Review of NT Wright’s “What St Paul Really Said”

I have just finished reading NT Wright’s “What St Paul Really Said”. I really enjoyed it. The strengths of the books are Wright’s understanding of what Paul’s gospel is, and his use of biblical theology to place Paul against the Old Testament themes that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The controversy in this book concerns the “new perspective on Paul + justification”. He is not entirely convincing, but he usefully challenges us to consider whether we are reading Paul closely or projecting our historical theology onto him.

Ian Packer a fellow student at Ridley College in 2002-2003 got me interested in reading NT Wright. I had avoided Wright given the controversy about the “new perspective on Paul”, and Wright was meant to be on the “bad” side – the debate didn’t grab me much anyway. But I had been thinking alot about biblical theology (how the themes of the bible cohere around Jesus Christ) and the ascension and Lordship of Jesus Christ as a neglected theme. So I started reading Jesus and the Victory of God” (to be reviewed when I finish it!) and became suitably impressed by Wright to be interested in this little book on Paul.

This book is based on heavy scholarship, yet is written in an understandable and colorful style. There aren’t many references, and yet he weaves through Paul’s theology very well. He mostly retains the feel and texture of Paul’s writing. Something that might disturb evangelical readers is the way NT Wright is able to both critique and commend liberal theologians such as Schweitzer, Bultman and A.N. Wilson. But if you actually read Wright carefully, he gives a gentle but devastating critique of most liberal views – Wright writes as a historial/theologian, able to beat such heavyweights at their own game. (this comes out more in “Jesus and the Victory of God”)

Chapter 3 “Herald of the King” is a brilliant read – worth paying the price of the book for alone. Wright describes the heraldic nature of Paul’s gospel – it is the announcement that “Jesus is Lord”, that in Jesus death and resurrection and ascension, nearly every Old Testament hope is fulfilled. The concept of gospel (good news announcement) has primarly a Jewish/OT context (eg: Isaiah’s good tidings) but also has, secondarily, several confrontational Hellenistic applications (cf: announcements of ascensions of Caesar). One immediate result of the gospel is that people can be saved by King Jesus, by putting their loyalty to him and turning from other gods. This view of the gospel helps place it in biblical theological context. Haven’t you ever wondered why the book of Acts focuses more on Jesus’ resurrection and ascension more than the atonement? Or why Paul reduces the gospel down to “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10)? (not: “God loves you”!) The focus and themes of Jesus’ parables also make alot more sense in light of this kind of gospel (that discussion belongs to Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God”). Wright still is able to affirm Christ’s redemptive work in this approach.

Wright hopes his approach solves many problems. I think it is helpful in resolving a dichotomy between “faith” and it’s supposed opposite: “works”. I was converted while going to a Lutheran church, and I read some of Luther (Large Catechism etc). Although I loved Luther dearly (and still do), for years I could not work out how to get over this dichotomy which resulted in so many lax christians. Phrases like Paul’s “the obedience of faith” made no sense in this worldview. Seeing the Lordship of Christ at the heart of the gospel breaks down the dichotomy. He is not a Saviour with hidden (or optional?) obedience clause, he is a might exalted Lord, who is mighty to save his loyal servants. If you think this phrase is at risk of legalism, as I would have 10 years ago, then you are not giving the exalted King Jesus enough glory!

Another dichotomy of theological “problem” Wright thinks the approach might solve is that of the distinction between “preaching the gospel” and “social justice”, a distinction which Wright suggests is unhelpful (p154). He does not want to equate the terms, but suggests that gospel preaching (announcing Jesus is Lord of All) will involving bringing into submission injust structures and social practices to the Lord Jesus, as well as individuals (p154). Wright is quick to suggest Christians concerned only with individual piety need to take more seriously Jesus cosmic Lordship, I couldn’t agree more! However, why doesn’t he suggest that Christians should honor and name Jesus as Lord in their social action? He also needs to clarify that the reconciliation of God’s image bearers to God must be at the heart of proclaiming the gospel.

