N. T. Wright – Paul and the Covenant

Wright makes the point on page 23 that there are two key texts in the Hebrew Bible which bring together the ideas of creation and covenant.  The first of these is Deuteronomy 27-30, which I have often called the “most important chapters in the Hebrew Bible” since they are foundational for not only the historical books which follow, but also the prophets.  I really do not think you can have a fully developed biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible without coming to terms with Deuteronomy, and perhaps one’s New Testament theology is not complete until the contribution to the message of the Hebrew Bible is understood.

What is more, Wright’s second example is Isaiah 40-55, a text which describes the glorious return from Exile as a new Exodus.  The people in exile are going to return to Zion in a procession through the wilderness, which is now a well-watered paradise, blooming with al kinds of plants.  In fact, Isaiah 40-55 is not just a new Exodus, it is a return to Eden.  God will do something at the end of the exile will restore creation to the original, intended state.

What is remarkable to me is that these two sections of Scripture (Deut and Isa) are the most important texts in Second Temple period Judaism in general, but even more important, for Jesus and Paul.  Wright states that the combination of covenant and creation which we find in these texts is a part of the “implicit narrative” of the Second Temple period.  He is correct, this sort of language turns up at Qumran and in a variety of the literature crated in this period.  Certainly we must include the New Testament as texts which were deeply influenced by the “implicit narrative” of these texts.

Wright selects three Pauline texts to illustrate his point, let me add a third.  In Galatians 3:10-14 we have a series of biblical texts combined to argue that what Jesus did on the cross has in a very real sense dealt with the curse of the Law.  In fact, this text connects the promises made to Abraham to faith in Jesus.  Here is how Wright reads the text:

  • Verse 10 – Everyone who does not do the law is cursed (Deut 27:26, blessing and curse, exile = curse);
  • Verse 11 –  “the righteous will live by faith” (Hab 2:4).  When Israel goes into captivity, they are under the curse and can no longer be a blessing to the nations.  How can the blessing of the nations ever be fulfilled if the nation is in exile?
  • Verse 13 – Christ redeemed from the curse by become a curse for us.  Israel at it’s best is salvation by works, if you don’t accept the messiah you have to be saved by works; the only way to overcome the curse is the death of Christ on the cross. The death of Christ on the cross is a re-living of the exile on the cross.
  • Verse 14-16 – if Israel cannot redeem the nations, how do the nations be blessed? Through the death of Jesus the true seed of Abraham and will bring the blessing to the nations.
  • Back to verse 11 – no one can be justified by the Law.  Israel is divided into faith and works, some relate to the messiah in faith, some relate in terms of works.  Those who are doing works for salvation are cursed, those who are operating under faith are the true seed of Abraham (who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.)

In effect, Wright says that Jesus took on the curse of the Law in order to end the exile for good, so that those who have faith in Jesus are no longer children under the Law (and therefore the curse of the Law), but the are children of Abraham (and therefore live by faith.)

The real problem here is the historical question – did Second Temple period really believe they were still in exile?  Were they really looking forward to God breaking into history in order to put an end to the exile and create some sort of solution to the curse of the Law?  Would this have taken the form a real kingdom (ie., the diaspora Jews all return to Zion where the Messiah rules over them, and the Romans are destroyed), or is this a more peaceful, perhaps metaphorical solution which deals with the problem of sin which corrupted the covenant from the beginning?

I suppose the answer depends on presuppositions concerning the nature and relationship of the Church and Israel.  But I am really not happy with the either / or on this issue.  It could be both are correct views, if carefully stated.

25 thoughts on “N. T. Wright – Paul and the Covenant

  1. I think that the Second Temple period definitely believed they were in the curse of exile. I think this offers a satisfactory solution to the why the Jews were so eager in anticipation for a messiah to come and free them from Roman suppression. I love the idea that Jesus took the curse of the law so that Israel was no longer bound by the law in order that He might end the exile for good. This seems to fit perfectly with Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”

    The question remains unanswered why Israel was not freed from Roman suppression, but continued to remain under Roman control in “exile.” The answer to this question is answered by the book of Acts, which is an account of Israel’s rejection of the Kingdom. This Kingdom would have been the end of the Roman suppression as Christ ruled the world. The total fulfillment of this creation redemption remains to unfold in the Kingdom; in this dispensation, Israel and the promises made to her have been set aside.

