It has finally come. 10 years after the publication of The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), Wright finally completed and published volume 4 of his series ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ (COQG). The plan from the outset had been to write an introduction (The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)), a book on Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG)), a book on Paul, a book on the gospel writers and a conclusion. In the preface, Wright acknowledges that the plan has somewhat altered, though he returns to this theme in his conclusion.
Knowing that it would feature the new perspective on Paul, you may recall I did some preliminary reading on the matter a little while ago. See here for my conclusion on the matter with links to the reading I did at the time. Early in the book, however, one gets the impression that this aims to move beyond the new perspective on Paul. Wright makes frequent reference to false dichotomies that have been put forth by various scholars over the years and outlines how to draw such distinctions is either anachronistic or ‘alocalist’ as he puts it (meaning out of location, rather than out of time – though I thought ‘atoposist’ might have fitted the bill better).
On picking up the book (spread across two volumes) one might think of 1 Tim 4:8 as is it not only a spiritual workout but it also provides a physical workout, even in paperback, with one friend commenting that he hurt his wrist in picking it up. The book is split into 4 sections, 2 in each volume. In this review, I’ve tried to echo, where possible, the style of the book. So, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as this is going to be long. I’ve kept it at one blog post, though you may find it easier to digest if you bookmark it and read each section, one at a time, with breaks.
So where might one begin to look at Paul’s thoughts? Romans? 1 Corinthians? Galatians? No. Wright begins with an exposition of the little book of Philemon. The story of the runaway slave is contrasted against another letter from Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus about a slave who has also run away. I would like to be able to start a sentence with the phrase “The main point Wright makes here is…” but to do so would almost inevitably misrepresent Wright’s viewpoint. Instead, I would choose to highlight those elements which, I, as a reader, took from Wright’s book. If the author takes the time to read this review then he may assess for himself whether his key points got across to his audience.
So what did I get from his take on Philemon? The contrast in the letters is one of emphasis. Paul was most concerned about the issue of reconciliation. That trumped other considerations. From a (post) modern perspective, one might have wanted Paul to address the issue of slavery, particularly to condemn it, and call for Onesimus’ freedom. The fact that Paul did not do so in anywhere near as forthright a manner as we might have wanted may cause others to condemn Paul for advocating slavery. But, Wright points out, to do this is to miss the point, bringing 21st century assumptions into the questions we ask of a 1st century writer.
Wright then identifies verse 17 as being the heart of the letter, which , though not calling for emancipation, does request of Philemon a radically different treatment of the slave than would have been considered normal at the time. Hence, even though there is not the extensive discourse here that we find elsewhere in Paul’s letters, there are hints here that there was something different about Paul’s thinking. Even though the Jewish mindset was heavily influenced by the idea of freedom of captivity, reconciliation was something new. The implication is that this was something christian.
Wright’s analysis of the letter serves as a reference for the rest of the opening chapter which forms the introduction to the work. Here, Wright recapitulates some of the work covered in the earlier volumes in the series, particularly NTPG. Given the number of years between publications, such a reminder is no bad thing.
Having looked at the idea of worldview in some detail, Wright gives us his view on a topic that he has thus far rather demurred upon in his earlier books; that is, the authenticity of Paul’s letters. His earlier writings (at least those that I have read) lean much more heavily on Romans, Galatians and the 2 Corinthian letters than anything else. In his introduction to the pastoral epistles commentary he did as part of ‘New Testament for Everyone’ series, he made reference to some debate but was far from providing a clear ‘yes/no’ opinion on their Pauline authorship (see here for more detail on the debate over the pastoral epistles). Here, at last, he goes some way to showing us his cards. Without a great amount of detail, and stopping short of saying outright which he thinks are not genuine, he states that he will use 1 Timothy and Titus for illumination rather than support. As the book progresses, they are noticeable by their relative absence.
So that’s the opening chapter, which sketches out the plan in some detail.
In chapter 2, we delve into the Jewish background of Paul. That said, the focus is less on Paul than it is on Judaism in general, with a particular focus on the Pharisees. Here, one gets the distinct impression that some 20+ years on from NTPG, Wright’s thinking has moved on to the extent that he now feels the need to fill in some gaps from his earlier introduction. While he stands by his earlier work, there is much more that needed to be said to give a suitable background to Paul’s Jewish mindset which is here given in some depth.
