Tuesday, March 29, 2005
The following are my notes from a recent Wright lecture I attended in Nottingham. I thought that I would share them with you all.
[These two lectures are a condensed form of a more extensive series of lectures that Wright has given elsewhere]. Within the two lectures Wright will attempt to combine reflections on Pauline scholarship with thoughts regarding the application of the theology of the apostle Paul to the contemporary Church situation. The first lecture will treat the subject of Creation and Covenant; the second will deal with Gospel and Empire. Wright is concerned to explore how larger themes that appear to be in tension can settle down comfortably within a larger framework in Paul’s theology. We will take a bird’s eye view of Paul’s theology in order to examine this.
Paul lived in a world in which the hope of Israel was understood in terms of a story. If we are to arrive at the heart of Paul’s theology it will be by means of an appreciation of the controlling stories that he worked in terms of.
This issue of narrative is one of the key dimensions of the NPP. The work of Richard Hays in particular (The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11) served to bring narrative to the forefront of theological debate. Once the narrative genie has been let out of the bottle, it is impossible to get it back in again. Since Hays countless theologians have been unearthing implicit narratives that underlie fragments of texts in Paul and elsewhere.
The whole narrative always hovers ‘somewhere’ in the background of each allusion. A number of people have wondered how far an allusion can be away from the surface of a text before it drowns, but we must resist the charms of ‘cautious minimalism’. The minimalists do not fully appreciate the manner in which narratives functioned in Second Temple Judaism. When a first century Jew used the biblical narrative there was something far more revolutionary going on than the minimalists can do justice to.
Narratives were used by those who believed that they were actors within them. We still have this to some extent within our own day. People will come out with statements like ‘now that we are living in the 21st century’. Such a statement situates a person within a narrative and implies the shaping of that person’s moral responsibility by the narrative situation in which they presently find themselves. Of course, this contemporary narrative is a very thin and watery controlling narrative when compared with Israel’s. It is also stupid and we should have the courage to name it and shame it as such.
The narrative of Israel could be used piecemeal, but was more generally used as a continuous implicit narrative. The allusion to OT events was not perceived primarily in terms of just providing some bare ‘typological’ pattern; the main function of such allusions was to remind the hearer (or reader) of key moments within a single continuous narrative in which they now found themselves. The Jewish use of the narrative — to boldly mix two radically different illustrations — functions less like a lonely young girl reading Jane Eyre and hoping for typological parallels and more like a cricketer going out to bat in a match that is in its final day and is delicately poised.
When we look at a Pauline example like Romans 4, should we read it merely as an example of justification by faith? Was Paul merely using a prooftext to prove his point? No: in Romans 4 the entire story of Genesis 15 is in Paul’s mind.
AD70 and 135 brought the implicit narrative of Judaism to a grinding halt; from that point it was replaced by a de-historicized approach. However, in Paul’s day, people still acted in terms of this thick and powerful implicit narrative. Creation was fundamental to this underlying narrative, as was covenant. We should always beware of substituting other controlling narratives for that of Paul. Many of the problems in the interpretation of Paul arise from the imposition of such alien narratives on Paul, whether they are the narratives of the 16th century or more contemporary narratives.
The Theological Underpinnings of Creation and Covenant
There are many biblical relationships drawn between the themes of creation and covenant. Psalm 19 is one example. This psalm divides into two separate halves. Verses 1-6 speaks of the glory of creation, giving particular attention to the place of the sun. Verses 7 to the end are concerned primarily with the Torah. What the sun does in creation is done by the Torah in the midst of Israel. This psalm proclaims that Israel is the unique people of the Creator God. In Psalm 74 we find a lament. When everything is crashing around, the Israelites look back to Genesis 1 and also meditate upon God’s power exercised on Israel’s behalf in the past.
Further connections between the themes of creation and covenant can be seen when we observe that the promises to Abraham echo the commands given to Adam. Abraham’s family is both part of the problem and its solution. In Deuteronomy we see the convergence of themes of creation and covenant in terms of the land. Blessings and curses are promised on the land when Israel is obedient or disobedient. Once again, in Isaiah 40-66 we see these themes together. The foundation for the section is seen in chapter 40 where God is set forth as the Creator. Throughout the chapters the themes intertwine. For example, when we look at the language of Isaiah 55:10f. we see connections between covenant and creation imagery.
