One of today's top Christian theologians pens the most comprehensive book on the Apostle Paul in Christian history.

One of today’s top Christian theologians pens the most comprehensive book on the Apostle Paul in Christian history.

N.T. Wright is one of the top five theologians alive according to Christianity Today, and given his accomplishments, it’s a difficult claim to dispute. Wright is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St. Andrews, and before that, he served as Bishop of Durham for The Church of England and taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He has written a stack of widely-acclaimed and bestselling books, both academic and popular, and has a cult following among young Christian thinkers in the United States and Europe.

But Wright has also become a controversial figure in recent years, igniting a heated debate among American theologians with his so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Many prominent Christian leaders wrote rebuttals of Wright’s perspective–most notably pastor John Piper, who devoted an entire book to the matter (The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright).

How does one respond to such controversy? If you’re N.T. Wright, by penning a 1700-page tome on the life and theology of the Apostle Paul–the most comprehensive published work on Paul in the history of Christianity. It’s called Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and it promises to extend the debate he sparked years ago. Here, we discuss the book’s thesis, how it may inform gender and political debates, and what he thinks will make John Piper most upset.

JM: Is it possible to give shorthand to the new way of reading Paul you’ve explored in this book? How would you describe your approach to Paul succinctly?

NTW: I offer a holistic reading of Paul in which the different emphases many have seen, between ‘juristic’ or ‘lawcourt’ thought and ‘participationist’ or ‘incorporative’ thought, are reconciled; in which what some call ‘apocalyptic’ and what some call ‘salvation history’ are brought together in a larger framework of a new-covenant theology; in which Paul’s Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds are all taken fully into account. Paul emerges as a three-dimensional figure, passionate about the very Jewish message of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and aware that in announcing this message he was engaging with the philosophy, religion and imperial dreams of his day.

In particular, Paul emerges as the one who invented what we now call ‘Christian theology’ – prayerful, scripture-fueled meditation on God, God’s people and God’s purposes – to meet the particular need: a community which had to be united and holy but which lacked the Jewish cultural symbols that had helped the Jews with their version of this vocation. “Theology” as Paul was doing it, and more importantly was teaching his churches to do it, was the way to corporate and individual human and Christian maturity and to sustaining the church in its life and witness.

JM: And how do you anticipate that this historical and theological study of Paul will reframe Christian theologies of salvation, justification, and law?

NTW: The main point is that most second-temple Jews weren’t discussing “salvation” and “justification” in anything like the way later Christians did. They were anxious about how Israel’s God was going to unveil his long-awaited covenant purposes, returning in person to deliver Israel from subservience to pagans and to launch “the age to come”. That, for them, was “salvation”; and “justification”, not that they discussed it much, was about how you could tell in the present who God would vindicate in the future. Their debates focused on how all that would happen, and what they should be doing in the meantime.

I have shown how Paul’s teaching on justification, the law, etc. is best understood as the radical reworking of these debates around the new fixed point: that Israel’s God had returned in the person of Israel’s Messiah and that, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he had not only launched but had also redefined the “age to come”–right in the middle of ongoing and contested history. For Paul, this sovereign, saving act of the creator and covenant God was then being implemented through the work of the Spirit and in the announcement of the “gospel” in the pagan world. We only “get” what he means by “justification” and “salvation” when we put it all in this larger context. Nothing of value is lost thereby from older traditions (though some cherished formulations, themselves unbiblical, will need to be revised in the light of what Paul actually said); but much, much is gained, particularly the large and utterly coherent vision of his whole thought and work.

JM: Your views on these topics have upset some American Christians in the past, particularly those in the Reformed movement. Which parts of this book will John Piper be most upset with?

Image courtesy of Fortress Press

Image courtesy of Fortress Press

NTW: Far be it from me to put words into Dr. Piper’s mouth. I am sorry he and I have never met; we share so much–a commitment to the great Reformed tradition, a commitment to the cross as the center of everything, a commitment to scripture and to the faithful and patient investigation and exposition of it.

