It feels such a mammoth achievement to have finished reading Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, that I am almost in awe of the work, brainpower and vision that managed to write it. Almost in awe, that is; I have manfully resisted being fully prostrated by the exhausting and exhaustive treatment.
At well over 1500 pages of text and footnote, it would be impossible for something the length of a blog post to pretend to be a proper review. Yet I dare to offer a brief (in the Wrightian sense of the word brief!) interaction (which replaces my intermediate posts recording my progress).
First let me offer a limited description. In Part I, despite the fact that he keep referring back to New Testament and the People of God, Wright does cover a great deal of the same ground, but adds a considerable and helpful new chapter on the Roman world.
His material on the Jewish world makes the strongest statement of his case yet for for many Jews (including Paul) seeing themselves in a storyline where Israel is still in (the) Exile. He argues for a single clear narrative in which Saul and many other Jews of his day (particularly of his strict Pharisaic sort) not only awaited a return of the people from exile, but also (and this becomes very important in part 3) awaited the return of YHWH to Zion.
In contrast to this Jewish story, he develops the argument that there is an equal and opposite narrative of salvation history being told in which the Roman past culminates in the Augustan empire. Augustus the Saviour of the world and son of a god receives worship as an act of political unification which symbolises and celebrates the peace he has brought to the whole inhabited world. Paul’s gospel cannot but clash with Virgil’s.
The second and third parts of the book cover the same ground in different ways as a mirror image of each other. Wright has constructed his case as a chiasm. In Part II he covers his key issues of monotheism, election/covenant and eschatology as aspects of Paul’s worldview; in Part III he covers them in more detail as Paul’s coherent, consistent and well-thought through theology. It is Part III which is the heart of the book. The problem with doing it this way is that, especially in these two parts, it makes for a very repetitive book. Wright says at one point: “Paul seldom says the same thing twice.” (p1095). Would that were an area in which he had become an imitator of the apostle!
The heart of the second section deals with the symbols that inform (and reveal) Paul’s mindset, and the stories that underpin it. So we get in some detail explorations of Paul as a firmly Jewish thinker, for whom the underpinning is monotheism, creation, election and covenant. Some elements of Jewish praxis like prayer and scripture continue in Paul, others like temple and Torah are transformed (Wright likes to use the word “”redefined”” a lot) by the perception that Jesus is the Messiah and it is the praxis of being a united Messiah-people (his language) which takes on the symbolic weight of both. It is in a unified ekklesia that the presence of God dwells as in a new temple.The symbols of baptism and eucharist are key to marking and maintaining this new body life.
In the third and longest part of the book, he traverses the territory again. There is a chapter on monotheism, in which his idea of the return of YHWH to Zion in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus takes central place to his version of Bauckham’s idea about Jesus being incorporated in the divine identity. He goes further than this in the way he also includes the spirit (Wright never capitalises “spirit’) within the newly redescribed divine identity. (For Wright a key text is 1 Cor 8:6 understood as a reinscribed Shema.) He is rather less sympathetic to Hurtado’s ways of setting out early Christian estimations of Jesus.
The second chapter of this large central part is on the reworking of election or, to put it another way, the outworking of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness. If I may be for a moment autobiographical, the first thing I consciously remember reading on Paul was the then newly published (1980) collection of popularising evangelical essays on justification called The Great Acquittal. The first essay in this was one of Tom’s earliest published pieces, and the lineaments of his understanding of Paul are clear in it, and the continuity from then to now is obvious. He has filled out and nuanced his position, but some of the main themes remain remarkably consistent, and I still find myself persuaded in essentials by Wright’s take here.
At its heart lies an integrative reading of “justification by faith” and “participation in Christ”” views, which is worked out in terms of the covenant faithfulness of YHWH. His purposes remain what they have always been, says Wright, to create one family of all the nations of the earth. The promise given to Abraham is fulfilled through his seed (the singular represents for Wright the single family of Messiah, not a strained “rabbinic” exegesis – p868-9). Justification (which is about declaring who, Jew and Gentile, is in the Messiah’s family) is the flip-side of participation (which is about living in the Messiah’s Jew-Gentile family). In the process he almost completely sidelines Campbell’s massive 2009 tome which is predicated on a conflict between these two ideas. (He mainly notices it by a couple of dismissive sideswipes at Campbell’s use of speech-in-character as an exegetical device.)
The third large chapter takes on eschatology, and at its heart lies Wright’s original doctoral work on Romans 9-11 and its relationship with the argument of the letter as a whole. He engages in his most sustained piece of exegesis on these chapters in pursuit of persuading his readers to see a fulfilment theology in Paul for which the word supersessionist is anachronistic. At the same time he wishes to be clear that in Paul’s view, everything changes for the Jewish people with the coming of the Messiah. The regular Wrightian theme that all end-of-the-world language is metaphorical, and that neither Paul nor Jesus expected the end of the space-time universe, rings loudly throughout, but especially here.
