More wrangling with Tom Wright: this time on “What St Paul Really Said”!

I These notes, questions and comments are based on Tom Wright:What St Paul Really Said,  London, Lion, 1997

 I think the best summary of this book is that by Tom Wright himself in his opening paragraph of chapter 8 …(God’s renewed humanity).

  1. p13   Paul has often been accused of Hellenizing Christianity, taking it a long way from its Jewish origins in Jesus’s teaching.  Both Albert Schweitzer and N T Wright pour scorn on this idea. What do we think?
  1. p14  Do you find the differentiation between exegesis and eisegesis helpful?
  1. p22  Is Paul simply the legitimator of an old style ‘preaching the Gospel’  or is he also concerned with many wider categories and larger questions in the Christian tradition? (so Wright)
  1. p24 I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge. Romans 10:2. Is this a fair summation of Judaism?  [I guess in one respect it is in the Bible so we have to agree???]
  1. p26. Wright describes Saul the persecutor of Christians l as a Shammaite rather than a Hillelite. Do we agree?
  1. p27 For Saul the persecutor the issues were not just about ‘lenient’ or ‘strict’ interpretations of the law but about aims and agendas for Israel: for the people, the land, and the Temple. Much the same today??
  1. p27. On the other hand, Saul the persecutor and the Masada “dagger-men” were deeply pious Jews. [cf the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 (p28)]
  1. p30  A key part of Tom  Wright’s complete theology of Paul and the New Testament (and often contested) is that many C1st  Jews were still awaiting the full restoration of the Temple and they did not believe the exile had ended. The promises made by the prophets after the release from Babylon had not been fulfilled. This is a complex argument based on many extra Biblical texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls and pseudepigraphical works such as 4 Ezra. Nevertheless,  What do we think?  [see also p43]
  1. p32 E P Sanders has been very influential in describing Biblical Judaism as “covenantal nomism” rather than strict “salvation by works” i.e. early Pelagianism,in his massive book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. i.e. they trusted God’s covenant and in response tried to keep the law but knew that it was not possible completely, hence the need for regular sacrifices and the Day of Atonement.  Wright agrees with Sanders on this major revision of our understanding of early Judaism but thinks that Sanders under-estimated Jews like Saul of Tarsus who was just as determined politically to free Israel from occupation as he was concerned about “getting in and staying in ‘heaven’.
  1. p33.  Wright underlines the importance of the covenant as designed “to undo the sin of Adam” and provide a blessing for all of humanity. Within this scheme “justification” becomes very important.  He believes it is a law-court theme meaning acquittal. God will judge the the nations and find in favour of his people.  The ‘righteous’ are the vindicated/acquitted..not the necessarily the “morally right”.  [Abraham believed God and it was “reckoned” to him as righteousness.]
  1. p34  Here Wright stresses that this final acquittal or justification will be eschatological meaning  major and cataclysmic events within history…not outside history. This is another standard theme of Wright’s…the transformed kingdom of God on earth. Do we agree?
  2. p35-6 Wright notes that Paul’s vision of the resurrected Christ was at a time when others had ceased to see Jesus…even after the ascension….it is not the language of mystical vision…it will not do to spiritualize or psychologize the event.   Do we agree? (eg in the Gospel stories of the resurrection, apart from Mary Magdalene the appearances were seen by several folk at once but in Saul’s case, the accompanying soldiers either saw or heard nothing (depending on which of three versions of Acts you read).
  1. p 37 This event forced Saul now Paul to redraw his view of Jesus…Jesus was no longer a failed would be Messiah; now he WAS the Messiah, God over all, blessed for ever Amen [Romans 10:5 …a verse fought over by scholars because if this is what the text says it is the earliest written Christian statement that Jesus was God!] In any case what an amazing turn around for Paul the Apostle…For Paul the eschatological event was no longer for some distant future; it had already begun with the resurrection.  [ I note that this is also what the  Gospels clearly say.  The kingdom of Heaven is among/within you. ]
  1. p39.  In spite of all claims to the contrary in various theological treatments of Paul’s theology the reality is that throughout his letters and his activities he remains stoutly and determinedly within the framework of Jewish covenantal and messianic theology with the exception that his view of God has become incarnational and radically different from strict Jewish monotheism.
  1. p40. Paul’s calling was to tell this new Jewish-Christian story to the world. He was to become “the herald of the King.”

16. p44 The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’.

17.  p45-6 It is not, then, a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved.  …’the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus….this proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience…”the obedience of faith”….His announcement was that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead; that he was thereby proved to be Israel’s Messiah; that he was thereby installed as Lord of the world. Or, to put it yet more compactly: Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord. See p49 lots of Jews were crucified; only one was resurrected….if Jesus had defeated sin, death could not hold him. If (conversely) he rose again from the dead, it meant he had indeed dealt with sin on the cross.

