A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paul in Fresh Perspective #2

As we continue our discussion of Tom Wright's book, Paul in Fresh Perspective, I will offer the summary of chapter two "Creation and Covenant," to be followed by a response from Scot McKnight.

1. Creation and Covenant in the Old Testament

Using Psalm 19 and 74 as prime examples, Wright connects the themes of creation and covenant in the Old Testament. These themes are at the heart of the Old Testament, and as Wright will show, they were always vital for Paul. Israel, guided by the Torah was God�s unique people in covenant with the creator God. �Creation and covenant sit together� (p. 22). Torah is the covenant charter celebrated within the celebration of creation. The promises to Abraham echo the commands given to Adam. Abraham and his family are called to undo Adam�s sin, but the family of Abraham is part of the problem as well. They bear the solution, but they also participate in the plight.

�The creator God is the covenant God� (p. 24) Covenant is brought forth to solve the problems within creation, and creation is invoked to solve the problems within the covenant. Paul continually refers back to the Old Testament, in particular to Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah. Wright makes the important point that Paul is not proof-texting here looking for abstract notions, but he is regrounding� the controlling narrative, the historical story, of God, the world, humankind and Israel� (p. 25).

The Hebrew phrase, tsedaqah elohim, with its Greek equivalent, dikaiosyne theou, typically translated �the righteousness of God,� is at the heart of Paul�s theology. The phrase refers to �the fact that the creator and covenant God can be relied upon to act in accordance with his creating power and his covenantal fidelity, to put the world to rights� (p. 25). Wright makes it clear that the phrase does not refer to imputation, but will save his elaboration on this claim until later. The point is that God as the creator is obligated to �put the world to rights.� It is from the covenant that God will make good on his obligation.

2. Paul: Three Central Passages

In order to demonstrate the centrality of these themes in Paul�s narrative, Wright looks briefly at three passages: Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 1-11. From his analysis Wright concludes that Paul should be read in �terms of that theology of creation and redemption we find in the Old Testament� (p. 33), except that for Paul the story of Israel is now "reshaped around Jesus the Messiah"� (p. 33). In Jesus, God has acted decisively to fulfill the promises of the covenant, which will renew both creation, and covenant. There are fractional parallels here with the kind of inaugurated eschatology found at Qumran, though Paul goes beyond it. �The new age has begun, though the old age continues alongside it� (p. 34).

3. Evil and Grace, Plight and Solution

From this angle of creation and covenant, justification and soteriology make better sense, than when seen from the more traditional Reformational categories. The implicit narrative of covenant assumes that something has gone dreadfully wrong with creation, and that God puts forward a solution that begins with Abraham and his family, promising them land. The problem is that human beings fail to trust God and to give him the worship he deserves. It is this failure of humanity to bear the image of God in the world that results in corruption and death. Thus the basic sin in the Jewish tradition and carried over into the New Testament is idolatry. Wright notes that "Paul�s usage here expands one more level, to include the moral behaviour which, consequent upon idolatry, is already a sign of, and an invitation to, that progressive corruption: hence the 'works of the flesh'" (p. 35).

Wright thus suggests three propositions which Paul assumes in his theology: First, God covenanted with Abraham as a way to deal with evil, in particular with the evil in human beings who are God�s image-bearers. Second, Abraham�s family, Israel, treated their vocation as God�s image-bearers in the world as an exclusive privilege. Third, �God fulfils the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit� (p. 37). Jesus is able to do what Adam, and later Israel, cannot. In so doing he reveals his justice and his ultimate purpose for the created order. Thus Paul �is not simply assuming an implicit narrative about how individual sinners find a right relationship with a holy God� (p. 37).

4. Conclusion: Jesus within Creation and Covenant

Wright has spoken of two worlds in Paul, but has failed to mention the other two. These will be dealt with in due course, but as �a theologian of creation and covenant� (p. 38) Paul�s message is essentially Jewish. It is a message he preached to a pagan world. The questions raised by Psalms 19 and 74 have now been answered through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus God has done what Torah was unable to accomplish. Once this framework of creation and covenant are held together, not only do sin and redemption come into a different focus, but Christology itself.

