Tag Archives: Paul

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright

Signed copy

Signed copy

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.

Part I

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?

Part II

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.

Part III

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.

Part IV

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.

A new perspective on justification – a verdict?

Last year, I wrote about my intention to study the new perspective on Paul (NPP). At the time I stated that I would write a conclusion based on my studies. So here I am, finally fulfilling my own promise, aware that there are many more promises that I have yet to keep.

So what is the verdict? Well, I would say I am certainly better informed than I was. Though when I think through how to summarise the NPP, I don’t think I was terribly far wrong in my initial assessment last year (the link is above). Of course, there is much more flesh on those bare bones. If anything, the majority of what I have learned has been what is regarded as the traditional reformed view (or ‘old perspective’). I was introduced to the idea of imputation which I have never heard preached from any church I have been to. If anything, given my own personal links to Durham and that of the NPP (James Dunn is a professor at my alma mater and Tom Wright was bishop for most of my time there) I suspect that I may well have been exposed to the NPP without it being spelled out as such. The pastor at my old church, KCD did his doctoral thesis on Galatians shortly after the interest in the NPP began to take root in academic circles.

Instead of thinking only about justification, the thrust of the NPP is really more holistic than that. So to talk of a ‘new perspective on justification’, as I did in both my original post, is really rather to miss the point. The view of justification is a consequence of the wider context of Paul’s theology. Though I do find it interesting that in looking so hard at Paul, some sight of James seems to have been lost. When I was growing up in a christian home, school and church, the discussion had been about answering the prima facie case of the contradiction between Paul and James. Though a new perspective on Paul ought rightly to focus on Paul’s ideas, it did strike me as odd that one could overlook James and still arrive at a well-rounded, New Testament theology of justification.

The approach of the NPP is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. In continuing the ideas of the Reformation, the idea of accepting a thesis on the basis of tradition is thrown out. In this case, even some of the conclusions of the reformers themselves! What was disappointing about much of the reaction to the NPP appealed only to tradition rather than properly engaging with the methodology.

To my understanding of it, there are two key points around which the whole debate turns. Firstly, what did Paul (and for that matter, James) mean when they referred to “the law”  – was it a kind of legalism or was the Torah being used as a means of ethnic identification? Secondly, what did Paul mean by his use of the cognate words ‘dikaiosyne’ (noun) and ‘dikaioo’ (verb) – normally translated as ‘righteousness’ and ‘justify’ respectively.

To the first point, I have found the argument of the ethnic badge persuasive though not compelling. The best counter to this argument seems to have come from Don Carson’s Justification and Variegated Nomism, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read. From what others have said about it, he seems to advocate that 1st century Jewish belief was so varied that to speak of covenantal nomism (as advocated by Sanders and other NPP scholars) is too narrow a focus.

As brief and unsatisfactory as that previous answer was, I could not hope to do any better in answering the second question. While I, along with both the traditionalists and NPP proponent James Dunn, do not find Wright’s argument for translating ‘dikaiosyne theou’ as ‘God’s covenantal faithfulness’ convincing, there is a good case (depending on how you answered the first question) for supposing that covenantal faithfulness is an aspect of God’s righteousness.

If this study has shown me anything, it has highlighted my own muddled thinking on the subject matter. Before starting this investigation, I was quite happy to think of justification and sanctification as being synonymous with salvation. I am quite happy to be much the wiser now. That said, I am all the more conscious of how much I have yet to properly understand, both in the core texts themselves and of how those of alternative views have arrived at their interpretations. I could double the number of books to read on the subject, including Carson’s 2 volume tome mentioned above, Alister McGrath’s history of justification, studies by Simon Gathercole and much more on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis. However, I could all too easily disappear down the rabbit hole of justification. There are plenty more aspects of theology and its practical applications which I am woefully ignorant of.

So I intend to leave justification there for now. For my next area of study, I plan on staring into the depths and looking at the theology of hell. I’ll write more about my plan on that later.