Chapter 4 “Paul and Jesus” masterfully outlines Paul’s view of Jesus (and the Spirit) in light of his Jewish monotheism. This is an inductive, biblical theological approach – not systematic. It asks: How does Paul’s committment to the exalted Jesus look in light of the monotheistic trajectory of OT themes? Although Wright does not talk in the language of systematic theology, the result of his discussions is one of the best short treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity that you will ever find. This chapter is evidence that biblical theology should precede systematic theology. In historical systematic theology the doctrine of the Trinity has so often been reduced to a number of proof texts, resulting in prooftext “battles” against groups who don’t believe in the Trinity. Wright’s biblical theological approach is much more appealing and convincing.

This brings us to the most controversial topic in the book, Wrights perspective on “justification by faith”, (please skip this paragraph if you are in a hurry!). It is hard to even summarise. Wright attempts to show that “imputation of the righteousness of God” is not the best theological model for understanding what Paul is saying. His view, I think, is that justification is not the gospel (gospel = news that as a result of his death, res and ascension Jesus has been made both Lord and Christ). But justification is a result of the gospel, the means by which God’s righteousness (his covenant faithfulness) is revealed as he gives the in-advance eschatalogical declaration that believers in Christ are declared righteous (p107) because of the cross.

It gets confusing. Here is a list of questions that this book raised for me on this topic – I discuss some of them below… Many of them remain as yet unaddressed by both sides:

Is Paul arguing (in Galatians etc) against a faithful following of the Old Covenant, or a contemporary form that he degenerated into legalism? (or both!)
Is a self-righteous legalism (naively called Pelagianism by many) the primary enemy of the gospel in every age? Is this why Luther’s attack on medieval Roman Catholicism fitted so well with Paul’s polemic against “works of the law”?
Is the Old Covenant itself inherently legalistic? (Reformed theology would say not, but Lutheran theology tends in this direction with it’s “law vs gospel” hermeneutic – yet many Reformed theologians have backed themselves into this corner defending the classic systematic formulations of justification)
Is the doctrine of justification primarily used in Paul to talk about individuals reconciliation with God (vertical) or social/people of God questions (horizontal)? What is the connection?
Traditional protestant theology has emphasised how the doctrine of justification challenges legalism, what would Paul’s doctrine look like from the perspective of challenging a faithful (non-legalistic) Old Covenant Jewish believer (assuming such a thing exists – see q2 above)?
Is “diakiasune theou” talking about God’s quality and activity, or a status that he imputes to believers? (if both, which is more common? how can you tell?)
Is the term “dikaisune theou” the ground for the doctrine of imputation of Christ’s righteousness? what other NT themes do we get this doctrine from? eg: incorporation language?
Is it necessarily “Pelagian” to not have a dichotomy between faith and works? Are these two concepts opposed in Paul’s writing? “obedience of faith”?
Are we willing to reform the language of our systematic theology, when they drift away from their use and meaning in scripture? Do we acknowledge this can happen even when the theology is true?
One test of whether we have read Paul right is whether our application and preaching of the doctrine aligns with Paul’s own applications/implications of the doctrine? How does contemporary preaching and application of “justification” compare with Paul’s?
Justification is “legal courtroom language”, but do we properly understand justification in light of the Covenant and relevant themes in biblical theology? if not why not?
Is our own presentation and preaching of the gospel and justification as God centred as Paul’s is?
Does the gospel = justification? On what grounds do we say “justification is the heart of the gospel”? Does this reflect the New Testament gospel summaries? Have evangelicals emphasised Romans 1:16-17 at the expense of Romans 1:1-4?
What is the relationship between God’s declaration of our righteousness now, and that on judgement day?
What is the relationship between God declaring us righteous and the work of the Spirit that will eventually make us righteous?

That will do… It is complex isn’t it?!