I think what stands behind some of the ongoing disagreements and challenges which come from that quarter is the awareness that, in locating Paul (and Jesus for that matter) within the world of first-century Judaism, I am invoking the first-century Jewish sense of an ongoing narrative reaching its shocking and unexpected climax. Most Protestants assume that an ongoing narrative is a form of Catholicism, leading to an assumption that all you have to do is to belong to the story and all will be well–and leading thus to a carelessness about the radical inbreaking of the gospel both in history and individual lives. This may indeed be a danger; but it is far more dangerous to ignore the ways in which both Jesus and Paul believed that the Messianic events of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit, were in fact the fulfillment of the ancient covenant with Abraham.

Here’s another irony: I would expect that a Reformed theologian like Dr. Piper would welcome a “covenantal” reading of Paul. Perhaps he yet may. Of course, he has said many times before that he thinks my reading of Paul screens out “imputation” in his sense, and he’s right: Paul doesn’t say what that theory wants him to say. But the underlying meaning Dr. Piper and others are seeking in that theory are, I believe, not only retained but enhanced in the larger and more textually grounded reading which I have offered. I have no interest in maintaining an either/or. I am interested in seeing how what Paul actually says holds together the multiple emphases, which scholars and preachers have discerned, in his writings.

The other thing which I think is underneath the rather sharp opposition, not only from Dr. Piper but from some others, is my insistence–in line with Paul’s own vision of renewed creation in Romans 8 and elsewhere–that Paul saw the gospel and “salvation” not in terms of a “spiritual” escape from the present world but as the transformation of this present world.

JM: Some modern Christians have criticized Paul as “sexist” or even “anti-women.” How does your book inform conversations about gender?

NTW: This view is depressingly shallow. Paul, like the other early Christians and like Jesus himself, lived in a complex world where, despite what some think, many women were able to live independent lives, run businesses, travel, and so on, while many others were part of traditional structures which still curtailed their options. A world much like ours, in fact! Into that, the main message was what Paul says in Galatians 3.28: in the Messiah, Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no “male and female”. We can see this working out when he refers to Junia as an “apostle”, and in the same chapter (Romans 16) mentions several other women who are in positions of leadership in the church–and where, too, he gives Phoebe the task of taking the letter to Rome, which almost certainly meant that she would read it out and explain it to the house-churches.

At the same time, Paul was a deeply creational theologian, who believed passionately that men and women were created differently and that this God-given difference was not obliterated but had to be navigated appropriately and wisely. As with his political views, so here, he may seem to us to be saying two different things, but this only shows that we are trying to fit him into the Procrustean beds of our late-modern imagination. It’s like criticizing Shakespeare for not writing in 140-character Twitter sound bytes.

JM: You mention Paul’s political views, and in the book, you argue that Paul founded and maintained communities loyal to Jesus  across a world owing allegiance to Caesar. How will your work impact modern Christians’ allegiance to governments, political parties and power structures?

NTW: Just as, in the sixteenth century, western Christians came to the text with certain questions shaped by their culture–and we can now see how much that has caused people to misread him–so now western Christians come to the New Testament with the questions of modern western democracy in our minds, and within that the questions of the “culture wars” of late 20th Century America. Was Paul a Republican or a Democrat? Was he right-wing or left-wing? One of the things we must urgently learn is that our rather shallow polarizations do not at all correspond to the ways in which ancient Jews or Greeks or Romans saw public and civic life.

We too easily grasp Paul saying “obey the government” and assume he was an unthinking right-winger in our terms. Or we latch on to the fact that he says “Jesus is Lord” and assume he will line up with every neo-Marxist movement, eager to overthrow the present authorities. This is naïve.

Paul has a great deal to say about power, government and so on–not so much about “political parties” because that’s a fairly modern idea, one particular localized way of “doing democracy”–but we only understand it all when we really dig deep into his cultural, philosophical and political roots. That’s what I’ve tried to do in this book. My hope is that the book will open people’s eyes to the powerfully subversive early Christian vision of Jesus as Lord, and to the shallow and often self-serving ways in which the western world “does politics”, whether to the right or to the left. One thing is sure: follow Paul, and any idea that “theology” or “spirituality” has nothing to do with public life will be gone for ever.

