N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (2)

In this chapter Wright outlines his view of “Creation and Covenant.”  This is a summary version of his larger Climax of the Covenant, but is thorough enough to introduce the reader to what, in my view, is the heart of Wright’s Fresh Perspective on Paul.  Early on in the chapter he says that the ideas of creation and covenant are “at the heart of Judaism” and also “always central to Paul” (page 21).

Two key elements of biblical theology are important for Wright’s argument.  It is almost axiomatic that God is the Creator in the Hebrew Bible.  But it is equally obvious that we live in a “world gone wrong.”   At various points in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible God takes the initiative to repair the damage: covering the shame of Adam and Eve, rescuing Noah from the flood, choosing Abram out of Ur, and most importantly, redeeming Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  In each case, creation language is used to describe God’s work of salvation.  The parallels between creation and the flood are well known, but similar language is used in the Exodus (chaos, water, might acts of God, etc.)  I would also add that the promise of Gen 12 is to make (create) a new people from Abraham, and that the events of the Exodus are the creation of that new people.

At each of these points in history, God makes a covenant with the people whom he saves.  There is an unconditional aspect of the covenant (God will save Adam and Eve, Noah, Abram, the children of Israel) but there is also an expectation of continued relationship with God after he has rescued the people from their situation.  In each case, God expects that the humans in the covenant relationship will respond to the revelation they have been given. We know a great deal more about the responsibilities within the covenant with Abraham and the Law given through Moses, so we can understand the nature of the relationship between belief and response better than the covenants with Adam and Noah.  I do think that by way of analogy we can say that God expected some sort of relationship with the sons of Adam and the Sons of Noah.

Response to these covenants is a bit of a mixed bag – there is some obedience and there is much more disobedience.  Perhaps this is the nature of the record we have, since the historical books are designed to show the failure of the nation to respond to God’s covenant in the Law.  It is clear, however, that God used similar language to describe salvation in each covenant described.  In responding to the needs of people , God is doing “a new creation,” he is renewing the promises he made from the very beginning.

Up to this point I only comment on the Hebrew Bible, but several questions immediately come to mind.  Is this creation / covenant theme actually found in the Bible, or is it imposed by presumed theological decisions? Remember, Wright and I do not share the same theological presuppositions, but I think he is reading the story of the Hebrew Bible correctly.

Secondly, is Wright correct to say that this view found in Judaism is also in Paul?  If the idea of creation of covenant are found in Judaism and Paul, does this have anything to say about our development of systematic theology from the Pauline material?

20 thoughts on “N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (2)

  1. “Is this creation / covenant theme actually found in the Bible, or is it imposed by presumed theological decisions?”
    This question also resounded within my thoughts as I read through Wright’s creation and covenant analysis. For every student of the Bible there is a common danger of falling into our own theological presuppositions and in turn misinterpreting or reading our own desired outcome into the Bible. It appears that Wright reads his own covenant theme into Pauline literature. I believe that I follow Wright’s argument with regards to creation and justice, yet when he comes to the accomplishment of the covenant with Abraham his presuppositions follow that of Covenant Theology which poses a problem. “Paul is recalling Abraham, neither as a random proof-text for justification by faith, nor as an example of Christian before Christ, but precisely as the one with whom God made the covenant in the first place, the covenant which has now been fulfilled in Jesus.” (30). The covenant given to Abraham is found in Gen. 12:1-3, which in most cases is found at the center of Covenant Theology. Israel is to be a blessing to the nations, and Wright sees that in Christ all nations can be blessed. However, he misses the point that the nations still have to come through Israel. Salvation is always an act of grace, yet once Jesus died on the cross, for the whole world and fulfilling the law, Israel remained the nation through which all the nations could be blessed. Wright presents a renewal of the covenant at this point, which in fact is not true. God was still working explicitly with the nation of Israel. He further states: “When God fulfills the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus…this has the effect both of fulfilling the original covenant purpose and of enabling Abraham’s family to be the world wide Jew-plus-Gentile people it was always intended to be.” (37). Israel was always able to reach the nations, yet it was always through Israel. Even in his analysis of Romans 1-11, Wright fails to understand that Israel has been rejected and a time of salvation has come openly to the Gentiles. Rom. 9-11 especially depicts Israel as being set aside, it is not a new creation nor new covenant for Israel. It is rather an opportunity for the Gentiles. I am surprised with Wright’s inability to notice the clear distinctions which Paul has so obviously pointed out between Israel and the Gentiles.

