Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (eds) (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
This is the tenth part of a series Brian LePort and I are tackling out of this book, which is based off the most recent Wheaton Conference. Scroll to the bottom of this entry and you will be provided with links to previous posts that cover previous chapters and moreover a schedule for future entries. Lastly, thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.
N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?”
The facts are, I’m not going to write about every detail Tom spoke about. This means you need to go to Amazon and buy the book. This chapter was fantastic, and in my estimation a prophetic message to the church. What, in this review I will emphasize, is the necessity for unity amongst the body of Christ.
Tom suggests we begin developing our Pauline theology by starting with the most unlikely of letters: Philemon. As I’m sure we know, Philemon is the shortest Pauline book, and gives us a birds-eye view into the man that St. Paul was and how, in praxis, he understood the Gospel to effect even the most minute, pastoral, and every day situations. So, he suggests we begin with Philemon.
What does Tom see in this book? He writes
“Paul does not mention, in this letter, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But it is the cross of Jesus Christ exemplified and embodied in Paul’s ministry, which is bringing the master and slave together. Paul is doing the unthinkable, bringing about what he says in Galatians 3, close-up, sharp and personal: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. This is what it means in practice. The cross is the place where the irreconcilable can be reconciled.”
The Central Symbol: The United Family
Tom (W)rightly emphasizes that the view of there being neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, was completely foreign to the ilk(s) of Second Temple Jews. For Paul, something new has happened; there is a new worldview on the horizon! Humanity has now been united in Christ; and in Christ, no longer are there schisms.
He argues that in Galatians, the central thrust of the whole letter is that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should sit at the same dining table together. Along with Galatians, 1 Corinthians is about the unity of the church. He writes “The exposition builds all the way to the picture of the single body with many members in chapter 12.”
From here, he speaks about Philippians. He writes “Then, in Philippians, the question is raised: How are you going to ‘let your public life be worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (Phil. 1:27)? Answer, in chapter 2: ‘make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
How about Ephesians now? He writes “The unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ (Eph. 2:11-21) is the direct outflowing of that exposition of justification in verses 1-10. And then in chapter 3 this explodes in the glorious truth that through the church, the multicolored, many-tongued family [emphasis mine], the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
Wright then brings us to the most famous and debated Pauline work, Romans. Wright writes:
“actually in chapters 14-15 we have some of the most profound teaching anywhere in Scripture on the unity of the church and how to maintain it. It isn’t a detached topic it grows directly out of all that has gone before in this most majestic of letters. The hard-won, complex unity of the church, which results in the church glorifying the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one heart and voice: that’s what it’s all about. Romans 16:7-13 is the climax of the theological exposition of the whole letter, and it insists on the united worship of the multicultural church as the ultimate aim of the gospel. This is the heart of Paul’s ecclesiology [emphasis mine].”
Wright believes that it’s a new-temple ecclesiology. It is us, the people of God, who are now his temple. Here’s another long quote that now gets this point across:
“that’s there in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6, and it’s there in Romans 8 too, where the indwelling of the Spirit has the same temple resonance, though it’s not usually noticed. So, similarly, in Colossians 1:27: where Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” he doesn’t just mean my individual hope of glory and your individual hope of glory. The ‘you’ is plural, in any case, but the point goes further than simply stressing this is more than sum total of individuals. Look at it like this. God intends to flood the whole cosmos with his glory. There is coming a time when the most Spirit-filled person in this room will be just a pale shadow of what God intends to do for the entire world. But that is anticipated when a room full of people in Colossae, a dozen or two in Ephesus, maybe fifty or so in Rome, are worshiping and praying in the Spirit: this is a sign of the time that is to come when the eath will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. The Messiah is in you, now, as the sign of the hope of glory for all creation.”
It is through us, this renewed and united people of God, in Christ, by the Spirit, that is God’s answer to the problem. We, with Christ in us, experienced and unified by the Spirit, are the people through whom this world will see Jesus.
The Most Crucial Task of the Church, Theology:
As we’ve seen, Wright contends that we as the body of Christ need to be unified! “The center of Paul’s worldview, in terms of symbolism is this community. It is about Philemon and Onesiumus getting it together. It’s about Euodia and Syntyche getting it together in Philippi. It’s about Jew and Gentile learning to sit at the same table in Antioch or Galatia. That is the center: the united community.” How do we maintain this unity? How is this relationship sustained? “How can such a fellowship keep going, when living in a world from which the normal symbols that define the various constituent communities have been taken away? The only way this community can be sustained, I believe, is through what we call theology.”
He argues that the most crucial of the task of the church, in every age, is to do theology, but with this unity! The church needs to be unified in the sense that tradition isn’t infallible and that we, as the people of God, are called to think about things. This is what Paul did. So now, our duty is to continually discover what Paul, Jesus, Isaiah, and everyone else is saying about the God in whose story we been found in. The three most important of these he mentions are: monotheism, election, and eschatology.
As I said in the beginning of this entry. I think Wright’s speech was a prophetic call to the church. He hit right on the nail. We need to repent of disunity. Sure we may not agree on some matters, but at the same time, we ought to realize that there is something more, something deeper, something more powerful that unites us: God’s Spirit. Let us not resist the beckoning of the Spirit because of pride, but let us be instructive, evaluative and critical in love, and to be “quick to listen, and slow to speak.”
Schedule for this series:
08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Daniel James Levy)