N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 3: Paul’s Worldview

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the third of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 | Part 2

Part 3: Paul’s Worldview
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapters 6-8

I. The Convergence of Three Worlds
“So what happens with the owl, the (rooster) and the eagle are met by the bird that hovers over Israel?” (351) Review: Owl: Greek philosophy; Rooster: pagan culture and religion; Eagle: Roman politics; Hovering bird: Jewish religion

Paul remained a Jewish thinker whose worldview was shaped by Greek philosophy, Pagan religion, and Roman politics. These three were the “mental furniture” decorating Paul’s primarily Jewish worldview. Reconstructing Paul’s worldview is a necessary first step to understanding Paul’s theology. Worldviews “give flavor to culture on the one hand and worship on the other” (351).

Worldview is comprised of praxis, symbol, story, and question. N.T. Wright joins together praxis (practices) and symbols in order to provide a “thick description” of Paul and his mindset.

II. Paul’s Symbolic Praxis
A. Jewish symbols in Paul’s mind
1. Temple: the dwelling place of Israel’s God upon the earth, redefined by Paul as Jesus in his incarnation and, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church as the body of Messiah on earth.

2. Torah: instructions for God’s people to live as a worshipping and just community; think of the Torah in terms of symbols (pictures in action) more than a list of rules. At the level of worldview, these symbols indicated what it looked like to people the people of God.

a. Food became a symbol
b. Table fellowship became a symbol
c. Circumcision was a primary symbol
d. Keeping Sabbath was another primary symbol

3. Prayer: connected to both temple and creational monotheism, i.e. the practice of turning one’s self to the one true living God, the creator God; the shema was central

4. Land: Abraham was told that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This promise included land whereby Abraham and his descendants, “would be heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). God’s rule on the earth is not a “spiritual” rule, but an earthly, global one.

“For Paul, God’s kingdom — as we see clearly enough in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 — is not a non-material, postmortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, that which corrupts and defaces the good creation, as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at least from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised through the Messiah’s people.” (367)

5. Family: the people of God, reimagined as the community of the baptized by faith in Messiah

6. Zeal: i.e. battle, the willingness to take up arms to establish worship and justice, redefined as a battle against sin and death

7. Scripture: the sacred text of the people of God, the story of Israel, a story in search of an ending, an ending ultimately found in Jesus the Messiah

B. Pagan symbols in Paul’s mind
1. Pagan gods: “man-made monstrosities” (375); to be rejected in light of Jesus the Messiah

2. Roman festivals: honor, but don’t worship, those in authority; work for the good of the world

3. Greek philosophy: pursue wisdom rooted and grounded in Jesus; no anti-intellectualism (In an interview with Michael Bird, Wright says, “Paul ranks with (Plato and Aristotle) as a thinker” as Paul wrestles with big ideas and conversations and synthesizes them in a new way.

C. Imperial symbols in Paul’s mind
“Paul did affirm the goodness, the God-givenness, of human structures of authority, even while at the same time undermining, through central aspects of his theology, the hubris, idolatry, blasphemy and other wickednesses which, as a Jew never mind as a follower of Jesus, he associated with the arrogance and swagger of Rome.” (381)

All the phrases used to exalt the emperor: “son of god,” “lord of the world,” “savior,” “bringer of peace,” and the rule which is “good news,” Paul used to describe Jesus the Messiah.

III. Paul’s Reconstructed Symbolic Praxis
Wright argues that traditional approaches to Paul’s theology have screened out what Wright considers to be the primary symbol-in-action in Paul’s mindset: the community of the baptized, the ekklesia (the Greek word translated “church”). (Warning: do not make modern assumptions about the “church” in Paul’s world.)

Paul’s letters were not practices in self-understanding or detached philosophical investigations into the nature of God. Paul’s letters were instructions for the lived-out practice of small communities of baptized followers of Jesus the Messiah spread out through the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire.

A. The one people of the one God: “The ekklesia and especially its unity stand at the centre of Paul’s newly framed symbolic universe.” (387) Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV).

This symbol of unity remained an essentially Jewish vision. God’s intention in his promise to Abraham was to have a single family who would worship Yahweh and love one another justly.   “For Paul the symbolic power of the unity of the church is grounded on the equally symbolic power of the oneness of God, not as a mere dogma to be learned or affirmed, but as the sustaining and stabilizing force for the life of the community.” (392-393)

“The central symbol of Paul’s newly formed world, the ekklesia, the Messiah’s body, is nothing short of a new version of the human race.” (396)

B. The people of Messiah: The people of God were not Jewish people and Gentile people but Messiah-people, Christ-people, Christians, so Jewish markers of identity had to be taken down and reworked. Wright prefers to use the word “Messiah” instead of “Christ,” so we do not lose the sight of the Jewishness of Jesus’ vocation. Jesus is the “strange and unexpected fulfillment of the story of Israel.” (405) Messiah is the central focus of the unity of God’s people.

