The Climax of the Covenant: Christ And The Law In Pauline Theology Paperback – 1 Dec 1993
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About the Author
N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham. He has taught New Testament Studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill Universities, and lectures regularly at Princeton and Harvard. He is a New Testament scholar of world repute and the author of many books including The Resurrection of the Son of God.
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Wright's central argument hinges on the assumption that Paul understood and explained salvation in corporate and covenantal terms--i.e. God made a covenant with Israel not a bunch of individual Israelites. As such Wright finds that most Protestant theology from the time of Luther and Calvin reflects late Medieval scholastic concerns rather than 1st century Jewish thought. The problem is not that Protestant theology is bad as such but that its central theological concerns don't help us understand how Paul, a 1st century Jew, would explain himself to Christian converts from Judaism and paganism.
Wright argues that the covenant of the Torah predicted a need for covenant renewal and a return from exile (he assumes that the exile did not end because the Second Temple was rebuilt, which is a view that is controversial for some). Paul sees both these promises as being fulfilled in Jesus. Since the Mosaic law predicted its renewal and a redefinition of Israel as people on whose hearts God would write the Law, Wright argues that Paul sees Jesus and the Spirit as fulfilling these promises.
Wright's explanation of Paul's high view of the Law assumes that Paul was a Pharisee, a hardly debatable point. Wright also relies on this fact iPaul explains that the Law was not the problem, people were, because people did not have the Spirit. Wright's "already but not yet" explanation of Paul's eschatology is crucial to understanding his take on how Paul viewed Jesus and the Law. The purpose of the old covenant was fulfilled in Jesus but the age of the new covenant has not fully arrived.
Wright also assumes that Jesus completely redefined Israel around himself and his teaching. People who follow Christ are thus the new Israel. Some Christians hold that the covenant with Israel is still in full effect and that Christians have a separate covenant. Wright doesn't seem to hold that view and if you do you won't agree with him. If you don't buy Wright's premise that Israel was not back from exile you will disagree with a lot of what Wright says.
I found a lot of discussion about Paul and the Law to be so mired in talking about the legal metaphors they seemed to lose sight of the purpose to which those legal metaphors are used in Paul, talking about Israelite law and Jesus. Wright's discussion of Paul and the Law was helpful to me because he set aside the topics Protestants usually talk about and simply did exegesis of the texts. It's not the easiest read but it's a very helpful book.
Furthermore, Wright argues that the new community formed by the work of Christ and the agency of the Spirit, fulfills the obligation of the Law through Christ. This community is corporate and is centered in the Messiah King of the new community, and this King is none other than Jesus Himself. Wright argues that just as the ancient Israelites had an actual share in the stock of the king and were connected to him through tribal bond and ethnicity, so too do Christians belong to the Messiah through membership in the new community.
In the second half of the book Wright deals with the question of the place and function of the Law within this new community and what purpose it served if it could not in fact give life to those who adhered to it. First, Wright, like Paul, unequivocally argues that the Law is good, and is holy and just because it is sent from God and was sent for a particular purpose. The Law is not evil because it was not the Law which urges us to sin, but the forces of sin and death. The Law, in both Eden and Sinai, was exactly what sin and death needed to seize mankind and grant them the opportunity to sin. Therefore, the Law could not fulfill it's primary purpose which was to bestow life on those who possessed it and cherished it. Nevertheless, this was all part of God's plan since, as Wright argues, the Law was the measure which enabled God to concentrate sin in one place, namely the nation of Israel, and then deal decisively with the problem through the Messiah. Therefore, Christ fulfilled what the Law could not accomplish, but at the same time He abolished the Law since the Law no longer needed to strive to give life to those who sought it. That life had now been bestowed in Christ, and those in Christ through membership in His community, have fulfilled the obligations of the Law and the Law is no longer a burden.
Of particular interest was Wright's view of the Israel issue. Paul saw that the Jews clung to Law as the distinguishing marker that separated them from the rest of humanity and made them privy to God's blessings. Yet, all the Law could provide for the Jews was the promised curse of Deuteronomy, but the Jews did not understand this and believed the Torah was the one thing that allowed them to claim God's blessings. Paul argued that with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Law no longer provided the ethnic privilege to the Jews that it once had, since the promises made to Abraham had now been fulfilled and membership in the family of God was decided upon faith, and not works of the Torah. Finally, Wright's exegesis of Romans 11:26-27 is interesting and controversial to say the least, but very well argued for and convincing. I can't say enough about this book since the research, argumentation, and scholarhip are all top-notch.
Modern readers tend to read themselves into the text and have struggled to understand whether the divided man in Romans 7 is a saved or unsaved man. It turns out that we are asking the wrong questions of the text. Paul was not making a statement regarding the anthropology of man but was explaning why the law had been unable to deal with sin within the Jewish nation. There is a lot more to the book and here I have offered only a short summary of key arguments within the book. There is an excellent section on the corporate nature of Paul's use of Christos language also. If your purpose is to grow spiritually by understanding Paul's view of Christ and the Law, I highly recommend this book and consider it to be a very wise investment. It is a scholarly work and is therefore, sometimes difficult to read. A background in some greek is helpful. If you stick with it, this book will reward you may times over with theological gemstones.