Wrighting Paul?

During a recent study break I set myself a goal of reading N T Wright’s 2 volume magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At heart it is a vast, ambitious project to articulate Pauline theology in terms of a grand unified narrative from creation, through the story of Israel, her Messiah, the promised Spirit and the new creation to come.

In such a humongous work, there are going to be positions taken and judgments reached that fail to convince other scholars. Here are a two major push-backs that have been appearing, especially from Tom Wright’s buddy Ben Witherington :

1)      Israel in Exile?

NTW has long argued that the Jews of Jesus’ day thought of themselves as living in Exile, longing for the final promised rescue by God. Witherington thinks not – the reality was far less extreme. They felt at home, even if vulnerable in their own land. Most Pharisees and Sadducees had much invested in the temple system. Better to see it in terms of Israel living under a cloud of judgement and looked forward to a better day. Wright’s exile idea ignores the Maccabean period and how for many Jews they had returned home. Yes there was something not right, but it is doubtful that the Maccabean victory was seen only as a false dawn, prefiguring return from Exile to come. The best that can be said is that some Jews saw themselves as still experiencing the lingering effects of Exile.

This seems valid criticism to me.

2)      The place of Israel in God’s purposes: one story or two?

This is the bigger pushback: NTW has Jesus ‘being Israel’ in himself; Israel is incorporated in her Messiah. He stresses how Jesus is therefore the ‘true Israelite’ who alone fulfils Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations. The whole story of the OT, from Abraham to Christ has been a story of failure of Israel until the birth of the Messiah. Now, with his coming, those who have faith in him, whether Jew of Gentile, are united and represent the fulfilled promises of God to Israel. And Israel in this sense is the whole story of the OT people of God.

Witherington doubts Jesus ‘is’ Israel. He comes to free Israel. He argues that in Romans 9-11, Israel refers to non-Christian Jews which God still has a plan to free, in and through Christ, at the eschaton. So Witherington agrees that Jew and Gentile believers in Christ are united in Christ, but he argues there is still an Israel ‘outside of Christ’. The church is the ‘ekklesia’ but Paul refrains from equating it with Israel. It is after the full number of Gentiles have been brought in, then that ‘all Israel’ will be saved – in other words, a future date when a large number of Jews turn to Christ.

Put simply, Witherington’s criticism is that NTW over-emphasises the one overarching story, where the church, in effect, becomes the fulfilled promise of a renewed Israel. Witherington says there remain two stories – that of Abraham and Moses. NTW fails to draw adequate distinction between the story of Israel (and Mosaic covenant) and the story of Abraham. Witherington puts it like this:

In other words, the story of Abraham is one thing, the story and subsequent tale of Israel is related to and dependent on the story of Abraham in various ways, but it is a subsequent story. Abraham, it should be noted, already lived in the promised land, he did not need to be rescued from bondage in Egypt. His story is not a story of Exodus and Sinai frankly. Nor is it the story of the Mosaic covenant, which Paul deliberately contrasts with the Abrahamic covenant in Gal. 4. Here I would say that Wright, for all his insightful analyses of the subplots, has one too few subplots— we need a subplot about Abraham, and we need another subplot about Israel. (my emphasis)

… Followers of Christ, not only don’t have to keep the badges of the Mosaic covenant (circumcision, food laws, sabbath), they aren’t under the Mosaic covenant at all– period!

This of course is not Tom’s view of things, but rather mine (and others), and I would say it is in some ways the most fundamental mistake Tom makes in his otherwise brilliant reading of Paul. Jesus is not Israel, he is Israel’s messiah, and as Paul says—he is ‘the seed of Abraham’ not the Israel of God.

So BW wants to highlight Paul’s radical contrast between the Mosaic and new covenant. The new covenant does NOT fulfill the old Mosaic one through life in the Spirit. So BW says that while NTW is “perfectly comfortable in saying that Paul could call any and all Christians ‘the Jew’ as well as ‘the seed of Abraham’ and ‘Israel’”, he is not. For BW, Israel still has a future – to be rejoined to the largely Gentile people of God (re-grafted into the olive tree). Witherington puts it this way,

the story of non-Christian Israel is not finished yet, and was not completed by the first coming of Jesus or his death and his resurrection. Rom.11 says otherwise. It is a story still awaiting a better resolution, when it is enfolded into the story of the ekklesia when Christ returns and ‘all Israel is saved’.

Now these two are among the most prolific and published NT scholars around, so commenting on this feels daunting – remember, these are blog thoughts being worked out! And I hope that I’ve summarised things accurately.

My amateur reading of Paul comes out more on Wright’s ‘one story’ (without necessarily being convinced about Jesus ‘being Israel’).

