Paul In Fresh Perspective
- N.T. Wright
- May 1, 2006
- Series: Volume 9 - 2006
N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005. Xii + 195 pages. $ 25.00. ISBN 0-8006-3766-6.
How does Dr. Wright manage to serve as the Bishop of Durham and to turn out the number of booksï¿½many heavyweight ones at thatï¿½year after year? One answer is that he manages to give major lecture series that can be then turned into books. That is the genesis of this book. However he does it, here is yet another worthy offering from one of the most engaging New Testament scholars of our day. Previously he published a small book on Paul, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? This current book presents his more mature understanding of the great apostleï¿½s context and convictions; it covers some common ground with the earlier one, but goes off in many new directions.
He starts by outlining Paulï¿½s world, covering Paulï¿½s place in Judaism, Hellenism, and Rome. What changed Paul, of course, was his encounter with the risen Christ, forcing Paul to revision all his categoriesï¿½which is what Wrightï¿½s book is mainly about: what came to be Paulï¿½s understanding of Godï¿½s program for the world and his own place in that plan. Central to the thought world of the Jews of Paulï¿½s day was that they were participants in a grand narrative or story that began with creation, involved the call of Abraham, and that would continue into the future when God would judge the world. Central to that story were the themes of creation and covenant. Godï¿½s covenant was implemented to solve the problems of creation, i.e., its fall. As a Jew Paul believed God would be faithful to his covenant to ï¿½put the world to rightsï¿½ as Wright regularly puts it. In fact Paul came to understand that God has been faithful to his covenant by sending his son Jesus to be crucified and to rise from the deadï¿½thereby solving creationï¿½s ills and creating a redeemed people. In this way Paulï¿½s message is ï¿½apocalyptic.ï¿½ An unheralded and unlikely young Jewish carpenter appeared on the scene to bring Godï¿½s grand program to its climax. This Jew, Paul came to believe, proved to be none other than the long-awaited Messiah. The age-to-come has been inaugurated, overlapping the present age in a way unforeseen by the Jews. In a sweeping summary Wright says, ï¿½God has declared in advance that he has dealt with sin and death, and has summoned the world to the obedience of faith, with the corollary that all those who believe find themselves declared in advance, as part of the apocalyptic unveiling of the ultimate future, to be within Godï¿½s true family, whether they be Jew or Gentileï¿½ (p. 57).
In three central chapters (5 - 7) Wright shows how Paul revised his understanding of his core Jewish beliefs. In ï¿½Rethinking Godï¿½ Paul revised his conception of monotheism to embrace Jesus and the Spirit as divine. In ï¿½Reworking Godï¿½s Peopleï¿½ Paul came to understand Israelï¿½s election to take a new shape around Jesus. Godï¿½s people are now the people ï¿½in the Messiah.ï¿½ Because they have come to believe in Jesus, they enjoy the covenant status (righteousness) that comes from God. Only such a person, whether Jew or Gentile, is a Jew and is circumcised (Romans 2:28-29). Rejecting any ï¿½two-covenantï¿½ theory or charges of supersessionism, Wright puts the matter this way: Jews who fail to believe in Jesus are not debarred from entering the people of God due to their ethnic origin; but neither are they currently all right if they persist in their unbelief. The people of God are now marked out solely on the basis of trust in Jesus. In Jesus God is showing his faithfulness to the covenant he made to redeem his people. In ï¿½Reimagining Godï¿½s Futureï¿½ we find Wright echoing some of his favorite themes. In a nutshell, ï¿½ï¿½ the complex of events for which Israel had hoped had already happened in the events of Jesus of Nazarethï¿½ (p. 136). Paul reshapes around Jesus all the elements of Jewish eschatology. The Jewsï¿½ ï¿½exileï¿½ began when Torah arrived in Israel; the new exodus has been launched through Jesusï¿½ work. The day of the Lord has arrived; Jesus has appeared; Jesus will return to transform the earth and judge people according to the life they led. Then all creation will be renewed (back to the creation theme). As the down payment of what awaits Godï¿½s people, the Holy Spirit is now transforming their hearts to enable them to keep Godï¿½s commands.
