifurcating of the early Jewish discussion about resurrection and about the coming of the Kingdom. Both are an already and not yet proposition in light of the Christ event (see pp.1061-62).

Where things begin to really go off the rails is in Tom’s interpretation of Daniel 7.13-14 (see pp. 1063ff.). Dan. 7 is not about Christ’s current lordship over all creation, nor did the historical Jesus think such a thing. As Mk. 14.62 makes very clear, Jesus saw that prophecy as about when the Son of Man will return to earth to judge the world, and be worshipped by the nations. “Coming on the clouds’ is not the same thing as disappearing into a cloud on the way up to heaven. The very language of theophany, so stressed by Tom when he attempts to equate the return of Yahweh with even the first coming of Christ, is about a God who comes to earth to judge, the rescue, to redeem his people. In short, neither Daniel 7, nor Paul’s understanding of Daniel 7 is about a present reign from heaven of the Son of Man. This is where inaugurated eschatology becomes over-realized eschatology. As Tom admits, and as 1 Cor. 15 says– until Christ returns and puts all his enemies under his feet, the kingdom will not have full come, nor Christ’s reign been fully established on earth as it is in heaven.

On p. 1064 there is further curious reasoning. Based on Rom. 1.3-4 Tom says that the resurrection constitutes Jesus as the Messiah. The verb in question however could be rendered appointed, or maybe at a stretch vindicated, but not constituted. He was already Messiah before the resurrection, as Paul says when he says God sent forth his Son to be born of woman. Furthermore the issue is not when he was constituted Messiah, but rather when he was appointed to be ‘Son of God in power’ whereas previously before he gained his resurrection body he was mortal and was Son of God in weaknesss. Finally, the real Christological pay off of the resurrection is not that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, but that he is the risen Lord of all, and these two notions are not simply identical. Indeed, the stress in Rom. 1.3-4 is on the fact that he is son of David by birth, but he is son of God in power by means of the Holy Spirit raising him from the dead. Lastly, 1 Cor. 15 does indeed compare the first Adam and the last one (see also Rom. 5.12-21) but this is deliberately not to use the messiah category to speak about the matter. It is choosing a more universal category that encompasses Jesus being a man for all seasons and all peoples. It is the universal humanity not the Jewishness of Jesus that is emphasized in the last Adam language. He is not starting Israel over again, he is starting the whole human race over again once he has been raised from the dead.

None of this is to deny that there are passages in Paul that talk about Christ’s current reign in heaven. Of course there are, but they are mainly associated with his reign over the powers and principalities for the believers (see e.g. Col. 1.15ff. or Ephesians, or Rom. 8.30ff.). What is not being claimed is that already on earth the kingdom has fully come and God’s will has fully been done. The human dilemma goes on, on planet earth.

It is precisely at this juncture that Tom’s political reading of the reign of Christ comes into the picture. He suggests that when Paul says Christ reigns, he is making a counter claim to the grandiose propaganda of the Emperor who claimed to rule the world. He also in the same breath (p. 1065) rejects the notion that Paul means ‘Christ reigns in the believers hearts’, exchanging politics for piety. In his more famous phrase, Tom is claiming that Christ is the reality of which the Emperor is the parody. It is not clear to me however that the Lordship of Christ is mainly a counter claim to the false claims of the Emperor, although I think sometimes there may be a polemical overtone to what Paul is saying. But whatever one says on this matter one needs to take into account that: 1) Paul also says the Emperor (who at the time was Nero!) and his governors have divine authority to reign on the earth since all authority ultimately comes from God(Rom. 13) a claim also made in 1 Peter in another way; 2) one should consult the fine succinct study of Christopher Bryan on this matter which calls into question a good deal of the political readings of the NT— both Jesus and Paul.

The real issue is ‘in what sense is Jesus presently Lord, and Caesar (or other so-called God’s not)’. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 8, he is lord for us, in us, in our community. This does not deny the existence of other so-called lords etc. in the world. It does not even deny that various of them de facto rule on the earth, often brutally. What it denies is the scope and duration of their claims, the hyperbolic quality, and especially the over-reach of assertions of divine identity in their claims. What I take Paul to mean as well is what is so clearly stated in Rom. 8.28– Christ and the Father and the Spirit are indeed mysteriously involved in the human sphere, and what Paul most wants to stress is that ‘God works all things together for good for those who love him’ This means a providential control over events by God for the saints. Not everything that happens to the saints is good, but God can and does work all things together for good for them.

