THE PAUL DEBATE: CRITICAL QUESTIONS
FOR UNDERSTANDING THE APOSTLE
N. T. Wright
SPCK, 120pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0281074112 £14.99
‘If you want to understand Paul, you must first love him,’ says Bishop Lindsay Urwin OGS. He is quite right – and most of us will probably admit that we find it hard to love St Paul. We remember his anger with the Galatians; his shrill arguing with the Corinthians; his unacceptable attitudes (as they seem) to women. We are impressed by his energy, his devotion, his willingness to suffer for Christ; maybe even his terrific theological thinking. He is probably still the greatest theologian the church has ever had. But do we love him? Dig a bit more deeply into his epistles and I think you will find he really is an easy person to love.
The really important point about Paul was that he was passionately in love with God. He was simply overwhelmed by the astonishing grace that God had poured on the world through Jesus the Messiah. Paul was driven by the Holy Spirit to try and understand what this was all about and to tell others about it. And for him it was not just the conviction that Jesus was the Son of God that overwhelmed him (if one can use the word ‘just’ about such an astonishing belief), but that ‘everything that mattered about Jesus was explosively revealed in the combination of his death and resurrection’ (p.30). That’s the part we so often forget. We treat the Resurrection as if it were simply an add-on, a postscript to assure us that there will be life after death. For Paul it meant that Jesus – who had died an appalling, humiliating slave’s death on the Cross – had actually turned everything upside down and inside out, and created a completely new order which was operating now. And he, the persecuting Saul, had been so incredibly blessed that he had become the servant of this Jesus, telling the message to the world.
This little book that N. T. Wright has given us does not deal with all of Paul. He has done that already in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and many other publications. In The Paul Debate, Wright responds to some questions raised in response to that recent book. A critical part of this is Paul’s relationship with his Jewish faith: did he already expect a Messiah like the one who came? Was the apocalyptic element in his Christian faith something he learned from Judaism? Wright deals clearly and persuasively with these questions. Again, it is the Resurrection that is a key part of this. Early Christians did not find the Resurrection in the Old Testament and apply it to Jesus; they found Jesus risen and looked in Scripture for an explanation. Or, as Wright puts it more fully: Paul’s ‘theological pilgrimage came about because of the explosive effect of meeting the crucified and risen Jesus on the heart, mind and life of one believing the sort of things he had believed before and living in the way he had lived before’ (p.100).
If one word sums up Paul, it might be ‘gratitude’. Almost every epistle begins with Paul giving thanks. Throughout his writing there is an overwhelming gratitude towards God, to Jesus, and even to his fellow Christians who often behave so stupidly. It is hard not to love someone in whom gratitude lives so strongly.
Paul is sometimes seen as a Protestant theologian because the issues of Justification and other Reformation controversies are drawn out of his writing. Yet Paul is also the source of good Catholic ecclesiology and a starting point for that might be Wright’s observation that the idea that Jesus was part of the one God was one factor that held together and identified the disparate Christian groups. Paul is also the first Christian theologian to write about the sacraments; it is his account of the Last Supper, after all, which stands at the heart of every mass. Paul is the foundation of all Catholic theology. Maybe the readers of New Directions should get to know him better; and any of Tom Wright’s books about him would be a good way of doing that. ND
Nicolas Stebbing CR