Wright knows knows his Old Testament well. He uses his Old Testament to read the New Testament. Although I am fan of Graeme Goldsworthy, the danger with Goldsworthy’s material is that sometimes you get the impression that Biblical Theology is merely a tool for “getting to Jesus” from the OT and avoiding moralism. eg: consider how weak the two chapters on the NT are in Goldsworthy’s “Reading the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture”. Just because in the NT we already have Jesus doesn’t mean we don’t need to read it in light of the great themes of Biblical Theology and consider what OT background is driving the NT theology. This is what Wright seems to do so well. The gospels “goodness” is bound up with the fact that so many seemingly unfulfillable promises and themes of the Old Covenant are fulfilled and answered beautifully in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Going back to the justification debate the biblical theology issue is this: To read the epistles of Paul against a supposed Jewish legalism is to project such a legalism onto the OT law which is given by God. No doubt such legalisms existed (Luke 18:9-14), but were they inherent in the God-given religion which was meant to prepare for Christ? The real beneficial question of the “new perspective on Paul” is: what insight to the gospel and the Lord Jesus do we receive if we read the New Testament in light of a valid (yet ill-informed) Old Covenant experience? That is, stop looking at Paul as a zealous Jew who was converted and became anti-Jewish, but see him as a zealous Jew who retained largely the same Old Covenant hope and framework, but had the means of achieving that hope radically revised in light of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact I think if there is to be any major progress in the justification debate, it won’t just come from exegetical debates in Paul, but will depend on both sides looking harder at OT themes and trajectories. The systematicians condeming the new perspective probably need to take a holiday and give people space to explore the biblical theological themes that inform the doctrine of justification.

My respect for NT Wright is slowly growing… Though most evangelicals won’t agree with everything (I certainly didn’t), this book will help you to read Paul better. Apart from some notable Australian exceptions, there aren’t many Anglican bishops around who are helping Christians read their Bibles better, AND outperforming liberal scholars at their own game in doing so. Please let me know your thoughts on the book, this review, or the issues in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Review of NT Wright’s “What St Paul Really Said””

  1. I first read Tom Wright back in the early 1990s not realizing that “Tom Wright” picks out the same person at “NT Wright”. I kept saying of NT, “He sounds like Tom.” To my delight Wright is prolific. I think the hardest thing people find at reading NT Wright is reading him without our various filters/lenses. So many folk missread Wright because they cannot set aside their own preconceived understandings long enough to give Wright a fair reading/hearing. I’m trained in philosophy and find this rather easy to do. Wright is a wonderful guide to what an entire letter or book says. I once heard him say that (paraphrase): If when you are done expounding a passage that there are bits and pieces of the passage on the floor, then something has gone wrong with your exposition. Wright takes VERY seriously the author’s intent (thus, e.g. “What Saint Paul Really Said”). Part 1 of interpretation is finding out what an author SAYS using that author’s own language in its context. Wright is so very good at helping us learn to do this well. But we have problems with Wright’s interpretation of particular passages typically because we have learned to read those passages differently. We think we know what a text is SUPPOSED to mean so that when Wright challenges us to read it differently, we jump on him without first taking the Berean attitude toward Wright’s interpretation. People jump on Wright for “disagreeing with Luther” as though Luther IS Paul. My guess is that those same critics–had they lived in the time of Luther–would have jumped on Luther for his interpretation over against that of the Papacy! I don’t find it problematic in principle for Wright to disagree with Luther (or Calvin). I want to see if Wright is reading Scripture rightly GIVEN Wright’s challenge to me on how to read a passage. I think we do ourselves and the kingdom a disservice to dismiss Wright because he challenges how our various traditions’s have taught us to read the Bible. I have found Tom Wright to actually take ALL of the Bible more seriously and with more authority than most of his critics. Wright forces us to take seriously what the biblical authors SAY.

