This is the sixth installment of a series on N.T. Wright’s new book, Paul in Fresh Perspective, by Allan Bevere and I, and we’ve observed that Tom Wright here is playing his view of Paul over against the “new” perspective. “Reworking God’s People” is the subject of this chapter. How, we might ask right up front, do you see Paul redefining “Israel” in his theory of the church?
Summary of McKnight
1. Brief intro.
2. Election: Jewish Views of God’s People
Election, God’s love-motivated choice of Israel, frames the entire story of Israel. “The canonical OT frames the entire story of God’s people as the divine answer to the problem of evil: somehow, through this people, God will deal with the problem that has infected his good creation in general and his image-bearing creatures in particular” (109). “God’s purpose in election, to root evil out of the world and to do so through Israel…” (110).
3. Election reshaped around Jesus
The role of Rom 9:4 (“they are Israel…”) is central; Paul never denies this. But, election is redefined. He chooses to work with Galatians first. Gal 2: justification refers to the redefinition of the people of God (here Tom is waging wars with new perspective opponents). Justification therefore (in Gal) refers to “how belongs to the people of God, and how you can tell that in the present” (and not to how someone becomes a Christian)! Bingo. This is the fresh and new perspective. The “I” of 2:15-21 is the Jewish “I” who gets redefined by an inclusive people of God. Justification concerns the unity of God’s people. There is one single family, and they become so by “faith” and not by the works of the Torah. “Israel of God” refers to the Messianic community of faith, not a subset of Israel.
Phil 3. Not to be too long: again, Israel is redefined by being “in the Messiah.” He then trots through 1 Cor 10:1 and Eph 2–3 and other passages, all to show that Israel is redefined by Messiah. He then trawls through Romans by looking at ecclesia through Messiah. God’s purpose was to save the world through Israel, so Israel’s election remains inviolate.
Wright translates “faith of Christ” as Christ’s faithfulness and not faith “in” Christ; this line of thinking is central to some of his argument. The Messiah does what Israel was called to do. In Israel’s place.
Big claim: “Justification…. is a subset of election” (121). It seems to me that Wright has a strong theodicy running through his understanding of justification, and not as much (as in Reformers) of individual salvation. It is about God’s ways being justified as well. [Note: When I was in college, I took a course on Romans, and then in seminary when I studied it again, I put together an outline of Romans that saw it as a theodicy — I now see that I was groping for something like a new perspective at that time. Of course, it is much different, but it was on the way for me.] Justification is not about how I am saved but about how I am declared to be a member of God’s people.
4. Election reworked around the Spirit
Romans 8, but esp 2 Cor 3. The sum of it is this: God’s people is that people being renewed by the Spirit. Holiness is the key. Romans 12 undoes Romans 1:18-32 (this is a good insight).
5. Redefinition of Election rooted in Scripture
Rom 9–11 and the issue of supersessionism (he calls this the current heresy). Unbelieving Israel, Wright argues, can rejoin the people of God and they are not debarred in virtue of their ethnic origin and this people of God is renewed by the gospel. Wright gets around both pluralism and simplistic supersessionism. Israel is Messiah-shaped and Spirit-shaped.
Messianic faith, in other words, is not a new religion: it is Israel’s faith for Jews and Gentiles on the same basis — faith in the Messiah, through the Spirit.
I think Wright is on target in this chapter. Election is closely connected to eschatology: God will deliver his people from their enemies. Paul reshapes that election around Jesus.
Wright’s discussion of Galatians 2:11-21 is insightful and obviously logical at the same time. Justification refers to the way the people of God have now been redefined. I agree with his translation of pistis tou Christou as “the faithfulness of the Messiah.” This relates well to Wright’s “new perspective” position that the phrase “works of the law” does not concern what one does to “get it,” but what one does to demonstrate one “is in.”
Of particular significance is Wright’s argument that Paul consistently works through the claim that Israel’s God intends to make a single family, fulfilling his promise to Abraham. Paul’s phrase “Israel of God” refers to this one family. This theme is found in the fabric of Romans 9-11, Philippians 3 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-22 and Ephesians 2:11-21.
God’s people are called to a renewed holiness through the Spirit. It is a holiness written on the heart as envisaged by the Old Testament prophets.
It will be interesting to see how Wright works through the eschatology of all this in the next chapter.