Another example of over-realized eschatology is Tom’s insertion of the word NOW into Phil. 2.10-11. There is no such word in the Greek of those verse. What it says is that God has highly exalted Christ already, and given him the name above all names, already ‘in order that every knee should bow’ etc. It does not tell us when that bowing happens, but the text suggests it is NOT now, but rather in the future because ‘now’ as in when Paul wrote Philippians it was definitely not the case that everyone was bowing and confessing Jesus is Lord. Like with the Dan. 7.13-14 passage, Tom has mistaken future eventuality with present reality. Vs. 10-11 constitute a promise, not a description of what is now happening on or under the earth etc. Here again, it seems to me the influence of George Caird overcomes the recognition that Paul is talking about the ‘not yet’ in Phil. 2.10-11. To borrow a phrase from Oscar Cullmann, D- Day, as in the death and resurrection day, was the turning point in the war against the powers and principalities and the forces of darkness upon the land. It is not however already V-E day, when ‘the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ’.
It may be debated (see p. 1068) whether ‘the rulers of this world’ refer to terrestrial or celestial rulers (or both). As Tom says on p. 1069, Paul operates with a two ages and two kingdoms overlap schema, of sorts. The age to come has broken into this present evil age (instead of one succeeding the other) just as the kingdom of God has broken into the world of all these human kingdoms. Again, the question is how, and where, and for Paul the answer seems mainly to be ‘where the Lordship of Christ is clearly manifest and Christ is truly worshipped’ namely in the ekklesia tou theou.

On p. 1070 Tom renews his appeal to the Exodus theme as helping us to understand these things. I would simply caution that not every reference to slavery in Paul, even spiritual slavery, is an allusion to the Exodus events. He’s mainly talking about slavery to sin, not literal slavery anyway, and on this matter I would say consult Dale Martin’s Slavery as Salvation book (Yale). Further, when Paul talks in Gal. 4 about progress from slavery to sonship, not only is he talking about a familiar Greco-Roman thing that happened when a slave was manumitted, he is talking about something that is as true of Gentile converts as of Jewish ones to Christ. I doubt the largely Gentile Galatians would be seeing an allusion to the Exodus events in such language in Gal. 4. Tom makes a better case for a new exodus reading of things on the basis of Paul’s ‘typos’ discussion in 1 Cor. 10. But the question is, why does Paul use the analogy? Does he use it to suggest a new exodus now, or does he use it to warn the Corinthians that their participation in their sacraments “baptism, the Lord’s Supper” no more guarantee their final salvation than the eating of manna in the wilderness, and the going through the Red Sea did for the wilderness wandering generation. In other words— the issue is not old exodus vs. new exodus, but old sacraments vs. new ones, and how neither guarantees final salvation.

There is a useful summary of Tom’s basic views on inaugurated eschatology and its relationship to his other major points on pp. 1072-73. I will let you peruse them and see what you think. As for me, I would point out, that when God’s people become covenant breakers, and because the promises in the covenants are usually, if not always, contingent on the keeping of the covenant, that is they are conditional promises, (‘if my people who are called by my name repent…..etc.) then it seems singularly inappropriate to talk about God’s saving work as his covenant faithfulness. God owes nothing to his own people if they break his covenant, and he owes nothing to Gentiles at all. It’s all grace and mercy. When we hear of God’s faithfulness, mostly this is a discussion of God being true to his own character, not his being faithful to some contract. And when we hear about God’s righteousness the issue is God’s character, and the character he desires his people to manifest— that they be holy, that they be sanctified, that they be righteous. Sometimes, of course it is true that God’s righteousness refers to his justice, in accord with his character (not some contract he made) and sometimes it refers to his gracious desire to make us like him, and so set right our relationship with him. The fact that faithfulness and righteousness are subjects that sometimes come up together in the same context does not tell us what the relationship of these two things are. After all, a thumb tack can be painfully discovered in a little tin of pennies sometimes. The fact that they are close together doesn’t mean one=the other, or one explains the other.

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