A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance
About the Author
N. T. Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews University and was formerly the bishop of Durham. He has written several books on Paul, including What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, and Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013, among many other books and essays.
N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which spanned two volumes and around 1,700 pages, generated a mass of reviews, sixteen of which Wright lists in the back of this book and to which he is responding in this brief book. He categorized criticisms of his view of Paul into five different chapters on Paul and the Messiah, what Paul knew and when he knew it, the apocalyptic debate, the justification debate, and Paul’s theology and missiology.
Editor’s Note: Please note that Books At a Glance does not endorse Wright’s view of justification, but given his wide influence we thought this recent clarification of his views would be helpful for our readers.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Paul and the Messiah: Knowing the Name or Having the Mind?
Chapter 2: How to Begin with Jesus: How Did Paul Know, and How Did He Come to Know It?
Chapter 3: Apocalyptic: Covenantal Narrative or Cosmic Invasion?
Chapter 4: The Justified People of God: Messianic Israel or Saved Sinners?
Chapter 5: Theology, Mission, and Method: Paul’s and Ours
Paul and the Messiah: Knowing the Name or Having the Mind?
One of the key questions about Paul is whether he was simply a Jewish thinker who happened to know the name of the Messiah, or a Hellenistic thinker who constructed a non-Jewish scheme of thought, in which fragments of his Jewish worldview remained, but without influencing the real structure. Or, is it something else?
Paul said “We have the mind of the Messiah” (1 Cor 2:16). Paul didn’t invent the phrase “Christian theology,” but he certainly began the enterprise. He wanted his own thinking and the thinking of his hearers to be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom 12:2) and to have the mind of the Messiah.
The reason they were to think differently was that the new creation had arrived (2 Cor 5:16–17). Paul believed there was a new world that had been inaugurated that was not suitable for old ways of thinking. The Messiah had come, a Davidic figure from the Old Testament, although many pretenders had come beforehand. When Jesus was put to death, it seemed to be the sign that he was a pretender like the others, but he was resurrected. That resurrection was the ushering in of the new creation. The good news about the Messiah was that the new creation had been “launched in the middle of the old one. Those who were caught up in it were new-creation people” (19).
What matters in the new creation is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but the new realities of the world (Gal 1:3–5; 6:14–16). The new creation brought about a unified family—not a Jewish and Gentile family. Reconciling this new world with this new unified family requires theological thinking, i.e., having the mind of the Messiah. So Paul did not begin a new religion called Christianity. Rather, Paul was announcing the start of a new world. “Having the Messiah’s mind means learning to live in the new way” (8).
Part of this new way of living was the alteration of the symbolic world of the community. Whereas, for Paul, his former worldview revolved around the second-temple world of story, symbol, practice, and thought, now his world orbited around baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul’s theology was not a philosophical system detached from the realities of life, but were rather a set of ideas that his communities needed to have any chance of being united and holy. They especially needed these ideas because the gospel would always bring trouble to those who hold to it. They must understand the place of suffering in this new creation, which only takes meaning as they follow in the Messiah’s footsteps.
The contours of Paul’s theology are essentially monotheism, election, and eschatology. “One God; one people of God; one future for God’s world” (13). These are the central pillars of Paul’s thought, with each “redesigned” around the Messiah and Spirit. Since Paul’s world had been redesigned by the cross, what would be the defining marks of God’s people now? No longer would it be the Jewish nationalistic markers of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but a “reworked belief” in the Messiah and his work. Faith is now personal allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the personal confession that Jesus is Lord.
But Paul was also the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul went to a Gentile world with a very Jewish message, contextualized for the Gentiles. The Roman Empire had exploded into a full-blown empire with one powerful leader just before Paul’s day, which set the stage for the world to worship Caesar. But at just that time, Paul brought the message that Jesus was “Lord.” At the cross, the powers of the world were defeated and the death and darkness of the old world was overcome. Paul saw his primary audience as the Gentiles who lived in this old age of the Roman Empire, bowing to Caesar as Lord.
