Paul (and the righteousness of God)

I’m doing some preparatory work for a short series of lectures on Paul and thinking that it may be helpful to set out a rough summary of his thought—a sketch of the big picture—from my over-zealous narrative-historical perspective. If nothing else, it may help me to respect some boundaries.

It is also a modest attempt to pre-empt the publication of Tom Wright’s eagerly awaited [amazon:978-0800626839:inline]. (You can read chapter one here, made available by Fortress Press.) Judging from this interview with Michael Bird, despite the frequent references to Rome and empire, I don’t think Wright will do justice to the forward-looking political dimension to Paul’s gospel—he still instinctively sees Jesus as the ending of a historical narrative (about the return of Israel’s God to the temple), rather than as the beginning of a historical narrative.

In this regard, I would say that Paul and the Righteousness of God would be a better title for a book on Paul than Paul and the Faithfulness of God. His thought is driven by the question of the concrete vindication or justification or rightness or credibility of Israel’s God in the eyes of powerful pagan nations. Since a major part of God’s problem in the first century—if we can put it that way—was that he had been discredited by his own people, the question of the rightness of God raised the secondary question of the faithfulness of God towards his people. [pullquote]Simply put, in order to judge the nations God had first to judge his own people; in order to fix the nations God had first to fix his own people.[/pullquote]

So my cumbersome summary of Paul’s argument goes something like this; it clearly does not touch upon every aspect of his thought, but I think that it constitutes a pretty comprehensive framework:

Paul preached a political-religious gospel about the impending judgment of God against Israel and the nations, anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus but to be achieved through the witness to the risen Lord of communities of believing Jews and Gentiles, filled with the Holy Spirit, increasingly conformed to the image of the suffering and glorified Jesus, which would be justified by their faith(fulness) (not by works of the Jewish Law), and eventually vindicated at the parousia.

Paul preached a political-religious gospel…

Paul was a Jew, deeply concerned about the present condition and future existence of his people, Israel. The “gospel” that he had been recruited to proclaim to the nations of the empire was a political-religious gospel. It had reference primarily not to the salvation of individuals but to the judgment of nations—Israel, on the one hand, the Greek-Roman world, on the other. The fate of individuals, whether Jews or Greeks, would be determined by their response to the political-religious announcement.

About the impending judgment of God against Israel and the nations

Paul understood this coming judgment not in final universal terms but in temporal terms. His expectation was that, in the not too distant future, the God of Israel would judge both his own people and the Greek-Roman world in much the same way as he had always judged Israel and its enemies—that is, through historical events and processes, some of them miraculous, some of them mundane. Looking back, it seems reasonable to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 and the collapse of classical paganism in the fourth century constituted the real historical fulfilment of Paul’s expectations.

Anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus

What fundamentally marked Paul out from other Jews was his belief that the God of Israel had put this temporal and impending eschatological outcome in the hands of Jesus, whom he had raised from the dead and seated at his right hand. Jesus had been given authority to judge and rule over the nations—and to reign until the last enemy of God’s new creation people, death, was destroyed.

But to be achieved through the witness to the risen Lord

In practical terms, the victory of Israel’s God over the nations and the gods of the nations would come about through the witness of scattered communities of people who believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus really did have such far-reaching implications for the political-religious landscape of the ancient world. They represented in their corporate life the benchmark of righteousness by which the old world would be judged; they prefigured, as new creation, the transformed life of God’s people in the age to come.

Of communities of believing Jews and Gentiles

It is because the God of Israel intended to show himself to be the God of the whole world by judging the pagan nations that Gentiles were included in the renewed covenant community. “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one…” (Rom. 3:29-30). Much of Paul’s teaching deals with the challenges that this radical innovation presented.

Filled with the Holy Spirit

These problematic communities were empowered and equipped for the specific eschatological purpose by the Holy Spirit, which had been poured out on them. To adapt Jesus’ metaphor, New Testament ecclesiology—including pneumatology—describes the life of God’s people as it makes the journey along a difficult and painful road leading to the age to come.