“Faith in Messiah” functions at one level as a symbol, it is the badge or sign of membership in God’s people.

C. The Gospel: (a) Cross: Messiah dies for the sins of the world, including his own people, and provides the people of God a way to live in the world. Messiah is crucified, subverting both the Jewish expectation of a zealous (violent) King and the Roman authorities who used the cross to punish enemies. (b) Resurrection: The triumph over sin and death is put on display by the resurrection, where Jesus is vindicated and made Lord and King. (c) Lordship: the subversive symbol of Jews and Gentiles abandoning their traditions and imperial loyalties to become a new, holy, and distinct people

D. Messianic monotheism: Followers of Jesus the Messiah did so as an act of worshipping the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as seen in their prayers, reading of Scripture, baptism, and communion.

E. Baptism: a new Exodus for the people of God, a rite of passage into the Messiah-family

“The primary point of baptism, then, is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual’, it does, but that it defines the community of the baptized as the Messiah’s people.” (426)

F. Love: Greek word: agape; Love was not an emotion but a practice and thus symbolic praxis, celebrated in the Eucharist and lived out in the partnership of the lives of the family of God. “The Messiah is both the model and the means of love.” (431)

G. Renewed humanity: All humanity bears the image of Adam; the one people of God are to bear the image of God, including a certain kind of lifestyle inherited from the Jewish people. “Paul not only redefined the Jewish praxis, leaving behind elements that were now irrelevant in his Messiah-based inaugurated eschatology and unified ecclesiology; he also intensified it.” (445) Let’s define some of these phrases:

1. Jewish practice = not a list of rules, moral codes, but conduct lived in community

2. Inaugurated eschatology = the kingdom of God breaking into history making available the life of the age to come

3. Unified ecclesiology = one church without racial, ethnic, or social division

“The community is supposed to live in reality how all humanity is supposed to live in theory.” (447) We are to be an example of the life of the age to come, where human being live and love the way God designed. We are from the future.

H. Summing up Paul’s symbolic praxis
These symbols-in-action are mental navigation points in Paul’s worldview, shaping how he see’s God, God’s actions, God’s world, and God’s future. These symbols shape how Paul does theology as seen in his letters to the churches. Paul was not a detached observer of these things, he was personally involved as a pastor. He was not a stoic (everything is god) or an epicurean (the gods are far away and in concerned). He was an active member of the Messiah-family.

IV. Paul’s Story and Questions

A. A Jewish story
Paul’s worldview contained not only moving symbols, but a story, a framing narrative that put the symbols together in an organized and coherent way. It was the story of Jesus the Messiah, not as a timeless-sage teaching universal truths or a rogue revolutionary starting a new religion. Jesus burst upon the scene as the Jewish Messiah in a specific socio-political context who came as the long awaited conclusion to the story of Israel. “Without the story, we cannot be sure we have discerned the meaning of the symbolic praxis.” (467)

The Old Perspective on Paul tended to reject or minimize the story of Israel in Paul’s theology. The New Perspective on Paul tends to elevate the story of Israel in Paul’s theology.

B. The story of creator and creation
The framing narrative for the Jewish story is the larger story of the creator God and his creation. “The creator God made a world with a purpose, and entrusted that purpose to humans… (and we are) presented with the fact that things are wrong, and that the creator needs to put them right.” (476)  Creation and things going wrong are the essence of Genesis 1-11. Genesis 12, with the call of Abram, is the beginning of the creator making things right.

“One of the standard Jewish ways of addressing the problem of the creator and the cosmos was to speak in themes of two epochs of world history: the present age and the age to come.” (476)  See Rom. 8:34-39; 1 Cor. 2:1-10, 15:20-28; Col. 2:14; Eph. 6:10-20

The present age is the age of sin, evil, and death.
The age to come is the age of justice, peace, and life. (Eternal life=the life of the age to come.)
These two ages overlap. The age to come has broken into the present age. “The creator intends to create a new world, a new kosmos, out of the womb of the old.” (478) See Romans 8:18-25.

