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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.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part I) (Review Thursday #3)

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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter, PFG) is N. T. Wright’s 2-book fourth volume in his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. I thus think it is appropriate to give an honest caveat at the beginning of this series of reviews of this book (a 1600+ page tome deserves extensive interaction): I am a newcomer both to this series and to its author. I have not read the first three volumes in this series (though I hope to read them in the future), and I have only before read (and this past winter, at that!) Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision out of Wright’s seemingly endless body of work. Wright, of course, is (in)famous for being the public face of “the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Why read this book then? I am reading this book (I have just begun reading Part III) for two reasons:

  1. This book is the fruit of Dr. Wright’s 30+ years of researching and writing on various aspects of Pauline theology. Since I hope to research and write on Pauline theology in-depth during my time in seminary and since Paul’s letters will be a significant part of my preaching ministry as a church pastor, Lord willing, this book will be an important one for me to have read so that I can interact with its arguments.
  2. To quote Dr. James Hamilton, who himself is following the advice of Dr. Thomas Schreiner (both pastors in Louisville, KY, and professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): “even when I expect to disagree … I’ve learned that sometimes you learn most from folks like N. T. Wright.”

In other words, this book’s value is (or at least can be) high both academically and pastorally. Having read Parts I and II, I can attest that PFG is a worthwhile read, both intellectually and spiritually. Because each Part of PFG is long enough to be its own separately bound book, I will review each Part individually. Below is my review of “Part I: Paul and His World.”

The first Part of the four-Part PFG gives us the background and contexts to Paul’s theology, which is treated fully in Part III. Part I alone is over 300 pages long—justifiably so, to Wright: a “reasonably detailed … description of Paul’s multiple contexts—Jewish, Greek, Roman—” is “essential” (xv). Perhaps. Certainly the Jewish background to Paul is helpful because Paul’s theology intersects with that of Second Temple Jews, most notably Jews who were “zealous” as Paul was prior to his conversion. Chapter 2 is rightly the longest chapter of this section. However, nearly 200 pages deal with Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Of these chapters, the fourth on Roman religion and culture seems most superfluous (perhaps in part because Wright himself admits that Peter Rodgers “nudged” him into writing this chapter [xxii]), although I feel like sections 2-3 of chapter five, which are a narrative of Roman history to AD 70, are also overkill. Despite feeling the need to skim read these sections of Part I, on the whole this section of PFG is not only an enjoyable but also edifying read.

Chapter One is Wright’s introduction to the whole book. Wright’s reading of Philemon, Paul’s shortest letter, was on the whole persuasive. Especially beneficial to my own understanding of Philemon was Wright’s contrast of it to a contemporary Roman official’s letter on the same subject (a runaway slave returning to his master). Wright highlighted how Paul turned Roman social custom on its head because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this exposition of Philemon motivates me to see even “worldly” aspects of my life (such as college) more clearly and more fully in light of the gospel. For that I am grateful. However, Wright’s passing interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 as referring to reconciliation of people to people rather than of people to God is way off the mark. I am looking forward to reading his full treatment of this verse in Part III so that I can engage his arguments more fully.

Chapter Two is a comprehensive treatment of Paul’s Jewish background and context. Most helpful were Wright’s historical and sociological overview of Second Temple Judaism. Once again, however, I encounter an unhelpful quirk of Wright’s overall argument. One of Wright’s foundational arguments is that God meant the Jews to be the solution to the problem of sin but because of their own sinfulness Jesus then had to come and serve as the True Israel to rescue the world from sin. I cannot but disagree with this specific argument. As early as Gen. 3:15, we read of God’s plan to save the world (hundreds of years before he even called Abraham to be the first Jew!) through the singular “seed” of the woman, and this hope for a singular Savior is repeated throughout the Old Testament, famously in Isaiah 53. This argument emerges again in Part II and even more extensively in Part III, so I will interact with this theological flaw of the book more fully in reviews of those Parts. On the whole, chapter two was my favorite of Part I, perhaps in part because of the wealth of information I learned about Second Temple Judaism, which is the first century background with which I am most unfamiliar.

Chapter Three is a necessary but thankfully shorter chapter on Paul’s Greek philosophical context. In Wright’s own words, “this chapter is important” because Tarsus—Paul’s hometown—was known for “export[ing]” Stoic philosophers, in particular (199). As a historian, Wright is top-notch. Throughout these chapters on Jewish beliefs, Greek philosophy, and Roman imperialism, I could find nothing wrong with Wright historically. Chapter Three is thus excellent, and Chapters Four and Five, though way too long in my opinion, were also factually sound and will be helpful, I’m sure, in the future, for cultural and historical background to the New Testament.

Wright identifies Part I as the structural foundation of PFG. In the Preface, he depicts PFG as a chiastic staircase, with Parts II and III on the top floor (Part III being the ultimate climax). Chapters One through Five are thus important first steps for understanding Wright’s understanding of Paul (and Paul’s understanding of “the faithfulness of God”). These chapters build a historically sound foundation for the chapters to come. Theological errors, though present, are neither numerous nor threatening to the historical foundation of Wright’s book. I can only wish that this opening section was not so long so that I could get to what I consider the heart of the matter, Paul’s theology, faster. But before Paul’s theology, for Wright, comes not only Paul’s contexts but also Paul’s own worldview, which is the subject of Part II and will thus be the subject of the next post in my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

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