Jul 11, 2007

July 11 marked our first class on NT Wright's book Paul in Fresh Perspective. For those who missed it, or who want a refresher on what we covered, this post will serve as a quick overview of the discussion during the first class.

During this class, we introduced the distinctive ideas that Wright brings to the table when reading Paul's letters, and we then focused on the first major theme that Wright recognizes in Paul's letters: that of Creation and Covenant.

Here are some of the differences between the traditional ideas about Paul and the ideas that Wright will discuss in the book:

1. Paul's Opponents. In the past, I have thought of Paul's opponents as people who professed that you could "earn your way into God's favor." But Wright contends that no one in Paul's world - even the most self-righteous Pharisee - would think such a thing! Instead, he believes that Paul's opponents were those who believed the Gentiles should be "marked" as the people of God through the requirements of the Mosaic law (for example, by circumcision or by the type of diet that is observed).

2. Paul's Message. Likewise, Paul's extensive discussion on such subjects as faith, works, and grace are not present merely to explain the mechanics of salvation. Instead, Paul is showing how God is "marking" his people through, for example, faith - rather than through the Mosaic law.

3. God's Righteousness. Christians have often thought of the phrase "the righteousness of God" to refer to the way God imputes his righteousness on us. But Wright thinks this phrase normally (always?) refers to God's righteous act in reclaiming his world.

4. God's Future. We tend to think of God's "project" as getting people into heaven after they die, but Paul uses the language of resurrection and new creation to describe God's future. These two concepts bear some similarities, but they are dramatically dissimilar in other ways.

Wright believes that, in order to understand Paul, we must understand his world and his questions. Paul, he tells us, finds himself at a particular point in history - and it is necessary to understand the questions of his people and of his day to understand his letters.

Wright identifies three major themes/narratives in Paul, the first of which is the theme of Creation and Covenant. Here is the short version of the "Creation and Covenant" story/theme:
1. God created the world; it was good
2. Creation became marred by sin and death
3. God made a covenant with Abraham to restore creation; pursuant to this covenant, Abraham's children were to become lights to the world
4. Abraham's children failed to fulfil the covenant; instead, they decided to treat the covenant as an exclusive privilege

Our tendency is to move straight from point #2 to the crucifixion/saving act of Jesus on the cross. But, Wright tells us, Paul wrestles with #3 and #4: how will God act to fulfil the covenant now that Israel has failed in its assigned task? The need to explain Israel's "failure" and the ways that God will nonetheless move forward with his covenant are an important feature of Wright's interpretation of Paul.

Next week, we will have a look at the way the theme of Creation and Covenant is developed (a) in the Old Testament and (b) in Paul's writings.



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