My coauthors (Rodney Reeves and Randy Richards) and I are working on the second edition of our book Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology (InterVarsity, 2007). It is a substantial rewrite, not just a cosmetic upgrade.
Chapter 10 is our chapter on Paul’s theology and, as I’m rewriting, I’m (re)reading N. T. Wright’s two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). At the beginning of the second big volume he lays out his agenda. His central argument is that Paul’s worldview and his theology must be understood together. They are interdependent. When you grasp Paul’s theology correctly and faithfully, you “do justice to the whole and the parts;” you understand the shifting historical contexts in which he lived, the forces and factors that influenced him, and you read his letters a bit more faithfully.
The (W)right way to read Paul holds together and in tension the various themes of his letters which scholars often pit against one another. There is, he says, an “inner coherence” which emerges when you try to understand the sequence of his arguments. The letters are not a collection of detached sayings; they are robust arguments. They are grounded in the larger themes and narratives of his Scripture and Jewish heritage.
Wright cites with approval Kasemann (Romans, 1980) when he noted that Paul’s letters do have a central concern, a coherent, inner logic which can be investigated and known.
So Wright builds his project on three platforms:
First, he begins with Paul’s Jewishness as a given, expressed in a framework of three major aspects of second temple Jewish thought: monotheism, election and eschatology. For Wright, these elements are integrated not detached. You cannot, for example, understand Paul’s soteriology in isolation from election, theology and eschatology. These three elements cover the wide, gaping central concern of Paul who remained a thoroughly Jewish thinker.
Second, this framework had to be rethought, reimagined, and recast around Jesus and the Spirit. Paul had a new understanding of what God had been up to in the Messiah and the gift of the Spirit. He could no longer continue to think about these central categories in the same way. The cataclysmic event of the cross and resurrection of the Messiah had changed everything.
Third, Paul’s christologically and pneumatologically redefined categories (monotheism, election, and eschatology) were deployed through the Gentile mission in three ways.
- They became the major aims of his letters. His letters were part of his missionary strategy, that is, to establish Jesus-infused and Spirit-directed communities across the Mediterranean. His letters reflect this radically reworking.
- Paul’s own charismatic readings of Scripture were not based on proof-texting; they were grounded in reading large swaths of Scripture and attuning his mind to the great narratives of Israel which reached their appropriate climax in the Messiah. It is Paul’s full intention that his Jesus-infused and Spirit-directed communities inhabit these stories.
- Even as Paul’s own theology demands the formation of “churches,” he is also engaging the pagan world of his day (again in three ways).
- the philosophers’ quest for the good life is upstaged by the good news of the gospel
- the religious quest of late antiquity for salvation (broadly understood) with its obsession with gods and spiritual powers finds its final destination in the church
- the imperial quest of empire is outmaneuvered by the acclamation of Jesus’ lordship, Israel’s true Messiah
Paul, according to Wright, draws from paganism everything which he thinks is true. But pagan idolatry had ruined any chance for the wise of this age to achieve their human potential. The human-happiness project of pagan philosophy never achieved what it promised.
But the gospel made people more human not less because, among other things, it placed in the center the only human whose life was worth imitating.
In the end Wright believes there is a coherence to Paul’s thought. It is a coherence which holds together all the parts, uniting the disparate elements of his arguments even thought each letter is written over against a contingent situation.
An early generation of scholars was fond of talking about “the center” of Paul’s theology. It was identified by some as justification by faith, by others reconciliation, and still by others participation in Christ. Each of these were different ways of dealing with the broad theological category, soteriology. Wright does not utilize the language of “center,” but his discussion of what is central, coherent appears to operate along a similar track.