Thinking Paul’s Thoughts After Him: How N. T. Wright’s New Course on the Life of Paul Can Inspire Us Today

In this article, pastor Glenn Packiam reflects on learning about Paul from N.T. Wright’s new course Paul: A Biography. Register now and you will get discounted access when the course goes live on February 27.

What makes Paul such a fascinating figure? Professor N. T. Wright sees Paul as an intellectual giant of the ancient world who was every bit the equal of earlier thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. In fact, in Wright’s view, Paul ought to be studied today beyond departments of theology and religion. But perhaps no further answer is needed other than simply saying that he was the principle architect of Christian theology.

Now, in saying this, we must be clear about what we are not saying. We are not re-erecting that old divide between the ‘Jesus of the Gospels’ and the ‘Christ of Paul’, as though Jesus were simply an extraordinary rabbi who wandered the Galilean countryside while Paul later ‘turned’ him into the Second Person of the Trinity. The Gospels themselves are full of claims— some direct, some coded into imagery and metaphors which would have been familiar to Jews of the first century— that show that somehow Israel’s God had come to act on Israel’s behalf through Israel’s Messiah in such a clear and compelling way that Jesus Himself can be identified with YHWH. Furthermore, since the letters of the apostles were written before the Gospels were, and since the Gospels were likely written by the collected stories and traditions of early Christian communities which in turn were founded by the apostles, it would be foolishness to pit one against the other. We would not have the Jesus of the Gospels without the preaching of the apostles.

'We would not have the Jesus of the Gospels without the preaching of the apostles'. Click To Tweet

Nevertheless, in this new course on the life of Paul, Wright describes him as the inventor of the paradigms for understanding who Jesus was and what He accomplished—in short, what we refer to as Christian theology. In doing so, Wright is not claiming that Paul taught something radically other than what Jesus Himself had. Paul himself said that Jesus was the foundation upon which the apostles were building. And yet, there is a sense in which Paul was doing something new, something fresh.

How Paul Taught the Followers of Jesus to Think in a New Way

This ‘new way’ can be understood by examining the pillars of the ‘old way’— Judaism— and by showing how they are re-shaped because of Jesus. In fact, Wright’s big book on Paul, like one of the little ones that preceded it, argues that Paul’s theology took the Jewish notions of monotheism, election, and eschatology and re-imagined them around Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Monotheism became a Trinitarian vision of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; election now comes to refer to a ‘Jew plus Gentile’ community called the Church; and eschatology is split in two, where a new age has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus and will be culminated at His return. These were ways of thinking that had a strong continuity with the Jewish story, and yet contained fresh and surprising turns that might be said to constitute discontinuity.

Wright reminds us that Paul, as a Jew and a Pharisee, developed his ‘new way of thinking’ prayerfully and scripturally. It arose as Paul prayed a re-configured Shema, that Jewish prayer of monotheism. It sprung up as Paul prayed the Psalms, seeing them anew in the light of Christ. The whole story of Scripture, in fact, came to be seen as a drama that had always been leading up to this moment— to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Wright reminds us that Paul, as a Jew and a Pharisee, developed his ‘new way of thinking’ prayerfully and scripturally. Click To Tweet

Jewish themes and practices are the principle factors in shaping Paul’s theology, but there were other themes with which Paul engaged. Paul, as Wright reminds us, considered himself the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, after all. Wright outlines three divisions of thought in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day: ‘physics (what there is), ethics (how to behave), and logic (how we know things and how we reason from what we know to what we do not yet know)’. In typical Wright fashion, he sees these as ‘signposts’, things in the present creation that point to the new creation. The new physics pointed to a new world, seen in the resurrected body of Jesus; the new ethic was a way of living in light of Christ’s kingship; and the new logic was a new knowing and thinking.

Paul’s Life and Legacy

Paul’s life is significant because of the way he began to think and the way he taught others to think. But it is also true that Paul’s new way of thinking is significant precisely because of his life. A Jew who also somehow had Roman citizenship, a Pharisee who was motivated, like so many heroes of the Old Testament, by a zeal for God, a tent-maker who was comfortably at home in the marketplace of Greco-Roman cities, a skilled rhetorician who could use ‘wise and persuasive words’ to show that wise and persuasive words would never be enough—all these things and more made Paul uniquely fit for his unique calling.

Paul’s life was the soil in which the Holy Spirit planted the seeds of revelation, and from which sprung this new way of thinking. Thus his life needs to be reflected on in light of the ideas with which he came to be associated, and vice versa. For example, how much continuity and discontinuity we see between Paul’s theology and that of Judaism will be shaped by how we understand Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Was it a conversion in the traditional understanding of that word, or more like an epiphany? Was Paul’s own reading of the story of Scripture as coming to its fulfillment in Jesus first sparked by hearing Stephen’s sermon before his stoning, over which Paul—then Saul—had presided? How did the communities that Paul had planted and pastored draw wisdom out of him as he helped them think through how to hold both unity and holiness together?

That’s why Wright’s new course on the life of Paul, and the new biography on Paul, it was designed to accompany, matter. Wright reads the biblical texts with a historian’s eye, drawing out details that the layperson so easily and so often misses. He constructs a time line, offering theories for how to fill in the gaps; he even gives examples of how his own opinion on these theories has changed over the years. With mastery of the relevant geography and its detail, Wright narrates Paul’s journeys with the familiarity of a friend who might have been there. He provides fascinating cross-references with other ancient writers in similar situations to compare and contrast what Paul did and said.

If all this sounds overwhelming, be assured: the course is as accessible as it was illuminating. In fact, Wright draws out the human element in such an engaging way that the course itself serves as a perfect introduction to Paul’s theology. More than that, the course is an inspiration to think Paul’s thoughts after him, and to extend his thoughts into our own day. Just as Paul was a pastor-theologian, so Wright, a churchman and a scholar, calls us to hold theology and practice together. If Paul’s theology emerged from his life within the Church, then our richest theological reflection will come from thinking in this new way in new contexts. By the power of the same Holy Spirit, we can think Paul’s thoughts after him and understand what it means to be the people of God living under Jesus the Messiah’s reign here and now.

'Just as Paul was a pastor-theologian, so Wright, a churchman and a scholar, calls us to hold theology and practice together'. Click To Tweet