Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 3

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is the 4th installment of my comments on a read-through of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. I am still trying to catch up with my posting on this book so hopefully you will see a few more posts on this in March. Previous posts are here, here, and here. Each chapter is long so what you are getting here is a very brief summary of this very important book. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Chapter 3, Athena and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks, focuses on how Greek philosophy may have impacted Paul and his message and how he responded to it. Wright proposes that “what Paul thought he was doing was offering an essentially Jewish message to the pagan world.” (200) Paul could use the language and conventions of philosophy to reach the philosophers. He could get across the message in a pagan world without compromising the message of the Gospel or his devotion to the Torah.

It is a central part of Israel’s scriptures that the God of Israel intends to summon the nations of the world to worship and serve him. As we shall see, a central feature of Paul’s gospel and theology is the claim that, with the resurrection of the Messiah, the moment for this fresh worldwide summons has arrived. 201

The second part of chapter 3 describes The Shape and Content of First-Century Philosophy. During the 1st century the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were “making a comeback” and Paul was not adverse to picking them up and translating them into a Christian mode. (210) The popular philosophies at the time of Paul were pantheistic Stoicism and deistic Epicureanism. Paul spoke into this world, especially the Stoics,

Saul of Tarsus was born into a world where eight hundred years of Hellenic culture was alive and well, and where, in particular, the philosophies of four centuries earlier were making a considerable come-back. 211

If, when someone says the word ‘god’, we think at once of a distant, detached divinity—as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do—we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos. 213

After a discussion of the influence of the 4 main Stoics, Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, Wright discusses how Paul saw his mission very similarly to the Stoics; ethics, theology, and a practical understanding of how the world works, but offered a different, personal, relational answer in Christ.

Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not...Paul had a different message, but might well have agreed with the outline of the vocation as Epictetus articulated it. 227

The apparent echoes of Paul only serve to show up the dramatic gulf that stands between the apostle and the emperor. For Paul, as for Judaism, the world is the good creation of the one God, who is both intimately involved with it and utterly different from it. That, in turn, begets a quite different approach to life, to death, and to the sense of what it means to be human. 229

He then moves on to the Stoics and Sceptics who adapted and popularized Stoicism in the Roman world…

When we ask what Paul might have supposed his hearers would be thinking when he spoke or wrote about a being he referred to as theos, about a powerful pneuma through which this ‘god’ might perform new deeds in his people, about the creation and recreation of the cosmos, and many other things besides, we must assume, and we must assume that he assumed, that the default mode for their thinking would be somewhere in the region of the Stoic development of Plato’s thought. 232

Ancient philosophers believed that study was the key to understanding god and his world and were devoted to this as Paul was to what he believed. He incorporated the observations from this study into his worldview but completely oriented everything around his experience with the risen Christ.

Paul believed that he had been given insight into all things, all wisdom, through the divine pneuma, the spirit of the Messiah. This kind of wisdom already made the ‘wisdom of the world’ look like foolishness to him. But precisely because this spirit was the spirit of the one God who had made the whole world—already we glimpse large areas of disagreement to be explored in due course—Paul expected that there might be points of overlap, of congruence. He would indeed regard it as his right and calling to ‘take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah’, but there were plenty of thoughts out there which, he might have judged, would be ready servants if only they were set within the right household. 236

Paul was doing a similar thing to what Jews of his day (the Wisdom of Solomon)  were doing, in showing how the accurate observations of philosophy, when reworked based on the revelation in Torah, complemented the Jewish scriptures. The difference with Paul was that he orienting all of these around the crucified, risen Messiah.

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