Book Review: Justification – Five views by Various Authors

This is the last book that I intend to look at (for now) in my continuing quest to understand the new perspective on Paul and the grounds for critiquing it. To date I have read the following:

Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wight
The Future of Justification by John Piper
Justification by Tom Wright

You may note that of the main proponents of the new perspective, I have thus far omitted James Dunn. Well, Dunn is the representative of the new perspective here. So what we have are five essays from six different writers:

Traditional Reformed – Michael Horton
Progressive Reformed – Michael Bird
New Perspective – James Dunn
Deification – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Catholic – Gerald O’Collins & Oliver Rafferty

The book is highly structured, with the editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, writing a lengthy introduction, giving the background against which the essays are set. There is a brief history of the doctrine of justification, including the broad sweep of theological thought of the Reformation. Helpfully, the editors have included a fair variety of denominations including Anabaptists and Pentecostals – strands of christianity which form part of the tapestry of my own faith.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the 5 essays and the reaction to each of them from the writers of the other 4.

Horton’s essay is very traditional and reminded me much of John Piper’s book on the same subject. Though he makes some good points, and presents his view very clearly and faithfully, I couldn’t help but think, having read some of the ‘new perspective’ writings already, that his essay just lacked some key aspects. It was like a landscape painting without the sky.

Michael Bird is not a theologian I had ever heard of before, though I liked his essay very much. This may be because of confirmation bias, I freely admit, as his view is very closely aligned with my own. While he recognises the value of traditional thought, this is not because tradition has intrinsic value; he recognises the fallibility of the likes of Luther and Calvin, who were merely doing their best to be faithful expositors and interpreters of the biblical authors. I will aim to read more of Bird’s writings in the future.

James Dunn was another that I liked. He is quick to point out that not all of the proponents of the ‘new perspective’ are univocal, and he does distance himself from one aspect of Wright’s writings that I found myself disagreeing with, namely the reinterpretation of “God’s righteousness” as “God’s covenantal faithfulness”. Indeed Dunn’s essay serves to highlight the fact that the real core of the arguments over justification are semantic. What do we mean when we speak of justification and righteousness and what did the biblical authors mean?

Karkkainen is an odd one. In his responses to the other essays, he rarely engages, but rather alludes to his own essay. His view itself is one that is completely new to me. To explain briefly, it is a sort of conflation of Lutheranism with Eastern Orthodoxy (the latter of which I confess near total ignorance, the former only slightly less so) whereby people are made to be ‘like God’ though Karkkainen is a little woolly in his definitions, a point picked up by one of the responses. I found myself interested, yet unconvinced by his essay. I know I will have to do more reading on this subject though to come to a more rounded, informed opinion.

The piece on catholicism is split into two parts. The first is a very straightforward statement of catholic doctrine written by Rafferty where his appeal is almost entirely to the Council of Trent. Some of the pronouncements of it are reproduced in Michael Horton’s earlier essay. Rafferty’s part does nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Reformation (and the council of Trent) marked the final separation between christianity and catholicism. Only a full renunciation could mark the beginnings of the restoration of Rome to the church of Christ. O’Collins’ section is a personal testimony. Here, he seems to take a very different line of thinking which is much more open to the possibility of the need of catholicism to change. His testimony culminates with his being part of a “joint declaration on the doctrine of justification” in 1999 between the catholic and Lutheran churches, though it is noted that this document is binding on neither church.

What I found most striking was that the deification and catholic pieces almost entirely discussed tradition. This was true to a fair extent of the Traditional Reformed piece, though not quite so much. It was really only the Progressive Reformed and the New Perspective views that gave any weight at all to scripture. Were these two omitted and one were to approach this without any prior knowledge, one could easily get the impression that the documents over which the debate occurs are the writings of Martin Luther and the decrees of the council of Trent. Jesus, Paul and James barely get a look-in.

Interestingly, I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was 90% of the way through the book, only to find a very similar critique in the last 10% made by Dunn in response to the essay on the catholic point of view. So while each essays, and the responses to them, are highly informative as to the stance of each of the writers, very little is given (with pun fully intended) by way of justification of their own view.

Overall, this is well worth a read and serves as a good summary of different points of view.

Book Review: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright

Continuing to look at the New Perspectives on Paul movement, having recently looked at John Piper’s response to Tom Wright, this is then Wright’s response to Piper. The book divides into 2 (almost equal) parts. The first part is Wright’s more direct response to Piper’s book, combined with a restatement and clarification of some points, though these will be familiar to readers who have followed the same route that I did (What Saint Paul Really Said -> Paul: Fresh Perspectives – > The Future of Justification). The second half is an exegesis on the key sections in Paul’s writing relating to the theme of justification.

