In this last of my series of posts on Paul I will do a short review of N. T. Wright's What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997). It's a fine little book (192 pages; seemed shorter) that, along with Sanders' Paul: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2001), will give any LDS student of Paul a quick introduction to the current scholarship. After reading both books, my quick summary, with slight exaggeration, is:
- To understand Christianity, one must understand Paul.
- No one understands Paul.
In Chapter 1, Puzzling Over Paul, Wright emphasizes the degree to which Paul is presently misunderstood:
Nobody who wants to think about Christianity can ignore him; but they can, and do, abuse him, misunderstand him, impose their own categories on him, come to him with the wrong questions and wonder why he doesn't give a clear answer, and shamelessly borrow material from him to fit into other schemes of which he would not have approved.Wright identifies four general topics in which misunderstanding of Paul is evident (history, theology, exegesis, and application), then organizes the balance of the book around these four topics.
History: Paul as the Herald of the King
In the two historical chapters, Wright tries to push aside the view that Paul founded a new religion (Christianity) from the disorganized ideas preached by the Jesus movement. Instead, Wright anchors Saul of Tarsus firmly in first-century Judaism and the view among the zealous that the God of Israel would (somehow) redeem Israel as part of a larger plan to (somehow) spread God's revelation to the rest of the world. His conversion on the Damascus road simply gave Saul an entirely new understanding of God's plan: Instead of moving God's plan forward by purifying Judaism (which Saul was doing by hunting down heretic Christians), God had acted directly in the world to move forward His plan to redeem Israel and inaugurate the new (messianic) age through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That became Paul's message.
Wright considers the Old Testament use and context of the word "gospel" (Gr euangelion), such as the passage at Isa. 52:7: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.' There is also a first-century Greek context wherein euangelion referred to the proclamation of a new emperor. These two views are often held to be in conflict. Wright suggests that was probably not the case for first-century Jews like Paul, for whom the emerging imperial cult was seen as a profoundly religious claim, not just a political development. The proclamation of Israel's God as superior to and triumphant over false pagan gods was set against Rome's proclamation of its emperors as divine. Wright describes Paul's proclamation (good news, gospel, euangelion) not as a message of personal salvation but as a proclamation of an unexpected messiah, King Jesus. Wright does inform us, however, that "the claim that Paul regarded Jesus as the king, the Messiah, and that he announced him as such, is controversial within New Testament scholarship at present."
Theology: Paul the Monotheist
If one thing was clear to first-century Jews, it was that they were monotheists, worshipping the one true God, and the pagans — everyone else — were polytheists worshipping a variety of false gods and idols. So where did the risen Christ fit into Paul's monotheistic theology? Even Wright's attempt to state his view clearly doesn't seem very clear:
One of the most striking things about Pauline Christology ... is this: at the very moment when he is giving Jesus the highest titles and honours, he is also emphasizing that he, Paul, is a good Jewish-style monotheist. Faced with this evidence, we either have to conclude that Paul was really a very muddled theologian indeed, or that he intended to say, as clearly as was open to him, that when he put Jesus and God in the same bracket he was not intending to add a second god to the pantheon, as in paganism. Nor was he intending that Jesus be seen as somehow absorbed into the being of the one God, without remainder. He was inviting his readers to see Jesus as retaining his full identity as the man Jesus of Nazareth, but within the inner being of the one God, the God of Jewish monotheism.
Every commentator on Paul must wrestle with whether the doctrine of justification built up by modern Protestants is supported by a careful reading of Paul's authentic writings. Here is Wright's quick summary of the modern view:
Many people ... would say, off the cuff, that the heart of Paul's teaching is "justification by faith." What many such people understand as the meaning of this phrase is something like this. People are always trying to pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps. They try to save themselves by their own efforts; to make themselves good enough for God, or for heaven. This doesn't work; one can only be saved by the sheer unmerited grace of God, appropriated not by good works but by faith. This account of justification owes a good deal both to the controversy between Pelagius and Augustine in the early fifth century and to that between Erasmus and Luther in the early sixteenth century.
Wright suggests that this popular view "though not entirely misleading, does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul's doctrine, and indeed distorts it at various points." After reviewing Paul's discussion in Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians, and Romans, Wright describes his view of Paul's doctrine of justification as related to three categories: covenant, law court, and eschatology. Covenant relates to who is included within "the true people of God who will be vindicated"; law court relates to the context of the term translated as "justification," which was the term applied to an acquited party in a lawsuit; eschatology relates to the placement of the ultimate declaration of acquital or justification "at the end of history," although many in the present already anticipate that acquital or justification.
As to Pelagianism — the straw doctrine that conservative Christians seem to apply to anyone who disagrees with their particular formulation of the doctrine of justification — Wright provides this wry observation:
If Pelagius survives at all today, it is at the level of popular secular moralism, which is in any case becoming harder and harder to find in the Western world.
Application: What Paul Means Today
Understanding Paul is not simply an academic exercise. Paul wrote his letters primarily to Christian communities. For Paul, participation in a Christian community was a central part of what being a Christian was all about. So what does Paul have to say about such participation that is relevant to a 21st century church or congregation, LDS or otherwise?
Wright discusses "Paul's vision of God's renewed humanity" under several categories. First, "At the centre of Paul's vision of genuine humanity is the true worship of the one true God." Paul retained the Jewish view that pagans (non-Jews) were idolators and that only worship of the God of Israel was true worship. Wright goes on to discuss resurrection, holiness, love, and mission as they relate to the life of the church. In general, it is helpful to remember that, in his letters, Paul was not preaching to individuals, he was communicating with congregations. As against the popular habit of interpreting all of Paul's statements through the lens of personal salvation, it is helpful to also focus on the kind of Christian community Paul was trying to build. He had a vision of what the ideal house church or congregation should be.
Wright has a very accessible writing style for the popular reader, and he covers a lot of ground in a fairly short book. His analysis and discussion is useful not just for Anglicans or Episcopalians (Wright is an Anglican cleric) but for just about any Christian, including Latter-day Saints.
Let's wind up with a paragraph from Chapter 9, Paul's Gospel Then and Now, that shows Wright's ability to bridge the gap between the first and the twenty-first centuries.
Journalists expressed surprise not long ago when a survey revealed that the great majority of people in the United Kingdom say that they believe in God, but that the same great majority doesn't go to church. They shouldn't have been surprised. The "God" that the great majority believe in is, pretty certainly, the Deist god, which corresponds in Paul's world to the Epicurean god or gods. These beings were distant, remote, and uncaring. They enjoyed a state of perfect bliss, no doubt; but they never got their hands dirty by caring for, or being active within, the world in which we humans live. It's not surprising that people who believe in the existence of that sort of god don't go to church except now and then. It's hardly worth getting out of bed for a god like that. Paul's announcement of the gospel brought to surprised pagans the news that there was a true God, who was living and active, caring and loving, and who had acted and was acting within history and within human beings to recreate the whole world. Our announcement of the gospel of Jesus must include, as a matter of first importance, the equivalent message ....