The Mindset of The Apostle: Part I

September 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Last week, we continued our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 Today, we’ll move on to Part II of the book. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this. Below I’ll give you the rundown on the first two chapters in this part of the book (chapters 6 & 7). Next week, we’ll look at chapter 8 and a brief summary of the first two parts of the book (which also complete the first volume of the book).

A Bird in The Hand? The Symbolic Praxis of Paul’s World

In Part II, Wright transitions from Paul’s world to the apostle’s worldview. Readers of Wright will be fairly familiar with his analysis. He gives the lengthiest exposition of his method in New Testament and The People of God, but he recalls that and applies it anew with Paul here. As he says,

Having spoken of four elements in the worldview-analysis, I propose in this opening chapter to deal with two together: symbol and praxis. This is not for want of material, to pad out two otherwise thin analyses. Rather, it is due to the frustrating fact that, when it comes to ‘symbols’, the earliest Christians have left us virtually nothing. (352)

The section that follows then looks at the symbolic praxis of the three worlds Paul inhabited. First, Judaism, then the surrounding pagan world, and lastly the symbols specifically associated with the Roman Empire.

Having completed this exposition, Wright then says,

The previous section has made it clear just how naked and exposed Paul’s worldview must have seemed. Shorn of its most obvious Jewish symbolic universe, and refusing to embrace that of Greek wisdom or Roman imperialism, let alone the ‘religion’ which subsisted somewhere in between, it must often have seemed difficult to envisage what life was now all about. (384)

The discussion that follows is propelled by the following questions:

with what symbols, and symbolic praxis, did Paul fill the void created by the abandonment of those rich and powerful Jewish symbols, and by the refusal to take up in their place the symbols proffered by the surrounding pagan culture? In sharper terms, how did Paul resacralize the void? Did he, as some seem to suppose (reflecting, we may guess, the desacralized world of western modernism), offer only an internal personal religious experience and hope, leaving the rest of the cosmos as a flat, materialist landscape? Or were there ways he tried to recapture, by another route, the Jewish dream of yhwh revealing himself to bring justice to the world and filling it with his knowledge and glory, or indeed the pagan sense of a world somehow full of divinity? (386-387)

Wright groups answers according to what the symbols communicate. First are symbols pointing toward Christians as the one people of the one God. Next are symbols that connect people to the Messiah, which then leads to an exposition of the praxis of the messianic movement. Along with this is Wright’s exposition of the praxis of a renewed humanity.

Wright concludes from all of this that “The symbols and the praxis link directly to the story and the questions. The single community, rooted in this strange, new messianic monotheism, has a narrative, tells a narrative, lives by a narrative; but it is a complex and integrated multiple narrative, and we must explore it step by step in the next chapter.” (454)

The Plot, The Plan and The Storied Worldview

Here, Wright moves into more detail about the story of this messianic movement. Riffing on Jane Austen, he opens the chapter saying “It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that a sensible worldview equipped with appropriate symbolic praxis must be in want of a story (456).” After further introductory matters, Wright turns to an explanation of the nature of plots, sub-plots and narrative themes.This brief scaffolding allows him to place the various stories at work in the Paul’s worldview.

As Wright sees it, the outer story is one of God and creation, or more specifically, the one true God’s plan for his created world. Wright sees the coming of the kingdom of God as the main outer story on which everything else hangs.

The first sub-plot for Wright is the story of humanity. Specifically, it is the story of humans created in the image of the one true God and given a vocation. These image bearers fail in their initial calling, and subsequently rescued and reinstated.

Related to this story, but not necessarily within it, is the story of Israel. Specifically, God’s calling of Israel to be a means by which humanity is rescued and restored. Within the story of Israel is the story of Torah, which has multiple layers.

With all this in mind, one is in a better position to understand what Jesus is up to in the Gospels. As Wright explains,

[E]verything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories, of the story of the creator and the cosmos, of the story of God and humankind and/or the story of God and Israel. Because these three layers of plot interlock in the way I have described, what Paul says about Jesus, and what he could have said were he to have laid out his worldview-narrative end to end for us to contemplate, makes the sense it does as the crucial factor within those other narratives. Thus there really is, in one sense, a Pauline ‘story of Jesus’, but it is always the story of how Jesus enables the other stories to proceed to their appointed resolution. (517)

Wright then elaborates,

When we see the logical integration of the three main narratives for which we argued earlier (God and creation, God and humans, God and Israel), we can see how, in the actual argument of Romans, Paul moves from Jesus the Messiah as ‘the faithful Israelite’, fulfilling the salvific role of Israel on behalf of humanity (chapters 3 and 4), through ‘the embodiment of God’s love’, rescuing humans from the plight of sin and death (5:6–11), to the great statement, cryptic and dense but vital as the very heart of everything, of the Adam-narrative, which grounds the God-and-creation narrative itself (5:12–21, pointing ahead to 8:18–27). (530)

He then says,

Paul has thus pulled together the key narratives in the form of a single summary story from Adam to the Messiah, and on to ‘the life of the age to come’. He can then draw on this messianic narrative as the framework and context ‘in which’ Messiah-people find their identity. They die with him and rise with him, bringing them into a new life ‘to God’, in which, like freed slaves, they are able to, and required to, resist the lure of the old slave-master. This can then be summarized in terms of 5:20, where Torah intruded into the Adam-Messiah sequence: Torah bound Israel to Adam, but the death of the ‘old human being’ in 6:6 means that Torah no longer has any hold on those who have ‘died through the Messiah’s body’ (7:4, reaching back to 6:2–11 and 6:14). They are now, exactly as in 2:25–9 or 2 Corinthians 3, able to serve God ‘in the newness of the spirit, not the oldness of the letter’. The ‘story of Jesus’ at this point is the story of the Messiah ‘in whom’ people die and rise, leaving the ‘present evil age’ where the Torah still condemns Israel, and entering into the ‘age to come’ in which resurrection life already happens. (532)

Ultimately as Wright sees it,

As we move from letter to letter, and passage to passage, we can see that, within a much richer worldview-narrative than is normally imagined, Paul has grasped the point that the Messiah embodies and enacts the creative power and saving love of God the creator himself; that he is the true Adam, reflecting God’s image and glory into the world; that he is the true Israel, rescuing Adam and so the world from their plight; and that, as Messiah, he stands over against even Israel, doing for Israel, and hence for Adam and the world, what they could not do for themselves. Once we recognize this set of narratives at the worldview level of the Apostle, passage after passage makes fresh sense. (536)

With all this in mind, Wright has one final chapter in which he will flesh out Paul’s worldview. It is actually the shortest of this part of the book, but ties many of the preceding threads together. I will probably quote rather liberally to summarize (like I’ve just done above) since Wright does such a good job of summarizing what would otherwise be a sprawling argument.

Notes:

  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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