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The (W)right Way to Read Paul

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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. Rediscovering Paul cover

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

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7 Comments

  1. fleetwd1 says:

    I think it important to clarify the biblical narrative guiding Paul’s thinking on these matters is what we would call law or nomos where as to Paul in his Jewishness would call Torah “God’s instruction” including Psalms and Prophets. We should see clearly Law is not opposed to Jesus or Spirit But a witness to the former and a vehicle for the latter. Knowing full well the Law divorced from the Spirit is a dead letter which leads to death.

    • Well said. Scripture is a broad category. It would be equivalent, more or less, with what Christians call the Old Testament. Paul would have encountered them in various scrolls. Not in a single volume like we have it.

  2. Rick Wilcox says:

    Dr Capes, is your intent to make Wright more accessible to lay audiences, or does his work inform a greater perspective – perhaps more holistic or contextual? I appreciate that might be an unfair question, but it certainly isn’t loaded. Like Paul, brother Tom often writes script which contain some things that are hard to understand. God bless you.

    • Rick, thx for your comment. My intent is to share a few insights from Wright with a wider audience. His books are scary for some. It helps me too process his thought.

      • Rick Wilcox says:

        Thank you sir. Even after an undergrad theology degree at HBU and now, 30+ years later half way though a MACE, I confess to a case of Wright intimidation myself. I hope to make your acquaintance someday.

  3. […] David Capes, in anticipation of a second edition of his book, Rediscovering Paul (IVP), Capes is re-writing a chapter on Paul’s theology and (re)reading N. T. Wright’s two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). The result is “The (W)right Way to Read Paul.”  […]

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