It seems to me that Witherington is drawing too sharp a disjuncture between how Paul links Abraham and Moses. Yes, the Mosaic covenant has come to a decisive end, but the Torah is fulfilled by life in the Spirit. Yes, the period of law (Israel from Moses to Jesus) is over and was temporary, but the law itself pointed to a broader inclusive time beyond the borders of Israel – as foreshadowed by the faith of Abraham.

I do see those who have faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile as God’s reconstituted ‘people of God’.  Repeatedly the new community of the Spirit is talked about in terms that applied to the OT people of Israel (eg temple).

Those who hold to ‘one story’, read the NT in a linear, unfolding narrative. The ‘time’ of OT Israel is complete. [This tends to mean that there is no particular special significance for the state ‘Israel’ today or the politics of the Middle East.]

Yes, Jewish people have unique and special significance since theirs is the Messiah and story of God’s OT people. And yes, it is entirely possible that Paul looked forward to a future ‘re-ingrafting’ of his fellow Jews – but they would be finding their rightful place within the one story, in which Gentiles believers are now included. The basis for inclusion would be the same as for anyone else – faith in Jesus the Christ.

 

A delightful Jewish parable

In Deuteronomy  24:19 it says

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Someone kindly pointed me to a Jewish parable, probably from around the time of Jesus, about this verse. Here it is:

A certain pious man [hasid] forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.”

For if we obeyed this deliberately before the Lord, we would not be fulfilling the command. He said to him: It says, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” [Deut.24.19]. Scripture thereby sets out a blessing.

What is interesting about this delightful story is how it sheds light on the motive for Jewish keeping of the law.

Often Christians have caricatured Judaism as being a legalistic form of works-righteousness, coupled with a rather grim sense of desperately trying to do enough good works to appease a forbidding, harsh and rather impersonal God who is busy weighing the scales of good works versus bad.

This parable tells a different story.

This was the only law that could only be fulfilled accidently. It could not be planned for; action could only follow forgetfulness! See how this Jewish man is therefore overjoyed that his bad memory has given him an unexpected opportunity to fulfil this law.

And, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an outrageous result. His offering of two bullocks was ‘way over the top’ in terms of cost. This sense of wild exaggeration is making a serious point to the listeners; Yes the law is to be obeyed in every area of life, but it is a joy and delight to obey the law.

The parable does not talk about fear as a motive for obedience. Rather, the motive for obedience is joy – the sheer joy of pleasing God and doing his will. This is obedience out of love and relationship. The parable is celebrating an unplanned and unexpected opportunity to obey another law.

How does this fit with your view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day?

Comments, as ever, welcome.  

A race well run (and still going ..)

Last Sunday morning at our wee church we had a farewell visit from Trevor Morrow and his wife Carys. Trevor is retiring after 32 years of ministry in our ‘mother church’, Lucan Presbyterian.

If you are from Ireland you won’t need me to introduce Trevor, so I won’t, save to say he’s one of the best known church leaders on the island.

Trevor spoke on 1 Corinthians 3:5 ff

‘What is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants …. I planted the seed but God made it grow”.

His theme was the joy and privilege of being a servant in ministry. Each are called to do their part but all is from God and all glory is due to him alone.

Paul says in verse 10 that whatever success he had as a missionary-pastor was ‘by the grace God has given me’. So neither will I do a hagiography. Trevor is a friend, is incredibly well thought of by many many people, and is a very gifted preacher so it would be easy to do so  – but it wouldn’t fit with the whole point of the sermon!

But there are two things I would like to say:

What is so encouraging about Trevor & Carys is not “surviving” 32 years of leadership in one place.

It is not just that there was fruitfulness in ministry though that is a very good and important thing.

It is certainly not that he was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland though that is an honour I’m sure.

It isn’t even that he is right about women in ministry

For me it is this:

1. I remember Trevor leading a communion service a couple of days before he was to go in for a life-threatening operation on a brain tumour.  His head was shaved in preparation. And he led it as normal, with joy and hope in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord. He didn’t say this, but it was clear that that joy and hope was just the same when facing death in a couple of days as when all was well in the world.

2. I’ve probably said this before, but the more I go on the less bothered I am about hype and the promise of the next ‘big idea’ that will be a key to ‘success’ in Christian ministry.

At the centre of the Torah (Deut 6:5) is the command to love the Lord with heart, soul and strength. Jesus says love for God and neighbour (who may be your enemy) fulfils the entire Law. For Paul (and for John), love is the hub around which all of the Christian life revolves.

Take Paul: his experience of the love and grace of God shapes his entire life. The love of God demonstrated in Jesus becomes the model for his ministry – a ministry of service for others.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:7-8)

Paul’s new communities of believers from multiple cultures and across Jew / Gentile boundaries are united within a new identity – the family of God. They first and foremost brothers and sisters in the Lord. And they are to love each other as family.

