Thursday, January 14, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 1

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Back in a September post I announced that my New Testament reading for this school year would be Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. My plan was to post on my blog with every chapter completed. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page 3 times a week, on Mon-Wed-Fri, but have not produced the promised  “once a week or so I will sum up my thoughts about it on this blog.”  I didn’t make that goal and so now I am trying to catch up.  Each chapter is long (chapter 1 is 75 pages) so what you are getting here is a very brief summary. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. By the way I am using the Logos version of the book.

Wright enters the worldview of Paul through the short letter to Philemon. His point is that Paul sees the Jesus event as something that changes everything. Jesus’ life, death and resurreection completes the story of humanity and Israel and becomes the center around which everything else must be shaped. It not only reconciles humans to God, but totally changes the way humans relate to one another, breaks down the old social structures that divided people and reorients them back to God’s original intention for humanity

If we had no other first-century evidence for the movement that came to be called Christianity, this letter ought to make us think: Something is going on here. Something is different. People don’t say this sort of thing. That isn’t how the world works. A new way of life is being attempted—by no means entirely discontinuous with what was there already, but looking at things in a new way, trying out a new path. 6

He does not refer to Onesimus as a ‘fugitive’. That is not the category in which he wants Philemon to see his former slave, even for a moment. No: he is Paul’s beloved son and therefore Philemon’s beloved brother. Those who have read this letter without seeing the profound, and profoundly revolutionary, theology it contains should ponder the social and cultural earthquake which Paul is attempting to precipitate—or rather, which he believes has already been precipitated by God’s action in the Messiah. 9

For Paul, much as he valued freedom, the mutual reconciliation of those who belonged to the Messiah mattered more than anything else. For Philemon to have responded angrily to Paul’s letter by giving Onesimus his freedom but declaring that he never wanted to set eyes on him again would have meant defeat for Paul. Reconciliation was what mattered. That is why Paul wrote this letter. 12

Paul is teaching Philemon, and indeed Onesimus (as according to Richard Hays Paul had to teach the Corinthian church), to think within the biblical narrative, to see themselves as actors within the ongoing scriptural drama: to allow their erstwhile pagan thought-forms to be transformed by a biblically based renewal of the mind. Here we see one of the most fundamental differences between Pliny and Paul. Pliny’s appeal, we remind ourselves, reinscribed the social dynamics already present. Paul’s subverted them. 15

The cross itself, though not mentioned explicitly in Philemon, emerges here, embodied in the ministry of the imprisoned apostle, as the theological substructure of the pastoral appeal. This is what gives energy and colour to the personal aims and rhetorical strategy of the entire short composition...Paul’s Jewish worldview, radically reshaped around the crucified Messiah, challenges the world of ancient paganism with the concrete signs of the faithfulness of God. 20–21

Because of Jesus, Paul understood everything differently—God, the world, God’s people, God’s future, and in and through it all God’s faithfulness. 22

The second section focuses on how Paul integrated theology (Paul’s innovation was to place theology at the center of his worldview). The praxis, symbols, worship, language etc of Christianity would come from theology – who is this Jesus and what difference does He make? This required all Christians to be thinkers, with the enablement of the indwelling Spirit, and theologians to a certain degree. Jesus would be the lens through which all life would be viewed.

One of the extraordinary achievements of Paul was to turn ‘theology’ into a different kind of thing from what it had been before in the world either of the Jews or of the pagans. One of the central arguments of the present book is that this was the direct result and corollary of what had happened to Paul’s worldview. Paul effectively invented ‘Christian theology’ to meet a previously unknown need, to do a job which had not, until then, been necessary. 26

For Paul, there is no question that the praxis of the Messiah-following people created a context within which it made sense to think the revolutionary thoughts he urged his converts to think. But it is equally clear that he believed that the renewal of the mind through the work of the spirit would generate and sustain new patterns of behaviour. 27

The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular ‘theology’ to sustain it, but also requires that ‘theology’ itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. 30

Humans are worshipping creatures, and even when they don’t consciously or even unconsciously worship any kind of god they are all involved in the adoring pursuit of something greater than themselves. Worship transforms humans, all of us, all the time, since you become like what you worship. 36

The Jewish worldview (monotheism) redefined, with the idea being “in Christ” through the Spirit at the center of this redefinition, is what dirves Paul’s theology. This is why understanding the Old Testament in context is so viital to understanding the New Testament. He sums up Paul’s theology as “one God, one people, one future for the world.”

