Tag Archives: philosophy

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

Book Review: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

In a few of the books I’ve read recently, most notably Das Kapital and Theology of Hope, the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet it any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read about him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Kant wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where, having referenced him earlier, one cannot but think of Karl Marx.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them. An offshoot of this that grabbed my idea was David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus which I haven’t read yet, but which I know was a work against which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was partly a response. A thesis and antithesis, if you will.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.

Book Review: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

It’s been a few years since my introduction to Moltmann, which came in the form the The Crucified God. Since then, I’ve read his autobiography, but have been putting off reading this work, his first, which launched his reputation in the theological world in the 1960s. The edition I read was the SCM Classics version with an introduction from Richard Bauckham. This introduction is warm, gracious and readily accessible. The latter quality is one that I cannot say applies to the start of the main text itself.

You see, part of the reason I keep reading works ahead of Moltmann is that he doesn’t make for easy reading. While some of this may be down to the translation from German to English, I suspect it is far more about the intricacies of the workings of Moltmann’s own mind, as communicated via the written word.

The theme of the book is eschatology. Is that an unfamiliar word to you? If so, this is perhaps not the best place to start; for that I would direct you to Tom Wright. Yet Wright treads partly in the footsteps of Moltmann. For eschatology is a longer way of saying ‘hope’. It is often written about by more conservative theologians as ‘end times’ but Moltmann is here keen to point out that that’s not quite right. It’s not wholly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced, just as one theologian I know cannot pronounce the word ‘eschatology’ (which ought to be “esker-tology” rather than his unfortunate mispronunciation as “ess-scatology”).

Moltmann opens by trying to assess hope in the context of some of the greatest thinkers known to the Western world. With apparent ease, he moves from Parmenides to Kant, from Anselm to Bultmann. There is a dazzling array of references here which would only be readily understandable to someone who is far better read in philosophy and theology than I am. So I confess that much of section one was glossed over a bit. Yet this does give rise to a criticism of Moltmann. For though I am not a specialist reader, an intellectual if you will, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a well-written work should be reasonably understandable. Part of this is that Moltmann is rather fond of his Latin, with an obscure phrase used on just about every page, which the editors decided should go untranslated. I am no linguist and wasn’t taught Latin in school. So while I could work out something simple like fides quaerens intellectum, most were lost on me and I didn’t fancy doing a search on Google translate every 3 minutes.

It’s a humbling experience to read something and admit that you don’t understand it. I was definitely in this territory in the opening section, including a chapter entitled ‘The Theology of the Transcendental Subjectivity of God’. If that seems like small potatoes to you, then by all means, read on. If I were to be critical here, it might be said that Moltmann is showing off that he is a well-educated person, as much this section is peripheral to the central argument of the book, which comes in parts 2 and 3.

Part 2, entitled Promise and History, begins to really get to the title of the book. In it, Moltmann is keen to rescue eschatology from the hands of what we might call fundamentalists. He doesn’t engage them as such, but points out that thinking of eschatology as purely an understanding of “end times” misses the point. Instead, eschatology is an understanding of hope. Where his masterstroke is, is that when he comes to the subject of history, we can only understand the past if we can readily identify what the past has in common with the now. That common feature: the future. It is then that Moltmann details that how we think of the past, must be in terms of what the hopes and shapes of the future are. I couldn’t help but think in terms of understanding the civil rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ as a particular example. Here, we can only understand the movement if we understand what their hopes were.

One of the questions posed regards why it was that the nomadic Israel kept their God once they had settled and changed into an agrarian culture; one might have expected that once the promise of the land was fulfilled they would no longer need a God of promise, of hope. Yet they kept him. It’s not a question that I had thought about much before, but it’s an interesting one to consider.

The real meat of the book gets on to look at the resurrection and the hope that is for, and embodied in, Jesus. Here, my main bugbear is that, as with much of the rest of the book, in fact, it appears to be written as a stream of consciousness instead of in a methodical manner. So there is not so much of an argument to progress through as there is a splurge of thoughts that seem to come all at once and which Moltmann is struggling to write down.

