Reviewing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God is like trying to get a handle on the U.S. tax code. In 1,513 pages (like Luke-Acts, split into two volumes), Wright not only outlines his distinctive vision of Paul’s theology (chs. 9-11); he also describes the worldview that generates that theology (chs. 6-8) and, in keeping with his view of theology as historically rooted, sets it in first-century context. After an introductory chapter, therefore, Wright offers a rather lengthy description of Paul’s first-century context (four chapters on Judaism, Greek philosophy, Greco-Roman religion and culture, and Roman imperial ideology, respectively). In chiastic fashion, Wright then toward the end of the book returns to assess the way in which Paul’s theologizing addresses these first-century realities. The result is a “Pauline theology” unlike any we’ve seen before—and a long, complex, at times repetitive book that’s extraordinarily difficult to review. (What possessed me to agree to do this? I asked myself more than once!)
In an attempt to tame the monster, I’ll focus somewhat narrowly on Wright’s overall method and on key elements in his outline of Paul’s theology. Moreover, I’ll assume general familiarity with Wright’s viewpoints and will thus focus more on assessment than description.
But before turning to specifics, I want to express my gratitude to Wright for what he’s done in these volumes. The astonishing scope of this work, as Wright “locates” Paul’s theology within his first-century world, is a breath of fresh air in an environment in which academics learn more and more about less and less—until they know everything about nothing. Wright’s resolute concern to make sense of Paul in his historical context—a fundamental value that pervades all his work and which, he suggests, is the essence of the “new perspective on Paul” (460)—is a virtue in his work that hasn’t always been sufficiently appreciated by evangelicals.
Of course, Wright is engaged in risky business. One can imagine experts from all the academic fields Wright touches on carping at his failure to quote this or that source, contesting his reading of key texts, perhaps even disputing the accuracy of the overall picture that emerges. I don’t know enough about most of these areas to offer any criticism of my own. And what criticisms I do offer below should be set in a context of deep appreciation for someone who creates an impressive “big picture” of Paul’s theology in its context—a picture I myself would never be able to draw.
Wright’s writing style is one factor that’s made him one of the most popular and prolific academics in recent years, and that breezy, engaging, refreshingly frank style characterizes these volumes also. Of course, this can also be problematic: in the pursuit of rhetorical effect, Wright can say things I suspect he’d himself agree to be exaggerations at best. For instance, in his description of the historical concern to locate Paul in his Jewish context, he claims: “For the ‘old perspective,’ Paul had to ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology, and culture—the old symbols, the ancient stories, the praxis, the view of God himself” (460). One can only respond “Really?” and trust that Wright would, on reflection, wish to retract this statement. Sometimes these rhetorical flourishes set up false dichotomies:
When ancient Jews spoke of salvation, however, they were usually referring to the salvation of the world, or of Israel: of a world, or at least a people, over which evil no longer had any power. Neither the average ancient pagan, nor the average ancient Jew, was walking around worrying about how their soul might get to a disembodied heaven after they had died. (742)
I won’t list other instances, but Paul and the Faithfulness of God contains too many of these kinds of rhetorically effective but exaggerated or overly generalized claims. A related problem is Wright’s tendency to set himself against the world—and then wonder why the world is so blind as to fail to see what he sees. A key thread, for instance, is Wright’s insistence that the basic story Paul’s working with has to do with God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises to Abraham—a vital focus that “almost all exegetes miss” and that has been “screened out from the official traditions of the church from at least the time of the great creeds” (494). This problem is sometimes compounded by a caricature of the tradition with which he disagrees (as in his critique of “traditional western soteriology” [a rather broad category!] as focused on soul saving [754-55]).
