N. T. Wright, Paul A Fresh Perspective (3): Messiah and Apocalyptic

Wright suggests in this chapter that we ought to be reading Paul’s use of “Christ” a bit more apocalyptically.  Essentially, when Paul says “Christ,” he means “Messiah.”  That Jesus is the Messiah is not a major issue in the circles I travel in, but in New Testament Scholarship, a return to Jesus as Messiah is something which is in fact controversial.

Wright wants to get away from a false dichotomy that the Messiah was either a political idea or a religious idea (49).  This is excellent, since there is no separate of church and state in the first century or in the Hebrew Bible.  In addition, Wright states that Paul’s used of Messiah was not “religious” over against “political.”

A second idea which Wright argues strenuously against is that apocalyptic in the Second Temple period and in Paul does not mean “end of the space time universe” (50-51).   If one thinks that when Jesus returns is the “end of the world as we know it” they are wrong – that sort of an idea does not exist in the first century, in the Bible or in most Second Temple period apocalypses.  Again, Wright is more or less correct.  In this literature, when Messiah comes he vindicates  Israel and restores them to their inheritance.  Zion becomes the center of the world and all people, whether Jew or Gentile, will worship in Zion.

It is significant to me that Wright talks about the coming of the Messiah as God accomplishing his “many-staged plan of salvation” (53).  Even a text like Eph 3:8-11 is apocalyptic: God has called Paul to make know “the plan that through the church the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (52).   That God has a plan administered in several stages to bring about the redemption of the world is a very familiar idea to me and it warms my dispensational heart.

However, clearly Wright is not a dispensationalist, and many people have noticed that Wright has become increasingly agitated at dispensationalist finding comfort in his books.  There are really two reasons for this, as I see it.  First, Wright sees the American “Left Behind” version of dispensationalism as an aberration.  In The Last Word and Surprised by Hope he seems to go out of his way to distance himself from this sort of thinking.  Secondly, Wright is an Anglican and does not make a distinction between church and Israel the way a dispensational does.  Israel has been replaced by the Church and there is not “future” for Israel separate from the church.

If I have read Wright correctly, two reactions immediately come to mind.  I hope that no one judges dispensational thinking by Left Behind (or Hal Lindsey, etc.)  Those books are not theological mature thinking, nor are they theological in the least.  There are at least a half-dozen well-written and scholarly explanations of dispensational thinking that are better representatives than pop-culture phenomenons.  I am thinking here of Bock, Blaising, Saucy, and of course Dale DeWitt.

Secondly, Wright is incorrect if he thinks that dispensationalism (even in the hokiest forms) believes that the return of Jesus is the “end of the world as we know it.”  In dispensationalism, the present age gives way to the kingdom, which goes on forever.  The re-creation of the heavens and the earth, drawn from texts in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation, is in fact a re-creation of the heavens and the earth.  I suppose this is a radical change, but it is the same “space-time universe.”  Apocalyptic that looks for the complete destruction of the world is wrong-headed (Wright is correct here.  Although it makes a great Bruce Willis movie, “Armageddon” as the end of the world is not good theology!)

I find much in Paul: A Fresh Perspective which is conducive to a contemporary, even progressive dispensationalism even if Wright would protest.  Your mileage may vary.

14 thoughts on “N. T. Wright, Paul A Fresh Perspective (3): Messiah and Apocalyptic

  1. (Yay, in traditional blog fashion I acknowledge my firstdom by the term…)


    Anyway, I gotta admit that I found myself intrigued by Wright’s interpretation of scripture. He constantly brings everything into the context of the scripture around the piece in question, the context of the writing style of the author, or the context of what we know historically about the people and location in which the text had been writ, and I can’t help but get excited! This man is truly well versed in history and an understanding of religion that is admirable, but I am surprised by his observations of the Thessalonian text, mainly concerning the rapture. I agree with him concerning that the reason Paul shared this view was to comfort the believers in the Thessalonian congregation who were afraid that their Christian dead wouldn’t get to party with them at Jesus’ return, but to remove the revelation of the people meeting their King in the air make Paul’s comforting words seem hollow. What else would he be saying if not revealing something new and different about God’s plan…