God is not abandoning his creation, but will be faithful to his original intent. God’s faithfulness to his creation (and later to his covenant with Israel) can be described as God’s righteousness. Setting things right in a world gone wrong includes judgment, which “is what restores health to a society, a balance to the world. It replaces chaos with order.” (481) God’s righteousness, that is his faithfulness to creation, reveals his restorative justice. (See Isaiah 11:1-10)

C. Sub-plots in Paul’s storied worldview
1. Humanity: Human beings were created to bear God’s image and care for God’s world, but they failed. We have become part of the problem; we need to be set right. God rescues us individually, not only for our individual benefit, but for the sake of our created vocation. God cannot set the world right without humanity rightly reflecting his image and rightly tending to his world. All of this is lost if we reduce “salvation” to merely human beings having a right relationship with God.

2. The story of Israel: God chose Israel not merely to be in right relationship with him, but to reclaim humanity’s original vocation to bear his image and tend to his world. God’s choosing and election of Israel is a matter of vocation not salvation. God has one single plan to save the world and it begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. “Paul reaffirms God’s vocation to Israel, the vocation to be the means of rescuing humanity and thus creation itself, even though he radically redefines that vocation around the Messiah.” (501) Israel failed in their vocation. They suffered in exile, waiting for Messiah, but God did not abandon them. Messiah comes while they were still in exile.

3. The role of Torah in Israel’s story: Torah played different roles in the story of Israel according to Paul. “Torah is a good gift from God.” (506) Torah sets out to form Israel into the covenant people of God. It is a temporary guardian and is unable to produce the life of the age to come (Romans 8:3). The sinful tendency (“flesh,” Greek word: sarx) of humanity, including Israel, frustrates the purpose of Torah, causing it to play the role as agitator. Torah is not the bad guy in the story, but it plays the role of the instigator, arousing sinful desire (See Romans 7:5). Torah only makes sense in the story of Israel which reaches its culmination in Jesus the Messiah.

4. The story of Jesus (the Gospel): Jesus is Israel’s promised Messiah, the seed of Abraham bringing the fulfillment of ancient promises, the prophet like Moses leading Israel out of exile, and the Son of David restoring the kingdom to Israel. Jesus is “Israel-in-person” fulfilling Israel’s vocation. “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) Jesus is doing for Israel (and for the world) what Israel could not do itself. As Adam, he is rescuing this present evil age of sin and death and inviting people to enter into the new age of righteousness and life. Jesus is a demonstration of God’s love and faithfulness to Israel and the world.

D. Five Questions in Paul’s Worldview
1. Who are we? We are the one people, Jew and Gentile, of the one God; we are Messiah’s people bearing the mark of faith; we are the church.

2. Where are we? We live in God’s world where Jesus the Messiah has begun his reign.

3. What’s wrong? Sin, death, idolatry, and injustice have marred God’s good world.

4. What’s the solution? Prayer, the Spirit, and resurrection are the way forward.

5. What time is it? We live in the overlap of ages; the kingdom has already come/ the kingdom has yet to come (the already and not yet). God’s future is here and it is coming.

E. Final Thoughts
Worldview is not what you are looking at, but what you are looking through. A worldview shapes how you interpret, evaluate, and draw conclusion based on what you see. For Paul, his worldview was thoroughly Jewish formed in light of Jesus the Messiah who has come to save the world: both Jewish and Gentile (pagan). As we will see, this worldview shapes Paul’s theology.

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 2: Birds in Paul’s Head

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the second of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. 

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul
Part 2: Birds in Paul’s Head
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapters 2-5

I. Paul’s Historical Context
“Paul lived and worked, in fact, in at least three worlds at once, each of which is subdivided. His life and work must sometimes have appeared just as bewildering to those who lived in those worlds as it does to us in our attempts to reconstruct them (and to understand him). In fact, much more so. We have two dangerous advantages: length of hindsight, shortage of material.” (75)

A. These worlds are Jewish, Greek, and Roman
They were each distinct, but deeply intertwined worlds alive in Paul’s imagination & thoughts.

B. A review of worldview within a cultural setting
1. Praxis: What were the common practices?
2. Symbol: What were the key symbols?
3. Story: What narratives shaped the culture?
4. Question: What were the BIG questions people were asking?

II. Hovering Birds: The Jewish World
“What I am…concerned with here is certain emphases and angles of vision, rather than a major retelling of the story of the Jews in the first century or a major new sketch of their worldview, beliefs and hopes. I hope in particular to bring out the way in which the faithfulness of Israel’s God functions as a theme throughout so much of the period.” (77)

A. The Pharisees
Pharisees were a popular and influential movement of Jews in the first century concerned with religious and civic/social purity, not in terms of personal holiness, but as a “sign and seal” of loyalty to Israel and to Israel’s God.

The heart of Pharisaical life was prayer, rooted in the Shema (Hear O Israel the LORD is our God, the LORD is one), but Pharisees were a kingdom-of-God, and thus political, movement. They shared with the Zealots a “zeal,” for the Kingdom of God, meaning they were prepared to enter in a holy war as instruments of the reign of Israel’s God.

