October 27, 2006

N. T. Wright, Paul

N. T. Wright has been one of the most important and prolific Biblical scholars over the past decade. His major series Christian Origins and the Question of God has already begun to have serious impact on scholarship, through his narrative readings of important texts, and through his reappraisal of the Jewish thinking in the first century, with his focus on the theme of exile and return as a key to undertanding Jewish self-understanding as the people of God. In this small book, Paul, he points forward to the next step of his major scholarly undertaking (after focusing in on method and then on Jesus' life and then resurrection), his study of Paul. In these lectures, he looks at the major themes of Paul's thinking, first through an appraisal of some underguirding themes that made up his thought-world, and then through a brief systematic presentation of Paul's theology.

In the first part of the book, Wright outlines his understanding of Paul's world, and then outlines some basic underlying themes that illuminate his thinking. The first pair of themes he raises are creation and covenant. He emphasizes that these two themes are integral to a proper understanding of Judaism, and would be the major constituent's of a second-Temple Jew's theological thinking. In Paul's thought, Wright sees that these two themes have been brought together, in passages such as Colossians 1:15-20 (which Wright argues is probably Pauline), and Romans 1-11. These two themes come together in Jesus, and are redefined around him. The second pari of themes that Wright looks at are Messiah and Apocalyptic. Throughout this chapter, Wright argues that the idea of Messiaship was a central one for Paul's understanding of Jesus, and further, that this has profound "apocalyptic" implications for Paul. In fact, apocalyptic is an essential way of understanding the fact that in Jesus, God has revealed his plan for the world, and even though Paul doesn't often use the standard forms of apocalyptic literature (dreams, visions, dense imagery), he does often speak apocalyptically. The fianl themes that Wright illumines in Paul's thought are Gospel and Empire. In this last section of part one, he explores this burgeoning area of Pauline studies, emphasizing that the Roman Empire did in fact provide an important element in Paul's world, and that it clearly had implications for his thinking. Wright echoes many other writers in NT studies with his assertion that "political" can't be separated out from "domestic" or "theological" or "religious" spheres of life and existence. These elements were all bound together into one complex world. Thus, Wright argues that Paul's theology, among other things, was counter imperial, and proclaiming Jesus as Lord meant that Caesar wasn't Lord, a "political" statement as much as a "religions" or "theological" one.

Wright then turns to a brief but illuminating systematic exposition of Paul's theology, organized not in the traditional way of something like "God, humanity's need, God's gift, future things," or some other such arrangement, but instead organized around what Wright sees as the main Jewish loci: God, God's people, God's future. Wright asserts that these three loci are still the important centers of Paul's thought, and that we can best understand his way of thinking by seeing how Paul preserved but also modified these three areas of thought, and in each area, Wright helpfully explores the Jewish understanding of the loci, and then looks at Paul's redefinition of it. The first locus he investigates is God. For Jews, the basic doctrine of God is that God is one God, the covenant and creator God. Paul has maintained just this same emphasis, while "rethinking" it to include Jesus and the Spirit as being indeed this same one God. And further, this means that he sees in Jesus that the covenant God has in fact taken the problems of creation and covenant on himself by coming to earth and fulfilling the covenant through his own faithfulness. The second area Wright looks at is God's people, election. Here he closely interacts with the "new perspective" on Paul and on second-Temple Judaism. He is essentially in agreement with Sanders on a reunderstanding of Judaism so as to understand that Judaism didn't understand the law as a way of earning favor with God, but instead was a marker given by God to define their identity as the covenant people and as a way of maintaing that covenant relationship. Yet Wright also agrees that Israel clearly wasn't properly upholding its part of that covenant relationship. And it is here that Jesus fits into his "reworking" of God's people. Election around Jesus means that God's people are no longer understood as those descended by birth from Abraham, but instead as those with faith in Jesus, those "justified" through faith. But he strongly advocates a reunderstanding of justification, asserting that while it does have to do with sinners being made right with God, it is first and foremost in Paul's thikning about "how I am declared to be a member of God's people." And Jesus is the key to this, because in Jesus, Israel has been reconstituted, and through Jesus this Israel will fulfill the mission God originally set for it--Israel is no longer understood as an ethnic idea but is more understood as an instrument in God's purposes. The third area Wright explores is eschatology, God's future. After an exploration of Jewish understandings, with his characteristic emphasis on the themes of exile and return as central, Wright goes on to look at how, for Paul, Jesus has changed things. In Jesus, what God had promised to happen in the future (the resurrection) has happened already in the middle, bringing i what is often called an inaugurated eschatology. The end is breaking into the middle time. Another theme Wright sees as central to Paul is the parousia, the "second coming" of Christ. But Wright asserts that this second coming should be best understood not as Jesus coming from some heaven far away to earth but instead understood as coming with "royal presence" much as an emperor would, and that this coming would not be the end of the present world but a new creation of it. Wright also highlights some other important themes (too many to go into here), such as the Day of the Lord and judgment. In his closing chapter, Wright looks at how these theological understandings related to those of Jesus and how they played out in Paul's ministry. He also concludes by looking at how Paul's thinking bears on the church's ministry today.

In Paul, Wright has made a very helpful contribution to the field of Pauline studies. He has, in his usual lucid prose, illuminated a number of important issues and given some helpful groundwork for understanding this most important apostle. He has also creatively pointed toward a new way of "thinking Paul's thoughts after him," in dialogue with the way people have done this in the past. Wright's rethinking of such major themes as justification seems to walk an interesting middle road between a traditional Reformation approach and a new-perspective approach. I fear some of the important elements of themes like the righteousness of God are weakend in his treatment, but some of that impression may be due to the brief nature of the book in hand. While Wright clearly rejects a purely sociological approach to salvation and justification, he seems to too much ignore the believer's relationship with God. But again, more room will likely bring a more complete and illuminating treatment. I look forward with anticipation to his fuller treatment on these thems in his next volume of the Christian Origins series. This great little volume certainly gives us a bit of the flavor, and makes us hunger for the substantive engagement to come.