  2. “…is Wright correct to say that this view found in Judaism is also in Paul? If the idea of creation of covenant are found in Judaism and Paul, does this have anything to say about our development of systematic theology from the Pauline material?”
    Clearly there will be evidences of creation and covenant reflected in Pauline theology since he still addresses the nation of Israel in many passages as well as his arguments that they have been set aside. However, it would be a grave mistake to read this covenant renewal into Pauline theology. With regards to the development of systematic theology much care should be taken on our account, but also in Wright’s account. He states: “Indeed, I suspect that it is the failure of previous generations to come to terms with Paul’s theology of creation and covenant that has made them wonder whether Paul’s theology of Acts 17 is compatible with the Paul of the letters. And from there we could show that it is precisely through his theology of a renewed covenant, in which all nations can share on equal terms, and of a new creation, in which the whole world is already claimed by the creator as the new, extended and soon-to-be Holy Land…” (38). Wright’s ‘fresh’ take on the creation and covenant view of Paul’s theology is clearly something that he believes was hidden (failed to see) from past generations. It is alarming that Wright and only Wright has the new and ‘fresh’ answers to the failure of previous generations. Why would this knowledge have been hidden for the past 2000 years and all of the sudden come to Wright? In a further quote it seems evident that Wright has fashioned a lens in which to observe all Pauline theology: “Once we frame the question within the overall narratives of creation and covenant, the way is clear and open to a fresh statement of Paul which will do far more exegetical justice to passages concerned and which will show how these two emphases are in fact part of the same thing, both to be equally stressed.” (36). Wright has created his own ‘fresh’ frame from which to observe Pauline theology, a new lens that can change very much the way in which systematic theology develops from Pauline theology.

    • I’m sure I’ve used this anecdote before, but my old theology professor from Frontier used to say, “If you’ve come to find a new doctrine, or understanding of the Bible that no one, in two thousand years of scholarship has come across. That smarter men then you, who’ve dedicated their whole life to the study of the Bible, never came across. You are more than likely WRONG.”
      This is often my guiding light when I take the scripture to guard against reading my own presuppositions into the text. I wonder if Wright has ever heard this phrase, but then again, he seems to be basing his claim off of the evidence that has been revealed to us through the archeological information that has been gained over the past century pertaining to the Jews of the first century. He might be uncovering the common everyday knowledge that anyone might have read into the text for the first 800 years of the church, before it was lost to tradition and ritual. But once again this is all presupposition. So, is this really a “fresh frame” or the renewal of the old?

      • Question: Which theo-philosophical question is better? Do the presupposed fallacies of contemporary critical thought shoot down the papacy and there “educating the masses” or Do Biblical scholars of times past bare the burden of “flak-to-the-face” theological destruction of said modern minds? Answer: Those are two different realms of thought. To say that any man of any time has a better “Mind” for this matter is the same as a drooling infant. Paul was indeed in my mind (ironic…), better equipped for directing and guiding because he was led along by the holy spirit without immense exposure to pseudo-critical or even thoughts along the lines of theo-anarchy. It is a thought process of self denial and scriptural immersion that will render a better image of application. Question: Which bear is better? Answer black bear…

  3. There seemed to be quite a few points in reading this section of Wright which were difficult for me to understand. The topic of creation/covenant made enough sense to respond. I do agree with Wright in saying that the creation/covenant theme constantly surfaces throughout the Old Testament. However, the biggest case of this creation/covenant relationship is seen in the New Testament with Jesus redeeming sinful man through his death on the cross.
    I am a little more weary to agree with Wright regarding the second question. It seems that Wright makes the mystery into a correction in Israel’s thinking, as if Gentiles had a share in the covenant relationship from the beginning. Wright uses Romans 8 to prove his point, but I think that Romans 8 actually disproves his theory. The difference in the readings of Romans 8 is rooted in the difference between Covenant Theology and a kingdom rejection Dispensational view of Scripture.