“Zealous” did not mean wholeheartedly devoted or passionate, but willing to become violent. N.T. Wright points to the use of the “zealous” in the Maccabean revolt.

Paul, after being arrested in Jerusalem, writes: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” (Acts 22:3)

B. The Torah
The Jewish law (Torah) was a matter of both praxis and symbol. It contained “precise patterns of behaviour” (91) and it served as a powerful symbol in Jewish imagination. The Torah was designed to form Israel into a distinct people separate from the pagan Gentile nations. For example, it contains strict laws regarding who you share your table with or what kind of food you eat.

C. The Temple
“The Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of the whole Jewish way of life. A good deal of Torah was about what to do in the Temple, and the practice of Torah in the Diaspora itself could be thought of in terms of gaining, at a distance, the blessings you would gain if you were actually there – the blessing, in other words, of the sacred presence itself, the Shekinah, the glory which supposedly dwelt in the Temple but would also dwell ‘where two or three study Torah’.” (95)

The Temple is where heaven and earth met. The backbone of Israel’s prayer life was the picture of Yahweh (the LORD) dwelling in the temple. For example: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” (Psalm 63:1-2)

“The Temple was a microcosm of the whole creation.” (101) It points to new creation, where God will dwell with his people forever (Revelation 21:3).

The symbols of “temple, presence, glory, kingship, wisdom, creation, exile, rebuilding, and unfulfilled promise —would be part of (first century Jewish) mental and emotional furniture.” (107)

D. Jewish questions asked in the first century
The Jewish people felt like they were “living in a story in search of an ending” (109). So they were asking: We are still in exile. When will Yahweh return to the temple? How could this God not act at last to fulfil his promises?

Groups like the Pharisees, were not looking to the Torah or the Temple asking, “How do we earn God’s favor so in the afterlife we can avert God’s anger?” They were asking, “When will Yahweh come rescue us, renew the covenant, and thus rescue the entire world?”

E. The Continuous Story of Israel
“The (Hebrew) Bible was not merely a source of types, shadows, allusions, echoes, symbols, examples, role-models and other no doubt important things. It was all those, but it was much, much more. It presented itself as a single, sprawling, complex but essentially coherent narrative, a narrative still in search of an ending.” (116)

The story of Israel, or at least large portions of the story of Israel, are told and retold throughout the Old Testament. This tradition is carried on by Paul and other New Testament figures (e.g. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Stephen’s sermon before his stoning, Paul in Romans and Galatians). The prophets begin to look forward to the coming of Messiah.

There is no one single picture of what Messiah looks like, but in many of the retellings of the story of Israel there is a longing and waiting for Messiah.

F. The second-Temple period was a continuation of the exile
The Jews of Paul’s day (a period of time N.T. Wright calls “second temple judaism”) were back in their homeland after the Babylonian/Persian exile but living under the boot of the Roman Empire symbolized the continuation of the exile.

Many determined from studying the Torah that they were still in exile, because they had not been faithful to the covenant. Therefore groups like the Pharisees were encouraging strict adherence to the Torah so as to be saved. The second-temple Jewish understand of salvation was not “other-worldly” (i.e. going to heaven after death). Their view of salvation was earth-bound. They wanted to be saved from Roman oppression, saved from sin (idolatry and injustice) in order to be the agency for God to do his work of saving the world. “The rescue of human beings from sin and death, which remains vital throughout, serves a much larger purpose, namely that of God’s restorative justice for the whole creation” (165).

The coming of the day of salvation was seen as the coming of a new age, a new epoch of human history. The salvation life they expected to live was the life of this coming age, that is the life of the age to come, or “eternal life” for short.

G. The theology of a Pharisee: Three categories: monotheism, election and eschatology
1. Monotheism: the worship of Yahweh, the one true living God who is the creator of all, yet distinct from his creation, and the God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, et. al. Pharisees believed in a “creational and covenantal monotheism” (180).
2. Election: Israel was chosen by God to live in covenant with him as a part of his plan to rescue and redeem the whole world.
3. Eschatology: God’s future for God’s world, God making the world right

To sum up these three in the context of Paul’s Jewish world, we could say: Yahweh, the God of Israel had chosen Israel to be the people through whom God would use to fill the whole world with his glory. (Psalm 72:18, Num 14:20-23, Hab 2:13, Is 11:9)

III. Athene and Her Owl: The Greek World
“Paul did not derive the central themes and categories of his proclamation from the themes and categories of pagan thought, that doesn’t mean that he refused to make any use of such things. Indeed, he revels in fact that he can pick up all kinds of things from his surrounding culture and make them serve his purposes….All wisdom of the world belongs to Jesus the Messiah in the first place, so any flickers or glimmers of light, anywhere in the world, are to be used and indeed celebrated within the exposition of the gospel.” (201)

A. The symbol of the owl
The owl in Greek (hellenistic) culture came to represent “seeing.” The Greek philosophical tradition was built upon seeing what others could not see.

