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)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Paul in Fresh Perspective #3

Scot McKnight and I continue our series on Tom Wright's new book, Paul in Fresh Perspective.

Bevere�s Summary:

1. Introduction

In chapter three Wright analyzes the concept of messiahship and how Paul understood Jesus as the Messiah. Drawing on Paul�s use of apocalyptic categories and integrating them into the implicit narratives of creation and covenant, Wright maintains that a fresh perspective on Paul will emerge �in which the unveiling, or apocalypse, of the Messiah as Israel�s king and therefore the world�s true Lord challenges, as within Jewish thinking it was bound to do, the grand claims of pagan empire� (p. 40).

Wright acknowledges the controversial nature of the discussion in which he engages. There has been �much resistance� to the notion that Paul believed Jesus to be the Messiah in its Jewish sense, as it is deemed counter to Paul�s universal gospel. In the same way the notion of apocalyptic has been something difficult to grasp. In the classic discussions of the subject by Collins and Rowland, for example, �apocalyptic� simply referred to a dualism entrenched within a particular kind of Judaism; a particular kind of Judaism deeply influential on Paul. This kind of apocalyptic dualism is antithetical to any kind of covenantal theology. In opposition to this view, Wright insists that Paul�s apocalyptic thought within the context of second-Temple Judaism reinforced the implicit narrative of covenant.

2. Jesus as Messiah in Paul

In reference to Jesus� messiahship, much of the evidence is heuristic, that is, certain passages make much better sense if Christos is understood as �Messiah,� instead of simply as a last name or a divine title for Jesus.

Paul�s understanding of Jesus� messiahship means six things: First, Jesus is a royal Messiah. Second, he will fight Israel�s final battle against evil and paganism. Third, the Messiah will build the Temple. Fourth, he will bring the history of Israel to a climax ushering in a new world. Fifth, the Messiah will act as Israel�s representative, fighting on behalf of Israel; and sixth, he will act as God�s agent to Israel and to the world.

In support of his argument Wright refers to such passages as Romans 9-11 in which Paul is engaged in an argument retelling of the story of Israel from Abraham through the exile with a view to the remnant and to the Messiah. In Romans 1:3-4 Paul refers to David as Jesus� ancestor, which is not simply a marginal comment, but frames the argument Paul will make. Galatians 3 and 4 also involve a major retelling of the story of Israel. The maturity Paul refers to in Galatians �is described in terms of the coming of the Messiah, who both represents Israel and brings its history to its ordained goal� (p. 45). Other passages mentioned are 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul draws on the messianic texts of Psalms 8 and 110, and Colossians 2:14-15. Paul also uses Christos incorporatively to refer to Jesus as the King �in whom Israel is summed up� (p. 46). Paul also draws on wisdom and Torah translating them into messianic terms. �In the light of all this the conclusion ought to be clear: Paul saw Jesus as the true Messiah promised to Israel� (p. 48).

3. Apocalyptic in Paul

According to Wright, apocalyptic represents �what happens to prophecy under certain historical and theological circumstances, notably continued oppression and the puzzle of what God is going to do about it and how� (p. 50). The great unveiling of God�s mysteries has already come about in Jesus. The plan of the covenant has been worked out in Jesus. God has at last done what he said he would do, even though it does not look the way everyone thought it would. Paul�s apocalyptic theology is inaugurated eschatology where the future is pulled forward into the middle of history. God�s people live one and the same time in the midst of God�s new world and the present world.

In chapter three, Wright puts forth his case for translating pistis Christou as the �faithfulness of Christ� as opposed to �faith in Christ.� He also suggests, with the argument to be given more fully in a subsequent chapter, that justification by faith can only be correctly understood within Paul�s covenantal and eschatological framework.

Response by McKnight

Of the chapters in books of Tom Wright�s I have read, especially those designed (as this one is) for non-specialists, this one is one of the more difficult to read. The big ideas are not hard to grasp: Jesus is Messiah (in a fresh sense) and Paul�s theology is apocalyptic (also in a fresh sense). The problem I find is that Tom is sparring with other scholars and his critics in nearly every paragraph and it creates too many suspended sentences and thoughts as he nuances every significant point. Clearly, Wright is ripe to write a new book on Paul putting his views in the right. Paul in Fresh Perspective is an interim report of where he is going and I anticipate the fuller versions down the road.

First, Wright has moved beyond the �new� perspective by his theory of Paul�s theology as messianic. And Messiah for Wright has to do with Jesus� universal reign over the whole world, a theme that Wright thinks is inherent to Jewish theology (and not to Paul�s contact with the Roman world). Thus, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not. Inherent to Messianic theology is a new order with a new king. This leads to the �fresh� perspective on Paul. And clearly Wright is on to something here and it will be fun to see him unpack this theology. It has been noticeable in his works for at least five years (my guess). Here is a significant shift in Wright�s work and in the new perspective as it gives way to a broader Jewish vision than has been seen heretofore (so far as I know).

Second, unlike anything I�ve seen, Wright contends that Paul�s theology is shaped by his messianic theology: Romans and Galatians (huge portions) are about reading history as coming to their climax in Jesus as Messiah. And being �in Messiah� is to be incorporated into Jesus as that climax of history. And that means �faith of Christ� is really about Jesus� own faithfulness to God�s purposes instead of Christians� faith in Jesus Christ.

Third, apocalyptic for Paul is not �this world coming to an end in a new world� but the plan of God for history and the incursion of God�s plan in the Messiah in this world. In this Wright diverges from the end-of-the-world apocalyptic teaching. At the end of the chp, however, Wright then contends that his view of Paul is that Paul believed in inaugurated eschatology, and that there is something apocalyptic yet to occur. This means that Wright�s view is not that divergent from people like George Ladd (with proper nuances from all the changes since the mid-70s). But, Wright has always hovered on the edge of a non-apocalyptic (as end-of-the-world) and metaphorical perception of apocalyptic language. Now, so it seems to me, Wright has embraced a traditionalist theory that in Jesus Messiah there is both a genuine eschatological moment (something is realized) and yet a future consummation � making his view inaugurated eschatology. Justification by faith is to be set in that inaugurated eschatological context: something declared now that will not finally happen until later.

Fourth, Wright makes comments here about the Second Coming, but I wish they had been more complete � he can�t, of course, do what I�d like him to do, but he does raise the issue and makes four points: (1) parousia means presence; (2) 1 Thess 4 combines Dan 7 with Exod 19�24; (3) the parousia is a �meeting� with the saints; and (4) some passages along this line have been frequently misunderstood. The first point is clear; the next three deserve to be unpacked.

We�ll do chapter four this Thursday.


Steven Carr said...

For Paul, Jesus was the Messiah.

But for Paul, what did Jesus *do* to convince Paul that Jesus was the Messiah? Be resurrected?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Yes, to put it succinctly. It was his encountner with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road that convinced Paul of Jesus' Messiahship.