Monday, April 18, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 9, Part 1

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We now move on to Book Two and Part III of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. With this section, the chapters get even longer so I am going to divide each chapter discussion into two or three posts, but what you are getting here is still a very brief summary of this very important book (Read it!). I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Wright focuses his discussion of Paul’s theology on “election.” In a nutshell, Wright states that Paul has reworked his view of election and participation in the covenant family of God from the Jewish markers, such as circumcision and torah, to being “in Christ,” based on the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the transformed life created by the indwelling Spirit.

The theme of ‘election’ is the best frame within which to understand Paul’s soteriology, and that ‘election’ in turn is only properly understood within the larger frame of beliefs about the One God and the promised future (and the particular problem of evil which only emerges into full light once the reality of the One God has been glimpsed). Soteriology thus remains at the centre. 611

However we describe what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus (‘conversion’? ‘call’?), its effect was not that he rejected everything about his Jewish life and thought and invented a new scheme, with or without borrowed non-Jewish elements, but that he thought through and transformed his existing Jewish worldview and theology in the light of the cataclysmic revelation that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead. 611


In Book 2 Wright deals with Paul's theology. His main point is the Paul's theology is built on the framework of "Jewish 2nd Temple 'Theology'" and its three main elements: monotheism, election and eschatology. However, this theology has been "Reworked and reimagined based on Jesus' death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and Paul's conversion experience on the Damascus Road. On this basis the kingdom of God extends into the pagan and Jewish worlds.

For Paul, the gospel rendered people more human, not less, renewing the vocation of bearing the divine image, reflecting the divine wisdom into the rest of the world and reflecting the praises of creation back to its maker. This vision carried, from the start, strong and sometimes subversive meaning for real, public life. 614

Paul believed, after all, that with the crucified and risen Messiah the One God had tipped his hand, had drawn a line through the world, had placed a swift bisecting bar through the rectangular box, had refocused the edge-lured minds of the world onto this new strange centre. That is indeed how empires think. Paul believed in a different empire, a different kind of empire. He called it the kingdom of God. 617–618

In chapter 9 Wright focuses on the idea of Jewish monotheism and sees the cornerstone of Paul's theology as "The One God of Israel, Freshly Revealed" in Jesus Christ and in the church. The focus is not so much on Ontological oneness, but on God as the creator of all things, with one kingdom plan for His people and for the world. It was this belief that gave the community its coherence.

Jewish monotheism was rooted in prayer, particularly in praying of the Shema. To pray this prayer was not to make a subtle affirmation about the inner nature of the One God, but to claim the sovereign rule of this One Creator God over the whole world, and to offer oneself in allegiance of mind, heart and life itself in the service of this God and this kingdom. 624

If Paul’s communities were going to be able to hold onto their very identity, to retain coherence and unity on the one hand and holiness and hope on the other, they needed to know who the God was in whom they were putting their trust, not as an armchair question for those who liked to muse about distant supernatural realities but as the day-to-day immediate lifeblood for those facing social, cultural and political challenges which could at any moment turn into a repeat performance of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes or an advance foretaste of Hadrian’s crushing of the bar-Kochba rebellion. 625

Thus, the world was a good place marred by sin and idolatry. He rejects dualism. The spirit world is part of the creation and eventually God's kingdom will take place regardless of them.

To affirm the ‘oneness’ of Israel’s God meant, in practical terms, a cheerful and guiltless partaking in and celebration of the world as a good gift to humans, a world full of strange beauty, massive power and silent song. In particular, and following from the vocation of human beings to reflect God’s wise order into the world, this kind of monotheism included the vocation to humans in general to bring God’s justice to the world: justice is to human society what flourishing order is to the garden. 628

If belief in the existence of lesser but still non-human powers did not undermine the strong belief in the unity of the One God, so too belief in the reality of demonic powers did not undermine the strong belief in the goodness of the one God. Such a belief merely reminds us, if we needed it, that believing in this God did not mean believing that everything in the world was just fine as it was, with no problems and nothing much to hope for. 632

The Jewish monotheist, looking out on the world, understood evil to be the result of idolatry, not of an inherent badness within creation itself, and looked for the day when Israel’s God would set up his kingdom of justice and peace. 633

To hold this view means that one must suffer as the Jews did during the post-exilic years. Empires do not like people who are loyal to the one God who is a higher authority even than empire. Nevertheless, because this God is One Creator and Judge, God's people, when persecuted can rejoice because they know that they will inherit God's kingdom.

