Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

N.T. Wright’s Fresh Perspective 5

In chapter 5, “Rethinking God,” Wright works through the discussion of Paul’s monotheism. This is perhaps what H. Richard Niebuhr would have called radical monotheism, but no doubt with a much different twist. Summary by Allan Bevere
1. Introduction
The Jewish context of Paul’s theology has not been taken seriously enough in the history of modern theology and biblical studies. When Jewish writers summarize their faith, they typically concentrate on two topics: God and God’s people, or monotheism and election. These two motifs quickly lead to eschatology. Thus a three-fold pattern emerges: “one God, one people, one future for God’s world” (p. 84). According to Wright, Paul did not abandon this theological framework, but redefined it around his account of the Messiah and the Spirit.
Monotheism, election, eschatology, are closely interconnected: 1) The one God is revealed as creator and sustainer of the world and precisely as the God of Israel, the electing God. 2) The doctrine of election itself is refocused on Jesus’ Messiahship. For Paul Christology ties the story of God and the story of Israel closely together, giving eschatology its Christian form. “The long awaited end has come forwards into the present, and has given the present time its peculiar character of now-and-not-yet” (p. 84). 3) The approaching end is guaranteed on account of the justice of the one God who is the creator and who is bound to his people in covenant.
2. Monotheism: The Jewish Roots
Paul’s monotheism is of a particular kind, what Wright calls “creational and covenantal monotheism” (p. 86). This one God who created the world and is in close relationship with it has, on behalf of the world, forged a covenant with Israel. Such monotheism allows Judaism (and early Jewish Christianity) to maintain a certain understanding of the problem of evil, as contrasted with its two rival philosophies of Paul’s day: pantheism and Epicurianism; the former being unable to sustain an adequate account of evil, and the latter with an account of evil that leaves humanity helpless. Wright states, “Judaism, even under intense pressure, never quite gives up on the belief that evil– moral evil, societal evil, evil within the natural order itself– matters desperately to God, and that he will one day not only put the world to rights but somehow deal retrospectively with the horror, violence, degradation and decay which has so radically (from this point of view) infected creation, not least human beings, including Israel” (pp. 87-88).
At the heart of the Jewish understanding of evil is idolatry; for evil is the inevitable consequence of human failure to reflect the image of the one true God.
3. Monotheism and Christology
Paul declares that the created order is good without divinizing creation as does pantheism, and he takes seriously the problem of evil without the ontological dualism of Epicureanism. As Paul redefines monotheism, Jesus is to be found right in the center of his theology. It is in and through Jesus that the new Exodus has taken place. Jesus instead of Torah is “now the badge of God’s people” (p. 92).
Paul interprets Old Testament texts that clearly refer to Yahweh and applies them to Jesus (Exodus 4:22; 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; 89:27; Isaiah 45:23; cf. Romans 10:5-13; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:5-11). The cross of Christ is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil. “The cross became, for Paul, the fullest possible revelation of both the love and justice of God, and then, in its outworking, the extraordinary saving power of God, defeating the powers that held people captive in pagan darkness and breaking the long entail of human sin” (p. 96).
4. Monotheism and the Spirit
In two passages, Galatians 4:1-7 and Romans 8, Paul’s redefinition of monotheism is articulated relative to Jesus and the Spirit together. It is here Wright states, “one might conclude that if the doctrine of the Trinity had not come into existence, it would be necessary to invent it” (p. 98). In Paul’s retelling of the story of the Exodus, the Spirit replaces the Shekinah, bringing the people of God to the Promised Land, which is not “heaven,” but rather a renewed creation, and universe liberated from its own slavery. In like fashion with Messiah, Paul redefines the doctrine of Jewish montheism with his understanding of the person and work of the Spirit. This is seen most clearly in Ephesians 1:3-14: “Here the great themes of Jewish monotheism, celebrated in a prayer whose every claause has been rethought around Jesus the Messiah, and whose life-giving message focuses on the gift of the Spirit”(p. 101).
5. Scriptural Roots, Pagan Targets, Practical Work
Paul’s redefined montheism calls for a discussion of the following: 1) His fresh engagement with the Scriptures of Israel, demonstrating the similarities and differences of other readings of the same material at roughly the same time chronologically; 2) Paul’s expression of his redefined montheism in overt antagonism to the paganism of his contemporaries; and 3) the way in which his redefined monotheism works out in practicality, in the actual life-setting of the churches in Paul’s day.
It is this redefined montheism that naturally led to the early church communities grouping themselves together in ways different from the pagan communities around them. It was only natural then that these church communities would come to be viewed suspiciously, and even subversively.
6. Conclusion
This redefined monotheism leads naturally to the dosctrine of God’s people, the doctrine of election. This will inescapably lead to the discussion of what Paul meant by justification. That will be address in the next chapter.
Response by McKnight
Allan’s summary above serves to introduce the points I wish to make about chp 5, “Rethinking God.”
Preface: I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it about this chapter too: it is too nuanced, too much shadow-boxing with critics, and it is not as easy to read as it might be.
First, Wright introduces the themes of a fresh perspective on Paul’s theology, and he finds three such themes: God, Israel, and the Future. I’m not persuaded that eschatology, the Future bit, is central to Israel’s faith as that term has been shaped in Christian thinking. Not that there isn’t an eschatology to the OT, for there is, but we are in danger here of finding Christian theology when we shouldn’t.
Second, the introduction here of these three themes creates some tension in my mind with the two themes Tom has been using in the first half of the book. First half, “creation and covenant.” Second half, God, People of God, and Eschatology. I’d have liked “creation, community, and covenant” in the first half, for it would integrate what Tom sees as central to Israel’s and Paul’s faith.
Third, Tom explores several texts and themes in his study of how “Christology” (study of Christ) fits into his monotheism, and I find this to be one of the most fruitful areas of research and discussion today. Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, not to mention Jimmy Dunn’s studies, have each weighed in. Wright takes sides here by taking the “high” road on Rom 10:5-13, 9:5, Phil 2:6-11, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:15-20, and then Son of God. My own take is that 1 Cor 8:6 gets to the hub of it all. In this text, in which Paul interprets the Shema (“Hear O Israel, … the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) in a binitarian manner. That is, the Shema has two names for God: “Lord” (YHWH) and “God” (Elohim). In 1 Cor 8:6, Paul interprets “Lord” as Jesus and “God” as the Father, and so gets both Father and Son within the “oneness” of God. Nothing short of amazing. Wright gets close to saying this, but since monotheism and Christology is the discussion, he could have been more clear for it is here, perhaps first of all, that the Apostle Paul makes his way into Jewish monotheism with a new thought: God’s oneness involves the Son. And Paul’s Jewishness requires that he explain his faith in light of the daily creed of every Jew: the Shema. Wright develops this into a Trinitarian direction from Gal 4:1-7, where he makes his statement that had Trinity not developed by now, it would have had to be invented to make sense of how Paul understands God (98). Nothing is any clearer here than Rom 8:3-4.
Fourth, I hope everyone sees the revolution in Paul’s theology that in the Cross the one God of Israel makes himself known as the Crucified God. The Cross is a revelation of God, not just an instrument of redemption.
Fifth, Wright’s new-found joy in Paul’s critique of empire and paganism bears fruit yet again: with respect to monotheism, Paul’s theology now gives a much firmer basis for judging Acts 17:22-31 (the Areopagus speech) to be consistent with Paul’s theology and not so easily dismissed as Lukan theology.

