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"N. T. Wright's long-awaited full-length study of St. Paul will not in any way disappoint. From the very first sentence, it holds the attention, arguing a strong, persuasive, coherent, and fresh case supported by immense scholarship and comprehensive theological intelligence. It is a worthy successor to his earlier magisterial studies, laying out again very plainly the ways in which the faith of the New Testament is focused on God's purpose to re-create, through the fact of Jesus crucified and risen, our entire understanding of authority and social identity." --Rowan Williams, Magdalene College, Cambridge
"Only once in every other generation or so does a project approaching the size, scope, and significance of Paul and the Faithfulness of God appear. Paul's world, worldview, controlling stories, and theology spring to life through N. T. Wright's brilliant scholarship and spirited writing. Arguing for narrative and theological coherence in Paul's thought, Wright seeks to overcome numerous dichotomies that have characterized recent Pauline scholarship. Readers will be richly rewarded and challenged at every turn—even when they do not fully agree. Each chapter reveals something profound about the surprising faithfulness of the God freshly revealed in Jesus the Messiah and conveyed to Paul's communities, and to us, by the Spirit." --Michael J. Gorman, St. Mary's Seminary & University, Baltimore, Maryland
"Breath-taking, mind-expanding, ground-breaking, and more—it is easy to run out of adjectives to describe what N. T. Wright has already accomplished in his multi-volume account of New Testament history and theology. This fourth volume in the series is likewise a game-changer, above all for its adventurous presentation of Paul's ‘mindsetrsquo; and theology, so thoroughly contextualized at the confluence of the apostle's Jewish, Roman, and Greek worlds. This is Wright at his best—part historian, part exegete, part theologian, part pedagogue." --Joel B. Green, Fuller Theological Seminary, California
About the Author
N. T. Wright is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the world's leading Bible scholars. He is now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews and is a regular broadcaster on radio and television. He is the author of over sixty books, including The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), Pauline Perspectives (2013), and Paul and His Recent Interpreters (2013), all published by Fortress Press.
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Due to the sheer magnitude of his fourth volume, I have broken up my review into two parts, mirroring the division of the book itself. Part one of my review will aim to summarize (hopefully succinctly) and evaluate the content of Parts One and Two of Wright's magnum opus, while Part two of my review will naturally do the same for Parts Three and Four of his book. Clearly much will be left unsaid, however, I hope to faithfully chart out the general argument that Wright lays forth and offer my own perception of its success. A daunting task, no doubt, yet one that I am honored to do. Many thanks to Fortress Press for graciously sending me a review copy.
After a brief preface laying forth the outline of the book, Wright begins his masterful symphony: Part One - Paul and His World
Chapter One: Return of the Runaway?
This chapter, in some sense, takes the place of an introduction, however, it does far more than introduce the task at hand. Wright begins by setting the Apostle Paul and Pliny the Younger side by side. Both were men of authority in their sphere's of influence, both were Romans near the beginning of the Christian movement, and both had written letters addressing slaves. Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus, and Pliny wrote to Sabinianus about an unknown slave whom Sabinianus had recently set free.
There is much of interest at hand here, however, most important is the incredible distinction in worldview between Pliny and this Paul figure. One reinforces the social hierarchy, while the other subverts it. One issues his commands through his own authority, the other in the authority of a certain "Messiah". One calls for civil order, the other for familial reconciliation. The contrast is stark.
Wright employs this juxtaposition to highlight some Pauline themes that become central to his overall project. For example, in expounding Philemon, he places particular importance on the fact that Paul calls for reconciliation. More than anything else, Paul is seeking reconciliation between the two. This fight for unity and harmony within the Church is a keystone in Wright's reconstruction.
More fundamentally, Wright sees the heart of Paul's theology and worldview expressed in this short little text known as Philemon:
Paul's Jewish worldview, radically reshaped around the crucified Messiah, challenges the world of ancient paganism with the concrete signs of the faithfulness of God. That is a summary both of the letter to Philemon and of the entire present book. (pp. 21)
Using Philemon as a platform, Wright ventures into discussion of other preliminary matters. In discussing matters of worldview and recounting his anthropological scheme Wright makes a provocative claim. The claim, that for Paul, theology took up a new, foundational position within his worldview, which prior to his allegiance to Jesus was only ancillary. Much more is discussed in this first, hodge-podge chapter then can be relayed here.