Within the ongoing debate about just how we should define or describe “Paul’s theology,” Wright, as one might expect, seeks to identify the coherent shape of Paul’s thinking, treating the text of the occasional letters as a series of snapshots that together reveal this larger picture. While refreshingly critical of the academic consensus about a seven-letter Pauline corpus, Wright nevertheless decides to use Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and (less clearly) 2 Timothy (“as a concession to troubled consciences”) only to shed light on conclusions reached on the basis of other letters, and 1 Timothy and Titus “for illumination, not support” (61). If one starts from the correct vantage point, one finds revealed in these letters a “deeply coherent thinker” (568). That vantage point is Paul’s Jewish heritage: “Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans” (46). Once we set Paul firmly within the worldview of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and its outworking in history, all the usual dichotomies academics find in Paul—apocalyptic vs. salvation history; juridical vs. participationist categories; affirmation of Judaism vs. the creation of a “third race”; indeed, “new” vs. “old” perspectives—fall to the wayside. Most readers of Paul over the centuries have misread him, Wright contends, because they begin with the wrong “story.”
Though scholars almost universally recognize the Old Testament/Jewish context for Paul’s theology, debate continues over the degree to which Paul’s theologizing is rooted in story, or narrative. Wright reads text after text within the framework of the story of Abraham’s covenant, even when those texts mention nothing about Abraham or covenant. To be sure, if these categories are fundamental to Paul’s thinking, we shouldn’t expect to find them explicitly enunciated everywhere. As Wright notes, worldview is something we don’t look at but through (462-63). Still, I’m not convinced we can make this story—or, indeed, any “story”—as basic as Wright wants, especially when the alleged narrative framework is privileged over the framework supplied by explicit textual evidence (e.g., Rom. 5-8). Israel’s story undoubtedly lies behind Paul’s theology at some level, but it’s just that question of “level” that’s so critical. I’m sure Paul’s theology is rooted ultimately in his reading of Israel’s story, but the question is still how central that story is in shaping the specific framework of Paul’s theology.
Getting the Story Right
But it’s not only a matter of getting the right story; it’s also necessary to get the story right. Fundamental to the validity of Wright’s theological enterprise is that we read Israel’s story the way he does. I applaud Wright’s criticism of those “ultra-apocalypticists” (e.g., J. L. Martyn) who want to discard much of the Old Testament as inconsequential for Paul. But Paul’s conversion (Wright argues the Damascus Road was both a “call” and a “conversion,” in the right senses of those words) may have led Paul to re-read the story more than Wright allows. I make four points about Wright’s version of the story.
First, Wright’s familiar “Israel in exile” focus is reiterated, with, however, the acknowledgment that this view, while widespread, wasn’t necessarily universal (158). What’s important is that Paul clearly shared this perspective (1165). I’ve grown to think the debate about this plank in Wright’s platform is perhaps unnecessary. Considering the number of times Paul interprets the coming of Messiah via restoration prophecies, it doesn’t seem to be all that important (note: I’m not saying entirely inconsequential) whether we call the situation to which this restoration responds “exile” or not.
Second, the unitary idea of “covenant” Wright operates with isn’t so clearly supported in Paul. Wright, of course, focuses on the covenant with Abraham but seems to include within this one covenant both the Mosaic and the “New.” For example, in commenting on 2 Corinthians 3, he writes, “[T]he covenant is not now a matter of possessing or hearing the Mosaic law. It is a matter of the transformation of the heart, wrought by the Spirit” (983). To be sure, Wright acknowledges discontinuity in this single covenant, cautiously recognizing the “two voices” in the Pentateuch that Francis Watson highlights. Wright, however, in a point typical of his approach, stresses that these two voices stand in temporal sequence (1456-65; “What time is it?” is the critical issue). But if, as Wright admits, these two periods of time overlap, do we not have in fact two alternative “ways of working” (something he denies)? The dawning of a new age with the death and resurrection of the Messiah and gift of the eschatological Spirit is, indeed, central to Paul’s antitheses of “letter”/Spirit, condemnation/righteousness, “law”/faith. But to reiterate a point that I and others have made often enough: the salvation-historical antithesis of Abraham/Moses embodies a fundamental anthropological antithesis that lies at the heart of Paul’s critique of Judaism. (I think here especially of Stephen Westerholm; and also Watson, in his own way.)
