N.T. Wright’s Paul in Fresh Perspective is “fresh” because on top of the older “new” perspective is added a pervasive Pauline rhetoric against Rome. Wright paves his own path here, he charts a different casting of Paul’s theology and letters, and in so doing lays down an implicit challenge for each of us to consider: How concerned was Paul, ultimately, with Rome’s power?
Chp. 4 is where Wright outlines his basic thesis that has been brewing for about half a decade. His first indicator of this “fresh”ness was in 2001, but it does connect with the work of Richard Horsley from 1997 on. Essentially: Paul’s message is a “subversion of th enew ideology which was sweeping the Mediterranean world… the ideology of the Roman empire” (59).
First, to consider Pauline theology as political rhetoric requires that we drop our left-right poles, drop the distinction between politics and religion, and learn how to discover “echoes” of political rhetoric in Paul’s letters. He relies here upon Richard Hays: (1) availability, (2) volume, (3) recurrence, (4) thematic coherence, (5) historical plausibility, (6) history of interpretation, and (7) satisfaction.
Second, he sketches Caesar’s ideology, and this is the really central to his argument. The rhetoric revolves around freedom, justice (dikaiosyne), and salvation. These themes constitute the “gospel” of Roman ideology, where the cross was the consummate deterrent within Rome’s mighty might.
Third, Wright sketches how other Jews critiqued dominating powers. The critique stems from the prophets, where there is the strange combination of (1) relentless and fearless critique of idolatry and, at the same time, (2) accommodation or cooperation with the ruling power. Live under the power knowing that such powers will eventually be turned to rights. He looks at Wisdom of Solomon, 1QM and other texts. All of this comes out of a creational monotheism.
Fourth, Wright sketches in bold outline but with provocative suggestions Paul’s own theory of resistance by showing how Paul uses anti-Rome imperial rhetoric to announce the gospel. Jesus is Messiah and that means the world’s Lord. I cannot here details what he says about Paul’s letter, but he shows this anti-empire rhetoric in Philippians (esp. chps. 2–3), including 2:5-11. He then sketches themes in 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians and then to Romans.
This is perhaps a summary example of the whole chapter’s thesis: “Paul comes to Rome, ‘not ashamed of this gospel’, as he says in 1.16, becasue — and here, clearly, every phrase counts — the gospel is God’s power (that word again) to salvation (that word again) to all who believe, in other words, all those who are faithful and loyal; because in it, God’s dikaiosyne, God’s iustitia, God’s saving covenant-based justice is unveiled for all, the Jew first and also the Greek” (77).
So, what we’ve got in Wright’s “fresh” perspective is a creation and covenant theology now overlayed with a political claim: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.
Response by Bevere:
In general, I like what Wright is doing. I would take issue with him on one important matter:
Wright works through to Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Gospel and Empire suggesting that Paul’s political theology is radically different from ours today. I am not sure exactly what to make of this. In the context of classic Jewish critique, Paul takes the view that the rulers of the nations are evil and God will hold them to account, but at the same time the people of God are to seek the welfare of the nation in which they live. Anarchy is not what God desires; rulers are necessary, and believers are to live under pagan rule and must be constantly on guard against compromise with paganism.
Thus Paul’s counter-imperial theology is clearly summed up as “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not” (p. 69). It is Jesus’ lordship that gives Paul a fresh perspective on Jewish political theology. Jesus’ lordship offers a radical critique of pagan power, in this case the power of Rome, and at the same time it “is a radical restatement of the duty of Godâ€™s people when living under present pagan rule” (p. 70). All of this flows out of the implicit narratives of creation and covenant.
Again, I like what Wright is doing here, but I also feel a sense of frustration in thinking through it. Wright notes a few times in the chapter that Paulâ€™s “fresh” political theology looks quite different from the political alternatives we have today. We tend to think along the political spectrum of “right” and “left” in the framework of eighteenth and nineteenth century Enlightenment political theory. Paul’s theology of earthly rulers is very unlike what has been assumed by Christians in the West.
This is true enough in many ways, but my frustration comes from my own sense that Wright is fundamentally correct, and fundamentally wrong at the same time, in that I wonder as to exactly how dissimilar Paul’s political theology is. Most Christians I know on the left and on the right and somewhere in between, assume that God will hold rulers to account, and that Christians have to work through their duties as Christians promoting the welfare of the nation in which they live, while not compromising their faith. Granted Christians are working through these questions very differently, from foreign policy to domestic issues, but in the final analysis they are the same questions, and the large answers are not all that different.
It seems to me that the elephant in the room that makes Paul so different from the twenty-first century is not that he faced different questions giving different answers, but rather he lived within a different context. Paul is writing to churches living in the midst of a completely pagan society. Western societies contain, more or less, vestiges of Christendom, with most of its leaders professing adherence to Christianity in one form or another in a committed to nominal way. Paul is writing to Christians who are a very tiny minority in the Empire and are clearly not in charge. In the Western nations of the twenty-first century, Christians are still in the minority, but there is a context of Christendom present. Christians in the United States do not view Caesar in a way that sees him as the enemy. This is true even when Christians do not approve of the way Caesar is behaving. In a society where the ruler is viewed as the enemy, no one is interested in polls and approval ratings. I have no doubt that Wright’s discussion would ring true with the Christians in Cuba and Nigeria. In the United States and Great Britain, the substance of the discussion is more complicated.
I am not interested at this point in attempting to decide which Presidents of the United States are true Christians. My experience has been that whether one believes George Bush or Bill Clinton are good Christians is based solely on whether or not one agrees with the politics of one or the other. I have felt for some time that it is rather arrogant to evaluate a politician’s faith commitment on whether or not he promotes a particular political agenda.
What I am driving at is that while I think Wright is correct in reference to Paul’s political theology, I am not sure, in the big picture of things, how radically different it is from how Christian political theology manifests itself today, other than in the false notion of separation of church and state, which is nothing other than a doctrine that domesticates the church silencing it as a prophetic witness. I also agree that the current option of left/right politics is not adequate for the Christian; there is an alternative. But seeking the welfare of the nation as well as rejecting compromise has always been the issue. It is one challenge when Caesar wants to kill us; it is quite another when Caesar simply desires to stroke our religious sensibilities in order to get our vote. Perhaps the latter is more dangerous as the compromises of faith are more subtly forced upon us.
Perhaps the radical nature of Christian political theology revolves, not around whether Caesar is a pagan, but around the issue of Christian participation in war. It would be very interesting to see how Wright works through that subject.