They can do so through the Spirit who is given to all. The Spirit’s primary work is love. The Christian life is essentially a corporate one.  ‘Spirituality’ is worked out in concrete day to day life with others. ‘Love builds up’. Being ‘spiritual’ is to love.

Love is future-focused – only love is eternal for it will never pass away, while faith and hope will (1 Cor 13:13)  Love fulfils the Law (Rom 8:4) and pleases God.

All this is to say why I put ‘surviving’ in quote marks above.

Christian ministry is not some joyless burden just to be borne til it can be dumped with a sigh of relief. Nor is to be marked by a trail of broken relationships and division. For it is a call to love and relationship with God and with others in the household of God.

A truly ‘spiritual’ and authentic ministry has, as its fruit, relationships of deep love.

So for me the most impressive thing on Trevor and Carys’ leaving is that there are many tears and a sense of grief, as well as thankfulness for they are deeply loved.

And this is how it should be. Or am I being naïve?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The New Perspective on Paul in Pictures

If pushed, what would you say Paul’s problem with the Judaism of his day was?

How did his gospel of Jesus Christ ‘solve’ that problem?

Or in other words, what changed between him standing over Stephen’s dying body as a defender of Pharisaic Jewish orthodoxy and him preaching to pagans in Athens that they too could join the people of Israel’s God?

Or put it this way; if you are a Christian, what was your ‘salvation narrative’? Did it go something like this?

I grew up thinking God was waiting to catch me out. I tried my best to be a good person, but I always felt that I couldn’t meet my own standards, let alone a holy God’s. I felt guilty. I realised eventually that I needed something, someone, beyond myself. I couldn’t do it on my own. And I came to understand the grace of God – that he sent his Son to die my death, to take away my sin, to give me his righteousness, to give me new life and a fresh start. I realised I couldn’t earn this whatever I did, I could only accept it as a gift, through faith in Christ. I’m grateful to God for his love for me.

Or in Martin Luther’s own words

I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans … but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners …

At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.

OK, the answer to both of these narratives is justification by faith through the grace of God. The ‘question’ they are both ‘answering’ is the failure of our best efforts (works) to produce righteousness.

The NPP does not reject the legitimacy or truth or reality of such narratives – heck they are good news experiences of God’s forgiving grace.

But it does ask this; is the ‘problem’ they address (our personal senses of guilt, legalism and failure to be ‘righteous’) actually the problem that Paul had with Judaism? Or is Paul’s focus elsewhere and we have tended to read back into Paul our modern introspective spiritual struggles?

Have we tended to equate the Judaism of Paul’s day (and today) with ‘works righteousness’ – a continual and ever-failing attempt to live righteous lives under the Law? And the good news of the gospel is that you are not under Law but grace and are therefore set free in Christ?

This is a pretty negative view of OT faith is it not? And of contemporary Judaism as well.

So, these are the sort of questions that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has been wrestling through for nearly 40 years. It goes back to 1977 and the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E P Sanders. This was followed up by the numerous works of J D G Dunn and N T Wright, with counterworks by people like Stephen Westerholm, Mark Seifrid, Francis Watson etc. It’s been the biggest theological revolution within Pauline studies for pretty well all that time and it’s still a hot topic.

Now you could read all Dunn’s and Wright’s books and many many more by other scholars weighing into the debate from different angles – I’m ploughing through quite a few at the moment including Tom Wright’s heavyweight (literally that is, it’s actually a joy to read) Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) which is shaped by his own take on the NPP, if also covering much other ground.

But maybe you don’t have a year of your life to read all the books on the NPP. So, for a bit of light relief I thought I’d try to summarise the main themes of the NPP in a picture.

And this is primarily descriptive – I’m not getting into criticisms and push-backs against the NPP in this post.

NPP in a picture (sort of)Now of course you can instantly see what this is can’t you?

Just in case for some inexplicable reason you don’t, it is of the mediterranean, Egypt and Israel, with the Sinai peninsula and the (admittedly a bit rough) route of the Exodus.

1. SL= Land of Slavery

‘Israel’, although not yet formed as the people of God, are under slavery. God hears their cry, remembers his promise given long before to Abraham, and sets about liberating them from Pharoah with the reluctant help of Moses.

2. EX = Exodus

God’s gracious promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many and that God would give the land to his descendents (Gen 15) is the key to the Exodus. Election comes first.

Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness [justification]. (Gen 15:6) Justification by faith comes before the Law (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians using Abraham as his model). Those who are children of Abraham are those, like him, who have justifying faith (in Jesus the risen Christ).

3. L = LAW

It is in Sinai that the newly rescued people are given the Law. The Law comes after the promise; after ‘salvation’; and after Israel is formed into a nation, the people of God. The Law was never the ‘way in’ to the covenant. Election and grace precede the Torah.

