Things I Am Learning from N. T. Wright’s Humongous Book on Paul, Part 3
Paul summarized in three words!? Generations of theologians have wrestled their brains out with Paul’s thought, and now we are able to summarize all of this in just three words? I don’t blame you if you are sceptical, but give N. T. Wright a chance: he thinks he can do it, even though it takes him 1700 pages to accomplish this.
This issue is the third and last in a series on N. T. Wright’s colossal book on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, published in 2013. This time, I take a look at the big picture of Paul’s theology as Wright summarizes it in this book. It is emphatically not a critique of the book; I limit myself to things I am taking with me from reading it. But for the record and lest anyone suspects me of being a Wright worshipper: I do not accept everything N. T. Wright writes. There are things I disagree with, some of them major, such as a few of his redefinitions or retranslations of words:
• The faith of Christ as the faithfulness of Christ (the Greek word pistis can indeed mean either faith or faithfulness)
• Justification as covenant membership
• The righteousness of God as the faithfulness of God (to his covenant)
But this is a different subject, not covered here. These links lead you to the previous two issues:
This is probably my longest issue to date. But once you take into account that it covers about half of Wright’s 1700 pages, it does not seem so long anymore, does it?
This is how Wright goes about it. His book on Paul begins with a description of Paul’s worlds (plural: the Jewish world of faith, the Greek world of philosophy, the pagan world of religion, and the Roman world of empire). It continues with a breakdown of Paul’s worldview. Following this, Wright presents an analysis of Paul’s theology, organized around three words. He offers one excruciatingly long chapter for each of the three. (It may perhaps be possible to summarize the theology in three words, but this does not mean there is nothing more to say after this – a thesis for which Wright’s 1700 pages of hefty prose provide conclusive evidence.) Without further ado, here are the three words:
That Paul’s theology can be summarized in these three words is not entirely accurate. These three summarize Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. This is the shortest possible summary of what Jews believed. That they can also be used to sum up Paul’s theology demonstrates the extent to which, as N. T. Wright does not tire of saying, Paul remained a deeply Jewish thinker. However, in order to adequately summarize Paul’s new take on Jewish theology, one thing needs to be added: Paul reimagined and redefined each of these three in the light of the Christ event that had just taken place.
I will quickly summarize the Jewish perspective on these three and then move on to Paul’s redefinition of them.
There is only one God. This was the most foundational conviction of the vast majority of Jews living in the first century A.D. It does not necessarily mean that other gods were entirely fictional beings; they were often considered to be a front or cover for demonic powers. It does mean that whatever else they might be, they were certainly not gods.
This pillar of Jewish faith finds expression in the equally foundational confession of faith that Jews prayed every day, the Shema, named after its first word in Hebrew (“hear”):
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5, ESV)
By referring to “your God,” the Shema implies the next foundation stone of Israel’s faith.
Yahweh was Israel’s God because he had chosen them to be his people. If you know anything about the Old Testament, it is bound to include this: Israel was God’s people, his special possession out of all the nations of the earth. The Jewish Bible is the story of this special relationship.
In case you are not familiar with this word: in theology it denotes the study of final events (“the end”) and the ultimate destiny of everything. It was typically Jewish to not only have an understanding of ultimate purpose (life is not meaningless or cyclical), but also to consider it central to the faith. We find this eschatology most clearly expressed in the prophets: Yahweh will come and set the world right. First-century Jewish faith was full of hope.
So what did Paul do with all this? Since I will focus on his renewed and transformed monotheism, I will present his take in reverse order.
Eschatology Redefined (Chapter 11)
Part of the way Israel’s eschatology is redefined, not just by Paul but throughout the entire New Testament, is something you are probably familiar with. A significant element of fulfilment is introduced, centred on Jesus.
At the same time, there remain significant elements that are not yet fulfilled. God’s righteous rule over creation has been inaugurated, but not yet completed. Jesus had been raised from the dead, but no one else. The day of the Lord, that is the day of Yahweh, has now also become the day of Christ. It is part of what still awaits its fulfilment.
It should not have come as a surprise, but to many Jews it did, that this salvation and God’s purpose for the cosmos includes all nations, not just Israel. Indeed, it concerns all of creation, reconciled to God through Christ and now waiting for its liberation from decay.
There is much more to it than this (enough to fill that very long chapter I referred to earlier), but this is at the core.
Election Redefined (Chapter 10)
This point is more controversial. For one, the church for a long time took this to mean it had simply replaced Israel in the divine plan; a completely new circle had been drawn to mark God’s people. This is not quite how Paul puts it (to put it mildly). But neither will it do to simply state, “Israel is God’s people,” as if the coming of Jesus makes no difference for who is in the circle.
