Last week, we continued our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. Today, we’ll finish Part II of the book, which is also the end of the first volume. You might think that means we’re halfway through with Wright’s take on Paul, but you’d be wrong. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this.
Five Signposts to the Apostolic Mindset
The final chapter of Part II is more or less a summary of Wright thinking Paul’s thoughts after him. Or, at the very least, it is Wright view on Paul’s worldview. Wright does this using a worldview analysis that readers familiar with him have come to know and love (or know and grow weary of). He previously did this for the Pharisees as a whole in New Testament and The People of God, for Jesus in Jesus and The Victory of God, and for ancient understandings of the afterlife in The Resurrection of The Son of God. Now, it’s Paul’s turn.
Wright sketches the worldview by answering the following questions:
- Who are we?
- Where are we?
- What’s wrong?
- What’s the solution?
- What time is it? (which act of the story are we in)
Here is what Wright says for Paul:
First, Paul’s “central answer to the question, ‘Who are we?’, is: ‘We are the Messiah’s people, defined 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)
Second, Paul’s “ultimate answer to ‘Where are we?’ has to do, for Paul, with the whole created order, the entire cosmos, and the belief that God created it through the agency of the same Messiah, Jesus, to whom the ekklēsia belongs. Jesus’ followers do not live in the created world as aliens, however much it may feel like that when surrounded by the murky muddle of so much street-level paganism and the arrogance of power. They live there as the rightful citizens of the coming kingdom, the subjects of the king who has already been enthroned and will one day complete his work of restorative justice.” (547)
Third and fourth, Wright combines problem and solution because “They dovetail into one another, since Paul’s vision of the future world set free from corruption and decay affects the way he analyzes the remaining problems. The first thing to say is that, for Paul, part of the astonishment of the gospel, generating this whole renewed worldview, is that what was wrong before has in principle (there it is again) been put right through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. That is where Paul starts. The victory he believes to be already won by the Messiah remains the ultimate answer, the source of the victory which is yet to come.” (547-548)
Fifth and little more expansive,
The fifth question, ‘When?’, is perhaps the most revealing. Dovetailing with all the others, of course, it nevertheless determines the shape of much of Paul’s explicit thought. It emerges on the edge of an argument, as worldview-hints usually do, indicating once more what Paul takes for granted rather than that for which he has to argue. It should be no surprise to find that Paul insists, again and again, on two things: first, that something has happened through which the ‘present evil age’ has lost its power to hold people captive, and the ‘age to come’ has broken in to rescue them; second, that this work is as yet incomplete, so that both in cosmic and in personal terms there remains a further step, a different level of fulfilment and victory, with Messiah-people poised between the one and the other. In the now hackneyed language, Paul emphasizes both the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the messianic narrative. (550)
Wright then enters into a discussion of the importance of Sabbath, specifically, it’s place in Paul’s thought in reference to this question. He explains:
My proposal here is that his emphasis on ‘the now time’, the time when the Messiah is ruling in heaven over all things in heaven and on earth, implies within the Jewish mindset at least that the new creation has been accomplished, and that the ‘Sabbath’, not in terms of cessation of work but in terms of God’s dwelling in, and ruling within, the new world he has made, has been inaugurated. Just as the promise relating to the land has been translated into the promise relating to the whole creation (to be fulfilled by the worldwide mission of the church), so the gift of a different sort of time in which, celebrating the completion of heaven and earth, God now ‘rests’ in the sense of ‘taking up residence’, is utterly appropriate for Paul’s worldview in which Jesus, having completed his work, is now in himself the foundation stone of the new creation. All the divine fullness ‘was pleased to dwell’ in the Messiah as he reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to God the creator. As with sacred space, so with sacred time. He was in himself the new Temple; now he has inaugurated, through his cosmic triumph, the new Time, the great Jubilee, the messianic Sabbath. (559-560)
Summary of Parts I and II
Though part of the preceding chapter, I’ll let summarize himself the ground he thinks he has covered up to this point in the book:
We have now studied three things: (1) the symbolic praxis which takes us to the heart of Paul’s implicit worldview, (2) the complex implicit interlocking narratives upon which he can draw to make sense of those symbols and that praxis and (3) the worldview-questions which enable us to put under the microscope the tell-tale indications of things which Paul took for granted and wanted his fellow believers to take for granted also. Throughout this we have seen that Paul’s worldview is a variant on the more generalized early Christian worldview we surveyed in Part IV of The New Testament and the People of God, which was itself a radicalization and reorientation of the overall worldview we found within second-Temple Judaism (recognizing fully the rich, dense and sometimes mutually contradictory variations within that latter entity). (562-563)
Then looking a bit ahead he says:
Symbol and praxis, story and questions are surrounded by habits of the heart (worship and prayer, which Paul again took for granted), and habits of life (the cultural assumptions about travel, lodging, what to do when arriving in a strange city, and so on). On the latter: how we wish we knew what sort of inns Paul stayed in, how he transported the Collection-money, whether he did indeed travel with animals as beasts of burden, what he liked to eat for breakfast … so much of his own ‘culture’ is hidden from us, and we can only guess. But, importantly, there are two things which emerge from any worldview: ‘theology’, in terms of ‘basic beliefs’ and ‘consequent beliefs’; and ‘aims’ and ‘intentions’, the motivations which energize and direct action. Part III of this book will look at Paul’s ‘theology’. Part IV, especially the final chapter, will examine his aims and intentions, and how they led to and energized the things he actually did. A word or two, in concluding the present Part II, on how all this fits together. (564)
Now, from my perspective, the first two parts are essentially one long introduction to Part III. Part IV on the other hand, was originally intended to be concluding discussions to the chapters in Part III. In that case, the whole book climaxes in Part III and our journey has only really just begun.
As far as the ground covered to this point, I found it interesting reading. It felt like in many ways Wright was continuously trying to outflank potential objections and instead of saying things in passing about background context, he actually went to the sources and made a case for it. In that sense, much of the first two parts of the book are Wright using historical research in the service of theology. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions about this or that aspect, I think he models the kind of excellent scholarship Christians should be known for.
On the other hand, the length of what is essentially an introduction to Paul’s thought is longer than most books the average person reads (unless its fiction). As I was reading the book, it was on the one hand, helpful to have Wright clarify, but his exhaustive explanations eventually became exhausting. Not as much with the first volume, but definitely so with the second. We’ll get to that later. In the meantime, I’ll just say that if you’re interested in getting a really good handle on the first century context of Christianity, you could read Wright’s New Testament and The People of God, or you could read the first volume of this book. Extra interested readers will want to do both (I did over the summer), but for many, this first volume is not only an introduction to Paul’s thought, but to the world of the first century as well.