As the publishers chose to publish in the name of ‘Tom’ rather than ‘N.T.’ one might expect this to be at the more “everyday” level, more akin to Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope than his work on the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Don’t let this lull you into a sense that there isn’t much to think through. Wright’s argument needs a great deal of care and attention in order to follow it. Indeed, one of his criticisms of Piper and other critics is that they have cherry-picked their objections, failing to see the bigger picture. There are flashes in the first half of some of Wright’s exasperation which some have taken to be slightly less than gracious. I must admit that I have some sympathy with this view, as the introduction comes across as though this was a book that Wright was compelled to write, which interrupted his schedule.

I must confess that I found the 2nd half of the book much tougher than the first. This is where Wright goes into detail on the key passages relating to justification in Galatians and Romans, with an interlude looking at Philippians, Corinthians and Ephesians. The trouble stems from the fact that Wright doesn’t include any of the texts he is talking about. So one is compelled to read this book in one hand and a bible in the other. Even then, the large sweeps Wright takes encapsulates large chunks of text at a time. While Wright is keen to show the “big picture” I couldn’t help but get a little bit lost along the way. Speaking to others about the book, it appears several ‘gave up’ at this point though I would strongly encourage anyone who has done so to try again.

One of the great treats of the book is that at several places, Wright echoes Paul’s writing style (especially his rhetorical questions) with the likes of, “What shall we say to these things?” or, “Where then is boasting in human traditions (including those of the Reformation)?” before going on to answer these questions himself. Having followed, chronologically by publication, some of the New Perspective writings, I’m not sure how accessible this book might be to those who haven’t followed the same path. There are certainly a lot of riches to be discovered, though I would recommend tracing the journey that resulted in arriving here. But for anyone who wants to understand the background, the debate and the interpretations that are important to the New Perspective, then this would have to be core reading.

[As an endnote, I ought to state that the day before I finished reading this, a commenter on this blog pointed my attention to the fact that the release of Wright’s magnum opus on Paul has finally been announced. Though I write about it a little around 18 months ago, little has been made public knowledge since then. Though the date has not been made more specific than “the autumn” we do now know that there will be 3 volumes. There is the book Wright intended to write, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a review of recent Pauline scholarship, Paul and his Recent Interpreters, and a collection of Wright’s other writings on Paul (which may include extracts of the current book being reviewed). I look forward to it immensely.]

Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

I’m continuing my look at the New Perspectives on Paul, here looking at the first of the rejoinders. Piper angles his writing specifically as a response to N.T. (Tom) Wright. It was for that reason that I chose to read What St Paul Really Said and Paul: Fresh Perspectives before I read this. If you are considering picking up Piper’s book, I would heartily recommend that you read these first; otherwise you may get lost, although Piper does quote Wright quite extensively, but only on the points which Piper disagrees with.  

A word needs to be said about the book’s structure & style. The main book is a little under 200 pages long, but tagged onto the end are six appendices. Piper fully admits that these appendices don’t directly relate to the argument of the book, but are little essays that give some more detail to his views on the theme of justification. Most evident in these, but also present in the rest of the book, is Piper’s inferior communication skills. While he criticises Wright for not always being clear (and I agree that Wright isn’t always clear in communicating his views), Piper has a habit of peppering his writing with Greek. Only, he rarely includes a transliteration, making it difficult to read for anyone who can’t easily read Greek. One wonders if this was done not for the purposes of making himself clearer, but for the purpose of making him look clever. Likewise, Piper uses the word ‘impute’ and its cognates a lot, but at times he contradicts himself over what he understands this to mean.

As the title suggests, the aspect of the New Perspective which is in contention is that of ‘justification by faith’. Wright’s contention is that justification is not that which ensures salvation, but is the “badge” by which those who are saved are identified. Here, I do find Piper more convincing than Wright, particularly with respect to the interpretation of the phrase ‘dikaiosune theou’ which is usually translated as “God’s righteousness” but which Wright takes as “God’s covenant faithfulness”.

Piper drops a vital clue as to some of the differences between his & Wright’s point of view when he says, “This British phrase, “putting the world to rights” means…” (emphasis added). It seems that there may be something lost in translation inside a common language. Piper then goes on to question how good news for the world can be a gospel for an individual, betraying a very particular Americanised sort of individualism. Of course, such a viewpoint would have only faintly recognisable to Paul.

