N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 9: Paul in History

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 ninth and final blog in this 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 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

I had promised a PDF copy of this outline when it was complete, but I now have a different plan. The complete outline turned out to be 22,555 words, which is 50 pages single-spaced. Instead of uploading the PDF, I am going to format it as an ebook and make it available as Kindle download. Who knows maybe I will release it in print form too. We shall see. If you simply cannot wait for the ebook, let me know and maybe…just maybe…I will email you a PDF copy. 

Part 9: Paul in History
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 12-16

I. Bringing It All Back Home
N.T. Wright has taken us into Paul’s world, particularly the world of pagan religion, Greek, philosophy, and Roman politics. We have seen Paul’s Jewish context and his Jewish worldview, two things which formed the foundation for a detailed examination of Paul’s theology summarized by three themes—monotheism, election, and eschatology. These three Jewish concepts were massively rethought and reworked in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. Now Wright wants to bring it all back home with an exploration of Paul’s theology at work in Paul’s world with a spotlight on 1) Paul in the politics of the Roman Empire, 2) Paul in the world of religion, 3) Paul and the philosophers, and 4) Paul in his native Jewish world.

II. Paul and Caesar
“Every step Paul took, he walked on land ruled by Caesar.” (1271) The language Paul used to talk about Jesus did not derive from the empire; it was a direct confrontation to the empire. Paul expected the Jewish Messiah to judge the nations and bring salvation and peace to the world. The nations had their leaders, but this was temporary. Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, which created communities loyal to Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Son of God, titles already used in the empire to speak of the Caesar. While those in authority are to be respected, the idolatry and arrogance of Caesar was challenged by these communities loyal to Jesus the Messiah. Paul does not proclaim Jesus as a better version of Caesar, rather the Gospel of Jesus subverts and overtakes the Gospel of Caesar. “In a world where loyalty to Caesar had become one of the major features of life, it could be that the Christians were ‘working out their own salvation with fear and trembling’, and coming to realize that, somehow or other, if Jesus was lord Caesar was not.” (1302)

Paul does not endorse the Roman way, but calls for submission to Roman authority as a way to live wisely in the empire. Followers of Messiah in these scattered communities of faith are able to respect those in civic authority knowing they are ultimately held accountable by Jesus the judge and ultimate ruler. Earthly rulers will stand before the judge as will all people. Paul advocates a different kind of politic centered in and around the Messiah which creates a certain kind of revolution, but not a kind that separates us from the culture. “(Paul) saw the gospel of Jesus the Messiah as upstaging, outflanking, delegitimizing and generally subverting the ‘gospel’ of Caesar and Rome.” (1306) Living as loyal subjects of the Messiah does not require either “Constantinian compromise” or “Anabaptist detachment,” but rather a visible witness to a “gospel-shaped and gospel revealed new world of justice and peace.” (1318)

III. Paul and Pagan Religion
Religion in the world of Paul did not teach people how to behave as much as it provided signs, myths, and rituals binding people together. “Paul was indeed teaching, operating and living within something we might very well call religio, however much it had been redefined.” (1332) The use of Jewish Scriptures and the worship of one God would had seemed unique to pagan onlookers. Yet it was the one God of Israel, one Lord, and one Spirit that bound together the followers of Jesus the Messiah. Baptism as the initiation into the Christian community and the celebration of the Eucharist formed the primary rituals for Paul’s communities. “The eucharist thus clearly functions for Paul as a rite, complete with traditional words; as a rite in which a ‘founding myth’ was rehearsed, though in this case the founding myth’ was an actual event which had occurred not long before; as a rite in which the worshippers share the life of the divinity being worshipped, though the divinity in question is a human being of recent memory; as a rite dependent on a prior sacrifice, albeit the very strange one of the crucifixion of that same human being; as a rite which should bind the community together….” (1347-1348) This would look like a religion, but one that had never been seen before. It had all the marks of ancient religion but it was infused with theology in a way that was unique.

IV. Paul and Philosophy
“Jesus is not simply one person whom one might know certain things. He is the one in whom the very treasures of knowledge itself are hidden.” (1361) Greek philosophers were interested in three topics: logic (what we know), physics (what is there), and ethics (what we do). In the Greek mind, theology was a subset of physics, but Paul would challenge such a view as the God of Israel was not a thing in the material universe.

Regarding questions of logic, Paul would argue “there is a deeper darkness and a new dawn” in terms of knowledge (1362). Greek philosophy was about coming out of the darkness in order to see what others could not see, but Paul would argue for a deeper darkness. He wrote to the Ephesians describing Gentiles who were “darkened in their understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). They live in darkness as they have lived lives with distorted habits of behavior rooted in a hardness of heart the result of humanity going terribly wrong as described in Genesis 3-11. Jesus is the light of the world that has provided the true light that can consume even the deepest darkness of the human heart.

