A Summary of Chapter 2 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

1. Creation and Covenant in the Old Testament

N.T. Wright finds the themes of creation and covenant to be at the center of Judaism and Paul’s thought. He demonstrates his understanding of these terms by looking at some passages from the Old Testament.

He begins with Psalm 19. The first six verses celebrate the fact that creation praises God and declares his glory. Verses 7-14 praise the Torah, which is the covenant charter of Israel that binds Israel to Yahweh, for enabling the Israelites to become “whole, cleansed, integrated human being[s]” (p. 22-23). Psalm 147.19-20 celebrates the fact that only Israel knows the statutes and ordinances of the Creator.

Psalm 74 laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. In verses 12-17 the psalmist looks back to creation as evidence that God has the power to act on Israel’s behalf. Verses 18-23 petition God to have regard for the covenant.

Wright knows that other passages could be called up to support the connection between creation and covenant but wants to draw attention to those passages appealed to by Paul. He views the narrative of Genesis as teaching that God chose Abraham to undo the sin of Adam. Deuteronomy 27-30 states that the promised land will be fruitful if Israel obeys Yahweh but that the land will turn against them if they disobey Yahweh. Isaiah 40-55 frequently bring together creation and the covenant.

Wright’s main point in this section is (p. 24):

[T]he Creator God is the covenant God, and vice versa; and his word, particularly through his prophet and/or servant, will rescue and deliver his people from the enemy. This combination constituted the deep implicit narrative within which the multiple other narratives of second-Temple Judaism find their coherence and meaning. We could put it like this, in a double statement which might seem paradoxical but which carried deep meaning through ancient Judaism.

First, the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation. God called Abraham to solve the problem of evil, the problem of Adam, the problem of the world . . . . Israel’s calling is to hold fast by the covenant. Through Israel, God will address and solve the problems of the world, bringing justice and salvation to the ends of the earth – though quite how this will happen remains, even in Isaiah, more than a little mysterious.

But, second, creation is invoked to solve the problems within the covenant. When Israel is in trouble, and the covenant promises themselves seem to have come crashing to the ground, the people cry to the covenant God precisely as the creator. Israel goes back to Genesis 1, and to the story of the Exodus, in order to pray and trust that YHWH will do again what, as creator, he has the power and the right to do, and what as the covenant God he has the responsibility to do, namely, to establish justice in the world and, more especially, to vindicate his people when they cry to him for help. In both cases, we should note carefully, it is assumed that something has gone badly wrong. Something is deeply amiss with the covenant, whether Israel’s sins on the one hand or Gentile oppression on the other, or perhaps both — and to this the answer is a re-invoking of creation, or rather of God as creator.

The author goes on to briefly mention that these themes are appealed to in Second Temple Judaism in books such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Qumran literature, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.

Paul sums up the theology of creation and covenant with the Greek term dikaiosyne theou (the equivalent of the Hebrew tsedaqah elohim), which means the righteousness or justice or covenant faithfulness of God. There is no equivalent English word so we must remember that in Jewish and Pauline thought this justice springs from “the creator’s obligation to the creation and from the covenant God’s obligation to be faithful to his promises” (p. 26).

2. Paul: Three Central Passages

This section is meant to show some examples of where Paul uses the theology of creation and covenant, even if those precise words are not mentioned explicitly. N.T. Wright’s overall point appears to be that Paul views creation and the covenant being renewed by God through Jesus Christ.

(i) Colossians 1.15-20

Wright believes that Colossians was written by Paul, which is disputed among scholars. He sees this dispute as rather irrelevant for his purposes here since the poem exhibits all the traces of Paul’s thoughts. Paul is writing of a creator God who is also the redeeming, covenant God. Of course Paul differs from Second-Temple Judaism in envisaging creation and redemption as coming through Jesus the Messiah.

(ii) 1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians 15 is one of Paul’s longest and most detailed arguments. Genesis 1-3 lies behind much of the argument: (a) verses 21-22 state that the resurrection will come through a human being just as death came through a human being; (b) verses 23-28 draw on various Old Testament texts; (c) verses 35-41 draw on the different kinds of created things to explain the resurrection body; and (d) verses 42-49 contrast the resurrection body with the earthly body of Adam. Paul sees sin and death defeated through a renewal of creation, not an abandonment of creation.

(iii) Romans 1-11

Romans 1.18-4.25 calls humanity to account for not recognizing and praising God by appealing to God’s goodness and power in creation. In 2.17-29 Paul states that Israel is no better than the nations. According to Wright (p. 29), “[t]his creates a crisis for God himself, a crisis exactly parallel to the crisis which 4 Ezra saw so painfully: how is God to be both faithful to the covenant and just in his dealings with the whole creation?”

Paul answers this question by pointing to Jesus, through whom a renewed people of both Jews and Gentiles are welcomed on equal terms. In chapter 4, Paul draws on the Abrahamic covenant to show that this covenant has now been fulfilled in Christ. Chapter 5 tells how Jesus reversed the effects of Adam’s sin. Chapter 7 explains that the law exposes the sin within us. Chapter 8 states that God, through Jesus and the spirit, has accomplished the goals of the covenant. In chapter 9, Paul, sad over Israel’s rejection of the gospel, retells the covenant narrative. Expounding on Deuteronomy 30, Paul goes on, in chapter 10, to say that the whole world, not just the promised land, has been reclaimed by God. This renewal of creation continues in chapter 11.

3. Evil and Grace, Plight and Solution

Wright finds the following three propositions in Paul’s writings (p. 36-37):

(1) God made the covenant with Abraham as the means of dealing with evil within the good creation, which meant dealing in particular with evil within human beings, God’s image bearers . . . .

(2) The family of Abraham, who themselves share in the evil, as well as in the image-bearing vocation, of the rest of humanity, treated their vocation to be the light of the world as indicating exclusive privilege. This was their own meta-sin, their own second-order form of idolatry, compounding the basic forms they already shared with the Gentiles. This further point is basic to Paul’s critique of Israel in such passages as Romans 2, 7 and 10 and Galatians 2, 3 and 4.

(3) When God fulfills the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, thereby revealing his faithful covenant justice and his ultimate purpose of new creation, this has the effect both of fulfilling the original covenant purpose (thus dealing with sin and procuring forgiveness) and of enabling Abraham’s family to be the worldwide Jew-plus-Gentile people it was always intended to be. Indeed, when we rightly understand the matter, we shall see that from Paul’s perspective at least these two effects were so closely aligned with one another that they not only could be spoken of in the same breath but demanded to be thought of as the same thought.

4. Conclusion: Jesus within Creation and Covenant

In the conclusion the author stresses that Paul is a theologian of creation and covenant. He makes the interesting point that Paul’s speech in Acts 17.22-31 seems fully in line with Paul’s thoughts when we understand his theology of creation and covenant. Scholars who doubt whether Paul would make such a speech may have missed something in Paul’s letters.

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