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.