NT Wright: Paul, Israel and the Church

NT Wright: Paul, Israel and the Church February 6, 2014

NT Wright’s new study on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, argues two central themes: that monotheism, election of Israel, and eschatology have been fulfilled in Christ and the Spirit, and that this fulfillment is entirely within the scope of Israel’s Story — it is not “replacement” but “fulfillment.” He knows classical Protestant theologians think he’s got too much Israel, too much church, and not enough on justification in the personal soterian mode of thinking; he knows anti-supersessionists think a two-covenant approach is even better; and he knows the pluralists or universalists advocate an even wider sense of salvation. The issue for Wright is the one and only issue: What does the NT teach?

So he begins with Galatians 4–6 and I draw our attention to two major conclusions: the allegory of 4:21-31 is about discipline in the church (kick out the Judaizing faction) not about personal salvation (kick out Jews and Judaism), and the “Israel of God” in 6:16: “the noble, evocative word ‘Israel’ itself now denotes, however polemically, the entire faith-family of the Messiah, defined by ‘faith working through love’ (5.6) and ‘new creation’ (6.15)” (1143-1144).

Hence, fulfillment of the election through an eschatology reshaped by christology and Spirit. Not replacement of Israel by the church but that historic promise now coming to fulfillment in Christ, in the new creation. [There are some today who think calling Gentiles or the church the “Israel of God” is what supersessionism is … which means the term is often enough a bully club. Was Moses a supersessionist to Abraham? David to Moses?] Here are Tom’s own words:

The case for the majority view, then, is overwhelming. It is not unthinkable to challenge it, as we have seen: many, seeing only too well the implications of this position, have, like Peter in Antioch, drawn back, fearing the circumcision party (I speak, of course, in human fashion, because of the weakness of the flesh). But if it were the case that Paul, suddenly at this late stage, meant something else by ‘God’s Israel’ – meant, for instance, to refer either to all Jews, or to all Christian Jews, or to some subset of either of those whether now or in the future – then he would, quite simply, have made nonsense of the whole letter. Why write Galatians 3 and 4, if that was where it was going to end up? Why not settle for two families, two ‘inheritances’, instead of the single one? Why not allow that people who want to follow Moses can do so, and that those who want to follow Abraham without Moses can do so too? Why not, in short, behave as if the Messiah had not been crucified? That is what such a position would amount to (1151).

The bulk of this section is an exegesis of Romans 9–11, a passage dismissed by some but central to the whole of Romans. He makes four introductory points:

1. Romans 9–11 is about God — and he sketches how much is about God (God’s word, children, promise, election, etc).
2. Romans 9–11 belongs in other contemporary sketches of Israel’s history/Story (like Pseudo-Philo, Josephus, Acts 7, Hebrews 11).
3. Romans 9–11 responds to the end of Romans 8 about the rejection of Jesus by Jews and the rejection of Paul’s gospeling about Jesus, Paul’s grief about it and Paul’s attempt to come to terms with God’s ways with Israel and the Gentiles.
4. Romans 9–11 has a chiastic arrangement: (1) 9:1-5, (2) 9:6-29, (3) 9:30-33, (4) 10:1-4, centered in 10:5-13 and then back up in reverse order (4′) 10:14-17, (3′) 10:18-21, (2′) 11:1-32, and (1′) 11:33-36.

The issue here is the opposite of Galatians where Gentile believers were moving into Judaism; here the problem is Gentile Messiah believers despising Jews and Judaism. Paul tells them God is still at work because God’s promise is irrevocable, and “all Israel” is this new Jewish believer/Gentile believer people of God in Christ. That eschatology has been redefined by the cross and resurrection, and Israel’s election flows from that redefinition.

So we come to the end of Part III, Paul’s Theology, and here’s how NTW puts it all together:

With this vision of Paul’s theology, we are at last in a position to see how he related to the three worlds he inhabited. As to his native Judaism: his critique was not that it was bad, shabby, second-rate, semi-Pelagian or concerned with physical rather than spiritual realities. His critique was eschatological: Israel’s God had kept his promises, but Israel had refused to believe it. The Messiah had come to his own, and his own had not received him. Had Paul read John’s prologue he would have nodded at that point, and muttered ‘I wrote three whole chapters about that.’ Of course, Paul’s reimagining of the Jewish theology of God, God’s people and God’s future created many points of potential confrontation. But as with Qumran, where the community believed that the One God had secretly re-established his covenant with them, leaving the rest of Israel behind the game, so with Paul. He believed that the sun had risen, while most of his fellow Jews were insisting on keeping the bedroom curtains tight shut. We shall explore this, not least in relation to his fresh readings of scripture, in chapter 15.

With regard to the Greek world of popular religion and philosophy, Paul’s radically revised monotheism, election and eschatology gave him a robust intellectual platform from which to critique, by implication and sometimes head on, the philosophies of the time, not least Stoicism. But his real target was the popular culture: many gods, many lords and many idols, clamouring for allegiance and dehumanizing any who gave it. Paul may have been aware, too, of an implicit clash between his gospel and the mystical religions of the Orient, though this does not lie on the surface of his text. He did not derive his message or his practice from such sources, though he may have been aware that his vision of Christian initiation (for instance) was in a sense upstaging the ‘mysteries’. I see him rather, as Luke saw him in Athens, with his spirit grieved at a city full of idols, ready to debate more serious perspectives when given the chance. But at the level of hope, as we said earlier, there was no contest. The only hope in the ancient world was either for the smile of ‘Fortuna’ or for an escape to the Elysian fields. Paul held, taught and lived a hope which outflanked those options, because he believed in a God who was creator and judge, neither of which beliefs featured prominently in greco-roman religion or philosophy. We shall explore all this in chapters 12 and 13.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Israel’s hope in its fresh Pauline expression was its undesigned coincidence with the realized eschatology of the Augustan age. It just so happened, as we saw in chapter 5, that Paul was telling Israel’s story, from Abraham to the Messiah, in a world caught up in Rome’s story, from the Trojan Wars to Augustus. When Paul spoke of the parousia or the epiphaneia of Jesus, he was writing for hearers who applied those words to a very different incarnate divinity. As we reflect on the full sweep of Paul’s reworked Jewish theology, we should not be surprised that, like Genesis, Isaiah and Daniel before him, he told and lived the story of the creator God, of God’s people and of God’s future plans in a world where pagan empire was claiming to provide all the ‘future’ anyone could want. Our next chapter, introducing the final Part of this book, will therefore examine Paul’s clash with the world of Roman empire.

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