N.T. Wright on Paul pt. 2

1 Oct

This will be the second post in a series about a book by N.T. Wright, entitled Paul in Fresh Perspective, and I may also look a bit at his book entitled Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision when necessary, as the latter is a more in depth book, while the former is relatively brief.  Wright is an Anglican who served as the Bishop of Durham, but has now returned to full-time academic work, serving as a research professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  In addition to serving in the Anglican church, he is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars.

Here is the Wikipedia article on N.T. Wright, which is unfortunately not particularly well written and documented, but good enough to give you some general info on him.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.T._Wright

I have not written any posts specifically dedicated to any of Wright’s books, but as he has been profoundly influential in my own thought, you will likely recognize many of his ideas in much of my writing.

Wright is considered to be within a strand of New Testament scholars who are a part of what is called the “New Perspective on Paul.”  Check out the Wiki article on the New Perspective, which defines it at the outset as, “a significant shift in the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective_on_Paul)  I would even go so far as to say that that the New Perspective is not only a significant shift within Protestantism, but even away from classic Protestant theology, especially Reformed theology.  However, as a matter of clarification, there is a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs within the  New Perspective, and many still hold to key Protestant and Calvinist beliefs, albeit understood quite differently.

Within the book, Wright looks at a bit of background, a few themes within Paul’s writings, and then looks at a few ways Paul transformed the existing Second-Temple Judaism thought of his day in light of Jesus.


This second post will deal with Wright’s second chapter in which he deals with the themes of creation and covenant.  Wrights sees these two themes as lying implicitly beneath much of Israel’s thought, and as “the fundamental structure of his (Paul’s) thought.” (21)  He shows these two themes by looking at some Psalms, one being Psalm 19, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (v.1), and continues on the theme of God’s glory being shown through His creation, and then in verse 7 takes a sudden turn and says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple,” dealing with Israel’s faith in particular, and their particular revelation, their Torah, which is “the covenant charter of Israel.” (21-22)  So you see both of these themes as key in Israel’s self-understanding.  Seeing God as the creator helps Israel to see God as being powerful over all that is, to have a universal understanding of God; seeing God as the God of the covenant helps Israel to see God as the God who has revealed Himself in very particular ways, and is in a particular relation to Israel that is different than the nations.  So tied together are ideas that are both universal and particular in scope.

So if the theme of covenant is such a particular idea, what exactly is it, and what does it mean?  Wright goes back to Genesis, to the covenant established with Abraham. He says:

“The book of Genesis demands to be read in this way: the promises to Abraham echo the commands to Adam, and the whole argument of the book, the whole point of the narrative, is that God has called Abraham and his family to undo the sin of Adam, even though Abraham and his family are themselves part of the problem as well as bearers of the solution.” (23)

So God’s calling to Abraham (see Genesis 12) to be a blessing to the whole world is in response to, and in order to set right, what has gone wrong earlier in the Genesis narrative.  It is both specific, in that it is a call to Abraham and his descendants, and universal, in that the blessing will go out to all the earth, and is in response to what has gone wrong in all of creation (Genesis 3-11).  So covenant is not just God arbitrarily deciding to form this special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, it is precisely in response to what is wrong with the whole creation.  Covenant is God’s response to the problem of evil in the world.  But the problem with this is that the bearers of this solution, those who are a part of the covenant, the people of Israel, are just as much entrapped in the problem of evil as anyone else.  As Wright said, they are, “part of the problem as well as bearers of the solution.” (23)

So Israel, seeing this problem, looks back to the God who created the whole world as the only one who could set the whole world right again.  Wright writes:

“Israel goes back to Genesis 1, and to the story of the Exodus, in order to pray and trust that YHWH will do again what, as creator, he has the power and the right to do, and what as the covenant God he has the responsibility to do, namely, to establish justice in the world and, more especially, to vindicate his people when they cry to him for help.” (24)