Yet, one more feature is worth highlighting. Wright, correctly in my view, challenges the bullying skepticism regarding many traditional Pauline sources. He argues for the restoration of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians to their rightful place within the Pauline corpus, against the current dominant view. Especially in light of the current discussions generated by the New Perspective, it seems clear that those three texts in particular are expressing characteristic Pauline themes. As for the other three, the Pastoral misfits, Wright says this:
Third, as to the Pastorals, 2 Timothy may well be by Paul, writing in a different mood and context, and may be drawn on similarly, though again with due caution. 1 Timothy and Titus come in a different category, and will be used, in the opposite way to that in which a drunkard uses a lamppost, for illumination rather than support. (pp. 61)
Chapter 2: Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel.
Here lies Wright's reconstruction of the worldview of the Pharisees - a worldview of much importance to the discussion at hand. Wright limits his purpose to answering the worldview questions he set out in The New Testament and the People of God: "Who are we? Where are we? What's wrong? What's the solution? What time is it?"
To that end, Wright lays out a general discussion of who the Pharisees were and some of their key praxis and symbol. Particularly, the Torah and the Temple. The Pharisees sought purity by means of the Torah, in relation especially to food, Sabbath, and circumcision. The Temple, on the other hand, was to be the place of God's dwelling on earth, where he took up residence - the place where heaven and earth intersect.
Yet all is not well in the Temple. Here enters Wright's discussion of the eschatological narrative of the Pharisees. Fundamental to Wright's conception is that the Pharisees see themselves as "living in a story in search of an ending" (pp. 109). What is this story? The story of God's calling of Israel to put the world to rights. However, included is Israel's subsequent failure, and now, exile. 1st century Jews saw themselves as people, who, though they had returned to Israel physically, remained in exile. They were awaiting the act of God in which they would truly return to the Promised Land.
Here we begin to answer the worldview questions. What is the solution to their exile? It's intensified Torah observation, of course. Jewish renegades from within must be dealt with, and Pagan opposition from without, likewise. When Israel repents rightly (this is the point of Torah observation) then God will send His time of restoration - when the Temple is restored and the covenant is renewed.
A conversation which has been rehashed many times in Wright's writing is once again laid out, the question of Jewish eschatological hope. Was it about abolishing the time, space universe - or something else? Doubtless, for Wright, it is surely not abolishment but restoration, a new world order in the this-worldly cosmos.
Finally Wright gets around to answering the questions, which I will not relay here. None of which is very surprising for those who have read Wright. He then discusses the Theology of the Pharisees, which, in short, is about One God, One People of God, and One Future for God's People. Monotheism, Election, and Eschatology.
Overall, this is a very strong, very clear portrait of the 1st century Jewish sect known as the Pharisees.
Chapter 3: Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks
Chapter three explores the Greek philosophy of the ancient world. Wright contends that many of Paul's contemporaries would have seen him as some sort of strange philosopher, founding philosophical schools of thought, not a religious missionary (with all its potent anachronism). Likewise, Tarsus, the home of the great Apostle, was a center of Greek learning. Thus, Paul, likely at an early age, though, even if not in Tarsus definitely in his later travels, would have been exposed to much Greek thought. Though, we must remind ourselves, not through historical reconstructions or systematic expositions, but through everyday encounters, in piece-meal fashion.
Now, Wright is not saying that Paul was a Greek philosopher, or even that he derived ideas from them. However, he is arguing that Paul would have interacted with them, either through confrontation or adaptation. This is a wise judgment, in my estimation.