This is by no means a response to the whole “New Perspectives” idea as espoused by Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others. This focuses on just one aspect of it. As such, I couldn’t help but think that Piper seems to have disagreed with Wright’s conclusions without first walking out the path that Wright has done himself. Indeed, Wright has stated that he is attempting to “think Paul’s thoughts”; the image that comes to my mind is of a child walking across a muddy field trying to step in their parent’s footsteps. Here indeed, the field is very muddy.

Much of the first part of the book focuses on an analogy that Wright used in What Saint Paul Really Said about a lawcourt. Although Wright only spends 7 pages on this (one of which is a diagram) out of 183 (4%), Piper’s critique of it covers just over 40 pages out of 225 (18%). In this particular respect, I find Wright’s account more compelling, as Piper seems more keen to stick to his own traditional understanding, rather than accept the possibility that theologians of generations past may have slightly misunderstood.

No one can doubt Piper’s earnestness or that he has taken great care in researching this book. Where a perceived misinterpretation of the bible has taken place, I do think it’s important to try to set things right, so I wouldn’t join with those who say Piper was being ungracious in writing this. In some points, I think his criticisms are valid, but not in all. As this was the first book of his I have read, I think he’s relied a bit too much on his other writings, though I said something similar for Paul: Fresh Perspectives.

After reading this, the next step in my self-education in the new perspectives will be to read Wright’s response to Piper entitled ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’. If my current reading goes to plan, I would expect for that review to ready sometime around late January or early February.

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.

Book Review: What St Paul Really Said by Tom Wright

Continuing my look at the New Perspective on Paul, I move onto one of the earlier books by Wright on the topic of Paul. Earlier this summer, I read & reviewed E.P. Sanders’ short introduction to Paul.

From the outset, Wright states that this is only a short introduction, something of a ‘taster’ for his forthcoming much larger work on Paul, which, at the time of writing this review, is due out in the summer of 2013.

Wright begins his discussion by asking what world Paul inhabited, as this seems foundational to discussions on the nature of the origins of christianity. Wright refers to David Wenham (one of his books on this topic is reviewed here) and stresses Paul’s Jewishness. It seems, though I will confess to some ignorance on this, that at the heart of many accusations over the falsity of the early church is the notion that Paul abandoned his Jewishness and instead brought to the primitive community a quasi-Hellenistic religion, distorting the message and legacy of Jesus. Of course, if one subscribed to this view, then the grounds of christianity (or at least the whole history of what has become christianity) would be severely undermined. Consequently, it is a view that needs to be looked at carefully, with all due consideration and seriousness.

Wright then goes on to give an account of why he believes Paul never abandoned Judaism, but rather, his understanding of it was radically reformed. As a persecutor of the early church, Saul of Tarsus had great energy and enthusiasm for his work. As an apostle, Paul of Tarsus was no less “zealous” in his aims.

So far, so uncontroversial.

Out of this, though, Wright comes to the question of “what did Paul mean when he talked of ‘gospel’?” Here, Wright veers away from the traditional reformed answer which focuses on how one is “saved” (technical term: soteriology) and instead states that the gospel is an announcement about Jesus and how God is made known through Jesus.

Though evidence is presented above on how thoroughly Paul stays faithful to Jewish monotheism, one does then face some thorny problems with certain statements he makes about the Jewish law, particularly in Galatians and Romans. Wright tackles these in much the same way as Sanders does, by arguing that statements about the law and about circumcision are not about moralism or legalism, but rather that they were statements about Jewish identity. i.e. if christians find their identity in Christ, then there is no longer a need to adopt the identity markers of Judaism now that in Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled.

An important figure in Wright’s arguments is that of Pelagius, a figure I doubt the majority of christians will be familiar with. In short, he was a late 4th/early 5th century theologian who believed that people could be saved by living to strict moral guidelines. You can read more about him in Alister McGrath’s Heresy. Wright’s use of this figure is to demonstrate what many modern christians think Paul meant when he spoke of salvation through the law, but which Paul did not mean at all. There is no historical evidence which supports the idea that Judaism was prevalent with those who sought to save themselves by their own efforts. Rather, they were the chosen people of God and their observance of the Torah was what distinguished them from other people.

The second half of the book is then almost entirely devoted to the question of what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’. With the background given earlier, Wright’s view was that ‘faith’ is the identifying mark by which christians are identified rather than the means by which they become christians. In other words, he swaps round the traditionalist viewpoint of which is the cart and which is the horse.  There’s a very helpful diagram which outlines various different interpretations of the word “righteousness” – though Wright chooses to focus on just a couple of these, rather than going into much depth on each of them.