At times, the work gets rather academic, with Wright analysing and countering the views of other writers on second Temple Judaism. In particular focus is the idea of a continuing exile. Wright draws on a rich breadth of early writings do demonstrate that even though the temple had been reestablished, the diaspora hadn’t completely ended and that there was an expression of a hope for a final renewal and restoration. In this analysis, Wright points out that the stories, questions, theology and aims which he portrays are prevalent, but not universal. As such, there may well be counter-examples and other viewpoints which existed at the time, but that the picture painted is one that would be familiar to a 1st century Jew.
Much of this would have also been relevant to Wright’s earlier study of Jesus, though it’s not stated whether or not Wright might have reconsidered volume 2 of the series in light of this more detailed background.
While chapter 2 gave more detail to an area of study already given a lot of treatment in NTPG, chapters 3-5 feel more “new”, though they did get a cursory look in in that earlier work. In these, I got the feeling that Wright was not only trying to give a background into all the schools of thought that would have been relevant to Paul at the time, but that he was having fun in his writing, drawing on his formal training as a classicist. At times in these chapters we seem to lose sight of Paul, with just an occasional reference here and there. This, it must be added, is very firmly corrected in Part IV, where these topics are revisited in reverse order, with Paul very firmly in focus.
Chapter 3 covers Greek philosophy, chapter 4 covers what ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ (with those two put in inverted commas for very good reason) while chapter 5 looks at Rome and the influence that that culture had (Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen!). These are all very interesting chapters and each could serve as a primer in studies in each of those topics in their own right. The only downside to them as I read was for me to wonder “where does this fit in?” At the time it wasn’t particularly obvious how a discussion on the sanity of Caligula was helping us understand how to understand Paul’s writings. I got the idea that Wright was trying to get us to watch him paint a picture. The study on Philemon was something of a preliminary sketch, but here he gets to paint the background on the big canvas. I had an idea that Part II would then sketch the main features in the foreground, Part III would fill in the details and Part IV would then be standing back and looking at the whole composition.
So is that what I found?
Labelled as “The Mindset of the Apostle” we have some very chunky discourses here on what is referred as symbolic praxis. First of all, how Paul related to those around him in the three worlds of Judaism, Greek philosophy and Roman Empire. There is far more detail and nuance here than I could do justice to. I will, though, give a brief run down of the points I thought were dominant.
To begin with, there is a tricky issue to deal with: supersessionism. The way Wright puts it, the symbolic praxis of second-temple Judaism was like a car that was being driven towards an end. In the death and resurrection of the Messiah that goal was reached. Therefore it was time to park the car and turn off the engine. He tries to be careful with his speech as some of the terminology he uses is very similar to that used by supercessionists, though as I was reading this section I attended a lecture of his at Kings College London in which he said he “resisted the term”.
In talking through the issue of symbolic praxis, Wright’s argument is that Paul’s primary concern was the ekklesia, what we would not call the Church. Though he rightly points out that to regard the ekklesia as some kind of hierarchical organisation is anachronistic and doesn’t help us to understand Paul. In NTPG, Wright made reference to the importance placed on baptism and communion. Here he has notably with more emphasis on baptism than on communion, in accordance with the frequency with which they occur in Paul’s texts. He takes the same approach as he did in Surprised by Hope by portraying baptism as a boundary marker used by the ekklesia to determine who is part of that group. Though he includes this in a section on symbolism, there’s a curious remark thrown in which hints that he may still hold to a functional view, which I would disagree with. The theme occurs again later in the book, again hinting at, but not being explicit about the functional view.
Symbols are one part of the worldview analysis, but it’s not the whole thing. I almost got the feeling that the main part of the book was yet to come but that Wright wanted to get these bits out of the way before he embarked on the main thesis. In the subsequent chapter he goes onto make the firm foundation and the wireframe of the heart of the book, that being the ‘storied worldview’. It is a rejection of systematic theology and a return to narrative. The work here is detailed but clearly aided by the use of some diagrams which I found helpful, but others may well find annoying. I have also heard other comments from some who are critical of Wright’s narrative form. He gives a very good case here, though I am not sure it will convince those who see his approach as a ‘flattening out’ of the richness and variety of the Old Testament.
