Paul and Israel’s Salvation: In Dialogue with Tom Wright
Among provocative statements in his recent Expository Times article (see my previous blog-posting), one in particular moved me to serious head-scratching: “Thus, American left and American right assume, without adequate exegetical grounding, that Paul believed in an ultimate Jewish salvation” (p. 371). This seems to me to posit a misleadingly narrow set of alternatives (either Christian fundamentalism and its “rapture” and attribution of eschatological significance to the modern state of Israel, or a secular/Jewish/Christian “left” that posits a Jewish “salvation” that doesn’t involve Jesus). This simplistic alternative thus avoids the serious scholarly work that appears to offer an impressive exegetical basis for thinking precisely that Paul envisioned God’s provision of salvation in/through Jesus as ultimately involving the eschatological salvation of the “fullness” of the nations (gentiles) and “all Israel” as well. (For example, curiously, in Wright’s discussions of the matter, I find no reference to Johannes Munck’s classic study, Christ and Israel, Fortress Press, 1967.)
We await Wright’s big book on Paul (likely to be big, as all the other volumes in his multi-volume series on the NT have been thus far), in which, no doubt, he will provide a doughty defence of all his views. But Wright has laid out rather fully his own reading of the crucial text, Romans 9–11, in an earlier publication: “Christ, the Law and the People of God: The Problem of Romans 9–11,” in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline theology (Fortress Press, 1991), 231-57. And in recent email exchanges, he assures me that he hasn’t changed his view.
This isn’t the place or format in which to engage in detail that essay, but I am bound to say that I find this friend for whom I have great admiration unpersuasive in his handling of this material. It is remarkable that, per his view, in Romans 11:25a the “Israel” upon whom a “hardening” (against the Gospel) has come = the Jewish people, but (within only a few words) the “all Israel” who shall be saved in 11:25b = the church (composed, to be sure, as Wright emphasizes, of gentiles and those Jews who, like Paul, accept the Gospel). Shifting the meaning of “Israel” within one verse, that’s going some!
I’ve re-read his essay on Romans 9–11 several times now, and my copy is heavily marked with indications of my puzzlement and disappointment at numerous points. I will simply say that I remain of the view that in Romans 9–11 Paul’s protracted and repeated concern is the fate of his people, fellow Jews, in light of his firm conviction that Jesus has been made now the one source of salvation, and the large-scale rejection of the Gospel by his people. For Paul, it seems to me, the issue boils down to this: If his ancestral people have simply gone into a ditch permanently, then “the word of God has failed” (Rom 9:6), and/or God has abandoned his people (11:1) to whom he made promises. And if God can be so defeated by Jewish unbelief in the Gospel, or can turn from his promises to Jewish ancestors, then God’s character and redemptive power are under suspicion.
I don’t see how one can read 11:25-32 as envisioning anything other than Paul’s surprising declaration that God will ultimately triumph over the present Jewish unbelief in Jesus and secure the redemption of all. Just as Paul asserts that in God’s secret plan (“mystery”) the large-scale Jewish unbelief actually is serving (in Paul’s time) to promote the “fullness” of Gentile salvation (11:25), so Paul seems to me to say that God will double back and bring also the corresponding “fullness” of Israel (11:12) into salvation. Just as all people (including Israel) have been disobedient, so God will scoop all nations (including also Israel) into eschatological salvation (11:32). And for Paul that means salvation through the Gospel of God’s Son.
The first issue is not whether you find this credible, or how to make such a scenario meaningful to pew-sitters today, or how to make it inoffensive, but whether Paul believed it. To put it a bit awkwardly, I can’t persuade myself that he didn’t. It is a mind-blowing, perhaps even outrageous, prospect; no question about that. But it seems to me that just such an audacious expectation is what prompted the lyrical, almost ecstatic final lines in 11:33-36.