Skip to content

What Saint Paul Rarely Said

Being a Christian is about being in a relationship with God. Few people would deny this statement. But what, exactly, does this statement mean? What does a relationship with God look like? How does it operate? What is the nature of a Christian’s relationship with God?

The word “covenant” has often been used as an important, sometimes even central, category to describe a Christian’s relationship with God. The apostle Paul, in particular, has been thought of as a champion of the “covenantal” view of a relationship with God. A more traditional view, which won’t be discussed in detail here, makes much of the fact that Paul is a minister of a “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). The new covenant, according to this view, is discontinuous with the old covenant in some ways, but it is still a covenant, and it still retains the basic covenantal structure of relationship. The new covenant is similar to the old covenant in that God and Christians are “covenant partners” with well-specified obligations to one another. But, in contrast with the old covenant, the obedience and forgiveness of Christians is (or, at least, will be) perfect and complete under the new covenant by virtue of Christ’s perfect atoning sacrifice.[1]

On the other hand, in recent decades the influential “New Perspective” on Paul has tended to emphasise the continuity between the old and new covenants.[2] According to this perspective, the “covenantal” nature of a Christian’s relationship with God is derived from God’s covenant with geopolitical Israel, reinterpreted in the light of the Messiah’s appearance and work. N. T. Wright, for example, in his popular book What Saint Paul Really Said, advocates “a covenantal reading of Paul”.[3] Wright takes biblical terms that describe the Christian’s relationship with God and ties them all together under the overarching theme of “covenant”.

For N.T. Wright, it is very important to maintain that the “covenant” is a corporate concept. Like the covenant with national Israel, the covenant in the New Testament puts the community first before the individual, and not vice versa.[4] Our union with Christ by the Spirit, for example, is described by Wright as something “irrevocably covenantal”, which is virtually synonymous with “ecclesiological”.[5] So too, justification is described repeatedly by Wright as a “definition” of covenant membership,[6] “the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated”.[7]

James Dunn also sees “covenant” as the unifying concept in Pauline theology, especially when it comes to justification.[8]

It is not too far off the mark to declare that this “‘covenant romanticism’ [. . .] has captured the current study of Paul, in which ‘the covenant with Israel’ has become the unexamined basis for resolving all questions about his soteriology”.[9]

There is, however, a serious problem, too often ignored by exponents of a covenantal theology in Paul. The word διαθήκη (“covenant”) occurs only nine times in all of Paul’s letters (Gal 3:15, 3:17, 4:24; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; Rom 9:4, 11:27; Eph 2:12). By contrast, the δικ- (“righteous” / “justification”) word group occurs 152 times.[10] If, as Wright claims, covenantal theology is “what Saint Paul really said”, then why is “covenant” a term that Saint Paul so rarely said?

This post is part of a series. See here for an introduction to the series.


[1] E.g. Scott Hafemann, “The ‘Temple of the Spirit’ as the Inaugural Fulfillment of the New Covenant within the Corinthian Correspondence”, Ex Auditu 12 (1996): 29–42 (esp. 34–35).

[2] Stanley E. Porter, “The Concept of Covenant in Paul”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 269–85 (here 269–71).

[3] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Oxford: Lion, 1997), 132.

[4] Wright, Saint Paul, 117–18, 151–53, 160.

[5] Wright, Saint Paul, 121.

[6] Wright, Saint Paul, 119.

[7] Wright, Saint Paul, 131.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God: A Renewed Perspective on Justification by Faith”, Journal of Theological Studies, NS 43/1 (1992): 1–22 (esp. 15–18).

[9] Mark A. Seifrid, “In What Sense Is ‘Justification’ a Declaration?”, Churchman 114 (2000): 123–36 (124).

[10] Mark A. Seifrid, “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language Against its Hellenistic Background”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 39–74 (39).

Full bibliography

Published inCovenant

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Elf on the Shelf Balloon. Photo by Kim on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thegirlsny/8208193899God: Beyond us—and with us (Ephesians 3:20–21)
    God is nothing like the Elf on the Shelf. God’s power is far beyond us. Yet God’s power is at work in us. So God’s glory is our joyful goal.
  • EducationWhen education is not the answer (Romans 2:17–27)
    When education is not the answer (Romans 2:17–27). Amongst all the pragmatics & demands & struggles of ministry, you first need to know the why of ministry. You need deep and strong theology, and to apply that theology to your life & ministry.
  • Colosseum with skyThis is huge (Ephesians 3:18–19)
    God’s plans for his world, and his love for us in Christ, are vast and awe-inspiring. They change everything. That’s why need prayer to grasp them.
  • Inscription behind table in St Stephens Anglican Church NewtownWhere does God live? (Ephesians 3:16–17)
    Can God’s presence be with us? If so, how? In bread and wine? In a tangible experience of worship? In Ephesians, Paul speaks about how Christ dwells among us.
  • Photo by Greg Rakozy on UnsplashWho are you praying to? (Ephesians 3:14–15)
    Most people pray. But not everyone prays in the same way. Your view of God will have a profound effect on your prayer life. Who are you praying to?
  • Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on UnsplashWith Israel Folau (repost)
    Given the current controversy surrounding Israel Folau's social media post, a piece I wrote for the ABC News website has again become highly topical.
  • My afflictions, your glory (Ephesians 3:12–13)
    We can react to suffering by avoiding or escaping or denying or rationalising it. For Paul, the gospel of Christ leads to a profoundly different reaction.
  • Ceiling Pattern, Christ Church College Staircase, OxfordGod’s multidimensional wisdom (Ephesians 3:9–11)
    Do you think being a Christian is boring? If so, maybe your view of God is one-dimensional. But Paul sees God and his purposes in vivid multidimensional glory.
  • People and the Post, Postal History from the Smithsonian's National Postal MuseumThe meaning of ministry (Ephesians 3:7–8)
    Christian ministry is hard. So why be involved at all? Pragmatics and techniques alone can’t answer that question. We need to know the meaning of ministry.
  • Photo by Sai de Silva on UnsplashThe open secret (Ephesians 3:4–6)
    How can we know God’s will? Some try to see God’s will in the progress of history. But this is disastrous. God’s will is something we can’t work out by ourselves.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor