I’m moving ahead a little bit in N.T. Wright’s Paul. Chapter 2 covers an important theme in Paul’s thought: the interplay between creation and covenant.
Wright’s ideas can be summarized in his own words pretty simply.
First, the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation. … Through Israel, God will address and solve the problems of the world, bringing justice and salvation to the ends of the earth – though quite how this will happen remains, even in Isaiah, more than a little mysterious. But, second, creation is invoked to solve the problems within the covenant. When Israel is in trouble, and the covenant promises themselves seem to have come crashing to the ground, the people cry to the covenant God precisely as the creator (24).
Basically, creation went awry pretty quickly, and the Creator sought to fix matters through a special relationship with one as yet non-existent nation. Over many centuries, however, that covenant appeared rather creaky and crumbly. Only the powerful Creator could fulfill such a one-sided relationship.
Aside from this, I just wanted to share a couple of paragraphs from this chapter that made me write “wow” in the margin. That doesn’t happen often, and here I did it twice in the course of about ten pages. (I only partly apologize for their length. Deal with it.)
Firstly, in the midst of a conversation on Romans 4 & Genesis 15:
This covenant fulfilment [Wright is British, didn’t you know], through which Jew and Gentile come together as the true children of Abraham (that is the main theme of Romans 4), is also, implicitly, the renewal of creation after the disaster outlined in chapter 1 [of Romans]. As has often been shown, the faith of Abraham as spelled out in 4.18-21 constitutes the deliberate reversal of the unbelief of humankind in Romans 1. Abraham looked at his good-as-dead body, but did not grow weak in faith; he didn’t waver in unbelief; he grew strong in faith, giving God the glory, believing completely that God, as creator, had the power to do what he had promised. That is why, as an advance sign of creation’s restoration, and with it the restoration of the male-and-female nature of image-bearing humankind, Abraham and Sarah are enabled to bear a son. Abraham’s faith thus points forward appropriately to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this faith becomes the covenant marker, the badge of God’s multi-ethnic people, the sign of God’s renewed humanity. Furthermore, one of the tell-tale signs of what Paul is thinking in this chapter as he expounds Genesis 15 is his redefinition, his broadening, of the promise of God to Abraham. In Genesis, Abraham is promised the Holy Land. For Paul, as for some others in his day, this was to be interpreted as an advance sign of something else. The promise to Abraham and his family, declares Paul, was that he should inherit the world (4.13) (30, italics original).
My next “wow” came five pages later.
The failure of human beings to be the truly image-bearing creatures God intended results, therefore, in corruption and death. When we begin with creation, and with God as creator, we can see clearly that the frequently repeated warnings about sin and death, referred to as axiomatic by Paul, are not arbitrary, as though God were simply a tyrant inventing odd laws and losing his temper with those who flouted them, but structural: humans were made to function in particular ways, with worship of the creator as the central feature, and those who turn away from that worship – that is, the whole human race, with a single exception – are thereby opting to seek life where it is not to be found, which is another way of saying that they are courting their own decay and death. This is to say, with the entire Jewish tradition, that the basic sin is idolatry, the worship of that which is not in fact the living creator God (35).