Wright says that, “Paul constantly goes back to the Old Testament, not least to Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah, not to find proof-texts for abstract ideas but in order to reground the controlling narrative, the historical story, of god, the world, humankind, and Israel.” (24-25)  The was the question of the day in second-Temple Judaism in the first century.  What is God going to do with this mess we’re in?  Will he be faithful to His covenental relationship with His people.  Wright sees these ideas and these questions implicit behind the phrase “tsadaqah elohim” (“צדקה אלהים”) in Hebrew, and in Greek, “dikaiosune theou,” (“δικαιοσυνη θεου”, often translated “the righteousness of God”) which Paul uses.  This idea of the righteousness of God, or the covenental faithfulness/justice of God is the idea of “the fact that the creator and covenant God can be relied upon to act in accordance with his creating power and his covenant fidelity, to put the world to rights.” (25)  This is the world from which Paul came, from which he thought, and to which he wrote.

Wright looks at a few Pauline passages which illustrate this.  The first is Colossians 1, which reads (about Christ):

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (15-20, emphasis added)

In this passage, you see Paul speaking of Christ as the one who created all things, and the one through whom all things are being reconciled to God.  Jesus is held up as the one who is all-powerful, the creator, and the one through whom all that is wrong in the world will be set right again, “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”.

Wright also looks at 1 Corinthians 15.  Look at verses 20-28

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, thenat his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

Wright says of this passage, “This is how the problem within the existing creation, namely sin and death, has been dealt with through the Messiah, more specifically through the way in which the Messiah has been the means of fulfilling the promises of a great victory through which evil would be overthrown…  Paul is going back to creation itself, to Genesis, and is showing how God’s fulfillment of the covenant promises has established creation’s renewal.” (28-29)  To the question of what God will do about what’s gone wrong in the world (sin and death, the sin of Adam), Paul says that because of the Messiah’s (Christ’s) resurrection, all who are “in Christ” will partake in resurrection, and all enemies, including death itself, which is at the core of what’s gone wrong in God’s creation, will be defeated, and God will be “all in all”.  This passage must be read as the answer to the question of what God is doing about what’s gone wrong with God’s creation, and the question of what God the creator will do about it (in order to be faithful to His covenant people).

Wright also discusses Romans 1-11, but the argument there is a bit too dense to really get into here and do any justice to it.  So I’ll move on the the next section, in which he goes into a bit more detail as to how Paul understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of God’s covenant plan to bless the world through Abraham (and his descenden(s)).  Near the beginning of this section, entitled “evil and grace, plight and solution,” Wright says, “The particular solution God proposes – that of beginning a family and promising them a land – shows that what is wrong concerns, in a central way, the fracturing of human relationships and the fracturing of the relationship between humans and the non-human creation.” (34-35) Wright goes on to give three propositions that explain this covenental narrative.

“(1) God made the covenant with Abraham as the means of dealing with evil within the good creation, which meant dealing in particular with evil within human beings, God’s image bearers… (2) The family of Abraham, who themselves share in the evil, as well as in the image-bearing vocation, of the rest of humanity, treated their vocation to be the light of the world as indicating exclusive privilege… (3) When God fulfills the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, thereby revealing his covenant justice and his ultimate purpose of new creation, this has the effect both of fulfilling the original covenant purpose (thus dealing with sin and procuring forgiveness) and of enabling Abraham’s family to be the worldwide Jew-plus-Gentile people it was always intended to be.” (36-37)

What I love about how Wright explains the idea of the covenant is that you see that what Jesus has done if the true, though unexpected, fulfillment of what was God’s plan all along.  He does a great job of showing that the new covenant, and with it the new testament, is deeply connected to the “old covenant” and with it, the old testament.  It is not a matter of there being a religion of legalism and works-righteousness in the old testament, and now there is a religion of grace, which understands the whole of Israel’s history as being a giant  parentheses, which really is superfluous now.  The way many explain Christianity is in such a way that you could skip straight from Genesis 3 (the fall) to Matthew 1 (Jesus), with the whole covenant with Abraham/Israel not having much of an important place.   I think Wright does a great job of showing that Jesus is the answer to the question Israel had been asking all along, but an incredibly unexpected answer.


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