In the final part, having done all this work, he traverses again the ground he covered in Part 1, in theory looking at what Paul was doing, but in practice having a number of engagements with other scholars. In looking at empire, he wants to argue that Paul’s gospel has necessarily political (or, better, theo-political) implications, and chiding Barclay (as a conversation partner who has critiqued him) for downplaying them along the way. He also wishes to dismiss anachronistic Marxist readings, as well as fashionably post-coloniali ones.
When he looks at Paul in the religious world of his day, he argues against most of the ways people have talked about Paul and “religion” (which he rightly acknowledges is a very slippery concept. Along the way he disagrees with Sanders’ use of “patterns of religion”, and Ashton’s proposal of Paul as “shaman”, but picks up rather more of Theissen’s work to argue that what Paul did looked just enough like religion (i.e cult) to be disturbing to those whose cult informed loyalty to polis and empire.
Next he wants to look at Paul among the philosophers. He takes a brief look at what Paul might have said in terms of epistemology, physics and ethics, of which the last gets the longer treatment. But these seem curiously preparatory to a lengthy (and somewhat irrelevant) section in which he takes Troels Engberg-Pedersen out to the forum for the thirty-nine lashes.
Returning to Paul in his Jewish context, Wright seeks to argue again his case for a fulfilment theology. He has repeatedly protested against those who would label him supersessionist because his Paul believes that the historical promises made to Israel have been fulfilled in a Gentile-embracing Messiah-people. Here he particularly sharpens his point about inappropriate anachronism against those who would argue for two ways of salvation, a Torah-based one for Jews and a Jesus-based one for Gentiles, as well as against those who would argue for a Torah-observant Paul. (He rather sidesteps questions about how, theologically, one deals with Christian-Jewish relations today in the light of his historical reading.)
Finally, he draws to a close summarising his understanding of Paul’s missionary praxis. Churches, reconciled across the ethnic divide, as well as to the God who always wanted a people where his name could dwell, live out their lives as beacons of the Messiah’s victory and enclaves of the spirit’s dwelling in the urban centres of the whole inhabited world, sacraments of the new temple, where the Lord himself dwells, a foretaste of the new creation.
What are we to make of all this? It is a powerful vision which Wright has been developing steadily over nearly 40 years with some (intended) big lessons for today’s church. For some he has attained guru status. For others he represents everything that is wrong with admitting faith-based scholarship to the liberal academy. I find myself in considerable sympathy with many of his broad brush strokes (but then he has always informed my thinking on Paul from earliest days of both his writing and my reading), while wishing to register a range of hesitations, quibbles and serious questions about large issues and small details.
I shall, apart from this brief mention, pass over Wright’s sleight-of-hand. It seems superficially impressive that the biblical text so closely backs up the points he’s making which others have missed, until you remember that he has translated it precisely to bring out the point he sees there. There is also the way in which, developing his case, he says things like “”This exposition of the reconciling work of the Messiah in 2 Corinthians 5 sends us back to Romans.”” (p885) Given that Wright is making a case for Paul as both consistent thinker and great teacher, one has to remind oneself that the Corinthians don’t have the luxury of saying, “Hang on chaps, we just need to switch letters at this point to understand what he’s on about!”
Generally I agree with him that the Jesus movement, Paul’s theology and pre-70 Pharasaism all involve a significant restorationist theology which sometimes expresses itself in metaphors of exile which sometimes also entail a narrative of exile. My problem with Wright’s argument is that I don’t think every possible metaphor implies a narrative.
Wright does actually say in the present volume “”Not all his [Paul's] statements of the achievement of the cross fit snugly within a ‘new-exodus’ theme”” (p1071), but reading most of it you could be excused for thinking that they did. For Wright the narrative of Israel in exile, and YHWH returning to Zion seem omnipresent, with a whole host of other scriptural narratives popping up, triggered by a word here and an allusion there.
A case in point is the way in which the exodus themes which are present, and which he develops to good effect, in the ways in which Paul writes about baptism and eucharist in 1 Corinthians, are treated as a part of this single story which Paul has thought out a long time back when he went off into Arabia, as though that is the only possible explanation. The likelihood that 1 Corinthians is written around Passover (16:8) and responds to very particular issues is not really even under consideration.
I think that if forced to choose between a coherent Paul and one who is intellectually all over the place, I will choose a coherent Paul every time. I am not, however, convinced that these are the only two choices, and while I find Paul broadly coherent and largely consistent, I think Wright seriously underplays the role particular contexts, challenges and situations have in bringing Paul’s underlying themes into more precise – even into fresh – articulation.
