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We have recently embarked on a journey—about a 2-year journey—on a study of Paul’s early letters. Just as with the Gospels, we will produce a series of booklets designed to be used to fully establish churches in the gospel.

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We have recently embarked on a journey—about a 2-year journey—on a study of Paul’s early letters.

Just as with the Gospels, we will produce a series of booklets designed to be used to fully establish churches in the gospel.

We will reach our goal, and I am confident, doing it carefully, we will see things as fresh and as powerful as we did in the Gospels, and it will be worth the trip.

Paul’s Early Epistles


The series shape

    • Book 1: The Early Letters: Fully Establishing
    • the Churches in the Gospel
    • Book 2: Galatians: So Quickly Leaving the
    • Gospel
    • Book 3: The Thessalonians Correspondence:
    • Conversion to the Gospel
    • Book 4: The Corinthian Letters:
    • Fragmentation of the Gospel
    • Book 5: The Corinthian Letters: Paul’s
    • Gospel Defended
    • Book 6: Romans: Complete Treatise
    • of Paul’s Gospel

Paul’s Early Epistles


I will teach a series of ideas as we attempt to identify the key theological base to draw from

Then produce the lead booklet on establishing the churches in the gospel.

Then do work on Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Romans booklets.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Why do you need to understand the letters in depth?

The early letters are tools in establishing the churches fully in the gospel.

Leaders need them to fully establish and guard the churches.

There is power in everyone knowing these letters with confidence and being able to use them.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Key leaders, especially the apostolic team, need to get the three new books by Wright on Paul.

We will create discussions in our classes and meeting times around Wright’s work.

Paul’s Early Epistles


The method of argument

Do thorough work on the argument of each book of Paul’s early letters.

Form a provisional underlying intent for the collection.

Find reliable conversation partners.

Sketch a theology of the collection.

Put it in instructional form for the churches—booklets.

This we will do for the next 2 years. Our main conversational partner will be N. T. Wright, since I am confident he has won the argument.

Paul’s Early Epistles


“Readers of my earlier works have been reminding me for some while that this book has been a long time coming. It is the fourth ‘volume’ (for all it now appears in two physical volumes) of the series Christian Origins and the Question of God, which SPCK in London commissioned in 1990 and whose three volumes…appeared in 1992, 1996 and 2003 respectively . . . .”

This volume is 10 years in coming.

Paul’s Early Epistles


“Thus, though I have not collected that diachronic work together as the explicit foundation for the present book, I think it is fair to assume it.… The letters consist of a few buckets of water drawn from a deep well, poured out into whichever vessels Paul thought appropriate for the audience and the occasion. We should therefore expect to find that Paul says briefly and cryptically in one place what elsewhere he spells out in more detail. We should expect to be able to interpret one letter with the help of another, while of course respecting the flow of argument proper to each.”

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright, pp. xix-xx.

Paul’s Early Epistles


“I shall repeatedly appeal to the sequence of thought in a letter as a whole, a section as a whole, a chapter or paragraph as a whole. I marvel at the extent to which this is often not done in works on Paul’s theology or particular aspects of it. I marvel in particular that many commentaries, which one might suppose to be committed to following the argument of the text they are studying, manage not to do that, but instead to treat a Pauline letter as if it were a collection of maxims, detached theological statements, plus occasion ‘proofs from scripture’ and the like.

Paul’s Early Epistles


“I take it as axiomatic, on the contrary, that Paul deliberately laid out whole arguments, not just bits and pieces, miscellaneous topoi which just happen to turn up in these irrelevant “contingent” contexts like oddly shaped pearls on an irrelevant string. In any case, the point is that a thematic analysis of Paul’s theological topics in themselves, and in their mutual interrelation, ought to enhance our appreciation of the flow of thought in his letters and their component parts, while also demonstrating coherence among themselves.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Last week we began looking at Paul’s early letters by focusing on Romans—the last of the letters.

We saw Romans 16:25–27 as crowning the entire section, not just Romans.

Paul’s Early Epistles


25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen

Romans 16:25–27, NRSV

Paul’s Early Epistles


25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, in accordance with the unveiling of the mystery kept hidden for long ages 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith among all the nations— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus the Messiah, to whom be the glory to the coming ages! Amen.

Romans 16:25–27 (N.T. Wright)

Paul’s Early Epistles


Issue: Paul’s world


What was Paul’s world like? What three worlds did he live in?

What do you think he meant by not being “conformed to the world”?

In what sense was Paul shaping the minds of the believers in Rome with his letter?

How was his worldview different from the three worlds he lived in?

Paul’s Early Epistles


1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1–2, NRSV

Paul’s Early Epistles


So my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is—what is good, acceptable and complete.

Romans 12:1–2 (N. T. Wright)

Paul’s Early Epistles


World—world system, world order, generation,

  • Conformed—(syschematize) form oneself after, be formed on the model of, be made like, be similarly situated; form to the same pattern, fashion oneself according to
  • Paul was in 3 worlds / three systems:
    • Jewish
    • Greek
    • Roman

Paul’s Early Epistles


Romans 12:1–2 comes after a long argument—chapters 1–11, especially 9–11.

Paul is refashioning the meta-narrative, reshaping the world system.

The gospel reshapes the world and sets us in a whole new system.

We are now to follow God’s new design—His will.

Paul’s Early Epistles


In this context, renewing your mind means to understand and follow this new metanarrative—this new gospel story.

The kerygma is to set our life on a new course—a whole new system, a whole new worldview.

We now need to work out God’s will in this new system.

Paul’s Early Epistles


A couple more words in 12:2

Renew—a making new; a renovation that makes a person different from the past.

