N.T. Wright – Chapter 2 – Creation and Covenant

We realize a central theme in Paul’s writings in N.T. Wrights’s second chapter entitled – Creation & Covenant. Paul, himself a Jew, was evangelizing to a largely Jewish community.  In order to communicate effectively, Paul incorporates the concept of Creation and Covenant which was acknowledged in Jewish tradition as the heart of their faith.  As the chosen people of God, the Jewish people believed that their relationship with Him existed in the context of the themes of creation and the covenant with Him.

Paul utilizes the Psalms and the book of Genesis to guide his writings to the ultimate understanding that Christ is the point at which creation and covenant come to fulfillment. Specifically, in the Psalms, Paul points to our Lord, the Messiah promised, as the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  Which is to say, Christ “pre-existed” before creation.  God the Son exists as part of God the Father’s covenantal plan for us. God the Father sent his Son to be the bridge between the man (creation) and his promise of salvation (covenant) to us.

  • Note: T. Wright did not suggest or paint the picture of “Christ the Bridge” in his writings – but I do believe his wording suggests such a notion.  I could be wrong, but when reading this chapter that is the image that came to mind.

Understanding that Christ was the bridge between creation and the covenant suggest that a bridge was needed in the first place.  The problem of creation was sin and death perpetrated by Adam- the first man.  Continuing in human antiquity the chosen people themselves became part of the problem and not “agents of the solution” for they did not submit to the God’s covenantal plan for them.

N.T. Wrights suggests that the ultimate sin of man is the sin of idolatry. The worship of that which is not the living God. In my own understanding of sin, I have different outlook.  I have often believed that all sin can be pointed to the sin of selfishness. We take in account on our own personal will when committing the sin of selfishness. The will of God does not come into play when one is selfish.  N.T. Wright’s insights maybe more to the point.  All sin points to where we have gone against the will of God thus empowering another entity other than God –  the definition of Idolatry.

            – The above begs a question:  Was Christ, who had a human nature (along  with divine) the first man to fully commit to the will of God? Ok, that’s probably more of a statement than a question!

As stated, Paul merged the Old Testament writings, accepted by the Jewish community, with the person and life of Christ.  Essentially crafting his message to the understanding that Christ was/ is:  The Word made Flesh.  Christ was the very point at which creation and covenant come about – how they are linked and become fulfilled.

            Covenant and Creation was the title of this chapter.  I wonder if a sub title could have been: Christ – The Source and the Summit?

Contemporary Perspectives by Ben Witherington, III

In his essay, “Contemporary perspectives on Paul”, Ben Witherington, III exposes the reader to some various recent perspectives on Paul and his letters.  The author starts the article with “Fresh winds are blowing through the corridors of Pauline studies…” and although some might be really new perspectives, I am not convinced they are really valuable perspectives.   “New and contemporary” immediately strikes me as suspect, as Jesus is the same yesterday, today… and tomorrow.  Since Witherington offered a discussion in four parts, I will approach each in that order as well.

Jewish perspectives on Paul

Witherington makes a statement about close scrutiny by Jewish scholars is really about what makes a Jew a Jew and “Paul appears to address issues of contemporary relevance” in modern Judaism.  He further asserts the study of Paul by Jewish scholars since the Holocaust in the 1940’s with regard to concerns about Paul’s writings as used for anti-Semitic ways, some even blaming Paul for inventing Christian hostility towards Judaism.  Ultimately the author describes Segal as purporting Paul as bringing Judaism to its proper climax or completion, while other “traditional Christian interpreters” simply describe Pauls’ defection or apostasy from true Judaism.

Although the idea of looking at Paul’s letters in the context of “current” events (the Holocaust in the 1940’s), it is obvious that Paul did not write in the context of specific future events in mind.  Much like any human author, Paul wrote within his current knowledge and cultural context; the fact that we, today, can apply his writings and make them relevant to our current situations is a grace and the work of God, who is the true author of sacred scripture.

The author does not firmly establish what it means to be Jewish.  We might say Paul was, in fact a good Jew If we identify the following as a minimum for good Jew: Monotheism, Election and Expectation.  Before and after his “conversion”, Paul held onto the concept of monotheism.  Paul encountered Christ, learned about Christ.  In fact, in acknowledging Christ as God and maintaining monotheistic concepts, Paul took the hard route to explain who and what Christ truly is to the Jewish people.  For Election, again Paul keeps the basic concepts the same, but does so in the context of Christ and an intimate God.  Paul does not throw out the Tora or the Pentateuch; he does not propose there is no temple, but he turns these around a bit to a challenging but ultimately truthful perspective: the law, the book, the land is still what God promised, just not exactly as Jews might have though.  Which leads to Expectation, that is the waiting for the Messiah.  Paul is declaring He has come!

