Review of N.T. Wright's 'Paul and the Faithfulness of God'

tomgroeneman's picture

The Scholar's Paul

Wright's vision of Paul is comprehensive and firmly rooted in the history of the 1st century. His effort to remind the academy of Paul's essential Jewishness is admirable. I am a cradle Catholic that has for many years been involved in Evangelical Protestant fellowships and Wright mostly interacts with the views of the Protestant branch of Christianity. I enjoyed reading him most when he competently points to the many ways contemporary interpretations of Paul have projected Reformation, Enlightenment and modern and post-modern values and categories into Paul's Jewish world context. This is a complex, exhaustive and challenging book that may be the best currently offered. For the chronology of Paul's life and Paul's basic motivations that are grounded in his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, I look to F.F. Bruce's ' Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free'. For a systematic reading of Paul's theology, I look to J.D.G. Dunn's 'Theology of Paul the Apostle'. But for a scholarly and intelligent synthesis of these two strains, I look to N.T. Wright.

Maybe I just do not understand what all the fuss is over the doctrine of justification but Wright navigates through these troubled hermeneutical waters with great skill and detail. His critique that Reformation and later theologies miss the significance of Paul's foundation in the story of Israel and their covenants by focusing too much on misleading categories like the differences between participationist and judicial or apocalyptic and salvation historical methodologies, is spot on. While I has some struggles getting through the morass of complicated scholarship surrounding some of these issues, I found Wright's necessary repetitions of the problems involved and their solutions ultimately helpful.

It was difficult and sometimes tedious plowing through the necessary and careful exegesis of key passages in Paul. May main criticisms of this volume in the series are: 1) That in trying to avoid the stigma associated with Catholicism in academic circles Wright uses the language of community and the unity of the people of God but never come right out and uses very sparingly the word "church"; especially spelled with an upper case 'C'. Perhaps this is due to the contemporary western proclivity for individualism and the baggage of current trends in Church attendance. Nevertheless, Wright's thesis reflects a full flowered EKKLESIA without actually using the word "church". 2) In his chapter on election, Wrights sidesteps the discussion of Calvin's seminal doctrine of predestination. And, 3) similarly, the standard faith versus works argument on soteriology is obfuscated or almost completely absent. Wright is too subtle and sophisticated to come out and state for the record that he is a synergist as opposed to the monergism of the reformed Christians he seems to be attempting to placate because of the controversies about the new perspective on Paul. Or maybe I have misread Wright and just do not entirely grasp all the nuances of modern scholarship.

The strengths of this book are its organization and clear movement through the historical context of Paul's narrative and Jewish/Greco-Roman world and robust treatment of faith in Jesus' death and resurrection as the main marker of membership in the Abrahamic family. Wright fits a great deal into the broad headings of God/monotheism, God's people/election and God's future/eschatology; the central and longest chapters. Wright writes well and often uses a controlling metaphor that is helpful in following his argument. He also has a good sense of humor and respectful attitude toward those with whom he disagrees. This book however does assume a working knowledge of Greek, Christian theology and a classical higher education. It is not a lot of contemporary Christian fluff and pop psychology that passes for non-fiction literature these days; and that is what I like most about it.

The idea that to understand Paul, his worldview, his teaching and how that is worked out into his praxis can only be done with a deep appreciation for Paul's love of his very Jewish Messiah, Christ's covenant faithfulness and the story of Israel in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism; all make Wrights long volume compelling, worth reading and a major contribution. I will leave it up to more erudite critics who are debating the permutations of justification by faith to decide if Wright's overall thesis is an accurate rendering of the historical Paul. And I think I can safely say that while not definitive, Wright's Paul is a force to be reckoned with.