In dealing with the resurrection, Moltmann flips the notion of history on its head and inside out. He posits that to ask the question “was Jesus physically raised from the dead” is to ask the wrong question. In Moltmann’s world, the question of hope takes central place and what we think of as history (which he argues is an example of positivism) is a wrong-headed construct. At times he seems to contradict himself. He agrees with Paul that the resurrection is the single event upon which the christian faith hangs or falls but goes on to say, “That the resurrection actually took place is not denied, but does not lie within the field of interest.” If you’re reading this review thinking Moltmann might be offering a line of reasoning within which to understand the evidence for the resurrection, then this is the point to give up and refer to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God instead.

In section 4, he reverts back to the philosophy and heuristics of history. This section begins with a puzzle: if history is constantly in motion, changing from moment to moment, yet philosophy is inherently atemporal (that is, it is true regardless of the time frame), then how can there be such a thing a philosophy of history? For my mind, I then wondered if he might extend this to questioning whether there can be such a thing a history of philosophy, though this isn’t a point Moltmann actually raises.

The whole of the 4th section is entitled “Eschatology and History” but for much of it, the eschatological aspect is conspicuous by its absence. Ironically, it does drift in towards the end of the section with an intriguing discussion on the nature of tradition. Moltmann argues that what christianity understands by tradition is vastly different from what most others do. For most, tradition means harking back to the past (and my opinion is that many expressions of christianity do this, though not helpfully) but Moltmann argues that christian tradition, though rooted in the past, is inherently a forward-looking thing.

The book concludes by returning from the world from of high philosophy and back into the real world that most people inhabit day by day. Entitled ‘Exodus Church’, I had expected to see here the roots of liberation theology, a feature of the 1960s and 1970s theology in which he played a significant part, but any resemblance to it here is only as much as the resemblance between an acorn and an oak.

Probably the fairest summary of the book is given by Moltmann himself, with this quote from near the end of the book:

“If, however, the Christian Church is thus orientated towards the future of the Lord, and receives itself and its own nature always only in expectation and hope from the coming Lord who is ahead of it, then its life and suffering, its work and action in the world and upon the world, must also be determined by the open foreland of its hopes for the world.”

Book Review: The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Having tried to look at the origins of what we might recognise as philosophy, I wanted to read some more of the “Big 3”. It was a slightly arbitrary choice to pick Aristotle over Socrates or Plato, but my interest in ethics and morality probably swayed it.

The book begins with a very long introduction by Jonathan Barnes. I also ought to note that this particular version was translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

The introduction makes clear what others have told me about the book, in that it is really a series of lecture notes rather than a book that is meant to be read cover to cover. There is also a lot of background on Aristotle, placing the work within his surviving corpus of work. One of the frustrations is that the introduction contains lots of seemingly random references, almost a dewey decimal-like system. Only at the end is it stated what these are; but they refer to a different edition, so are very little use to the reader of this Penguin Classics edition.

What might one expect from an early book on ethics? Well, I wasn’t expecting a vast amount of deliberation or references to earlier writers. I thought this was just going to be a straight-from-the-hip exposition. That is more or less what we get.

Aristotle’s aim is that this is not a work to be merely studied. Rather, the aim is that it is a transformative work that should make one a better man. The fact that it comes to us in book form might be something of an oddity as there is some suggestion in the notes (as well as hints in the text) that this is really a set of lecture notes. I also use the term ‘man’ in the masculonormative sense that Aristotle himself uses, so I shall stick that form for the purposes of this review.

The fact that it was lecture notes didn’t really strike me at first, as the work (made up of some 12 short books) is really rather gripping to begin with. I could faintly see how this could be in terms of the history of thought, though reading a modern translation made it just seem like a treatise on common sense. If anything, the fact that it was so unscandalous is testimony to the influence that Aristotle has upon western culture. It is only when we get to a question of ‘continence and incontinence’ that the book slows somewhat. I confess that I find the term incontinence to be somewhat lavatorial, so it was not clear what Aristotle was on about.

Up until then, the whole tenor of the book had been about moderation. The ideal man, in Aristotle’s view, was not a person of extremes, but who took everything in their stride with due consideration, who could be allowed to be passionate, but who was not quick to be inflamed. That’s the overarching message. What we don’t get, which many modern readers may come with, are questions over particular moral dilemmas. Contrast this with Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.

Having laid out this vision of the moderate man, the remainder of the book is a little bit turgid to get through. I think I rather lost track in book 7 entitled ‘continence and incontinence’. Through my own ignorance, my immediate thought on reading that header regards the ability of a person to maintain control of their bladder. So what does Aristotle (or the translator) mean by these terms? Well, I was no more enlightened after reading it. There was no clear definition given and without that I couldn’t get a grip on the topic.