    • Well, I finally found a place to play the devil’s advocate. What if the concept here is an ‘already, not yet’ moment. Israel may have been freed from the oppression of sin if they had accepted the messiah’s message, and they may still be waiting for end of the exile. In fact, most Christians look forward to the return of Christ as the point when he will set up his earthly kingdom and destroy the enemies of his people, which now happens to extend to gentiles as well as jews.

      haha…dang, I just finished reading your post…i thought I had already, but it is late…lol. Well, then I just about completely agree with you. Christ came and if Israel had accepted him as their messiah, he would have set up his kingdom right then and there. However, as far as when they reject Christ, I think that would return to the cross. The ultimate rejection occurs when they kill him, and Acts is mostly sealing the deal. But like I said, we are all looking towards when Christ will return and set up his kingdom.

    • I also agree that they believed they were in the curse of exile, and that as Wright talks about in “What Saint Paul Really Said”, the Jews were still waiting for the pagan rule to end, for their temple to be restored and so on, and that Paul in relation to this view, and in relation to his “zeal” as a pharisee,, wanted to be part of bringing these prophecies into volition by making Israel keep the law of the Torah.

      • I think it’s weird that “Violation of the Torah” was perpetuated voraciously by the Jewish community yet preached just as valiantly. We have the OT accounts of the Jewish leaders violating the commands as the common folk did. What do you guys think, do the pharisees have as much weight as they were given/thought they had in this period, or was it all just a “making of noise?”

    • The more i read passages like Deuteronomy and Isaiah, the more I get a glimpse of what Christ really suffered for. The shortcomings and failings of his people Israel and how they were so ignorant about the person of Christ and what He meant for their future. The rejection of Christ makes all the more potent the laws of deuteronomy, how they rejected help even in their sinful states, and how they desperately need a Messiah. Now they have to wait for their promises to be fulfilled “in the Kingdom; in this dispensation, Israel and the promises made to her have been set aside” as Zach has stated.

  2. You know Eccl. may have been right, there is nothing new under the sun. Deut. 28 not only seems to have set up Isaiah but gives us a glimpse into the mindset of Israel throughout its history. In Amos 5:18 we find that they are “waiting for the day of Lord.” They are expecting God to come and fulfill the promises that the Israelites would be blessed and set up as a great kingdom as in the days of David. In a similer way we see that during the second period especially during the second temple peroid they were waiting for the Messiah to deliver them from Rome, and set Israel up as the new kingdom.

  3. @Zach “I love the idea that Jesus took the curse of the law ”

    I think that this is the critical moment in Wright’s theory — Jesus becomes Israel so that Israel can be free from the curse of the Law, The problem (in my mind) is that this leads quickly to a replacement theology; the church is a new Israel which is freed from the Law. I’m not happy with that implication, since it would short-circuit a future kingdom for Israel. Or at least radically re-define it.

    Wright sometimes sounds like a dispensationalist (at least one of the more sober ones), but this is a point which I do not think is compatible at all. Or maybe it is, if I work at it a bit more.

    • I don’t think Wright would say (or says) that the Church is a new Israel, but he also doesn’t say that the Church is completely distinct from Israel. This is why he often comes dangerously close to sounding like a dispensationalist, and can at the same time separate himself from it. He says that all of the things which made Israel “Israel,” – land, temple, Torah – Jesus fulfilled and redefined in himself.

      So for Wright, Jesus is the new Israel. He has become what Israel was always meant to be (but never could be – which is what Paul’s argument about the Law is in Romans and Galatians). When God makes covenants with people, those outside the covenant always find blessing through those with whom the covenant has been made. The covenants with Abraham and with Israel were always meant to provide blessing for the world, so that Gentiles would encounter God through the nation of Israel (Is. 56). If Jesus is the new Israel (or perhaps Wright would say, the TRUE Israel), the new covenant means that all humanity – Jews and Gentiles – are brought into the covenant through Jesus, the Messiah who was crucified and has risen.

      This doesn’t short-circuit a future kingdom for Israel, but it certainly does redefine it in a way that means the dividing wall of hostility that as destroyed to create a new humanity will not be re-established in the future.