The Creator God is the covenant God and the covenant God is the Creator God. All other parts of the biblical narrative take their roots in these two themes. The covenant is there to solve the problems of creation. God will sort out the world through Israel. Interestingly, when problems occur within the covenant, it is often creation that is evoked to sort them out. Something is amiss both with the creation and with the covenant. We could arrive at the same account by a study of Paul’s contemporaries. God must engage in a showdown with the forces of evil in the world.
Paul’s reuses of Israel’s literature bears a ‘family likeness’ with others of his own day. The ‘righteousness of God’ — dikaiosune theou — is central to Paul’s approach to the problems within the covenant and the creation. The Creator God can be relied upon to set things to rights. Wright admits that he ‘comes and goes’ between understanding the righteousness of God primarily in terms of ‘justice’ and understanding it primarily in terms of ‘covenant faithfulness’.
The covenant is the ‘hidden presupposition’ of Israel’s literature. A number of scholars have failed to recognize the controlling role of covenant in biblical thought. Much of this problem arises from the fact that the word ‘covenant’ is seldom deployed in Scripture. We should always remember that although exegesis needs the concordance, it cannot be governed by the concordance.
Creation and Covenant in Paul
The themes of creation and covenant in Paul will be examined through a study of three key passages.
We should accept Pauline authorship of this passage and for Colossians as a whole. The arguments raised against Pauline authorship are generally specious and unconvincing. In Colossians 1:15-20 we can see the combination of the themes of creation and covenant. The passage falls into two halves, much as Psalm 19 does. In the first half it is creation that is focused upon; in the second half it is redemption. The Creator God is also the redeeming covenant God.
Paul plays on the meaning of Genesis 1. The many dimensions of the words ‘in the beginning’ are explored in terms of Christ’s headship, priority, resurrection, pre-eminence, etc. Jesus is the point at which creation and covenant come together. They come together in the form of an event — the death of Christ. This is what lies at the heart of the radical position of the Apostle Paul’s theology.
1 Corinthians 15
In this passage Paul appeals to Genesis 1-3 in the light of Christ’s work. He speaks of the relationship between Adam and Christ and alludes to other creational passages, like Psalm 8. Paul also draws on parts of Genesis 1 to explain the character of resurrection physicality; he speaks of stars, dust, grain, beasts, fish and birds (vv.35-49). Paul points out that the resurrection body is not merely in the image of God, but is in the pattern of the resurrected Messiah. Once again we witness the convergence of themes of creation and covenant.
When one is well into the last quarter of a lecture it is daring to bring forward a large passage, but the third passage is Romans 1-11. We can divide this into a number of sections. Romans 1:18-4:25 — Wright remains convinced that this is the first major section as opposed to 1:18-5:11, as some others have argued — shows that sinful mankind have failed to give God his due. At this point Saul of Tarsus would point to the covenant. However, in 2:17 Paul turns this argument on its head. A crisis is created for God Himself. How is God going to be faithful to His promises? In 3:21 onwards we see that God has unveiled His solution to the problem of sin in creation and in the covenant people in Jesus Christ.
In Romans 4 Abraham is not used as a prooftext, nor as an example of a ‘Christian before Christ’. Abraham was the head of the covenant and it is for this reason that Paul speaks of him in Romans 4. [Wright recalls the ripples of laughter than occurred among his students in Oxford when he expressed this position. He found out that they had just come from Sanders’ class. Sanders had argued that the use of Abraham in Romans 4 was merely a result of Paul’s use of his ‘mental Septuagint concordance’.] Genesis 15 is foundational for Romans 4. In this chapter we see the implicit renewal of creation. The faith of Abraham is presented as the reversal of the problem of the Fall, as seen in Romans 1. Abraham’s faith is the ‘advance sign’ of creation’s restoration. Abraham’s faith points forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Significantly, Paul broadens the promise to Abraham (4:13). This is then explored in the next four chapters. Both the problems of the creation and the problems of the covenant have been taken up in Jesus Christ.
Christ’s obedience has more than reversed the sin of Adam. We see this in Romans 5. The question of the Law then comes up within this covenant/creation context. Through the Torah, Israel has recapitulated the sin of Adam. The Torah shows up one’s secret sins. However, in Romans 8 we find the answer to Romans 7. The fulcrum of Paul’s argument is found in Romans 8:3-4; through Jesus Christ God has accomplished the goals of the covenant. Covenant renewal must result in new creation. The theme of new creation is prominent in Romans 8.