The contention is that Paul had a number of “grand narratives” in mind when he was writing, but that they were nested within each other like a set of Russian dolls. One subplot played a part in the solution to the wider story. Here, Wright appeals to an analogy with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and purely by coincidence I am finalising this review on midsummer’s night!). The ‘top level’ story proposed is of God’s plan for creation as a whole and humankind’s place within it. Where we then get stories of the Fall, of Israel, of the Torah, etc. these are all subplots to the wider view. Wright’s view is that much of western theology has missed this over-arching story and has wrongly focused on one of the subplots. So while he does not deny the common ‘evangelical’ view of personal salvation, he is keen to point out that it is not the whole gospel and to portray it as such is misleading. As each story is told, there is something wrong that happens at each level. The idea then is that Jesus, understood as a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, is the solution to the problems at a variety of different levels, including his fulfilment of Torah, the embodiment of Israel as the means through which humans could be restored to the role they were meant to play within creation. It is a very carefully constructed chapter, though as one critique I have already heard of it, it’s largely based on Romans, at the expense of other books.
The worldview analysis is not quite complete though. There is one further chapter in this section which looks at the questions which a worldview has in mind. Here, Wright takes us back again to his first volume in the series, NTPG. So we ask what answers Paul had for the following questions: 1) Who Are We? 2) Where Are We? 3) What’s Wrong, and What’s the Solution? 4) What Time Is It?
Wright’s contention here is that Paul’s worldview remains Jewish, but one that recognises that Jesus was the Messiah, who nobody expected to be crucified, let alone resurrected. That cannot leave the worldview unaltered. So while the above 4 questions were pertinent to the pre-Messiah view of Saul, the zealous Jew, they needed to be re-asked and re-answered in the fresh dawn of the resurrection by Paul, the originator of “Christian” theology.
From worldview to theology. That’s how Wright starts the longest section of the book. This is constructed around what he sees as the three big themes in second-Temple Judaism: monotheism, election and eschatology.
In the chapter on monotheism, we look at how God is revealed in and through the person of Jesus. Wright’s level of detail is far too intricate to do justice in such a relatively short review (relative compared to the length of the book!). Yet to think of the chapter purely as being about monotheism would be misleading. Wright works into it a number of different themes, as he picks what he sees as the key texts and gives us an exegetical view of each of them. Paramount to all this is how Paul harked back to the Old Testament. So here, and throughout the book, we see in the footnotes various little critiques of other writers on the same topic. Though I must say I was surprised to see that some of his sharpest criticisms are not for the likes of Don Carson or John Piper, who have tackled Wright in the past over his interpretation of Pauline theology, but rather he is harshest about Ed Sanders and Jimmy Dunn, two fellow protagonists of the ‘new perspective’ movement. Any time he mentions the movement, he is usually rather disparaging, prefacing it with the phrase “so-called” and this work seems more than ever before to distance himself from that movement. Whether one might like to refer to it as “post new-perspective” I doubt Wright would like the term himself.
The culmination of his chapter on monotheism is to look at the reworked Shema. Here, the Jewish statement of God’s unity is transformed in 1 Corinthians 8:6 with Jesus not just added to it, but worked into it, so that there is no less monotheism here but that Jesus is revealed to be the same God whom the Jews worshipped. In other words, after criticism following JVG of advocating a low christology, Wright finally gets round to stating that in referring to Jesus as both Christos (Messiah) and as crucified and resurrected, Paul did demonstrate an early high christology.
In terms of ‘finally getting round to’ I think there is much that Wright says which people for years have waited for him to say, particularly in the COQG series. Well aware of this, he even wryly points it out at one stage with respect to ‘dealing with the problem of sin’. Yet for as much that many will find comfortably orthodox, Wright will always have something up his sleeve to unsettle his readers. One feature that comes to the fore is that Wright is not a major fan of false dichotomies. For example, in his relatively brief treatment of atonement, he rejects the choice between Substitutionary Atonement and Christus Victor, even if those who merely scan the titles may have formed the impression he was purely an advocate of the latter. Instead, he firmly embraces both, though with the caveat that he does so not quite in the forms that they are traditionally expressed, and not only those, but that the doctrine of atonement Paul expresses has more dimensions than that.