      • Gary – “So for Wright, Jesus is the new Israel. ”

        You are correct, that is the main contribution of Wright. But if Jesus is True Israel (proper Israel, what Israel was always supposed to be, etc.), is there a “present Israel” apart from the church which might have a future? IMHO, there can be a future for Israel, and that future is some sort of real kingdom of God in the future. I think Wright will resist that, maybe out of frustration with those Left-Behind types.

        To a large extent, I am frustrated by the fact Wright has not done a full eschatology, and I have not read Surprised by Hope yet. (Yeah, I know, but i have been busy.)

  4. Now, I’ve been thinking that if Wright were to be a dispensationalist, based on the information provided, he would have begun this new dispensation of fulfillment of the law at the cross. Which brings to mind how this would affect the doctrines of the church. The emphasis wouldn’t have been on Paul said this, or Paul said that, but this is what Paul is revealing to us about how God’s people have been reborn in the church. I may be way off, and I’m sure I’ll hear about it tomorrow, but this seemed to be his purpose in stressing the three points between pages 36-37. One, God made a covenant with Abraham. Two, the family of Abraham falls into pride and missed the point of the covenant, and Three. God fulfilled the covenant through Abraham’s family line, i.e. Jesus, and there is a new creation/covenant.

    • PJ – Wright repudiates anything dispensational in The Last Word, despite the fact that I have deep resonance with his ideas there. I think he hears the dispensational like ideas and goes out of his way to say, “no I am not a dispensationalist and stop calling me that.”

      “covenant” and “dispensation” are similar terms, since a covenant must be managed in some way. The term dispensation used to be used in that way in theology all of the time, but since theologians and real biblical scholars do not like looking like the Left Behind people, they avoid the term now. You can see God’s plan unfolding in a series of stages and not call those stages dispensations, but they are still something like what dispensationalists have identified.

      That God fulfilled the covenant in Jesus in the heart of the matter, but what follows covenant except New Covenant? What will be at issue is the extent to which the present age is a full realization of the New Covenant.

      As expected, I’m going to call “already not yet” on this one. We experience some aspects of the NC, but they are not fully realized until Christ returns.

  5. I know this is way off topic but I wanted to comment on where P.Long in his comment said, “Wright sometimes sounds like a dispensationalist” because in another book of his (sadly I am not good at remembering the names of N.T. Wright books) he talks about a 5 act play model which, in my mind, comes dangerously close as outlining what would be his 5 dispensations. However, he disclaims is by saying he is not saying he believes in dispensationalism by stating those 5 “Acts” of God’s “Play”.
    I have always found that interesting because I totally agree with P. Long he sometimes does seem like a closet dispensationalist.

    That being said I find it interesting how PJ always finds a way to bring up the question of when the current dispensation started.

    • > P. Long he sometimes does seem like a closet dispensationalist.

      No, I am out of the closet.

      (I know this is not what you meant, though.)

  6. Second Temple Judaism did see themselves as a people in exile. The Roman rule of first century Palestine certainly had characteristics of captivity and disallowed for a true nation of Israel to be re-established. It seems fair to say that the Jewish people were hopeful and expectant of the Messiah’s coming and the re-establishment of Israel, but this, I think, gets into kingdom theology a bit. In order to discuss Second Temple Judaism’s perspective of their exile, we would have to factor in their expectations of the Israel re-established and why Jesus, the true Messiah, did not fit their expectations of most likely a physical kingdom and thus why he was rejected by them (already-not-yet implications here). Did Jesus ever really end Israel’s exile? Did Jesus take the curse of the law from Israel or fulfill it’s requirements for the gentiles? A solution here does largely deal with the relationship of the Church and Israel. But also, why is the Law a curse? Did the Law come before sin? Perhaps I didn’t read thoroughly enough into the text, but it would seem that the Law was established as a means of dealing with the curse that already existed.

  7. What P.J said about the family of Abraham falling into pride makes me think that we need to consider the “lead up” to the book of Acts. I think that another person to consider is moses. In his time, the people of God would turn from him, invoke God’s wrath, and Moses would inercede at which point God would relent. To think that the people of God felt they were in exile and considering what the role of moses was in the O.T is strikes a hard bedrock of what shame the Israelite nation should have felt at the time.

  8. Yea, I would definitely agree with you PJ. In my humble opinion, I think the biggest separation that Wright wants to make with Dispensationalists is that there seems to be more of a continuity within the bible, hence the plays. I think there are a lot of similarities withing Wrights view, and Dispensationalism, almost to the point where he could be called, a “closet dispensationalist.”

    In Wright’s view, it makes sense that the next “play” would start after Christ and the Cross. What kind of implications would that make? P. Long, you talk about how that in Wright’s theory, the Church essentially becomes the new Israel. In the bigger picture, in his fall and restoration model that he gets at, makes sense doesn’t it? Not that we are New Israel, but that we [Christians] become the new creation that Paul gets at in 2 Cor. 5:17.

    Could we possibly take the picture of a baby being conceived [at the cross] and finally giving birth [giving full form] in mid acts as a model for this view?

    • hm, I have some questions about what you mean by this baby allegory. I do not know how much this would float for a mid-acts dispensationalist. When you talk about conception of a baby, you know that in the end, when it comes out, it will be a baby. There is no questions of that. When you apply this allegory to the cross and the church, you make it sound that when the cross happened, the body of Christ begun and was waiting to come out by mid-acts.

      However, mid-acts dispensationalist, in my opinion, would not agree that the baby was conceived at the cross. The crucifixion, burial, and resurrection and the offer of the kingdom was all a part of the plan from old and was not a new concept. It becomes something different when Israel rejects this offer and God turns to Paul and the Gentiles. This is the mystery Paul speaks of in Ephesians, the body of Christ. This is not the baby that was conceived at the cross but something that God did because of the rejection of Israel.

      • This “conceived at the cross” thing turns up in dispensationalist writings, I am thinking of Ryrie commenting on Matthew 16 (on this rock I will build my church). He says something to the effect that the church was born at that point, but it was not revealed fully until Pentecost, or he says that the church begins in Acts 2 but it is not fully described until Paul.

        Maybe the birth metaphor works in the long therm, since God’s plan since the fall was to redeem the world, and and that redemption is not fully realized until the Kingdom. The whole of human history is the re-birth of the world as God intended it, the present age is a stage or step in that process.

        Ultimately, Moses, I think that the metaphor is fine, but it serves either side (or all sides) equally well.

  9. Well, one thing that stuck out to me in this blog was this statement:
    “Israel at it’s best is salvation by works, if you don’t accept the messiah you have to be saved by works.” In MacDonald’s book ‘Understanding Your Bible,’ he talks about the works of Israel. He makes the point that it wasn’t the works themselves that saved the individual in Israel. What saved the individual was their trust that by God’s grace, he would accept their sacrifice in place of the punishment that they deserved. Further, he points out that it wasn’t the works themselves that saved them. God rejected the sacrifice that was offered up by Saul. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and they were following the law as best as anyone could ever. So, we see that there has to be a theme of Grace throughout the history of the Bible, not just starting with the Body of Christ, but going back to Israel as well.

  10. Jesus is color blind. He doesn’t see Jew or Gentile, he sees faithful follower or condemned sinner. I would argue that God has always been willing to work non-Jews into the promise, but up until Christ those who had where a step ahead. The Law wasn’t just for the Jews for it condemns all who disobey it. Once God had that pounded into the thick skulls of His chosen nation (not that I would have done any better) He then flung the gates of heaven wide open for His chosen nation to lead the rest of us in.

    This is what I think Jesus is really getting at when He says, in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The Jewish nation is being trained by God to be the ‘blessing unto the nations’ throughout the O.T. so that when Jesus came and became the ‘perfect sacrifice’ the Jewish nation would be ready to teach the Gentiles as God had taught them. (The snag being that the Jews got so hung up on the Law that you get people like Saul, hunting Christians because of his zeal for the Law.)