When it comes to election, here is what needs to be taken into consideration. Israel had not been chosen for its own sake, but for a task, a mission. The whole point of Abraham’s calling was to be the counterpart and answer to Adam: to undo humanity’s fall. As the Old Testament makes clear, Israel had failed to fulfil that mission, because it was itself part of Adamic humanity; Adam lived as much in every Israelite as in the rest of us. So Israel could not itself be the solution. But it would still be part of the process of bringing the solution about: by bringing the Saviour into the world. Who then took over the mission. In more than one way Jesus took the place of Israel. He fulfilled its mission.
This has consequences for that category “the people of God” (or descendants of Abraham). The circle is drawn much more widely, as Gentile believers are included in the election of Israel. As the circle is redrawn around Christ, not Torah, the criterion for inclusion changes too (or does it? it probably has been by faith all along, even in the OT). Membership is based on faith in Jesus (or, as Wright sees it, on the faithfulness of Jesus in fulfilling the mission), not works of the Law.
One way this redefined election shows: Paul and other NT writers do not hesitate to take titles and promises specifically given to Israel in the OT and apply them to Gentile believers (e.g. Gal. 4:26-28, 1 Pet. 2:9-10, to mention just two).
Monotheism Redefined (Chapter 9)
Even more radical is Paul’s breathtaking reimagining of the Jewish God. Here is Paul’s response to the Corinthian logic that “there is no God but one,” therefore idols do not exist, and there can be no harm in visiting an idol’s temple.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:4-6, ESV)
We won’t go into the faulty logic of the Corinthians and Paul’s counterargument against feasting in temples in what follows. Rather, let’s notice the echoes of the Shema both in the Corinthian claim and in Paul’s response:
• There is no God but one
• There is one God, the source and purpose of our existence
• There is one Lord, the means and mediator of creation and sustainer of our existence
Keep in mind that “Lord” is what Jews at the time would have read wherever their Bible included the divine name YHWH. Paul has rephrased the Shema to make room in it for the one Lord, Jesus, right next to God the Father. The fitting response, to love God, has been transformed in “for whom we exist.” This is only one example of Paul’s amazingly high view of Jesus.
It should be emphasized that Paul and the early Christians remained staunch monotheists. Had Paul been accused of bi- or tritheism, he would no doubt have responded with an adamant denial: “By no means!”
When did this belief first emerge? And how did he and others come up with such a seemingly counterintuitive understanding of the one God?
When Did This Start?
It used to be common in critical scholarship to think that the belief that Jesus was divine was a late development. It was not what the earliest Christians, all Jews, had believed. It only developed after Christianity spread to pagan areas outside of Israel, where the idea of a human becoming god, even if not an everyday occurrence, was certainly thinkable. In this view, Jesus (or rather Christian beliefs about him) only gradually evolved from a Jewish Messiah to the second person of the Trinity. At its worst, Jesus’s divine status becomes an invention of the church, certainly not something Jesus had actually believed about himself.
Nowadays it is more acceptable again to argue that a “high Christology” existed quite early. This is not to say that we find Trinitarian theology in the early church, but we do find something that understandably enabled its development and in fact implied it.
Let me give a few more examples of this early and high view of Jesus.
• “Jesus is Lord!” This title implies the divine name Yahweh, since, as pointed out, “Lord” was used to replace it. The Greek word translated Lord in our Bible appears all over the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to refer to God. In the NT, it often refers to Jesus.
• OT quotations that refer to God, not to the Messiah, are nevertheless used to say something about Jesus (e.g. Rom. 10:13, Phil. 2:10f).
• Jesus was believed to be present with his people the way Yahweh in the OT had been present with Israel.
• Jesus was revered as Lord in a way that would be totally inappropriate for any other human. He was prayed to and worshipped (obviously in Revelation, but also as early as Acts 7:59f; cf. 1 Cor. 1:2 and, again, Rom. 10:9-13, where “the Lord” has to refer to Jesus).
• Already in the earliest NT documents, we find God and Jesus side by side, together the source of grace and peace, which surely could only come from God himself (James 1:1; Galatians 1:1-3).
Paul has to argue at length against Gentile believers receiving circumcision. But when it comes to seeing Jesus as co-equal with God, there seems to be no need to argue. As N. T. Wright points out and as the examples just listed illustrate, he can simply take this point for granted. It was not contested. So how did the early Christians come to such a startling understanding of Jesus?
Where Did the Early Christians Get This Idea?