It was also good to see a place for the Holy Spirit forming a wholly necessary role within Wright’s theology. Though he stops short of saying Paul expressed the same kind of trinitarianism that the later church developed in its various councils, the argument is made that Paul implicitly saw the Holy Spirit as God. I must admit to a wry smile at this point, as I wonder if Wright realised just how close he is to the theology of the modern charismatic churches here. Though I also took in a sharp breath at his mention of theosis (divinisation). Though before one starts to think that Wright has turned to Eastern Orthodoxy, he does clarify what he means. Elsewhere in the book, in some personal remarks, he states that he has lost any credentials to be considered “Protestant” though again, anyone thinking he is danger of crossing the Tiber need not be worried, as there is very little in this book that will be of much comfort to Catholics, not least the emphasis on justification by faith.
If there were any doubt that Wright was ambitious in writing this book, one would have that doubt removed by looking at the footnote at the start of his chapter on election where he takes on all of Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas and Barth and essentially says, “[they got it a bit wrong, here’s my view].” To take on such a group of theological giants would mark one out as being either courageous or foolish. Yet it would be braver still to charge Wright with being the latter. It is also the opinion of this reviewer that Wright is forming a legacy whereby he will he will regularly be spoken of in the same breath as those he cites here.
From monotheism, he turns to the idea of election, specifically on the identity of the ‘people of God’. Here, Wright more than anywhere else, goes on the defensive against his critics. But in a twist on the old adage, sound exegesis is the best form defence. So we return here to the dominant theme in Wright’s previous writings about Paul, that of justification. Of course, there is much more to it that just that in this chapter, but space (and copyright!) prevents a thorough review. Those who are familiar with his New Testament translation will know that instead of “righteousness” he much prefers to translate dikaiosyne as “covenant faithfulness”. This has been a point where I have earlier thought that Wright has taken a connotation and made into the denotation. Here, though, he makes a much better case for doing so than he had done before, where he harks back to the Hebrew terms tsedakah, particularly in relation to Abraham. In so doing, Wright admits that “covenant faithfulness” is just one of the reasonable ways to think of dikaiosyne, which in itself cannot be summed up easily, but to bring out the multi-layered meanings would be overly-cumbersome.
Those who have read Justification will be familiar with the line of the argument as well as the way Wright tackles the key texts. Here, though, instead of engaging directly with John Piper as he did before, Wright chooses as his main conversation partners more academic theologians. Indeed, I had an interesting discussion with some in my church, who wryly pointed out that the theology that gets taught in Sunday sermons, in housegroups and at the bible school usually expresses the same theology that comes out of universities some years later.
The way the topic is tackled is somewhat back-to-front, though if you read RSG then this may not surprise you. He lays out his case, entitled The Shape of Justification, before going into great detail on the key texts. What differentiates this take compared to that found in Justification is the relation with the rest of the key themes brought out thus far in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. To attempt to summarise it, the primary concern is not to conflate justification with salvation. Justification is instead the present verdict, giving assurance of a final verdict whereupon salvation will be complete. But at the same time, it is arrived at by faith (pistis) which becomes the new boundary marker which identifies the people of God. It’s a question of “who is in and who is out”. In keeping with Wright’s keenness to distance himself from historic and unhelpful dichotomies, he balances the ideas of “forensic” and “participationist” views of justification, maintaining a both/and approach instead of either/or, arguing that these categories are later impositions upon Paul which he might well not have recognised in his single, over-arching vision. From my own baptist/charismatic background, it is a puzzle that these two were ever confused; I wonder if it is a confusion that is primarily found in academic circles or Anglican/conformist theology.
The third chapter in this most lengthy part of the book, each of which may have been books in their own right, is ostensibly about eschatology (where, against many in my church, I favour the pronunciation esker-tology, as opposed to ess-scatology, which doesn’t sound good), though Wright’s take is far from what one might expect. We get very little of what one might expect in terms of eschatology, though in fairness part of the reason is the extensive treatment given to the eschatology of resurrection in RSG as well as Wright’s own interpretation of inaugurated eschatology, whereby Jesus was the eschaton, realised over the course of the Easter weekend. So this chapter instead expands more on the earlier two themes of monotheism and election, particularly election.