Witherington or the scholars he notes do not acknowledge that we simply do not have enough information on Paul and his entire life.  Furthermore, the author does not put into context the scripture he refers to in Romans 10:12-13 (For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”) and the final conclusion that “‘we’ are no longer under the law.”  In fact, Paul writes earlier in that same letter “For Christ is the end of the law for the justification of everyone who has faith.” (Rom 10:4).  This is final part of the Expectation: the law and justification.

Feminist and liberationist perspectives on Paul

Witherington recognizes “Feminist biblical interpretations is a species of liberationist hermeneutics” and so entertains them here.  While Fiorenza claims Paul inherited an egalitarian movement already in progress, she starts to bend the equality narrative to her own personal, feminist perspectives.  Additionally, Wire introduces some radical ideas on feminism through hermeneutics of suspicion, stating Paul is “trying to curtail” women.  Witherington rightly counters those claims with references to Paul’s letters to Corinthians 11 & 14. Witherington suggests Paul was targeting decent, good and orderly behavior really on the Gentile males from “certain practices.” 

Finally, Witherington shares Castelli’s interpretation that is not viable about Paul being coercive. Castelli takes partial verses like “be imitators of me” to be forcible and self-centered, as if Paul is only talking about himself and how to act.  Witherington cites 1 Cor 4:9-13 – it is Paul who is imitating Christ; Paul is asking us to imitate Christ with him.  Castelli completely misses the meaning by being myopic and selective in her scripture reading.

In this section, I see the dangerous propensity for using Paul as a source of inspiration for those fighting oppression and injustice; using scripture to support their own personal agenda or view of the world without looking at the larger picture.

Rhetorical studies of Paul’s letters

Witherington suggests that widespread lack of studying classics has led to less than adequate understanding of Paul’s letters.  Support for better study and theology (which requires studying the classics) is found in Divino Afflante Spritu (Encyclical of Pope Pius XII), which implores better exegetical study (mostly among the clergy at the time). 

Witherington claims Paul to be a master of rhetoric, to the point that most contemporary commentators fail to recognize Paul’s use of rhetoric and thus draw wrong conclusions.  But his is not new, as the encyclical cited was published in 1943.

Examination of Paul’s letters as scripture

Witherington introduces two authors who make suggestions on how to approach Paul’s letters as scripture.  In the last section of the article, I agree with Child’s premise that Letters do not have theology, people do (definition of theology is: the study of the nature of God and religious belief).

I do take exception at Witherington’s questioning of the normative form of the text in canonical work when the words are “not from the putative inspired author whose authority lies behind the text.”  I would counter that Witherington has not clearly established the author of sacred text: God himself, not Paul, is the author.  We believe this to be the writings of Paul (or his proxy), but the true author is considered to be God himself using Paul as a human mouthpiece.

In the end, Childs suggests the canonical nature of Paul’s writings can be used to hermeneutically “triumph” over perceived historical differences because they contain both Pauline and post-Pauline elements.  This is in line with the premise that we must interpret Sacred Scripture from a holistic approach.

Witherington did review some new perspectives, but those that were new, are likely old rehashes of similar misinterpretations for sacred scripture; the same kind that get us into trouble today.

Gospel and Empire

In the “Gospel and Empire” Wright is pointing out the world that Paul was living where the Roman emperor religion was the fastest growing religion. Because of the Roman military control and victories the emperor was believed to have divine power.  Paul in his letters was reminding his readers that the ultimate ruler was Jesus who was above all others.

By pointing at the cross, Paul identified the earthly ruler’s limits and Jesus victory.   Jesus annulled the emperor’s biggest weapon.   Death was the result of the emperor’s ultimate power on people which Jesus concurred on the cross.  The cross made evident that Jesus was a stronger ruler. This message made Paul’s job a very dangerous one.

For the Jews this was just a reminder since they believed that their God was the one God. They have lived under other earthly rulers in Assyria and Babylon.  So, living under foreign ruler was not new for the Jewish community.

Paul in his letters, also reminded Christians that they are servants of the Messiah, the true lord but that does not give them freedom to ignore the temporary authority who are there to bring order. Also, that the church must live as a sign of the kingdom to come and cannot be inaugurated in the present by violence and hatred.

Wright is highlighting that Paul’s writing had a political dimension.

The Structured Ministry of the Church in the Pastoral Epistles.

   The Structured Ministry of the Church in the Pastoral Epistles

 

              Here I read how Paul instruct Titus and Timothy of their duties on how to run the church, their responsibility on protecting the gospel and more. Paul call Titus and Timothy not only children in the faith but consider his delegates or vicars in the churches of Crete and Ephesus. Now Paul instructing to Titus and Timothy are meant to guide them, his successor, in a caring ministry for these Christian communities. Titus and Timothy as they do the work of evangelist and laying of the hands to others they will be good ministers of Christ. Now some of Paul instructions to Titus and Timothy are as follows: Preaching, Guarding the Deposit of faith, Exercise of Authority, Common Prayer. From among the members of the churches of Crete and Ephesus, Titus and Timothy are to choose those who qualify to function as administrative in the community.

       Now reading on page 591 is where it hit home how picking out a deacon and what criteria needs to be meet:

             1 Tim 3:8-13 deacons are to be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. They should also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons, if they are blameless. Similar, women (are to be) serious, not slanderers, (but) temperate (and) faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, (who) manage well their children and their households. For those who serve well as deacons attain good standing for themselves and much confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

               All of this is still being done even today in age, we have our Pope, (Vatican), Bishops, Cardinals, Monsignor, Priest, Monks or Hermit, deacons, nuns, and all plays a roll I thinks on what Paul instructed to Titus and Timothy in one way or another and I for one can see the Holy spirit at work here and having a structure as such gives me a great sense of peace to know and trust those who are appointed by Christ to govern what we have today the Catholic Church.

Paul’s World, Paul’s Legacy

N.T. Wright opens up with the analogy of a mountain climber standing at the top of the mountain where he can put himself in three counties within Northern England, simultaneously. This is to describe St Paul’s worlds, where he was connected with the Jewish culture, Greek culture, and Roman culture. He then goes into a brief explanation about each. Jewish world is based from the Second-Temple Judaism, which the author assumes the reader knows because he doesn’t explain what is meant by the name. He does say religion, laws, culture and politics are centered around the Second-Temple Judaism. The Greek world is more of the common world. Greek permeated throughout all aspects of living in St Paul’s day, especially the culture, philosophy, and rhetoric. St Paul knew this and he uses it to drive home his points when he debated. The third world is the Roman World with its world domination ideology and massively expanding emperor-cult. St Paul was its citizen which at times he enjoyed and made good use of the privileges.

Wright then goes on to explain how the Roman World is closely integrated with the other two. Rome with its pagan empire was a problem Judaism knew all too well, going all the way back to Egypt and the Exodus. The Greek World fed the Roman World its imperial ideology and cult from its strong philosophy and ideology. However, the one world that reach out to all the other worlds was the world of the “family of the Messiah.” This world was perhaps the forth world that St Paul belonged to. According to Wright this world embraced “an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination, while being both more and less than a simple combination of elements from within those three.”

The second part of the chapter deals with the “new perspective” which deals with the narrative dimension of Paul’s thought. I have to admit that this section for me was very dense and at times unclear. It was he was using a lot of words to say nothing. My best guess at what Wright was trying to say was the narrative parts of his letters were there to help with the theology. “Small phrases can carry massive implications.” These small phrases within the narrative were common knowledge for St Paul and those he was writing to. “A single small allusion can conjure up an entire world of thought.” The language and history of the time is use to explain the theological concepts.

Again this section was very dense to me.  I look forward to anyone else’s take one it.

Chapter 7

This Chapter discusses how St. Paul reworks or rethinks the Jewish views of eschatology. The author shows that Paul makes Jewish eschatology come to pass in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He writes, taken from Romans 8.17, 28-30, “the spirit conforms the Messiah’s people to his suffering and glory, so that the Jewish expectation of the coming of the Messiah is not just fulfilled in the Messiah himself, but, extraordinarily, in His people as well.” Jewish eschatology thinks God will put all things right. They are the chosen ones, they have covenants with God and if God doesn’t make all things right, and paganism not defeated, then even God is in question. Paul reshapes Jewish views by showing that though Jesus Christ and His death, resurrection and ascension, all is fulfilled. Paul paints a vision that the end of all things is derived from the Old Testament and is in two stages. He redefines the Jewish doctrine using both the Messiah and the Holy Spirit.