He offers an excellent introductory account of Greek philosophical history. Beginning with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, he works his way into the Epicureans and Stoics (highlighting four Stoics in particular) and then touches on the Cynics and Sceptics. He ultimately considers the general "Philosophical Worldview" with its accompanying praxis, symbols, and stories. And lastly, explores Jewish interaction/reception of Greek thought. Though it may be expected that Jews would reject this pagan thought, this is some strong evidence for its incorporation by at least one 2nd Temple Jew (see Wisdom of Solomon). Thus, we must be open to the idea that Paul would have considered Jewish thought - though, doubtless, transformed through the Jewish worldview.
Chapter 4: A Cock for Asclepius: `Religion' and `Culture' in Paul's World
Wright delves into a long discussion on the usefulness of `religion' and `culture' as historical terms. He chooses to use them, as long as religion is understood as a far-reaching concept, rather than the compartmentalized version. His conclusion in this chapter is essentially that Roman religion was primarily about praxis. Whatever you think about the temples, whatever you believe about the gods, make sure to offer the sacrifices.
Chapter 5: The Eagle Has Landed: Rome and the Challenge of Empire
As readers should expect, Wright places great importance in the Roman Empire's influence for Paul as a pastor/theologian. Of importance here is that Imperial cults were widespread. The Roman Imperial propaganda machine functioned at full force. As the evidence is recounted from the 1st century, Wright seems justified in placing such weight on `Empire' as a Pauline category to be explored. Regarding Jewish response to Rome, the evidence suggests that Jews cared mainly about abuse from rulers, not the fact of rulers. Thus, Christian anarchists and Tolstoyans may be disappointed, but Wright sees Paul as affirming at least some sort of government.
Part 2 - The Mindset of the Apostle
Chapter 6: A Bird in the Hand? The Symbolic Praxis of Paul's World
Having drafted up the three worldviews, they now converge in one man, Paul the Apostle. Chapter 6 begins the charting of Paul's personal worldview (which Wright calls "mindset") that continues through chapters 7 and 8. This is where Wright begins to shine as a writer. There is so much rich theology intact that I pail at the work set before me. Sadly I must omit a great portion of the discussion, but of significance to me was Wright's centralizing of Church Unity for Paul's symbolic world. According to Wright, unity is the planet that the Paul's symbolic cosmos spins around. This symbol then drives much of his praxis.
In this chapter Wright also considers how Paul has rethought and recast the Jewish and Pagan worldview symbols. This portion is truly fascinating. I especially enjoyed his discussion on "sacralization". Since Paul debases the "gods" of the pantheon, who in Pagan thought fill the cosmos, he must somehow resacralize the world. For Paul, "The resacralization of the world begins with Jesus. But it doesn't stop there" (pp. 378). Again:
...we have the beginnings of what we might call a Christian iconography: the start, and the generative point, for a newly sacral world. The other icons - statues, temples, coins, mosaics - fall away, and for Paul one solitary icon stands in the place of them all. Jesus reflects the one God: that is what eikon tou theou indicates. The fact of Jesus himself, who he was and is, and lost least his Messiahship, is for Paul the place where, and the means by which, the community of his followers gazes at the one God and, through worship and thanksgiving, is itself transformed into the same likeness. (pp. 406)
Chapter 7: The Plot the Plan and the Storied Worldview
It is here, in discussing Paul's underlying narratives that N.T. Wright is on full display as a master exegete and theologian. He argues persuasively against the "apocalyptic" school in seeing Paul as a thoroughly "storied" thinker. In other words, he understood Jesus in light of an age-old narrative - namely, as the fulfillment and telos of that narrative - not (as the apocalypticists would have us think) as some new revelatory figure, detached from any prior history, who thus disposes of the story of Israel.
So, if as Wright has argued, correctly in my view, that Paul is a fundamentally narrativized thinker, than what were the narratives which he held? And the answer to this question is perhaps the most significant contribution Wright makes in the whole first two parts of his magnum opus. Wright recognizes one primary, controlling narrative in Paul, which itself, has several sub-plots. It is important to note at this point, that these narratives that Wright picks up, are rarely (if ever) stated explicitly. Rather, as such worldview elements often are, they are "everywhere presupposed". These foundation stories were not for looking at, but for looking through.
