Book Review – NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God)

book NT Wright Christian Origins and the question of God series

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 1520
  • Difficulty: Heavy-Academic
  • Topic: Theology, Paul

I’ve just finished reading NT Wright’s massive tome on Paul’s theology. As you can see above it is 1520 pages long! I would compare it in length to Douglas Campbells, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (950ish pages) and John Calvin’s Institutes (1500) just to put it in perspective.

Not only is it long, it’s also heavy going. That is academic. However, I found I didn’t need to know much Greek to understand what he was saying. Unlike Faith of Jesus Christ by Michael Bird or The Faith of Jesus Christ, by Richard Hays which requires a little German as well.

Contents

BOOK 1

  • Contents: Parts I and II
  • Preface

Part I PAUL AND HIS WORLD

  • 1. Return of the Runaway?
  • 2. Like Birds Hovering Overhead: the Faithfulness of the God of Israel
  • 3. Athene and Her Owl: the Wisdom of the Greeks
  • 4. A Cock for Asclepius: ‘Religion’ and ‘Culture’ in Paul’s World
  • 5. The Eagle Has Landed: Rome and the Challenge of Empire

Part II THE MINDSET OF THE APOSTLE

  • 6. A Bird in the Hand? The Symbolic Praxis of Paul’s World
  • 7. The Plot, the Plan and the Storied Worldview
  • 8. Five Signposts to the Apostolic Mindset
  • Bibliography for Parts I and II

BOOK II

  • Contents: Parts III and IV

Part III PAUL’S THEOLOGY

Introduction to Part III

  • 9. The One God of Israel, Freshly Revealed
  • 10. The People of God, Freshly Reworked
  • 11. God’s Future for the World, Freshly Imagined

Part IV PAUL IN HISTORY

Introduction to Part IV

  • 12. The Lion and the Eagle: Paul in Caesar’s Empire
  • 13. A Different Sacrifice: Paul and ‘Religion’
  • 14. The Foolishness of God: Paul among the Philosophers
  • 15. To Know the Place for the First Time: Paul and His Jewish Context
  • 16. Signs of the New Creation: Paul’s Aims and Achievements
  • Full Bibliography of Works Referred to in Parts I–IV
  • Indexes

Overview

So what happens in the book? After writing about various world views in the first century Wright plots the argument for the rest of his book.

The first move in my overall hypothesis, then, is to propose that Paul remained a thoroughly Jewish thinker, and that these three topics substantially and satisfyingly cover the main things he was talking about and insisting upon, the central points upon which he drew when addressing the wide range of concerns which appear in his letters.

This opening (theological) move is correlated with my basic (historical; an earlier generation would have said, ‘religio-historical’) assumption about where Paul stood in relation to the thought-worlds of his day [Jewish, philosophical, political]. Like many other Jewish thinkers of his and other days, he radically revised and rethought his Jewish tradition (in his case, the viewpoint of a Pharisee) around a fresh understanding of the divine purposes, thus gaining a fresh hermeneutical principle. 

2. This brings us to the second stage of the hypothesis. I shall argue, in the case of each of these three central and correlated topics, that Paul rethought, reworked and reimagined them around Jesus the Messiah on the one hand and the Spirit on the other. As Wayne Meeks put it: ‘the belief in the crucified Messiah introduces a new and controlling paradigm of God’s mode of action.’ This hypothesis, of a christological and pneumatological reworking of the three central Jewish beliefs [monotheism, election, eschatology], will necessarily involve important sub-hypotheses about Jesus and the Spirit: about Jesus as the personal revelation-in-action of Israel’s God (in chapter 9); about Jesus’ ‘Messiahship’ in Paul, and the relationship between that and Paul’s view of Israel as the people of the One God (in chapter 10); about the Spirit as the presence of the living God inhabiting the new temple (in chapter 9), and as the agent of covenant renewal (in chapter 10). Each of these, inevitably, will plunge us into topics which are often treated at monograph length in their own right, not least because they all correlate, in the treatment of ‘election’, with Paul’s complex cluster of soteriological themes. ...

3. The third stage of the hypothesis is to demonstrate that this christologically and pneumatologically redefined complex of monotheism, election and eschatology was directed by Paul in three further ways, which we postpone to Part IV of the present book. I list them here in the reverse order in which they appear in that Part.

First, it was what drove and governed the main aims of his letter-writing. This activity, like Paul’s praying and pastoral work themselves, was aimed at constructing and maintaining communities ‘in the Messiah’ across the world of first-century Turkey, Greece and Italy. …

Second, though, if Paul was indeed redefining the central beliefs of second-temple Judaism, we might expect to find, at least by implication, a running debate between him and others within that world, focussed not least on how they were reading scripture. … Over against those who see it as atomistic or opportunistic, I follow those who see Paul dealing with the larger scriptural wholes from which he draws particular phrases and sentences, and particularly with the larger scriptural narratives which he wants his communities to inhabit for themselves. …

Third, this christologically and pneumatologically redefined Jewish theology was in reasonably constant engagement, again sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, with the pagan world of Paul’s day. We will track this in the three stages we used in Part I:

(a) Paul believed that the transforming power of his gospel upstaged the philosophers’ quest, the pagan dream of a genuine humanness;

(b) he articulated, and encouraged his churches to live with, a spirituality and koinōnia, again generated by the gospel, which he saw as the reality to which the ‘religious’ world of late antiquity obliquely pointed in its belief in suprahuman forces and intelligences which influenced and affected the ordinary world;

(c) he believed that the universal lordship of Jesus, as Israel’s true Messiah, upstaged the imperial dream of a single world-kingdom.

