Varia on NTW’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God #4 (Gupta)

Varia on NTW’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God #4 (Gupta) April 9, 2014

ntwright8I am a little embarrassed that it has been two months since I last did a varia post on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (see here1, here2, and here3), but now I am ready to press on!

In the first three posts I worked through the first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The book is so rich and multi-faceted  – it powerfully pushes forward like a gigantic textual glacier – that I could only make random comments (hence, varia). I will continue to do so throughout volume 2, though when I have finished the book I plan on writing a 2000-word book review that will be published in Interpretation.

Quick summary: in volume 1, Wright treats the key aspects of Paul’s world (including Greek philosophy, religion, and the Roman empire), and he also discusses the “mindset” of Paul which involves key symbols as well as how Paul’s “storied worldview” was constructed.

In the second volume, Wright addresses the huge subject of Paul’s theology (chs. 9-11). Then he returns to reading Paul and his ministry in historical context (chs. 12-16).

When it comes to Paul’s theology, Wright handles it quite differently than Jimmy Dunn or Thomas Schreiner. Instead of working from one topic of “theology” to the next (Christology, eschatology, pneumatology, etc…), Wright focuses on a three-fold core: “The One God of Israel, Freshly Revealed; The People of God, Freshly Reworked; and “God’s Future of the World, Freshly Imagined.”

Today I am just going to jump into chapter 9 on “The One God of Israel.” Here are eight random ideas of interest.

#1: Wright does a great job of talking about how the “oneness” Jewish theology of God was about more than having a single deity. It pervaded their whole life and gave it a central focus and unity in terms of vocation and mission: “To affirm the ‘oneness’ of Israel’s God meant, in practical terms, a cheerful and guiltless partaking in and celebrating of the world as a good gift to humans, a world full of strange beauty, massive power and silent song. In particular, and following from the vocation of human beings to reflect God’s wise order into the world, this kind of monotheism included the vocation to humans in general to bring God’s justice to the world: justice is to human society what flourishing order is to the garden” (628); also “monotheism is not a bare belief, but an agenda” (734).

#2: Is there a discernible evolution in how the earliest Christians thought about Jesus’ status as divine (from low to high)? Wright thinks it unlikely. Paul never states anything like “How then can some of you be saying that Jesus was simply a wonderful human being and nothing more?” (p. 648)

#3: Chris Tilling gets a positive nod of approval from Wright (p, 651), though Wright finds most helpful Richard Bauckham’s notion of a “Christology of divine identity” (651ff.), especially where what is asserted of Jesus by the early Christians was traditionally a prerogative of only the one God – sole creator and sole judge of all things (651-652).

#4: Wright puts special emphasis on Paul’s eschatological monotheism – Jesus accomplished what the God of Israel promised to do in restoration and in his covenantal righteousness – return to Zion to reclaim his kingship and restore and fulfill the vocation of Israel (p. 681-683; see also 705).

#5: What made Paul rethink his understanding of monotheism? It is simple, yet profound: “the fact of Jesus – his messianic life and death, and particularly his resurrection and exaltation, without which, of course, his life and death would not have been seen as messianic in the first place” (685; on 693 Wright works this out more fully)

#6: On the subject of evil, Wright gets into the question of whether Paul saw a “problem” with Judaism before he met Christ. Wright says that Paul would have been concerned with a problem, but not the same one Luther argued for. Rather, “It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed?” (p. 749). Paul would have received a special epiphany on the road to Damascus because it would be revealed to him that “[the problems] had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined” (749). Here is a great chart that depicts this:

pfg chart

#7: With this new revelation, Paul had to rethink salvation – not just salvation from enemies, but salvation from sin. Here, Wright wants to note that we are not back to Reformation categories. Wright accuses the “old perspective” view of Pauline soteriology as (1) individualistic and (2) gnostic (754).

#8: The people of God and the redemptive mission of God are connected in this chapter – already Wright is anxious to link God’s salvific plan with the vocation of the people of God. He asks why it is that only Jesus rose from the dead  – why not all God’s people instantly restored? Here is his answer (previewing more to come in the next two chapters): “The creator always intended to accomplish his purpose through human beings. But only through ‘the end’ somehow being brought forward into the present could that aim be fulfilled, could this renewed humanity be generated” (760).

NB: last semester we read a couple of works within the wider missional theology category and one of my students brought up the treatment of “sin” in these texts. If we can see sin from two perspectives, one where the person is the criminal (the conscious, willing, doer of wrong), and the other of person as victim (where sin is an infection, disease, or monster that corrupts or troubles the person), there is a tendency in missional literature to see sin almost exclusively as the latter (person as victim). I have to spend more time thinking about this, but I think that student was on to something. Even Wright doesn’t really map out in PFG (at least, not yet as far as I can tell) what “sin” actually is and how it works as both power and human choice. I am beginning to think we need someone to write a little book exploring and pondering Paul’s theology of sin in all its dimensions and features.


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