Paul’s Big Story

One of N. T. Wright’s most significant contributions is situating Paul (and the rest of the NT writers, for that matter) within the larger narrative framework of Scripture.

Many Western Christians read their Bibles in terms of the larger interpretive framework of “my relationship with God” — I was previously a sinner; I’m now saved; and the Bible is “about” how I can grow in my relationship with God.

This sort of assumed posture toward Scripture gets some things right, but is too individually-focused and mistakes one aspect (a vital one) of what Scripture is all about for the larger, all-encompassing story. According to Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

One regularly hears it said, or sees it written, that the implicit story goes like this:

1. Humans are made for fellowship with God;

2. Humans sin and refuse God’s love;

3. God acts to restore humans to a ‘right relationship’ with himself.

This drastic truncation of Paul’s narrative world – sometimes, indeed, supposed to be the sum total of Paul’s gospel! – then results in many puzzles which western theology has struggled unsuccessfully to solve, and many slippery arguments in which the idea of a ‘relationship’ can at one moment be almost forensic (the ‘relation’ in which the accused stands to the court) and at another almost familial (the ‘relationship’ between a parent and child). Please note, I am not saying that Paul is not concerned either with the ‘forensic’ situation or the ‘familial’. He is. Both of them are important. But all in their proper time. These problems are soluble if and only if we allow the main sub-plot, the story of God and humans, to be seen in its proper relation to the larger plot, the story of creation.

For Wright, the story of humankind, its plight and rescue, is often wrongly taken for the main plot. It’s important to recognize that this is only a sub-plot, part of a larger narrative. He summarizes this narrative as follows:

1. The creator’s intention was to bring fruitful order to the world through his image-bearing human creatures.

2. Humans fail to reflect God’s image into the world, and the world in consequence fails to attain its fruitful order; the result, instead, is corruption and decay.

3. God intends to restore humankind to its proper place, resulting in the rescue and restoration of creation itself (PFG, 489-90).

As Wright says elsewhere, in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, this re-reading of Paul requires a Copernican revolution in thinking about the Christian story within which Paul writes, a transformation of thought and imagination, a cultivation of a totally new, biblically-oriented vocabulary.

There’s so much to say about this — goodness, PFG is massive enough! — but Western Christians would do well to grapple with what Scripture is about in order to rightly situate their lives within the larger story of God’s redemptive pursuit of all things.

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5 responses to “Paul’s Big Story

  • edwardpillar

    Thank you for this. Absolutely right. I have found that the move to see, reflect upon, appreciate, understand etc…the Big Story has been massively helpful. Much appreciate the observation and helpful comments Tim.

  • Jaime

    This is part of the problem that I have had with the Biblical perspective grew up with; it simply ignored too many parts of the Scriptures. There were too many parts that just didn’t fit in cleanly and it kept causing me to question my ability to read a passage and understand it. When I began to read and hear about other perspectives on reading Paul and the NT, which didn’t focus on my personal relationship with Jesus, and the “righteousness transfer”, but instead focused on God’s longing to restore mankind to being in His image, the Scriptures began to make more sense. It was a long struggle out of that perspective, and only after I got a degree in Biblical Studies, did I start reading N.T. Wright. When I saw how clearly he laid out his perspective in “The NT and the People of God”, I finally felt that the questions I had been asking made sense.
    Reading N.T. Wright caused me to stop reading as many commentaries, and start looking at the text itself. Start looking for connections between the OT and the NT that were truly contiguous. Paul always seemed to be so different in his teaching than Jesus, until I started reading Paul differently. For me, that’s the problem with so many current perspectives on Paul is that they actually drive a wedge in between Jesus and Paul. Jesus seems too Jewish and foreign, while Paul feels more Western European and comfortable. But, when I began reading the Bible as a record of God in search of true humanity, calling mankind back to the original story, and not away to some disembodied “heaven”, Jesus and Paul seemed to be on the same page. Obviously addressing different audiences, but at least using the same basic chord structure and progression (to use a musical idiom).
    Now I find myself wanting to go back to look at the earliest church writings, the early Jewish writings (both before and after Jesus). When I read those, both Paul and Jesus seem to me, to be in the same continuum.
    Not only that, but I find this story more motivating and inspiring in my own Walk than the escapist, dualistic view that I was raised in. I want to see this universe renewed. I want to see the people I know reconciled in this life, and glorified in the Age to Come. I don’t see God as an arsonist with big match, saying, “I’m gonna burn it all down, baby!”
    I see God as a gardener, saying, “I can clean this up and make it beautiful.”
    Anyone else have a similar experience?

    Grace and Peace,
    Jaime

  • wordsntone

    Thank you, some of the things I have been teaching and writing (even before NT was the New Paul NT). I even tackle this big story idea in “re” defining what is meant by “evangelism” in my own work (book released last Oct ’13, called Wasted Evangelism).

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