Monday, April 04, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 7

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I am continuing to read through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. I am making a post on each chapter as I read them. Previous posts are here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Each chapter is very 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.

In Chapter 7 Wright asserts that "Paul’s worldview had a strongly implicit and frequently explicit narrative" (461) and it is of critical importance to the interpreter to understand this underlying worldview. "Apocalyptic" is part of this worldview, but Wright argues that this should not be the "overarching principle" for interpreting Paul. The fact that the narrative is not as explicit as the Old Testament narratives does not mean that Paul did not write with the overarching Jewish narrative in mind. Wright sees much implicit evidence, and even some explicit that Paul was writing with the fulfillment of the big Jewish worldview narrative in mind and to miss this is to misunderstand Paul.

If we do not make the effort to check out the underlying worldview, we will all too easily assume that the writer shared, on this or that point, a worldview (including an implicit narrative) we ourselves know well. The writer must really have been talking ‘about’ what we assume he was talking about, and we ignore the hints within the text of a different worldview, a different underlying narrative. 466

And so we return to the texts themselves, to argue a coherent and careful case for the comprehensible, and indeed comprehensive, narrative, and then, within that, for the set of coherently and comprehensibly interlocking narratives, that form an inalienable part of Paul’s own mindset. 468

Wright uses Shakespeare to show how a writer can interweave multiple plot lines together into one coherent over-arching story. In his view, Paul works together several stories; Israel, God and creation, Jesus, his own, the church, into an over-arching story which reveals his worldview and should guide our exegesis in Pauline literature. If you do not understand the point of the big story, you will misunderstand all the parts.

I shall now suggest that these various stories do actually have a coherent interlocking shape, nesting within one another like the sub-plots in a play (I said like, not in exactly the same way). And, if anything more important, I shall begin to show (the rest of the book will continue this demonstration) that looking at Paul’s worldview with the aid of this narrative analysis sheds a positive flood of light—direct light, not surreptitious moonbeams—on passage after passage of tricky exegesis, and problem after problem in the theological coherence of the letters. 474

He begins with “The Outer Story: God and Creation.” This is the story of creation and fall. God created a beautiful world with a purpose. But, something went wrong and the world became chaotic and full of death. God raised up humanity to bring order to the world but they messed it up further. Israel was part of this plan. In “Age to come” God will bring judgment. That is he will “set the world to right” and his original purpose for creation will be met. This is one part of Paul’s big story.

The ‘apocalypse’ of the gospel itself...will give rise to a further ‘revelation’ or ‘unveiling’, in which the Messiah’s people will be transformed, being raised from the dead, and creation itself will be transformed in consequence (Rom 8.18-25). 479

‘Judgment’ is in fact a positive thing...we have seen ‘judgment’ out of the context of a good creator making and restoring his good world, and have understood it instead in the context of a dualistic mindset where the aim of ‘judgment’ would be to destroy the present world and rescue only a chosen few. Place it back in its larger biblical framework, however, and the story is very different—bad news, to be sure, for any who want to go on distorting, corrupting and destroying God’s good creation, but good news for all who long to see creation restored. 481-482

“The First Sub-plot (is) Humans, Their Vocation, Failure, Rescue and Reinstatement.” (485) The point is that humans must be what God originally intended, the image of God and in authority over an ordered creation. The humans were to be God’s agents in managing His creation as they enjoy relationship with God. Their failure in this role, not only broke their relationship with God, but it placed all creation in disarray. The creation manager must be fixed before creation can be fixed.

When humans rebel and worship other gods, it is not merely the case that they lose their own identity, their own meaning and even potentially their own life and existence. Nor is it simply the case that they then fail to have an appropriate ‘relationship with God’, a category which popular contemporary Christianity often supplies to fill the blank left by ignoring the actual human vocation. It means, rather, that they fail to play their part in that larger divine purpose, the part in which they will be fulfilled and ennobled, not as free-standing entities, but by serving the creator’s glorious plans. 486

Human beings in all their rich, multifaceted identity have a vocation, a tragedy, a rescue and a destiny, a complete narrative which nests within the larger story of God and the cosmos. 

It is not simply a matter of humans being made for ‘fellowship with God’, this being spoilt by ‘sin’, and the ‘rescue operation’ being seen in terms of ‘restoring the broken fellowship.’ Rather, the point is that in the ‘final sequence’ of this major sub-plot God will, through his plan of rescue backed up by his promise, restore humans to their dignity, their ‘glory’, their place in glad, free obedience to himself and in wise, stewardly authority over the world. 493

Israel was the “rescue attempt” by God, not only to save mankind, but to to make them “the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation.” (495) The Abrahamic Covenant is a promise that God will complete this task of rescuing the world through humanity. The problem is that the nation is faithless (the story of the OT). God does not abandon the plan to save the world through people, nor does he abandon His promise to Israel. Instead, as the prophets make progressively clear, he will save the world through one faithful Israelite, the Messiah.

