N.T. Wright – Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Feature Review]

August 22, 2014

 

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Wright is at his most interesting when he (finally!) gets down to brass tacks and starts discussing Paul’s reworked Jewish theology in those climactic chapters nine, ten, and eleven. Here Wright takes what he understands to be the three core elements of Judaism in Paul’s time and shows how Paul has redefined Jewish monotheism, election, and eschatology in light of the Messiah and Spirit. According to Wright, what the Messiah did was a fulfillment of the promises that God had made to his people—namely that God would return and liberate his people in a new Exodus. Paul believed that God was keeping God’s promises and returning to Zion in Jerusalem in and through Jesus. Reinterpreted in light of the Babylonian Exile, Wright suggests the Exodus narrative took on a new meaning and becomes key for Paul’s understanding of Jesus as Israel’s God, “freshly revealed” and finally returned to Zion. Wright works through some Pauline texts in his attempt to make the case that Jesus was not only keeping God’s promises but was in fact God keeping God’s promises in the flesh (e.g., 654, 663, 689ff).
 
Wright is not always convincing on this point. It is a bit regrettable that Wright leads this section with a reading of Galatians 4:1-11 in which he attempts to find echoes of the Exodus narrative to suggest that Paul is equating the Messiah with God’s return to Zion (656-8). Although this section of Galatians does include some imagery of slavery, it is not so clear to me that the kind of slavery mentioned in Galatians 4 is in any way pointing toward Israel’s time under the heavy yoke of Egyptian slavery prior to the Exodus. Similarly, although Romans 8:15-17 mentions slavery, it is not altogether clear that Paul is intentionally alluding to the Exodus narrative and thereby equating the Messiah’s work with the faithfulness of God (659). Wright is surely correct, however, to draw attention to the striking ways in which Paul describes Jesus in surprisingly close relation to God. Wright’s treatment of Philippians 2:6-11 is most convincing, as he shows how this passage ascribes to Jesus the identity of God and vice versa (684).
 
Wright argues that Paul also reworked the election of Israel as God’s people in the aftermath of the Messiah. For Paul, the Messiah has redefined the boundaries of God’s people. In Wright’s reading, Israel had failed in its purpose to be a blessing to the world (Gen 12:2) but, in and through Jesus, the purpose of Israel had finally been accomplished (815). Wright contends that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, created new boundaries to define who was within the fold of God’s people. All who would be “in Christ” and be “characterized by [Christ’s] ‘faithfulness,’ expressed in terms of his death and resurrection,” are now “elected” and grafted into the people of God (835). Paul’s redefinition of Jewish eschatology around the Messiah flows out from his reworking of election and his emphasis on ‘justification’ as an eschatological event is a welcome contribution to theological discussion on this perennially controversial issue.[i]
 
In all, PFG is a welcome contribution to the ongoing conversations about Paul in scholarly and ecclesial circles. Reading this mammoth book is an exercise in taking one’s time—an illustration, perhaps, of “slow church”—but taking the time to do so is often rewarding. PFG has not given the final word on Paul’s theology, but, more often than not, Wright helpfully illuminates the apostle and the gospel that he preached. For this reason, PFG should find a place on the bookshelves of serious readers of Paul. Because of its size, it is not well-suited for either the classroom or church Bible study but can, and should, provide fodder for reflection and discussion in both.
 
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Daniel M. Yencich is a Ph.D. student in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology.

 


[i] See, for example, N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009).