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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.

Genesis 3:15 Throughout the Bible (Review Thursday #1)

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James Hamilton. “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10.2 (2006): 30-54.

Having read two of Dr. Hamilton’s books (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and God’s Indwelling Presence), I can testify that this article is as profitable a read as his books and even more accessible. (The link at the top of this page is to a free copy of Dr. Hamilton’s article on his own website.) I highly encourage everyone to read this article for its tracing of the gospel through the first to last books of the Bible.

Dr. Hamilton’s reading of Genesis 3:15 has influenced my own ministry since I first read it in God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment in 2011. In “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman,” Dr. Hamilton demonstrates how the whole Bible bears out not only his interpretation of Genesis 3:15 specifically but also of the Old Testament as a whole. To Dr. Hamilton, “the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope” (30). Genesis 3:15 is an excellent text for testing this interpretation of the Old Testament because it gives the first hope of the Christian gospel.

The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:14-15)

The bulk of Dr. Hamilton’s article argues that in addition to being the Messiah specifically, the “offspring” of the woman is the people of God generally. Satan “shall bruise his heel,” but his “offspring” will be at “enmity” with the plural “offspring” of the woman (32-41). The children of the devil will oppose children of God. As Dr. Hamilton notes, Jesus himself admits this conflict in John 8 (33). Of course, the seed of the woman who will defeat not only Satan’s children but Satan himself is Jesus the Messiah. In “an unexpected development,” God’s Servant himself will be crushed as he crushes Satan’s head:

Twice in Isa 53 we read that the servant was crushed: first in verse 5, “he was crushed (daka’ in the pual) for our sins;” and then in verse 10, “Yahweh was pleased to crush (daka’ in the piel) him.” Here again the crushing judgment first announced in Gen 3:15 seems to be due to Israel because of its sin, but the servant takes their sin upon himself and is crushed for their iniquity, with the result that Yahweh is satisfied (cf. 53:4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12). (42)

Praise God that the “crushing” we deserve as natural born offspring of the serpent was taken by Jesus, the perfect offspring of the woman, in our place on the cross! Jesus’ crushed heel crushed Satan’s head and set us free from Satan! By Jesus’ death we go by faith from being the bondage children of Satan to being the adopted children of God! Praise the Lord for his mercy and grace!

Herein lies this article’s devotional value for all of us Christians: in Christ, we can overcome the temptations of Satan as believers. We can fight sin in our lives and overcome it by God’s grace. Luke 10:18-19, Romans 16:20, and Revelation 12 all point to believers’ struggle against Satan in which we will ultimately be victorious because Jesus was victorious at the cross and is returning one day to cast Satan forever into the eternal lake of fire (42-43).

The article, of course, was not perfect. Formatting is a minor issue. SBJT article notes are endnotes rather than footnotes, which makes reading them more cumbersome and more distracting from the main flow of the article’s main text (if you care to read them). In the case of this article, this format was particularly frustrating because many of Dr. Hamilton’s endnotes were quite interesting. For example, Dr. Hamilton’s note on the translation of Hebrews 11:11 is outstanding:

The emphasis on the important line of descent is also attested to in Heb 11:11, though translations usually obscure it. … [T]he text “woodenly” reads, “barren Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed.” In view of the Bible’s interest in the “holy seed,” the statement that “Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed” carries more freight than “Sarah received ability to conceive.” This common rendering of the text obscures all connection to the Bible’s “seed” theme. (48 n. 33)

Having taught Hebrews to the youth Sunday School class two years ago, I can attest that no commentator I used advocated this understanding of Hebrews 11. (David L. Allen came closest to agreeing with Hamilton’s translation because he was the only commentator to whom I had access who maintained the traditional reading of Sarah being the subject of this verse rather than Abraham, but he explicitly disavowed Hamilton’s reading. Nevertheless, an unspecified “some”  do side with Hamilton, Allen notes [551].) Despite Dr. Hamilton’s minority reading of Hebrews 11:11, in the context of biblical theology, in which a single theme is traced throughout Scripture (in this article “the skull-crushing seed of the woman”), his understanding is preferable to others’ translations. (Dr. Hamilton himself notes, however, that the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB translations also concur with his understanding.)

More significantly, the allusions to Genesis 3:15 cited by Dr. Hamilton are unequally persuasive. Many of them serve his argument well, but a few allusions seem stretched. Many of these unlikely allusions appear in the “Broken Enemies” section of his article in which he admits to “loosening … the image of the crushed head of the seed of the serpent in Gen 3:15, but it still remains related” (38-39). Nevertheless, this section does include a compelling argument about 1-2 Samuel being bookended by allusions to Genesis 3:15 (38). Although individual examples Dr. Hamilton gives do not seem, in my opinion, to support his argument that Genesis 3:15 is a foundational messianic text that is alluded to throughout Scripture, most of his examples do, so his argument stands. I highly recommend this article to every Christian to help them gain a better grasp on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was promised–however faintly–all the way back in Genesis 3:15.

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