Is Tom Wright’s ‘Paul’ convincing?

061-ntwright-fullTom Wright, former Bishop of Durham and Professor at St Andrew’s, is often described as a ‘leading New Testament scholar’ in the world today. There is no doubt that he has significantly shifted the debates about Paul and his interpretation, and alongside that has (almost uniquely) popularised his views on Paul and the rest of the New Testament through his shorter books and the remarkable ‘…For Everyone’ series of commentaries, designed to do what William Barclay did for a previous generation. Every preacher needs to have this series on his or her shelf, not simply for the comments on the text, but for the examples of the way illustrations and stories are used to explore and explain. There cannot be many NT scholars who enjoy the level of acclaim from the perspective of local church ministry as that afforded by Stephen Kuhrt in his Tom Wright for Everyone.

Whilst Tom has a wide following, his contributions to scholarly and to theological understanding are not always warmly welcomed. Conservatives in the US (such as John Piper) have not thanked him for his criticism set out in Justification and elsewhere that much conservative evangelical theology of redemption is too rationalist and individualist, and offers a ‘transactional’ understanding of atonement which owes more to mediaeval systems of honour than it does to the New Testament and its context. In similar vein, he criticises contemporary language of ‘heaven’ as the place you go to when you die in his summary Grove booklet New Heavens, New Earth. It seems to me that on these points, Wright is offering a much needed corrective. His challenge is that conservative evangelicalism is often not too evangelical, but not evangelical enough, in that it fails to allow its own tradition to be reformed by a responsible reading of Scripture.

He has also had a mixed reception academically, but it is sometimes difficult to separate responses based on academic argument from responses driven by suspicion of what is felt to be an apologetic or idealogical agenda. Perhaps the most bizarre was the recent outburst by Paul Holloway in protest at the award of an honorary degree from Holloway’s institution Sewanee University. Nijay Gupta offers a helpful response to the personal attack that this involved.

johnbarclayA more serious critique comes in the form of a substantial review of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God by John Barclay of the University of Durham. It has recently been posted at Durham Research Online and is due to be published in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

Barclay does not pull his punches! He clearly dislikes Wright’s rhetorical style, and thinks the work is far too long and wordy. He is positive about Wright’s location of Paul in his historical and cultural context, though appears to consider there are others who do the same. Perhaps the most valuable thing about the review is that Barclay gives several helpful summaries of what he thinks Wright is aiming to do, including the aim of Wright’s task:

At the core of Wright’s thesis is a claim that Paul works with a set of interlocking narratives, arranged like a Russian doll, one inside the other (184). The outer frame is the story of creation leading to new creation, with humanity designed to be its rulers and its means of blessing. Inside this is the story of Abraham’s family, which was intended to undo the sin of Adam and to put the creation project back on track after the disasters of Genesis 1-11. Inside this again is the narrative of the Messiah Jesus, who takes on the role of Israel, where Israel had failed in its task and when sin had used the law to concentrate its force in this one place. As the representative Israelite (and as God himself, ‘returning to Zion’ in the person of his Son), Jesus fulfils the faithfulness that Israel was unable to accomplish, defeating sin and saving Israel while doing Israel’s job of saving the nations, so that those ‘in Christ’ (that is, in ‘the Messiah-and-his people’, 17) can gain the virtues necessary to rule the world in the renewed creation. The Messiah-people are justified (counted members of the covenant people) by faith, that is, by a faith/faithfulness that matches the Messiah’s faithfulness, which is itself the expression of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. In this covenant-narrative not only are the various motifs in Pauline theology scooped up into a single, multilayered story, but scholarly dichotomies between ‘justification by faith’ and ‘participation in Christ’, and between ‘salvation history’ and ‘apocalyptic’, are overcome by their placement within a single overarching frame.

The range and ambition of this thesis is remarkable, and it is advanced with a thickness of reference to biblical texts that will appeal to many who are looking for new ways to integrate not only Paul but the whole drama of the Bible. But is it sustainable as a reading of Paul?

His main criticisms of this thesis is that is has little explicit textual support within Paul’s writings, and little in terms of explicit parallel within first-century Judaism. Barclay does find positive things to engage with, and still consider’s Wright’s work worthy of significant attention:

If the central thesis of Wright’s work is unlikely to convince most scholars, there is still much to be salvaged. At many points Wright illumines the coherence of Romans and properly emphasises the church and its practice as the goal of Paul’s theologising. He correctly insists that Paul does not propound an abstract soteriology, but his counter-emphasis on narrative is weakened by his failure to recognize the distinctive ways in which Paul tells narratives in the patterns of grace.