Regarding questions of physics, Paul remains steadfast as a creational monotheist. The God of Israel has created all things. Paul writes, “All things created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15). Even in their darkness, humanity could see God’s divine attributes in creation, but because of their darkness the light of the one God is necessary to see all things as they are. As the creator, the one God will ultimately call all things into account.

Regarding questions of ethics, the dominant logic of the Greek philosophers was once humanity can discover what is, human beings should then go with the grain of the way things are. The Stoics saw divinity in everything, so right living was a matter of going along with nature as it is. The Epicureans saw the gods as far away, but admit gods set up things before their departure, so, like the Stoics, we should just go with the flow of life. In stark contrast, Paul’s ethics were tied not to the ways things are, but eschatology, how things will be under the reign of Messiah. Paul’s inaugurated eschatology announced the coming of the light of truth, beauty, and goodness has come. Therefore we should live in the light of this new world, the one that has come and is coming. “Paul believed that the world had been renewed in the Messiah; that those who were themselves ‘in the Messiah’ had also been renewed as image-bearing human beings; and that the task of such people was to live in accordance with the new world, rather than against its grain.” (1371) The arrival of this new world marked the “rehumanizing power of the gospel of Jesus.” (1376).

V. Paul and His Jewish Context
“He came with a Jewish message and a Jewish way of life for the non-Jewish world. He did not see himself as founding or establishing a new, non-Jewish movement. He believed that the message and life he proclaimed and inculcated was, in some sense, the fulfillment of all he had believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew.” (1408) Paul was an apostle to the Gentile nations as a Jewish thinker.

A. Paul’s Jewish Identity
Paul was a Jew by birth and he had no modern notions of converting to another religion. He did not compare religions or offer something in the Messiah to replace religion in general or the Jewish religion in particular. He was not attempting to start a new religion or replace religion with something called “faith.” He was extending to non-Jews the opportunity of membership in the renewed-covenant with the God of Israel. Paul did have an encounter with Jesus the Messiah which solidified his call and it became the impetus towards rethinking and reimagining what it meant to be a Jew. Paul admits he died to the law. He had been crucified and raised with the messiah. His identity was no longer Jewish but “Messiah-ish.” Paul was a Jew ethnically but it was not his primary identity. “Paul’s life and work is not a ‘system’, not a ‘religion’, not an attempt to forge a new social reality in and of itself, but a person: the crucified Messiah.” (1146) In Messiah, Paul found his identity and called people to imitate him as he imitated the Messiah.

B. Paul and Israel’s Scripture
Paul was a reader of Israel’s scripture and he did not randomly pick verses from the Jewish scripture (the Old Testament) in order to make them fit what he is writing. Paul was well aware of the context of the specific verses he quotes. The larger context in the Old Testament was on his mind when he uses particular quotes from the Old Testament. He understood the tension present in the Old Testament between the promise of God and the commands of God….that is, the promise to bless/save/redeem the world through the people of Abraham on one hand and the system of blessings/curses in the torah based on Israel’s response to the covenant on the other hand. This tension seemed like “two voices” or “two movements” in Israel’s narrative history. Nevertheless the entirety of Jewish thought (including Jewish scripture) was, for Paul, rethought, reworked, and reimagined in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the Spirit.

In reading and using Old Testament scripture in his writings, Paul is reworking it in the larger context of Israel’s narrative history. “Paul reads Israel’s scriptures as a vast and complex narrative, the story of the faithful creator, the faithful covenant God, the god who in Israel’s Messiah kept his ancient promises and thereby created a people marked out by their pistis, their own gospel-generated faith or faithfulness. The scriptures do not so much bear witness, for Paul, to an abstract truth (‘the one God is faithful’). They narrate that faithfulness, and in doing so, invite the whole world into the faithful family whose source and focus is the crucified and risen Messiah.” (1471)

VI. Paul’s Aims and Achievements
“The Messiah and the redemption of history…has to do not simply with ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’, not with an escapist salvation in which of the world ceases to matter, but with the challenge to action in the world itself.” (1474)

N.T. Wright drew upon the words of Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt to describe the Jewish desire to move in action in the present. He quotes Arendt who wrote:  “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.”

