NTWright, Paul, the Law and Jesus

NTWright, Paul, the Law and Jesus October 24, 2013

Once one opens reading Paul through the Story/stories at work, everything falls into place. Such an approach, followed by NT Wright in his new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, permits Wright to explain two major, major issues: the law and Jesus.

Where does the Torah/Law fit in all this? It all begins with a recognition that when Paul said “Law” he meant the Jewish Torah and not the “law principle” of life. So when Reformed theologians speak of the “covenant of works” or when Lutherans pose “law against gospel” we are looking at un-Jewish modes of thinking. For Paul the word nomos refers to the Torah of Moses. To comprehend it we need to see how it fits in the story, not to see how it fits into a generalized religious disposition or human condition.

To understand Torah, then, we have to know how it fits in the grand story, and it can’t be understood aright apart from that story. Here it is, with a final summary later in the post. First, Torah is a gift of God to Israel to help it be the light to the nations. Then, second, because of sin Torah becomes Israel’s opponent. Roman  8:3 — where “weak through the flesh” refers to Israel’s failure to obey. Third, the Torah has a limited temporal function: once the building is built its preliminary function ends. Fourth, this Torah then puts to death the “I” of Romans 7, or Galatians 2:15-21, which is all about Israel’s discipline so the mission to the nations can occur.

The point is that God’s plan, through Israel, for the rescue of the human race (and thus for the rescue and restoration of the whole creation) meant that Israel had to become the place where ‘sin’, the personified power opposed to God’s plan and purpose, would be ‘increased’, would ‘appear as sin’, would ‘become exceedingly sinful’. And Torah was playing its God-given role within that strange purpose” (510).

On Romans 7:14-23:

Nothing whatever is gained, exegetically or theologically, by supposing that the ‘law’ in the last few lines of that passage is a ‘principle’ or ‘system’. The whole passage has been about the law, the Mosaic law, the Torah; and the frustration the passage expresses is neither (a) the psychological torment of the young Jew, discovering law and lust at the same time, nor (b) the puzzle of the existentialist, trying to seize life by the performance of the categorical imperative only to discover that this produces inauthenticity, nor yet (c) the frustration of the Christian, wanting to serve God wholeheartedly but find- ing that sin continues to clog the wheels (510).

Leading to yet another point about the Torah: Jesus, the representative Israelite, does the Torah and dies, and the Spirit is sent so the Torah is now done by the people of God. Wright expresses this in his usually fast paced and side-glancing manner:

There, through the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and by implication (7.6) the work of the spirit (which will be spelled out more fully in chapter 8), a people has been constituted ‘in the Messiah’, a people who have themselves died ‘in him’, thereby leaving behind the soli- darity of Adam, and the solidarity of Torah-under-Adam where Israel according to the flesh continues to languish (6.14). It is this people, this in- Messiah people, this led-by-the-spirit people, this died-to-sin-and-living-to- God people (6.11) that now, with great but comprehensible paradox, simul- taneously find themselves (a) ‘not under Torah’ (6.14) and also (b) ‘fulfilling the decrees of Torah’ (2.26). This new-covenant people is ‘not under Torah’ in the sense that it is not ‘Israel according to the flesh’, living in the place where Torah goes on pronouncing the necessary and proper sentence of condemnation. But it ‘fulfils the decrees of Torah’, and indeed ‘keeps God’s commandments’, insofar as it is the Deuteronomy-30 people in whom what had been impossible under Torah, because of Israel’s fleshly identification with Adam, is now accomplished by the spirit (513).

Or, as he now sums it all up:

Once we grasp how the plots and sub-plots of the story work, then, we can be quite clear that for Paul Torah is the divine gift which defines and shapes God’s people. God’s people follow their strange vocation through the long years of preparation, through the period (particularly) of failure, curse and exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which Paul sees both as the fulfilment of all the earlier promises and the new creation which has arrived as a fresh divine gift. Torah accompanies them all the way, like a faithful servant doing what is required in each new eventuality, taking on the different roles demanded by and at the different stages of Israel’s journey, and finally attaining a new kind of ‘fulfilment’ in the heart-circumcision promised by Deuteronomy and supplied by the spirit. At one moment in the narrative the moon is waning; at another it is full; at another, it helps to bury the dead. This narrative framework frees Torah from the burden of always playing the villain in a Lutheran would-be reading of Paul, or the hero in a Reformed one. It offers, instead, a chance for Torah to be what Paul insists it always was: God’s law, holy and just and good, but given a task which, like the task of the Messiah himself, would involve terrible paradox before attaining astonishing resolution. The Torah shines with borrowed light, and the horned dilemmas it has presented to exegetes are only resolved when the complete cycle of waxing and waning has played itself out (516).