In Romans 9, Paul begins a lament (this might remind us of Psalm 74). In thinking about the problem of Israel, Paul retells the covenant narrative, seeking to give an account of the dikaiosune theou. Israel was ignorant of the righteousness of God and was seeking to establish itself in the right. In Romans 10 Paul articulates covenant renewal. He expounds Deuteronomy 30. The message shows that the whole world has become the holy land, claimed by the gospel. Surprise, surprise, in verse 18 Paul quotes Psalm 19: covenant renewal reclaims creation order. In Romans 11 we see the connection again. After Paul has dealt with the great problem of Israel he erupts into praise of God (11:33-36). The themes that he focuses on are themes that are particularly associated with God’s work in creation.
In the light of these three passages we see that we are justified in reading Paul in terms of covenant and creation. For Paul creation goes on to new creation and covenant to new covenant, but these fundamental categories are not abandoned.
If we have grasped the import of all of this we will see the folly of those who divide up Paul in terms of the themes of sin and forgiveness and the problem of Israel. This sort of approach is seen in Westerholm who provides a ‘splendid statement of the wrong point of view’. The NPP has often been at fault for failing to demonstrate the manner in which the issue of sin and forgiveness and the Jew and Gentile issue are integrated within a larger narrative for Paul. We can briefly outline this narrative as follows:—
First. God makes a covenant with Abraham in order to deal with the problem of evil in creation and in His image-bearers.
Second. Abraham’s descendents, who share both in the evil and the image-bearing task of the rest of humanity, nonetheless begin to think that they have some exclusive claim on God.
Third. When God fulfils the covenant, this has the effect of dealing with evil, providing forgiveness, renewing creation and bringing together Jew and Gentile.
Justification in the present is God’s declaration that people are in the right in advance of, and as a means towards, His putting the whole of the creation to rights.
Paul operates in terms of a far larger narrative than most of his readers. The two emphases that are so often torn apart [Jew/Gentile issue and sin and forgiveness issue] are really part of the same thing. God’s dealing with the problem of individual sin and His creation of a worldwide family demand to be thought of together and spoken of in the same breath. So much of contemporary theology has taken Paul apart through a failure to appreciate the story that underlies his theology. Appreciating the narrative of creation and covenant can help us put him back together.
Are you speaking of creation or humanity being put to rights? What about tsunamis and volcanoes? What shape will this all take?
Just read Polkinghorne! Wright claims not to have a particular blueprint. There is much that is unknown here. We must appreciate that the fate of creation as a whole is mysteriously bound up with the fate of humanity — God’s image-bearers. Some cutting edge physicists have spoken of strange interrelations between mankind and the cosmos. [Wright points out that he doesn’t know enough about this research or about the field in general to be able to say much on this issue. He merely tossed it in as something of interest.] When humans are put to rights, creation will share in this. We must beware of the dualism that infects many forms of the faith.
Are the signs concerning Jesus’ Second Coming being fulfilled in our own day? Do you expect Jesus to come back soon?
No. Presumably passages such as Matthew 24 are underlying this question and Wright says (graciously!) that he would take a different approach to interpreting them.
John Milbank: Is Wright merely attempting to reconcile a Lutheran perspective on justification with an account of justification as creating a new political order (bringing together of Jews and Gentiles)? Why not take a more ‘Catholic’ approach — justification as participation in the body of Christ, focusing on Baptism, the Eucharist and the Church as the new society — bringing together these themes within a greater synthesis?
Yes. Justification cannot be isolated from other themes such as participation, the Church, Baptism, etc. Many of Paul’s interpreters have tried to isolate the various themes in Romans and have ended up with their fingers burnt when they bring the same approach to Galatians, where such isolation of themes is far less easy. We should, however, beware of overloading the word ‘justification’. A number of contemporary scholars have taken the approach that we can make words do whatever we want, so long as we pay them extra on Fridays! We must remember that, when Paul uses the word ‘justification’, he uses it with quite a definite meaning.
When interacting with opposing views, should we engage at the level of ‘bird’s eye views’ or at the level of exegetical method?
Most biblical scholars are ISTJs. Many of them love to reduce something to its smallest elements, without much thought of how they are ever going to put it back together again. Wright is an ENFJ. Although some might dismiss the Myers-Briggs test as mere popular psychology, it does point to real differences between personalities. These personalities can be reflected in the manner in which we approach the text. Romans was not written to be cut down into ever smaller parts and analyzed that way. Of course, such scholars are needed, but it is important that we appreciate the relationship between the whole and the parts, the forest and the trees. Some scholars have so atomized such books as Galatians that they forget that it is a single coherent argument. When engaging with opposing views a constant to and fro is necessary.