(In Romans 8), halfway between the Maccabees and Akiba, we find a monotheism as Jewish as theirs, as contested as theirs, as dangerous as theirs, as trusting as theirs, as Shema-based as theirs, and yet radically, breathtakingly different. The same God is now revealed as the father who sent the beloved son to die. The same suffering is now understood in the light of the death of God’s son. The same faith, hope and love; but now at a different moment: the time of new creation, introduced by the resurrection of God’s son. 636

Paul reaffirms the goodness and God-givenness of the created world, of food and drink, of marriage and sexuality, of political structures; the goodness and image-bearing vocation of human beings; the coming judgment at which the creator will put the world to rights, in line with the promises in the Psalms; the danger of idols and of the dehumanizing behaviour that results from worshipping them. He is, up and down, a classic second-temple monotheist, and he must have been fully aware of the fact. 641

Jewish-style monotheism, rethought from top to bottom around the events concerning Jesus, is the necessary anchor for the radically revised worldview in which the united community, in its faith, worship and holiness, is the sole visible symbol. 641–642

How then could 1st century Jews regard Jesus as the One God, as YHWH? How did Jesus come to be worshiped as God? Wright goes through several views of how this happened and shows that this "high Christology came very early. His main point is that it came through reflection, based on the resurrection, on eschatological passages in the OT that described the coming of YHWH to bring in His kingdom. What the OT promised God would do, Jesus did.

The early Christians, already by the time of Paul, had articulated a belief in the ‘divinity’ of Jesus far more powerfully, and indeed poetically, than anyone had previously imagined. Paul can, in fact, assume his (very ‘high’) view of Jesus as a given. 648

The long-awaited return of YHWH to Zion is, I suggest, the hidden clue to the origin of christology.
654

Early christology did not begin, I suggest, as a strange new belief based on memories of earlier Jewish language for mediator-figures, or even on the strong sense of Jesus’ personal presence during worship and prayer, important though that was as well. The former was not, I think, relevant, and the latter was, I suggest, important but essentially secondary. The most important thing was that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus had accomplished the new Exodus, had done in person what Israel’s God had said he would do in person. He had inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven...Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God. 654–655

Jesus brought together the Exodus theme of the presence of God in the pillar of fire, and the "return to Zion theme" of the prophets which later Jewish wisdom writing saw as coming through the presence of "wisdom" personified. Wright shows how Paul brings together these themes throughout his letters, but especially in Galatians 4.1-11, Romans 8.1-4 and 1 Corinthians 8.3-6.

The Jesus who is spoken of in Galatians 4:4 is thus not only Israel’s Messiah and the representative of the new-Exodus people; he is the embodiment of the one God, returning as promised to rescue his people. This is a christology of divine identity, specifically of Exodus-shaped and then Messiah-shaped eschatological monotheism. 658

This is (Rom 8.1-4), in other words, new-Exodus theology, in a freshly messianic mode, once more placing the church on the map at the point where the people are being led through the desert by the personal presence of the one God. 659

Just as the Exodus was launched by the coming of Israel’s God in person to rescue his people, so the new Exodus has been launched by the long-awaited return of this same God in and as Jesus himself. Paul’s use of the Shema here (1 Cor. 8.3-6) is, to repeat, not a detached dogmatic aside or maxim to be drawn on in a pragmatic ethical argument, but a statement of eschatological and monotheistic divine identity. This is what it looked like when Israel’s God came back at last. 663–664

As Paul "reworks" the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8.6, the point is that the One God worshiped in the OT includes Jesus, and we give him exclusive worship based on the victory that the Father accomplished through the Son, in the cross, as one holy people.

Jesus is not a ‘second God’: that would abrogate monotheism entirely. He is not a semi-divine intermediate figure. He is the one in whom the identity of Israel’s God is revealed, so that one cannot now speak of this God without thinking of Jesus, or of Jesus without thinking of the One God, the creator, Israel’s God. 666

Think through what it means that the monotheism upon which the worldview now rests has the crucified Messiah at its centre... The Messiah’s death is thus not simply a convenient way for God to deal with sins. It reflects the heart and character of the one true God, and that reflection must shine through the life of the community that invokes this One God, One lord. 667

Monotheism means that the lord owns all things and gives them freely to you. But this also means that you must worship him alone, and that you must abjure the behaviour that idolatry awakens. 669

Next Wright goes to Colossians 1 as an example of Jesus being seen as the Creator God, as wisdom, returning to dwell with His people to set His creation right. This would be in line with inter-testamental Jewish wisdom books which link Proverbs 8.22 "wisdom" to the prophecies of the return of God's presence with His people in the Temple. He then goes to 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 to show that Paul sees Jesus as fulfilling the Exodus event in which God returns after exile to "tabernacle" with His people.

This is, then, a christological monotheism which is most obviously creational, affirming the goodness of the original creation and announcing the dawn of its renewal. It is also eschatological monotheism, in the inaugurated sense that Jesus, as the divine Wisdom, is in himself the God of Israel who has returned to dwell among his people, and in the future sense that looks ahead to the final accomplishment of what has been launched in the Messiah’s resurrection. 676

The God who would not show his face to Moses has shown his face to his people in and as Jesus. To speak of seeing ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah’, in the context of a long discussion of Exodus 33–34, can only mean one thing. The God who abandoned Israel at the exile, because of idolatry and sin, but who promised to return one day, as he had done in Exodus after the threat of withdrawing his ‘presence’, has returned at last in and as Jesus the Messiah.  679

He concludes the section, about God returning to Israel in the person of Jesus, with a longer discussion of Philippians 2.6-11. The passage "evokes" Isaiah 40-55 in which the "Servant" returns to Israel as King and through Him God returns and sets the world right. Paul has "rethought Jewish monotheism" (Isaiah 45.23) around the death and resurrection of Jesus so that the God of the Exodus has come back to His people to set them free from sin and death and remake the world into what he intended it to be.

Somehow the work of the ‘servant’, and specifically the redemptive achievement of his suffering and death, are the manifestation in action of the divine ‘righteousness’, the accomplishment of the divine ‘salvation’, and above all the full expression of what it means that YHWH, Israel’s One God, has at last returned in glory to Zion. He has come back to be enthroned, not only as Israel’s true king but as king of the world. 682

Jesus is not a new God added to a pantheon. He is the human being in whom YHWH, Israel’s one and only God, has acted within cosmic history, human history and Israel’s history to do for Israel, humanity and the world what they could not do for themselves. Jesus is to be seen as part of the identity of Israel’s God, and vice versa. Israel had longed for its God to return after his extended absence. Paul, like the writers of the gospels, saw that longing fulfilled in Jesus. 683–684

It is not just that Paul has made Isaiah 45:23, that most sternly monotheistic of texts, the key with which to unlock the mysteries of the Messiah’s identity and achievement. The door which swings open when that key is turned in the lock is the door to the entire scriptural vision of Israel’s one God working out his sovereign purpose through his obedient, and as often as not suffering, servant, and then exalting that servant to power and glory. The radically new note—that the one thus obedient, suffering and glorified is somehow identified as Israel’s God himself in person—is of course dramatic and startling, but it does not distort or subvert the larger picture. 688

In the second section of this chapter Wright shows that the resurrection of Jesus identified (along with the their ongoing experience of the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit) Him as the Divine Messiah, and allowed the early Christians to redraw the Messianic passages of the Old Testament around Jesus. It also allowed the OT verses about Messiah, Son of God to take on a deeper significance marking Jesus as the incarnate 2nd person of the Trinity.

The starting point is the meaning of the resurrection itself. When Jesus was found to be bodily alive again three days after his crucifixion, in a transformed physicality for which there was no precedent or expectation, this convinced his first followers that he really was Israel’s Messiah. 691–692

What I am suggesting is that the resurrection, demonstrating the truth of Jesus’s pre-crucifixion messianic claim, joined up with the expectation of YHWH’s return on the one hand and the presence of the spirit of Jesus on the other to generate a fresh reading of ‘messianic’ texts which enabled a full christological awareness to dawn on the disciples. 692–693

What marked Jesus out, what made the early Christians say ‘he really was God’s son’, was not his death, but the resurrection which vindicated the claims, both explicit and implicit, he had made during his public career, and which therefore unveiled the identity he had possessed all along—and which therefore also unveiled a new and hitherto unsuspected meaning for his death: a decisive, redemptive meaning.

It is important to stress here, as I have done elsewhere, that though the resurrection thus unveils what was there before, it does not confer or create a new status or identity for Jesus. 699–700

The next section discusses Paul's use of Kyrios as a designation for Jesus. Often Paul quotes the Septuagint using the word kyrios, which translates YHWH, to refer to Jesus. Though Paul differentiates the Father and Son, he still sees Jesus as YHWH come to fulfill the promise of YHWH's return to His people.

We have here (Romans 14.7-12), then, a probable further coupling of Jesus’ messianic identity (as the coming judge) with his embodiment of the returning YHWH himself. 702

The final ‘coming’ of YHWH will be both a reprise of the Sinai theophany and a restoration of Genesis 2. The Pentateuch completes its circle, with the prophets pointing to the same fulfilment. The coming kingship of YHWH over all the earth will be his final claiming of sovereignty, as in several psalms, in Daniel and elsewhere; and this will mean the renewal of all creation. 705

Then Wright discusses whether Paul refers to Jesus as God: θεοͅς. The only places where he appears to are Titus 2.13 and Romans 9.5. While he agrees that Titus 2.13 is debatable, he sees Romans 9.5 as both grammatically and contextually calling Jesus "God."

The identification of Jesus with YHWH seems to have been part of (what later came to be called) Christianity from more or less the very beginning. Paul can refer to it, and weave it into arguments, poems, prayers and throwaway remarks, as common coin. Recognizing Jesus within the identity of Israel’s One God, and following through that recognition in worship (where monotheism really counts), seems to have been part of ‘the way’ from the start. 709

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