One of the key contributions of NT Wright to biblical scholarship is the role of worldview in doing theological analysis of the New Testament. In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright presents the argument that Paul invented Christians theology as a consequence of a change that occurred in Paul’s worldview.1 In so doing, the concept of worldview has been incredibly fruitful for the exploration of New Testament and Pauline theology.
However, I want to put forward that worldview is more significant for understanding Paul than simply as a form of analysis. I would suggest that beyond simply being the first Christian theologian, Paul may be understood as an the emergence of an early worldview theorist.
First, the specific definition of worldview that is used is critical in this argument. Analysis of worldview developed to describe the general patterns of thinking between cultures.2 Consequently, more recent analysis of worldviews like Wright’s have focused on generating thick descriptions of human behaviors as they are interpreted by the agents, owing to the influence of Clifford Geertz.
Thick descriptions that connects observable behaviors with agentic interpretation as a form of analysis would not be considered applicable to Paul. Nevertheless, the basic ingredients of worldview analysis may be consider to be evident in Paul from a few sources. Firstly, his background as a Pharisees would generate a concern about hermeneutical awareness about interpretations, although it would have been particularly focused on texts. Secondly, there seems to be evidence of a philosophical focus on the content of thinking, especially if we can consider Romans and 1 Corinthians to be a form of protreptic rhetoric. Thirdly, Paul’s mission necessitates him having a cultural awareness to engage with the differences between Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures. The combination of cultural awareness, philosophical thinking, and hermeneutical skills suggests that Paul has the basic ingredients necessary to engage in an ancient form of worldview analysis.
1 Corinthians 1.22-23 presents a good demonstration of Paul’s ability to engage with the worldviews of different. While recognizing the common rejection of his preaching of the word of the cross to Jews and Greeks, he explains the cognitive expectations and reasoning for rejection differently. While he ultimately has the same theological explanation for their rejection, that they are among the perishing who have not bee saved by God (1 Cor. 1.18), Paul recognizes that there is varying reasons that people offer for the rejection of the word of the cross. We see this further evident in 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.6, where both Jews who hear the reading of Moses (3.14-15) and those under the influence of “the god of this age,” most likely a reference to the Stoic concept of god (4.3-4), have the Gospel veiled to them. Even as their is a common theological explanation for the rejection of the Gospel, Paul ultimately recognizes socio-cultural practices and ideas as being instrumental in people’s rejection of the Gospel.
Furthermore, the cultural reasons for rejecting the Gospel is not reducible to the theological explanation for Paul. In 1 Corinthians 9.19-23, Paul expresses a cultural awareness, but that he feels be adjusting himself to people’s patterns of praxis, he will be able to win some over. Whatever relationship between the theological explanation of human unbelief and cultural reasons there are for Paul, he does seem to consider cultural practices and thinking have an influence on human belief about God that is to some degree independent from divine agency. Romans can be presented as another example of this, where the praxis of idolatry and fixation of Torah are responsible for downward descent in people’s lives, including unbelief being attributable to hardness of this downward descent.
This presents evidence that Paul has the beginnings of a worldview analysis, both in terms of cognitive thinking and praxis and how these two realities impinge upon acceptance or rejection of the Gospel. He does not attempt to offer a “thick description” of why people reject the Gospel, but he certainly recognizes that human thinking and praxis is implicated in leading people to unbelief and that it is also fruitful to try to adapt one’s lifestyle so as to win people over.
However, we don’t appear to see evidence of this type of worldview awareness in Paul’s earlier letters such as Galatians or 1 Thessalonians. When we compare Galatians to Romans and 1 Thessalonians to the Corinthian correspondence based upon general similarities of themes and motifs, we can notice that Paul has a much more developed explanation for unbelief and resistance to the Gospel in Romans and the Corinthian correspondence than he does in Galatians and 1 Thessalonians.
If these observations are on point, what is to explain this change in Paul’s thinking? It is hard to know for sure. Could it a combination of Paul’s experiences in Athens and then conservations with Corinth that place a focus on philosophy and the content of thinking catalyzed Paul towards a description of worldviews? Even if we can’t exactly explain why, the emergence of worldview awareness in Paul can perhaps explain the differences between the early Paul and the middle Paul, with Romans serving as the fullest development and exemplification of Paul’s awareness of alternative worldviews as expressed in Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Maccabees, and 4 Maccabees.
One implication of this idea is that usefulness of worldview analysis goes beyond simply as a cultural tool when it comes to interpreting the Apostle Paul, but, if correct, our own thinking about worldviews may make us more open to understanding Paul’s own awareness about worldviews.