Before the major exegesis of Romans 9-11, we first get a very interesting glimpse into ethics, a subject on which Wright has been curiously quiet thus far in the COQG series. Without going into detail in the specifics, Wright asks why the behaviour of this new Messiah-community would be important. To understand this is to hark back to the storied worldview of Part II and to reject the notion that the aim of salvation is “to go to heaven when you die”. If anyone still harbours such a notion about christianity, then Wright may just despair at you! It is about new creation. The call is to live as part of that new creation, which is something that has begun, not some hope to escape from the world in the future so it doesn’t matter if we let it decay. One can almost hear the uncomfortable murmurs from the American anti-environmental lobby at this point.
There is then a detailed commentary on Galatians 4-6 before we embark upon possibly 3 of the toughest chapters not only in Paul, but in the whole of the bible, to get to grips with (admittedly, some of Revelation may just pip Paul in this instance). Yet I wondered if in making Part III the heart of the book, consisting of chapters 9, 10 & 11 (this being chapter 11) whether or not Wright was trying to deliberately echo the structure Romans.
Again, I cannot do justice to Wright’s ideas here. He revisits the idea of supersessionism, but only to reject it. He starts off though with the idea of return from exile, first covered in Part I, and relates this to Romans 10:1-17. His reason for doing this is that he sees all of 9-11 as chiastic structure, centred on 10:1-17 with the focus being at 10:9 – “because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In highlighting this as the focus, and doing so after his more detailed look at justification, we can see how Wright understands justification to be a part of, but not the whole of, soteriology. He draws together the themes he has worked on through Part III and gets us to see their interplay. The conclusion that jumped out at me is that Paul is re-telling the story of Israel to a gentile audience and telling them that they are now a part of that story. While they may not share the history, their participation in the Messiah means that they are now inheritors of that Jewish heritage, but that this in no way invalidates Judaism. It is that Jesus was the fulfilment of the promises and the hope that Israel had.
Rather than recount the intricacies of the argument which are better critiqued by someone with more theological training than I, I would just recommend that you read it.
Still with us? Good.
If you are to tackle the Behemoth that is this book, then you should be prepared for some long reads. Though my writing is not up to Wright’s quality, if you’ve struggled thus far then I would warn you that you may have difficulty with Wright’s magnum opus.
The chiastic structure that Wright has adopted means that we now come back and revisit the themes first explored in Part I. Above, I noted that Paul was curiously absent to begin with, but here we finally get to see why. Wright has first of all painted the backgrounds, before going into a lot of detail in animating this one figure, before now he puts this character of Paul into the pictures and we can see how he fits in and how he interacts with the interlocking worlds that Paul found himself in.
We begin with Paul and the Roman Empire. After the very long chapters in Part III, it was something of a relief to see such a relatively short chapter. The thrust here is the idea of “If Jesus is lord, then Caesar is not”. This idea will be familiar to many christians and I must say that there was little here that was particularly new or surprising. That may be because the treatment is very similar to that found in Paul: Fresh Perspectives. The odd thing about this chapter, and this recurs throughout Part IV, is that Wright chooses to engage with one or two writers who hold different views, so that it becomes less of an essay and more of an argument with a fellow scholar. Knowing that Wright was also writing Paul And His Recent Interpreters (currently due out this autumn) I couldn’t help but wonder if these engagements might have been better left for that work rather than here.
As I read this as fairly ordinary chap in the pew, not a theological specialist, just an accountant who is part of a church and tries to be faithful, the fine points on this argument were rather lost on me, not least because I had not read any of the works which Wright cites. If I got anything out of it, it would be this: Paul was not overtly anti-imperial. His view of “christianity” was not a protest movement against the powers that be. Rather, if one focuses on Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and resurrected, he is therefore lord. Because of this, brought sharply into focus, all else fades into the background. The terminology Paul used sometimes deliberately echoed that used within the Roman Empire, as examined in Part I, but any hints of anti-imperialism are not the focus of Paul’s attention, is a mere corollary of his worldview and theology.