The first, outer story - the primary narrative - is that of God and Creation; the Creator and His Cosmos. God creates the universe, and installs Man as the keeper and steward of the land.
"First, the creator made a world with a purpose, and entrusted that purpose to humans: ah, now we have the beginning of a story - a quest, a task to be undertaken. Then, second, the humans to whom the task was entrusted abused that trust and rebelled. [...] The purpose of that relationship [between Creator and Creation] appears to be thwarted." (pp. 476)
And for Paul, God's response - his solution - this problem, is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is through Christ that God has launched the New Age, leaving the Old Age of the curse and rebellion behind. Through this recreation, the intention for the Cosmos would be restored. And this recreation has surprisingly already begun in the resurrection of the Messiah. Through the Christ, God is reclaiming His sovereignty over the world. The powers are corruption are ceased and His wise order is restored.
This is the primary story, the one to which the others serve. However, just because the others are secondary, does not mean they are not necessary. It is through these subsidiary stories that the rectifying of the primary one is achieved. It follows naturally that if Man's corruption has led to the corruption of the Cosmos, then the restoration of Man must be effected if the restoration of the Cosmos is to be. So it is under the story of Creation that we find the plight of Man. Man's relation to God is not detached from the primary story of Creation. Thus, Gnosticism will find no place in Pauline theology (sorry Pagels...). "Creation cannot be put right until humans are put right" (pp. 488).
For Paul, the fundamental problem for Man is his failure to fulfill the purpose God set out for him as an image bearer.
Being in God's image is both about reflecting God into the world (the purpose) and about receiving and returning the divine love (the relationship). The two go together. (pp. 487)
Therefore, God has set out to redeem fallen humanity, which subsequently redeems fallen creation. I wish I could give more time to this topic here, but alas, space fails me. In short, Wright vigorously attacks the Gnostic style narrative that has been allowed to drive Western Christianity. The narrative that is all about "me and my relationship with God", with nothing of the Cosmos or man's stewardship. There is so much more going on!
The last subplot is, once again, the answer to the previous subplot. If Man must be restored, how must he be so? God's answer: Israel. Israel is chosen to be the vehicle of God's blessing and reinstallment of Man over Creation. They are God's rescue plan for the world. But, the problem arises. Israel itself is plagued with the same plight of Adam. She is unable to fulfill God's purpose of rescue. Thus, she - Israel - must be restored if Adam and the rest of creation are to be put back to rights. The answer to this is the Messiah. The Messiah fulfills Israel's vocation, thus fulfilling Man's vocation - reclaiming His glory and reign - and, ultimately, restoring creation. That is the story of Scriptures, that is the story of Paul. When we lose sight of which story Paul is addressing at a particular time, we are cast into confusion and our exegesis wanes. Thus, I find these three stories as a incredibly helpful key to unlocking many of the Pauline trouble texts (trouble at least for me!).
Wright goes on to address the role of Torah and Jesus own story, which falls under all of these, namely, as the answer to the troubles in all these stories. However, I cannot speak to them here. All I can say is that it is incredibly persuasive, and downright brilliant.
Chapter 8: Five Signposts to the Apostolic Mindset
Lastly, to end this drawn out review, we will consider Wright's take on Paul's answers to the 5 worldview questions that he's laid out.
Who are we? We are those who are in Messiah. We are Israel, the seed of Abraham. Our identity is not as pagans or Gentiles, or even as ethnic Jews, so much as Messiah people. As such, our identity is parallel to that of the Messiah, for that is what it means to be united with Him.
Where are we? We are in the Cosmos that God has created, and in which the Messiah now reigns as Lord. We are in the new creation of God, even as the ongoing corruption of old creation lives on.
What's wrong and what's the solution? Clearly, Paul sees the primary problems being solved in the work of the Messiah. However, trouble persists because we live in the Age of the Overlap, where evil and injustice continue. And there are enemies both inside and outside that seek to lead astray. What is the solution to this problem? "Prayer, the Spirit, and Resurrection". Ultimately, the solution is Christ's parousia in which recreation will be completed and evil judged. Evil will be confronted and denied future existence.