Thereafter, I rather struggled to maintain interest and the remainder of the book became more of a chore than a joy to read.

With that said, I would still recommend it as a reading in the history of thought. Not having formal training in philosophy, I probably skimmed over many of the finer points and failed to appreciate it to its full, but it remains (mainly in the first half) an interesting work. There are a great many more works of ethics that I have yet to read (those on my radar include those by Spinoza and Bonhoeffer) and it will be interesting to compare the approaches.

In the end, though, I cannot say it has made me a better man for having read it. In the culture I’ve grown up in, moderation has always been instilled as a good thing. Yet here is where we may well find the origin of that idea. In a world that has its fair share of extremism, moderation is clearly a tempting alternative. Though as I sometimes hear, extremism is only bad is it directed in a bad direction. Can there be anything bad about an extremist for love? Or someone who has extreme generosity? Aristotle would argue that while those things are virtues, an extreme bias towards one of them will detract from a person being capable in another.

Whatever your view here, there’s certainly plenty to think about here.

Book Review: Presocratic Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Osborne

In my efforts to educate myself, I have been growing in appreciation of good philosophy over the last decade or so. But I’ve not really looked at it in any kind of systematic way. I’ve read a few bits and bobs here and there, but I wanted to go back to some of the earliest examples we have. The most common might be those found in the Old Testament of any bible, not least in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But neither of those works fall under the heading of Greek philosophy. Of that variety, the earliest I read was Plato’s Republic, so I have some grasp of the Socratic dialogue, but nothing of what came in between. Rather than read the surviving works themselves, I figured that a VSI would be a good place to start. Over the course of this year, expect a few more VSI reviews about philosophers.

Osborne starts the book in a slightly unexpected manner, by looking at a recent discovery of a text that seems to fill in some gaps in the understanding of one particular philosopher: Parmenides. We get presented with a translation of the fragments that survive, which made me rather glad I read an expert analysis rather than the raw texts themselves, as they are completely different from anything I have previously read. As might be expected from the term Presocratic, they are certainly not in the form of a Socratic dialogue, nor are they sets of propositions and reasoning, but neither are they anything like the more discursive musings of Wittgenstein.

Rather, it’s almost poetry, but rather fractured and obscure. I wanted to ask “what do you mean by that” but then the past is a different country, isn’t it? They do things differently there.

The book begins by jumping in the middle and looking at a relatively recent discovery on the work of Empedocles. Some fragments of his work were already known, but these just looked like a really bad jigsaw puzzle. In fact a picture is included which rather resembles such a puzzle. From what was reconstructed, we can see that Empedocles’ view is that that universe ebbs and flows between periods of unity and periods of strife.

Yet it struck me as rather peculiar how much could be taken from such fragmentary remnants. The whole chapter is full of speculation over Empedocles’ views yet the amount of text we actually have barely runs to two (fairly short) pages. I think the point was not that Osborne was exegeting Empedocles but to illustrate the issues that we have when trying to understand ancient philosophy.

From here, we widen our scope and look at the general concerns of the presocratic philosophers. But Osborne is cautious. Apparently, the study of this period has been dominated by a metanarrative that tells us the kinds of questions that the presocratics asked themselves and which their work attempted to answer. Osborne’s view is that this metanarrative is misleading. Not that it is wildly wrong, but that it has led generations of scholars to approach the presocratics with certain questions in mind. Such questioning then narrows the scope of research and does not allow the presocratics to speak for themselves. Here, I could see why this could be a problem given the parallels in biblical scholarship.

With that cautionary note, Osborne does play somewhat into this metanarrative by positing that one of the overarching themes is the question of “first things” or, to put it another way, what is fundamental? Here we can put Empedocles into some kind of context. The main figure in this chapter is Parmenides who has the curious argument that nothing ever changes. This is very well done and the figure of Parmenides certainly stuck in my head a little clearer than Osborne’s portrayal of Empedocles. This particular argument is one that I think is very important as it serves as a good example of a false argument that needs to be critiqued, but when one reads it at face value it appears to make sense. So it becomes necessary to dig into it and unearth the hidden assumptions in order to assume its falsity.

