In his book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright identifies the heart of Paul’s worldview as the unity of God’s people in Christ. For Wright, “Paul’s theology” is the sustained reflection on what God has done in Christ and how that relates integrally with the intentional practices of a profound unity in communities of Jesus-followers.
These two paragraphs, taken from the midst of a discussion of Paul’s worldview with reference to Philemon, sum up the heart of Wright’s project:
Paul’s over-mastering aim in this letter is what elsewhere he calls reconciliation. This is new. There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his native Jewish world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention such as obtained in the world of Pliny. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical (in this case, ethical) schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. Here, sharply focused within this tiny letter, we glimpse one of the large and central claims of this present book: that Paul’s worldview was a radically redrawn version of the Jewish worldview he had formerly held, with some elements (the symbolic praxis) radically reduced in significance and others (the narratives) radically rethought. The new symbolic praxis which stood at the heart of his renewed worldview was the unity of the Messiah’s people. In letter after letter he spells it out in more detail, but here in Philemon we see it up close: in this case, the unity of slave and free. Paul puts everything he has into making this unity a reality.
Why does he do this? Why would Philemon and Onesimus be motivated to go along with this costly and socially challenging plan? Answer: because of the implicit theology. Because of who God is. Because of the Messiah. Because of his death. Because of who ‘we’ are ‘in him’, or growing up together ‘into him’. Because of the hope. The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular ‘theology’ to sustain it, but also requires that ‘theology’ itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. Paradoxically in terms of the traditional division between social science and theology, it is by studying Paul within ‘worldview’ categories that we acquire a new way of seeing not only what was really important within his fully blown theology but also why theology as a whole became more important for him, and ever afterwards within the community of Jesus’ followers, than it was (and still is to this day) within the worlds of either Jews or pagans. In studying Paul in a more holistic fashion, we discover the roots of the discipline known as ‘Christian theology’, and why – from Paul’s perspective, at least! – it matters. This is the central subject of the present book (p. 30).