One of the peculiar things about transatlantic theological debates is that in America people who are right-wing theologically are often right-wing politically, whereas in England theological conservatives are often left-wing politically–though again the “right” and “left” mean different things at different times and places. Paul can help us get beyond the shallow stereotypes and enable us to see what it really means, in geopolitical as well as “spiritual” terms, to say “Jesus is Lord”. And, as pietists have always taught, if he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.

“Go on,” Paul would say. “Think through what that’s going to mean for Christianity in the 21st century.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDHs8S1Se3E

28 Comments

  1. If for no other reason, this interview is important in its call to avoid the practice of trying to fit Paul’s writing into our own boxes. No part of Scripture should be subject to such maneuvering, but people seem to be most likely to do it with Paul and his letters.

    When someone tells me they’re sure that if Jesus were living in America today he’d be a member of one political party or another, it sends the message that they do not understand God’s sovereignty at all. I try to ask those people what politics Jesus would have if he lived somewhere else, such as Indonesia or the Falkland Islands. They never have a response, but they’re sure if he were in America he’d be registered with their party of choice. Some of them seem to think he’d also be a political activist advancing their political agenda. And that shows a sad lack of familiarity with the four gospel narratives.

    Dr. Wright’s writings advance the discussion in ways that help us to understand God and God’s word better. I don’t agree with every conclusion he draws, but I value his contribution to the work of the kingdom of God.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Another good interview, JM!

  2. Thanks so much for doing this Q&A – I always benefit from these.

    I think your third graf is just a bit misleading (unintentionally, for sure). Wright didn’t write Paul and the Faithfulness of God in response to Piper’s book (The Future of Justification, written in 2007); Wright has been working on it for decades, I think. He actually did write a response to Piper et al in 2009, which was simply called Justification.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      KC McGinnis: I am not implying that Wright wrote this book simply to respond to the disagreements from Piper, et al. You’re right–he’s been working on this for a long, long time. The rhetorical question and answer I provided in that paragraph was a little tongue-in-cheek. Sorry if it was confusing!

      • Got it. It’s just that Wright has already done – literally, not rhetorically – what that paragraph suggests, with Justification: an excellent book, and a much better resource for anyone trying to understand the specific conflicts between these two authors (and, more frequently, their common ground).

        I know the Piper connection makes Wright’s book more newsworthy, but I just think it’s a bit of a stretch. I hate to see too much effort spent on pitting these two against each other, because I know how prone we all are to tribalism – following one and rejecting the other a priori. I’ve already had pastors warn me about Dr. Wright because he has “funky views on justification” – without being able to elaborate. I would hate to see more of that, simply because of a perceived ongoing feud.

      • Jonathan Wilson

        I’m coming to a weeks-old conversation but it seems important to point out what I am picking up … for it appears to my eye, actually, to be exactly what you are saying, and to suggest otherwise seems disingenuous. I have read a handful of your articles, and perhaps it’s just unfortunate coincidence, but each of them has employed what comes across to me as a tactic of sensationalizing/”controversializing” the subject — setting right against left, progressive against conservative, emergent against traditional, etc. That seems to me quite unhelpful, given the already fractious nature of the Christian community in North America. Debate, such as the kind in which Wright engaged Piper, is one thing — it encourages intellectual rigour (although North American culture seems less comfortable with stiff but civil debate than European cultures). But sensationalizing or stirring controversy simply encourages division from, and condescension towards, theological opponents. I may be misreading your writing or at least your intentions, so please accept this as a friendly caution.

  3. Another great interview, and fascinating insights from NTW, who is rapidly becoming my favourite theologian. I’m only sad that so few Christians have any appetite to dig even slightly below the surface of their superficial readings of scripture. Wright’s work is a gift to those thirsty for a more nuanced and complete understanding of the New Testament.

  4. I think that this headline is misleading. Wright has been engaged in Paul scholarship long before Piper entered the fray, and Wright engages in much more than just what Piper is concerned about. The headline elevates Piper qua scholar far more than he deserves, and casts the book as entering into an evangelical debate when it spans far more interesting ground.