B. Religion or philosophy?
From a Greek point of view, Paul was doing three things which would be perceived more as philosophy than religion. (1) Paul presented a different order of reality beginning with a creator God who had broken into creation. (2) Paul taught and modelled a particular way of life quite different than the way of life known by the Greeks. (3) Paul established and maintained communities resembling the many philosophical schools of the ancient world.

C. Popular Greek schools of philosophy
1. The Academy (Plato; Platonism): The world of space, time, and matter was an illusion and less real than the world of “forms” or “ideas,” which is ultimate reality. (e.g. The Allegory of the Cave)
2. The Lyceum (Aristotle; Aristotelian thought): The material world should be analyzed and categorized in the pursuit of virtue and human flourishing (Greek word: eudaimonia).
3. The Stoics: All material things are indwelt with divinity (Greek word: pnuema) (pantheism). The goal is to become a sage, wise, self-sufficient, and in harmony with the way things are.
4. The Epicureans: The gods are far removed (dualism); we have no eternal soul, so pursue tranquility and happiness in this life. (Note: This was not hedonism.)
“Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism.” (213)

D. Greek praxis
Philosophy, even for Platonists, was not detached from everyday life. Philosophy was a way of life. The goal was to be able to see in the dark.

E. Greek symbols
Stoics, as one example of Greek culture, wore simple clothes, ate plain food, lived without much luxury.

F. Greek stories (myths)
Platonists told creation stories. The Allegory of the Cave became a founding myth. Stoics told stories of creation by the logos or pneuma working with the primary elements: fire, air, earth and water. Many Greek stories focused on the hero, becoming the invention of the modern individual (e.g. Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus).

G. Greek questions
What is there? (physics) ⁃ What ought we to do? (ethics) ⁃ How do we know? (logic)

IV. A Rooster For Asclepius: Pagan Religion
There was a overlap between philosophy and religion in the pagan, Gentile world of Paul. The Philosophers often spoke of the gods. There were a number of religions being practiced in the ancient world of Paul. His pattern of religion was different than those around him. His proclamation of a crucified Messiah was “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Religion was not separated from public life. Religion was the very fabric of society. Pagan religions had temples, sacrifices, festivals, and the like. Religion was a matter of action more than belief. Paul’s preaching challenged people to a new and different life.

V. The Eagle has Landed: The Roman Empire
Rome took the eagle as its symbol for its power, beauty, and prestige. Rome in the day of Paul was ruled by the Caesar who installed local governors to oversee law and order throughout the empire. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, was called “Son of the Deified” (Latin: divi filius). Caesar ruled the land promised to Messiah.

“Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die.” (284) “After sixty years (of Roman civil war), they were ready for (peace). Ready, too, to make it divine, and to associate it with the man who had brought it: pax Augusta. It was this ‘peace’ that allowed the apostle Paul, under Augustus’s successors, to travel the world announcing a different peace, and a different master.” (288-289)

A. List of first century Roman Emperors

27 BC-14 AD Augustus (Adopted son of Julius Caesar)

14-37 AD Tiberius (Ruled during the life of Christ)

37-41 AD Caligula

41-54 AD Claudius (Ruled during the early ministry of Paul)

54-68 AD Nero (Ruled during the later ministry of Paul)

69 AD Galba (Ruled for 7 months)

69 AD Otho (Ruled for 3 months)

69 AD Vitellius (Ruled for 8 months)

69-79 AD Vespasian (Ruled during the fall of Jerusalem)

79-81 AD Titus (Son of Vespasian; was the general in the siege of Jerusalem)

81-96 AD Domitian (Arguably the beast from the bottomless pit in Revelation)

B. Roman symbols
The fall of the republic led to the Pax Romana under the Caesar, the Roman emperor, so every cultural tool from literature, to coinage, to art and architecture was used to promote the power and presence of Caesar. For example, a bust of the emperor could be found everywhere in the empire.

C. Emperor worship
The growing popularity of Caesar led to the development of imperial cults, the worship of the Emperor as divinized. There was no one single unified cult, but many different imperial cults throughout the Roman Empire. The imperial cult was not a religion in the modern sense, but an interwoven part of life in the empire where religion, culture, and politics were interconnected.