Continuing the ring structure, we then have another look at Paul and “religion”. The key point here is that the religio which Paul writes about and which would have been well-known in the Mediterranean in the 1st century should not, but has been by many, confused or mistaken with 18th century categorisations of religion. So while this new Messiah-community lacked of the features that would have been recognisable in the religions of the day, but that in a new and strange way, it is not an unfair description.
Following this, we look at Paul and his philosophy. We have a little recap of what was covered in Part I and ask how Paul might answer particular schools of thought, in particular the Stoics, though Wright acknowledges that modern western society is often more Epicurean in nature. The point Wright makes, quite unsurprisingly I thought, is that Paul might not try to counter his critics in their own terms, since the all-pervasive transformation through the mind of the Messiah entails a fresh way of looking at the world. The point is made, as it was before, that the early church may have been described as a kind of school of philosophy, not in the same manner as the Cynics, Stoics or Epicureans, but as a new kind of thinking. As with the chapter on the Roman Empire, our emphasis is once again the Messiah and how, when looking at him, our priorities are transformed and renewed.
Entitled, ‘To know the place for the first time’, the penultimate chapter of the book brings us full circle to the subject of Paul and Judaism. Much has already been written about this topic earlier in the book and, rightly (though un-Wrightly?), no attempt is made at recapping the vast body of work preceding this chapter. Indeed, Wright is arguing that Paul never ceased being a Jew, but rather his understanding of what that meant, and what the family of God (as Wright puts it, the “Messiah-people”) entails. The allegory that came to my mind, not used by Wright, was that of someone who knew who their family was and in particular who their father was. But then you find out that he undertook some action not unlike that of Oskar Schindler. You do not cease to be his child, but now, because of his actions, one now realises more about the nature of your father and come to the conclusion that you have many more siblings than you previously thought and that in light of that one must rethink what it means to be a child of Schindler. I wouldn’t push the point too far, though, given the role-reversal of Jews & Gentiles.
So how might we conclude? Well, it’s with a topic that I had originally included in my critique below. The reason is that in Wright’s main analysis, his categorisation of the 3 main areas of thought as monotheism, election and monotheism seem to miss one major point. It was alluded to in Parts I & II but throughout this book and its predecessors in the series, I have wondered, “where is the temple?” Thus far, it seems to have been marginalised somewhat by Wright, in spite of his references to second Temple Judaism. The term has functioned as a label to summarise a school of thought, a religion and a cultural identity, but the temple itself has not been dealt with in much detail. Yet here, in the conclusion, it comes back to the fore. It is part of the answer to the question, “What was Paul trying to do?” In answering this, Wright identifies as the clearest summary of Paul’s aims 2 Corinthians 5:13 – 6:2. The conclusion that Wright reaches is that Paul is a builder. His whole missionary zeal is to see the construction of the new temple, the Messiah people, the ekklesia, the Church. That is what he was aiming to do. Implicit within this (though it was odd that Wright doesn’t mention it here) is that Jesus is the cornerstone of that building.
As Wright has ended each previous volume of the COQG series, he looks forward to the next volume. He states his intention to look at the subject of the Church’s ‘missiology’. I must say I look forward to it, though I would hope that it is not quite as long in coming as this volume has been.
Having then given an overview, I here choose to echo Wright’s engagement with Engberg-Pederson in chapter 14 by critiquing certain points. Some of these I have hinted at above, but I want to draw these out explicitly. Almost anyone who reads Wright will find something to disagree with. So vast is this work, entire agreement seems unlikely. You may have other points to pick up on. I choose to focus on two:
Having been clearer than before as to his views on Pauline authorship of the pastoral letters, he does not seem to use them for illumination as he promised to do so. Added to this, Wright expresses grave doubts over the historicity of the book of Acts. Firstly, this seems rather odd given the extent to which he relied on Luke in forming a view on the historical Jesus. So why not use the sequel from the same author to look at the historical Paul? Unless, of course, Wright doesn’t think they are by the same author. But if so, he is far from clear in expressing this, let alone providing a good reason for thinking in this way. So while we predominantly get a view of Paul from Romans and Corinthians, with support from some other books, I could not escape the opinion that in spite of the depth Wright looks at Paul, he keeps the blinkers on, preventing us from seeing the full breadth of Paul’s worldview and theology. That said, Acts is referred to, but only in places where it seems to back up Wright’s view, which gives one cause to suspect the possibility of confirmation bias.
