Published by Worldview Publications
Prequel 2000.5 

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us . . . fix our eyes on Jesus, . . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1, 2, NIV.

The Redefinition of God


N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).1

. . . [Paul] remained totally rooted in his Jewish world and was aiming his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards. Ultimately, though, this message was not simply a message about Jesus. Everything he said about Jesus was, for him, a way of talking about God.3

Jesus and the One God

. . . [When Paul] put Jesus and God in the same bracket, he was not intending to add a second god to the pantheon, as in paganism. Nor was he intending that Jesus be seen as somehow absorbed into the being of the one God, without remainder. He was inviting his readers to see Jesus as retaining his full identity as the man Jesus of Nazareth, but within the inner being of the one God, the God of Jewish monotheism.4

At the heart of . . . Paul’s theology, and indeed gospel, is the news that the one true God consists, through and through, of self-giving love. For this God to become human, and to die for sinners, is not a category mistake, something that a sensible or logical God wouldn’t do. At the climax of Isaiah 40-55 is a strange portrait of the servant of YHWH, who does for Israel and the world what only YHWH himself can do for the world. Yes, says Paul: Christ became a servant, and is now exalted in the glory which the one God will not share with one other than himself. Of course, it will strain all our categories to breaking point and beyond. But if we are going to let Paul speak in his own terms, we cannot help it. For him, the meaning of the word ‘God’ includes not only Jesus, but, specifically, the crucified Jesus. And it is this new meaning of the word ‘God’ that places Paul . . . into the thick of the battle between the true God and the rival gods: specifically, between the God of Israel, now revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and the ‘principalities and powers’; and, in particular, the pagan imperial claims of Caesar.5

Jesus and the Plurality of One God

“It was Paul’s belief and contention . . . that at the heart of Jewish monotheism — within the oneness of the one God — lay a plurality, a reciprocal relationship. This, of course, strained at the borders of human language, even the God-given language of scripture; but one could clearly recognize ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

“Paul, then, remained a monotheist of the Jewish variety. . . . But, inside that monotheism itself, he had discovered Jesus: the crucified, risen and enthroned Jesus, the Lord of the world. And, intending to remain the most loyal of Jews, worshipping the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he worshipped this Jesus.”6

. . . [But within his] very stress on unity, Paul manages to suggest that this unity subsists in threefold form, and that these three are Spirit, Lord, and God. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that Spirit and Lord are not, for him, also in some sense ‘God’, as we have already seen. He is at the borders of language, and his use of his own terms reflects the fact. The closer we get to his own terms, the more we discover that his view of God is (we have either to use the word or find a direct equivalent) trinitarian. It is emphatically not tritheist; there is only one God, as for Jewish monotheism. It is emphatically not pantheist; this God is not identified with the world. It is emphatically not Deist; this God is not distant or detached, but closely involved with the world. It is emphatically not modalist; the three are really distinct, since the middle term is the human being Jesus, who prayed to the Father as Father, and who, for Paul, is no longer physically present in the same way as once he was. Paul does not solve the puzzle of how God can be three and one at the same time. But, for him, this is what the word ‘God’ actually means. Even when he is using ‘God’ to denote the first member of the three, this member is now defined in and by his intimate relation to the other two. The creator is known as the Father of Jesus, as the sender of the Spirit.7

When Paul wants to speak of the ways in which the Son and the Spirit are related to the transcendent God who is beyond space and time, he uses exactly those language systems which some parts of Judaism had developed for speaking, within monotheism, of the ways in which this one God acted within the world. Paul remains completely a Jewish-style monotheist; but the one God is now known as God, Lord, and Spirit; or Father, Lord, and Spirit; or God, Son, and Spirit; or various other combinations. For Paul, the very meaning of ‘God’ itself has been unpacked by and redefined in relation to the events and, if you like, the persons, of Jesus and the Spirit.8

Jesus and a New Vision of God

. . . [W]hen Paul went out into the Gentile world with his ‘gospel’, he went as a Jew to Gentiles, to tell the Gentile world what Jews had always believed: that ‘the gods of the nations are idols, but our God made the heavens’ (Psalm 96:5). But he had now been grasped by a new vision of God . . . [that the] one God, the creator, had now been made known in and as Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, the Lord of the world. The face that called the world into existence was turned at last towards the world in self-revelation, in rescue, in love. The wind that swept over the waters of creation was blowing again, to bring to life things that were dead, to call into existence things that did not exist. This was a message, a thoroughly Jewish message, that the Gentile world urgently needed to hear. Paul believed himself called to be the means of bringing this about.9


  1. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? is available from Barnes & Noble at (go back)
  2. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p. 31. (go back)
  3. Ibid., p. 57. (go back)
  4. Ibid., p. 65. (go back)
  5. Ibid., p. 69. (go back)
  6. Ibid., pp. 71, 72. (go back)
  7. Ibid., pp. 73, 74. (go back)
  8. Ibid., pp. 74, 75. (go back)
  9. Ibid., p. 75. (go back)

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