N. T. Wright on Paul’s “Plight”
In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright has a wonderful section dealing with the multifaceted “plight” in Paul’s theological outlook. For Paul, far more has gone wrong than simply humanity being sinful and in need of being set right with God. The problem of evil is multi-dimensional, including personal and cosmic aspects. This, of course, makes salvation multi-dimensional for Paul.
The larger section of which the below is an excerpt is well worth reading, not least because it demonstrates the emptiness of the claim that Wright and others who read Paul from a “new perspective” don’t take sin seriously.
The ideas of personal sin and salvation, and the role of Israel’s Torah in relation to those questions, remain important, indeed obviously vital, in Paul. But instead of approaching them through the framework of mediaeval and Reformational theories, we must relocate them within the much larger Jewish framework: monotheism versus idolatry, Torah-keeping versus immorality, the social, cultural and political meanings which went with those antitheses, and not least the larger global and even ‘cosmic’ perspective which was glimpsed from time to time within Israel’s scriptures and later traditions and which Paul brought more fully into the open. We must not, in other words, collude with the relatively modern break-up of ‘the problem of evil’ into ‘natural evil’ on the one hand and ‘human sin’ on the other. Nor, in particular, must we go along with the classic western assumption (still evident in the continuing mainstream tradition and in Sanders’s revisionist proposals) that ‘salvation’ will mean the rescue of humans away from the present world. Insofar as second-temple Jews reflected on such things, they saw evil of all sorts as an unhappy jumble of disasters at all these levels, and ‘salvation’ as rescue from evil (whether personal, political or cosmic) rather than as rescue from the created world. Their monotheism was expressed in the cry for justice and the plea for rescue, two of the great themes of Isaiah 40—55: in other words, for a radical change of affairs within the created world. Paul’s revised monotheism declared that justice had been done, and rescue provided, in the Messiah and by the spirit. This gave him a much sharper vision of ‘the problem’, but it did not create it from scratch.
The basic point can be put quite starkly. Paul already had ‘a problem’; all devout Jews did, as we have seen. The fact that it was not the same as the ‘problem’ of the conscience-stricken mediaeval moralist does not mean it was non-existent. It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed? The revelation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant, for Paul, that the covenant God had offered the solution to these problems – but, in offering the solution, Israel’s God had redefined the problems, had revealed that they had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined (p. 749).
More on “The Plight” from Wright
I’ve been reviewing some older critiques of “the new perspective on Paul” that mention specifically its lack of a theology of sin and salvation. It seems to me, however, that it’s more accurate to say that “the new perspective” broke the hegemony of a certain account of what Paul must have meant by the plight and the solution.
That is, many interpreters had assumed that for Paul, the problem is that humans are sinners and the solution is salvation. Humans are unrighteous and are at enmity with God, and they need righteousness and must be set right with God.
The revolution in Pauline studies that led to a global re-reading of Paul’s texts (all of them, not just our favorite ones) demonstrated that while all this is true, it is part of a much larger picture of what is wrong and how God has acted to set things right.
Grasping this more robust and far-reaching Scriptural depiction of what is wrong leads to a greater appreciation for God’s manifold action in Christ, and to a greater understanding of how God’s people inhabit and embody the massive (and under-explored) reality called “salvation.”
I say all this just to note that N. T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God does a very nice job of demonstrating what Paul saw as “the plight.” It wasn’t just that humans needed righteousness. In fact, the problem went beyond humans. It was cosmic in scope, including the entire creation.
What happens, then, when we put together these three elements, cross, resurrection and spirit? Paul has revised his previous understanding of the plight of the world, of humans and of Israel in line with his revision of monotheism itself. Standing behind it all was the strong early Christian belief that in Jesus and the holy spirit the covenant God had returned at last, and had acted decisively to judge and save. The sudden brightness of this light cast dark shadows: if this was what it looked like when YHWH returned, all sorts of things were called into question. The resurrection of Jesus constituted him as Messiah, but he remained the crucified Messiah, and if in the strange purposes of the One God the Messiah, his one and only true ‘son’, had had to die, it could only mean that the plight of Israel was far worse than had been thought. The resurrection itself demonstrated that the real enemy was not ‘the Gentiles’, not even the horrible spectre of pagan empire. The real enemy was Death itself, the ultimate anti-creation force, with Sin – the personified power of evil, doing duty apparently at some points for ‘the satan’ itself – as its henchman. Finally, the experience of the spirit revealed the extent to which hardness of heart and blindness of mind had been endemic up to that point across the whole human race. All these were there in Israel’s scriptures, but so far as we know nobody else in second-temple Judaism had brought them together in anything like the form we find them in Paul. It looks very much as though it was the gospel itself, both in proclamation and experience, which was the driver in bringing Paul to this fresh understanding of ‘the plight’ from which all humans, and the whole creation, needed to be rescued (761-2).
Earlier Jewish writers had seen quite a bit of this, of course. But for Paul the nature and extent of ‘the enemy’ and ‘the problem’ were revealed precisely in the act of their overthrow. The full horror of the threatening dragon became apparent only as it lay dead on the floor. The hints had been there already, including the biblical warnings about the corrosive and destructive principalities and powers standing behind outward political enemies and operating through the local and personal ‘sin’ of individuals. Neither Saul of Tarsus nor Paul the Apostle would have supposed one had to choose between the partial analyses offered by Genesis 3, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11: human rebellion, dark cosmic forces and the arrogance of empire all belonged together. A thoughtful and scripturally educated Pharisee could have figured that out already. But for Paul all of these were seen afresh in the light of the gospel. The fungus that had been growing on the visible side of the wall could now be seen as evidence of the damp that had been seeping in from behind. The worrying persistent and ingrained sin of Israel, not merely of the nations, was the tell-tale sign that the principalities and powers of Sin and Death had been at work all along in the covenant people, as well as in the idolatrous wider world (763).
Paul’s robust monotheism allowed fully for the fact of rebellious non-human ‘powers’ luring humans into idolatry and hence into collusion with their anti-creational and anti-human purposes. Sin in the human heart, darkness in the human mind, dehumanized behaviour in the human life: all went together with the rule of dark forces that operated through idols, including empires and their rulers, to thwart the purposes of the one creator God. And Israel, called to be the light of the world, had itself partaken of the darkness. Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (771).