At the Heart of the Apostle Paul: The Story

At the Heart of the Apostle Paul: The Story October 22, 2013

Symbols and praxis need a story in a worldview to make sense. Famously, Bultmann stripped the New Testament of its mythology, but notice how N.T. Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, describes Bultmann’s agenda:

The main problem with Bultmann’s proposal, in addition to the muddling of different senses of ‘myth’, is that when he insisted that we should strip the early Christian world of its ‘mythology’ he meant not only that we should express the existential challenge of the gospel without its pre- Enlightenment scientific assumptions, but also that we should re- conceptualize the gospel in a non-narratival form, reducing it to the pure existential challenge of every moment, in which one is called to hear God’s word now rather than think in terms of the waste, sad time stretching before and after (457-8).

What Bultmann was to recode that message into a saving narrative characteristic of Protestant (Lutheran) theology, ramped up by 20th Century German existentialism as well. The impact, and this is characteristic of many forms of soterian thinking, is to de-Judaize the Bible (I’m using Wright’s use of de-Judaizing). For Wright, this whole New Perspective debate is all about whether or not someone embraces the Story of Israel into its theology or not. He observes the irony that Sanders erased that narrative and — this is well-known — colonized Paul into a soteriology. He sees the same in Dunn.. Wright then takes on those who deny narrative/story as a retelling in Paul and emphasize, in various ways, proposition or a more vertical theology (JC Beker, Watson, Barclay). With Wright stand Richard Hays and many others, including Morna Hooker. There has been a rather stubborn, if not productive, pushback against the importance of operating within, or explaining Paul within, a narrative framework. Wright’s discussion then ought at least to offer a response. For me it offers a counter to a tiring discussion. When Paul says his gospel is “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David … this is my gospel” then denial of a narrative plot fails at the start.

In fact, NT Wright argues for stories within the story, plots within the plot. The outer story is about God and Creation. God is creator, he made humans, they have a purpose, they thwart that purpose, there is a work to undo the thwarting, etc, Age to Come, etc… this redemptive work of God has already begun in the Present Age.

New Creation has invaded … all a hint to a large underlying story at work here for the entire cosmos. Death is the enemy and is and will be defeated. The evil forces — demons — are in need of conquering. So this story has a theme of judgment, and this judgment is connected to a coming Davidic king.

From pp. 484-5: So how does this ‘outer story’, this framing plot of creator and creation, function in relation to all the other things Paul is talking about in his letters? Is it just a loose, wide framework, so big, so unrelated to the detailed concerns of his churches, that for the most part it has little or no effect on what he actually says, on the line he takes, on what he urgently wants his congregations to reflect on and to embody?

That might be said (for instance) about the Stoic belief in the great periodic Conflagration. The serious philosopher can see the connection in theory, and can live ‘in accordance with nature’ in the light of it. But for most of the time Stoic ethics, as we saw, has no need to look beyond the horizon of the particular human being and, perhaps, the particular polis. One may well be able to develop the classic virtues without being too concerned about, or even conscious of, living in a universe that may one day go up in smoke and then, phoenix-like, reappear and repeat the entire story. One can believe in that framing story without it having an immediate impact on day- to-day living.

But with Paul it is different. This framing story, though it appears only seldom, functions dynamically in relation to the other stories, precisely as an outer story in a Shakespearean plot might function in relation to the smaller stories that nest within it and are joined to it by all kinds of subtle threads. To explain this next move we need to go slowly and carefully. We must ask: what are Paul’s sub-plots, and how do they relate to the main, overarching plot itself?

To make life easy as things get more complex, I shall now do what good storytellers would never do, and reveal in advance the shape of what is to come. The first sub-plot, I suggest, is the story of the human creatures through whom the creator intended to bring order to his world. Their failure, and the creator’s determination to put that failure right and so get the original plan back on track, demands a second sub-plot, which is the story of Israel as the people called to be the light of the world. This is the level of plot at which the Mosaic law plays out its various roles, like the complex but integrated roles given to the Moon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then, because of Israel’s own failure, we find the third and final sub-plot, which is the story of Jesus, Israel’s crucified and risen Messiah. His work, at the centre of Paul’s narrative world, resolves the other sub-plots, and provides a glimpse, as we have just seen, of the resolution for the main plot itself, the creator’s purpose for the whole cosmos. It is only when these various levels of plot are ignored, confused or conflated that problems arise. Allow each to do its proper job, and the Pauline story will work.

So there you have it: how the God and Creation plot shapes the whole of Paul’s story-telling and stories within the Story.

One plot is about the redemption of humans — purposed to reign for God in this world. They must be redeemed to reign, they must turn from their ruling on their own to rule for God. Here’s how it all fits together, from p. 489:

Thus the story of humankind falls, like the most obvious sub-plot in a play, within the larger plot, and cannot properly be understood (in Paul’s terms at least) independently from that larger narrative. The plot and the first sub-plot thus fit together as follows, explicitly in Romans 5—8 and 1 Corinthians 15 and, because these are so obviously central for Paul, by implication elsewhere as well:

1. The creator’s intention was to bring fruitful order to the world through his image-bearing human creatures.

2. Humans fail to reflect God’s image into the world, and the world in consequence fails to attain its fruitful order; the result, instead, is corruption and decay.

3. God intends to restore humankind to its proper place, resulting in the rescue and restoration of creation itself.

So far, so good – though of course we have not yet explored the question of how the creator will accomplish Stage 3. This three-stage outline is not yet, in point of fact, a complete narrative, though it has the shape of one. There are many blanks still to be filled in. The passages we have already glanced at contain the clues, which we shall follow up presently.

What is so often neglected in what I call soterian approaches is that the story stops here and the whole thing gets reduced: we lose Abraham, Israel, Jesus as Messiah, and it all gets reduced to personal salvation, and here I’m rehearsing what Tom Wright is saying in this chapter. The story of Abraham is how God chose to reinstate humans in this world — Israel, then, is central to the Story. If Israel, so also David (that’s from me).

What happens if we ignore this narrative, and never enquire about its placement within Paul’s largest story, that of the creator and the cosmos? The answer is obvious, because a great many readers of Paul have done exactly that. First, it will then be assumed that Paul is talking, not about the plight of creation, but simply about the plight of humans. Second, it will be assumed that when he appears to speak of a ‘solution’ to this ‘plight’, this solution is basically something to do with Jesus and his death and resurrec- tion, seen in isolation. Insofar as Paul refers from time to time to Abraham, he is simply a ‘predecessor’, someone in the scriptures who had faith (or: the right sort of faith!). Instead, I propose, and shall now argue, that Paul’s entire theology gains enormously in coherence and impetus if we see that he affirmed, even though he radically redrew, the particular second-Temple Jewish narrative which we studied in chapter 2: the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation. This makes sense of so many passages in Paul’s letters that it ought not to be open to doubt that Paul had this narrative in mind, and gave it substantially the same meaning it had within his native Judaism – except, of course, for the radical redescription to which he had come through the shocking and totally unexpected way in which the story had in fact reached its denouement. But to read the same story with new eyes as a result of its surprising ending is still to read the same story (495).

How so? Though the faithful Israelite, namely, the Messiah.

Wright explores how the Story of Israel fits into this Story … and it’s all about that singular divine intent to save the world through Israel, its failure to do just that and the expansion of Israel into the church … but in this section Tom finds a new expression that God has a “rescue operation [Christ] for the rescue operation [Israel].” Nice turn of phrase that will, I predict, become like “life after life after death.”

Enough for today. Come back Thursday for more.

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