Book Review: Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright

Carrying on my look at the New Perspectives in Paul, this was Wright’s follow up to What St Paul Really Said. While some of the topics covered broadly cover the same ground, this is a very different book which incorporates and references quite a bit of Wright’s other writings (excluding his New Testament For Everyone series). As such, if you are new to Wright, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point.

The first half of the book looks at the background setting into which Paul’s theology was born. These are outlined in some detail (but not exhaustively, as Wright is keen to emphasize) under the titles ‘Creation and Covenant’, ‘Messiah and Apocalyptic’ and ‘Gospel and Empire’. The first of these echoes What St Paul Really Said the most, with Wright’s view on the New Perspective movement being that when references are made to the history of Israel that Paul had the whole sweep of that history in mind. So a reference to the Exodus necessarily entails a knowledge and understanding of all the nuances and symbolism that entails.

This is a very interesting view which is fairly persuasive, yet not compelling. For example, the painting of the Forth Road Bridge was sometimes referred to as a Sisyphean task, yet I think this only refers to the part of the myth of Sisyphus which relates to his rolling the stone up the hill repeatedly, not necessarily the backstory as to how he ended up there. So it might be with Paul’s references to the Jewish theologies of monotheism, creation and covenant.

In ‘Messiah and Apocalyptic’ Wright redefines these terms of how he thinks Paul understood them, which may be quite different to modern usage. So one is referred strongly back to The New Testament and the People of God for detail on ‘Apocalyptic’ and to Jesus and the Victory of God for detail on ‘Messiah’.

In Gospel and Empire, Wright looks at the royal proclamation element of the gospel for which he has been noted, not least in Jesus and the Victory of God and, more recently, in How God Became King. So if you have read either of those, there will be little new here, but it’s needed for completeness.

The second half of the book gets into some of the real meat of the argument, although it is clear (and Wright acknowledges this) that this is a condensed line of reasoning, with much that either has been expanded upon elsewhere or will be expanded upon later. As such, I would warn potential readers of the book that even though it is less than 200 pages long, the content is very dense. If you gloss over a sentence, you will lose the thread. Also, Wright refers to some quite extensive passages of scripture without providing the reader much by way of including it. So have a bible to hand.

Much of the point of view that Wright expresses is dependent upon his translation. I’m no expert in Greek so I could not help but wonder if his translation was influenced by his theology and not the other way around. While I intend to read some of the detractors to the ‘new perspective’ movement, I would be surprised if a similar point is not raised.

The most contentious chapter, by some way, is ‘Reworking God’s People’ where Wright looks at the doctrines of election and ‘justification by faith’. He brings to the readers’ attention some of the passages of New Testament which many churches will tend to view only out of the corner of their eyes. While Romans 8 may be a favourite passage for many, chapters 9-11 of the same book may not be. He similarly notes that proponents of the New Perspective love the 2nd half of Ephesians 2, while its detractors like to focus more on the first half of the chapter.

Wright tries to steer round this debate by saying that the approach needed is one that is all-encompassing. There ought to not be an either/or discussion, but rather a both/and way of viewing these doctrines. After all, if Paul put these next to one another in his own writings, it’s unlikely he intended to be being self-contradictory.

The image that was cast in my head was that of a die. You cannot see all of its faces at once. Traditional theology has been entranced by looking at the six and catching an askew glance at some of the other faces, while others remain out of side, either on the opposite side, or face down on the table. Wright wants us to pick up the die and turn it over in our hands, looking at every side. For some, this may mean losing sight temporarily of the view they have grown up with and loved for many years. But Wright is not advocating throwing away any aspects of traditional theology. Instead, he wishes to cast a new light on it. But, to mix my metaphors, adding light can also cast a shadow elsewhere. So while the idea of justification by faith has been core to much reformed theology, the point put forward is that it is has been partially misunderstood and is also part of a bigger picture.

In writing this, Wright did not set out to answer all questions about Paul and give an holistic account of his theology. Instead, this book should be taken as a thought-provoker, inviting the reader to re-examine Paul for themselves and to go further down the pathways which Wright has sketched out. It’s not an easy read, but it’s not impenetrable either. So, with due caution, proceed, learn and think.