Friday, January 17, 2014

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

Guest writer Ross Harriman provides the review for this one, which is just as well since my copy is likely to be waiting a while!
 Frequent Tekton readers will know that JP has given glowing endorsements and made extensive use of books by N. T. Wright, especially The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), and Resurrection of the Son of God (2003). These three books are part of a planned six-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Well, the fourth volume—Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter, PFG)—has finally come out. I feel criminal providing such a short review of a book of such mass and magnitude, but I am afraid it must suffice.

Wright states the thesis for this book is as follows:

Paul developed something we can appropriately call his ‘theology’, a radical mutation in the core beliefs of his Jewish world, because only so could he sustain what we can appropriately call the ‘worldview’ which he held himself and which he longed for his churches to hold as well. Other worldviews have their sustaining and shaping practices, but for Paul these markers (circumcision, the food laws, and so on) had been set aside as inappropriate for the new messianic day, for the new messianic people. Only a robust reappropriation of the Jewish beliefs – monotheism, election and eschatology, all rethought around the Messiah and the spirit – would do. ‘Theology’ – a category not unknown in the wider non-Jewish world, but never before loadbearing in this way – was necessary if the church, otherwise adrift in a world of a thousand cultural pressures, was to stay united and holy. (p. xvi)

He analyzes the worlds in which Paul lived and with which he interacted in new ways as a Christian: namely the worlds of second-temple Judaism (particularly Pharisaic Judaism because Wright argues that Paul was a fundamentally Jewish thinker), Greco-Roman philosophy and religion, and the overarching Roman Empire. In each case, he provides the worldview analyses that are typical of this series in terms of analyzing stories, symbols, praxis, and answers to key worldview questions (Who are we? Where are we? What is the Problem? What is the Solution? What time is it?). For frequent readers of Wright, the chapter on Pharisaic and other Jewish worldviews will be mostly reruns, though there are some important areas in which he expands points he has made before (such as centrality of the Temple as a worldview symbol, the role of the Temple as a microcosm of creation, and the many texts in which there is a sense of Israel continuing in exile). The other chapters in this section are generally new and the one on the rhetoric and religion of the Empire is especially edifying.

He then turns the analysis on the mindset of Paul to note the important points of continuity and discontinuity between Paul and these worlds (especially his Jewish heritage). Wright shows at length that Paul regarded the united people of God (the ekklēsia) as his central symbol (and the new Temple) because of what he believed about the foundational story and identity of the One God, One Lord, and One Spirit binding it all together and making it what it is. Of course, there are proper practices that extend from this identity, theology and ethics are inextricably connected here, as they should be. Paul believed what he did because of how he viewed the story of God and creation and the key story of Israel within it with the story of Jesus as the climax of all, so it is necessary to consider how Paul reconceives this central story. All of these elements and their summarization in the answers to key worldview questions are the raw material from which Paul constructs his theology. (The last part of the book is Wright’s analysis of Paul’s interaction with the aforementioned worlds once he lays out the elements of Paul’s theology.)

The three central chapters of PFG are what Wright indicated in the quote above: the reworking of central Jewish beliefs—monotheism, election, and eschatology—around Jesus and the Spirit. The issues he addresses here include: Pauline Christology as the Christology of divine identity (i.e., saying about Jesus what had been said about YHWH), with an emphasis on understanding Jesus as the return of YHWH in person; the Spirit’s role in the new Exodus, with a similar emphasis; the problem of evil in this theology; the role of Israel’s election; the Messiah and election; Paul’s view of the Torah/Law; justification; the work of the Spirit in constituting the people of God; the already/not-yet nature of eschatology (i.e., inaugurated eschatology); ethics in inaugurated eschatology; and the eschatologically redefined Israel. As one can see, these three chapters constitute the thickest part of PFG , not only in terms of volume, but in terms of density and substance.

Apart from the mere fact that he addresses these many issues, PFG has several virtues worth noting. As is generally the case with Wright’s books, PFG demonstrates its writers rare blend of erudition and elucidation. He knows Paul well after spending time with him over the last few decades and he is able to communicate that knowledge in an engaging and sometimes amusing style (though there are times when the reader may not be able to connect with certain allusions and illustrations).

Probably the greatest strength of PFG is its incredible ability to integrate all of its various elements into a coherent whole. Wright argues that Paul’s theology was fundamentally coherent. The divergent schools of Pauline studies have latched on to what have often been thought to be contradictory notions (such as justification declared on the basis of faith vs. participation in Christ; a salvation-historical understanding emphasizing continuity with what had come before vs. an “apocalyptic” [falsely called] understanding emphasizing a clean break from what had come before; the work of the Spirit vs. the work of believers; the Torah as good vs. the Torah as a stumbling block), but those notions belong together when one understands Paul’s apostolic mission and the theology explicated therein. As Wright shows again and again, in one way or another, the story of the faithfulness of God pulls these threads together into a tapestry. Each part of Paul’s theology belongs with the other parts and each part has a role in addressing elements of Paul’s worlds. These results come from Wright’s determination to fit in all of the data he has available, with appropriate simplicity, in order to shed light on other areas.

