Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Chapter One: “Return of the Runaway” (pp. 3-74).
Though N. T. Wright begins with a warming exegesis of Philemon, primary focus for this chapter is on his worldview model. Wright’s new worldview model builds upon earlier versions presented in both The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God (cf. 29 n. 83 for the references). The model is composed of four interrelated elements: (1) stories, (2) symbols, (3) praxis and (4) questions (28).
Symbols are buildings, clothes, coins, etc. (26). Praxes are the habitual everyday actions of people; how they orient themselves in the world around them, and of particular importance for this book (26). The questions Wright uses are the “elementary questions which Rudyard Kipling referred to as his ‘six honest serving men’ who ‘taught him all he knew’: What, Why When, How, Where and Who” (26). Wright has used these questions before, posing them as: Who are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? And What time is it? (26 n. 76). Again, each of these elements is interrelated.
This worldview/mindset (Wright uses these terms mostly interchangeably; the difference is worldview belongs to a community, while mindset an individual) generates basic beliefs and consequent beliefs, and aims and intentions (28). The difference between basic and consequent beliefs is that the latter is only slightly removed from the former because it is a result of the worldview (64). Aims is the central hope and goal of the worldview, or the person holding to it, while intentions is the manner of going about the aims (64). Basic beliefs relate to aims (the goals themselves) as consequent beliefs relate to intentions (how to achieve those goals). The four components together are rooted in the worldview model of the above paragraph (see the charts on 29, 64 and 65). These four components also give rise to the meaningful actions and words of an individual, such as Paul in our case (29).
Applied to Philemon we learn that Paul’s chief aim in the letter is for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus (30). Wright points out the importance of novum seen in this praxis of Paul: “This is new. There is no sign he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his native Jewish world” (30). And the “new symbolic praxis which stood at the heart of his renewed worldview was the unity of the Messiah’s people” (30). [Wright will draw increasingly from both Wayne Meeks The First Urban Christians (1983) and David Horrell’s Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics (2005) throughout the entire project. We note here the centrality of sociology in their critical approach to Paul.]
Chapter one ends with an allegory on Philemon. The allegory is about a great and long-needed reconciliation between history and theology. In it Philemon plays the role of a very rude Theological Orthodoxy while Onesimus represents Enlightenment historiography (69). Onesimus, as the runaway slave, is only trying to break out of the “small and stifling theological world” of Philemon’s strict orthodoxy; while Philemon, the self-appointed guardian of Pauline orthodoxy, is “only prepared to have the slave back in the house once he’s been suitably chastised and given strict conditions of service” (69). Now, it is Paul’s aim to reconcile both and, therefore, let the runaway return. (Perhaps, further playing on the chapter’s title, “Return of the Runaway,” is Wright’s re-introduction of his controversial understanding of the parable of the prodigal son from Jesus and the Victory of God, where he seems to acknowledge his mistaken interpretation of that parable; 68.)
I discussed in my last post how Wright’s model is essentially one of coherence. Adding to and complicating his mistaken use of coherence as a governing criticism is Wright’s strict focus to make Paul’s theology answerable to it. That theology should be answerable to history we take for granted. But contemporary sociology? Here the exegete must act with great care. [Wright will often say, a worldview isn’t something you can look at, but is something you look through. How unfortunate we cannot validate the model on grounds other than by judging its coherence since Paul never writes of his worldview.] This should prompt the careful attention of historians: “We have, then, a set of questions about Paul (history, theology, exegesis and ‘application’, each with considerable subdivisions), and a set of worldview inquiries with which to address [answer?] them (story, praxis, symbol and questions, plus ‘culture’ and ‘worship’).” (63).
Without using qualified historical or theological data to govern it, the operative worldview can mean anything and, since we are using it to create the context for Paul’s theology, perhaps our theology as well. It is equivocal. Perhaps this is just the necessary result of applying modern sociological paradigms to biblical history? On this I would have to read more. But on the face of the matter they are different enterprises with different purposes. For starters sociology is more concerned with seeing things simply as they are and accomplishes its task by channeling subjects and objects into modern categories to provide a holistic understanding. The discipline is less concerned with the science of how, when or why, which is the sort of science the historian greatly desires. While we can see a Pauline portrait emerge by applying Wright’s sociological model, it’s as good as anyone’s. What we need is the proven one using a worldview/coherence model built on primary, historically-tuned criticisms, generally held by the scholarly community, which can legitimate an accepted conclusion.
Further, this worldview model is quite a busy one with complex interrelatedness for each of its constituent parts, and several applicable dimensions such as (1) Wright’s general historical sketches (of Judaism, and Greek and Roman cultures), (2) Saul of Tarsus’ mindset, and, following his conversion, (3) the new Paul’s mindset. With so much going on methodologically it’s easy to get lost in which part of the book’s hypotheses have been qualified and act as meaningful history. (This is not a remark about the very careful layout and accessibility of the book.)
These thoughts are probably too harsh to do justice to the majesty of Wright’s Paul, or the still impressive model of coherence that couches him. This would be an excellent opportunity for students of Wright to pursue, that is, substantiating more critically his coherence/worldview model as it applies to Paul – and even Jesus.