This decidedly Jewish impulse was present in Paul. He was not a detached thinker, but a doer. He was a thinker no doubt, but he was not content with merely dreaming up some good ideas and talking about them. The God of Israel had returned to his people. Messiah had come and the Spirit of Yahweh was dwelling within the human, flesh and blood temple of his renewed people, and above all, God’s act of new creation had begun! God’s action prompted Paul to act. So what was Paul trying to do?  “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.” (1476)

Paul did not write philosophical essays or political manifestos; he wrote letters to churches. Paul’s aims and intentions are wrapped up in the planting, building, and flourishing of the local church. (Side note: Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the fourth in a series of academic books on “Christian origins.” According to Wright, his next volume in this series after the Paul book is a book on Christian missiology.) These aims or goals can be best described as a ministry of reconciliation.

A. Reconciliation
The words “mission” and “evangelism” in our modern context have departed somewhat from what they meant during the time Paul was planting churches throughout the Mediterranean world of the ancient Roman Empire. Evangelism for Paul was not a matter of “saving souls for heaven,” a phrase we never see in Paul’s writings, or anywhere in Scripture for that matter. When Paul was traveling, preaching, teaching, writing, and suffering on behalf of the church, he saw himself as engaging in the ministry of reconciliation. “For Paul, everything grew into the field of God’s new world.” (1488) Those who are in the Messiah have entered into God’s new world. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ [behold] new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV). This new world is a world reconciled to God and those who are in Christ are a reconciled people. This new world launched with the resurrection of Jesus is the first stage of the renewal of all creation.

These new communities formed around the Messiah would appear to the outside world to be a new school of philosophy, a new kind of religion, a new political movement heralding a new king and a new way of being human. “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.” (1492) These reconciled communities were to be a prototype of what is to come, demonstrating to the world what it looked liked to be reconciled to one another and reconciled to the God of all creation.

Paul saw his ministry of reconciliation, and indeed the ministry of the church, as “temple-building” and not “soul-saving.” His mission was to build the communities as mini-temples where there Spirit of Yahweh would dwell. Individuals experience the Spirit, but each individual reconciled to God, indwelt by God’s Spirit, living in God’s new world, served as a signpost to a larger truth, namely the faithfulness of God. These new temple communities were made up of Jews and Gentiles living in unity. The Gospel Paul preached was for the Jew first but also for a Greek, an unquestionable “Jewish message for the non-Jewish world.” (1498)

B. Paul’s Work in Caesar’s World
Paul would not have seen the modern subjects of theology and politics as separate and unrelated themes. Paul was a Roman citizen, but his allegiance was to the Messiah and this double position was consistent with Paul’s eschatology. The age to come had broken into history, but it is not here in it’s fullness. Jesus the Messiah has been highly exalted over all earthly political figures, but Caesar still reigns. The Messiah’s reign was best seen within the local communities worshiping Jesus the Messiah. Caesar, to some extent, had tried to create such a religion within the empire whereby he would be the object of people’s devotion. Caesar’s reign over his empire would not endure as long as Jesus’ reign through his church.

Not only did Paul see Jesus’ reign as superior to the reign of Caesar, he saw an “integrated vision of the one God and his world.” (1508) Paul would agree that all truth is God’s truth and he regularly affirmed the goodness of creation. God’s kingdom in and through the reign of Messiah was a physical, earth-bound kingdom. “Paul’s aim was to be the temple-builder for the kingdom, planting on non-Jewish soil little communities in which heaven and earth would come together at last, places where the returning glory of Israel’s god would shine out, heralding and anticipating the day when God would be all in all.” (1509) He proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and trusted the power of the gospel message to transform the lives who received it. Paul’s theology was important, but it was to be lived out in these gospel-formed communities.

Reconciliation and integration are good ways to sum up Paul’s theology. We who study Paul’s theology in communities of our own should expect the reconciliation and integration of those who see justification as primarily God’s legal action (juridical or forensic) and those who see justification as primarily God’s invitation for us to join him (participationist). Our study of Paul should lead to an end to the squabbling between those of the old perspective and those with the new perspective(s) on Paul. We should hope to see an integration of those who are interested in Paul’s historical context with those who are interested in Paul’s theological perspective.

In the end, we like Paul, are best served when our life of study and participation in the community of faith are sustained by prayer. “The renewed praise of Paul’s doxologies takes its place at the historically situated and theologically explosive fusion of worlds where Paul stood in the middle, between Athens and Jerusalem, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, between Philemon and Onesimus, between history and theology, between exegesis and the life of the church, between heaven and earth.” (1518) Paul is a central figure in Christian theology.

Wright ends the book with these words: “Paul’s ‘aims’, his apostolic vocation, modeled the faithfulness of God. Concentrated and gathered. Prayer became theology, theology prayer. Something understood.” (1519)

VII. Final Thoughts
Theology matters. History matters. Wrestling with Scripture matters. These tasks matter because God has been faithful to his covenant. His reign has begun! New creation has begun and we get to participate in it as people of the Messiah as the new temple indwelt by the Spirit.