N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 4: Monotheism Redefined in Light of Jesus and the Spirit

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 fourth 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

This section begins N.T. Wright’s discussion of Paul’s theology around three central themes: monotheism, election, and eschatology. This section discusses Jewish monotheism.

Part 4: Monotheism Redefined in Light of Jesus and the Spirit
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 9

I. Introduction to Paul’s Theology
“Worldview and theology go together in a chicken-and-egg sort of way, as opposed to a fish-and-chips sort of way.” (609) Paul’s theology is shaped by his worldview and when we look at his theology we begin to see his worldview in vivid detail.

Paul’s theology is built around three primary elements of Jewish theology: monotheism, election, and eschatology. Paul did not reject Jewish elements of life and thought, but he “rethought, reworked and reimagined them around Jesus the Messiah on the one hand and the Spirit on the other.” (612)

A. Monotheism: the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the creator God rethought in light of Jesus and the Spirit (Part 4)

B. Election: God’s calling and vocation for Israel to be the one people of the one God reworked through Jesus’ work to build his church through the Spirit (Part 5-6)

C. Eschatology: God’s future for God’s world reimagined through the coming of Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit of Messiah (Parts 7-8)

II. Jewish Monotheism during Second Temple Judaism
“God the creator, God of Israel…is the constant refrain, not least for those who believe themselves to be living in a continuing ‘exile.’ Their God is the true God, and his rescue of Israel will reveal the fact to the nations.” (622) Jewish monotheism is connected to Jewish kingdom theology (i.e. the kingdom of God). The one God of Israel will rescue Israel and demonstrate his rulership over the nations. The oneness of God was not a reference to the inner nature of God (ontology), but to God’s supremacy over all other gods and rulers (politics).

III. Paul’s Reaffirmation of Monotheism
“Empires thrive on religious relativism; the more gods the better, since the more there are the less likely they are to challenge the ruling ideology.” (634) In the spirit of second temple Judaic monotheism, Paul expressed the cry of monotheism in a pagan world in passages like Roman 3:29-30: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, God is one—(and he) will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”

If we take the Jewish Shema (Hear O Israel the LORD your God is one and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.) as the cornerstone of Jewish monotheism, we hear echos of it in places like Romans 8:28 “to those who love God….”

Paul further affirms monotheism in his reference to God as the creator and judge of the world as Jewish monotheism is best expressed not in speculative thoughts about the nature of God, but the actions of God in history (e.g. creation and judgment). See Romans 1:19; 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28

IV. Monotheism Rethought through Jesus

A. Thoughts on Christology (the study of the person and work of Christ)
Some have speculated that the early Christians, including those of the apostolic era of Paul, did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form because this was not a Jewish idea. There was a Jewish expectation of the return of Yahweh who would reign as king and rescue Israel from exile. Early Christians believe he had returned in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and “Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God.” (655)

B. A revised Shema with Jesus in it
N.T. Wright chooses five texts as examples of monotheism rethought in light of Jesus: Galatians 4:1-11; Romans 8:1-4; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Colossians 1; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Philippians 2:6-11. Here is one text: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6 ESV)

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul address the issue of eating food used as a sacrificial offering in pagan idol worship. He offers his pastoral guidance upon sound theology based in the Shema: “there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).  “To pray the Shema was to embrace the yoke of God’s kingdom, to commit oneself to God’s purposes on earth as in heaven, whatever it might cost. It was to invoke, and declare one’s loyalty to, the One God who had revealed himself in action at the Exodus and was now giving his people their inheritance.” (663)

We worship the one God in a world with many gods, but for us “there is one God, the Father…. Everything Paul has written so far is in line with Jewish thinking, but he adds “…and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Compare the two lines (1 Corinthians 8:6):

one God, the Father,     from whom are all things             and for whom we exist
one Lord, Jesus Christ,       through whom are all things and through whom we exist

Paul has intentionally (and shockingly for a Jewish reader) expanded the Shema to include Jesus. He adds no explanation or argument, so we can assume a theological revolution has taken place among the primarily Jewish followers of Jesus the Messiah. In the Greek translation of the Torah, the Shema uses the word “Lord” (Greek: kyrios) for Yahweh. Paul is now using the word “Lord” to speak of Jesus.

Shema in Greek: akoue Israel kyrios ho theos hemon kyrios heis estin
1 Corinthians 8:6: heis theos ho pater…..heis kyrios Isous Christos

“Israel’s God has returned at last in and as Jesus, (this) anchors the key worldview-symbol, the single community of the Messiah’s followers. The revised Shema sustains both the unity and the holiness of the community.” (666) Not only has the one God returned in and as Jesus the Messiah, but the Messiah has been crucified (1 Corinthians 8:11), increasing the redefinition of monotheism in shocking terms.

“Paul sees the community of those who live by the rule of the One God, One lord — which is the community of the crucified Messiah, defined by him in his death and resurrection — as the community in and through whom God’s sovereign rule is coming to birth. To pray the revised shema, just as much as the ancient one, was to take upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom.” (668) The coming Kingdom meant God had returned to his people, which Paul proclaims has happened in the coming of Jesus. He thought of Jesus in categories belonging to Yahweh.

C. The resurrection of the one Lord Jesus
Jesus embodied the return of the One God of Israel in life, death, and resurrection. His resurrection on the third day, revealed Jesus was indeed the Messiah. “(He) was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). “Son of God” was already used by the empire to speak of the Caesar, but for Jewish listeners the term spoke of the one sent from God. Jesus himself had called God his “Father,” so it seemed fitting to refer to Jesus as the Son. The resurrection did not create something new, but revealed what was already there.

