Pauline Perspectives

N.T. Wright is alternately enthralling and infuriating to read. He is enthralling when he is trouncing dispensationalism, and leaving the tattered remnants (!) of their theology on the floor; or when he writes a beautifully written, cogently argued defense of the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead (The Resurrection of the Son of God is, in my opinion, by far the best book Wright has ever written, even though I disagree with some of his methodological standpoints); or defending the substitutionary atonement (though there are points in that area where he makes me very nervous indeed). He is infuriating when he positions himself as a sort of eschatological exegete: all the Reformers were wrong, and only with the advent (!) of N.T. Wright has there come understanding of Paul. No doubt he would cry foul for that blow, and yet his dismissal of Reformational understandings of Paul is so thorough and systemic that one wonders if Wright believes anyone really understood Paul except Paul and N.T. Wright (and those who have had glimmerings, such as Sanders, Dunn, Hays, Horsley and some others). When I read Wright, therefore, it is a surreal roller-coaster of sorts, with interesting insights in many places followed immediately by howlers.

This book, by N.T. Wright, consists of essays written from 1978-2013 on the subject of Paul’s theology. Most of the important articles on this subject are included with the exception of those that found their way into Climax of the Covenant. The most interesting feature of reading these articles in chronological order is to see his development. The essays are a working out, development, and continual updating of what is largely one thesis, looked at from mostly overlapping (there is a rather enormous amount of overlap in these articles), but still complementary angles. Early in his career, the thesis looked like this:

Paul regarded the historical people of Abraham as God’s answer to the problem of the sin of Adam…First, the Messiah sums up his people in himself, so that what is true of him is true of them. Second, the Messiah has died and been raised. From these two sources flow salvation history and justification by faith, not as two parallel streams, nor even as two currents in the same stream, but as one stream…the one God has purposed and promised that he will create one worldwide family for Abraham, a family in whom the sin of Adam is reversed: and this he has achieved in the Messiah, Jesus (pp. 6-7).

What is central to Wright is what happened to Israel, which is that “this people, being themselves sinful, fail in the task, and their anointed representative has to do the job solo” (p. 8). In responding to this, I want to affirm with Wright that dispensational readings of Scripture simply do not do Galatians 3 and Galatians 6 justice. God’s purposes for Israel always had a worldwide perspective on them. I agree wholeheartedly with Wright on that point.

Sometimes, however, I get the impression that Wright’s position entails some sort of “plan B” on God’s part: that Adam sinned, and Abraham was elected to fix the problem, and his people Israel failed too, so then God had to cast about for a further solution. Put this way, Wright would probably disagree that such was what he meant. He does not always guard against this possible misinterpretation, however. Israel was the carrier of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Israel’s failure did not necessitate a change in God’s plan. This problem is not helped by the unguarded language on p. 426: “Humans sin; that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan for the world is thwarted.” This is unguarded at best, simply wrong at worst.

Lately (2012), the thesis looks like this: “Paul was picking up the idea of Israel’s vocation, to be the light of the world, and was explaining, in terms of Israel’s own scriptures, not so much that all Israelites were sinful (though he believed that too) but that Israel had failed to be faithful to its commission” (p. 489). This is still closely connected with the Abrahamic promise of one worldwide family that would inherit the new heavens and the new earth.

At the beginning of his career, Wright was much more open to the Reformational understandings of Paul, as is demonstrated on page 12, where we nevertheless see the first of many false dichotomies (Wright may be said to be a master of false dichotomies, in fact):

Paul never speaks of Jesus obeying the law (though he certainly did not imagine that Jesus had broken the law), but rather, in Philippians 2 and Romans 5, of Jesus’ obedience to the whole saving purpose of God. Not only did Jesus offer God the obedience which Adam had failed to offer: he offered God the obedience which Israel should have offered and had likewise failed in, obedience to the vocation of redemptive vicarious suffering for the sins of the world.

This is a false dichotomy for a very simple reason: God’s saving purpose involved Jesus obeying the law (as Galatians 4:4 makes rather clear). Even if one rejects (as Wright rejects) the idea of the imputed active obedience of Christ, there still remains the vitally important truth that Jesus would not be the proper substitute for sinners without a sinless perfection. How can God be faithful to the covenant if Jesus is not? And does not that covenant include the law?