    • After reading Wright’s thoughts about Creation/Covenant being a theme which surfaces throughout the OT I must admit it seems a very good argument/explanation to which I did not find any objections to.
      However, in regards to Zach’s point,

      “It seems that Wright makes the mystery into a correction in Israel’s thinking, as if Gentiles had a share in the covenant relationship from the beginning. Wright uses Romans 8 to prove his point, but I think that Romans 8 actually disproves his theory. The difference in the readings of Romans 8 is rooted in the difference between Covenant Theology and a kingdom rejection Dispensational view of Scripture.”

      I think he hits the nail on the head in his last statement. The difference is rooted in the differences between the two schools of thought. I must say though, to someone such as myself, who has not grown up with a knowledge of dispensationalism and has just the basics of it down from my time at Grace, Wright’s arguments do seem nearly as credible. So to me it isn’t as easy as saying his theology is different from mine, so he is wrong (not that anyone is saying that).

    • Do gentiles have a share in the covenant? well what does God tell Abram/ham in his coventant in Gen 12:3 “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” that seems to indicate that Gentiles have a share in the coventant relationship, but lets look at the other time blessing to nations is mentioned in Gen 18:18 “seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” Once again it seems to be pointing that Gentiles have a share in this blessing. after all, all nations seem to be more than just Jews.

      • I agree with you that the Gentiles were always going to be blessed by the covenants with Israel. This was clear from the OT. However, it does not specify how they would be blessed in the OT. It implies that the Gentiles would be blessed through Israel because of Israel’s holiness and their walk with God.

        However, I would say that the NT, especially the rejection of the Kingdom, the Gentiles are blessed because Israel rejected the offer. They did not bless the Gentiles by their faith but lack of there of. This is not what the authors of old were talking about when the Gentiles were going to be blessed. The biggest question would be if the prophets of old were really predicting the rejection of kingdom as the means for the blessing of the Gentiles.

  4. Creation/Covenant discussion is an interesting theme that yes, one can identify in the OT. I like what Wright writes, (double your flavor) “When everything is tottering and crashing all around, in other words look back to Genesis 1, and to the evidence that the creator’s power has in the past been made known on Israel’s behalf.” (p. 22) I think that is a simple but powerful reminder of how the creator wants the creation to be made whole. But Wright makes this statement when discussing the OT, not the NT. What creator wouldn’t want to make their creation perfect. A creator sets a standard (the covenant) and when that standard is not met then the creator must correct the creation.

    I believe that this theme is found in the OT, I have a hard time seeing it in the NT. Maybe it is just me and all of these fancy biblical wording being thrown around, but I think N.T. Wright is presuming to much into this theme.

    If some one wants to point me in the right direction on seeing the light when it comes to Wright’s view in Paul’s writings, by all means open my eyes.

  5. @Jed “by all means open my eyes.”

    In addition to what I wrote above, I think that another hint is that Paul describes our status “in Christ” in terms of new creation, we are a new person in Christ (2 Cor 5); in addition the idea of reconciliation in that text has a great deal of “new covenant” behind it.

    In fact, at the last supper Jesus describes his sacrifice as the blood of the new covenant. As a second Adam he endures the curse of the Law and is resurrected by God, ratifying the new covenant. That language appears in Paul as well, so there is another example of creation (Adam) and covenant.

    • Reading this post, along with Wright, further confirms my growing belief in the importance of the participation in Christ language found in Paul. As you have stated in your initial blog post, there is a distinct creation/covenant that appears in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 31 also comes to mind when he describes the “new covenant” that is ultimately started by Jesus Christ, as found in last supper that you have already cited.