In this account of Paul, his worldview, his theology and his place in the worlds he inhabited, there is, as one might expect much to be familiar. After all, Wright is here taking a fresh look at a figure that many have looked at before, not inventing the figure of Paul from scratch, nor does he presume that everyone who has come before has entirely misunderstood him. Yet in so doing, those who have read Paul extensively, listened to sermons on his writings and been part of churches where Paul’s theology is woven deep into the fabric may be surprised at the weightings given to the various aspects of Paul’s theology. For example, atonement is featured but doesn’t get close to the emphasis that the joint picture of justification & participation get.
In a similar vein, while Wright speaks of God “dealing with” sin, the term ‘forgiveness’ is rarely used. Admittedly, when it is, it is highly spoken of, but it comes in just one paragraph in the final quarter of the book. Blink and you’ll miss it. The same can be said of grace which seems similarly pushed to the fringes. Together, one might well question how these two themes can be considered so peripheral to Paul’s thought.
From the moment one picks up this book, one entertains the hopeful wish that if you get to the end you will be rewarded with some kind of medal as you might get at the end of a marathon. For those who like their medals, I’m sorry to disappoint. I didn’t get one for finishing this monumental tome. But that is not to say I didn’t get a reward, if you will forgive the double negative. The richness of thought that Wright lays out is a treat. But like a chocolate cake, too much in one go will leave you feeling slightly the worse for wear.
As I read I had an image of Wright being the host of a great banquet. The basic ingredients are all there and familiar to most christians. To that extent, Wright rightly says that he is not really making any grand new proposals. What he’s doing is putting everything in its right place. Maybe the soufflé of justification has been over or under done by others in the past, but here we are shown how to do it in accordance with the recipe book that Paul left for us. By including ethics within eschatology, we are not giving ourselves indigestion by jumping straight to dessert. So with the feast cooked and the table laid, we may now taste and see that the Lord is good.
The other image that comes to mind is one of a surprise party. In Part I, tracing the worlds in which Paul lived, was like arriving and talking to people from different walks of life who all interact with the person whose birthday is being celebrated. So while one might get some colleagues from work, a few old uni friends, some family and other friends, we meet them as isolated groups. When the person for whom the party is thrown arrives, the focus is on them, but as the evening progresses we get see how he relates to the various groups and how they interact with one another.
In terms of the overall COQG project, we have 2 major gaps left. His two books on Jesus focused very much on the synoptic gospels, with John getting only occasional mentions. Similarly, with Paul as one of the major figures of the early church one may well ask ‘what about Peter?’
The other potential follow-up would be if Wright plans to something like “Simply Paul” as he summarised other volumes in this series in other, shorter works such as Simply Jesus, Surprised by Hope and How God Became King or if he considers that this has already been done with his earlier works on Paul. At present, that’s purely speculation on my part.
Coming back to this volume, it is a greater commitment to read than other books. The page count is greater than War and Peace. If you do get through this, I would confidently predict 3 things:
1) You will learn much about Paul, his world and how the heart of his theology may be viewed as a coherent whole. If anyone finishes this and says they learnt nothing, then I would think they have either failed to engage with Wright, are guilty of some arrogance, or they themselves are the author – though as he did at the lecture at King’s College, he acknowledged that in writing this he learnt plenty himself.
2) There will be something in here you will agree with and something you disagree with. The range of Wright’s analysis and his huge reluctance (in most cases refusal) to be tied to a particular tradition will inevitably put some noses slightly out of joint.
3) You will keep flicking back. In trying to lay things out clearly, Wright loves enumerating his points, though the length of those points sometimes means that you suddenly start a paragraph with the word “Thirdly…” and then you have to back to what you were reading the day before in order to get the precise context. And not wholly unlike Revelation, you may find the final point has 7 or 12 sub-points to it.
So with both a fair warning and an encouragement, I commend this work to you. To paraphrase the title of a wholly unrelated, but recently popular, work: Read, pray, think, live.