N.T. Wright on ‘The Shape of Paul’s Theology’

Below is a very good video in which N.T. Wright gives a fifteen minute introduction to the shape of the Apostle Paul’s theology. There are some things, I think, of particular note as you watch.

First, there is what Wright does not mention – in this case neither Paul’s theology of justification or the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (and no, the two are not coterminous as some assume). This will be troubling to a great many evangelicals who consider justification in some form to be the epicenter of Paul’s theology. On this we should remember however, that even the conservative Reformed theologian Thomas Schreiner does not think justification is Paul’s theological center. Schreiner says that what God has done in Christ and Jesus himself is Paul’s center. (See for instance his chapter in Four Views on the Apostle Paul and his interview with Credo magazine.)

Second, Wright does us a great service by placing Paul in his first century context as the Jewish theologian he was. Too much of Paul talk has simply read Martin Luther’s problems with personal guilt and his issues with the medieval Catholic church back onto PauI. I think this sort of anachronism has overdetermined how Reformed and Evangelical theology since has treated ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ and ‘justification’ – these things being stripped from their narrative context and ‘systematized’ as it were, such that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith became basic shorthand for and equated with the gospel. (For more on this see Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.)

The problem here, of course is that Paul was not a first century Martin Luther and the Judaism of Paul’s day was not the first century equivalent of the medieval Catholic church. Now, Paul surely does have a theology of justification by faith and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith does say some things that are true. However, I would still say that 1) we get justification in Paul wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification and 2) we get the gospel itself wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification (which in American evangelicalism becomes further reduced to something like the ‘plan of individual salvation’).

Third, Wright’s mention for Christians to speak truth to power is instructive for the church in the U.S. during an election year when too many Christians are content to be pandered too with superficial God talk and do not have the wherewithal to avoid being used as pawns in American politics (left, right, and in between). Pay special attention here to Wright’s comments with Romans 1:14-16 in the background. I think here we get some important background that informs as to precisely what ‘gospel’ Paul was not ashamed of in Romans (and it has very little to do with our modern plan of salvation). Wright’s comments on I Thessalonians 5:2 concerning ‘peace and security’ as a Roman state slogan and a ‘giant con’ and a ‘protection racket’ I think has an important parallel for present day American Christians who embrace too readily the peace, security, prosperity, success, or happiness of the civil religion of Americanism or one’s political platform. As Wright states, ‘Jesus is the reality of which Caesar [and the Democrats, Republicans, or any other political ideology] is the parody.’ The gospel of the cruciform King Jesus should call into question ALL other political ideologies. ‘Jesus is Lord [King], Caesar is not’ forms the basic identity forming ‘politics’ and paradigmatic narrative for God’s people in Paul’s thought.

Fourth, in the second half of the video Wright sums up the three big themes of Paul’s theology as monotheism (or one God), election (or one people of God), and eschatology (or one future for God’s world). Each of these Wright emphasizes, gains a trinitarian focus as they have been rethought and reworked by Paul in light of the faithfulness of Jesus as the Messiah and the experience of the Spirit. With all this, Wright is summarizing the thrust of much of the argument in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective which has been instrumental in helping me to grasp Paul’s thought here and the integrating my own focus on trinitarian theology with narrative (and even missional) theology. I highly recommend it.

(HT: —of Paper, Pints, and Tweed)