The apparent conclusion of the book then asks how Paul’s teaching, understood in this new light, ought to affect the church. At this juncture, as in Surprised by Hope, Wright seems to leave his world of ancient academia and applies his sharp judgement to the modern church – or at least, to some aspects of the church. He gives a powerful and thought-provoking challenge which should be of interest to all christians.

However, the book doesn’t quite end there. The final chapter seems somewhat tacked onto the end. Here, Wright effectively gives a critique of a book by A.N. Wilson called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. I might, at some point, pick this up and have a read myself. The main content of the book is said to be greatly opposed to the view put forth by Wright, and the key arguments are countered by reference to Wright’s own analysis as laid out in earlier chapters. This final chapter does come across as a little ungracious, and its tone jars slightly from that of the previous chapter.

That aside, it is a very good read and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else wanting to gain an understanding of the new perspective on Paul.

Book Review: Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders

As promised recently, this is my first foray into looking at the New Perspectives on Paul. Sanders has been name that keeps cropping up in my reading, particularly as referenced by Tom Wright, but this was the first book of Sanders’ that I’ve read. It’s not his most scholarly; it is meant as a brief introduction to new readers and summarises much of what Sanders has written before.

He begins by looking at the person and character of Paul, contrasting the different sides of him as seen through Acts and through Paul’s own writings. Sanders subscribes to the idea that Paul wasn’t the author of the pastoral epistles though, disappointingly, he states this as a fact and doesn’t attempt to give any evidence of this. If you’re interested in this matter, please see my critique of the evidence (including a link to the source) here. So the body of work that Sanders looks at is a little more restricted than we might think at first.

From this platform, he begins to look at Paul’s theology, with a look at belief in resurrection and Jesus’ return. This is a fairly brief overview, possibly too brief. For a much more detailed work on this subject, if it interests you, I’d recommend Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Sanders stays relatively uncontroversial here, but he doesn’t stay on such safe ground for long.

From here, he moves onto the theological background in which Paul was writing. The two main themes here are monotheism and providence. He touches on the very sensitive (to some) issue of predestination and free will, noting that Paul and his contemporaries did not think of them as mutually exclusive, thus circumventing the debates that have ranged since the issue was emphasised during the Reformation.

Sanders then goes into some detail on the book of Galatians (and as it’s quite a short epistle, I’d recommend you read it before delving into this chapter). Here, he tries to wrest back the idea of ‘righteousness by faith’ from Luther, who Sanders thinks didn’t grasp the issue properly. This section is intensely fascinating, though quite dense. I thought I had been reading for ages, only at one point to see that I had only gone through 5 or 6 pages in an hour. Some of the argument may have been lost on me, I admit, as I couldn’t help but think that “to be made righteous” and “to be justified” were, and are, two different ways of saying the same thing. But Sanders is keen to drive a wedge between the two, expounding the idea of the pressures put on Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become the children of Abraham.

From here, his focus switches predominantly to the book of Romans, contrasting the different audiences that Paul was writing to and his imperative for doing so. Here, he does get quite technical and nuanced but it is well worth reading through it with due care.

Although the book may be called “A Very Short Introduction” one should not be fooled into thinking this means “a very simple introduction.” There is some meaty theology in here, along with discussions on Greek grammar and some fairly detailed reasoning. But don’t let that put you off. Even though Sanders does occasionally use more exotic words like “eschatology” or “soteriology” (which you can look up in a dictionary) his writing style is very accessible and he makes a good job of explaining the difficulties involved, especially on the difficulties of translating Greek to English.

There is a very distinct emphasis on Galatians and Romans, so it is difficult to tell whether this really is an accurate study of all of Paul’s thinking, as his other books (besides the pastorals which, as I said, were discarded as non-Pauline) are relatively marginalised.

Having determined that to not be “justified by law” was to contrast finding one’s identity in Christ, rather than by dismissing rules, Sanders then moves on, quite naturally, to how Paul viewed behaviour. Here, Sanders’ own views come to the fore, somewhat. I will admit to being surprised, as I had read that he described himself as a “liberal, modern, secularized Protestant” which sounds right up my street. Yet I found him to be surprisingly conservative, advocating a puritanical and ascetic interpretation of Paul. Of course, such a view is not wholly unwarranted but it is also, I would argue, not necessarily the whole picture. Sanders does try to wriggle in a little liberalism into his argument by stating that Paul’s traditionalist Jewish approach to personal morality was moderated  in instances where he was confronted with pastoral issues and forced to think about the matter.

