A couple of weeks back I posted my reaction to the first part of Tom Wright’s monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I’ve got now to the end of part 2 (aka the end of volume 1), entitled “The Mindset of the Apostle”. And in a way I don’t really know how to blog about it.
I’ll take a step back for a bit of personal story. When I first came to a renewed adult faith at the end of 1978 something awfully like a traditional evangelical conversion experience was framed by some unusual settings. My English course had just reached the medieval mystics, and The Cloud of Unknowing or even the Revelations of Divine Love are hardly the most obvious beginner’s books in prayer and theology. The evangelistically minded friend, whose prayer and friendship had been a significant component in this was a charismatic Roman Catholic, and my first experience of lively worship was the catholic chaplaincy’s folk mass.
And by whatever coincidence, the first popular-ish theological book I bought and read still on my shelf today, was a collection of 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. (The second thing I read on Paul was Wright’s 1978 Tyndale lecture, which I believe was the first mention of a post-Sanders “new perspective”, rather than Jimmy Dunn’s later claim to the term.) Even at the time, with little knowledge of the debates that swirled round the topic, and indeed, barely knowing the word justification, I was a) broadly persuaded by Wright’s argument, and b) found myself wondering whether the other contributors to the volume were either aware of it, or had understood it.
In other words, I come to Wright now, always having understood Paul as in part a mystic as well as a missionary, as a catholic Christian, and as a radical Jew redefining Abraham’s family around Jesus. I have never not been a new perspective person (although it was another five years before I read Sanders for myself) and I have never not been in some sense of the word a Wrightian. That may need bearing in mind.
The heart of this second section deals with Paul’s mindset, and particularly the symbols that inform (and reveal) Paul’s worldview, 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 (not a term I like particularly, or am persuaded is helpful) which takes the symbolic weight of both on. 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.
That’s a very bare summary of the content, which is worked out at considerable depth and considerably greater length. There are lots of nuggets, and those less familiar with Wright will probably find more than I did. (Those less persuaded will probably be even more frustrated.) in the next section of the book Wright will go over much the same ground, I take it, but engaging in much more exegesis. Like most chiastic structures (and the book is very self-consciously constructed as a chiasm) repetition is the penalty you pay for the structure. I think to engage more with the ideas, I will probably try and blog more frequently than at the end of each part when of necessity broad brush-strokes are all I can manage..
But let me offer a few comments rather than just describe the book. For someone as much in agreement as I am, I found myself feeling so browbeaten by the relentless piling up of arguments that I wanted to disagree. And I do have my points of actual disagreement, even before I started looking for them under the barrage of arguments, sometimes tinged with a hint of bafflement that people still won’t agree.
Above all, 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 (and, as Wright says, in the process invent Christian theology). 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.
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.
The question of to what extent Paul belongs to Jerusalem and what to the Diaspora maybe needs a lot more teasing out. We know what he says of himself, but we also know how to distrust a superficial taking of polemical rhetoric at face value. There is, above all, the sense of a man steeped in the Greek scriptures which must put at least a question mark against reading “Hebrew of Hebrews” as a statement about language acquisition.
One of the other features which – in my view – makes the book harder than it might be is not simply the over-writing, but the constant flourishes of literary allusion or semi quotation, as well as sometimes an extended analogy. It feels awfully like an Oxbridge SCR game. There were times also, when I wondered whether the allusion became sufficiently a quotation to need attributing. Eliot suffers particularly from non-attribution of semi-quotations. Mind you, after crumbling under such a massive display of erudition, I was relieved to find that even Wright nods. “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis [sic], I hear someone murmur” (p386) he says, showing solidarity with the myriads of us who struggled at school with our declensions.
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 (at this point at least) is a man of ideas.
I’m all for Paul being a broadly coherent thinker, but part of how our thinking grows is when we find one element of what we hold isn’t consistent with another, or when a situation makes us articulate something in a way we’ve never put it before. I agree with Wright that a significant part of what Paul thinks comes from that initial thinking through how Jesus reshapes his former Pharisaic convictions, but i would leave a lot more room for some awfully messy practice, and for a work in progress.