The Roman Senate voted to divinize Augustus, giving him the title divi filius, meaning “son of God” or “son of the deified one.” Augustus did not want public worship. His was more of an honorific title. The announcement of his rise to power was called the “good news” (Latin: euangelia) that brought salvation to Rome. The worship of the emperor started small and began to grow.

Tiberius was called “son of god,” son of the divine Augustus. Titus demanded to be called “lord and god” (Latin: dominus et deus). By the rule of Titus, “Worshipping the emperors was well on the way to becoming a central and vital aspect not only of life in general but of civic and municipal identity. Whatever we say about either the intentions or the effects of Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Vespasian, the richly diverse phenomena we loosely call ‘imperial cult’ were a vital part of a complex system of power, communication and control, in other words, of all the things empires find they need to do.” (341)

D. Jews in the Empire
Jews had an eschatological objection to the Roman Empire. (Eschatology=”God’s future”)

“Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace, flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s god would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. ” (343)

VI. Final Thoughts
Paul remained a Jewish thinker who communicated to Christian congregations spread out in a pagan world. He may choose imagery from either the Roman or Greek world in his writing, but he does so from the position of a Jewish thinker.

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 1: Charting the Course

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of PaulLast year the church was given a great gift. N.T. (Tom) Wright finally published his 40-year labor of love, his definitive and substantial book on the theology of Paul entitled Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I started reading it on the first Sunday of Advent and attempted to finish by Easter Sunday. I am still finishing up the last section, but I have been spending weeks going back through the book, outlining it for a lecture-style small group beginning this Sunday at my church.

Tom has interpreted Paul for us.
Now I want to interpret Tom for you.

My goal is to outline the book in nine parts making this massive 1,700+ page book accessible. I have titled my outline “N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul” underscoring one of the key components of N.T. Wright’s vision of Paul’s theology: faithfulness. The faithfulness of Jesus demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his creation and to his covenant with Abraham. Paul embodies such faithfulness as he reworks and re-imagines some things in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the Spirit. Specifically Paul redefines what it means for the one God of Israel to work through his people to renew and restore his world.

The outline is more than half way done. I have completed the first five parts, which covers approximately 900 pages of the book. The outline covers many of the key conclusions N.T. Wright reaches and some (but not all) of the key pieces of evidence he calls upon. I will make the complete outline available as a PDF as soon as it is complete, but I will post each part as a new blog post,  each week including the first part which is a general introduction to N.T. Wight and the book.

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul
Part 1: Charting the Course
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 1

I. An Introduction to N.T Wright
N.T. “Tom” Wright is hands-down the most important theological voice in the church today.

A. Christianity Today article
He made the cover of Christianity Today in April 2014. In the cover story, UMC Pastor Jason Byassee writes: “People who are asked to write about N. T. Wright may find they quickly run out of superlatives. He is the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis. He has written the most extensive series of popular commentaries on the New Testament since William Barclay. And, in case three careers sound like too few, he is also a church leader, having served as Bishop of Durham, England, before his current teaching post at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. But perhaps the most significant praise of all: When Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus, and lives are transformed.” (Christianity Today, April 2014, Vol. 58, No. 3, Pg 36, “Surprised by Wright” )

I agree. I am not the most objective reader of Tom Wright. I consider him to be my primary theology mentor because in him I see Jesus, because in him I see a love for the church.

More from the Byassee article: “‘I have always had a high view of the Scriptures and a central view of the Cross,’ Wright says. He insists repeatedly that any theory advanced about Paul must be tested with actual exegesis, and he reads the Scriptures as someone happy to be doing so. Most scholars talk about other scholars. Only a blessed few talk about the Bible. Fewer still talk about God. Wright, while standing on the shoulders of many great scholars, tries to talk about God. And he speaks and writes with an urgency that suggests every sentence is even more essential than the last.”

B. Professional biography

  • BA in classics and BA in theology (Oxford)

  • MA with a focused study on Anglican ministry (Oxford)

  • DPhil (Oxford) Dissertation: “The Messiah and the People of God: A Study in Pauline Theology with Particular Reference to the Argument of the Epistle to the Romans”

  • Lectured at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) (1981-1986)

  • Lectured at Oxford (1986-1993)

  • Dean of Lichfield Cathedral (1994-1999)

  • Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey (2000-2003)

  • Bishop of Durham (2003-2010)

  • Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews (Scotland) (2010 – present)

  • Publications: Nearly 50 books, a complete N.T. commentary series, an original translation of the New Testament, and numerous articles, essays, lectures, and sermons over 40 years (for more information see http://ntwrightpage.com)

C. His primary focus
Wright has spent his career focusing on themes related to Jesus, the gospels, and Paul. He writes from the perspective of a historian, paying very close attention to the historical context of the biblical writers.

II. Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Wright’s magnum opus (Latin for “great work”) is Paul and the Faithfulness of God, affectionately known as the “big book on Paul.” This book is the fourth in a series of scholarly books on Christian origins.

A. Roadmap for navigating through the book
1. Paul’s World (Part 2)
a. Introduction
b. Paul’s Jewish world
c. Ancient Philosophy in a Greek world
d. First-century Empire in a Roman world

2. Paul’s Worldview (Part 3)
a. The convergence of three worlds
b. Worldview: defined by praxis (practice), symbol, story, and question
+ Praxis: What were the common practices in Paul’s world?
+ Symbol: What key symbols filled Paul’s world?
+ Story: What narratives shaped Paul’s imagination?
+ Question: What were the BIG questions people were asking in Paul’s world?

3. Paul’s Theology
a. Monotheism freshly revealed: What’s it mean for the God of Israel to be one? (Part 4)
b. Election freshly reworked: Who are the covenant-people of God? (Parts 5-6)
c. Eschatology freshly imagined: What is God’s future for the world? (Parts 7-8)

4. Paul in His World (Part 9)
a. Paul and empire
b. Paul and religion
c. Paul and philosophy
d. Paul in his Jewish world
e. Conclusions

B. Philemon: A little window into the heart and mind of Paul
“Paul’s Jewish worldview, radically reshaped around the crucified Messiah, challenges the world of ancient paganism with the concrete signs of the faithfulness of God. That is a summary both of the letter to Philemon and of the entire present book.” (21)

Onesimus was a slave in the home of Philemon and had met Paul and become a Christian. Wright calls Onesimus more of a “wandering slave” than a “runaway slave.” Paul writes a letter to Philemon asking him to take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a “beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).

This scene in the ministry of Paul is a peek into his central themes throughout his letters: reconciliation, unity, and partnership (koinonia) through Jesus the Messiah.

“Why would Philemon and Onesimus be motivated to go along with this costly and socially challenging plan? Answer: because of the implicit theology. Because of who God is. Because of the Messiah. Because of his death. Because of who ‘we’ are ‘in him,’ or growing up together ‘into him.’ Because of the hope.” (30)

C. Worldview and theology
Paul’s theology (what he believed about God and God’s world) was dependent upon and shaped by his worldview (how he saw the world).

1. N.T Wright’s “new perspective” on Paul
What is at the heart of Paul’s theology? For the Protestant reformers, the heart of Paul’s theology was justification by faith in the context of salvation. Other themes in Paul’s writings were tangential and peripheral. Wright challenges not only the centrality of justification by faith in Paul’s theology, but challenges the reformed (Lutheran & Calvinistic) interpretations of the Paul.

This challenge has been called the “New Perspective on Paul.”

New Perspective on Paul 

Old Perspective on Paul

Paul’s theology is driven by ecclesiology.

Paul’s theology is driven by soteriology.

Justification is both juridical and participatory.

Justification is primarily juridical.

Justification is the declaration of membership in God’s covenant family.

Justification is the declaration of a right relationship with God.

Judaism was a religion of grace.

Judaism was a religion of legalism.

Paul redefines Jewish thought/categories.

Paul rejects Jewish thought/categories.

Righteousness is “covenant faithfulness.”

Righteousness is a moral quality or legal standing.

God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham.

God’s righteousness is his moral integrity.

We embody God’s righteousness.

We receive the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

The Gospel is the proclamation of Christ’s lordship through his death, resurrection, and ascension.

The Gospel is the proclamation of justification by faith through grace communicated through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

2. Methods to understanding Paul’s theology
a. History: Paul in the setting of second temple Judaism (Jewish, Roman, Greek influences)
b. Exegesis: Interpreting Paul’s writings in the light of Paul’s historical context
c. Application/relevance: How Paul was understood by his contemporaries?

3. Methods to understanding Paul’s worldview
a. Praxis: What were the common practices in Paul’s world?
b. Symbol: What key symbols filled Paul’s world?
c. Story: What narratives shaped Paul’s imagination?
d. Question: What were the BIG questions people were asking in Paul’s world?

4. The contrast
Theology is our core beliefs about God, his world, and the people he has created. Worldview is the way we look at the world, how we assign value to things (or people), how we prioritize and categorize thoughts. Theology are the constructed evaluations we have made or accepted based on our worldview. Theology is conscious. Worldview is subconscious. Theology is the evaluation of what we are looking at. Worldview is what we are looking through.