The next major figure we deal with is Heraclitus. Some may have heard of him as he is most famous for the idea that one cannot step into the same river twice (the idea being that because the river is ever-flowing if you set foot in the same physical location, the water that makes the river will have moved on). So we can see again that the question of change crops up. This also features in a chapter on Zeno’s paradoxes which will be familiar to anyone who remembers their introduction to differential calculus. This is another example of an ancient puzzle that can still be used to expose poor reasoning. Though one idea that Osborne moots is that this, as well as Parmenides’ ‘no change’ hypothesis, may have been designed to do just that. i.e. that they were jokes rather than seriously held ideas. It’s an hypothesis I like, though I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to give an informed opinion as to its correctness.

Eventually we come to Pythagoras; one of the few presocratics that almost everyone will have heard of, but for the wrong reason. He is here portrayed a mystic cult leader who abhorred the idea of leaving a written legacy so who we only know through word of mouth and the odd bit of possibly authentic writing left by some of his more dissident disciples. But as for the idea of his having discovered the theorem of right-angled triangles for which he is famed, there is scant all evidence to support it. Rather, he is better portrayed as a man obsessed with numbers and their hidden meanings, making him more of a numerologist than a mathematician.

In this review, I’ve mentioned just a few of the philosophers who are included in this short work. There are many more besides. In being given the brief for this book, Osborne had a very tough job on her hands, but she’s done an admirable job. This book introduced me to a wealth of new names and helped colour in some areas of philosophy that I only knew the bare outlines of. If you are looking for a very short introduction on the subject, then this definitely is the right book to turn to. Even beforehand, having flicked through some translations of the original works without commentary, I found them hard going. But even more so after having read this, I would think I need a helping hand to guide me along a tour of this very old, very different world from that which we live in today, but whose influence may be inferred, if only you have the right spectacles on and know where to look.

Book Review: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

From a layman’s point of view, Wittgenstein has a fearsome reputation in the realm of modern philosophy. This is his best known work and contains the most extensive account of his thinking from his own hand. So one approaches it with a feeling that borders fear and respect. No one can expect a light read.

I picked this up the day after finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but could only manage 2-3 pages on most days.

Before dealing with the substance of the book, a word first about the structure of the book. The whole book is divided into numbered paragraphs varying from just one or two lines to a page in length. On the left hand side is the German original text, on the right hand side is the English translation. The original translation was provided by G.E.M Anscombe (no relation, as far as I know) which has been then modified/corrected. The introduction is quite baffling. It seems designed for the purist who is very familiar with Wittgenstein’s work, as there is an in-depth discussion about various manuscripts which went towards making the final work. For the most part, I think this can be skipped over.

So what of the text then? We hit a problem with the first paragraph. The opening gambit is a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, only instead of providing a translation either into German or into English, it has been left untranslated in Latin. So unless you are fluent in Latin or have a copy of the Confessions to hand (thankfully I did) then you will be left none the wiser as to the starting point. In case you don’t have Augustine, the passage used is translated thus:

“When people gave a name to an object and when, following the sound, they moved their body towards that object, I would see and retain the fact that that object received from them this sound which they pronounced when they intended to draw attention to it. Moreover, their intention was evident from the gestures which are, as it were, the natural vocabulary of all races, and are made with the face and the inclination of the eyes and the movements of other parts of the body, and by the tone of voice which indicates whether the mind’s inward sentiments are to seek and possess or to reject and avoid. Accordingly, I gradually gathered the meaning of words, occurring in their places in different sentences and frequently heard; and already I learnt to articulate my wishes by training my mouth to use these signs.”

What we then get is really a philosophy of language. Through a number of examples, Wittgenstein explores what we might mean by the word ‘mean’. He refers back occasionally to an earlier work which I haven’t read which asserts that language is built on propositions like “[this is that]”. Given the intricate nature of his writings, it is quite hard to summarise.

If I were to attempt to do so, it would be that he gives us a philosophy of “ish”, a sort of getting the gist. His contention is that philosophers have made the mistake of trying to separate words from their meanings. Rather he contends that the meaning of a word is given by its usage. This is explored at some length with a number of examples, but for the purposes of this review I shan’t do a thorough critique. That would require far more space and time than I have for here.

What he doesn’t address adequately is what happens with misunderstandings. i.e. if I use a word and mean one thing when another uses the same word to mean a different thing, how might we resolve the misunderstanding that inevitably ensues?