In a stirring concluding chapter, Wright shows the implications of Paulï¿½s perspective for Paulï¿½s own ministry (giving some space to contrasting his task with that of Jesus) and for the church in the twenty-first century. First Wright looks at Paul. In his own words, ï¿½Paul believed that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide community in which ethnic divisions would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flowerï¿½ (p. 157). Wright shows how Paul implemented in his task as an apostle the various redefinitions of Jewish theology that he came to adopt. It affected his praying, his preaching, how he developed communities of faith, what it meant to be human, the imperative of unity among Christians, the paramount significance of baptism, and standards of behavior (not merely what Christians should or should not do, but why, in view of their standing in Christ).
In turning the spotlight to the contemporary church, Wright calls us to live as the people of God in view of Paul understanding of Godï¿½s grand narrative. Wright accepts the postmodern critique of modernity, but urges us not to stop there, for postmodernism gives Christians no sure foundation on which to stand or build. But acknowledging postmodernismï¿½s valid points, Wright calls Christians first to help our world reconstruct a new way of being human rooted, through baptism, in the Messiah: ï¿½I am loved, therefore I am.ï¿½ Second, we need to show the world a new way of knowing, and the Christian way of knowing is loveï¿½deep involvement. And third, we need to help our world reconnect to Godï¿½s great story. Modernity has run out of steam (though, Wright observes not, alas, in western imperialism). Whatï¿½s next? We can live out Godï¿½s story, not of power, but of love; or, put differently, power that is made perfect only in weakness.
Though this review may already be too long for a book of this size, a few final observations are in order. Much has been made of the ï¿½New Perspectiveï¿½ (NP) on Judaism and Paul, and Wright has ben a prime defender of this new way. One thing this book shows is Wrightï¿½s ongoing refinement of the NP in light of the ongoing debates (with those holding so-called ï¿½traditional viewï¿½), critiques, and counter-arguments on both sides. He is more convinced than ever of its validity, but he has nuanced it considerably from what we find in, e.g., E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, or even Wrightï¿½s prior statements (in this book he calls it his ï¿½fresh perspectiveï¿½ on Paul). Those who have more easily dismissed some of the eccentricities or what they saw as the aberrations of earlier versions of the NP will find Wright here much more difficult to refute. So much of his presentationï¿½when it takes into account the central tenets of Judaism (and Wright recoils against the current fashion of speaking of many Judaisms) and all of Paulï¿½simply rings true and makes sense of Paul. So, e.g., he understands pistis Christou (faith of Christ) to mean Christï¿½s faithfulness to the divine plan for Israel, not faith in the Messiah. And, ï¿½justifiedï¿½ refers not to how one becomes a Christian, but as a descriptive term about who belongs to the people of God and how you can tell that in the present. And ï¿½works of Torahï¿½ refer not to works that people did in order to gain entrance into the people of God, but the works they did to show they were members of Godï¿½s people.
A couple of nits to pick. No doubt some of the annoying stylistic features owe to the bookï¿½s origin in a lecture series. I wish he would avoid the too common scholarly ploy: ï¿½as I have written elsewhere ï¿½ï¿½ Of course this is a small book that canï¿½t do everything, but I donï¿½t think we need to be reminded so often that he has written many more books that deal with some of these matters more fully and more convincingly. Just make the point, Tom, and go on. Also, he repeatedly reminds us that assertions he makes merit entire books, but that he doesnï¿½t have the space to do more than mention them here. Again, just do what you can do and stop the caveats or apologies. But the virtues outweigh by a long shot any such nits.
Of course, not all will be as convinced as I have become that some version of the NP (or ï¿½fresh perspectiveï¿½) will probably carry the scholarly day, but time will flesh this out and give scholars the opportunity to write more books and articles. He remains convinced that Paul wrote the poem in Philippians 2:5-11; not all will agree. The same can be said for other points. He takes some broad swipes at the (mostly) North American views of escapist eschatologyï¿½rightly so, to my mind, but it will annoy some. On the other side, he is certainly conservative in his views of some controversial matters: Pauline authorship of Ephesians and other letters typically considered pseudonymous by many scholars, the essential historicity of Acts, his willingness to challenge the ï¿½fixed pointsï¿½ of scholarship mentality that limits certain kinds of pursuits and conclusions, to name a few. It is refreshing to hear a scholar assert that there are texts that actually mean something, that there are compelling readings of texts, and that there is a Holy Spirit who is at work in the world. I appreciated his repeated emphasis on the ï¿½incorporative use of Christos,ï¿½ that is, the corporate identity of the church ï¿½in Christ.ï¿½ Overall the book is a persuasive summary of the essence of what made Paul tick. I will use it as a textbook.