The book ends with Sanders looking at Romans 9-11 and the salvation of Israel. Here, he highlights how Paul’s emphasis changes and swings from one position to another within the space of a few chapters. Paul’s view on who would and who wouldn’t be saved are touched on, though much of the discussion on this has already taken place. The book ends quite abruptly without any kind of overarching conclusion. Instead, Sanders leaves us with a few questions about whether it is right to try to “systemise” Paul since his thinking was that of “an apostle, an ad hoc theologian, a proclaimer, a charismatic who saw visions and spoke in tongues – and a religious genius.”

There is much food for thought in this little book, and I would well recommend you have a taste. I wouldn’t wholly agree with every angle Sanders uses and would probably say there are facets of Paul’s writings which have been overlooked. Nonetheless, it is a good introduction, particularly for someone wanting an overview with some solidity to it.

A new perspective on justification?

Regular readers will be aware that I regard myself as an “amateur theologian” and that I advocate that all christians ought to be, to some extent. I have no formal training in this area, all my education was science-based and my post-education career has been finance-based.

Because of this, I am often some way behind the times in terms of major debates. One debate that has come to my attention is that of the “new perspective on Paul.” At present, I will confess that I don’t really know too much about it. I’ve bought a small raft of books on the subject (both for and against) wanting to try to get to grips on the topic.

Part of my motivation is one of a little “fan-dom” of Tom (N.T.) Wright, who is expecting to publish volume 4 of his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series in the summer of 2013. I started with volume 3 (not realising beforehand that it was part of a series) before doing volume 1, and I am presently about half way through reading volume 2. Volume 4 is expected to be something of a magnum opus on the topic, so I thought I ought to get acquainted with the issues beforehand.

There were a couple of books that I wanted to get my hands on but couldn’t do so at a reasonable price, but I did get the following:

  • Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
  • What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
  • Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright
  • The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright
  • Justification: Five Views by various authors

The two I missed out on were Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders and Justification and Variegated Nomism by D.A. Carson. For that last one, when I tried searching for it on the website of my local christian bookshop, the only results it came up with were Veggietales DVDs!

So over the next few months, you can expect to see each of these books reviewed, at the end of which I intend to write up a conclusion on my own thoughts based on what I’ve read.

At the outset, I must confess I don’t really get what the major fuss is about. From having read through some of the introductions, it seems that the issue is roughly as follows:

One of the lynchpins of the theological side of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by faith. That is to say, through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, the door was opened by we could attain salvation, but that invitation had to be accepted. This acceptance was through faith in Jesus.

The new perspective says that this picture is not wholly incorrect, but that it is incomplete. The reformation theologians did not integrate into their thinking the cultural and historical context into which Paul was writing. Once this line of thought is taken into consideration, an alternative emphasis comes out particularly in relation to how Paul saw the Jewish law and its relation to both Jewish and Gentile converts to christianity.

The most important practical aspect for believers is that it affects how those who roughly subscribe to reformed theology view the importance of works in personal salvation, thus undermining somewhat the notion of sola fide as most famously espoused by John Calvin.

Of course, my understanding of the issue may be completely erroneous. I freely confess, as always, that I may be (and indeed, may well be) wrong, but that is why I’m undertaking these readings. I always am interested in getting to the heart of a matter, of understanding what’s going on and why this has caused such heated discussions amongst some believers.

Saints: A nonconformist point of view

Following on from my recent “thinking out loud” about how I, as a nonconformist, view church structures, I wanted to expand on a few other things that I think about slightly differently from some mainstream denominations, and to give my reasons for doing so. Some of this should explain some of the stylistic oddities you may have noticed if you have read much of this blog. In this case, I wanted to explain my thinking behind why, when referring to various figures (particularly the apostles) I use the like of Paul or Peter, rather than St. Paul or St. Peter, which entails looking at the idea of who is (and who isn’t) a saint.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The more traditional churches seem to have a special regard for some individuals who are regarded as “saints.” I know the catholic church has a process now in place where someone is regarded as “blessed” and where a miracle has to be verified after a believer has prayed to this dead individual. That miracle is then attributed to the dead person and a long drawn out process is made eventually culminating in the person being “beatified” and declared to be a saint by the pope.

