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Paul’s Eschatology: Further Comments on Wright’s New Opus

April 2, 2014

Ok, here’s what I think is my final blog on Tom Wright’s huge (2-vol) opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  In earlier postings, I’ve engaged questions about his treatment of Paul’s Christology here and here, and questions about his view of Paul’s “reworked” view of Israel and God’s people here.  In this posting, I engage Wright’s treatment of Paul’s eschatology, i.e., Paul’s view of the future and outcome of God’s redemptive plans.  I’m afraid that, again, I have to lodge some complaints.

In Wright’s opus, this topic is discussed mainly in Chapter 11:  “God’s Future for the World, Freshly Imagined” (2: 1043-1266).  So, a monograph-length discussion in its own right.  One thing to note straightaway, however, is that  Wright gives a good 130 pages of this chapter to further articulation of his view of Paul’s “reworked” notion of Israel’s election, including ca. 100 pages of Wright’s curiously-ordered discussion of Romans 9–11, some 22 pages of this material given to Romans 11:25-27 alone!  So, what is actually devoted to Paul’s eschatology in specifics isn’t nearly as much as might at first appear.

We do have Wright emphasizing correctly that for Paul God’s eschatological programme had already begun in Jesus, especially in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  So, to use terms familiar in the history of NT scholarship, Paul held an “inaugurated eschatology,” the final events already underway, the programme to be consummated at Jesus’ parousia (return).  (I still like Oscar Cullmann’s analogy:  For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection was D-Day, and his parousia V-Day, and Paul thinks he is living in the exciting time between these two events: Christ and Time, pp. 144-74, esp 145. )

Also, Wright links (again correctly) the Spirit with eschatology, and so the presence and experience of the Spirit in early Christian circles was for Paul evidence of the new age underway, the Spirit raising new possibilities, new energies for obedience to God, even among former pagans.  (Although Wright seems strangely nervous about “experience,” typically putting it in scare-quotes.)

Wright is well-known (notorious?) among NT scholars for railing against those he accuses of positing some future “end of the space-time universe,” and in this work readers looking for that emphasis won’t be disappointed!  (I can’t recall anyone other than Wright, however, actually using this expression, and I fear that it’s more a caricature than a fair description of views with which he apparently disagrees.)

But, curiously, we don’t get much about such things as Jesus’ parousia/return (mentioned, but not really engaged), resurrection of the dead (Paul believed it, but little else), final judgement (same here), the glorification of believers (same again), etc.  That is, as to the specific phenomena that seem to me to have a significance place in Paul’s eschatological expectations, there is surprisingly little to be found in Wright’s discussion.  This is doubly surprising in a work of 2 vols, and over 1600 pages length.  Hardly, one thinks, could one offer as excuse a concern to economize on space!

But, although Wright wants to read all “apocalyptic” language as symbols, essentially representing political developments (of this world), clearly (or so it seems to me), a world in which the dead are in any sense “raised” in glorified and immortal bodily existence is unlike anything we know now.  So, this would seem to require some rather radical “reworking” of what we know as the world, at the very least!  It can’t all be read as “political” developments.  So, why so little discussion of these matters?

I could offer my suspicions, but that would be to go beyond fair engagement, and descend to ad hominem commentary.  I will simply note here that the handling of Paul’s eschatology seems to me not really adequate at all.  The chapter seems more to be a further opportunity for Wright to reiterate points made in earlier parts of the work, especially (the topic that seems to draw his interest and consequently space in the book more than any other) his emphasis on Paul’s “reworked” notion of Israel’s election.  But, precisely if we wish to engage Paul’s beliefs in historical terms, it will be necessary to take seriously (and even empathetically) what seem to me to be central beliefs about how God’s redemptive purposes will be consummated.

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12 Comments
  1. gary permalink

    Dr Hurtado,
    I have grown up in the midst of U.S. Southern Baptist, Pentecostal and Calvary Chapel churches. The common belief is that we will die and go to heaven (and so we shall always be with the Lord). I grew up in the Lord thinking that I would hangout in heaven until we had a big party while the “great” tribulation was going on down on earth. Then we would all follow the returning Jesus on his mighty white horse with all us saints behind in a mighty army that would conquer the antichrist and his forces. In the end, the earth will be destroyed with fire and God will create a new heaven and earth. So when Wright rails agains those who posit the end of space/time universe, I tend to be grateful.

  2. Brian Kelly permalink

    Lots of interesting comment here, thank you. You point out what seem to me to be serious omissions in Wright’s work. I can’t help feeling sometimes that he resorts to rhetorical and verbal overkill to make his points – and honestly I don’t have the patience to work through 1600 pages of this stuff and follow every twist of an argument. At the end of the day, you have to ask: ‘Would his first readers have grasped all this?’ As for the eschaton, ‘Eye hath not seen’ etc does seem pretty un-this-worldly to me.
    On another matter, I watched ‘The Bible Hunters’ and was interested to see you and Eddie King on this. As a programme I thought it was rather typically BBC, hyped up etc, and massively over-egging the significance (or not) of the ending of Mark, and the Washington Codex. No evidence that Tischendorff or the Smith sisters were shaken in their faith. I’ve never heard of Jeff Rose and wondered what his credentials are for this kind of programme.

    • Yes to everything you say about the Bible Hunters programme. I confess I hadn’t heard of Jeff Rose prior to it.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Don’t passages like 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Thessalonians show that Paul sincerely believed he was living near the end of the world as he knew it?

  4. Robert permalink

    Excellent comments. I hope Tom responds.

  5. Rick Willis permalink

    Might it be that, “as to the specific phenomena that seem to me to have a significance place in Paul’s eschatological expectations, there is surprisingly little to be found in Wright’s discussion,” Wright presumes not to repeat the material covered in more detail in The Resurrection of the Son of God (the previous volume in the series)?

    • Well, Rick, there’s one helluva lot of repetition in P&FG! And it’s bloated in size and discourse. So, I hardly think there was a concern such as you mention. But it’s kind of you to offer it!

  6. Deane Galbraith permalink

    I read this section in Wright and was, likewise, curious about what it omitted or treated rather too briefly. But I won’t ponder what reasons the author had for skirting certain key topics within Paul’s eschatology, which as you say risks ad hominem.

    Instead, I wonder what do you think about Wright’s explanation for the (now rather prolonged) gap between Jesus’s resurrection and the general resurrection? Wright writes: “Why not act all at once, to produce the long-awaited perfection? Paul’s answer was deeply humanizing: the one God did it this way in order to enable the humans who would share in the running of his new creation to develop the character they would need for that ultimate task” (p. 1098).

    I have some difficulty in reading the ethical sections of Paul’s letters as centrally concerned with human character development for “the running of [God's] new creation”. Do you think Wright offers a good reason here for the “delayed” Parousia?

  7. Brad Henry permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,
    On these particular issues, who would you recommend engaging with? And, I have thoroughly enjoyed these posts on Wright (and every other post).

    • Well, if you’re asking about Paul’s eschatological beliefs, I’d first recommend that you study closely what Paul wrote himself. Among key texts, 1 Thess, 1 Cor 15, Romans 8. And then there are commentaries on these NT writings. And there are studies of Paul’s theology (e.g., J.D.G. Dunn’s huge book). But (as with so many Pauline things) why not start with relevant treatments in an excellent reference work: Dictionary of Paul and His letters, eds. G. F. Hawthorne, R.P. Martin, D.G. Reid. E.g., the extensive article on “eschatology” by Larry Kreitzer, pp. 253-69 (with copious bibliography).

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