You’ve got to know St Paul pretty well, haven’t you?

Paul is a complicated, many-sided character, as most people are when you get to know them. Many times he wears his heart on his sleeve, such as in 2 Corinthians. He’s just had a totally crushing experience; his description of what he felt, completely despairing of life itself, makes it feel as though he’s had a nervous breakdown. He’s clawing his way back out of that by nothing other than belief in the God who raises the dead. The resurrection is so important ? ‘God raises the dead, God is going to raise me out of this mess.’

Yet, he’s funny with it. He’s ironic, he’s passionate, and he’s rhetorically savvy. Take 1 Corinthians: he’s cross with them, he’s teasing them, he’s poking them in the eye, and then he writes an amazing poem. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal...’ It is a poem, and a well-constructed one. You think, ‘Wow, the music has died down for a moment and then you have this powerful tune.’ Then it’s back to how we are to live.There’s an amazing character going on here, and I think he couldn’t have put that poem about love in the middle of that letter, unless he had known that they knew it was true of him.

He often tells people to look at his example…

Paul often appeals to himself as a model. That’s really scary, because when Paul arrived in a new town, they didn’t respond with, ‘Oh, here’s another Christian missionary’. They said, ‘What on earth is this funny fellow talking about?’ They had never seen or heard anyone like this before. So he models a way of life that is characterised by humility, service and chastity. Then he says, ‘Be imitators of me as I am of the Messiah.’ There was no such thing as a ‘private life’ in the ancient world unless you were very rich, so he knows they are looking at him. They have had a good chance to see how he does it.

You seem to know the first century world of St Paul better than your own. Why is it so important to know the context in which Paul wrote?

My students used to tease me about that, because when I talked about ‘the war’ I didn’t mean 1939?45, I meant AD 66?70, the Jewish-Roman war.

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going on in the first century and living with those texts. For instance, reading the Jewish historian Josephus all the way through was an eye-opener for me, as he’d lived in Jerusalem at that time. It became clear that nobody was sitting around in Jerusalem debating how to go to heaven when you die, and whether it involved works or not. That’s just not their question.

They believed that God was going to create a whole new world full of justice and peace and Israel was going to come out on top. And the question was, ‘How can we tell in the present who the people are who will be vindicated when he acts in the future?’ That’s the first century Jewish concept of ‘justification’. They wanted to know how to tell who would be included.

The answer that Saul of Tarsus would have given is ‘by zealous intensification of keeping the Law’. Then you know you are a loyal Jew, and will be part of the kingdom of God. That’s ‘justification by works’, but it’s not about how you get to heaven. That’s a Western medieval shaping of the question.

Some church leaders such as John Piper think you are questioning the Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace, not works.

Of course I believe we are saved by grace and not works. How could you not? It’s all through scripture. However, the questions about ‘justification’, which Luther and Calvin were answering, were framed in the language of medieval theology. I think the reformers were giving the right answers to the wrong questions. The task of every generation is to go back to the Bible to allow scripture to reset the terms of our debate (and I think Luther and Calvin would have said ‘amen’ to that).

Today, some people lurch back to the safe and sound theological places where they grew up in the 1940s and 50s. I’d say it’s much better to take the risk of going back to scripture itself, and make sure we are really paying attention to what it says.

So what did St Paul mean by ‘justification’, then?

The word ‘justification’ means God’s declaration that ‘These are my people. I’m vindicating them.’ It’s like in a law court, saying, ‘These people are in the right.’ That is the decision of the last day, but Paul says that it has been brought forward into the present. He knows that it has happened in Jesus ? his death and resurrection was God doing this great expected-yet-unexpected act. We are now living between these two events ? God’s vindication of his Son, and the vindication of all his people at the end.

Justification through faith is saying, ‘If you want to be part of those people who are raised to share in God’s new world and be part of his ruling creation...then believe in the Lord Jesus.’ It’s those who believe in their hearts that Jesus was raised and who confess with their lips that Christ is Lord. That is the central criteria in Romans 10:1?13.

That is justification entirely by grace and entirely through that faith and confession, as Paul spells out. The trouble is, when people ask, ‘Do you still believe in justification by grace through faith?’ they often mean ‘Do you believe exactly what Luther saidabout it?’ And the answer is ‘Erm, no…not quite!’, because exegetically there are big questions to ask about that.

Did Paul’s dramatic Damascus Road conversion impact his theology?

Before Paul was converted there were already thriving churches, and they already believed certain things (though they may not have formulated them very thoroughly). So, for instance, when Paul talks about who Jesus is, there’s no controversy. People sometimes ask, ‘Did Paul really believe that Jesus was divine?’ and the answer is, yes, he most certainly did, we can see him believing it; but it’s not something he had to argue for. Clearly this is not something that just grew out of his conversion which he then had to teach everyone else.

Jesus has written the most incredible piece of music. Paul's task is to go and teach people to sing it. 

However, his own conversion(precisely because he is a hard-line right-wing Pharisee who gets completely knocked over by a blinding light) tells him something very deep about the transition from Israel BC to Israel AD. It’s because he’s lived that himself. At a couple of points he talks about himself, not to say, ‘I’ve had this interesting experience, and you might like to think about it.’ Rather, he is saying, ‘This is what happens to the Jew who finds he has a crucified Messiah.’ That was very deep for Paul. That was where he’d been.

You don’t believe that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity, as some critics suggest? 

There is a grain of truth in that. Jesus was geographically confined to Galilee and Judea. He didn’t go out on missions to the wider world and didn’t have to address issues such as whether gentile converts should be circumcised, or the use of spiritualgifts. A lot of that has been shaped by Paul. But, again and again he talks about the foundation which is Jesus himself, and then the building that he and others are doing on that foundation.

People often make the mistake of thinking that Jesus was teaching a new religion, and so was Paul. But Jesus wasn’t teaching a new religion. Jesus was healing and transforming and renewing the world. That’s been done once, and once only. It’s as though Jesus has written the most incredible piece of music. Paul’s task is not to rewrite the piece of music. Paul’s task is to go and teach people to sing it.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (SPCK) is out now. You can hear NT Wright on Justin Brierley’s theology debate show Unbelievable?