Response by McKnight

The significance of these themes for understanding Paul is one thing; their significance for how such themes work into modern theology is yet another and it is exciting to come into contact with them here in Tom�s new book.

I have a couple of issues with this chapter.

First, the �creation and covenant� reading is theological construct and we need to recognize this. Tom knows this; he admits as much for he knows �covenant� is rarely used. That is, we Christians have learned to read the Bible as the story of the �covenant.� Rightly so, I think. But, not so rightly, we need to learn the other rhetorics of the Bible. We have Torah and Israel and Kingdom and David and Exile � and each time we settle into one or the other we are tempted to force evidence through their grid.

And this leads me to a point: I don�t think Paul thought with the term �covenant.� I fully sympathize with the construct �creation and covenant,� and frankly have made much of this type of thing in my Embracing Grace, but I�m also keenly aware that Paul was not using �covenant� as the word through which he thought very often. Other terms were closer to hand: like church and salvation and the like. This is not a disagreement, but an overall warning about what Tom is himself fully aware of.

Second, Wright�s use of creation is magnificent and his tying together of Abraham to creation as Abraham�s family resolves the creation-fall problem is spot-on. This creates a major fault-line with Reformational thinkers: instead of seeing the problem to be individual sinners and sin, the problem is creational chaos for which God�s solution was the creation of a new people by a covenant (Israel); and then Jesus sums up that history with Israel and creates the New Creation by the New Covenant.

Third, it seems to me that creation and covenant needs an ecclesial focus: Israel/Church. It is not just the covenant that resolves creation/fall; it is Israel that does. What does God do? God doesn�t just make a covenant, he creates a people (Israel) by covenanting with them to be their God. In other words, and Tom will clearly move into this topic, I don�t think we have enough with �creation and covenant.� That is, for me, still too Reformational. We need a �creation and community by covenant.�

Well, there, I�ve disagreed a bit with Wright while all the time saying I think he�s spot-on in seeing righteousness of God as God�s saving action to make the whole world right!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Allan.
I think Wright is on to something with this connection. Thus far in my study I have noticed this same pattern emerging in Paul's OT allusions and citations throughout 2 Cor 3-6.
I hope to share the rtesults with you at some point.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Sounds great Matt! Let us know what you discover.

Brennan said...

While I agree that Paul doesn't use the word covenant very often, do you think that was because of the audiences he was writing to? I kinda think that even though Paul started a new life as perhaps the greatest missionary of them all, he defintely had an idea of covenant, and that although it wasn't important to his Christian audiences, because they had other problems, that maybe it was important to understanding the two testaments as a whole.

Anyways, that is my highly uninformed question/comment. Please do with as you will, since I do not claim to be a scholar of Paul in any right.

Allan R. Bevere said...


It is possible that audience has something to do with his lack of usage of the term; but I think it might be more precise to say that the particular circumstances of each letter helped to dictate the terminology.

Moreover, the larger matter is to explicate how what God has now done in Jesus is in keeping with the covenant. In other words, covenant is assumed, how God keeps the promise of the covenant in Jesus, has to be worked out. That is what we see Paul doing.

Thanks for your comments!

Scot McKnight said...

The question might be asked why it is that we feel a need to use "covenant" to explain a person's theology when that person doesn't prefer for his theology to be summed up with that term.

That, I think, is a good question.

Allan R. Bevere said...


That is a good question. How would you answer it?


Anonymous said...

Allan and Scot,
I am hoping in my study (2 Cor 3-6) to answer this question. I think this is probably the closest Paul gets to describing his theology in terms of covenant and creation (2 Cor 3.6; 2 Cor 5.17).Of course this is not merely covenant and creational langauage as the "new" indicates. Christ's death and resurrection have thus transformed these two concepts.