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If the means are political, so is the end: Wright and the Jewish message of Paul

In the opening chapter (“Setting the Stage”) of Paul and His Recent Interpreters Tom Wright makes the basic point that our modern culture has separated religion from politics and public life and has confined Paul to the religious sphere. Both in the academy and in the church he is viewed as a proponent of ideas and beliefs—about God, Jesus, salvation, the life of the church, the end times, etc.—that do not directly impinge on those aspects of modern life that would normally be classified as politics, economics, or culture. We are so thoroughly conditioned by this defining premise of secularism that we do not think twice about its relevance for interpreting the New Testament.

But Paul was a public figure, Wright says. He was not advocating a new or different form of private religious experience. That sort of “gnostic fantasy” has flourished at certain points in the modern era—Wright mentions the existentialism of Bultmann; I would add the self-obsessed salvationism of much modern evangelicalism. But this “has nothing to do with the relentlessly Jewish message of the Apostle, which was about the real creation of the one and only God, and the real new creation which was already transforming it” (10-11).

Later, Wright criticises Käsemann for, in effect, demythologising the Jewish idea of “apocalyptic”. Käsemann famously argued that “apocalyptic” is the “mother of Christian theology” and the driving force behind Paul’s thought. But what he meant by “apocalyptic” was, in effect, Bultmann’s existentialism rewritten on a cosmic scale. It had a superficially Jewish form, but it had nothing to do with Israel, salvation history, or covenant. For Käsemann early Christian thought was simply an argument about faith in light of the conviction that the “end” was about to happen.

Wright’s contention, therefore—going beyond both Bultmann and Käsemann and incorporating the fundamental change of direction given to New Testament studies by Sanders—is that the cosmic outcome must be reconnected to the historical starting point, which is the story of Israel. Paul is proclaiming a public message about the renewal of creation through the historical existence of the covenant community. The goal is cosmic, but the means are historical and political.

With all due respect to Wright, I think this is half-baked. It’s not Jewish enough. It’s not apocalyptic enough.

I would say that the overriding goal of the Jewish apocalyptic vision, during the 300 years of Hellenistic and then Roman domination, was not cosmic transformation or new creation but political transformation and a new oikoumenē. The hope is anticipated and encapsulated in the cry of the psalmist: “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8).

Paul’s focus is mainly on the overthrow of the dominant idolatrous culture of the ancient world, with its associated sins (cf. Acts 17:29-31; Rom. 1:18-23; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 2 Thess. 2:3-8). But this is to be framed by a larger narrative in which the God of marginal Israel eventually comes to rule over the nations through the agency and regency of his Son.

The new covenant communities of disciples and churches scattered across the pagan world would be instrumental in this transformation. They could be described as “new creation” communities—from its inception in Abraham the people of God was a new creation in microcosm, blessed by the creator and instructed to be fruitful and multiply in the land that he would give them.

But the purpose of the churches was to bring about political, not cosmic, change. Ultimately, Christ would defeat the blasphemous, persecuting pagan ruler, and the nations would confess that Jesus Christ, and not Caesar, was Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God (2 Thess. 2:3-8; Phil. 2:9-11; cf. Is. 45:20-23).

There is, admittedly, a cosmic aspect to the political transformation. The martyrs would be raised as Christ was raised, the firstfruits of the persecuted churches; and resurrection by definition is an ontological novelty, a new creation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49). Creation itself looked forward to the vindication and glorification of the suffering churches as a sign and assurance of eventual liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-21). We do not forget that sin and death remain an affront to God as Creator and not only to God as king of Israel in the midst of the nations.

But the orientation of the “covenantal narrative”, as Wright would like to call it (71), is first and overwhelmingly—as in the Jewish literature—towards a profound political realignment of the ancient world, culminating in the installation of YHWH’s Messiah as King of kings and Lord of lords in place of Caesar.

Image of Paul and His Recent Interpreters

On Amazon (US):

N. T. Wright
Fortress Press (2015), Paperback, 404 pages, $39.00

Comments

Andrew,

Thank you for your post. I look forward to reading NT Wright’s new book. He is formative as always in most theological circles.

If Paul’s message was fundamentally one of political transformation through a historical people group (Israel) with a final outcome which is cosmic,… where do we sit now on that timeline?

If the original promise to Israel that God would rule over the nation’s through his Messiah has been fullfilled under the edict if Constantine, do we find ourselves working through part three? The ontological and cosmic piece?

Billy

That would be one way of looking at it, certainly. The embodiment of God’s rule over the nations in the long period of Christendom has come to an end, and the church has to make “theological” sense of that. If we move from here to a “cosmic piece”, however, we may risk overlooking the more pressing, contingent, and in new ways “political” circumstances that confront us. So, for example, we need to factor in the social marginalisation of the church in the West and the constraints that imposes on witness, service and mission.