Week 5 – Day C: Creation and Covenant, N.T. Wright

Creation and Covenant is a chapter in N T Wright’s “Paul: a fresh perspective”. In the chapter Wright appeals to a number of passages from the Old Testament to demonstrate his understanding of Creation and Covenant, which he considered central to Paul’s thought. Psalms are used as an initial way into Paul, with those Psalms chosen considered to draw on a similar theology of Creation and Covenant. Wright sees the Psalms as divided into two parts; “the first celebrating Creation, and within that celebrating the Torah as the Covenant charter designed to enable each individual Israelite to become a whole, cleansed, integrated human being; the other half complaining that the pagans are laying Israel waste, and invoking the covenant God as also the creator God who has the power, the right and the responsibility to deal with evil”. Wright then gives three examples of passages where Paul uses the theology of Creation and Covenant consistently; as being renewed by God through Jesus Christ. Wright concludes by detailing a fundamental structu

re of Paul’s thought, showing how the twin themes of creation and covenant offer a context, an implicit narrative, within which Paul’s understanding of what has gone wrong in the world and how it is put right can be grasped. For Paul creation goes on to new creation and covenant to new covenant; covenant renewal must result in new creation.

Extract

There you have it: the creator God is the covenant God, and vice versa; and his word, particularly through his prophet and/or servant, will rescue and deliver his people from the enemy. This combination constituted the deep implicit narrative within which the multiple other narratives of second-Temple Judaism find their coherence and meaning. We could put it like this, in a double statement which might seem paradoxical but which carried deep meaning through ancient Judaism.

First, the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation. God called Abraham to solve the problem of evil, the problem of Adam, the problem of the world. (That, incidentally, is why accounts of the problem of evil which fail to incorporate covenant theology are doomed before they start; but that is another story.) Israel’s calling is to hold fast by the covenant. 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. Israel goes back to Genesis 1, and to the story of the Exodus, in order to pray and trust that YHWH will do again what, as creator, he has the power and the right to do, and what as the covenant God he has the responsibility to do, namely, to establish justice in the world and, more especially, to vindicate his people when they cry to him for help. In both cases, we should note carefully, it is assumed that something has gone badly wrong. Something is deeply amiss with creation, and within that with humankind itself, something to which the covenant with Israel is the answer. Something is deeply amiss with the covenant, whether Israel’s sins on the one hand or Gentile oppression on the other, or perhaps both – and to this the answer is a re-invoking of creation, or rather of God as creator.

So far I have concentrated on the Old Testament itself, partly because these themes are so clear there and partly because Paul constantly goes back to the Old Testament, not least to Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms and Isaiah, not to find proof-texts for abstract ideas but in order to reground the controlling narrative, the historical story, of God, the world, humankind, and Israel. But it is of course important that we also contextualize Paul in his own day by noticing these same themes in second-Temple literature. There is no space to expound this in detail. I merely note that in very different writings, such as The Wisdom of Solomon, the Qumran literature, and the apocalyptic writings such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, we find exactly these themes, albeit deployed in very different ways. We find, not least, these themes invoked as the reason why Israel’s God, the creator, must eventually engage in a final show-down with the forces of evil, a dramatic event which will be like the Exodus in some respects and like a great court scene, a trial in which the powers of evil are judged, condemned and overthrown, on the other. We think, most obviously, of Daniel 7 and the re-use of that passage in various later texts. Though Paul appeals over the heads of the later texts to the Bible itself, his own re-use of the biblical themes possesses an easily recognisable family likeness to the other re-uses of his day.

One of the great slogans in which all this theology of creation and covenant is summed up, one with of course enormous significance at the heart of Paul’s thought, is tsedaqah elohim, the ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ or ‘covenant faithfulness’ of God. The problem of how to translate this phrase is acute already in Isaiah and elsewhere, as it is in Paul. Somehow we need a word which will pull together this entire complex of thought, which will evoke for us what the Hebrew phrase, and then its Greek equivalent (dikaiosyne theou), evoked in Paul’s day as it had done for a long time before: the fact that the creator and covenant god can be relied upon to act in accordance with his creating power and his covenant fidelity, to put the world to rights. How can all this be summed up in a word?

There is no such word in English. One might say ‘faithfulness’, but it hardly carries the sense of ‘justice’, of putting things to rights. One might say ‘righteousness’, but people inevitably hear it today either in the sense of ‘ethical uprightness’ or in the (to my mind mistaken) familiar Reformed understandings of it as the status which God imputes to the faithful, about which I shall say more later on. The word ‘justice’ itself evokes that element of what Paul, and the texts on which he drew, were talking about which is all too often forgotten today, namely that because God is the creator he has the obligation to put the world to rights once and for all, but unless we constantly remind ourselves that in the Jewish context, and in Paul himself, this ‘justice’ springs not from some abstract ideal but from the creator’s obligation to the creation and from the covenant God’s obligation to be faithful to his promises, it will lose its flavour and force. This multiple obligation is what Psalm 74 appeals to, and it is what makes sense of the actual flow of Paul’s own thought in passage after passage. The word ‘justice’ has one advantage, though, namely that it is cognate with ‘justification’, the moment in the present time when one part of the creation is put to rights in advance of the final renewal.

Questions for reflection

  • Could a belief in the ability and duty of God to set things right detract from the imperative to protect the earth now?

 

Further reading

N.T. Wright (2005) Paul: A Fresh Perceptive

Samuel Wells (2015) A Nazareth Manifesto

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