Monotheism is indeed at the heart of Paul’s theology, not simply as ‘what he believed about God’ in a sense that could be detached from what he believed about other topics (not least salvation), but rather as the integrating theme which explains and gives depth to all the others. 37

Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans...and we shall find that, precisely because his Jewish theology was rooted in creational monotheism, it necessarily addressed, in a variety of ways of which the letter to Philemon is one, the wider worlds of philosophy and empire, of home and market-place, of human life in its many dimensions, of the real life of the whole cosmos. 46

The proper angle from which to approach Paul’s engagement with his pagan context is precisely his deep-rooted Jewish understanding, just as the proper angle from which to examine those deep Jewish roots is his sense that now, in the messianic age, it was time to confront the world of the gentiles. Because of the Messiah and the spirit all these things came together—and, with them, the lesser dichotomies also, as scholarship has seen them, of justification and being-in-Christ, of apocalyptic and covenant, of old and new ‘perspectives’, of theology and ethics, of spirituality and politics. 47

Paul’s theology must be discussed in terms of history, exegesis and application. That is we have to understand Paul from what we know of his world, what we read in his writings and within his own times. Even though we cannot do this perfectly there are tools that help us to do this. We need to strive to find what Paul meant when he wrote something, not what we want it to mean.

Paul did not write the kind of systematic treatises in which he would have taken care to cover all possible ‘topics’. There is always at least an implicit gap between the textually limited ‘Paul’ we know from the letters and the hypothetically wider ‘Paul’ who might well have had other things to say—if only some church had sent him a letter to ask him about them. 50–51

Critical Realism: a self-critical epistemology which, in rejecting the naive realism which simply imagines that we are looking at the material with a God’s-eye view, rejects also the narcissistic reductionism of imagining that all apparent perception is in fact projection, that everything is really going on inside our own heads. Critical realism engages determinedly in a many-sided conversation, both with the data itself and with others (including scholars) who are also engaging with it. 51

A historical hypothesis, like a scientific hypothesis, must (a) get in the data, (b) do so with appropriate simplicity, and (c) shed light on areas outside the basic subject-matter of the inquiry...We assume that writers intended their texts to mean something and we also assume that it is in principle possible to move towards the discovery of that intention. 54

I have to learn that life is more complicated than drawing up a list of good people, who said all the things I agree with, and bad people, who said the opposite. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through each one of us and every human community.
One of the reasons we do history, in fact, is because it acts as a brake, a control, on our otherwise unbridled enthusiasm for our own ideas...What history demands, and exegesis facilitates, is suspension of judgment in order to learn wisdom
. 54–55

We need to strive to find what Paul meant when he wrote something, not what we want it to mean. Wright decries theologians who remove books from the Pauline corpus (Ephesians and Colossians) because they don’t fit their theoology of Paul. He advocates using all the traditional Pauline books to define Pauline theology, although he sees 1 Timothy and Titus as the only ones that might be questioned.

Even if we’ve given up making Paul the preacher of our favourite theology, we still want him to back up our assumed ideology; and the thought of those differentiations within the household, with their threat of something we might even call ‘hierarchy’, is too much to bear. 58

This note of hermeneutical caution may be thought appropriate, and it, too, should haunt the following pages, should stand beside the historian even in the moment of historical triumph, whispering, ‘Remember that you too are hermeneutically conditioned.’ 67

He closes the chapter using the letter to Philemon as an allegory in which traditional orthodoxy (Philemon) and critical historical approaches (Onesimus) are at odds. Wright urges, like Paul, that they be brought back together. The Paul of history was a pastor with practical concerns and we need both sides working together to understand him.

If you want to understand Paul, understand him as someone with his feet on the ground (or in the stocks) of messy reality, his shameful sufferings openly visible to the embarrassment of the high-minded, lofty Corinthians and perhaps also of their successors today...How much safer Paul would have been had he founded a seminary in Tarsus or Antioch and required future church leaders to sit at his feet day by day! But how much less like the apostle whose calling was not just to speak of, but actually to embody, the covenant faithfulness of God. 70

As we shall see when we examine (Paul's) worldview, the symbols, praxis and stories which contribute to it are none of them simply about ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’. They are about the creator God, his world and his people—and this world and these people are creatures of space, time and matter, open by definition to historical enquiry, living life in public without shame, modelling a way of life which is precisely in and for the world, affirming the goodness of the creator’s universe and of human beings within it. 72

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