Barclay is not persuaded by Wright’s reading of ‘Israel’ in Romans 11 (when is it referring to ethnic Israel, and when to God’s people both Jew and Gentile?) nor by his understanding of pistis Christou (‘faith of Christ’; is this our faith in Christ and what God has done through him, or his faithfulness in his covenant purposes towards us?). And he strongly feels that Wright does not read Reformation commentators carefully enough and give them their due. Barclay’s conclusion is both positive and negative:

My tone may seem unduly negative. There are many valuable passages in this book, and its energy, breadth, confidence and ambition are on a scale commensurate with its size. In the history of the discipline few scholars have attempted such an original yet comprehensive construal of Pauline theology, and in the modern era perhaps only Schweitzer could match the liveliness of Wright’s mind. But I doubt that many Pauline scholars will accept the large synthetic schema that Wright presents, for all its attractions, while the stimulus offered by this book will be lessened, and perhaps cancelled, by its persistently shrill and overheated rhetoric.

I have a sense of feeling a little like a pygmy watching from the sidelines at these theological giants slugging it out in the arena of serious academic engagement. Like many others, I have found Tom’s work to be refreshing both in its engagement with history (especially in The New Testament and the People of God) and its location of detail in an exhilarating summary of the ‘big picture’ of what is happening in Paul and the wider New Testament. I must confess, though, to find him less persuasive in some of his detailed exegesis. Unlike Barclay, I do go with his reading of Romans 11, though I was not persuaded by his reading of Mark 4, and found his commentary on Matthew 24 a little slippery.

I wonder if Barclay’s review highlights something about the kind of project Wright is engaging in. It has always made more sense to me to read his work as offering a theological interpretation of Paul, rather than a more straightforward exegetical reading (Wright’s own protests notwithstanding). I constantly find Wright’s reading making a good deal more theological sense than many of the alternatives, even where some of the detailed exegesis might go awry. This then explains why, alongside his academic work, he is able to speak so effectively into the contemporary pastoral scene.

I am not sure if Wright is planning a response to the review; I sincerely hope he is, and I am sure it will make fascinating reading.

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3 thoughts on “Is Tom Wright’s ‘Paul’ convincing?”

  1. Many thanks, Paul; if you feel like a pygmy I find myself in the role of an ant scurrying around the forest floor, but here goes.

    I found Paul and the Faithfulness of God, enormously stimulating, thought-provoking and challenging; I also found it heart-warming and frequently lifted my eyes from the page to worship. But I also found it frustrating and Barclay has helped clarify some of my frustrations. To reduce Jewish thinking to monotheism, election and eschatology seemed too neat – after all others have defined the core streams of Jewish and Old Testament thinking differently. To assume, as he seems to, that the pistis Christou debate is settled is unfair. I may have missed it but could not find any argument for his taking it as ‘the faithfulness of Christ’, which then almost becomes, for him, code for ‘the faithfulness of God in Christ’, or any recognition that this was still a hotly debated topic.

    My greatest concern, however, seems to run counter to your concluding sentence. Despite his determination to set Paul in both his Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. I cannot help feeling that the Jewish always wins out. Paul is a thorough-going second-temple Pharisee who believes that God has fulfilled his covenant promises and purposes through Jesus the Messiah. If this is the heart of his message how did it play out in the Gentile mission? And how then does it play out in our mission in the twenty-first century world? I wonder how such a message would have resonated with those who had no background in the Jewish Scriptures, or who lacked the building blocks of monotheism, election and eschatology. I then reflect on the difference between Acts 13 and Acts 17. Yes, I am assuming that Luke is a reliable witness to Pauline teaching at these points and I am conscious that I am cutting through much debate on Acts 17. But it has always seemed to me that Acts 13 was an outworking of ‘to the Jews I became like a Jew’ and Acts 17 an outworking of ‘to the Greeks I became like a Greek’ (which Paul does not say, but seems to imply in 1 Cor 6:19-23.
    If we are to present a coherent and comprehensible message in our contexts, we cannot ignore the nature of God’s promise to Abraham and its fulfilment in Christ, but we need more points of contact than Wright’s schema offers us.


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