Another strength—which the other books in this series share—is the proper distribution of space Wright manages in engaging thoroughly with the primary texts and in addressing the current state of scholarship. He does more of the former than the latter—which is as it should be—but he does enough of the latter to keep the reader well-informed of that state of scholarship. Of course, he has to choose his conversation partners carefully and cannot interact with all scholars here in equal measure, but such is to be expected. In any case, it is a useful and enlightening analysis of and contribution to the Pauline areas of Christian Origins debates.

He does not examine all Pauline books thoroughly as PFG is not a diachronic analysis (in this case meaning that it does not go through each book in a systematic fashion) but a synchronic analysis (in this case meaning that it does draw together and analyze overarching stories, themes, instructions, and theological claims). One advantage of this approach is that he examines several passages from multiple angles and thus brings out the multiple functions each passage has within Paul’s purposes in writing. While an attempt at drawing out such multiple layers and functions in a diachronic analysis could be too cumbersome, in this kind of analysis it is fitting and the reader can surely benefit from seeing how Wright tilts the jewels of Paul’s letters this way and that in the light of the story of the gospel to see the kaleidoscopic refractions of that light.

A final strength I note here that I wish I would see in more books is Wright’s use of scriptural echoes. What this concept means in short is that when he sees Old Testament quotes or allusions in the New Testament, he does not only consider the meaning of the particular verse(s) quoted, but of the context in which that verse (or those verses) appears. He works under the assumption that when Paul uses such quotes and allusions, he intends to evoke the resonance of the rest of the passages or stories in which those quotes and allusions appear. This technique establishes even deeper connections between the story Saul of Tarsus knew and the story Paul the apostle knew. Wright demonstrates the validity of this assumption frequently when he explicitly teases out those connections and illuminates the New Testament passages with the light of the Old Testament.

However, there are some obvious drawbacks. One, the sheer size of this tome may prove unwieldy for some. If you thought Wright’s last book in the series was big, this one is more than double the size (it weighs in at around 1,500 pages, not counting bibliographies and indexes). In fact, his three central chapters (in which he analyzes how Paul reshaped Jewish monotheism, election, and eschatology around Jesus and the Holy Spirit) span almost 650 pages. Still, even if reading straight through this work may be difficult for some, it is still quite useful as a reference work in which one can consult particular sections. At the same time, because it is a big book, there is an obvious question of affordability and this book is not cheap by any measure (except by the measure of books written in gold).

Two, as one might expect from such a massive book, there is some repetitiveness. Personally, it didn’t bother me, but I know it can be irritating (for such people, I would once again recommend using it as a reference book). I am inclined to think that this repetitiveness serves three functions. First, for a scholar who thinks his critics have often misunderstood him, it serves a clarifying function. Second, since repetition is important for learning and memory, it serves a pedagogical function (which in turn plays into the first function). Similarly, third, in his rather lengthy chapters (there are only sixteen), repetition can help the reader keep the foci of the chapters in mind. Still, I know it bothers some readers and it is worth noting.

Three, even Wright has some trouble keeping a clear mind as to where everything is. There are some footnotes where page number references to other parts of PFG simply have 000 instead of an actual page number (and sometimes actual page numbers are either off or too broad in range). The indexes can help to an extent here, but it nevertheless can be somewhat irritating.

Overall, Wright’s magnum opus on Paul is a truly magnificent, majestic, and magisterial work. We had to wait a long while for it, but it was worth it. It is an essential work for anyone who wants to understand Paul and the story he told. Even if you should not necessarily buy it at this time, you should definitely pick it up at a library. Whatever you do, be sure to sow a seed of attention and you will surely reap wonderful fruit of insight.


  1. Excellent review, Ross, as I'd expect from you. I look forward to getting around to reading my copy - though it'll be a while, as I have some other works in Pauline studies I plan to tackle first.

    Question: To what extent does Wright interact directly here with the criticisms of the NPP found in, e.g., Justification and Variegated Nomism and in Westerholm's Perspectives Old and New on Paul?

    1. In some ways, this issue falls under what I said above about his goal of integration. Mostly, though his sympathies are clearly more with the NPP than the "old perspective" schools, he tries to bridge the divide in his attempt to integrate real insights of disparate schools. To some extent, he shares critical stances toward Sanders and sometimes Dunn on how they have articulated the NPP (and he certainly has no time for the trends among some NPP scholars to turn theology practically into sociology). But he does interact with those criticisms both directly and indirectly. He footnotes several of the articles from Justification and Variegated Nomism and even later works that share or expand the same criticisms. The direct address happens mainly in his sections on the evidence for Jewish belief in continuing exile, on justification, and on a covenant-based understanding of righteousness (all of which are long). Depending on who he is interacting with, the address may be short (as it pretty much always is with Carson) or long (as is the case with Steven M. Bryan). But generally, he engages with them indirectly because he is arguing against his critics in volumes such as that one (and in Westerholm’s work) at the same time as he is sustaining arguments against folks like Douglas Campbell, Robert Jewett, Ernst Käsemann, J. L. Martyn, Martinus de Boer, Mark Nanos, E. P. Sanders, and James D. G. Dunn. So naturally, he more often indirectly responds by laying out his case in a detailed fashion and making some general references to critics who make certain points against his ideas.

  2. I don't want to bother you jp, but why did you stop using picosearch on the tektonics site

    1. @Aric: My redesigner chose it. He didn't say why. It may just work better with his template.