The book isn’t divided into chapters, so the argument rather drifts from paragraph to paragraph. Because of this, there are no clear delineators between topics, yet one can clearly see that the subject drifts if one flicks through 5 pages at a time.

Another major topic that is covered is the issue of subjectivity. He does this via talking about pain. I couldn’t help but think of a recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe that a friend of mine did, called Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity, as that could well describe a good chunk of Philosophical Investigations. It’s noticeable that Wittgenstein chooses his examples very carefully, so as to emphasise the strength of his arguments, though I could readily think of other examples that would go someway to undermining his argument.

That said, he doesn’t really construct an argument as such. Where one might expect something akin to a proposition followed by a line of reasoning to demonstrate the truth of the proposition or to have a line of reasoning culminating in a conclusion, Wittgenstein’s meandering musings don’t really seem to go anywhere. At times it feels like he goes round in circles. So when we get to the end of the main part of the book there are no great theorems, it just ends rather abruptly.

We then have the philosophy of psychology which was previously known as Part 2. One can see why it has the two names, as it follows on very much in the same vein, talking around the nature of subjectivity, but here drifting into the realm of psychology. It is in this part that we get introduced to the famous duck-rabbit which serves as one of a few illustrations about what we “see”. This is all very fascinating stuff, even if the way it is approached is not exactly user-friendly.

So, reading this as someone who is not a Wittgenstein aficionado, much of it came across as rather obtusely put, even if the basic ideas were fairly easy to grasp. I already came across a summary of Wittgenstein’s work while I was reading this, in Plato and a Platypus. This rather backs up my review so far. This is not for the faint-hearted, but one shouldn’t be put off by that. There is much here to mull over, though I may need to read a bit more around Philosophical Investigations in order to fully get it.

Book Review: Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

This was my “coffee table” book that I dipped into every now and then, after finishing Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities. It’s a book that I had been after for some years, but could never find it for a reasonable price. One day, I was exploring around the philosophy section of the Waterstones flagship store in Piccadilly I spotted it out of the corner of my eye.

The subtitle of the book gives the concept: explaining philosophy through jokes. From the start, I found it to be a delight. The general structure is that the authors give a short précis about a topic in philosophy before demonstrating it in use in a joke. Many of the jokes are those you will have heard before and though this is not an analysis of humour, it does help understand the absurdities that create the humour – or rather, it helps to understand why the absurdities are absurdities.

What we have then is a whistle-stop tour of the history of modern western philosophy. We take in a broad scope of metaphysics, philosophy of religion, feminism and philosophy of language, amongst others. The explanatory elements are always done in a tongue-in-cheek way, yet this isn’t done at the expense of their pedagogical element. If you want an introduction to philosophical ideas, I suppose you could get Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, which, though I’m sure it’s very good, wouldn’t quite have the same verve about it that this work has. I admit I made fairly short work of it, as it was just too interesting to read a few pages at a time. I wanted to keep going.

Even the setup included a Socratic dialogue that runs through the length of the book, with one character trying to demonstrate to another what philosophy is all about. The only criticism I might have about it is that it does demonstrate a bit of an American bias at times, so every now and then, you might just be jolted into thinking, “what the heck? That doesn’t belong there” against some throwaway comment or a reference to a celebrity you’ve never heard of. Unless you think Immanuel Kant is a contestant on American Idol, that is. Mind you, I’ve heard of a tv show featuring Aristotle, Bentham and Spinoza entitled The Only Way is Ethics.

I would estimate that it would be almost impossible for you to read it and not learn something. I would also say it would be exceedingly difficult to keep a straight face throughout. Hugely enjoyable, and one of my favourite books of the year.

The poor advocate fallacy

The other day while I was on the train home, I was pondering a few logical fallacies, as one tends to do from time to time. They are fascinating things and serve as useful tool to sharpen up one’s thinking. I know that I have, from time to time, been guilty of committing some of them, though I doubt I am alone in that. In this pondering, I found myself thinking of the following situation:

  1. Person A is an advocate of proposition X. Person B is an opponent of proposition X. Or rather, they may be an advocate of proposition Y which is incompatible with proposition X.
  2. Let us suppose that one of these propositions is true. By their mutual incompatibility, the other is false. For the sake of argument, we may assume that proposition X is true and that Y is false.
  3. However, person A’s reasoning for believing proposition X is faulty. Precisely what the flaw is need not concern us. There may be a long chain of reasoning in which just one or two steps are in error. The chain of reasoning used by person A we will call P. So what we are saying is that P does not imply X. However, there may be another chain of reasoning which is correct, lets us call it Q, which does imply X.
  4. What happens then is that person B notices the error in P and highlights it. However, they then assert that because P does not imply X and that person A has used reasoning P (without knowledge or understanding of Q) that X is false.

