Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 3

Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Chapter Three: “Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks” (pp. 197-243).

(Due to the brevity of this chapter I will only hit on a few points and offer minor criticism.)

The point of the chapter’s title is that Athene’s owl — like herself — is described as “bright-eyed,” able to see into the dark ancient world and find the light of truth when others cannot (197). In this chapter significant emphasis is given to the leading philosophical schools of Paul’s day: (1) Stoicism (which is understandably of primary concern due to its close – though pantheistic – ‘theology’ of logos), and (2) Epicureanism (let’s eat!).

Of course the important question is: how influenced by the Greco-Roman world was Paul and his theology? To this Wright points to the relevant Scriptural passages, one being 1 Corinthians 1-2 where the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. But Paul was brought up in the strictest traditions of his ancestors (recall the previous chapter), surely he was a fundamentalist with no words for pagan philosophers, save a single Barthian Nein! “This has been enough to convince many that Paul’s only word to the philosophies of his day would have been the same as that of Karl Barth to the merest suggestion of ‘natural theology’: Nein!” (200). (Points for using Barth.) So, “if Paul did not derive the central themes and categories of his proclamation. . . from pagan thought, that doesn’t mean that he refused to make any use of such things” (201). As Wright sees it, Paul was not so close-minded. He was a careful and critical thinker, and willing to engage opponents across the table intellectually.

Wright then explains Paul’s two-stage programmatic response to pagan philosophy: (1) direct confrontation, the most exciting being Jewish creational monotheism against pagan polytheism, and (2) adaptation, which on my reading of Wright means Paul’s adaptation of pagan philosophies for Christian interests (recall his visit to the Areopagus and his remarks about the unknown God).

Sounding very much like the great evangelical epistemologist/theologian Carl Henry, Wright states: “all the wisdom of the world belongs to Jesus the Messiah in the first place, so any flickers or glimmers of light, anywhere in the world, are to be used and indeed celebrated within the exposition of the gospel” (201). Wright then neatly criticizes the history-of-religions school of thought for essentially failing to distinguish between these two responses: “derivation” and “adaptation” (201). (Those who continue to lean on Greek categories at the expense of Jewish ones should hear him on this.)

Five pages are afforded to the Socratic philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, before proceeding to the more prominent philosophical schools of Paul’s day mentioned earlier. (Wright does the historical work of bridging these philosophical influences on Paul while in Tarsus by noting the ancient geographer Strabo who offers aid on this point). Provided Stoicism’s greater influence of the day, four leading and somewhat proximate Stoics are examined, with Seneca being the most important (219-229). Cynics and Skeptics receive a couple pages as well followed by a section on the “Philosopher’s Worldview” where Wright applies his worldview paradigm constructed for Paul in chapter one to the philosophers themselves (232-238).

Where the two worlds encounter one another, again, is the reason for the chapter title. Jewish-Christian categories such as wisdom (sophia) are seen as the bright-eyed Athenian owl, peering into the pagan philosophical world with the light of truth. An example of a Jewish response (such as a zealous Pharisee might hold?) is given in the classical work “Wisdom of Solomon,” where both, as Wright claims, Stoic and Epicurean ideas are implicitly challenged. Stoicism’s pantheistic logos which encompasses and exists in all nature (physis) is subverted by wisdom (sophia), which belongs only to YHWH and those to whom he gives sophia. We are here more or less seeing Wright as an artist and not a critical biblical scholar. There is nothing in the footnotes to suggest the case – as is often the case – has been critically substantiated, though it still forms an inspiring portrait.


Criticisms offered, then, are predictable. (1) Wright mostly avoids the question of Hellenistic influences on Pauline theology and his churches (though he admits this, and states it is certain to come later, cf. 200 n. 11). (2) Surprisingly, nothing is said of rhetoric or rhetorical criticism despite increasing favor by New Testament academics, particularly related to Paul. Though Wright discusses Cicero and devotes a small subsection to Epictetus (the man of diatribes himself), nothing on rhetorical criticism is said, and the word rhetoric only appears once in the large print, and off topic. (This would agree further with my primary criticism that Wright does not offer groundwork historical-criticism, only a naked sociological worldview model.) (3) Though he is a careful historian a few of the Stoics he discusses appear significantly later in history, such as the emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). The anachronisms pretty much go unqualified, though I feel that is the point for this chapter. I am pretty sure Wright will accurately qualify Stoicism in its chiastic partner chapter.

In closing, don’t miss the handy chart on p. 244-45. Chapter four coming soon.


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