NT Wright's general thesis for this week's series of four lectures is that Paul was far more radical in his world than we have the ability to understand, and that if we did understand the counter-cultural nature of his message for the 21st century, we would be angry at him just as people were in his day.
Furthermore, Wright presents Paul as a brilliant thinker, a product of Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, who intentionally sought to reshape the Jewish faith by nuancing historic monotheism with the fresh addition of Jesus and the Spirit. To do this, Paul continually references the overarching story of creation, failure and redemption, especially highlighting the stories of creation, Abraham, slavery, exodus, exile and rebuilding of the temple, culminating in the work of Christ. Not strictly and exclusively a systematic theologian, Paul was responding to multiple congregations in varying contexts, explaining the nature of God and witnessing to the work of the Messiah and the presence of the new Spirit.
Below are thoughts from Wright (not necessarily verbatims) that reflect this radical nature of Paul, specifically as its demonstrated through the case of Philemon and Onesimus. By way of introduction, Wright asks, "Why is Paul's message not riotous anymore, and instead is rather a leisure activity in study?"
Here are more of his thoughts.
When Paul asks Philemon to accept and reconcile with Onesimus his estranged slave, he is asking for a nearly impossible task in the first century. This is the heart of Paul's "gospel for runaway slaves." The easier thing to do would be to free or cover for Onesimus, or to demand his return to slavery, but Paul uses the situation of a runaway slave to demonstrate the reconciliatory power of Christ's message and mission.
The law and the Torah established the cultural markers of the Jewish people.
Paul invented a new discipline or task called Christian theology. It was not about creating new doctrines and cultural, religious markers, but was an entirely new way of thinking about faith. When we study Paul we are not studying a set of topics, but a new way of doing religion.
Teach someone a doctrine and you will keep them theologically sound for a day. Teach them to do theology and you will build a church grounded on Christ.
Theology has become a hobby for the intellect rather than a way of living in community together. This isn't about university degrees or intellectual pursuits.
We must stop giving 19th-century answers to 16th-century questions and start asking 21st-century questions listening for 1st-century answers.
Early churches were to be a new polis under a new kyrios, a new community that takes all thoughts captive to Christ, that is, sees the world through a new lens.
We have domesticated and truncated the writings of Paul, especially as we argue about Paul's sense of justification, use of the law, salvation history, apocalyptic expectations, or debate about his Jewish versus Hellenistic tendencies.
It's much better to study Paul in a department of politics or philosophy than theology. Religion was not a subject to be studied.
Widespread movement in America (exclusively) to think of Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. This rules out Paul's practical message for today and locates it in the nonhistorical future, denying a covenantal and incarnational theology. The story of Israel is not one of a smooth steady progression, but rather a story of bumps and mistakes, of failure and rescue - a salvation history. God acted shockingly, surprisingly and invasively just as he always said he would.
Paul urges the whole church, not just an elite group of intellectuals, to the vocational task of thinking differently about life.
The gospel for runaway slaves in Paul's day is the gospel of new communities for our day.
Question: If the gospel for runaways is for the whole church, how do we move past theological elitism and give the work of biblical interpretation back to all of God's people? How could we structure the worship life of a congregation, specifically what happens on Sunday mornings (i.e. sermons, performance music, etc) to engage people in theological formation?