What time is it? It should be clear by now. It is the time in which the Ages have converged. The time of the Messiah's reign. Yet, still awaiting the complete, full consummation. Wright explores brilliantly the concept of the Messiah's ruling as an age of Sabbath. The time when God sits over creation as ruler.
The last thing to be considered in Paul's worldview is what makes up the next Part of this book. Paul's theology. A theology which, according to Wright, undergirds and props up His whole worldview. Without it, there is nothing to stand on. That portion, naturally, will be surveyed in part 2 of my review.
For now, I close with words of commendation. Wright has succeeded in producing a weighty, much needed rethinking of the Apostle's teaching. The Church and the Academy would do well to seriously look at the exposition he lays out. It will bring us that much closer to understanding for Paul what God has done, and is doing, in the world through the Messiah, His Spirit, and His people. Then, perhaps, like Paul, we would learn how to fight for the unity of our churches, or, even more necessary, for the unity of His Church.
NOTE: This book was received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
[This review was originally posted on FREEDOM IN ORTHODOXY]
That said, there are similarities and differences between the volumes. All together they each provide one seamless proclamation from the beginning of the Bible to its end. Too often the Old Testament (a.k.a. Hebrew Bible) is treated by Christians as the prelude to the real revelation: the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the early years of the building of the Christian Church. Nothing could be farther from the truth, Wright time and again reminds us in this volume, as Paul very forcefully says in chapters 9-11 of Romans. The Hebrew Bible, and Jewish faith, are the roots upon which our faith is built (11:18) -- cut that root off and we risk being cut off from YHWH (pronounced Yahweh), the creator God and the source of Jewish and Christian faith. To help us make this seamless transitions between the two testaments, Wright uses several powerful, yet subtle, symbolic words. For instance:
1. He rarely uses the word "Christ" when speaking of Jesus, but instead uses the Jewish term, "the Messiah." Christ comes from the Greek, and Messiah comes from the Hebrew. Both mean the same, "the anointed."
2. When quoting texts from the Hebrew Bible Wright uses the name of God, "YHWH" instead of LORD as it is most often translated. This is important because YHWH means "I am what I am" or "I will be what I will be." both meanings are correct. There is no better definition of God than that!
3. When he uses the generic word "God" he capitalizes the first letter in this volume, whereas he left all in lower case in the previous volumes. He made this change because he assumes his readers understand by now that he is speaking of the one creator God of the universe, and the God of Israel. In the previous volumes he explained that people have so many variations of the god they believe in that he wouldn't be sure what god they had in mind.
For me, one of its greatest values, however, is Wright's introducing us to the worldview of Paul, which consisted of the culture and worldview of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel. All three were instrumental in shaping Paul's theology and mission. Also his description of Paul's Pharisaic life is the best I've seen.
Yes, it's long, far too long for my taste, but it is precise and detailed (sometimes to a fault). Yet I recognize that his massive work is aimed primarily not at the general reading public, but for academics to pour over its pages, and enter them into their debates among themselves. If that is your primary complaint, you haven't read many academic treatises. If you want to catch the other side of Tom Wright, read some of his books which are aimed primarily at the general public: "Paul in Fresh Perspective," "Surprised by Hope," "Simply Jesus," "How God Became King," etc. You might think they were written by some other person! Not so. Just a different style of writing, by a master scholar and storyteller. Yes, I'll skip the parts that are too wordy and look for Wright's conclusions along the way.
Some reviewers believe that he does not reflect Reformed/Reformation theology. Must we be stuck with 500 year old dogma, doctrine and interpretation? The world has come a long way since then. We don't burn witches anymore either. We are in the midst of a revolution in biblical studies which may, in the end, prove more important then the Reformation.
One reviewer gives the book one star because it doesn't agree with his 17 proof texts and apparently believes those trump the hundreds, nay thousands, of texts cited by Wright. It's sad.
If the price of the Kindle edition is so close to the paperback edition, shell out a few bucks more for the print edition -- it'll be easier to read and highlight the great passages (which are many).
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