Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wright: Starting with Philemon

Looked about a week ago at the Preface to N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Now the book begins.

Chapter 1: Return of the Runaway?
1. A World of Difference
Wright begins our journey with the small letter to Philemon. To begin, he gives the classic background text, a letter from Pliny the Younger in which Pliny advocates for a slave who had come to him because his master was angry with him. Wright's goal is to show that, while there are some superficial similarities between the two letters, the worldview and way of life that informs Philemon is quite different from that which informs Pliny's letter.

A brief look at Pliny's letter gives way to a brief analysis of Philemon and its issues. Was Onesimus a runaway slave or just a slave with which Philemon was angry?  Wright favors a runaway slave.

Did Onesimus run into Paul by chance or did he seek him out? Wright thinks it more likely that he had sought him out, trying to be reconciled to his master. Wright also considers it now the majority opinion that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus when he wrote Philemon and dates the letter to not long before Paul leaves and writes 2 Corinthians.

For what is Paul asking? Mere forgiveness for Onesimus? For Philemon to send him back to help Paul? For Philemon to set Onesimus free? Forgiveness, yes. To send him back, probably? Freedom? Wright does indeed think so. He brilliantly sees an ironic allusion to Exodus 21:2-6 where a slave could decide to be a slave forever. Philemon can receive Onesimus back forever in a quite different sense.

But Wright is Wright. He will not be satisfied with less than abstracting some exquisite and eternal truths from this interaction. Indeed, that is why he has started here. If only he could distinguish between his theological ponderings and exegesis of the text. Philemon and Onesimus are now members of the messianic family, and the central symbol of the Christian worldview for Paul is unity (11).

Philemon is about attempting a new way of life (6). The order things come in the letter (poetic sequence) is not as important as the implicit narrative (the referential sequence) (7). Faith generates and defines fellowship (17). Fellowship is an "energizing principle" that produces the reality of which it speaks.

And here it comes--Wright's signature--"Two thousand years of history, from the call of Abraham to the time of Jesus, are collected up like light in a prism and focused onto the royal representative in whom their meaning and purpose is fulfilled" (17). "Messiah" is something like a collective noun--"Messiah-and-his-people." This is what is in the bubble above the word Messiah, and when Paul prays that the fellowship of Philemon's faith might be active in the knowledge of every good among them "into Christ" (1:6).

Insert the usual comments on Wright's pensive style and cute chapter titles. I deeply appreciate Wright's sense that "Sometimes it is better to get your hands dirty at once rather than approach a topic with lofty generalizations" (6). Of course we get to the lofty generalizations quickly enough.

I'm sympathetic to Ephesus as point of origin, but if it's late in Paul's stay, he doesn't do what he said and come visit. After Ephesus, Paul heads north toward Macedonia. I do wonder if Paul's quick departure from Ephesus in Acts 18:19 hides a quick, initial imprisonment after he first arrived there. He would then have gone on to visit Colossae. Obviously this is complete speculation.

It seems like there is often a point in Wright where the historical grasp on the balloon is let go and it floats away into dreamy abstraction. One wonders, in the end, whether Wright will ever be able to really get Paul because Paul was far too grounded in the end, and Wright can't help being contemplative. The referential world behind Paul, the one Wright seeks, was not an ideological system.

Was unity the center of Paul's worldview? If you mean the inclusion of the Gentiles, then the answer is probably yes. But notice the difference between "unity," which tends toward the abstract, and "the inclusion of the Gentiles," which is a concrete missiological problem. Did faith generate and define fellowship? Shared faith did provide common ground.

Did fellowship relate to a world in which both Philemon, Paul, and Onesimus were all "in Messiah"? I suppose so, theologically, but I suspect we would need to explain what we are saying to Paul. Wright is the king of theological overload. Paul is merely saying that Christian family fellowship entails some things, including the fact that Philemon needs to forgive Onesimus. These dynamics take place in the light of Christ. There are concrete truths here on how we should relate to one another, yes.

As for Christ incorporating Israel, I have yet to see any exegetical evidence that Paul thought in those terms. This is the spark of Wright's early brilliance and the pariah he has never been able to shake. It is brilliant theology, but most scholars remain unconvinced that any of the New Testament authors thought of Christ in this way.


Bob MacDonald said...

"As for Christ incorporating Israel, I have yet to see any exegetical evidence that Paul thought in those terms."

I noticed this in the Case for the Psalms also. It struck me - but there is a section in Paul that suggests the resolution of the singular-plural humanity that God is creating. See Ephesians 4:13.

If I am offbase, feel free to administer the umpire's appropriate rule

Bob MacDonald said...

I also note Tim Gombis is posting on Wright here. Maybe I will get to read his book without having to.

Jordan Litchfield said...

Ken, what Pauline scholar other than Wright would you recommend these days for getting a good grasp of his theology/mission?

Ken Schenck said...

Of course I'm a big James Dunn fan...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The biggest problem I have with Wright (from what I know and understand) is that making ancient history the way to approach modern life. It is short sighted, IMO. And, it leads to a presumptive attitude to those that differ, because of the inspiration element of Scriptual authority. "Biblcial Christians" set themselves apart as inheritors of THE TRUTH that must NOT change. Such thinking is nonsense, because it lacks taking a wider or larger view of history. At the same time, it specializes or sacralizes a particular tradition's understanding apart from understand it within a the larger context of religious traditions.

Some believe that traditions have lost their influence and this is tragic, as it has left society without moorings, while other believe that religious framing limits understanding and questions, which inhibit curiosity and learning. I suppose it depends on what you are concerned about or over.... whether you believe there is going to be a perfection to be attained in this world and life.