In christianity, many of the catholic saints were “adopted” though the memory of the reformation, particularly in England, does lead to less worship of saints than may be found elsewhere, even if this is defended under the guise of “veneration” or some other linguistic trickery to avoid the suspicion of idolatry.

While I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we remember individual men & women who have contributed to helping others both inside and outside church communities, helping to spread the gospel, it just strikes me as odd that some individuals are picked out as being special more than the countless millions throughout history who have done so either anonymously or who passed into obscurity.

What does the bible say?

The New Testament is littered with references to saints, but in these the referent is clearly the group of all believers in a given location. Individuals are sometimes singled out, but these are then followed up with phrases like “greet all the saints.”

To be specific, take Romans 1:7 for example. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Acts 9:32, the term is used interchangeably with believers: “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydia.”

There are plenty of other references of this kind. To take just a sample, have a look at 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 4:22; Hebrews 6:10 and Jude 3.

One other set of passages that will be of particular relevance will be those found in Revelation. In chapter 8, the prayers of the saints are pictured as incense rising. For biblical literalists, this is the foundation of the use of incense as swung around in extremely “high” churches. Here, the meaning of saints is less clear, so I would propose that our best understanding of its usage comes from the context of the other New Testament writers as indicated above.

Rev 11:18 may at first glance seem distinguish saints from other people, as there are also listed prophets and ‘ones fearing your name’ though when you read around the verse in context it is fairly clear that this is a rhetorical device for saying “everyone” – something not unknown in today’s modern English parlance. This similar usage may be found also in 16:6, 17:6 and 18:24.

Chapter 14 gives a description of who John thought the saints were: “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of [or ‘in’] Jesus.”

Of course, I have not given you an exhaustive list of references to saints, but having looked through them, I do not think that any omissions add to or change the main argument. But do look them up, it makes for fascinating reading.

The argument

What makes this of particular concern, rather than any lame attempt to drive a wedge between denominations, is the difference in the theological statements between those who subscribe, as I do to the “all believers are saints” hypothesis and those who go along the lines of “some are saints to be revered above others.”

The term “saint” is often contrasted with that of “sinner” and is just as frequently seen as representing a contrast between two opposites. This is so prevalent, that it has slipped outside of church terminology and is used within our much wider secular society. The trouble this has, as with any terminology that has been adopted outside of its precise theological context, is that connotations arise which distort a word’s meaning. In this instance, “saint” has come to mean someone who is especially well-behaved, a do-gooder, if you will. On the other hand, “sinner” has become a pejorative term, sometimes implying criminal behaviour.

I would contend that the two are not opposites at all. Rather, saints are simply a subset of sinners. In my usage of the term, sinners would just be another byword for “people” (in line with Romans 3:21-23) though I very rarely use it because of the judgemental overtones that could be interpreted, even when they are not meant.

One of the alternative translations of “saint” that you will find in some translations is “holy ones” or something similar. Where we get to the nub of the argument is this: who declares us to be ‘holy’ or otherwise?

My point of view, based on my present understanding of scripture, is that God alone is the one who can declare us to be holy. We are made so by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is for God to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – and this is skirting a whole other argument I don’t wish to have right now. But the point is that I can’t see how it can be right for some individuals to be declared saints by the church authorities (who are to be servants, not commanders, remember). Whatever criteria is used, it is inherently made-made, which must therefore be inherently inferior to the perfect judgement of God.


In light of the evidence and the argument supported by it, it seems bizarre to me that anyone would cling to the traditionalist use of these words, as it clearly has no relation to the kind of faith that the early church had.

In terms of remembering individuals, it’s not bad that we might be encouraged to remember. But it is decidedly odd that you should allocate particular individuals to specific days. What it implies is that on the 17th of July we ought to remember one person, but that they can be forgotten for the rest of the year and that on that day all others are considered to not be as important. Nor do I find it particularly helpful that someone may be considered the patron saint of whatever. I see no biblical imperative for it, nor is it helpful in any way except to perpetuate traditionalism which I don’t regard as being inherently valuable anyway.

For my part, I will choose to remember those saints who I have known throughout my lifetime, who have encouraged me, helped me grow and have challenged me to question my thinking.