Wright and the “Plight”

I'm making my way through N. T. Wright's shibboleth of a book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and in due time I'm sure I'll post some kind of summary/review up here (if I can summarise 1500+ pages). One issue which Wright deals with, which I was reading about just now, is the issue of the problem, or plight, to which the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah is a response – i.e. what is it that is wrong in order for Jesus to be a solution.

Wright argues extensively that Paul's understanding of the plight was remolded around Jesus and the Spirit. Prior to his “conversion,” Paul was aware of an extensive problem (Wright disagrees with Sanders that Paul had no sense that anything was wrong before encountering Jesus). As a good Second-Temple pharisee, he would most likely have seen pagan idolatry and unfaithful Israelites as the key problem. Paul's encounter with the risen Jesus, though, forced him to reassess the situation: things were actually far, far worse than he had ever thought.

For one, if the problem necessitated the death of the Messiah, then it was a far greater problem than he had previously imagined. The problem, in light of Jesus, clearly didn't just apply to gentiles; it also plagued “faithful” Israel itself. Secondly, the resurrection of the messiah pointed beyond pagan idolators as the issue to be dealt with. Rather, Sin and Death themselves were to be defeated. Finally, the experience of the Spirit and its renewing power led Paul to conclude that the human heart itself was also a problem which needed to be overcome.

These issues all come to a head in the classic description of the human plight, Romans 1.18-2.16. In light of the conclusions we have noted above, Wright offers his take on this thorny little passage. And thorny it is; in fact, the thorn really comes down to one small Greek word: γαρ (for). The transition between the previous passage and this one reads as follows:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For (γαρ) the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom. 1.16-18)

'For.' One word; so many interpretations. It's meaning is not that obvious. In what sense is the revelation of the Gospel logically linked to the revelation of God's wrath? Some say that it isn't and suggest that we shouldn't load any logical force onto the γαρ. But this, as Wright insists, does not fit with Paul's usual use of the term (as well as its multiple uses in this passage itself). No, there is some logical relationship between the revelation of God's wrath and the revelation of the Gospel.

One point which Wright insists on is that the wrath referred to in v.18 is future. It is not the 'giving over' which is described in the ensuing verses. Paul, in Wright's view, reserves the word wrath for God's future judgement over his creation, not a present revelation of that anger. So wrath, then, is not something (at least in this passage) which we see around us, but something which will be poured out on the day of judgement. But how is that future wrath revealed in the Gospel?

For Wright, the key is that it is precisely in this Gospel that Paul realised the extent of the human problem. The typical Jewish critique of paganism in 1.18-32 (see Wisdom of Solomon, for example) is turned in its head in 2.1 as Paul argues that the very critic of pagan idolatry is guilty of the same sin. The Gospel, as Paul insists in 2.16 makes it clear that God will judge the secrets of humans' hearts, not just immoral pagans. Shortly put, by encountering the risen Jesus, Paul realised that the dramatic solution which God had put in place meant that the problem ran through all people, not just immoral gentiles. As Wright puts it,

It was not enough to say, with many Jewish thinkers before and after Paul's day, that all humans had an 'evil inclination', a yetzer hara', which must be kept in check by the 'good inclination', the yetzer hatob. That was just the surface noise, but underneath there lay a much deeper problem, the disease of sin itself. (p.769)

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