I shall work through these themes, too, in reverse order, providing in Part IV a mirror image to the treatment in Part I. Thus chapter 12 deals with ‘empire’; chapter 13 with ‘religion’; and chapter 14 with ‘philosophy’. In each case I choose, out of the plethora of modern studies, one or two particular conversation partners. This third part of the overall hypothesis—mapping out the ways in which the worldview and theology of Parts II and III impacted on the contexts studied in Part I—forms a vital part of the overall argument. (p611-613)

Got all that? If you do explain it to me please.

Issues with it

Christian research is filled with arguments and debates. The reformed don’t like Wright because he has pricked their pride and challenged their theology. Douglas Campbell doesn’t like his stuff because Wright looks at underlying narrative themes of the text rather than an apocalyptic intrusion of the trinity into our world. Wright even stirs the pot in New Perspective circles arguing with Sanders and Dunn.

So when he writes, he is conscious of potential criticism. People who just want to tear him down. He wins my sympathy and respect here.

An unwanted side effect of this anticipated criticism is in order to cover himself I suspect he feels it necessary to inundate his explanations with expressions that capture the points of his opponents. He doesn’t always disagree with them, I think his main intention is to go further and build them together into a single overarching concept. For example;

‘Here, in fact, all the ‘categories’ of modern analysis are cheerfully jumbled up. If all we had was Galatians rather than Romans, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought to separate out ‘juridical’ images from ‘participationist’ or ‘anthropological’, or for that matter ‘salvation historical’, or ‘apocalyptic’, or ‘covenantal’, or ‘transformative’ in the way they are now routinely handled. Here these elements all belong together, not in a muddle (as though seven blindfolded cooks were all trying to add their favourite ingredients to a stew), but in a co-ordinated and coherent line of thought. The same is in fact true in Romans, though the point there is more subtle and will need to be set out later on. (p852)

He just listed seven different elements which he says belong together. Only after a reasonable length of study and exposure to scholarly literature will one understand what and whom he is referring to when he mentions these.

Wright will continue to string elements like these together to make an implied and repeated point he is taking them all into account. After reading many arguments which jumble all these together, I found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying and he would lose me. My head couldn’t hold together all those concepts together at once.

Quite often his arguments operated at a certain level below (or above) the text level. He highlights and works with the underlying scriptural narratives of the text. For example, when he reads Romans 4-8 he sees an underlying scriptural narrative of Abraham (Rom 4), Adam (Rom 5), Exodus from Egypt (Rom 6), Sinai and the Law (Rom 7), Wilderness wanderings (Rom 8) and entry into the Promised land (Rom 8) underlying the text.

From this he will argue, Paul has revisited these narratives in light of Christ and the Spirit in a redefined complex of monotheism, election and eschatology which is how he worked out his theology and came up with the things he said. This is all fine and good stuff.

My problem is I like KISS. I like operating at the level of the text, I want to know and express clearly what it means at the surface level and what it does to people when it is read out to them. I have a lesser interest in the thought processes that created it in the first place.

I suppose we target different audiences. For a target audience of every-day rank and file Christianity what he says will go over their head. For some academics this suits them just fine.

What I liked most

Probably now contradicting what I said earlier. I liked the way he integrates justification and faith into a whole gamut of biblical themes.

‘I have argued throughout this chapter that the ancient Israelite, and second-temple Jewish, sense of what it meant to be the chosen people of the creator God was transformed in Paul’s understanding.

He saw it as having been reworked around Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, and particularly by his crucifixion and resurrection; and, in consequence, it was further reshaped around the Messiah’s spirit, who through the powerful gospel message ‘called’ people of every background and type to belong to the single family which the one God had promised to Abraham.

I have argued, in particular, that to understand ‘justification by faith’ it is necessary to see that the ‘faith’ in question is not a particular way of being religious (a ‘trusting’ way, say, as opposed to a ‘hard-working’ way), but is rather the way of being ‘faithful’ to the divine call and gospel which echoes, and re-encapsulates, the ‘faithfulness’ of the Messiah himself, which was in turn the representative ‘faithfulness’ of Israel (Romans 3:22 with 3:2).

All this shows, I believe, that for Paul the whole business of ‘justification’ was tied tightly together with his larger theology, though playing a particular role of its own. Now that we have surveyed nearly the whole of the Pauline evidence on the subject of redefined election, it is time to look at the role of ‘justification’ more precisely.

As we saw, Paul makes a clear distinction between the future ‘justification’, the verdict which will be issued on the last day on the basis of the totality of the life led (which in the case of the Messiah’s people will be a life generated and sustained by the spirit), and the present justification which is the verdict announced on the basis of nothing but Messiah-faith. Once we locate both of these events, as Paul does again and again, within the larger picture of the work of gospel and spirit,’ … (p1027-1028)

And on he goes.

Recommendation

I would not encourage a regular / sit in the pew Christian to read this book. Read a positive review (McKnight, Witherington) or a summary (Vreeland) instead. Douglas Moo gives a review to the book as well. Here is an interview on the book he had with Michael Bird.

I would only recommend this book to academics (Masters to phd level) and try hards like myself. To people who have to read because it’s their calling. To people who want to put another notch on their belt. To people who want to gain a good reference to one of the most world renowned authorities on Paul.

My head hurts. I’m glad I finished, because now I can read something else. Something smaller.


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Thanks Josh, my husband is looking forward to reading this one. I find he makes my head hurt too 🙂