Simon Gathercole is one of the brightest New Testament scholars around, as well as being a conservative evangelical, which makes him something of a unicorn. In a recent review of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, he puts his finger on something I’ve never quite been able to nail down, but have always had a funny feeling about:
“The argument here is, at risk of caricature, that big is better. The broader the canvas and the more all-encompassing the narrative, the more important the theme is. But I’m not sure that that does best justice to Paul. It remains unclear to me that the main theme of Paul’s gospel was ‘God’s restorative justice for the whole of creation’. When he summarises his gospel, he uses not themes and language comparable to those of Romans 8.18-27, but rather talks of Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection on the third day. This is the focus in 1 Cor. 15.3-4, in the passage where he explicitly describes in nuce the content of his gospel, and he states that that is what is ‘of first importance’. Paul does not generally summarise his ministry as contributing in some way, however indirectly, to justice for the whole creation. Rather he talks of preaching Christ and him crucified, or presenting his churches blameless on the day of Christ. To be sure, this needs to be set against the backdrop of Romans 8.18-27, but – I would aver – this is more the backdrop than the foreground. This passage in the middle of Romans 8 is comparatively unusual in Paul. Much more prominent in the letters is what Wright defines as the subsidiary theme, ‘the rescue of human beings from sin and death’.”
Which may be a relief to those who are trying to apply Paul to the everyday lives of believers, and/or those who are trying to fit the Paul of the general letters together with the Paul of Acts. Nicely played, sir.