18. p47 In the crucified and risen Christ, God has reversed this world’s values. 

19. p50  Paul wasn’t just living in the last days. He was living in the first days. cf.p51 the end has already happened (in Jesus’ resurrection) and the end is still to happen  (when all Jesus’ people are raised to life.

20. p50.  In speaking of the resurrection body, Paul was talking about a  a new physical existence. 

21. p51-2 For Paul, ‘Christ ‘ is not a name. It is a title….Paul thought Jesus was divine; but the word ‘Christ’ , for Paul means ‘Messiah’…anointed one….its major referent in first-century Judaism was the coming king….[Paul] believed that Jesus was the true king. An unexpected king, yes. A king who turned everything, including expectations of what the coming king would do and be, upside down, …but the true king nevertheless. The resurrection proved it. To remind ourselves of this it would do no harm form time to time to translate ᾿Ιησους Χριστος not as ‘Jesus Christ’ , nor even as Jesus the Messiah, but as ‘King Jesus’.  Do you like this title?

22. p56-7 Paul uses the title ‘Lord’  [Κυριος ] for Jesus so frequently that the uses take up several columns in a small-print concordance. In Jewish context ‘Kyrios’ means God; in the Greco-Roman world it means Emperor. Either way it is amazing that he used it for Jesus almost automatically…don’t be lulled into thinking that you can serve two masters, that there are two lords of the world. [see also the discussion of Paul’s use of “kurios” for Jesus on p71).

23. p59 The ‘gospel’ is for Paul, at its very heart, an announcement about the true God as opposed to false gods. This announcement was, and Paul expected it to be, controversial.

24. p61 The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love.

25. p64-5First century Jews use five language-sets to speak about God…Wisdom, Torah, Spirit, Word and Shekinah (..the presence of the true God ‘tabernacling’ with his people.)…Paul took precisely this Jewish doctrine and redefined it —with Jesus , and the Spirit, within it.

26.  p65 -66…at the very moment when [Paul] is giving Jesus the highest titles and honours, he is also emphasizing that he, Paul, is a good Jewish-style monotheist….he was clearly not intending to add a second god to the pantheon…cf Galatians 4: 8 -11 Paul takes the Jewish Shema and manages to include Jesus.

27. p67 Paul has spied a new meaning of the word ‘God’, because the person he has firmly in views Jesus of Nazareth…Paul has taken the word ‘God’ itself and has filled it with a new content. [cf Philippians 2:9-11]

28. p68 Why has Paul developed a new content for ‘God’? Because, quite simply, [Jesus] has done what only the true God can do. The truth about God is revealed for Paul, supremely, on the cross….God commends his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us….that sentence, we should note, only makes sense, if, somehow, God is fully and personally involved in the death of Jesus Christ.

29. p71-2 There is no tension, for [Paul] , between Jesus being the totally human Messiah, the representative of Israel, and the one who is sent as it were from God’s side, to do and be what only God can do and be. Paul, in short, seems to have held what generations of exegetes have imagined to be an impossibility; a thoroughly incarnation theology,  grounded in a thoroughly Jewish worldview….this, of course, strained at the borders of  human language, even the God-given language of scripture; but one could clearly recognize ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ [2 Corinthians 4:6]

30. p73 Paul strains the limits and borders of language a second time in speaking of the Spirit also as in some sense God and thus in several passages uses language that can only reasonably be described as “trinitarian”. e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

.

31.. p75 The one God, the creator, had now been made known in and as Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, the Lord of the world. The face that called the world into existence was turned at last toward the world in self-revelation, in rescue, and love. 

32 p78-9 .We have learnt that there is no such thing as ‘first-century Judaism,’only first century Judaismsthe word ‘pagan’  is a convenient Christian label to cover, as they might have said, a multitude of sins….we have little detail about many C1st non-Jewish beliefs. …we have to extrapolate from Paul’s letters as we have them.

33.p80 Many scholars, seeing that Paul is critical of Judaism, have assumed that he must therefore have a non-Jewish theology. Many others, seeing that his theology was thorougly Jewish, have found it puzzling to explain how he came to hold a critique of Judaism.  History of Religions methodology …is bad at separating polemical engagement and critique from within.

34. p81. The underlying reason for Paul’s polemical engagement with pagan culture is not, I suggest, far to seek. But it is so frequently ignored that I should like to stress it here as of first importance. It is found in the Jewish expectations about how the purposes of the one God would eventually include the whole world.Abraham (Genesis 12,15); isaiah 49. etc

35. p85. People have often attempted to explain the rapid growth of Christianity by arguing that the first-century pagan world was, so to speak, ‘ready for Christianity’. I am not so sure. The Athenians were not ready to hear about Jesus and the resurrection.  [Acts 17] I think this is equally very true of the Western world today. What do you think?

36 pp96-92 Wright suggests Paul challenged the pagan world in six major areas, all very present in today’s post-modern world .(i) the divination of creation (pantheism); (ii) the cult with its multiplicity of gods of all sorts (iii) power and empire (cf current pretensions of nation states to have the power to rule or hurt the world. (iv) True humanness  (cf modern challenges to the nature of humanness); (v) the true story of the world (cf modern myths about origins); (vi) philosophy and metaphysics (C1st Stoicism, Epicureanism and the Cult) cf modern existentialism, modernism, post-modernism, moral neutrality etc…Paul, in fact,  (p93) summons the whole world to repentance. Wright has written often about the new forms of paganism alive and well today…the gods of mammon, eros and power. (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche)

37. p95-6  Terminology problems. p96 Paul is writing in Greek, but aware of the Hebrew scriptures that stand behind what he wants to say; we are writing [and reading] in English, vainly attempting to find words and phrases which catch the flavour and emphasis of what was already a subtle and intricate train of thought.

38. pp96 -111. Detailed analysis of the meaning of the righteousness of God and Justification.  Chapters 6 and 7 have some complex and hard core theological analysis and is currently a hugely contested area  in scholarship. Basically Wright argues, correctly in my view, for a covenantal and law-court background for the meaning of these two terms and in particular (p98) against any sense that God ’s righteousness can be “imputed” or handed over to humans who have faith so that they can be saved. Wright argues that it is through the faithfulness of Jesus in his sacrifice on the cross that salvation comes to humanity. Jesus the suffering Messiah was the faithful Israelite who totally fulfilled the covenant God made with humanity and his death dealt with the results of wrath, God’s reaction to human sinfulness, defeating the power of sin and overcoming death. On the chart on p101 therefore Wright is pumping for A1 in the first column and A1b in the second column.  So Wright states on p108: The covenant always envisaged a worldwide family ..and on p110 Romans is often regarded as an exposition of judicial, or law-court, theology….but at the heart of Romans we find a theology of love.

39. p114 Wright argues that the doctrine of justification cannot be put right at the centre of Paul’s thought, since that place is already taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship. 

40.  p116-117 There is simply no way that human beings can make themselves fit for the presence or salvation of God…When [Paul] describes how persons, finding themselves confronted with the act of God in Christ, come to appropriate that act for themselves…God works by his Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share its common life and its common way of life….Paul speaks of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, and the entry in to the common life of the people of God.

41. p122 …God is now extending his salvation to all, irrespective of race…the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation is one of the centrally repeated themes of Romans.

42. Chapter 8. Wright writes about God’s renewed  humanity under the headings of :

  • turning from idols,
  • resurrection – the transformation into a renewed physicality in a new heaven and earth (against both pantheism and agnostic dualism)
  • holiness (transformed humanity)…p145 the church today looks for brilliant rhetoric and personal revelation, not for sharing the sufferings of Christ.
  • coherence of renewed humanity – love..p146   against the human habit of defining themselves against another.
  •   mission…p149 The Jewish hope, that Israel’s king would be king of the world, had come true in the Messiah.

43.  p151 The gospel’ itself is neither  a system of thought, nor a set of techniques for making people Christians ; it is the personal announcement of the person of Jesus. 

44. p152 The covenant was set up to deal with evil and death; it was never a matter of creating a smoothly progressing salvation-history and inviting people to get on board.

45. p154 Preaching the gospel means announcing Jesus as Lord of the world; and unless we are prepared to contradict ourselves with every breath we take, we cannot make that announcement without seeking to bring that lordship to bear over every aspect of the  world.  Wright argues that we cannot have a private system of piety which doesn’t impinge on the public world. 

46. p157-8 The gospel creates allegiance and experience per se…and now summons men and women everywhere to abandon the idols which hold them captive …there is no such thing as an individual Christian.  Do we agree?

47.  p159 Wright writes about folk in the past and present who are “justified by faith” without knowing it.    Do we think this is possible??

48. p163 The covenant…was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell…it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another merely different, private little group who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket.  How do we put this sentiment  positively without being universalist? What do you think?

49.  p164 Christians are to live in the present in the light of what God intends us to be in the future. 

50.  p167 Chapter 10 is a useful challenge to A N Wilson’s problematic, wildly skewed book on Paul the Apostle.  Wilson has since become a Christian and I doubt he would write the same book today!

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