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).

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