Third, Wright highlights in these volumes (perhaps more than in his earlier work) the vocational aspect of Israel’s story, a perspective Wright finds clearly carried on in Paul (see esp. Rom. 2:17-24). Central to God’s plan is not just to do things for Israel but to bring blessing to the cosmos through Israel—a vocation finally carried out by “the” Israelite, Jesus the Messiah, and, through him, by the church. Though Israel’s role as a “light to the nations” has probably been underplayed in some versions of the story, I think Wright overplays it, finding allusions in places I cannot see (e.g., Ezek. 36; Rom. 3-4 [with the possible exception of 3:2]).
Fourth, and ultimately significant for his view of justification, Wright claims Second-Temple Jews weren’t concerned with “life after death” but rather with how to tell in the present who would be vindicated on the last day (see 4QMMT; here, by the way, is another place where Wright sets up a bit of a straw man—the question is properly framed not as “life after death” but as concern for vindication in the judgment [see Simon Gathercole]). Paul would hardly be engaged in answering questions his contemporaries weren’t asking. Contrary to some critics of Wright, the “vertical” issue of the individual’s salvation does find plenty of room in his Pauline theology. But Wright’s understanding of “gospel,” justification, and other issues are tilted toward the “horizontal” to a degree that doesn’t finally do justice to Paul’s own emphases. “Gospel,” for instance, undoubtedly has the “God reigns” sense Wright wants to give the language, but it remains a stubborn fact that Paul uses the language in most cases with reference to the new relationship with God that the inaugurated reign of God makes available. It’s this balance concerning Paul’s actual usage of his key theological language that I sometimes find missing in Wright’s presentation (“Yes, but . . .” is my frequent reaction when reading Wright).
With my assigned word count already far behind me, I turn briefly to the threefold modification to Israel’s story Wright identifies as central to Paul’s concerns. These three modifications form the template for Wright’s exposition of Paul’s theology: monotheism redefined in light of Christ (and the Spirit), the people of God and their election reconfigured, and the future of God’s people reimagined. (A neat summary on 1096-97: “Messiah- and spirit-driven reformulation of the ancient Jewish doctrines of monotheism, election, and eschatology.”) Yet finding out what Wright thinks of various traditional themes in Paul’s theology is challenging because of his unusual ordering of the material and because he may treat the same topic not just in these chapters but also in those about Paul’s worldview or interface with the first-century world.
Wright follows Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado in seeing Paul as including Jesus within the divine identity but, typically, wants to go beyond them to suggest Old Testament/Jewish stories about the return of Yahweh to Zion may be “the hidden clue to the origin of Christology” (654). I need to consider Wright’s evidence for the importance of this theme a bit more; but my initial read doesn’t convince me. In another emphasis that goes back to his doctoral dissertation, Wright stresses that Paul uses Christos with full titular significance and, in a move particularly important for his program, that Paul views Jesus as an “incorporative Messiah”—a view of Messiah that, Wright admits, wasn’t current in Paul’s day but that explains so many things in Paul that it can hardly be avoided. With the possible exception of the significance of the “return to Zion” theme and Messiah as an incorporative idea in Paul, I find Wright’s chapter on Paul’s redefinition of God to be compelling. I conclude this section with a quotation about the Spirit that I think exactly captures a key point:
The early Christians might have said of the spirit what we have said often enough of a worldview: it isn’t what you look at, it’s what you look through. The spirit was not, for Paul and his contemporaries, a “doctrine” or “dogma” to be discussed, but the breath of life which put them in a position to discuss everything else—and, more to the point, to worship, pray, love, and work. We should not, then, be surprised at the relative absence of discourse, including monotheistic discourse, about the spirit. (710)
