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PAUL AND THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD
FORTRESS PRESS, 2013
1519 PP. IN TWO VOLUMES $89.00
Bishop N.T. Wright has written a prodigious number of books. This book is his Summa, the most prodigious of them all. He’s been working on this book for decades, all while he was publishing his many other popular books, commentaries, articles and monographs. My own reading of the New Testament has been much altered by the first three volumes in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God. Here at last is the long- awaited fourth installment (a fifth is still to come!), and it’s a monument. It took me three weeks to read it. The blurbs call it “breathtaking.” It is certainly exhaustive, audacious, aggressive, brilliant, compelling and occasionally thrilling.
If you want to teach or preach Paul, I think you can’t ignore this book.
More than once while reading I was reminded of Wagner’s operas. The first volume in the series, The People of God, is Wright’s Tannhäuser, and the second volume, The Son of God, is his Lohengrin. The third volume is on the resurrection, and it is as elegant and joyful as Die Meistersinger (in both cases my favorite). This fourth volume is the monument, the Ring of the Niebelungs: it takes forever, it’s in four parts, and it’s built of leitmotifs, themes that get repeated and developed in ever new combinations to propel the narrative – creation, election, eschatology, temple, kingdom, worldview, covenant, righteousness and faith.
Part I (350 pages), the Rheingold, sets the stage and delineates the respective worldviews of second-temple Jews, cultured Greeks and imperial Romans. Part II (220 pages), the Valkyrie, develops the problem that Paul has to solve: what happens to a typical second-temple Pharisee’s worldview when he’s confronted with the resurrection of a crucified Messiah. Part III (660 pages!) is the Siegfried, the heroic high point of it all, wherein Wright unfolds the majestic theology that Paul developed out of the gospel, his transformed worldview and Scripture (especially Deuteronomy and Isaiah). Part IV (250 pages) is The Twilight of the Gods, yes, of Greece and Rome, wherein Paul’s theology confronts the Gentile world to both save it and judge it, pulling down its powers and temples like Wotan’s Valhalla. The best part is that Wright, like Wagner, ends it all with the leitmotif of love.
Wright argues that we have gotten the Apostle Paul quite wrong for a very long time. He states his argument as a hypothesis on how correctly to understand the apostle. His premises are familiar: that “Christ” is best read in Jewish terms as “Messiah,” that the Jews of Jesus’ day regarded themselves as still in exile and that salvation is not a flight to a disembodied heaven after death but a sharing in our Lord “setting the world to rights.”
Wright argues that Paul’s theology is the tip of the iceberg of his worldview and that you need to know his worldview to understand his theology. The worldview of a second-temple Pharisee would focus on creation, election and eschatology: creation by the one God, the election of Israel and a Messianic eschatology of the “justification” of Israel. This worldview was maintained by the symbols of circumcision, Sabbath, diet and the Temple, to which Saul the Pharisee had been passionately loyal. His loyalty was not from legalism but for Israel’s place in God’s great plan for the world. Wright argues that for Paul, “the Law” (nomos, for Torah) means “narrative” more than it means “commandment,” and of course he’s right. Thus, if the crucified Messiah has been raised from the dead, the grand narrative must change, drastically and wonderfully.
“What time is it?” Time for God’s narrative to include the Gentiles, requiring the radical adjustment, but not discarding, of the Jewish worldview. Wright’s hypothesis is, first, that as Paul saw that the Jewish worldview-markers no longer held, the new, Messianic worldview-marker was the “in-the-Messiah” community – united across ethnicities and made holy by God’s Spirit – and, second, that to hold this community together, nothing but theology would do – “the question of God.” And so Paul invents Christian theology.
We’re being offered no less than a Copernican Revolution in Pauline studies. It’s no wonder Wright takes his time weaving his leitmotifs, engaging other scholars and anticipating his critics. He treats us along the way to marvelous analyses of Philemon, Romans, Philippians and Ephesians. His derivation of Paul’s proto-trinitarianism is thrilling. Any lover of the ancient creeds will relish the implicit identification of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and “the communion of saints” as both the first work of the Spirit and the essential symbol of the Christian worldview. Reformed readers will welcome Wright’s emphases on worldview, covenant, the kingdom of God and even the third use of the law (though he does not call it that). Some Reformed readers are horrified that Wright obstinately reads Paul in other than Reformation terms. I suspect the New Testament guild may dismiss him for his disregard of academic orthodoxies. I’m gratified, for example, that the specious “problem of the delay of the parousia” can go back to the vapor it came from.
This book is a very big deal. It seems to me that the audacious magnitude of Wright’s hypothesis should vault him to the status of an F.C. Baur, a Schweitzer or a Bultmann, all of whom he challenges. I can’t imagine how any New Testament scholar can now avoid him. The book is written at a level that any seminary-trained pastor should be able to read, although its great length will be an obstacle. But if you want to teach or preach Paul, I think you can’t ignore this book.
That’s not to say it’s the last word, and Wright himself does not pretend so. Any good hypothesis opens up new questions, and I’m not convinced by all he says. For example, his claim that Paul’s sexual ethics arises out of Jewish creationism is, yes, claimed more than argued and does not account for all that Paul says on the matter. Second, we need to consider carefully Wright’s claim that for Paul, the covenant with Abraham trumps the covenant at Sinai. I don’t think it did so for our Lord, who alluded to Exodus 24 in his words at the Last Supper. Third, if Paul so highly valued the one community in Christ, then ought we not consider, more than Wright does, what Paul learned from, and in community with, the other apostles, especially John? Fourth, the grand narrative of God “setting the world to rights” is so hard to square with our lived experience that I can imagine someone rejecting Wright’s whole project for the more immediate satisfactions offered by either existentialist or evangelical readings of Paul. If you think that our theology can only be what Paul’s was, you won’t like this book. But Reformed theology does not need to think that. This book only begins to suggest the theology arising out of Paul that we must do ourselves.
I wish that Fortress had published the book as SPCK did, in three volumes, not two; the second volume is impossible to hold for long. I wish that Wright’s admittedly tendentious paraphrases of Paul, “you see,” were not so irritating. But then, I wish Wagner’s operas didn’t depend so much on potions and magic helmets. Such flaws, in either case, do not compromise the greatness of the achievement. This is a great book. Read it if you love the New Testament.
Daniel Meeter walks on Sundays to preach at Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.