I most enjoyed the comparison to the exodus and the two comings of Jesus Christ. First we are baptized into the Messiah as when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Now we live in between times like the wandering in the desert. We sin and suffer, but still are walking with God. We are no longer slaves of the Torah when we walk with the Holy Spirit and keep Him as our guide. Till the second coming when there will be a new heaven and new earth, we then will reach the Promised Land.

Chapter 6

This Chapter 6, “Reworking of God’s People” focuses on Paul’s emphasis and convincing argument that ALL people belong to God’s family.  N.T. Wright points out that throughout the Old Testament, it is shown that God chose Israel as His chosen people and it was the belief of the Jews that because of this, only Jews were the selected people, the special people, of God, who were to be His royal nation, His holy priests and the light of the world.  Paul takes this thought and shows how election is redefined through the Messiah.  As seen in Galatians 3, God desires a family of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, and this is very difficult for the faithful Jews to accept.  Wright shows that Paul preached unity of God’s people through this redefinition of election and that God has one family, not two.  His family consists of all those who believe in the gospel.  This family is defined as the people of the Messiah, no longer Jew or Gentile.

Wright shows that the “Messiah represents His people so that what is true of Him is true of them.  He has been crucified; therefore they have been crucified with Him.  They share His new life, not in terms of fleshly identity, that is, of Jewish ethnicity, but in terms of the Messiah’s own new life, a life in which all nations can share equally (p. 113)”. This is not an abandoning of the Jewish ways, but a reworking of God’s people in the Messiah to unite His family as one people.

This is a beautiful way to express the intense love that God has for all His people.  In Christ, we are united as faithful believers.  The Messiah came not to divide but to unite and those who participate in both faith and works are called to become one family in Christ.

Chapter 5 – Rethinking God

In Chapter 5 of “Paul, N.T. Wright reviews the way that St. Paul puts forth a fresh new way of looking at God, steeped in Jewish tradition but redefined in terms of the reality of Jesus of Nazareth as the long awaited Messiah.  He covers the Jewish theology of Monotheism (one God), Election (one People of God) and Eschatology (one future for God’s world), but in the light of Christ. 

Wright reviews the Jewish foundational theology of the one God of Israel as the God of both creation and covenant.  He then explains the Christological dimension, equating Jesus with God the father, often in the redefining of the Shema prayer with God the father/creator and Jesus as Lord.  The second phase of the redefinition of God is expressed in terms of Jesus and his Spirit together.  Paul famously explains that there are many gifts, but one Spirit, many types of service, but one Lord in Jesus, and one God and Father who accomplishes all in all. 

Finally, Wright shows how Paul uses Old Testament passages to show their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah.  Paul continues the Jewish theme of the people of God against the pagans found throughout the Old Testament, but now meaning both Jews and Gentiles who accept Jesus as Messiah and savior.  Paul goes on to show how this new people of God must necessarily be set apart from the pagan communities around them and live in a certain way of Christian love and service.

This reader found Wright’s analysis to be thorough and convincing.

Paul – Gospel and Empire Chapter 4

Gospel and Empire

This chapter deals with the power and influence of the Rome within the world of St Paul at the time of his letters.  Wright points out that St Paul’s mission was a dangerous one since it took shots at Roman ideology.  Wright also reminds us of Paul’s faithful assertion of Jesus’ divinity and His role as redeemer.  It is interesting to realize the very “Christian” words like “savior”, “good news”, “lord” and “son of god” were used by the Roman emperors and therefore Paul’s use of those words would have spoken to those reading his letters at the time that Jesus was more than the emperors of Rome.  I did not realize that the religion of Rome’s (emperor divinity) was the fastest growing religion at that time due to Rome’s military might.

Paul’s world would have been comfortable mixing religion, politics, and culture into the belief system – not separating these categories.  The Jewish people of the time would also have been comfortable seeing God as the one who used pagan rulers or nations to do His divine will, being the actor to do God’s bidding as well as receiving punishment for their actions.  This view would have relevance in their present (Rome) as well as from History (cf. Babylon or Assyria). They would have been accustomed to working within the confines of Roman rule by making the best of it versus anarchy and rebellion. 

Wright lists some very interesting exegeses from various letters with respect to Rome and its imperial force.  He helps give context to some of the letter such as Corinthians where he states that Corinth was more Roman than Rome.  Another example is from Thessalonians where “peace and security” are mixed in travail and destruction – a reference to Rome’s promise of peace and security. Jesus conquers death – much more powerful than simple military conquering.  Wright suggests that woven within Paul’s writing are words that would have evoked recognition of Roman signals –of Rome’s expected support and/or Rome’s reliance on military power and the emperor’s role.