D. Final thoughts
N.T. Wright envisions Paul and the Faithfulness of God to be an attempt to reconcile theology and history. The predominant modern Protestant interpretation of Paul was based in 16th century issues. Wright wants to revisit Paul in the context of the first century. “We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions.” – N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (2014), 26


Following Jesus: A Brief Look at the Word of Life Church Story

People are crazy and times are strange 
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
- Bob Dylan

Come follow me.
 - Jesus

The Word of Life Church story has been 33 years in the making. It has been a story filled with drama, mystery, certitude, and searching and seeking with an evolving cast of characters. I have been on staff, serving as the Pastor of Discipleship, for only three years, but I know the story. I attended this church in the 1990s during a  time of numeric growth and now I have the privilege of serving this church as one of the pastors during a more mature time of spiritual growth. It has been nothing more than the story of a people following Jesus.

Our church began in St. Joseph, Missouri without much fanfare in 1981. Brian Zahnd, our lead pastor, was 22 years-old and he, and his wife Peri, hadn’t been married very long when they started the church. Brian had been leading Bible studies since he was 15 and as a young adult he was one of the leaders of a coffee house style ministry in St. Joseph. Brian and Peri started the church because they were following Jesus. They were products of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, a nation-wide resurgence of vibrant Christian faith among young people interested in all things Jesus. Our church was born out of the hearts of people who were enthusiastically following Jesus. The atmosphere in those days was revivalistic. Jesus was capturing the attention of so many and we wanted so desperately to be a part of what he was doing. The mood was electric among the meager congregation who believed God was at work in our church.

The close affinity between the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewal led us to incorporate charismatic distinctives into our faith and practice. In the late 80s and early 90s the church began to experience numeric growth which was accompanied by changes. Staff was added. We relocated to a larger venue for our worship services. Our journey through charismatic Christianity brought us into the “word of faith” branch of that movement. We wanted to follow Jesus in what we saw him doing: preaching the gospel, healing the sick, establishing people in the victory of God, and bringing people into an authentic experience with God. By the mid-1990s the atmosphere was thick with excitement. The general tone of our preaching and teaching was one of faith and victory. It wasn’t long before we became a mega church of the charismatic word-of-faith variety. We bought land. Built (through much struggle) a large ministry complex and continued to add people who wanted to be a part of our church.

By the turn of the century, we had experienced success as a church, at least “success” as defined by the church growth experts of the 1990s. In 2004, things began to change…again. In the midst of our outward success, there was a growing longing for something more substantive than we were experiencing. Our lead pastor had for some time been reading historical theology and the church fathers, men who were following Jesus a long time ago. He started with Augustine and then moved on to Athanasius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and the other Cappadocian Fathers. He stumbled on a deeper, richer, sacramental faith. We began to remove layers of varnish from the Jesus we were following and we found a Jesus much more compelling, much more challenging than the Jesus we knew. Without the cultural assumptions we had thrust upon him, we discovered a beautiful Jesus and a beautiful Gospel. We couldn’t stay the same; things had changed. So we packed our bags and moved on from the charismatic/word of faith movement. Some people wrestled with the changes and stayed; others wrestled and left. Jesus has continued to be gracious to us and we are beginning to see a depth of growth and spiritual formation we hadn’t seen in years past. It seems like we are growing up.

So what has changed in the last ten or eleven years? The simple answer is much has changed, but one thing has remained consistent: our desire to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he is leading.

We learned much from the charismatic movement, but we discovered that Jesus’ work is not limited to that one single stream. Jesus has been building his church for 2,000 years and it is filled with diverse beauty. We have come to discover Jesus among the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, and Charismatic Christians. We have rediscovered the central and essential practice of communion in our worship gatherings. We have seen Jesus in his reign over a peaceable kingdom. We have rejected the divisive “us vs. them” way of looking at people and conflicts. We have learned to be quiet and contemplative in addition to being raucous and celebratory. We have grown in appreciation of the liturgical calendar and the ancient practices that have sustained the church from the beginning. We have grown to see God’s work in community within our church instead of measuring success by the crowds at our events. We have rejected certitude and embraced mystery, while being guided by the creeds and ecumenical councils of the church. We now hear the Gospel not as the instructions on how to go to heaven when we die, but a bold proclamation of a new day, a new creation coming with the reign of Jesus as the world’s true Lord. We have learned to love the Bible as the inspired witness to Jesus who is the Word made flesh. We have not arrived, so we continue to pray the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. We continue to learn and grow and struggle as Jesus is being formed in us. So we wait to see where Jesus will lead us next.

For more information on our journey, check out this interview by Trevin Wax: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/06/28/from-word-faith-to-the-church-fathers-a-conversation-with-brian-zahnd/