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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.
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.
Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.
The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology. Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology? Well they did and they didn’t. Didn’t the pagans have theology? Well not really. They talked about the gods but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis. Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God as in the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: that Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors. So if you are going to have a community which is a single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation. If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world. So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology and I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.
They way I put it is this. You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.” He does that and that will help for a while. What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.” So teaching people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology. That is the heart of it.
Professor N. T. Wright has agreed to give two lectures at Houston Baptist University March 19-20, 2014 as part of a conference entitled “Paul and Judaism.” Professors Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University) and Ross Wagner (Duke University) will be presenting major addresses as well. The university will issue a call for papers soon to allow scholars an opportunity to join us for this two day event. For more information contact Dr. Ben Blackwell at 281.649.3000.
Professor Wright will also be on hand Friday, March 21, 2014, to lecture for the Lanier Theological Library in Houston.
Professor Wright has recently completed a new book entitled Paul and the Faithfulness of God. All of his lectures during this series will deal with Paul.
Recently Professor Michael Bird sat down with Wright to discuss his new book (approximately 25 minutes). This interview offers a good summary of Wright’s approach.