Monday, August 29, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 16

Paul AFOGChapter 16 concludes the book we have been reading through this year, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. Chapter 16 provides a summary of Wright’s main points and some concluding words. 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.

In this final chapter of the book Wright attempts to sum up Paul's worldview, theology, religion and practice into a coherent whole. He wants us to understand Paul in his 1st century historical context, not through reformation or 20-21st century theology that divides Paul's actions and mission from his theology and thinking. Paul was a pastor and everything he thought and did was focused toward the building of God's kingdom. Every word he wrote had a cultural and practical context in a particular church. As Wright says,

I want in this chapter to argue that Paul’s practical aim was the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of communities; that the means to their creation and maintenance was the key notion of reconciliation; and that these communities, which he regarded as the spirit-inhabited Messiah-people, constituted at least in his mind and perhaps also in historical truth a new kind of reality, embodying a new kind of philosophy, of religion and of politics, and a new kind of combination of those. 1476

The big difference between Paul and the apocalypticists of the 1st century, and those of the 20th and 21st century like the Nazis and communists, is that Paul based his hope, thoughts and actions on an action in the past that fulfilled hopes and expectations  - the resurrection of Christ, while these others were still looking for that decisive action in the future and so were disappointed. This is why it is so important to read Paul in his historical Jewish context, in terms of the biblical covenant and within his mission and work. Paul cannot be understood with just the head. The reader must be willing to change his heart and to be actively employed to change the world.

The ancient Jewish vision, in which the Messiah and the redemption of history have played such an important role, has to do not simply with ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’, not with an escapist salvation in which the rest of the world ceases to matter, but with the challenge to action in the world itself. 1474

(Paul) was a man of action, of performative fulfilment. He was both thinker and doer, regarding his thinking as itself a form of worship, and his doing, too, as a sacrificial offering through which to implement the already-accomplished achievement of the Messiah. He was an integrated whole: razor-sharp mind and passionate heart working together. 1475–1476

Just as the principal and ultimate goal of all historical work on J. S. Bach ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent performance of his music, so the principal and ultimate goal of all historical work on the New Testament ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent practice of Christian mission and discipleship. 1483–1484

In the next section Wright searches for a concept that will sum up Paul's worldview and mission. He finds it in the 2 Corinthians 5.13-6.2 discussion of the concept of reconciliation. He is not talking about just reconciliation in a "spiritual" sense here, but the reconciliation of all creation that begins with human reconciliation to God and to each other, and ends with the new heaven and new earth joining together. In this age the church community functions as the tabernacle, a microcosm of the coming age, the way things are supposed to be. The difference is that we take the shekinah out into the world as we live. Thus, the church should function much as a rabbinic or philosophical school did in the 1st century, teaching people a new way of life with a new way of thinking and acting so that they find "the transformed mind and heart through which the creator’s intention would at last be realized."

This focus on an essentially Platonic ‘spiritual heaven’, discontinuous with this world and only related to it by the tangential mechanism of soul-saving and soul-making, has for a millennium radically distorted the western Christian hold on resurrection itself, the central claim and belief of the early Christians. 1485

Paul could only write like that if he really did believe that his apostolic work was an advance project for the ultimate new creation itself. He was in the business, not of rescuing souls from corrupting bodies and a doomed world, but of transforming humans as wholes, to be both signs of that larger new creation and workers in its cause. 1489

Paul’s apostolic task was, so to speak, tabernacle-construction, temple-building. That is clear already in 1 Corinthians 3. In other words, he saw his vocation in terms of bringing into being ‘places’—humans, one by one and collectively—in which heaven and earth would come together and be, yes, reconciled. 1493

This theme of reconciliation of all creation fits well with Paul's missionary strategy. Paul went with a Jewish message "to the Jew first" and then to the Gentiles so that the church would become the signpost, through its unity and love, of the new creation, in which all the universe was reconciled. He went to the centers of Roman power to announce that "Jesus is LORD" "in the places where another Kyrios, another world ruler, another basileus, was being named and was being worshipped as the one and only sovereign." (1503) Thus, reconciliation, producing love and unity are the key evidences of the Spirit's work.