This was the big theme of Sanders’ book back in 1977; he argued from a study of Palestinian Judaism that it was a religion of grace, not legalism. He coined the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’ – Israel is elected by God’s grace into a covenantal relationship with God and is to live by and under the Law (nomos) to stay in that covenantal relationship.

For Sanders, the ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul was that it was not Christianity. In other words, both are shaped around God’s election and grace, but with the coming of the Messiah all has changed. Now Gentiles are also welcomed in by grace. Obedience to the Law no longer defines the  covenantal relationship of God’s people.

You can see how radical this is if we come back to the salvation narratives above. They both work from ‘plight to solution’; from spiritual crisis to resolution; from legalistic imprisonment to grace-filled liberation. And if this is your framework, then this will be how you tend to read Paul. Thus, the Judaism of his day was legalistic works righteousness (‘plight’) and the ‘solution’ is justification by faith through grace alone.

Sanders and most of the NPP authors, argue that what we have in Paul is actually ‘solution to plight’. And this means a radically different way of reading Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.

OT faith is full of grace, love, faith and justice. Mere external legalistic obedience to the Torah was never enough. Think Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”;  Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings”; the books of Amos and Malachi are examples where judgement comes where there is hypocrisy in Israel; where external religious ritual is not matched by relationships of love for God and neighbour.

J D G Dunn largely agreed with Sanders but developed his own take on things. The ‘works of the law’ that in the salvation narratives above tend to be equated with Jewish legalistic works,  are better understood as being the identity markers of being Jewish (circumcision, food laws, worship). The main ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul then is that physically and spiritually ‘being Jewish’ (ethnocentrism) is not enough. It leaves you relying on the wrong thing (the Law) to receive new life. That only comes through faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, whether you are Jew or Gentile.

Tom Wright also sees ‘plight’ in Paul NOT as Jewish legalism, but in bigger terms as the brokenness of the world. The ‘solution’ is God’s redemptive action to renew all of creation and defeat sin and death and evil. And for Paul this all become blazingly clear when he is confronted with the crucified yet risen Messiah, who is Lord of all.

Paul’s ‘problem’ with Judaism, and particularly the Judaizers of Galatians who wanted to make Gentiles good Jews in order to follow the Messiah, is that God’s redemptive plans for all of creation have moved on. You can’t try to stop or freeze the story. To try to ‘go back’ to ‘the works of the Law’ is to seek life in something that cannot give life. The new age of the Spirit has dawned. He alone gives life and that life comes through faith in the Messiah.

There is significant continuity with OT faith (it is one story after all, the NT is built on the OT) but there has been a dramatic plot twist that has now welcomed anyone in to the people of God. Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and Col 3:11 “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”

And all of this is made possible because Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel, of Torah, who overcomes sin and death, and is the living Lord who will return to establish his kingdom over creation.

4. PL = Promised Land

And so to the promised land. This was the place Israel could be Israel; the place of temple, of Torah, of legal and political autonomy. This hasn’t been a big theme in the NPP – but the implications are clear. Just as you ‘can’t go back’ to the Law, so you ‘can’t go back’ to the historical period when the Promised Land belonged to ethnic Israel.

………….

This post got longer than I intended. But hopefully that picture helps give a way in to the ‘big picture’ of what the NPP is saying.

And this leads on to questions that are very ‘live’ today:

1. If the ‘problem’ Paul faces is not primarily legalistic works righteousness, what difference does this make for Christian teaching and preaching? What difference will it make to appreciate afresh the Jewish framework of Paul’s thinking and theology?

2. Has much of post-Reformation Protestantism tended to articulate the gospel as an individualistic solution to an existential-crisis? And if it has what have been the implications?

3. What would you say continues from OT to NT faith and what is discontinuous? This is a big question. If you have full continuity and there is no need for Jesus at all. Some forms of Zionist pro-Israel theology seems to come close to this – if you hint that modern Israel is not to be equated with OT Israel you get accused of being supersessionist and anti-Semitic. But if you have a radical discontinuity between Israel and the Church, then does this mean God has gone on to plan B after abandoning plan A? Was the OT a mistake?

4. A strength of the older perspective on Paul (and there has never been just one, Luther and Calvin differed quite a bit) is a clear sense of sin, guilt, need for grace, and trust in God’s saving righteousness not our own. This was strongly connected to the idea of imputed righteousness – God counts or reckons or transfers Jesus’ righteousness to us.* This gives assurance of faith (I am righteous in God’s sight) once I have repented and follow Jesus.  This is still the most common conversion story that I hear from students, in church, in home group etc. It has clarity and also resonates with human experience. A question for the NPP is how does its insights ‘work out’ in terms of evangelism, repentance, faith and assurance?

* Tom Wright (and others outside opposed to the NPP so it is not a one-sided thing here) have questioned whether Paul actually teaches imputed righteousness at all.  It is this, more than anything else I think, that has caused the traditional Reformed camp to criticise him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.