N.T. Wright on Paul, Romans and Election

I am a huge fan of N.T. Wright, and especially of his work on showing the sweep of God’s redemptive history in Paul’s books. I also particularly like his interpretation of the book of Romans (I have written on this blog before how Romans is a very misunderstood book if you think it is simply a summary of theology by Paul. It is not: it has a very specific and deliberate purpose, aside from which the book does not make sense as a coherent whole).

In his upcoming book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright takes a deep look at the doctrine of election. Some extracts are being made available, and I was intrigued by these two passages from the book. They make a lot of sense to me, and the idea that God’s covenant with Abraham (which was repeatedly shown to be a one sided covenant anyway) – that the whole world will be blessed – is fulfilled in Christ is magnificent:

Now at last we see where his sharp-edged, and often controversial, ‘doctrine of election’ in Romans 9 was going. This was never an abstract ‘doctrine of predestination’, attempting to plumb the mysteries of why some people (in general, without reference to Israel) hear and believe the gospel and others do not. Paul never encourages speculation of that sort. Rather, it was a way of saying, very specifically, that the fact of Israel’s election (starting with the choice and call of Abraham) had always been there to deal with the sin of the world; that Israel’s election had always involved Israel being narrowed down, not just to Isaac and then to Jacob, but to a hypoleimma, a ‘remnant’, a ‘seed’; and that this ‘remnant’ itself would be narrowed down to a single point, to the Messiah himself, who would himself be ‘cast away’ so that the world might be redeemed. The point of ‘election’ was not to choose or call a people who would somehow mysteriously escape either the grim entail of Adam’s sin or the results it brought in its train. It was not – as in some low-grade proposals! – about God simply choosing a people to be his close friends. The point was to choose and call a people through whom the sin of humankind, and its results for the whole creation, might be brought to the point where they could at last be defeated, condemned, overcome. Hence the line that runs, in Romans, from 3.24–26 to 8.3–4 and on to 10.3–4, backed up by the summaries in 5.6–11 and 5.12–21. Here is the faithfulness of the Messiah, which discloses, unveils, apocalypticizes, the righteousness of God, God’s covenant faithfulness.

And on Romans 9-11:

As becomes apparent in Romans 9—11, this single divine plan has been hugely paradoxical, because the way in which Israel’s story has been God’s instrument in the salvation of the world has been precisely through Israel’s ‘casting away’. This is the point of the (to us) strange passage about negative predestination in 9.14–29: Israel is simultaneously ‘the Messiah’s people’ and ‘the Messiah’s people according to the flesh’, as we might have deduced from the opening summary statement in 9.4–5. Israel’s story, that is, was always designed (as many second-Temple Jews would have insisted) to come to its climax in the arrival and accomplishment of the Messiah; but that accomplishment, as Paul had come to see, involved the Messiah himself in being ‘cast away for the sake of the world’. Thus Israel, as the Messiah’s people, is seen to have exercised its vocational instrumentality in God’s rescue operation for the world precisely by acting out that newly-discovered and deeply shocking ‘messianic’ vocation: Israel is indeed the means of bringing God’s rescue to the world, but it will be through Israel’s acting out of the Messiah-shaped vocation, of being ‘cast away’ for the sake of the world. Paul finally says it out loud (at a point where most interpreters have long since lost the thread and so fail to make the connection) in 11.12, 15; this is where we see why Paul did not deny the ‘boast’ of 2.19–20, but went on affirming it paradoxically, even though it raised the questions of 3.1–8 to which he has at last returned and which he has at last answered. Salvation has come to the Gentiles – through Israel’s paraptōma, the ‘stumble’ in which Israel recapitulates the sin of Adam, as in 5.20. ‘The reconciliation of the world’ has come about – through Israel’s apobolē, ‘casting away’, the ‘rejection’ in which Israel recapitulates the death of the Messiah, as in 5.10–11. At the heart of one of Paul’s strangest and most challenging chapters we find exactly this theme: that the creator God, having entered into a covenant with Abraham’s family that he would bless the world through that family, has been faithful to his promise, even though it has been in the upside-down and inside-out way now unveiled in the Messiah.

A deep, but important, reflection this Sunday evening.

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