Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Review)

It is probably not surprising for a thirty-something pastor type of an evangelical background proclaim his enjoyment of NT Wright’s dozens of books.  Like many in my profession, NT Wright is one of my favorite writers.  His work has done more to shape my understanding of Jesus and Paul then that of any other writer or scholar.  Even better, many of his works are completely readable for any Christian, you don’t need a seminary education to get what he is writing.  I’d love to see more people pick up an NT Wright book.

That said, he is also a brilliant scholar.  His big books on the New Testament are amazing.  First was The New Testament and the People of God.  Then came Jesus and the Victory of God, which is probably my favorite of his books, as it examined the life and ministry of Jesus.  Third was The Resurrection of the Son of God which has a following among those who do apologetics, since Wright defends a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.  But it is much more than that, not just defending that the resurrection happened but talking about what it means.

Last fall Wright released the long-awaited fourth book in this series, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  Perhaps “book” is the wrong word to use, for it is a two volume tome clocking in at over 1700 pages (well, 1519 is the last page before you get to bibliographies and such).  My lovely wife got me this book for Christmas, figuring the $50 price tag made more sense as a gift then it would for me to just buy it myself.

Since then I’ve read the book in chunks.  It is broken into four parts.  Parts 1 and 2 take up the first volume and after reading them I took a long break.  I took another long break after finishing the chapter in part three on election (not coincidentally, this was days before my son was born).  A little while later I took it up and managed to finish the whole thing just before my wife’s maternity leave ended and I put my “at-home-dad” hat back on.

What can I say about a 1500 page book on the Apostle Paul?  If you want a summary of the book, you can find one easily.  I’ll just say it is amazing in both depth and breadth.  It is not a book just for scholars, Wright writes in such a way as to deserve (and he does receive) wide readership.  Overall, it is a fantastic book.

To some degree, if you’ve read Wright’s other works you may know the direction some of this would take.  Wright places Paul solidly in his Jewish context.  This meant that Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was before meeting Jesus, was a Pharisee in the first century, living under the rule of Rome in a culture infused with Greek thinking.  As a first-century Jew, Paul lived at the end of a long story, the Hebrew Bible, that had not yet been finished yet.  And it was his encounter with Jesus that led him to realize that Jesus truly was the Jewish Messiah who brought this grand narrative to a fulfillment.

One thing Wright emphasizes over and over is that Paul was Jewish.  Setting Paul up as the founder of Gentile Christianity, opposed to Judaism, is a false start that has been taken by many.  Instead, we see Paul doing just what we would expect if he believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah – Paul rethinks his entire worldview, specifically monotheism, election and eschatology.  It is these three topics that take up part three of the book.  In terms of monotheism, Paul rethought the Jewish belief in one God in light of Jesus.  This chapter could be seen as a sort of argument for Jesus’ identification with God.  I find Wright’s argument makes a lot more sense, though it is not just a simplistic “Jesus = God” in the way we think of it.  For Wright, Paul saw Jesus doing things that Israel’s God was expected to do.  From this Paul wrote things that may have put later Christians on the road to the Council of Nicea and the Trinity, but he was not there yet himself.  In other words, to simply ask Paul, as people ask today, “Was Jesus God?” is to form the question somewhat wrongly.  For Paul Jesus was not a mere man, but Paul was not writing a fully developed Trinitarian theology.

Early in the book Wright argues that the ancient world was dominated by Stoic philosophy, similar to panetheism, while our world is more Epicurean, similar to Deism.  So Paul is answering Stoics and our challenge is to apply this to an Epicurean world.  All that to say, Wright is not giving us apologetic fodder to win arguments, he is giving us a picture of a first century Jew rethinking his tradition about God with Jesus now at the center of that tradition.

Election is another topic that Wright has some great things to say.  Too often “election” has been taken to mean that God chooses some people to save and go to heaven while everyone else can burn.  Wright argues that election was always a choosing for the benefit of the world, Abraham and Israel were chosen to bring blessing.  Paul rethinks this in light of Jesus, seeing the Christian church, made of Jew and Gentile, as chosen to bring this blessing to the world.

Here is a place where people may want Wright to write more.  What about those who never heard or who reject?  What view on hell does Wright have?  He does address that a bit in another book, but he leaves it here.  Why?  Because that was not the question Paul is asking, and this book is about Paul!

Ultimately, Wright argues that in all this Paul is creating Christian theology that will feed the church in its mission.  Jesus did what God would always do, open the door to relationship with God to all peoples.  This point is made through various images, for example, Jesus is the rebuilt temple through whom any and all people can know God.  There is no replacing of Jews by non-Jews, instead in Jesus all people, both Jew and Gentile, can know God.  But in leaving behind Jewish traditions, as Paul did, there was a hole in the life of God’s people.  Paul’s work filled this hole.  He created an understanding of Jesus, a theology, that would carry the people onward into the future.

There is so much more to say about this book.  I thought it was interesting how we see Christianity as a religion, but most in Paul’s day would have seen him doing philosophy.  First century pagans did not go to religion to learn ethics, that was what philosophy was for (not counting the Jews).  The beginning and end of Wright’s book where Wright delves into this first century world and how Paul was responding to it is fantastic.

Overall, its a great book.  I can’t recommend it enough for pastors, teachers or anyone who wants to spend a lot of time learning about Paul.

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