Mind—way of thinking, understanding; thought, attitude, intention, purpose

In light of Romans 1–11, they need to develop a whole new way of thinking, a whole new framework.

Paul’s Early Epistles


We will not fully grasp this until we fully understand Romans 1–11, especially 9–11.

In chapters 1–11 Paul rearranged everything. He reset the Jewish mind. He reset the Roman mind. He reset the Greek mind. But his primary focus was on the Jewish system.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Commenting on Paul, N. T. Wright writes,

“A complex person in a complex time. Paul stands where three great roads converge; and he has made of them another, travelled less, and making all the difference. … Paul lived and worked, in fact, in at least three worlds at once, each of which subdivided.”

p. 75

Paul’s Early Epistles


All of the letters are important, but Romans the most important. It resets the entire metanarrative with the gospel story.

And we are to bring our lives in line with this new way of seeing the world; we need to build a whole new worldview.

Not the Jewish worldview of the day.

Nor the Romans worldview.

Nor the Greek worldview.

Paul’s Early Epistles


It is also important to understand how Paul does this. He is not a systematic thinker—moving systematically from one doctrine to another.

Rather a coherent thinker—building an integrated worldview

Argument by argument all across his early letters.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Again, N. T. Wright’s comments at the end of volume one are critical

“So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian,’ meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theologica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we will want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklēsiai.

Paul’s Early Epistles


“And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a deeply coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match.” p. 568

Paul’s Early Epistles


“What is more, the reason Paul was ‘doing theology’ was not that he happened to have the kind of brain that delighted in playing with and rearranging large, complex abstract ideas. He was doing theology because the life of God’s people depended on it, depended on his doing it initially for them, then as soon as possible with them, and then on them being able to go on doing it for themselves. All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology, not in the sense of an unsystematic therapeutic model which concentrates on meeting the felt needs of the ‘client’, but in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep a sharp eye out for wolves. pp. 568–569

Paul’s Early Epistles


Now let me give you an example of how Paul’s theology rearranged both the Jewish and Roman worldview.

First, how did the Jewish mind of the day work?

Then the Roman?

Paul’s Early Epistles


Again listen to Wright on Jewish worldview

“It was not simply about ‘religion,’ whether in the ancient or the modern senses.  It included a ‘wisdom,’ an understanding of the world and of its creator, which belonged with what the ancients thought of as ‘philosophy.’  It included a community-oriented agenda which belonged with ‘politics.’  That I why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world.  To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community.  p. 196

Paul’s Early Epistles


Wright starts his argument on Paul’s radical restructuring of the worldview of his day by contrasting 2 letters: that of a Roman governor and Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Pliny’s Letter

“You told me you had been angry with a freedman of yours, and now he’s come to see me! He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot, he asked for a lot, though he kept quiet about a lot too. To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really does feel that he did wrong.

“Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have a right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified. Once you loved this fellow, and I hope you will love him again; for the moment, it’s enough if you let yourself be placated. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and you’ll have all the more reason if you’ve been placated now. He’s young, he’s in tears, and you have a kind heart—make all that count. Don’t torture him, and don’t torture yourself either; anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Pliny’s Letter

“I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway, and all the more fully and thoroughly because I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This was because he needed a good fright, and I said it to him rather than to you, because it’s just possible that I shall make another request, and receive it too—always supposing it’s an appropriate thing for me to ask and for you to grant.)

“Yours sincerely . . . .”

Wright, p. 3

Paul’s Early Epistles


Paul’s Letter to Philemon

“I have considerable boldness in the messiah to command you to do the right thing, but I prefer to appeal on the basis of love, seeing as I am Paul, an elder and now also a prisoner of the Messiah, Jesus. I appeal to you about my child, whose father I have become in my imprisonment: Onesimus! Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me. I’m sending him to you—sending the one who is my very heart. Actually, I would have liked to keep him here beside me, so that he could work for me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the royal announcement, but I didn't want to do anything without your approval, so that your good deed wouldn’t be done, as it were, under compulsion, but willingly.

Paul’s Early Epistles


Paul’s Letter to Philemon

“Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, but in human terms and in the lord.

“So: if you count me as your partner, receive him as you would me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down on my account. I, Paul, will repay: I’m writing this with my own hand! (Not to mention the fact that you owe me your own very self . . .) Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the lord! Refresh my heart in the Messiah.

“I’m writing this fully confident of your obedience, and knowing that you will do more than I say. At the same time, get a guest room ready for me. I’m hoping, you see, that through your prayers I will be given to you as a gift . . . .”

Wright, p. 5

Paul’s Early Epistles


The thinking of a Christian, with the new worldview unfolded by Paul, was radically different. As write observes

““Something is going on here.  Something is different.  People don’t say this sort of thing.  That isn’t how the world works.  A new way of life is being attempted—by no means entirely discontinuous with what was there already, but looking at things in a new way, trying out a new path.  There is, after all, a world of difference between saying,

‘Now, my good fellow, let me tell you what to do with your stupid freedman and then we’ll all be safely back in our proper positions’


‘Now my brother and partner, let me tell you about my newborn child, and let me ask you to think of him, and yourself, and me, as partners and brothers.’  This new way of life, and the new patterns of thinking which sustain it . . . .” Wright, p.6

Paul’s Early Epistles


It may not seem like it yet, but I am building an argument for how we should interpret the early epistles of Paul, just as we did with the Gospels.

I am resituating these early letters. This must be done before we study them individually and before we write the booklets for the Mastering the Scriptures Series.

Paul’s Early Epistles


And in Romans 12:1–2, this is what it means to renew our minds around a whole new worldview.

Paul’s Early Epistles