So Paul’s theology and way of thinking—that is, having the mind of the Messiah in the new creation—was a particularly Jewish message, although reworked from within a Jewish framework.
How to Begin with Jesus: What Did Paul Know, and How Did He Come to Know It?
There are two questions in this chapter. First, did Paul have a high Christology and identify Jesus in some sense with the God is Israel, or is such a high Christology found only after Paul’s day? Second, did Paul only develop Jewish thought about the Messiah, or did he come to his ideas some other way?
We can answer the first question by looking at 1 Cor 8:6 in context and Phil 2:6–11. The argument of 1 Cor 8–10 involves the assumption that there are no idols because there is only one God. Christians should not feel obligated to pass on food dedicated to idols when there really are no gods but the one true God. In that context, Paul cites the Shema from Deut 6:4, but modifies it to include Jesus: “But for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we live to him and for him; and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things, and we live through him” (1 Cor 8:6). This is Paul’s “redefinition of Jewish monotheism” (24).
In Phil 2:6–11, we have again another instance of Jesus being identified with the one God of Israel. The passage affirms that Jesus had equality with God in his preexistence, showing an obviously high view of Christ. But then the end of the hymn alludes to Isa 45:22–25, in which God claims “I am God, and there is no other.” The passage says that the entire world will bow the knee to this only God. But Paul applies that language to Christ so that Christ is now included in the identity of Israel’s “only God.” There is, by the way, no sign that Paul is innovating here; it seems he is stating what early Christians already believed about Jesus.
But how did Paul come to this view? One older view held that Paul’s Christology was so un-Jewish that he must have built it upon pagan philosophy or religion. He borrowed from the “kyrios”-cults or was trying to apply to Christ what was true of Caesar. This was based much on F. C. Baur’s outdated assumptions about early Christianity. Another view is that Paul is so un-Jewish that he has taught something about Jesus that would have appalled Jesus, had he known. But these positions only get to the Jewishness of the Christology.
There are three ways Paul could have come to his conception of the Messiah. First, the Old Testament could have taught him everything about Jesus the Messiah in prophetic fashion so he only needed to fit the name of Jesus into the picture. This view is not widely adopted today. Second, many scholars have emphasized intermediary figures in Judaism that became god-like in certain texts. In this sense, Paul just elevates the Messiah slightly higher than previous intermediary figures, which is a very Jewish move. Third, it could have been the resurrection itself that convinced Paul that Jesus was the Messiah.
Each of these views is partly correct, but the main reason Paul came to his views that the Messiah shares in God’s divinity is probably the Old Testament prophecies that “God himself would act to deliver his people from the powers of evil and to set up his kingdom over the nations” (31). When the Messiah came to do that, he embodied God’s return to his people, which was made evident by the resurrection. Old Testament texts such as 2 Sam 7:11–14 and Ps 2:7 took on a different meaning in light of the resurrection.
So we see there was no smooth template for the Messiah to come in and fill. If that were so, the cross would not have happened as it did. The resurrection transformed all the hopes, expectations, and readings of Scripture in second-temple Judaism.
Covenantal Narrative or Cosmic Invasion
There are two main questions in the apocalyptic debate. First, does Paul see the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the divine “invasion” which brings to an end the narrative of Israel’s covenant with God, and a new non-covenantal era in which the dark powers that have ruled the world are defeated? Second, is “apocalyptic” simply a literary form which does not necessarily determine the worldview being expressed?
There is a great deal of evidence for reading apocalypticism in Paul. He speaks of the “two ages” in Galatians 1:4; 6:15, and makes a distinction between the former time and the new time (Romans 3:21). The old and new things are brought up in 2 Corinthians 5:16–17. One can also find—beyond sinner and God—a “third agent,” the collective dark forces of “Sin” and “Death” (Romans 8:38–39; Galatians 4:3–4, 9; Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 11:14–15; 1 Corinthians 15:23–28). He even speaks of the apocalypse of his gospel (Rom 1:16–18; Galatians 1:12, 15).