  2. Well, this section on Wright’s view of the apocalypse is definitely not a new one, and i would say that I can see where he is coming from. The problem of the point of Paul’s comforting words seem to be answered by Wright as some sort of comfort for the mourners of the dead in Christ, but be perfectly honest I cant seem to see that as the basis of the 1 Thessalonians passage dealing with the end times. I think that P. Long’s point “Secondly, Wright is an Anglican and does not make a distinction between church and Israel the way a dispensational does. Israel has been replaced by the Church and there is not “future” for Israel separate from the church.” is interesting in that the future of Israel in the Bible has not come to fruition, namely shown in Daniel 12 when he says, “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” This could be none other than the nation of Isreal considering the context of Daniel as a whole. Overall, I would say that Wright has some interesting points, but writes them from a completely opposite perspective from that of Israel apart form Gentiles and therefore seems in my opinion to miss the point.

  3. Couldn’t we assume when we read Christ anywhere in scripture we can assume Messiah also? Could we then assume that most writting has the possibility of apocalyptic writtings then?
    I liked how Wright explains the so-called apocalyptic view…” for Paul God broke in to history, the history of Israel, the history of the world…” God does not break into, he is there. He was at work and continued to be at work to this day.
    God’s plan is reveled and to me that is an obivious step by step set up of what is to come and God’s hand at work.

  4. I would agree with much of what was said in the blog and in the responses if not all of it.

    I liked most of what Wright said in his chapters and I, like PJ, enjoyed how he took everything back to the first century contextual meaning. However, as I commented on in my paper, I do not think it added any strength to his argument or weakened my belief in rapture.

    I was sort of surprised to hear that Christ meaning Messiah was controversial. P. Long stated it in his blog and Wright said many people think it is a surname. This is one of the reasons why I have always enjoyed it when people said Jesus THE Christ. I find that a little less ambiguous.

    As for Wright and dispensationalism. Sometimes the guy comes dangerously close to crossing the line into dispensational thought just to jump back over it. He is kind of like a very strong willed fly that keeps going towards a light just to catch himself and fly away again….and again….and again.

  5. I would have to agree with everybody that has been posting. Just like PJ and Josh, I love it when people get back to the historical context and how it relates to our society today. In fact, I believe that dispensationalist highlight this importance more than other doctrinal backgrounds. To me, it is important to know who is writing a letter and to whom and why. Sometimes Christians just look at the New Testament and think that it all applies to them and do not even consider the audience it is written to.

    However, going back to Wright’s observations, I feel like this does nothing, if not encourages, what I believe in the rapture. It does seem like Wright is dangerously close to dispensational theology only to say that he is in NO way a dispensationalist.

    In fact, in chapter 3 it even looks like he comments on an “already–not yet.”

    “The age to come has already arrived with Jesus; but it will be consummated in the future. The church must order its life and witness, its holiness and love, along that axis (Wright 57).”

    This is what dispensationalist believe, and this is what he is saying, cool!

  6. Even though I posted on this topic, I forgot to agree with JP in the claim to the historical context that Wright brings to the table regularly. One of the points that he talks about in regards to the rapture is pg 55. After he talks about the North American view on the rapture he then talks about the word parousia which is used for the term meeting, in the Hellenistic society. I thought that, that was an interesting point that he brought up and talked about, along with historical background he refrenced.

  7. I think the biggest confusion for me in this section of the book is Wright’s comments on what is to come. At the beginning of the Apocalyptic section, Wright states that ‘The old contrast between ‘prophecy’ and ‘apocalyptic’, in which the former is about God’s action within the present world and the latter is about the demolition of this world and the establishment of something totally different, never represented more than a glimmer of the truth.’ (50) I don’t feel like this statement is biblically supported because Scripture says that all things will be made new. If you take that statement and change out the word ‘demolition’ and insert ‘recreation’ this statement is basically correct. So at the very least, it has to have more than ‘a glimmer of the truth.’

    It is interesting to me the points that Josh and Brent pointed out about Wright’s tendency towards Dispensational Ideas and then his adamant rejection of them when he realizes what he is saying. It seems like this is almost a pristine example of why people can never agree. There becomes a conflict in the definition of terms. What Wright is against seems to be the term ‘Dispensational’ where many of his ideas and readings of Scripture seem to support mainstream ‘Dispensationalism.’ It almost seems like Wright has to get over himself and realize that he might have more in common with Dispensationalist than he initially thought.

  8. Another thing that I noticed is Wright condemns ‘the last generation of scholarship’ and their use of the word ‘apocalyptic’ with the statement ‘According to this way, the divine solution to the problems of the world is simply to break in to an otherwise unfruitful and corrupt ongoing historical process and to do something radically new’ (50-51) in contrast to the view that God was slowly working our his purpose throughout the years. He then makes a statement later that ‘Paul believes both that the covenant promises were at last fulfilled and that this constituted a massive and dramatic interruption into the processes of world history unlike anything before or since.’ (54)

    Now I agree that God was working throughout history to effect his purpose, but what is confusing to me is the fact that Wright seems to say that there was no way that God would do anything radical, or unexpected and then he makes the statement that the most pious Jew would not have seen what was coming, and then immediately following he says that there was a ‘dramatic interruption’. He seems to contradict himself, and although I may be misunderstanding what Wright is trying to say, this chapter left me somewhat frustrated, and very confused.

    Along with this, Wright seems to go back and forth between concepts that could only be true if the

  9. “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” (REM). Plong wrote “In dispensationalism, the present age gives way to the kingdom, which goes on forever. The re-creation of the heavens and the earth, drawn from texts in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation, is in fact a re-creation of the heavens and the earth. I suppose this is a radical change, but it is the same “space-time universe.” I would argue that the “radical change” is the “end of the world as we know it.” None of us know what that world is really like, we can all imagine, but will not know until it arrives. Just because we want to say it is the same space-time universe does not mean that what we know will continue. So while I support the dispensational viewpoint, I have to acknowledge that Wright is not so far off when he says “it’s the end of the world as we know it.”

    • Shuan accused me of listening to REM (which is true, actually), but I would point out that the extra phrase “as we know it” is entirely subjective. After 9/11 that phrase got tossed around alot since things changed “as we knew it,” but it really was the same world. The Kingdom of Christ is the same planet, but it is renewed and transformed. So yes Shaun, it is the end of the world “as we know it” but not an apocalyptic end of the word in the traditional Hollywood special effects film (2012 anyone?)

  10. I found Wright opinion about why Paul had such an urgency to establish the churches in Gentile land that consisted of both Jew and Gentile interesting. He said it was not because Paul was expecting a near end but that when that Jews lost there capitol city the Gentiles would not mock them; in other words to keep the peace so there was not a separation of believers. (pg.56)

  11. Wrights last argument starting on pg.57 second paragraph I was confused about I put a question mark on the page. It seemed to me that he was eluding to a position that in the end God will save us all that salvation through faith is a act of now not then. Help me understand Wrights last argument.

  12. It is rather saddening to see that American scholarship is more or less stereotypically identified by the ever popular fiction series, Left Behind. I find it amusing reading over Wright’s little jabs at this “North American motif” called the rapture. Perhaps he should give a little more credit to the actual scholarship being done, and not market driven best seller, but then again, as I think Brent alluded to, Christianity in general reads scripture very plainly and widely misunderstand it in many different ways. I bet that many Christians believe in a rapture and they haven’t a good hard clue as to why they really believe it, at least not from a thoroughly biblical standpoint.

    I also would like to interject with Wright’s view of Paul’s ‘apocalyptic theology’ and how it is rooted within and refers to actual historical events (56). And also his view in regards to the rapture and what I believe is gleaned from “Surprised by Hope” that creation is on a progressive road towards a climactic transformation. Wright gives sufficient scriptural arguments in support of his views, but I do wonder how he would factor in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. Is it irrelevant, textually not accurate, or does it simply not flow fluently with a fresh perspective of Paul’s theology?

  13. “In fact, in chapter 3 it even looks like he comments on an “already–not yet.” Brent said that above, but let me point out that the catchprhase “already–not” is not in and of itself dispensationalist; my guess is that it has crossed into dispensationalism through Bock, Blaising and Saucy because they were influenced by George Ladd. Ladd was a premilennialist who, like NT Wright, worked very hard not to be a dispensationalist despite sharing some ideas with them.

    It might come as a surprise (or not, if you know me), but the earliest use of the phrase I have seen is in Albert Schweitzer. I do not know if that is where Ladd picked it up, but NT Wright is very influenced by Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus — read his Jesus and that Victory of God, for example.

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