We need to remember that Paul’s worldview as Wright reconstructs it is just that, a construct. And I venture, a partial one at that. Precisely because a worldview is the stuff we think without thinking about, it emerges especially when it is confronted as Paul’s conversion and the experience of his churches made him confront it. Wright majors on the big themes – and relatively congenial big themes. The potential attribution of everything to a spiritual cause (whether good or bad) is under-discussed, and very difficult, even if it is probably the point where Paul’s thinking is most alien to a world governed by physical cause and effect. The way in which we might describe some aspects of most first century thinking as “magical” isn’t considered either.
And who knows what else is missing. I quite agree with Wright on refusing to create a division between rabbinic and hellenistic Judaism, but I frequently found myself wondering if more room was needed to reflect on differences between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism. Paul (to my mind) suggests there was a lot of continuity, but I wonder how much the experience of God’s presence in a Torah-reading diaspora community might have prepared the way for the experience of God’s presence in a Christ-following new city ekklesia. This is also where I question Wright’s over-emphasis, as I see it, on the return of YHWH to Zion.
I think this underplays the ways in which Torah-study was already functioning as a vehicle for the presence of God, and that is part of what influences Paul’s christological development. For all his insight into Paul’s treatment of Torah, I think this is where I would most want to argue details with Wright. It seems to me that Torah-study as (to speak anachronistically) a present sacrament of the presence of God, and Torah-observance as a means of hastening the coming kingdom of God are significant for Paul’s thought, which he fails to really consider.
Two of the scholars Wright makes considerable mention of (and more favourably than he does of most) are Meeks and Horrell. One feature both share is their attentiveness to the social settings implied by the texts. Despite all the spadework of the first part, and all the emphasis placed verbally on praxis, the construct of Paul we’ve got from Wright is a man of ideas. Even when he is ostensibly discussing what things look like on the ground, it seems to me that for Wright it is – as they say – the thought that counts.
I simply don’t believe anyone is as thoroughly thought through as Wright’s Paul; that once having rethought everything, he never needs to think anything through again. Wright’s Paul barely changes his mind; he employs every word precisely, and it always means exactly what he intends it to mean, executed with masterly logic in argument and rhetorical flourish in phrasing. His Paul has answers for the philosophers, and has so anticipated the development of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, that really the Fathers are left thinking Paul’s thoughts after him and wondering how to wrestle them into the language of their philosophy. It becomes quite hard to explain the Pastorals, never mind the Apostolic Fathers.
Given that picture, I find it astonishing that there is no detailed discussion of Paul’s social location or likely educational attainment. Of course, one can be intellectually able without privilege or top-flight education, but this is no small matter when large claims are being made for a man of such deep and original ideas. There is further no substantive discussion about originality: what Paul might have inherited from the church which he had initially persecuted. They must have had some theological content to their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, some idea what they meant by “”he died for our sins””, some narratives and texts they had in mind when they said “”according to the scriptures””, some understanding of the Spirit they experienced, and some reasons for describing themselves as the ekklesia! No apostle is an island, entire of himself, not even Paul!
I find it hard t times to resist the temptation to see this as the book of a very clever, well-read intellectual, steeped in the scriptures and the classical world, wrestling with his thoughts in prayer, seeking to shape a fresh and faith-filled missionary engagement with his (our) own culture while nurturing the life of the churches, who has looked down a deep well and seen his own reflection staring back up at him.
I don’t mean to belittle Wright by saying this. He and Paul have been in conversation for more than half Wright’s lifetime. It would be surprising if as much as Paul has shaped Wright’s thinking, Wright hadn’t also shaped the Paul he reads. There are many places he persuades me he’s got as close to the mind of the apostle as anyone, but there seems to be too many of the accidents of flesh and blood missing, too little account of the happenstance of daily life given.
Despite that criticism, this is a book with a great deal of good thinking and analysis in it, and I will find myself regularly pulling it off the shelves to look again (thank goodness for such excellent indexing) at what Wright says about this or that passage in some detail. I do think Wright has seen many things in Paul which others have missed. I find he offers a helpful way of reconciling the “justification” and “participation” themes without playing them off against each other. He regularly offers powerful readings of particular texts, that are nearly always stimulating even if not always fully persuasive. I’m glad I bought it, and I’m glad I read it, and I will be chewing over a great deal in the months to come.
I don’t think it’s the game-changing book some people have anticipated. Wright is too wordy, and if he had edited himself ruthlessly, I think a book half the length would have had twice the impact. Nonetheless I do believe he’s produced a book with which every serious piece of work on Paul will have to engage.