      Having read Dunn through this summer, I’ve already spent some extensive time wrestling with this whole concept. Though it is not stated explicitly in Dunn’s book “The Theology of Paul the Apostle”, it definitely resonates throughout most of his work. When I think of this “creation language” used in the New Testament, my mind instantly goes to Dunn’s “Christ Mysticism.” I think he does a splendid job in his concluding paragraph of hitting home the point of participation in Christ:

      “… the correlation of 2 Cor. 5:17 – “in Christ, new creation!” And there is a similar correlation in the final summary of Gal. 6.14-15 – crucified with Chrest, new creation! This is not simply what might be called a sense of “new age” resonance with the rhythms of creation. Here the sense of a disrupted, out-of-joint creation is bound up with it. “New creation” is not “new age,” precisely because the former starts with the cross. The new creation is not possible without the crucifixion of me to the world and the world to me. Here again the sense of participation in Christ is powerful, but the controlling thought is of participation in Christ crucified.” (Dunn 412)

      Here, Dunn states that this “in Christ” motif (that he has dubbed “Christ mysticism”), is none other than the “new creation” but not just Christ, but Christ crucified, the risen Lord. There is a strong presence in Paul of Jesus Christ being a real and living presence in the lives of early Christians. Christ is a real, and he is active in the lives of all who choose to believe in him. Now what does this mean for our current discussion of creation/covenant?

      As you (P.Long) have already pointed out, in the Old Testament there is a constant failure/correction pattern where God continually provides the means for which to rescue his people from their situations. You cite examples of Adam, Noah, and Abraham, then ask about “what about the New Testament?” I agree with what you have replied with. There is a lot of new creation language, Dunn even points to Rom. 8:16-29, and Galatians (especially 2:20!).

      I think there is much more to state than everything that I have here, and indeed I have more to say on this (some of my own blog posts address this whole concept of “Christ Mysticism”) but I think this gives a clear way of thinking about creation language than just in the context of the Old Testament, and not just blaming Covenant Theology (as has been offered in some replies). To miss the “in Christ” motif of Paul that resonates through almost every part of his theology, is to miss the heart of Paul’s transformation and belief, and, indeed, the heart of Christianity.

    • Thanks P. Long. The more I thought about it after writing my first post, I could see the side that N.T. Wright takes. I first thought he was just coming up with something that wasn’t really there. But, now I understand where he is coming from. It is the same idea that he brought up earlier in the chapter.

      God is still perfecting his creation and that is why Jesus’s death was needed. For me I think I just get thrown off from creation being the same as Adam, and N.T wright puts it.

  6. As always, Wright puts up an interesting argument that is somewhat revolutionary and difficult to deal with. It is persuasive to a point. The view of creation/covenant theology in Paul’s letters seems well evidenced, but partially lacking as well. “We are indeed right to read Paul in terms of that theology of creation and covenant…But, as we have seen, for him it is always a matter of going from creation to new creation, and from covenant to renewed covenant” (p. 33). But what shall we do, as Zach has brought up, with the rejection of Israel as we see it depicted in the gospels. Wright finds no distinction between Israel and the Church, He is especially inclusive of all people and all creation coming to a full restoration at the end which is completely contrary to the dispensationalism’s presuppositions. But even if we bring no presuppositions, this imagery of kingdom rejection must be addressed to some point. It can not be utterly left out. There is a vast gap between the biblical theology of the Old Testament and the new, and mysterious views of Paul that need more attention because it still plays a significant part in Israel’s history adn thus covenant history. Paul is firmly rooted within second temple Judaism, we know this well enough from Polhill, yet all the same, Paul’s views met a climactic shake at his conversion and he turned his attention to the gospel for the gentiles. Could the ‘new creation’ of 2 Corinthians 5 still contain the imagery of Old Testament Jewish thought yet suggest a completely and entirely unrelated new creation?

    • >Could the ‘new creation’ of 2 Corinthians 5 still contain the
      >imagery of Old Testament Jewish thought yet suggest a
      > completely and entirely unrelated new creation?

      Excellent, yes. I think this is a creation / new creation motif Wright was describing. And you are correct, Wright is not a dispensationalist so the rejection and eventual restoration of Israel is not on his radar.