Paul simultaneously affirms that the vocation of Israel was true, and has not been abandoned, and denies that it can be carried out through ethnic Israel as it stands. 497

God will somehow be true, faithful and just. What he has said, he will perform. He will rule the world through obedient humanity; that was his purpose in creation, and he will be faithful to that purpose. He will rescue humanity through Israel; that was his purpose in calling Abraham, and he will be faithful to that purpose. 498

Paul reaffirms God’s vocation to Israel, the vocation to be the means of rescuing humanity and thus creation itself, even though he radically redefines that vocation around the Messiah. 501

Israel’s covenant story has thus borne the fruit that had always been promised: Abraham is ‘inheriting the world’, discovering that he has a worldwide family, characterized by pistis (‘faith’/‘faithfulness’), constituting the Deuteronomy-30 people, the returned-from-exile people, the people of the new covenant. That is how the human story gets back on track, which was what Israel’s story was designed to do in the first place. And that is how the creator’s purpose for the whole cosmos is to be accomplished. 502

In the next section Wright picks up “the Role of Torah in the Story of Israel.” He insists that one must place torah in the story of Israel to understand how it fits into Paul’s theology. Torah is a good gift from God which is to keep them from being swallowed up by the world and would be the standard by which they would be judged. The problem is that Israel cannot escape the sin issue from which they are supposed to deliver the world. Torah is necessary to keep them heading in the right direction, but it also places them under a curse.

Because the chosen nation, the bearers of God’s solution to the plight of the world, are themselves infected with that plight, Torah must remind them of their ambiguous position. 507

Torah appears both as ‘helper’ and as ‘opponent’. Only if we have failed to understand how the narratives work, how the subplots fit together, would this seem surprising or contradictory. Torah is the means of making Israel what Israel must be in God’s purposes. But God’s purpose is that Israel, though rightly drawn to Torah insofar as it is God’s holy and good law, must be shown up not only as the people of God but as a people who are still ‘in Adam’. This is exactly the effect of Torah. 510

The paradox of Torah is a subset of the paradox of Israel, and the paradox of Israel is the direct result of the fact that the creator, having determined to act within his world through human beings, was thereby committed (out of his sovereign faithfulness to the created order he had made) to act to rescue human beings, and hence the creation, through other human beings who were themselves in need of the same rescue they were to hold out to the world. 516

Finally Wright moves to Jesus and discusses his role in the narrative. The role of Jesus must be understood within the stories discussed above. Jesus basically resolves the problem of how sinful human beings can be rescued by another human being and the world can be restored. The death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah accomplishes Israel’s mission, judges evil, restores humanity as God’s image and brings about the new creation.

Everything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories, of the story of the creator and the cosmos, of the story of God and humankind and/or the story of God and Israel...Thus there really is, in one sense, a Pauline ‘story of Jesus’, but it is always the story of how Jesus enables the other stories to proceed to their appointed resolution. 517

Here (1 Cor. 15.3-4) Paul sees the events of the Messiah’s death and resurrection as supplying the key element, the radical new moment which resolves everything that had gone before, in relation to the vast, sprawling narrative of the ancient Israelite scriptures. 519

As Israel’s Messiah, he has accomplished Israel’s rescue from its own plight, passing judgment on the evil that has infiltrated even his own people. As Israel-in-person, which is one of the things a Messiah is (see below), he has completed Israel’s own vocation, to bring rescue and restoration to the human race, passing judgment on human wickedness in order to establish true humanness instead. And as the truly human one (Psalm 8, blended with Psalm 110, as in 1 Corinthians 15) he has re-established God’s rule over the cosmos, defeating the enemies that had threatened to destroy the work of the creator in order to bring about new creation. 521

Thus, Jesus’ salvation is both forensic and participatory. It fits in with the great narrative from Genesis to the New Testament as salvation history while it provides something apocalyptic and entirely new. He fulfills the promises to Israel and rescues the entire universe at the same time. 

The supposed clash or conflict between two ‘models of salvation' in Paul, the ‘forensic’ or ‘juristic’ on the one hand and the ‘incorporative’ on the other, is itself a category mistake, the result of a failure to see how his different stories actually work. Once we sort them out, the two supposedly warring schemes of thought fit together with no difficulty. N. T. Wright, 530

Paul has grasped the point that the Messiah embodies and enacts the creative power and saving love of God the creator himself; that he is the true Adam, reflecting God’s image and glory into the world; that he is the true Israel, rescuing Adam and so the world from their plight; and that, as Messiah, he stands over against even Israel, doing for Israel, and hence for Adam and the world, what they could not do for themselves. 536

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