NT Wright, Paul and How to Live the Christian Life

NT Wright, Paul and How to Live the Christian Life January 16, 2014

The issue is eschatology, and eschatology for Paul begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and that means new creation has been unleashed while there is yet more to come (N.T. Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God). The Christian life is about learning in the “meantime” in the power of the Spirit through Christ.

For Paul, the Messiah has come, and has been crucified and raised from the dead; and with that a previously unimagined door has opened in a previously impenetrable stone wall, revealing a new world beyond, enticing and troubling in equal measure. It is a world in which non-Jews will, in some sense, ‘do the Torah’, while Jews themselves will come by faith to belong to a family in which Torah is no longer either the boundary or the ultimate goal. Theolo- gically this is like an eighteenth-century artist walking into a room full of Picassos. All the perspectives are wrong, jarring, frightening. But the new world beckons, because the Messiah has led the way into it. That is how Paul saw what we call ethics. Nobody, so far as we know, not even Jesus himself, had faced the challenge of figuring out how it would work from that point on (1096).

But, as he is quick to point out, the Protestant problem arises immediately:

 Though all students of Paul can see at a glance that he is very concerned with appropriate Christian living, the western protestant tradition has been cautious, perhaps too cautious, in how it has approached the subject. If Paul’s theology of redemption provides the main structure of his thought, and if his redemptive theology finds its centre in ‘justification by faith’, and if ‘justification by faith’ means that one must place no reliance on‘works’ in the sense of moral performance, then it is hardly surprising that ‘ethics’ as a subject has been pushed towards the back of the book. The subject is then hidden in a sanitized compartment to stop its dangerous germs of potential ‘works-righteousness’ from leaking out to infect the main body of doctrine. This protestant impulse has regularly tended to cut the connecting cables between faith and obedience (1096).

Along with this comes the problems of over-individualizing the ethic of Paul, which won’t work for the apostle for whom everything is ecclesial. The ethic of Paul also can’t be reduced to the imminent parousia problem, and neither does the older Bultmannian-shaped indicative/imperative line of thinking fit the thought of Paul. It’s about inaugurated eschatology, the chronological gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the final resurrection ushering in the fullness of new creation. Hence,

This opens up a new perspective (so to speak) on the question not only of the origin of Paul’s ethics but of what we might call his ‘public theology’. In the ancient non-Jewish world of Paul’s day ‘ethics’ related directly to ‘phy- sics’: behavioural norms were correlated to ‘the way things are’. That, actually, might have been an obvious location for the combination of ‘indicative and imperative’. But for Paul the whole point was that a new world had been launched in and through Jesus. This is the strong point of today’s so-called‘apocalyptic’ interpretation: Paul sees everything in a new light because the new world has come into existence. ‘Ethics’ may still be related to ‘physics’, but only in the sense that ‘the way things are’ has been radically transformed by the events concerning Jesus, and will be further radically transformed when what was there begun is finally complete. ‘Ethics’ must relate, then, to a radically redrawn ‘physics’: new action in a new age. But at the same time Paul believed, on classic Jewish grounds, that this new world was the new creation, in continuity with the old, however much radically transformed. That is why his ‘ethics’ have a close analogy on some points at least to those of his non-Jewish contemporaries (see below). His aim and hope is that the new way of life in his churches will commend itself to the pagan world, not as an odd, bizarre way to be human, but as a way which makes sense of their own deepest aspirations. We shall pursue these matters further in chapter 14 below (1100).

One example after another illustrates this perspective on ethics: those in Christ have entered new territory and are living out new creation by leaning into the kingdom. Those in the Spirit are living out the Torah, the Torah now of course redefine. The meantime, this chronological gap, is marked by character development and those with a kingdom character will inherit the kingdom (hence both Gal 5 and 1 Cor 6’s famous passage). The meantime is marked by cross and resurrection, by Spirit.

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