Further critique of Tom Wright on Paul

christillingphotoFollowing my discussion of John Barclay’s review of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I have just read a longer review by Chris Tilling (who is on the staff of St Mellitus College in London) just published in Anvil, which is now an online journal. It seems we are entering the season of critiques of PFG, which is not surprising given it is 18 months or so since it was published. The flood tide of adulation has now been displaced by the ebb tide of critique, and no doubt there will be a response to this in the other direction in due course, until there is a more settled view of what this project has contributed to both scholarly and popular understanding.

Tilling’s review comprises two articles, which can be downloaded here and here, and has some interesting points in common as well as contrast with Barclay’s. As an opener, Tilling is much more positive about Wright’s work and the way it has influenced his own thinking, which in part is a reflection of his relative age and experience (Barclay and Wright are closer contemporaries).

Reading volumes I and II of his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” helped me have the confidence to become a thinking Christian, one not bound by fear that academic research would inevitably lead to the demise of “my faith”! I owe Tom, then, a great debt of gratitude, even if I have since come to disagree with some of his positions. It goes without saying that, as a result, many of us engaged in Pauline studies have waited with great anticipation for his major work on Paul. Given Tom’s learning, his eloquence and rhetorical skills, his ability to synthesise large swathes of data into a coherent and plausible hypothesis, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter PFG) is quite a publishing event, not to mention an enormous intellectual achievement.

Like Barclay, Tilling also offers a helpful overview of what PFG is doing, though this one reads as more sympathetic and is more detailed (not least since the review is longer). It includes his own summary of Wright’s thesis (which is worth comparing with Barclay’s):

Paul’s language is parsed against a particular construal of the story of Israel, such that his theology of the people of God is a reworking of an “essentially Jewish” vision of election.

And that Jewish story, Wright maintains, runs like this: Israel was called to be a blessing to the nations, to undo the sin of Adam and its effects, an Abraham-shaped fact which constitutes their election. But it also failed in this call. In so doing, Israel, because of the Torah, became the focal point for the sin of Adam. So Israel is both God’s agent to “put the world to rights” and herself a part of the problem, caught up in sin, particularly idolatry and immorality, which is now vigorously concentrated in Israel by Torah. The people of God thus find themselves waiting for the story to continue, for the eschatological fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, which was fundamentally about bringing blessing to the gentiles. Paul’s reworking of this vision, Wright maintains, is seen in portraying Jesus as the eschatological continuation of God’s covenant purposes, now centred on her Messiah as he is the one who sums up Israel in himself. And unlike faithless Israel, which caused a problem inherent in God’s own righteousness—to be both faithful to his covenant to bring blessing and impartial in judging faithless Israel (see, e.g., 933)—Jesus as Messiah is now the faithful Israelite, solving the problem. Because of this, Paul can speak of Jesus as the one through whom God reconciled the world to himself. (pp 48–49)

After his six pages of overview, Tilling turns to the longer account of the ‘negatives’ in his critique of Wright. These are of a different kind from Barclay’s; where Barclay was questioning the central pillar of Wright’s argument, Tilling engages in a number of different specific elements within PFG, offering eight ‘negatives’ in all.

Criticism 1: length. This is a great line: ‘When the word “concise” has nightmares, it’s dreaming of PFG.’ Enough said!

Criticism 2: the ‘controlling story’. Here Tilling includes a number of criticism. He thinks that Wright makes too many generalisations about Paul’s pre-Christian Pharisaic life, and that his depictions of first-century Judaism is not sufficiently variegated. He also questions (with Barclay) whether there was ever any sense of ‘Jewish missional impulse’—though I am not clear Wright is claiming that this was a historical reality, rather than a theological theme. Tilling here makes an interesting methodological observation:

For Wright it is “Paul’s native Jewish world” that sets the theological agenda, and especially, of course, this when parsed in Wright’s terms. But…I would prefer that Paul’s letters set the theological agenda… (p 54)

And anyway, is it really ever going to be possible to fit Paul’s theology and outlook into ‘one complex but essentially single narrative’ (PFG p 77, Tilling p 54)?

Critical issue 3: Wright’s Christology of “divine identity”. This is the particular area of Tilling’s interest, since his own research and publication is in this area. Tilling would see the centre of Paul’s understanding of Jesus in a different place from Wright.