As this thesis started working its way through his thinking, he became much more pugilistic against the Reformational readings, probably because those holding to Reformational readings started critiquing his work. Of course, that pugilism reached an apex in his book What Saint Paul Really Said, which I regard as by far the worst book he ever wrote (not because it is pugilistic, but because it distorts so much). Pugilism is not necessarily bad. The thing that strikes me about Wright, though, is that he is considerably more careful and considerate of Second-Temple Judaism than he ever is with Reformation authors and views. He dismisses Reformational readings (usually caricatured) with a wave of the hand, hardly ever quoting an author who holds said view. For example, he accuses Reformational authors of equating justification with conversion (or regeneration) numerous times in this book (pp. 36, 215, 221, 284, 308, 342). Maybe I am woefully under-read in Reformational systematic theologies, but I have never seen this advocated even once by Reformed systematicians. Wright shows his own enormous ignorance of Reformed systematics on pp. 283-284, cf. p. 310, where he advocates something that Reformed systematics has supposedly completely missed. The word for conversion is “call” and not “justification” (p. 284). Hang on, I’m quite sure I’ve read something about effectual calling somewhere in every single Reformed systematic theology I’ve ever read. These kinds of caricatures raise a very important question: he wants us to treat him with charity and kindness, even asking for criticisms to be directed his way privately before making them public (see p. 222, which is nonsense: Matthew 18 is not about public teaching but about private offenses. Public teaching falls under the category of what happens in Galatians 2, where Paul did anything but criticize Peter privately first). However, Wright doesn’t treat Reformational readings with charity in any sense of the word. Take as another example his ridiculous statement regarding moral effort on p. 202: “Earlier readings of Galatians, particularly in the Reformation tradition, had so emphasized the wrongness of ‘justification by works’, understanding that phrase in a Pelagian or Arminian sense, as to make it difficult to articulate any sense of moral obligation or moral effort within the Christian.” This is so outrageously unfair to the Reformation, even to the Lutheran tradition, that Wright really ought to be ashamed of himself here. He should read Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification or Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity and seriously revise this caricature or eliminate it entirely. He might receive a bit more charity from old perspective people like myself if he himself were a bit more charitable towards the Reformation. A lot of his insights are not as original as he seems to think.

His understanding of the Reformational doctrine of justification is quite errant as well. For instance, in his description of the law-court setting of justification (take p. 100 as an example), he repeats the same error that was in What Saint Paul Really Said, namely, that the Reformational doctrine of justification has the judge passing his own righteousness to the defendant. There are only three parties in the courtroom, according to Wright’s account: the judge, the defendant, and the prosecutor. He leaves out the most important character of all: the Defense Attorney. In Reformational accounts of justification, it is our Divine Lawyer whose righteousness is imputed to us, not the Judge. The Judge passes the sentence of innocence on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. This takes place because of our faith-union with Jesus Christ. In that divine marriage (which is both corporate and individual), all of our divine husband’s assets become ours, and all of our debts become His. The marriage being both individual and corporate actually makes the Reformational reading much more global than Wright’s reading, which leaves out and denies imputation, despite his attempts to say that the NPP really retains all that is good from the Reformation.

Later on in his career, though still having many false dichotomies and caricatures, he makes more of an effort to say things like “if you believe my view, you get everything the Reformation wanted and more” (see, e.g., p. 427). In his Justification and in what I’ve read so far of his massive Pauline theology, he seems more interested in moving beyond the old and new perspective divide, though still being firmly new perspective.

Another development that happened around 2000 is his interest in the thesis that “Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not” (see his “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, pp. 169ff.). Here there would be significantly more grounds for me to agree with his work. I can definitely see a lot of what he is saying in Paul’s letters, though I am still a moderate two kingdoms guy myself.

There is much more than could (and should) be said. This is a very important volume for understanding N.T. Wright’s work. There are valuable insights in this work, and also many errors. The critical reader needs to be discerning.