Paul’s World: #3 Quotations from N.T. Wright

 Here are more quotes from N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These have to do with the symbolic world that the apostle Paul sees as replacing the symbolic world of the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus.

Theology itself plays a new symbolic role in Paul’s worldview. It takes the place, within his revised worldview/symbolic universe/social imaginary (or whatever we want to call it), that had been occupied by more tangible things in the world from which he came.  [352]

First, the Temple….You are the temple of the living God, he says,: not to the Philippians he loved so much, not to the Thessalonians in the midst of their suffering and danger, but precisely to the recalcitrant, muddled, problem-ridden Corinthians. This is not, in other words, a sober judgment based on the noticeable holiness, or gospel-inspired love or joy, of this or that ekklesia. It is simply, for Paul, a fact: the living God, who had said he would put his name in the great House in Jerusalem, has put that name upon and within these little, surprised communities, dotted about the world of the north-eastern Mediterranean. Unless we are shocked by this, we have not seen the point. [355]

Their point was not so much that the old Temple was corrupt or wicked, though those who were running it might be, but precisely that the one God was doing the new thing he had always promised…. This, I believe, is at the heart of the theology of Acts itself, in which Jesus himself has become the place where, and the means by which, heaven and earth are brought together, so that the Pentecost-scene in Acts 2 takes the long-awaited place of a second-Temple scene in which Israel’s God comes back at last to live with and among his people. [356]

The holiness of the ekklesia comes to be, in itself, a central part of Paul’s positive symbolic world, and here is the reason: this community is the transformed new reality to which Paul saw the Jerusalem Temple itself as the advance signpost. [357]

…Paul’s point was not that there was anything wrong with the original promise or symbol. Far from it. When you have arrived at your destination, you switch off the engine and park the car, not because it has not done its proper job but because it has. It is eschatology, not religious superiority, that forms the key to Paul the apostle’s radical revision of the symbolic world of Saul of Tarsus. [367]

The final Jewish symbol to be examined here…. is scripture itself. ….Though scripture was of course put to many different kinds of use by the many varieties of Jewish life in this period, one central strand of these uses was to see scripture as the great, controlling story through which Israel understood its own existence: to see it, indeed, as a story in search of an ending, an ending whose shape and content would not be in doubt (the fulfillment of the promises, the coming of the Messiah and so forth) but whose conditions and hence whose timing, were open not just to doubt but to centuries of agonized searching and questioning. [373]

…Paul’s always-astonished awareness that when he worshipped the God of Israel he now knew that this God had a human face, that he had lived a human life and died a human death. The resacralization of the world begins with Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop there…. whereas the Stoic aimed at living “in accordance with nature,” what Paul envisaged was a radical transformation of “nature” itself–human nature, and the entire cosmos–by the powerful indwelling of the divine spirit. [378]

It turns out that some of the greatest, most central themes of Paul’s deepest teaching–those to do with Jesus the Messiah as the revelation of Israel’s God, as the place where God’s people were summed up and their story brought to fruition, as the one before whom, now, every knee was summoned to bow–grew visibly out of Jewish traditions; they were not, in other words, invented to match or to square off against, the imperial rhetoric. And yet they did in fact confront that imperial rhetoric at point after point. Jesus is “son of God”; he is “lord of the world;” he is “savior;” the worldwide revelation of his rule is “good news,” because through it “justice” and “peace” are brought to birth at last. He is the one who “rises to rule the nations.”

…As far as I can discover, one of the extraordinary innovations in the imperial claims of the Caesars was the production of a “salvation-history,” a thousand-year narrative designed, like the new streets in Ephesus, to lead the eye inexorably upward to the imperial glory. All those years of the republic were a preparation for… this! For the first time, the great Jewish narrative which had lain at the heart of the worldview of Saul of Tarsus, and still lay at the heart of that of the apostle Paul, found a story which matched it, so it seemed, and backed up its claim with an impressive public record. Paul does not mention this story explicitly, any more than he speaks of the imperial claim made by coins, statues and other obvious imagery. Yet we should not ignore the subversive nature of the retold Jewish story which undergirds so much of his writing. If this–the story of Adam, Abraham and Israel, climaxing in the Messiah!–is the grand narrative of the creator’s design for his world, then the grand narrative of Virgil, Horace and Livy, and the visual symbolism which went with those writings, cannot be true, or the ultimate truth. [382-3]

We are simply asking the question: what were the main symbols, and symbols-in-action, of Paul’s newly envisaged and constructed world? And we are about to find, large as life, on the basis not of a theological a priori but simply by asking this question, scratching our heads, and looking around, that the primary answer is the ekklesia: its unity, holiness and witness. [385]

The Messiah’s people are a single family, and must strain every nerve to make that a reality that goes all the way down into their hearts and minds. The way they will do that is by allowing the Messiah’s own “mind,” as worked out in his own astonishing career-path of “giving up” status and rights, to shape their own. [390]


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