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Ted Gossard,

posted February 27, 2006 at 6:25 am

“The Cross is a revelation of God, not just an instrument of redemption.”
Yes. Wright’s speak of God being revealed in the human face of Jesus Christ was revolutionary to me, especially, I think, in the context in which he was writing- helping us see a truly historical Jesus living according to a new understanding of what it meant to be Israel in the world.

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Michael Kruse

posted February 27, 2006 at 11:34 am

“I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it about this chapter too: it is too nuanced, too much shadow-boxing with critics, and it is not as easy to read as it might be.”
I had this sense reading the book as well. I think I get and agree with his major themes but I do get the feeling at times that I am reading something in response to another conversation that Wright is having with unidentified others. I really like the content of the book but I do find it difficult to read in places for just this reason. I found myself thinking “Just say what you mean!”
As to God, covenant and eschatology, an analogy came to mind as I read this from the film world. Isreal was looking at God’s vision with a zoom lense and seeing only the portion of the story that involved Israel. Jesus did not change the story. He “zoomed out” with a wide-angle lens that recast the story of Israel in a much larger panoramic vision. The story of Isreal was still there and still valid. Hints and pieces of the panoramic view were present in the OT narrative but it is only looking back from this side of the cross and the resurrection that we can see the significance of those pieces.
Don’t know if Wright would appreciate this analogy. I think he is saying Paul wasn’t creating something new. He was showing how the narrower story of Israel fit within the larger panorama while making the links between the two explicit.

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posted February 27, 2006 at 12:36 pm

Michael, I really like your analogy. That’s a good way of putting it.
Also, a thanks to Scot and Allan. Your reviews have been great and although I haven’t said much I have received a lot out of this.

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posted February 27, 2006 at 1:51 pm

I also wondered about the exploration of creation and covenant in the first half, then the three themes in the second half. It is as if he is trying to merge his conclusions from Climax of the Covenant and What Saint Paul Really Said and at times it feels a bit scattered and messy. Very insightful though. And perhaps it’s just my systematic mind wanting clean categories.
One question: I’ve noticed a substantial absence of treatment regarding Paul’s theology of sin, evil, and death. There was a bit in chapter 2, but not much explicit attention since then. Why is that?

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Scot McKnight

posted February 27, 2006 at 9:01 pm

That’s a good question — about death and life. Tom’s running Paul through a grid, as we all do, as we try to put the big picture together — and he does it through creation and covenant, with special attention to the use of Scripture. I see Paul as a mortician and zoe-tician (death and life). Makes me a little Athanasian.

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posted February 28, 2006 at 2:07 pm

“Second, the introduction here of these three themes creates some tension in my mind with the two themes Tom has been using in the first half of the book. First half, “creation and covenant.” Second half, God, People of God, and Eschatology. I’d have liked “creation, community, and covenant” in the first half, for it would integrate what Tom sees as central to Israel’s and Paul’s faith.”
I haven’t read the chapter you reviewed yet, but I read the chapter that is posted online (about Creation & Covenant) and have to say that as I read it I assumed “Creation and Covenant” is meant to have the same idea as “God and the People of God.” The Covenant people of God are the means to an end. As if he is saying: “The Creator, The Covenant Community, and Fulfillment.” The chapter on Creation & Covenant says:
“God has called Abraham and his family to undo the sin of Adam”
“the creator God is the covenant God, and vice versa; and his word, particularly through his prophet and/or servant, will rescue and deliver his people from the enemy”
“the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation”
And then the conclusion to the chapter:
“for Paul the theology of creation and covenant constantly drew him forward to the events concerning Jesus, events shocking both in being unexpected and in their very nature. It is as the fulfilment of creation and covenant, not in their abolition, that we find ourselves compelled to turn our full attention”
So I don’t see the tension (perhaps I will once I read further). He seems to be saying this to me:
Creation > Covenant > fulfillment
The Creator > The Covenant Community > Their Future
God > Israel > Eschatology

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