I’ve started trying to keep my weekends blog-free, but this post can’t wait until Monday. I mentioned Professor N.T. “Tom” Wright’s little book “What Saint Paul Really Said” in yesterday’s post. In fact, it was the centerpiece of the post. If you’ve not read this post I encourage you to do so.
In short, Wright makes a strong case for believing that the pagan world of the first century was far less “ripe for the picking” than has been argued my some, actually many. My observation and that shared by several who made comments is that followers of Christ should simply focus on sowing the seed of the kingdom—expanding the reach of Christ’s kingdom through spreading the Good News.
Wright does have something further to say about the state of the pagan world in the context which I quoted in my previous post. It is quite forthright. He states:
Paul’s challenge to the pagan world was not, then, a matter of filling in a set of blanks in a system already conscious of them. It was a matter of announcing a truth which, from Paul’s point of view, was the reality of which paganism was the parody. (86)
Like I said, this is a striking statement. Wright is an adept wordsmith, whose word choices are always thoughtful. In this instance characterizing paganism as a parody of the Holy Spirit’s revelation to and through the Apostle Paul is weighty, indeed. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in its earliest usage (1598) this word signified a “poor or feeble imitation”. The connotation of satirical skit or derisive imitation came along much later. Interestingly, when the paganism of the first century world is viewed through the lens of history, each of these definitions seems to be apropos.
Wright proceeds to support his assertion that paganism was the parody of the truth Paul was announcing with brief discussions in six categories. This chapter alone, in my estimation, is worth the purchase price of the book. Each of these categories, along with a theme statement for each, follows:
(1) God and creation…Paul offered the reality of the true God, and the creation as his handiwork. This Paul saw as the reality, over against the paganism which, though aware of the existence of the creator, constantly identified him with objects or forces with creation itself.
(2) Cult and religion…Paul was therefore offering a clear challenge at the level of the cult. The pagan world was, one might almost say, infested with gods of every sort and for every purpose. Whatever one might undertake, from going through a door to undertaking a sea voyage, from getting married to planting a tree, there were gods to be placated and propitiated.
(3) Power and empire…Paul offered a clear challenge to paganism at the level of power, particularly of empire. If we begin by analyzing Paul’s theology in terms simply of justification by faith, we will find, as many have done, that his language about the principalities and powers falls off the back. But if we begin by asking, as I have suggested we should, how his gospel confronted the pagan world, such issues become once again central and vital.
(4) True humanness…Paul set out a way of being human which undercut the ways of being human on offer within paganism. In what we call his ethical teaching, in his community development, and above all in his theology and practice of new life through dying and rising with Christ, he articulated, inculcated and urged upon his converts a way of life which he saw as being the genuinely human way of life.
(5) The true story of the world…Paul was telling the true story of the world in opposition to pagan mythology….Paul was inviting his hearers to come to terms with reality: not just a ‘spiritual’ reality in the sense of an otherworldly, invisible reality, or a private ‘spiritual’ experience, but with the earthly reality, the flesh-and-blood reality, of Jesus of Nazareth and his death and resurrection. What is more, Paul offered his hearers a story in which the whole cosmos was going somewhere. Against the essentially ahistorical worldview of paganism, and over against the ‘golden age’ dreams of some philosophers of history, Paul articulated a linear view of history, from creation to new creation.
(6) Philosophy and metaphysics…Paul offered an implicit challenge to the major pagan philosophies of the Roman world. He says, after all, that he offers the true wisdom of the creator God, over against the spurious wisdom of the pagan philosophical world.
In his concluding thoughts in this chapter, Wright makes a final observation. He says, “I believe as a historian, theologian and exegete, that the task which I have just begun in this chapter, of analyzing Paul’s message to the pagan world, is an essential one if we are to understand him and his theology in their proper perspective.”
This is quite a line up, isn’t it? There is enough food for thought here for a great deal of study, isn’t there? I’m thinking there are a few additional lessons we can learn from looking at Paul’s challenge to first century paganism. Perhaps Paul has something to teach us about mustering the faith and courage to lovingly confront the major worldviews of our day. What do you think? We might have a thing or two to learn from the example of his thoughtfulness about the worldviews of the people he was addressing in order to accurately communicate biblical realities to people. What do you think?
© Bill Williams, September 22, 2006