Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 15 (Part 1)

Paul AFOGChapter 15 continues Part IV of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. Chapter 15 looks at how Paul’s theology would have interacted with the world of 1st century Judaism and the Jewish sacred texts. Again, this 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 15 is entitled, "TO KNOW THE PLACE FOR THE FIRST TIME: PAUL AND HIS JEWISH CONTEXT," and attempts to place Paul in his 1st century Jewish world. Wright rejects the idea that Paul was trying to "start a new religion" or pit "one religion against another." Paul was the "apostle to the Gentiles," and he brought the Gentile world a Jewish message, with a Jewish Messiah, who had surprisingly been crucified and risen from the dead. Paul's base is 1st century Judaism. His conflict with Judaism was that he believed the Messiah had come and inaugurated the "age to come" while they did not.

His call was to be the apostle to the non-Jewish nations. He came with a Jewish message and a Jewish way of life for the non-Jewish world. He did not see himself as founding or establishing a new, non-Jewish movement. He believed that the message and life he proclaimed and inculcated was, in some sense, the fulfilment of all he had believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew. 1408

What mattered, rather, was his belief that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah. More precisely and importantly, that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true lord...And the clash with those of his fellow Jews who did not believe that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah came precisely on the level not of ‘religion’ but of messianic eschatology: he believed that the Messiah had come, and had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and they did not. 1409

He was declaring that the God whom the Jews had worshipped all along, the God made known in their scriptures, had done at last what he had promised, and that with that divine action a new world order had come into being. Paul’s theology and mission were rooted in and defined by this christologically inaugurated eschatology. 1410–1411

Wright sees the charges of "supersessionism" or "substitution theology" as anachronistic, because Christianity has always been essentially Jewish. Paul did not see things in terms of Christianity versus Judaism, but in terms of embracing or rejecting what God had done in the Messiah to fulfill God's promises to the nation, which were always intended to bring in the Gentiles. The true Israel followed the Messiah Jesus. This was not so different than other Jewish movements of Paul's day.

But if Jesus really was Israel’s Messiah, then no first-century Jew could have supposed for a minute that following him was an option that one might take up or not. There would be no room for saying, ‘Well, some of us think Jesus is Messiah and some of us don’t, so let’s not worry about it.’ To reject the Davidic king would be to follow Jeroboam the son of Nebat into drastic and dangerous rebellion. 1413

Israel’s God always intended and promised that when he fulfilled his promises to Israel then the rest of the world would be renewed as well, and that this is what was now happening through the Gentile mission. The extension to non-Jews of renewed-covenant membership was itself, Paul insisted, one part of deep-rooted Jewish eschatology. 1417

What happened to Paul on the Damascus Road was not so much (he said) a matter of turning, or being turned, away from one ‘religion’, or indeed from one particular god, and embracing, or being embraced by, another one. It was a matter of a fresh, and admittedly surprising, ‘call’, in the sense of ‘vocation’, from the one God whom Paul continued to worship, and who was now commissioning him to tell the non-Jewish peoples about him. 1420

Wright now takes up the "transformation" made by Paul's "conversion" and "call." His point is that Paul was not converted from one religion (Judaism) to another (Christianity). Paul remained Jewish in his own mind, but his encounter, in the real world, with the risen Christ completely redefined how he went about it. He was like a prophet called to a new vocation, with a new understanding of his faith, that changed everything. Though he still considered himself a Jew, he no longer practiced the requirements of the old ways that would have defined him as a Jew to his contemporaries, unless it furthered their acceptance of Jesus as Messiah.

Paul was not the kind of evangelist who insists that everyone should ‘experience’ things in the same way that he or she has done. He was the kind of teacher who wanted people to work out, to think through and then to live out, what had in fact happened to the Messiah and what therefore had in fact happened to them through baptism into the Messiah. 1424

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus contained at its core, he insists, a personal meeting involving a real ‘seeing’ of the risen Jesus; a cognitive awareness that the resurrection had declared Jesus to be Israel’s Messiah, and that his death and resurrection were the Israel-redefining and world-claiming events for which Israel had longed; and a personal transformation such as love regularly effects, in which the heart itself was, in biblical language, ‘circumcised’, enabled at last to love the One God with a spirit-given love, and thus to keep the Shema itself. 1426

If the Messiah has come, and if in and through him Israel’s God has acted dramatically to fulfil his promises to Abraham and to do for Israel and the world what they could not do for themselves, then to cling to the old ways of Torah-observance and to something called ‘Jewish identity’ as though it had value in itself quite apart from the purposes and promises of Israel’s God...would be like the bridegroom returning from the wars to find that the bride preferred the careful life of distant engagement to the prospect of actual marriage. 1433

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