This is what I would call the poor advocate fallacy. A has not advocated a false proposition, but the fact that they used poor reasoning to get there has, in the mind of B, undermined their argument. Thus B is guilty of trying to take a shortcut and instead of using a valid line of reasoning to assert the truth of Y (and thereby de facto falsifying X), they use the falsity of the reasoning P to incorrectly conclude the falsity of the proposition X.

In thinking this through, I tried to look it up but could not find the fallacy named as such. So this is an open question to you – is this fallacy known by another name?

Or, and I cannot discount this possibility, is my reasoning faulty? If so, though, does that have any bearing on the whether or not my assertion that there is such a thing as the poor advocate fallacy? Because if there is such a thing and my reasoning is faulty, might a detractor to this idea be guilty of the fallacy themselves?

Such are the musings that occupy my mind from time to time. The fact that this got published is partly due to inspiration from Revd Claire and her take on some much tougher philosophy than the simple logic I propose above.

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.

Book Review: The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten by Julian Baggini

This has been, for a few months, my “coffee table book”. It is one I have close by in the living room and dip into from time to time. As the subtitle “(and 99 other thought experiments)” implies, there are 100 little scenarios put forward, each of which takes about 3 pages to fill. First, there is a statement of the issue and then Baggini gives us some brief thoughts on the matter.

So it’s great to look at for 5-10 minutes and have a little think, if you get such pockets of time available at points dotted through a day. What it isn’t is a book to sit down and read cover to cover over a rainy weekend. The shortness of each section shouldn’t deceive you, Baggini doesn’t just provide food for thought, he gives us a taster menu taken from a wide range of (mostly) western philosophy, ranging from Plato to Chomsky, taking in the likes of George Berkeley, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume along the way, along with some ideas taken from modern fiction, including Philip K Dick and, of course, Douglas Adams, whose idea gave rise to the title of this work.

The idea is not really for Baggini to pontificate (though he does this on occasion) but for him to oil your mental gears and get the reader thinking. If that is his aim, he does, for the most part, an excellent job. Some other reviewers of the book seemed to miss this point entirely, as they were disappointed he didn’t go into more depth. While I think that theirs is an invalid criticism, there are others which are more pertinent.

For one, the whole approach of the book is to look at philosophy, predominantly moral philosophy, at the boundaries of possible experience. The idea of the thought experiment is useful in many areas, not least those used by Einstein in thinking through his special theory of relativity. Yet here, what we end up doing is trying to feel our way around the borders of the room, without looking into the centre of the room. Here, I side much more with Stanley Hauerwas’ view of ethics as a whole way of being rather than a mere exercise in “what to do if…”

In addition to this, when you read through a few of the mini essays, one gets the distinct impression that Baggini has a clear idea of what morality entails and how a moral person might behave, yet in looking at the fringe scenarios, the basics seem rather taken for granted and go unquestioned. Perhaps a little more probing here might be welcome. As it is, it seems that these assumptions go some way to shaping the conclusions Baggini reaches. So whilst happy to (rightfully) probe at the assumptions of those he disagrees with, a fair treatment must do the same to Baggini himself. As might be expected if one has read some of Baggini’s other works, he is rather biased and muddled when it comes to matters of religion. Mostly, these are examples of questions which, though not wholly leading, are phrased in such a way as to incline the reader in a certain direction. These are examples of particularly non-neutral questions I mentioned the other day. The other point I would note is that a fair few of the scenarios either centre on or at least involve utilitarianism.

Given the piecemeal nature of the chapters, can one assess the book as whole? Well, it is a good introduction to many ideas in philosophy, which are made readily accessible. The fact that he provides references for most of his scenarios allows the reader to follow up on any points that pique their interest. If one reads through this and finds no such points well….maybe philosophy isn’t your thing. This is a fun book, with an edge of seriousness, not an academic treatise. So please do read it, think about it and enjoy.