In using the title “Lord” in reference to Jesus, Paul is implying that Yahweh himself is “arriving in the person of the Messiah, at the climax of the story of Israel” (705) For example, the confession “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) brings about salvation for both the Jew and the Greek because, in quoting from the Old Testament, the “same Lord is Lord of all” and “all those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “Lord” in the Old Testament is a reference to Yahweh.

V. Monotheism Rethought through the Spirit
“The spirit was not, for Paul and his contemporaries, a ‘doctrine’ or ‘dogma’ to be discussed, but the breath of life which put them in a position to discuss everything else — and more to the point, to worship, pray, love and work.” (710) An understanding of the full divinity of the Spirit came about in the fourth century, but the church fathers used the language of first century biblical writers to work out their descriptions of the Holy Spirit. For example, Irenaeus (second century church father) wrote: “For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, he made all things. This is to whom also he speaks, saying, ‘Let Us make man after our image and likeness.’”

The Spirit, like Jesus, was doing the sorts of things a first century Jewish person would expect Yahweh to do. The Spirit dwelling in the temple of our bodies (1 Corinthians 3:16) is a picture of the long-awaited return of Yahweh to the temple. The Spirit here plays the role of the Shekinah presence of God dwelling on the earth. Yahweh has returned to Zion through Jesus and the Spirit as he promised (Isaiah 52:6-8).

“The Spirit is the personal, powerful manifestation of the One God of Jewish monotheism, the God who, having given Torah, has at last enable his people to fulfil it and so come into the blessings of covenant renewal…” (719) The Spirit enables us to do what the Shema requires in a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) forming a new exodus out of sin and death and into the family of life (Romans 8). The new temple where the Spirit works out this new covenant and new exodus is the “fellowship of Messiah’s people.” (726)

In identifying both Jesus and the Spirit as accomplishing the work of Yahweh, the one God of Israel, Paul has radically rethought and redefined monotheism using Jewish language, imagery, and intent. The oneness of God in Jewish monotheism was not theoretical speculation on the essence of God, but rather the rule of God as creator over the pagan gods worshiped by so many others. Paul redefines monotheism within this framework. “The kingdom has been inaugurated through the work of Jesus, who, both as the embodiment of Israel’s God and as the single bearer of Israel’s destiny, has defeated the old enemy, has accomplished the new Exodus, and is now, by his spirit, leading his people to their inheritance — not, of course, ‘heaven’, but the reclaiming of all creation.” (735)

VI. Monotheism and the Problem of Evil
“The stronger your monotheism, the sharper your problem of evil. That is inevitable: if there is one God, why are things in such a mess?” (737) Paul viewed the problem of evil through his redefined Jewish monotheism. Scripture does not provide a detailed answer to the the question, “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Paul works within the Jewish tradition of not providing answers to the “why” question, but offering responses regarding what the creator intends to do about evil in his world. “Paul’s radical rethinking of creational and covenantal monotheism contained within itself both an intensification of the problem and an equally radical solution.” (747)

VII. The Plight in Paul’s Theology
The problem of evil, that is the plight of Israel and humanity, have been rethought by Paul in light of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. Paul understood the problem of idolatry and injustice contributing to evil and suffering in the world, but he came to find the “solution” to the problem in the death/resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. If the solution required the death of the Son of God then the plight is far worst than Paul first imaged.

A. The plight in light of the cross & resurrection
If the plight was essentially a problem with pagan/Gentile nations oppressing and preventing Israel from fulfilling her vocation to be a light of salvation to the world, then why did the Jewish Messiah have to crucified? The problem was not merely the Gentiles not acting like Jews or the oppression of Jews by the Roman Empire. The problem was sin and death itself. Israel, while the chosen covenant people of God, had become a part of the problem. The Messiah is crucified so sin could be condemned and death could be defeated (Romans 8:3). The plight is both personal and cosmic, both individual and corporate, both a Gentile problem and a Jewish problem.

B. The plight in light of the Spirit
The Spirit came to do what the Torah alone was unable to do, transform and renew the hearts of God’s people. The transformational work of the Spirit would produce the life promised in God’s covenant with Israel. “The One God had revealed this ‘life’ both in the resurrection of Jesus, in the promise of resurrection for all Jesus’ people, and in the new moral shaping of their present lives. This was what the Torah could not do, because by itself it could not in fact deal with either sin or death.” (759) The problem revealed by sin and death is not simply that individuals were guilty and subject to the judgment (wrath) of God, but that sin and death prevented the covenant community of God from carrying out God’s purposes to save and restore the world.

C. The plight in Romans 1:18-2:16
The wrath of God has been revealed against unrighteous and ungodly men (Romans 1:18). For Paul the “wrath of God” is a picture of the divine punishment of sinners (Romans 1:32). This is future judgment coming upon those who are “storing up wrath yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Gentiles are without excuse because they have seen God’s attributes in creation. Jews who practice evil and yet judge the Gentiles are equally complicit in the plight. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:9-11).

VIII. Final Thoughts
What Israel and Torah could not do, the one God of Israel did in the coming of Jesus and the Spirit. “Idolatry-and-immorality was not simply a pagan problem to which Jewish Torah-possession and Torah-keeping would provide the answer, either in terms of protecting Jews from catching the infection or more positively, enabling them to bring the world back to its senses.” (770)