  7. I definitely agree with you Justin..that Wright puts up an interesting case for what he believes to be a “new perspective.” I would agree that Wright is right (I won’t copy you Jed) about the bigger picture of the continuation of the covenant theme within the OT. It does seem a little interesting as to why Wright would use the term fresh perspective in the title, but, in pg. 37 of his book, discusses the debate of the “new perspective.” He makes the case that those who are in opposition must “come to terms with the integrated vision of human sin and redemption and Israel’s fall and restoration which characterizes Paul through and through, precisely because his controlling categories are creation and covenant. He is not simply assuming an implicit narrative about how individual sinners find a right relationship with a holy God (any more than he is simply assuming an implicit narrative about how Gentiles can have easy access to God’s people). In so far as he would be happy with the former way of stating matters at all, he would insist on framing it within the much larger question of how the creator God can be true to creation, how th ecovenant God can be true to the covenant, and how those things are not two, but one” (Wright 37). All this to make his point that the phrase dikaiosyne theou is all about.

    In light of this passage, my question becomes what don’t we agree about this passage of Wright?

  8. I have never thought of this before. But it is a very interesting fact that Wright points out. But I do think that he is correct in what he is saying. I think that we do see God using creation and then having a covenant to go along with it. We see that many times. I think it only makes sense. God created this world, so why would He not use it when He wants us to do something for Him. God gives us covenants so we will do something that He wants us to. I think that Wright has a lot of proof to back up what he is saying.

    • interesting thoughts Jessica. I have to say that I do agree with that. I think that God can and does use his creation in order for himself to be glorified. Like you said (jessica) Why would he not use it?

      to answer the first question, creation/covenant theme is pointed out in God’s covenant with Abraham, not to steal shaun’s thunder on this point, but that was the first thing that came to my mind even before i read any of the responses. there are continual creation/covenant themes all the way through the Bible.

  9. Is this creation / covenant theme actually found in the Bible, or is it imposed by presumed theological decisions? Remember, Wright and I do not share the same theological presuppositions, but I think he is reading the story of the Hebrew Bible correctly.

    From what I understand I think that Paul is on the right track with the creation/covenant agrument. Because I am a simple thinker, I really like this sentence that Wright says at the end of the chapter. He says, “God has done what Torah could not. The one through whom all things were made is the one through whom all things are redeemed” (39). Wright sums up this chapter in these two sentences. Humans tried and failed, so God who made everything, who is all powerful, saves us, and “makes things right.” How do I apply this knowledge to my relationship with Christ? My first thought is that I am able to praise Him and glorify Him more for what he has done for me. But I feel like that is not enough. Maybe I do not understand the severity of this topic, but I do not know what to do with this information.

  10. Good points being made by Wright in this chapter with his view through creation and covenant. I’m finding myself feeling that I say the same things about Wright whenever I post about him. He is always refocusing us on what is going on in the Biblical text by going back to the underlying context and culture of the time. I’m seeing parallels between this and his “Challenge of Jesus”, his emphasis on Jesus in relation to God’s relationship with the Jewish people and Jesus’ fulfillment of what the Jews were supposed to be to the world. What struck me from this section of reading was the way Wright presented Israel as invoking God in relation to His being the creator to “deal with the evil” and remember the covenant ( 23).

  11. I found myself wondering if Wright wrote this book with every well-known oratorio in the sacred classical music repertoire playing in the background. Pretty much they could be the source for every single text he uses.

    Which begs the question – why in the world did all of these benighted unfortunates who didn’t understand the true theme of creation/covenant choose those particular texts? Most oratorios worth listening to were written well over 100 years ago, and if their composers had no idea of the importance of this doctrine, they must have been incredibly lucky to have hit upon the very texts used by Wright in supporting it. Or perhaps, as was suggested in the cases of Haydn, Mozart, and Bach – they were divinely inspired.

    I thought Wright made some good points in this chapter. I question whether his perception of the groundbreaking nature of his theology hasn’t become the lens through which he views his own theologizing. If so, that’s a little…no, that’s a lot problematic. But I’m willing to see what he continues to lay before us.

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