Increasingly conformed to the image of the suffering and glorified Jesus

The communities were in close relationship with Jesus their Lord, who had given his life for them, and who reigned as God’s king on their behalf, safeguarding the integrity of their life and witness. But the importance of this relationship lay chiefly in the fact that the churches would have to participate realistically in the sufferings of Jesus. If the God of Israel was to be glorified among the nations of the Greek-Roman world, it would be not only because Jesus had been faithful and obedient to the point of death but because his followers were similarly minded—willing to be conformed to the image of the one who died and was vindicated.

Which would be justified by their faith(fulness) (not by works of the Jewish Law)

So the future of God and his people in the ancient world hung upon the faith(fulness) of those who believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus had dramatically changed things. It was, in effect, a common-sense, empirical observation on Paul’s part that the desired eschatological outcome was not going to be achieved by adherence—or professed adherence—to the Jewish Law. Indeed, the Law could only now condemn Israel to destruction. When eventually the living and true God judged the pagan world, it was those who believed in Jesus, rather than those who performed works of the Jewish Law, who would be found to be in the right.

And eventually vindicated at the parousia

At the parousia, when Jesus would come as king to consolidate his rule over the nations, his faithful servants would be delivered from their afflictions and publicly vindicated—both the living and the dead—for their long-suffering trust in the God who raised his Son from the dead.

Andrew -

You stated: he [Wright] still instinctively sees Jesus as the ending of a historical narrative (about the return of Israel’s God to the temple), rather than as the beginning of a historical narrative.

Could it not be both, or as the proverbial statement goes: the beginning of the end?

Yes, but that’s my point. If we are to take the historical shape of New Testament thought seriously, it seems to me that we have to suppose that this body of “prophetic” literature has as much to say about historical developments in its future as it does about historical developments in its past. I think Wright loses his historical focus when it comes to reading the apocalyptic-eschatological material in the New Testament. It is clear from the first chapter of Paul and the Faithfulness of God that he thinks of Paul primarily as a theologian—as the inventor of Christian theology—not as a prophet or evangelist.

Eschatology for Wright appears to be a universal category rather than a historical category: Paul’s message for the world was that the God of Israel “had done at last what he had promised, providing the world with its rightful Lord”. A consistently historical reading would be: Paul’s message for the nations of the Greek-Roman world was that the God of Israel had provided the empire with its rightful Lord. That is not to limit the lordship of Jesus to the immediate political context—he reigns until every enemy has been destroyed. But it is to limit the narrative scope of Paul’s thought.

See also: Tom Wright, the return of Jesus, and the failure of history.

Do you think some of this comes from a theologian wanting to do theology? Isn’t that part of the challenge here?  Wright wants to wrestle with the theological debate surrounding Paul and tug it in what he sees a more accurate direction or to focus the debate away from some approaches he think get Paul wrong.

But when I read Wright he seems at almost every turn reassuring folks that he is not proposing any radical changes but rather bringing out the whole picture (or listening to all the speakers to use the metaphor from King Jesus).  He seems to go out of his way not to challenge traditional evangelicalism’s doctrinal focus too much even as he uses sometime hyperbolic language about the uniqueness of his own approach and conclusions. 

You seem to push the boundaries more and threaten the dominance of the theological lens. You seem to believe that the system has to be deconstructed in a larger sense and so push the issue even when reassurance about classical doctrine would make you friends (and perhaps pacify those who hound you in the comments).  How likely is someone who works and lives in the theological world more directly likely to want to overturn that worldview?  And is there a fine line to be walked in terms of inviting evangelicals to rethink their views without going so far as to be cast out as non-mainstream or even heretical?

I know Wright has been attacked rather harshly by some in the Reformed camp but he seems to have found a rather unique place from which to challenge evangelicalism but not be seen as a threat to it.

I guess what I am getting at is how do theologians learn to put the historical-narrative aspect first when the “guild” pushes them in the other direction? And then how does this get translated into popular writting that actually reaches evangelicals in the pews.

Some very apposite reflections, Kevin. The Zeitgeist never stands still, even in the church, but it changes very slowly, especially in the church. Wright has been a very significant voice in tbe conversation, and he has dragged church opinion a long way. But he is not the end of the conversation. We have to be patient and see where we end up.

Read time: 6 minutes