This view of dark powers rules out a smooth progression of history to a climax in the cross. They also show that Paul was concerned not just with Israel, but with the cosmos. There is merit to the apocalyptic picture, whereby the real struggle is with the cosmic forces and God’s action in Christ is more about breaking in and doing something completely discontinuous with previous history than about saving Israel.
But there are also serious problems with it. First, the word apokalypsis can refer simply to something being revealed and made plain. It does not necessarily express an “apocalyptic” worldview whenever used. Second, the Jewish idea of the “two ages” can be found in non-apocalyptic sources, such as the rabbis. Third, the political writings such as Daniel, 4 Ezra, and 1 Enoch are not concerned with apocalyptic salvation only, but with how God would keep his covenantal promises.
If we treat “apocalyptic” as a literary form (a supernatural vision of the heavenly realm, in which visions are interpreted by an angel), it is telling that Paul never writes anything in it. He of course writes about a mystical experience he (or possibly someone else) had in 2 Corinthians 12:1–5, but this is an anti-apocalypse because he keeps the vision sealed! Paul did believe some tenets of what people believe to be an apocalyptic worldview (including the immanent inbreaking of God to smash the nations and renew creation), but he never set this against God’s ancient covenantal promises.
The key to holding the two views together (apocalyptic and covenantal) is to note that Paul’s covenantal language is never used to express simply individual salvation separate from the world. It is used to speak of God’s ancient divine plan to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, which he began to do with Abraham. For Genesis 12 is the beginning of the plan to restore the chaos exhibited in Genesis 1–11. Paul knew the problem, but not the solution. Once he experienced the risen Messiah, he then knew the solution, and he was able to re-read Genesis 1–11 with fresh eyes to see the problem in a new light.
Paul’s Jewish world tended to see the big problem as the idolatry of the Gentiles and the fact that Jews sometimes participated in such wickedness. But the crucifixion and the resurrection showed Paul that the problem was much deeper: Israel was herself “in Adam.” God broke into the world suddenly to redeem Israel from being “in Adam” and, through Abraham’s seed, to bless the world, thereby reversing the curse of Genesis 1–11.
The Justified People of God: Messianic Israel or Saved Sinners?
One question currently dominates discussion about the people of God. Are God’s people a company of “saved sinners” who have left behind everything to do with “Israel according to the flesh?” Or are they the “new Israel,” a group who, as a whole and not as individuals, have been turned into something new through Jesus’ death and resurrection?
Those who respond with the first answer highlight Paul’s soteriology for individuals but neglect his agony for the Jewish people (Rom 9–11). The apocalyptic school believes Paul found Christianity simply superior to Judaism, while E. P. Sanders held that Paul saw nothing wrong with Judaism except that it was not Christianity. The second answer to the question is often attacked by those who see a “new Israel” or “true Israel” as supersessionist. W. D. Davies and Albert Schweitzer had shown the Jewishness of Paul, and this could be advanced in two ways. Krister Stendahl suggested Paul was fine with Judaism, and simply offered Gentiles a way of access to Israel’s God. This is extremely problematic in view of a letter such as Galatians. The other way to take Paul’s Jewishness is to suggest he saw Israel as transformed and expanded based on the new criterion of faith in Christ. Some still see this as supersessionist, no matter how carefully it is formulated.
To look more carefully at the people of God, one must ask what Paul means by “justification.” Does he refer to the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” to the believer despite the absence of meritorious “works,” or does he speak of it to refer to the inclusion of all believers, Gentiles as well as Jews, within the single family who are to share table-fellowship? There is a single starting point to answer this question, as well as the question posed earlier: Jesus was and is Israel’s Messiah. Rather than beginning with individual salvation, Paul’s emphasis begins with Jesus as Messiah (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3), who fulfilled the promises of the OT. Proof-texting examples of justification by faith in the OT is not enough; this would screen out the basic Jewishness of Paul’s message, whose prominent idea is Jesus as Messiah.
