Paul`s Early Epistles

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
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
1. The early letters are tools in establishing the
churches fully in the gospel.
2. Leaders need them to fully establish and
guard the churches.
3. 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
We will create discussions in our classes and
meeting times around Wright’s work.
Paul’s Early Epistles
The method of argument
1. Do thorough work on the argument of each
book of Paul’s early letters.
2. Form a provisional underlying intent for the
3. Find reliable conversation partners.
4. Sketch a theology of the collection.
5. Put it in instructional form for the
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
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
Paul’s Early Epistles
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
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
This week we are turning our
attention to Romans 12:1–2.
Paul’s Early Epistles
Issue: Paul’s world
1. What was Paul’s world like? What three
worlds did he live in?
2. What do you think he meant by not being
“conformed to the world”?
3. In what sense was Paul shaping the minds
of the believers in Rome with his letter?
4. How was his worldview different from the
three worlds he lived in?
Paul’s Early Epistles
I 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
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
We now need to work out God’s will in this new
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
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
Rather a coherent thinker—building an
integrated worldview
Argument by argument all across his early
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 communityoriented 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
‘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
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
Paul’s Early Epistles

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