Friday, May 06, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 10, Part 1

Now we move on to chapter 10 of 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. This is really the heart and central point of this mammoth work.  It is a very long and very dense chapter, so I am going to divide it into smaller more digestible posts. Nevertheless, this is still 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 10 moves on to the key concept of the book - election. Wright does not see this term as defined in the great Reformation debates...

I use the term ‘election’, rather, to highlight the choice, by the One God, of Abraham’s family, the people historically known as ‘Israel’ and, in Paul’s day, in their smaller post-exilic form, as hoi Ioudaioi, ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Judeans’. The word ‘election’, as applied to Israel, usually carries a further connotation: not simply the divine choice of this people, but more specifically the divine choice of this people for a particular purpose. 775

He looks at seven different approaches to finding a unified theme for Paul and settles on "covenant" as kind of a "shorthand" for bringing together the different emphases of these 7 approaches.

The hypothesis at the heart of this book is that Paul’s thought is best understood in terms of the revision, around Messiah and spirit, of the fundamental categories and structures of second-temple Jewish understanding; and that this ‘revision’, precisely because of the drastic nature of the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and the freshly given power of the spirit, is no mere minor adjustment, but a radically new state of affairs, albeit one which had always been promised in Torah, prophets and Psalms. 783

He begins the story of election of Israel (Israel and Its Purpose) by discussing the link between Adam and Abraham. Genesis intends the reader to see the linkage between Adam, Noah, Abraham and the Exodus and subsequent history of Israel. All of these are recapitulations of God breaking into the world to redeem it through human beings. The command to Adam becomes the promise of God to Israel.

The link between Adam and Abraham is thus not only resumptive, getting the human project back on track after the fall, the curse and the exile from the garden. It is also redemptive. God acts to undo the fateful sin in the garden, and he does so not least through the offering of Abraham’s beloved son Isaac. 788

This great narrative, with all its human interest and suspense, was seen by the Jewish people long before the days of Saul of Tarsus as the foundation charter for the people of Israel, giving them an anchor for their own faith and a spur to their own hope. The covenant with Abraham, the promise of innumerable ‘seed’, the gift of the Land and the promise of rescue from slavery—and now the covenant sign of circumcision. 790

Just as Genesis and Exodus, taken together, come round in a circle, with the divine presence dwelling in the midst of the people at the end as it had with Adam and Eve in Eden, so the whole Pentateuch as it now stands comes round in a greater circle, as the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, which we looked at in more detail in chapter 2, speak of a final great exile and a final great redemption from that exile. 792

In the next section Wright defines the key term, righteousness in the context of the Old Testament. Is God's righteousness primarily relational or forensic? He sees the term as having "four strands of meaning (right behaviour; law court; covenant; cosmic rectification)." (801) It communicates both ideas of right character which produces right behavior and the judicial pronouncement of guilt or innocence. In addition it carries the idea of faithfulness to the covenant relationship which includes God's commitment to setting right the universe.

God’s eschatological judgment will be the ultimate cosmic law court, but it will also be the moment of ultimate covenant vindication. 801

When a first-century writer, speaking of God providing salvation in line with his covenant with Abraham, refers to God’s dikaiosyne, he is speaking (a) of an attribute of God himself and (b) more specifically of the attribute of covenant faithfulness. Not just the divine mercy (which would act even on behalf of the undeserving); not just the divine ‘salvation’ (which would consist simply of YHWH’s rescuing of his people, without explanation); not even his ‘steadfast love’, though that would be closer. The divine covenant faithfulness brings all these and more together. 804

He closes the section by talking about God's covenant purpose in the world. He defends his interpretation against charges of supersessionism by pointing out that Jesus completed the mission to which the Jews were elected in continuity with the Old Testament.

YHWH’s choice of Israel as his people, was aimed not simply at Israel itself, but at the wider and larger purposes which this God intended to fulfil through Israel. Israel is God’s servant; and the point of having a servant is not that the servant becomes one’s best friend, though that may happen too, but in order that, through the work of the servant, one may get things done. And what YHWH wants done, it seems, is for his glory to extend throughout the earth, for all nations to see and hear who he is and what he has done. 804–805

That is the real problem with any and all use of the ‘supersession’ language: either Jesus was and is Israel’s Messiah, or he was not and is not. 810

God; God’s wisdom; God’s life; God’s presence; God’s universal rule; God’s faithfulness. At every point the self-aware self-identification of Israel meant that many of Paul’s contemporaries were looking for that new day to dawn in which, at last, God’s covenant faithfulness would be unveiled in a great act of redemption, of new Exodus, of return from exile. 815

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