    Dispensational theology seems to flow so well until it’s eschatology and splitting of Jew and Gentile. It seems pretty clear to me when Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek” and “If you belong to Christ, then you are heirs according to the promise” in Galatians 3:28. Future Kingdom for Israel alone? Why, when the banquet has been opened to all? (Matthew 22:1-14)

    • First of all Jews are distinguished by their color. That may have been the case in the first century, but today Jews can be white. So from the get-go, you’re opening sentence is full of errors just like the rest of the theology of your post. Give me ten examples in the Old Testament where Gentiles were fully welcomed as a part of the nation of Israel. Israel was to be a blessing to the nations, Israel was never supposed to “evangelize” to them in a way that they convert to Judaism in the sense that they then become Israelites, People of the Law. Paul tells us this “Jew/Gentile” indifference (in the sense that there is no difference), was a mystery, something unforeseen by the prophets of old (Eph. 3). So unless Paul is talking about something else, or unless Paul is allegorizing or even reading his “own theology” into his conversion experience on the road to Damascus; I would have to tell you that your evaluation of Gentiles in the Old Testament is dead wrong.

      This is even why people like N.T. Wright believe that the Church is the “New Israel” for the exact reason of Gentile admission into the “People of God” without the Law. People like Wright would hold that this is the mystery of which Paul speaks. Now you have two different sides of the argument and calling them wrong.

      Thirdly, while it is true that Jesus came to fulcfill the law, and that by doing so he acted as the perfect sacrifice for Israel. However, It wasn’t because the Jews were so hooked on the Law to be somehow blinded to what Jesus had done. According to the Law they were righteous, Godly men. The people who we, today, would have looked up to in that day. They were the N.T. Wrights, the Rick Warrens, and, even, the Rob Bell’s for some. The Jews, especially the Pharisees, were not bad people. They, like any God-fearing Jew, would have been skeptical of any man claiming to be the Messiah, especially one who dies by crucifixion.

      The problem is that they completely reject their Messiah, the risen Lord; and again they rejected the Holy Spirit which had been poured out to them. It is this exact moment that spurs this “new dispensation,” this “new act.” This is more important than just something that they Pharisees (men who KNOW the Law, and know God’s commandments) missed when they were studying their Torah. This is an unforeseen event! God made a new people, the one new man in Christ, a people that were distinct because they were a new breed of human, neither Jew nor Gentile. The moment you accept Christ, you are striped from your old identity and given a new one (becoming a new creation).This is why the Body of Christ cannot be New Israel, because it is NOT Jewish, and neither is it Gentile (pagan).

      • They ARE NOT distinguished by their color! That paragraph makes no sense without the not.

    • > Dispensational theology seems to flow so well
      > until it’s eschatology and splitting of Jew and Gentile.

      Well said, Ben, which is why I think the more recent versions of DT have tried to see a more consistent future in which Jew and Gentile both participate in the kingdom. Scofield (Ryrie, MacDonald) would disagree, but the more recent formulations see the present age as leading up to the kingdom, not a total interruption in the otherwise Jewish plan.

      Read Progressive DT, it is much better on the kingdom than the older forms.

  11. John you started your post with a ‘strawman argument’ and then proceed to misunderstand me almost completely.

    I did not say O.T. Jews where ‘evangelizing’ to Gentile- merely that God occasionally worked them into His people. (Therefore it was not a mystery at all- except perhaps the number of Gentiles the promise was opened to.)

    Anyone who rejects the Holy Spirit/Jesus Christ is blind, or blinded. The Pharisees who you called ‘not bad people’ still put Jesus on the cross and then persecuted the Church. The bias against Gentiles that was built up by people like the Pharisees in there pursuit of perfect obedience to the Law and cleanliness.

    The problems that the early Church has in Acts 15 may also be attributed to such people and their polluted teaching.

    My main point of contention is the definition of the ‘mystery’ which I do not, as of yet, see being the entry of Gentiles into the promise.

  12. Amillenialism, anybody? : )

    Okay, so, not touching that one yet.

    But I will say that I think the answer to the either/or with which P Long is grappling is and always has been faith. We know there were Second Temple Jews who were looking for a Messiah – look at Simeon and Anna. We also know there was a fairly broad cross-section who had fallen in love with their own efforts and power and tried to repudiate Jesus. Isn’t it the same issue that Paul points out over and over again? Once you lose dependence on God and start depending on yourself, you’re going to go wrong (rather than Wright!) somewhere…

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