Paul’s Missional Theology (acc. to NT Wright)

Paul’s Missional Theology (acc. to NT Wright) March 24, 2014

So what were Paul’s aims? What was he doing? What did he think he was doing? (Paul and the Faithfulness of God)

To see Paul as the philosopher who provided the ideological validation for the worldwide rule of Jesus would hardly capture the whole of his thought, but it would possess more than a grain of truth, and one regularly screened out. Paul was precisely not an isolated, detached thinker. That is why the isolated thinkers in the western academic tradition have had such difficulty with him, seeing confusion in his pastoral skill and contradiction in his subtle paradoxes. He was a man of action, of performative fulfilment. He was both thinker and doer, regarding his thinking as itself a form of worship, and his doing, too, as a sacrificial offering through which to implement the already-accomplished achievement of the Messiah. He was an integrated whole: razor-sharp mind and passionate heart working together (1475-6).

I want in this chapter to argue that Paul’s practical aim was the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of communities; that the means to their creation and maintenance was the key notion of reconciliation; and that these communities, which he regarded as the spirit-inhabited Messiah-people, constituted at least in his mind and perhaps also in historical truth a new kind of reality, embodying a new kind of philosophy, of religion and of politics, and a new kind of combination of those; and all of this within the reality we studied in the previous chapter, a new kind of Jewishness, a community of new covenant, a community rooted in a new kind of prayer. Call this practical ecclesiology, or indeed missiology, if you like; but whereas those phrases might be taken today to imply the mere pragmatics of a theory already thought through, for Paul there was always a complex give-and-take between the impulse and imperative of the gospel and the stubborn realities of communities and individuals (1476).

And Wright opens the door to his desk for us to see notes of what will be in the next volume in this series:

What I propose in this final chapter, then, is an outline of Paul’s aims and indeed his achievements, but on a broader canvas than is normally allowed. I cherish the hope that the final volume in this series will deal more directly, in summary of the whole, with the question of early Christian missiology (1483).

Wright knows the problems come from various angles: Medieval and Reformation emphases have been on getting saved in order to go to heaven while the Enlightenment claimed God had nothing to do with this world, in effect, cordoning off Paul into the compartment at the end of the shelf called “religion.” Wright’s ecclesial vision for Paul takes on a particular aim:

My proposal here is not entirely new, nor would it be credible if it were. But approaching it this way may reveal new aspects of a well-known per- spective, and indeed bring us back to the task we set ourselves at the outset, that of drawing history and theology themselves closer together. My proposal is that Paul’s aims and intentions can be summarized under the word katallagē, ‘reconciliation’ (1487).

In two directions: with God, with others. All in a  new creation key, as seen in 2 Corinthians 5:13-6:2. This does not make Paul a social worker, a politician, or a utopian postmillennialist, but a believer that God was at work renewing creation.

There is no suggestion that the world has started on a smooth and steady upward path to utopia, or that the church itself is now launched into a triumphant development. But nor will the churches which come into being through Paul’s announce- ment of the Jesus-focused good news of the creator God be mere accidental and temporary collections of individuals each of whom happens to have responded to that gospel. They will be signs and foretastes of the new world that is to be, not least because of their unity across traditional boundaries, their holiness of life, their embracing of the human vocation to bear the divine image, and particularly their suffering (1491).

In particular, the communities which came into being through the gospel were to embody that new world in the ways which our disjointed categories have separated out. They were indeed to be a kind of philosophical school, teaching and modelling a new worldview, inculcating a new understanding, a new way of thinking. They were to train people not only to practise the virtues everyone already acknowledged but also to develop some new ones, and with all that to find a new way to virtue itself, the transformed mind and heart through which the creator’s intention would at last be realized. They were indeed, despite their lack of priests, sacrifices and temples, to be a new kind of ‘religion’: to read and study their sacred texts and to weave them into the beginnings of a liturgical praxis. In that worship, they believed, heaven and earth came together, God’s time and human time were fused and matter itself was transfigured to become heavy with meaning and possibility. These communities were indeed, despite their powerlessness or actually because of it, on the way to becoming a new kind of polis, a social and cultural community cutting across normal boundaries and barriers, obedient to a different kyrios, modelling a new way of being human and a new kind of power. There, too, the second letter to Corinth leads the way, though arguably all that Paul was doing in his famous power/weakness contrasts in that letter was picking up and developing what Jesus had already said. And done.32 If we do not recognize Paul’s churches as in some sense philosophical communities, religious groups and political bodies it is perhaps because we have been thinking of the modern meanings of such terms rather than those which were known in Paul’s world (1491-2).

Maybe this sums it all up best, from 1492:

A place of reconciliation between God and the world; a place where humans might be reconciled to one another; a microcosmos in which the world is contained in a nutshell as a sign of what God intends to do for the whole creation; a new sort of polis in which heaven and earth come together, where a quite new sort of ‘religion’ takes place, where the hidden springs of wisdom are at last laid bare; a community which celebrates its identity as the people of the new Exodus: all this means – as we might have guessed from his various comments – that Paul’s aims and intentions could be summed up as the vocation to build and maintain the new Temple.

And this mission is shaped to go to the cities where Caesar had established his powers.

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