But this Jewishness of Paul’s message rules out charges of supersessionism. When messianic pretenders arose in Israel through the second century, they demanded total allegiance, claiming that God was acting then and in them. So all Jewish renewal movements were in this sense “supersessionist.” But Jesus’ resurrection as Messiah not only transformed the people of God, it also involves them through his crucifixion. To claim the cross has only individual soteriological implications is to miss Paul’s emphasis on the church’s share in the cross (Gal 2:19–20; that is, the cross has sociological implications. And we can avoid notions of the church replacing Israel by seeing the Messiah in the center of Israel—he sums up Israel in himself.
But how do the people participate in the Messiah as Israel? Paul expected that God would raise Israel from the dead at the end of time, but God had raised Jesus in the middle of time; Paul therefore concluded that what God was going to do for Israel, he had done for Jesus. Jesus was therefore Israel in person. Then all those who belong to the Messiah belong to Israel. And this leads us not to compare religions (Judaism and Christianity), but to see that God had done something in time to change the world.
One must also avoid a smooth view of progressive history whereby the new creation is simply the climax of the old creation. There was a continuous exile from the destruction of the first temple through to the New Testament period. This continuous exile disrupts a steady climb toward a climax. The biblical authors tell stories of Israel’s history to recall ancient promises, reaffirm their validity for the present, and to stir up Jews to loyalty and courage. The second-temple stories do not show a steady progress toward a climax, but bleak periods followed by hopes dashed and raised and dashed again. And the future of Israel as they come out of these bleak periods is tied up with the future of the world (Isa 49; Ps 47; 67). Paul makes these texts central to his mission and theology by reading backwards; the resurrection of the crucified Messiah is the eschatological moment for which all Israel had been waiting.
So now we can see what Paul means by justification. It is not just a store of moral perfection, lost by man by acquired by Jesus on their behalf. When Paul speaks of justification and the integration of the Gentiles into the church, he speaks of the removal of a bar on their membership (Gal 2:15–21). “Justification” for Paul is forensic, and declares that a person is “in the right,” and “within the covenant.” So “being in the Messiah” is the larger idea, while “justification” is found within it (see Rom 4:1–8).
Theology, Mission, and Method: Paul’s and Ours
The question here is whether Paul’s “mission” was simply one of saving as many souls as he could from the coming wrath of God, or was it to infiltrate the culture of his day and transform it steadily from within? Paul’s concern for the salvation of individuals (especially Rom 9–11) suggests the first answer. But then his use of Deut 32 in Romans to say that God will win the Jewish people back through jealousy of the Gentiles suggests he has no ambitions of being the instrument through which that happens.
What really matters in Paul’s mission is that of creation and new creation. Paul’s creation of communities was designed to give signs of the new creation in the midst of the old world. The world is full of things that can be taken captive and made useful in service of the gospel (2 Cor 10:4–5). The sociological dimensions of Paul’s churches were signs of the new creation, because they stood out from their Roman milieu of the day. The new creation is renewing the old through death and resurrection.
How Paul arrived at his missional convictions is not necessarily the way he expressed them in his letters. One can form a belief but give different reasons to others in certain contexts that require it. Paul’s missiology stems from his radical encounter with the risen Jesus, even if he does not make that quite explicit in all his letters. Some take Paul to be incoherent because of this, but that is an unrealistic expectation of another man’s rhetoric.
The question arises how to convince others of our view of Paul when so many views exist. The common scheme among academics is an inductive method, to extract from the bits of data all the interpretation one can to form a hypothesis. Scholars often believe they are avoiding an overall scheme or narrative in doing so, but in reality there is always some narrative overarching the interpretation of the data. That is, as we all know now, there is no such thing as completely objective interpretation. What we need instead is abduction, that is, inference to the best possible explanation. We take our inductive study of the data to form a hypothesis, then take the hypothesis back to the data, and then refine the hypothesis based on further analysis and so forth. In doing so there is a place for imagination in grand schemes, and elegance in imagination may indeed be a virtue in exegesis.
Copyright 2016, Books At a Glance
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The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle