The “Big Idea” behind N. T. Wright’s Big Book on Paul

Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.  I asked him a variety of questions regarding his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).

David Capes:

Professor Wright, I tell my students that every good book, every important book has a “big idea.” What is the “big idea” behind your book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013)?Paul and Faithfulness of God

Tom Wright:

The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology.  Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology?  Well, they did and they didn’t.  Didn’t the pagans have theology?  Well, not really.  They talked about the gods, but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis.  Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God from the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors.  So if you are going to have a  single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation.   If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world.  So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology.  In Paul and the Faithfulness of God  I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.

They way I put it is this.  You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.”  He does that and that will help for a while.  What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.”  So Paul is concerned to teach people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology.   That is the heart of it.

Is It Time to Retire “The Old Testament”?

Old TestamentSo why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”?  Well, for several reasons.  First, there is tradition.  For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament.  Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood.  We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”).  If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament. 

Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?”  Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?”  Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think.  Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content.  Frankly, I think sometimes we do.  When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then  I think we ought to retire the term altogether.  Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word.  In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt.  They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King.  For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all.  It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news.  They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled.  There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete.  If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.  

 But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,

if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,

if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of

God’s redemption of the world . . .

then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament. 

In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture.  I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary.  You cannot have one without the other.  The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible.  That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.

Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this.  I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible.  I just want to get you thinking.  When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?

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