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.