Critical issue 4: Evil. In many ways I found this the most intriguing discussion. Because Wright sees (Paul as seeing) the primary problem that faced Israel as its failure to fulfil its commission to be a light to the nations, then the nature of sin and evil is reflected in his account. But as Tilling points out, Paul often sees sin as a ‘power’ that ‘enslaves’, something he feels Wright does not take sufficient account of. For me, this has an important spin-off in terms of pastoral application; people today do at times feel they are failures who are not up to the mark. But in a ‘sinless society’, people are often more acutely aware that the forces which control their lives seem like powers that enslave them.

Critical issue 5: Justification. This is, of course, the big issue where Wright has taken on evangelical and Reformed positions, as well as others. Barclay does not think Wright pays sufficient attention to the nuance of some Reformation thinkers, and Tilling feels that Wright’s own language is not sufficiently nuanced in relation to the terms ‘justice’ and ‘rights’, and the way words achieve things (‘speech-act theory’).

Critical issue 6: Paul’s aims. For Tilling, Wright’s ‘Paul’ does not put Jesus at the centre in the way the the texts of Paul’s letters appears to:

One of the strengths of Wright’s project is that he attempts to answer a lot of questions all at once. Hence, driven by his “worldview” analysis, he needs also to ask about the aims of Paul (cf. 1046). Although Wright details so much that others have treated too quickly, I argue that he also misses something of vital importance, despite the fact he could have discussed it in Part II, or chapters 11 and 16. What he does not express is what Paul himself explicitly states to be one of his most existential urgent goals: the presence of Christ. (p 61)

Critical issue 7: Contingency. Here Tilling feels that Wright needs to allow more for the fact that Paul was addressing particular issues in particular communities at particular times, and so we should not expect to read in him a systematic expression of his theological concerns.

Critical issue 8: Caricature, misrepresentation, assertions, uncharitable rhetoric, etc. This section, which in Barclay consisted of a couple of sentences of disapproval in passing, forms a major section. Tilling does not hold back where he thinks Wright has been mistaken, unfair or simply uncharitable to those who disagree with him—and even, on occasion, to those who are mostly on his side!

061-ntwright-fullWhere does all this debate leave us? As someone standing on the boundary between the academic world and the world of Christian ministry, I had five reflections.

1. There are a lot of complex issues here—and at times it feels as though they are just too complicated. To have a view on any aspect of Paul’s theology, it sometimes feels as though I need to have mastered the debates on pistis Christou, the meaning of ‘Israel of God’ (Gal 6.16), all the possible meanings of ‘righteousness’, Paul’s self-description in Romans 7…the list goes on! Tilling helpfully teases out many of these issues, adding to the ones that Barclay mentions (though interestingly I don’t think Tilling in fact mentions pistis Christou, ‘faith of/in Christ’), but there is an awful lot of them!

2. Despite all this, it does appear that it is still possible to read Paul and make sense of him even if I have not got all the answers to all these questions tied down—which I hope will be an encouragement to your studying, reading and preaching! We have just preached through Galatians since Christmas, and my abiding impression was of the depth, richness, challenge and above all relevance of the issue that Paul is addressing.

3. What do we do with the terms which are disputed? My own approach is generally to hesitate to be too dogmatic. If I meet anyone who tells me that they have the answers to all these questions, I respond with some scepticism.

4. There is an important hermeneutical point about standing back, and getting the big picture, and standing close and reading for detail—and the relationship between the two. I am sure that one of the reasons why so many, both academics and those in ministry, are so enthusiastic about Tom Wright’s work is precisely because it offers us a ‘big picture’ within which we can locate our reading and which gives a helpful and enabling overview. This provides us with a context for the particular text we might be considering, but it does not obviate the need for a careful, close reading of whatever we have in front of us. There always needs to be a dialectical relationship between the general and the particular, and therefore no large-scale scheme is ever, on its own, going to address all the questions we find in the text.

5. Perhaps, in the end, Paul’s theology is too rich and too complex to allow us to see it as even a ‘complex, but essentially single narrative.’ Perhaps Scripture is similarly too rich and nuanced. Perhaps even the work of God is too multi-faceted for us to reduce it to a single scheme. That is why I will always defend the idea of being evangelical as being rooted in Scripture itself, rather than being rooted in one particular interpretative tradition of Scripture. As Paul would have us say:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11.33).

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3 thoughts on “Further critique of Tom Wright on Paul”

  1. Thank you for posting these links, Ian.

    LIke many others, I applaud the quality of his historical researches and argumentation, but have never been convinced by his ‘Israel still in exile, then YHWH returns to Zion’ schema. It doesn’t work for the Gospels and a fortiori for Paul.

    I tried to leave a message on the comments section but this seemed inactive, just to say ‘Mobley’ p.8 should by ‘Moberly’, and a question mark is needed after the sentence ‘Does this …’


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