God’s people are reconfigured around Messiah, who, by virtue of his faithfulness, accomplishes the task of rectifying the sin of Adam—a task first given to Abraham and one Abraham’s descendants failed to carry out. Paul’s reconfiguring of the Jewish concept of election is the way into his soteriology (912). Among the various elements of soteriology, Wright gives particular attention to justification: both because he views the juridical language of justification as “basic and nonnegotiable” (1039; in contrast to “subsidiary crater” views) and because it’s been controversial (e.g., the debate with John Piper). I strongly endorse Wright’s clear and convincing case for a strictly forensic sense of justification against those who would expand the concept to include transformation or (the more recent buzz word) “theosis” (956-59). Wright forthrightly argues a “Reformation-style” “faith alone” view of initial justification, claiming it’s the basis for our assurance and arguing the verdict announced now by faith will be confirmed on the last day (954-55; 1031-32). He also continues to stress a future justification that will be “according to the fullness of the life that has been led” (941; formally about “judgment,” but Wright clearly sees judgment and future justification as interchangeable) or “on the basis of the totality of the life led” (1028). I sympathize with Wright’s desire to accommodate the emphasis Paul puts on obedience, and I think he’s right to find a future aspect of justification in Paul. But little words are very important here; I agree future justification is “according to” the life lived but not “on the basis” of the life lived. I also continue to think Wright puts too much emphasis on the “covenant” side of justification at the expense of the forensic (he emphatically includes both in his view) and shifts the emphasis in Paul a bit by tying justification to the question of “How can we tell who are God’s people?” rather than “How can we become God’s people?”
Wright’s treatment of Paul’s eschatology is in keeping with his concern to read the apostle in terms of the Old Testament/Jewish “story.” He therefore stresses again the “return to Zion” theme and focuses special attention on Israel’s role in the eschaton, devoting more than a hundred pages to a careful, step-by-step interpretation of Romans 9-11 (1156-1258). In addition to a lot of good exegesis, there’s much to like here. Noting the climactic nature of 10:1-13 for the whole section, with its clear claim that salvation is tied to Christ, Wright convincingly rebuts the “two-covenant,” “post-supercessionist” reading that’s gaining currency today: “A moment’s reflection on the central passage 10:5-13, with its statement about Jesus and about faith and salvation, will reveal that it is straightforwardly impossible to read Romans 9-11 as anything other than a statement firmly and deeply grounded in christology (in the sense of Paul’s belief about the Messiah)” (1163). Much of Wright’s energy is directed toward defending his controversial claim that “Israel” in 11:26 refers to all Messiah’s people; and, while I am not convinced, I can identify with Wright’s admission to considerable wrestling over these chapters and acknowledge the strength of the case he makes.
Space prohibits comment on other specific issues: suffice to say I found Wright’s treatment of the “plight/solution” issue utterly convincing (747-50) and his critique of the “post-supercessionists” (1428-35) equally compelling. Three concluding notes:
1. Wright claims theology itself was elevated to a new role in the early church, and especially by Paul: “[P]recisely because of the major restructuring of Paul’s symbolic world . . . ‘theology’ comes to have a different, much larger and more important place in his worldview, and thereafter in the Christian church, than ever it had in either Judaism or paganism” (403).
2. As he draws his work to a close, Wright suggests “reconciliation,” broadly conceived, may prove to be the best overarching category to cover Paul’s theology, with 2 Corinthians 5:13-6:2 as good a candidate as any for expressing Paul’s central concerns (1488-89).
3. All of Paul’s theology is directed ultimately to the formation and maintenance of communities that embody God’s purposes in the world. Wright remarks:
The point for which I have been arguing throughout this book is that Paul did indeed think through, articulate and teach a coherent theology, which was indeed “a modification of Jewish belief” in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah and the gift of the spirit; and that Paul urged his communities to learn how to think these things through, not as a displacement activity when faced with ineffable experiences, but as their grasping of the reality of Israel’s God and his purposes, the reality within which they would be able to live. (1327)
Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!
The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?
Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.
Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!