    So many of Wright’s critics take their own/their traditions own interpretation with authority (confusing that with the authority of the text) that they dismiss Wright with mistaken criticisms. I’ve read enough criticism (attacks?!) from pastors who misread Wright’s writings that it causes me to make the following sobering comment: If THIS is how they read a text from Wright, I worry about their biblical expositions they give their congregations!

    It’s easy to label people (as being ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, e.g.). But when a person fails to fit neatly into our categories we don’t know what to do with them. Well, it’s too easy anyway to say “He’s not with me, therefore he’s a bad guy.” I see this with Wright frequently. People say, “He’s liberal” meaning “I’m conservative, take the Bible seriously, am against ‘sin’, etc. AND Tom Wright doesn’t follow MY interpretation of the Bible.” But…

    But I cannot think of ANY ‘conservative’ critic who takes more seriously (for example) the PHYSICAL, BODILY resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God than does Tom Wright. For Wright resurrection is everything! It opens up the Age to Come in the midst of the Present Age. It is not merely a proof of “life after death”! It is the guarantee of the PHYSICAL, BODILY resurrection of ALL who are “in Christ”. The New Humanity is destined for life after “life after death”, that time when the New Creation reaches its consummation and the Triune God comes to the Renewed Earth to finally dwell with his people.

    Now take a “hot topic”: homosexuality. In the midst of a church gone to the world in so many ways (insert here all churches who believe in same-sex unions), here is Tom Wright saying of homosexuality that it is precisely what you would expect of humanity that no longer reflects the Triune God!! According to Wright, homosexuality is EVIDENCE of humanity in sin, in brokenness. To endorse same-sex unions is precisely the wrong way to go, FOR it institutionalizes or normalizes the brokenness and fallenness! Homosexual practice is not just something the apostle Paul happens to be against and so he tosses it in his list of things he’s against in Romans 1! It goes to the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God! Thus the presence of homosexual practice in a society is evidence of its fallenness. (See here Wright’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans). And so liberal Christians find Wright’s view of this too “conservative.”

    Wright challenges us to abandon our labeling of fellow Christians and look at the Scriptures afresh–letting the biblical writers freedom to use their own language they way they want to as God’s revelation. Think here of those who blast Wright for suggesting that the apocalypic language in Matthew or Mark does NOT at first instance speak of the “end of the age” but rather of the more immediate “end of Jerusalem”. Wright again takes seriously the language the author’s use. Does this mean that Wright does not believe in a literal hell? Of course not. Does that meant that Wright is “soft” on biblical authority? Of course not.

    Of course one need not agree with what Wright says. But let’s at least work hard first to understand what Wright really says before we dismiss him. I’ve found this to be very helpful for me to do and it has rewarded me handsomely!

    Sorry to go on so. I appreciate your comments on his little volume, WHAT SAINT PAUL REALLY SAYS (Eerdmans). I find Wright’s thinking refreshingly helpful in this post-Christian, increasingly pagan age. Let us spend time understanding Wright and using his thinking to help us be the salt and light to the world. Again and again and again with non-Christians–both explaining the Good News that Jesus is the Lord of the world AND doing apologetics–I have turned to the thinking of Tom Wright!

  2. Thank you David for your comments. It sounds like your experience with Wright is very similar to mine. He deserves more of an audience, especially with evangelicals. Though I think the tide is turning.

    I have found Wright’s defense of resurrection, propitiation (in his Romans commentary), Jesus’ Jewishness, the foundational importance of the Old Testament, biblical theology and more all very rewarding from a conservative evangelical perspective.

    Your comment on a “Berean” attitude is very helpful. Maybe so many of us who are pastors and teachers are used to expecting others to have a “Berean” attitude to our own teaching, but we fail to have the same attitude ourselves?

    Note, I’ve not read alot of Wright on “hell”. There is the little chapter in “Following Jesus”, but that is a little light on content. (strange why the popular level Wright stuff isn’t as satisfying as his full-on scholarly stuff)

    Thanks again for your post.

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