Paul sees individual Christians as signs pointing to a larger reality...‘The faithfulness of God’ was not simply to be a main theme of Paul’s teaching. It was to be the hidden inner meaning of his life—and, as befits a follower of the crucified Messiah, particularly of his suffering. The larger reality to which this points, the new creation itself, is to be symbolized by the whole church, united and holy. The new temple is to be the place to which all nations will come to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 1494

Paul’s gospel was a Jewish message for the non-Jewish world—something which classic history-of-religions analyses found difficult to grasp—for the very good reason that he believed the God of Israel to be the God of the whole world, and Israel’s Messiah to be the world’s true lord. 1498

The ‘ministry of reconciliation’ which Paul cites as his central vocation is not simply about reconciling individuals to the One God, or about bringing such individuals together into the single family of the church. These tasks remain vital and central, but they are designed both to point beyond themselves and to be the means of that to which they point, namely, the reconciliation of the whole creation to its creator—which involves, as always, rescuing it from the rule of usurpers. 1504

In the next section Wright aims to integrate Paul's "Jewishly rooted gospel of the Messiah," and "the political engagement between Paul’s gospel and Caesar’s empire." His take is that Paul integrated his Jewish Messianic gospel into what the Jews and Romans would have thought of as religion, politics and philosophy, but redefined everything around the crucified, risen Messiah Jesus. He incorporated the ancient categories of physics, logic and ethics into "an all-embracing vision of reality" that was lived through the worldwide "temple" consisting of the little messianic communities that were living out Jesus' kingdom vision.

Paul aimed to announce Jesus as lord right across Caesar’s principal domains, to make it clear that the Messiah had been vindicated and that at his name every knee would bow—even if at the moment this was more or less bound to lead to persecution, prison and death. 1505

Paul’s aim was to be the temple-builder for the kingdom, planting on non-Jewish soil little communities in which heaven and earth would come together at last, places where the returning glory of Israel’s God would shine out, heralding and anticipating the day when God would be all in all. 1509

We are speaking about the foundation, through the spirit-empowered announcement of Jesus crucified and risen, of a community which from one point of view would be seen as a ‘philosophy’, from another as a koinonia, a partnership, from another as a new if strange kind of ‘religion’, and from yet another as a new polis, a socio-cultural entity giving allegiance to a different Kyrios. All these and more are encompassed in Paul’s (very Jewish) vision of the Messiah’s people. 1510

Wright concludes this section for a call to reintegrate exegesis, history and theology and hopes that the study of Paul could be a catalyst for the reconciliation.

When theology is distorted, or displaced altogether, unity and holiness are compromised, and sometimes are thought not even to matter. But to allow this theology to be detached from history, either in general or, in particular, from the actual historical exegesis of texts written by Paul and the other early Christians, is to alter quite radically the character of that theology itself. 1515–1516

Wright concludes the book by looking at Paul's prayers as the place where his theology, exegesis, personal history and Jewish tradition came together in praise and worship of the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus. They were his "very heart."

If you believe that the One God, the world’s creator, is in fact the faithful covenant God—and that is the whole point of Romans 9–11 and in a measure of everything Paul said and wrote—then the most appropriate way to write about this God is not in abstract discourse but in prayer and praise. 1517

If the crucified and risen Messiah himself was, astonishingly, the place where heaven and earth met, the true temple, the start of the new creation; if those indwelt by the spirit were themselves enabled to keep the Shema, responding to the sovereign and self-giving love of God by loving him from the heart in return, fulfilling the ancient vision of Deuteronomy at the same time as discovering a depth of heaven-and-earth relation at which the most discerning of the pagan philosophers could only guess; if these things were so, then the glad celebration of that love provided the deepest ‘aim’ of all, the central act of worship which for Paul had long ceased to be a matter of choice or decision and had become a matter of mindset, the deepest habit of the heart. 1518

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