The answer is not that Jesus had told them he was God’s son. He had indeed told them this of course, but it would not in and of itself have led the disciples to see him as the second person of the Trinity or even as divine. It was first and foremost a messianic title, going back to 2 Samuel 7. Besides, Israel itself is called God’s son in the OT. So claiming this title did not necessarily make Jesus God.
It did not flow out of the personification of wisdom we find in the book of Proverbs (especially Prov. 8f). It did not develop from a differentiation between God and his word, similar to that between God and his spirit. Both ideas were picked up later to give words to the nature of Jesus, but this came as part of a reflection after the fact had already been established (see Colossians 1 for wisdom-in-creation parallels and John 1 for Jesus as the Logos of God); it does not appear that they were the original trigger.
As N. T. Wright points out early on in Chapter 9 of his book, we should keep in mind that for first-century Jews and Christians alike monotheism was not metaphysical speculation on the inner constitution of God, God in the abstract, so to say, or God as a supreme being. It was first and foremost a concrete and practical belief that one God, not many, would decide where things would go. The Jewish story was always a story about the God they had encountered (and hoped to encounter again) in real life. It was all about the one God who had manifested himself repeatedly in the concrete events of history. This is a more flexible doctrine, as doctrines go, than for instance Islamic monotheism or the unmoved mover of Aristotle.
But none of this explains the radical revision of God embraced by early Christianity. N. T. Wright argues that three things had to come together for the early Christians to begin to see Jesus as included in the divine identity (Chapter 9, sections 1 and 2):
1. God had promised that he would do certain things, and the early Christians believed Jesus had done them. This included salvation, the second exodus, and the return of Yahweh to Zion. God had not simply done them through Jesus; he had done them as Jesus. So what did this tell them about who Jesus was!? Perhaps the best OT passage to illustrate this is Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
These verses introduce Isaiah’s vision of coming salvation in chapter 40-66. Remarkably, they are quoted at the beginning of each of the four gospels (Mt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Lk. 3:4, John 1:23). And how did this happen? How did God appear in the cities of Judah (Is. 40:9)? You know the answer.
2. Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah. His crucifixion seemed to prove that he was not. But then came the resurrection. It was followed by his ascension into heaven. This served to vindicate Jesus. Obviously, he was the Messiah after all, and he was now Lord of all (Mt. 28:18).
3. The disciples continued to experience Jesus as being present with them in a special and powerful way. Indeed, this could only be understood as the divine presence that was with them. Perhaps this experience of the exalted Lord in prayer and worship did more than anything else to establish the identity of Jesus as God. Jews, who would not worship any other God even if their lives were at stake, found themselves worshipping Jesus; that says it all.
Suddenly, OT scriptures and statements by Jesus could be understood in an entirely different light. He was indeed the son of God in a sense that neither David nor Solomon nor any other human king had ever been or could be. He was the divine wisdom and the Word made flesh. It makes perfect sense that these convinced monotheists did not hesitate to see Jesus as in some way part of God, as included in the divine identity, as Wright puts it. After everything Jesus had done and everything that had happened to him, most notably the resurrection, there could not be any doubt about it.
Interestingly, something similar happened in the disciples’ understanding of the divine spirit. The OT prophets had promised that God would rebuild his temple and would return to dwell in it (e.g. Ez. 37). This had now happened, but in a startlingly unexpected way: the new temple was made of people indwelt by the divine spirit. So again, the way God was present with his people now was as the Spirit of God. This Spirit was at the same time also the Spirit of God’s son (Gal. 4:6) and the Spirit of the Messiah (Rom. 8:9).
At this point, even though no one is saying, “Trinity,” they sure are implying it.
The early Christians and especially Paul therefore had to rethink their monotheism around the divine identity of both Jesus and the Spirit of God. The evidence of their experience with Jesus and of God was so overwhelming that it could not be any other way. There was one Lord, one Spirit, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). God was one, and God was Jesus, and God was the Spirit. And vice versa. It is a breathtaking revision leading, not to a different God, but to a God known more deeply.
So there is Paul for you, in three words: monotheism, election, eschatology – a partnership of the Father, Jesus, and the divine Spirit working for and through his people toward his ultimate purpose.
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The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013)
Photo Attribution, in Order
God the Father 13: Waiting For The Word, https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/5547026126/in/album-72157626316863728/, CC BY 2.0
The Start and Finish Line of the “Inishowen 100” scenic Drive: Andrew Hurley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhurley/6254409229/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0
Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Artist Speybrouck: Waiting For The Word, https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/8455785334/, CC BY 2.0
Pentecost 18 ~ The Holy Spirit: Waiting For The Word, https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/5791375669/in/album-72157626191763451/, CC BY 2.0