What Saint Paul Really Said: Book Review

Paul is arguably the most debated and controversial writer in the New Testament.  His defiance against the Jewish traditions of old, exhorting not the covenant of law but of faith, made his fellowship among the Pharisees and other religious leaders apologetic.  Being a scholar in many aspects, Paul used his intelligence of the Pentateuch and other prophetic and apocalyptic writings to defend the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new covenant which was spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  People for years have attempted to study the life and theology of Paul’s messages in order one might be able to recapitulate the demeanor of Paul’s sometimes harsh but provocative letters to the Gentiles.  N.T. Wright, who is arguably the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th and 21st century has set out to unmask the secrets of Paul’s understanding, probing into the utter most depths of who he was and how his calling from God and his conversion in Damascus.  His book, What Saint Paul Really Said-Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Rounder of Christianity seek to answer the many questions Christians have often wondered about the man of Paul and his relationship to the Jew and to the Gentile.

In Chapter 1, Wright lays common ground, a foundation for his arguments, which he builds upon in the latter parts of his book.  Theologically, this is important to build a common ground of which to construct a basis of biblical thoughts.  Wright outlays the history of study, which is commonly, labeled “Pauline Theology” naming such people as Schweitzer whose work Wright calls “monumental” (12).  Schweitzer debates two questions, which play as an important role in Pauline theology. “First, is Paul really a Jewish thinker or a Greek thinker?  Second, what is the centre of Paul’s theology?  Is it “justification by faith” or “being in Christ?” (13) Rudolf Bultmann views Paul “in his Hellenistic context” (15).  He hypothesizes because Paul’s ministry to the gentiles and his “willingness” to depart from his “former life” as a Jew depicts him in this manner “standing over against the Jewish world” condemning his fellow people for following the law of the old covenant and not accepting a new covenant found in the life of Jesus Christ.  Davis, who Wright writes of next, holds to Paul being “at bottom, a Jewish rabbi who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah” (16).  Wright then speaks of Ernst Käsemann who “attempted to retain the strong points of both Schweitzer and Bultmann (17).  The last 20th century scholar Wright briefly speaks of is Ed P. Sanders who believes the only critique of Judaism Paul focuses was that is was “not Christianity” (19).  Wright uses these four scholars study of Paul and their theological positions to put into perspective the views of scholars today.  He then poses questions regarding the history, theology, exegesis, and application of Paul’s ministry.  This is the basis of N.T. Wright, which he then uses to build upon, using his personal views of Pauline theology and what he believes to be the purpose of Paul’s exhortation to the gentile people.  This is very important to outline the different scholars and their views so one who would not know these things would have a better understanding of how the study of Paul and the many different controversial views one man of God would hold.  I am glad Wright took time to go through the many different people who have studied Paul and his life.  This is, I believe very important to lay a foundation for the views in which he holds as a respected scholar himself.

Wright then writes of Paul’s biography dictating his life as a Jew who studied under Gamaliel and persecutor of the Church stating Paul was zealous for God which Wright interprets as being “zealous for the traditions of the fathers’ in first-century Judaism”(27).  Wright then speaks of Saul’s Conversion on the Damascus road; the call God had given him to share the “Good News” to the gentile nation.  “Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus thus equipped him with an entirely new perspective, though one which kept its roots firm and deep within his previous covenantal theology.  Israel’s destiny had been summed up and achieved in Jesus the Messiah.  The Age to come had been inaugurated.  Saul himself was summoned to be its agent” (37).  From that moment on, Paul had a new zeal, to be displayed to the Gentile nation.

Paul’s use of his zeal meant spreading the “gospel.”  Wright believes Paul’s usage the term gospel refers to the “gospel truth” of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was the forefront of Paul’s testimony to the gentiles.  It is not, says Wright, “a system of how people get saved” (45).  It is the response to the “gospel” which salvation is found.  I believe with Wright’s understanding of the gospel.  It now makes sense to me.  This view has now forever changed my outlook of sharing the gospel with non-believers.  Knowing I cannot bring anyone into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is only Him who can bring one into the saving knowledge of Himself.  I was never able to make parallels of sharing the gospel with someone and God bringing them into the saving knowledge of Himself.  I have been struggling with why Christ used us to bring people to Him if He was going to do it.  Knowing this has now cleared up many different questions I have had concerning this issue.  Wright says, “Christ is not a name.  It is a title.  It becomes a name (denoting somebody, but without extra connotation), at some point in early Christianity, as its Jewish meaning is forgotten by Gentile converts” (51).  I agree with this as well.  The title Christ means Messiah.  This is an important thing to bring up though.  Wright states four important points.  1.  In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.  2.  In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the one creator of God would address the whole.  3.  The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.  4.  Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow (60).  These points are the foundation of Christianity and the doctrine of salvation.  Wright does a great job in putting into words, the truth of Jesus Christ.  This is unshakable reality.  Wright concludes saying, “It should be clear by now that when Paul went out into the Gentile world with his ‘gospel’, he went as a Jew to Gentiles, to tell the Gentile world what Jews had always believed: that ‘the gods of the nations are idols, but our God made the heavens (Psalm 96:5 (75)).  This is a profound statement Wright makes.  He has left little room for argument of who Paul was to the Gentiles and the message Paul was sent to speak concerning the gospel of Christ.

“The direction of Paul’s message was confrontation with paganism; he had good news for them, but it was good news which undermined their worldview and replaced it with an essentially Jewish one, reworked around Jesus” (79).  This is an important point to bring up.  99.9 percent of Paul’s writings were written to churches he had planted concerning people who have crept in unaware trying to preach a new gospel.  A gospel neither Paul nor Paul’s associates were preaching and it was not a good thing.  Paul saw himself as an Apostle to the pagan Gentile people by building churches and baptizing people into the truth.  Paul spoke boldly and bluntly to the Gentile people concerning different beliefs and practices that were not in line with the gospel he was preaching.  Paul’s ability to articulate to the Gentile people and the approach he used shows the power of God he had been given to exercise in his ministry.

Israel is seen in Paul’s ministry.  As Wright says, “But the whole point of this vocation was that what the pagans needed to hear was the good news of the God of Israel, the creator of the world.  The Gentiles would be blessed, according to the particular Jewish hope that Paul seems to have cherished, when and only when Israel’s God fulfilled his promises to, and purposes for, Israel” (95).  This is a profound avowal Paul makes to the pagan Gentile community.  To take the One and only God of Israel and tell the Gentiles this was their God too most likely got Paul into a lot of trouble with religious leaders who considered them “pure” for following the law in everyway possible?  This was almost blasphemous to any Jewish person at this time.  Wright is of course right in statement.  We know the God of Israel has come to save the Gentile people.  By God’s grace, the Gentile people have been graphed into the “olive tree.”  Wright then discusses the word “dikaios” which refers to ‘righteous’, also refers to ‘justice’ (96).   Looking at the Hebrew law court chart on page 97 explains dikaios.  Jesus Christ is our Dikaios and we are the defendants.  We must recognize we all will have to make an account of our lives and how we used our gifts to glorify God.  If it were not for Jesus Christ being our dikaios, we would not have the ability to enter into his presence.  Wright says Paul uses the term ‘diaiosune ek theou’, which refers to righteousness from God.  This term is used in Paul’s letters.  Wrights backs up his argument by quoting Romans 1:17 and Romans 3.  He concludes saying, “We have seen continually that Paul’s redefinition, his fresh understanding, of the one true God came especially through his grasp of the fact that this God was revealed supremely in Jesus, and there supremely in the cross… But if we understand ‘God’s righteousness’, as I have tried to do, in terms of the covenant faithfulness of God, then there is of course one word, which sums up that whole train of thought, and which for Paul perfectly describes the God he knows in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit”(110).  It is interesting that Wright says this.  Paul does indeed; seem to redefine what the Jewish leaders have known throughout their study of the Torah.  Paul, by doing this, makes it possible for the Gentile people to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  As stated before, this no doubt, raises a few heads among the Jewish leaders but it doesn’t seem to bother Paul who takes the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people God had predestined him to share it with.

Wright then focuses on Justification and what justification means, including Paul’s understanding of justification as a Jew and what it means to the Gentile people he is called to.  Wright lays down the popular belief of justification of faith.  This belief, in laymen’s terms refers to our ability to receive salvation through Jesus Christ.  We are not able to receive this through works but through faith and faith alone.  I find this not to be the center of the bible but it is a very valid point.  It is important to realize we are unable to receive anything from God due to our own works but it is a gift that only the Lord Jesus Christ can give through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Wright says, “…When we understand exactly what Paul did mean by ‘justification’, we will come to see that is it organically and integrally linked to what he meant by ‘the gospel’.  It cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it” (115).  I believe Wright makes a very important statement about Paul here.  Paul puts to mind justification of faith and the importance of justification of faith among the Jews and the Gentile people.  He concludes this section by summing up Paul’s doctrine of justification.  He states, “1.  Covenant – Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong. 2.  Law Court – Justification functions like the verdict in the law court:  by acquitting someone, it confers on that person the status ‘righteous’.  This is the forensic dimension of the future covenantal vindication.  3. Eschatology – This declaration, this verdict, is ultimately to be made at the end of history.  Through Jesus, however, God has done in the middle of history what he had been expected to do – and, indeed, will still do – at the end; so that the declaration, the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation.  The events of the last days were anticipated when Jesus died on the cross, as the representative Messiah of Israel, and rose again.  (This was Paul’s own theological starting point.)  The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.  4. Therefore – and this is the vital thrust of the argument of Galatians in particular, but it plays a central in Philippians and Romans as well – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven 131-132).  Here Wright briefly outlines the major points he brings out in his arguments concerning justification of faith.  As stated before, justification of faith is essential to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think Wright does a very good job outlining the ideas and thoughts behind the doctrine of justification.

Wright then speaks of God’s renewed humanity.  He states the centre of renewed humanity is worship to God.  This is I believe a response to the justification of faith in which Wright is speaking of.  It is our response, after realizing what God has done for us, to give back to God a portion of what He is due.  He speaks of Romans 4:19-21 where he talks about Abraham and how Abraham grew strong in the faith, giving glory to God.  The goal of renewed humanity, Wright says, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.  Wright argues Holiness, love, and zeal of missions are important aspects Paul encourages in his letters as a response to the goodness of God’s grace.

The book ends with an interesting question, which also, happens to be part of the title.  Is Paul the founder of Christianity?  Wright deals with this question by reviewing Paul’s life starting with his background in Judaism and his Hellenistic roots.  From my reading of the chapter, Wright does not come out and say Paul is the founder of Christianity.  He does say though, “When all is said and done, it should be comparatively easy to work through the actions and message of Jesus, and the agenda and letter of Paul, and to show that there is between them, not (of course) a one-for-one correspondence, but a coherence, an appropriate correlation, an integration that allows fully for the radically different perspective of each.  Jesus was bringing Israel’s history to its climax; Paul was living in the light of that climax.  Jesus was narrowly focused on the sharp-edged, single task; Paul was celebration the success of that task, and discovering its fruits in a thousand different ways and settings” (182).  This is the last of Wright’s major points concerning Paul and his ministry.  Paul’s ministry was given by Jesus to glorify the Father in heaven.  Paul might not be the founder of Christianity but he will forever be seen as a man whose faith was a testimony to Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

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4 Responses to “What Saint Paul Really Said: Book Review”

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