A Summary of Chapter 5 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

1. Introduction

This chapter is entitled “Rethinking God”. Jews typically focus on monotheism, election, and eschatology when they look at theology systematically. Paul’s views can be studied under these categories as well. N.T. Wright explains the interrelationship of these themes in Paul as follows (p. 84):

(1) The one God is revealed not only as the creator and sustainer of the world, but also precisely as the God of Israel, that is, the electing God, and also the God of that final judgment for which he, as creator and sustainer, must remain responsible.

(2) Election, as it becomes refocused on Jesus as Messiah, is seen as the personal self-revelation of the one God in action and, so to speak, in passion. As we have already seen, Paul’s Christology binds the story of God and the story of Israel tightly together, and in doing so also gives eschatology its characteristically Christian shape: the long-awaited end has come forwards into the present, and has given the present time its peculiar character of now-and-not-yet.

(3) The coming end is itself guaranteed because of the justice of the one creator and covenant God. This eschatological vision is already revealed in Jesus the Messiah, and the energy by which the world and the church are moved from the present time to that of the ultimate future is the Spirit.

This chapter and the next two chapters will look at Paul’s views on these three major themes.

2. Monotheism: The Jewish Roots

Jewish monotheism was and is a creational and covenantal monotheism. The one God made the world and remains in a dynamic relationship with it. This God made a covenant with Israel in order to further his purposes within and for the world. Therefore, pagan religion is seen as a failure to live as one is created to live.

3. Monotheism and Christology

Paul regularly demonstrates his adherence to Jewish monotheism (Romans 1, 3, 4, 8; 1 Corinthians 15; Galatians 3). However, there is the question of how Jesus fits into Paul’s views on monotheism.

In Romans 10:5-8 Paul, like Baruch and 4QMMT, reads Deuteronomy 30 as a program Israel was going to follow. Following the Torah would result in blessings while sin would result in curses, the ultimate curse being exile. If Israel returned to God they would be brought back from exile and the Torah will be written on their hearts. Whereas Baruch and 4QMMT see this promise as unfulfilled, Paul sees it as fulfilled through the Messiah, who is Lord of all (10:9-13).

In Philippians 2:6-11 Paul equates the Jesus with the one who was from eternity equal to God. Isaiah 45:23 is one of the most monotheistic statements in the Hebrew Bible and Paul quotes it and refers it to Jesus. Thus, Paul has written a hymn in praise of Jesus using language characteristic of Israel’s praise for God.

In 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul stresses his belief in one God. But we should note that he modifies the Shema (the Jewish daily prayer that says, “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one”) and places Jesus right in the middle of things (NIV): “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” In viewing Jesus as God’s agent of creation and redemption, Paul has done with Jesus what other Jews have done with the figure of Wisdom. Colossians 1:15-20 also has Jesus acting as God’s agent in all that he does.

Moving on to Paul’s use of the term “son of God” in reference to Jesus, Wright says (p. 95):

What Paul has done is to take this idea and fill it with new content, without losing the messianic meaning and the cognate one of representing Israel. What has happened in, to and through Jesus has convinced Paul that hidden within the divinely intended meaning of Messiahship was God’s determination not just to send some else to do what had to be done but to come himself to do it in person. Only so can we make sense of passages like Romans 5.6-11, where the death of Jesus (precisely as the son of God, as in 8.3 and 8.32) expresses more clearly than anything else the love of God. This can only be so if Jesus is understood as the very embodiment of the one God.

In Paul’s mind, the cross reveals the faithfulness of the covenant God (Romans 3.21-26).

4. Monotheism and the Spirit

In Galatians 4:1-7, Paul tells his audience that they are already complete in Christ and do not need to take on the yoke of the Torah.  The spirit of the Son has been sent into their hearts (v. 6).  How then can they back away from this son-sending and spirit-sending God?

In Romans 8 Paul alludes to the exodus story, replacing the Shekinah with the Spirit.  The Spirit will lead Christians to the renewed creation (8:24).  The Son and the Spirit, not the Torah, fulfills God’s promises (Romans 8:3-4, NIV):  “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”

5. Scriptural Roots, Pagan Targets, Practical Work

Paul himself offers various summaries of how his message relates to Israel’s scriptures:  the fresh revelation of God’s covenant faithfulness is ‘apart from Torah, though Torah and prophets bear witness to it’ (Romans 3.21); ‘the things that were written long ago were written for our instruction, so that through patience and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15.4).  Paul draws frequently on the Exodus narrative, now to be recapitulated in the new Exodus, the real return from exile promised in Deuteronomy 30 and still awaited by many in his own day.  He seems to have held in his mind a grand narrative about God, Israel and the world, and when faced with the events concerning Jesus he came to believe that this narrative had reached its appointed climax.  How this played out in other areas we shall examine in the subsequent chapters; but central to my proposal here is that Paul believed that, just as Israel’s God had been revealed in a new way when fulfilling his promises in the Exodus, so now this same God had been revealed in a new way, a full and final way, in fulfilling his new-Exodus promises in his son and his Spirit.  The place where this narrative is laid out most obviously, in implicit dialogue with all kinds of other second-Temple Jewish retellings, is Romans 9 and 10, where Paul traces the story of God and his purposes through the patriarchs and the Exodus to the warnings of the prophets and the eventual failure of Israel, leading (in good Deuteronomic fashion) to the point where God at last restores the fortunes of his people — with the striking, dramatic new twist that God has now done this through the Messiah and the Spirit.  (p. 102)

In targeting pagans Paul told them of the true God who could save.  The pagan gods could enslave people but they could not save them (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10).

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