Now what about Jesus, where does he fit in the story/stories?

At the same time, it is important to stress that ‘the story of Jesus in Paul’, were we to tell it, would always appear as the denouement of some other story or set of stories. Paul does not introduce, or appear to think of, Jesus as a character facing a task or problem, finding it difficult or impossible, need- ing to seek fresh help or to ward off difficulties, and finally succeeding in the task or surmounting the problem. As with Torah, only in quite a different mode, everything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories, of the story of the creator and the cosmos, of the story of God and humankind and/or the story of God and Israel. Because these three layers of plot interlock in the way I have described, what Paul says about Jesus, and what he could have said were he to have laid out his worldview- narrative end to end for us to contemplate, makes the sense it does as the crucial factor within those other narratives. Thus there really is, in one sense, a Pauline ‘story of Jesus’, but it is always the story of how Jesus enables the other stories to proceed to their appointed resolution (517).

There are, then, three interlocking stories, diagrammed on p. 521:

Here is the point of all these pretty little diagrams, and I hope this exposition functions redemptively in their direction too, after the scepticism even of some of their former users. When we understand the triple narrative which forms the basis of Paul’s worldview, we can see the way in which, bewildering though it often seems to us, Jesus the Messiah functions for him in relation to all three stories simultaneously. As Israel’s Messiah, he has accomplished Israel’s rescue from its own plight, passing judgment on the evil that has infiltrated even his own people. As Israel-in-person, which is one of the things a Messiah is (see below), he has completed Israel’s own vocation, to bring rescue and restoration to the human race, passing judgment on human wickedness in order to establish true humanness instead. And as the truly human one (Psalm 8, blended with Psalm 110, as in 1 Corinthians 15) he has re-established God’s rule over the cosmos, defeating the enemies that had threatened to destroy the work of the creator in order to bring about new creation. Jesus does not have an independent ‘story’ all on his own. He plays the leading role within all the others. He is Adam; he is Israel; he is the Messiah. Only when we understand all this does Paul’s worldview, particularly its implicit complex narrative, make sense (521).

There are then three interlocking stories:

1. Creation was supposed to be looked after by Adam, but he sinned and so lost ‘the glory of God’ (3.23). He is replaced not just by the Messiah but by ‘those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of covenant membership, of “being in the right”’: they will ‘reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah’ (5.17). By this means, crea- tion itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption (8.18–26). That is the big story, the overarching plot. This is how creation itself is to be renewed. This is the ‘cosmic’ story.

2. Humans in their sin, which prevents them from attaining their true vocation, are rescued through ‘the obedience of the one man’. Here, ‘obedience’ has taken the place of ‘faithfulness’, in 3.22 and elsewhere, as a summary of the Messiah’s completion of the work marked out for Israel.189 This is the (perhaps unhappily named) ‘anthropological’ story, which is not to be played off against the ‘cosmic’, which it is designed to serve. It is because humans are rescued from their sin that they are able once more to play their part in God’s worldwide pur- poses.

3. The specific problem of Israel, highlighted and exacerbated by the arrival of the Torah (5.20), has been met, and more than met, by the grace which has abounded in the Messiah. He has done on Israel’s behalf what Israel could not do, and also has done for Israel itself what Israel needed to be done. His Israel-work rescues Adam’s people; his Adam-work rescues creation itself. This is the ‘covenantal’ vision, which again must not be played off against either the ‘anthropological’ or the ‘cosmic’ stories. It is because the Messiah has fulfilled Israel’s calling that humans are rescued from idolatry, sin and death (531).

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