  5. I do not believe Jesus would be a part of a political party, however He would not shy away from pointing out the sin in our society..Does anyone believe that Jesus would approve of abortion, or when He clearly stated that marriage is between a man and a woman does anyone really believe He would approve of homosexual marriage? He would speak against the gov’t corruption and corporate greed. He most likely not join a party but He would probably vote for which ever one reflected His beliefs, as He did advocate good citizenship (as did Paul).

    • Marcus Johnson

      That statement seems to be more about us reading narratives and motives into Jesus’ ministry that are not explicitly there, same as those who try to infer from the Gospels that Jesus was a pacifist, or an environmentalist, or an LGBT ally, or was pro-life or pro-choice, when those identities came into being as a response to cultural phenomena contemporary with our historical context, not His. It certainly feels good to believe that Jesus would have affirmed heterosexual marriage, but that cultural phenomenon did not exist in his time, and was never part of his mission. Trying to draw these anachronistic inferences from the Gospel narratives is like trying to identify whether or not Jesus would have preferred the iPhone or an Android.

      • You make it sound as if Jesus had no passion or that he did not care about or engage in the issues of his time; or that you can make no association with issues of today. Sexual sins were as prevalent in Jesus’ day as in our own.Jesus told the woman caught in adultry to go and sin no more. Jesus affirmed with his own words the proper consruct of marriage as being between a man and a woman Choosing an ipod or android is not a sin. Adultry, homosexuality and fornication are.

        • Marcus Johnson

          That’s a misread on your part. Jesus was very passionate and he did engage in the issues of his time (like poverty, charity, hopelessness, etc.). His engagement, however, was not a political effort, and trying to draw predictions about how he would vote would be an effort in futility. Jesus’ mission was also not a “sin-spotting” initiative, in which he was going around with a label maker and delineating between naughty and nice. His mission was something radically different.

          And sure, sexual sins were present in Jesus’ day, but if you’re really thinking that issues regarding sexual activity in Jesus’ time was either the same or generally comparable to issues regarding sexual responsibility in the 21st century, then you need to go back to the drawing board and do some serious research, because someone woefully underprepared you to make comparisons between different historical epochs.

          • True I agree Jesus effort was not a political effort…Jesus mission was a rescue mission to provide the ultimate sacrifice for the sin of mankind.

            Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothning new under the sun. Sin is sin regardless the age in which it occurs, including homosexuality, adultry and fornication…the fact that society may accept it more today than in Jesus’ time does not change that.

            I would be interested in hearing how you feel the differences in epochs make sin more or less acceptable now as opposed to then.

          • Marcus Johnson

            So, let’s start off with that reference to Ecclesiastes. That phrase comes from a verse that is part of a much larger dialogue that has nothing to do with the specific nature of sin.

            Throw that irrelevant passage out, and we’re looking at that phrase “sin is sin.” A tautologous phrase, but I’m not sure if you ever felt guilty about picking sticks up on the Sabbath, or attacked someone who ate the meat of cloven-hoofed animals, or asked your butcher if the meat you ate was offered to idols. The list can go on, but the behaviors which we refer to as “sin” are heavily reliant on the cultural and historical context in which we live. This has nothing to do with our acceptance of sin.

            So, enough with these assumptions that we are more accepting of sin than in previous epochs. Buy a book on American slavery, or Roman homosexuality, or the Holocaust, or the abuse of women in Middle Eastern countries, and see how real sin was not only accepted, but institutionalized, throughout history. It’s too ridiculous of a premise to argue.

        • It is difficult to predict how Jesus would have confronted same-sex marriage, since it was non-existant in his earthly days. the context of Matthew 19:1-11, is Jesus’ disdain for the easy divorces where men could cast off their wives for no reason at all and force them into lives of poverty. Jesus was concerned primarily about committment and justice within the Jewish marriages of his day.

  6. “Paul has a great deal to say about power, government and so on–not so
    much about “political parties” because that’s a fairly modern idea, one particular localized way of “doing democracy””

    Perhaps N.T. Wright misspoke. However the above quote makes one wonder how competent an authority he is of the times upon which he speaks. “Party” or “faction” is an inevitable consequence of democracy. This is not merely my own conclusion, but that of the American Founding Fathers (Federalist Papers – #6, Washington’s Farewell Address), who attempted in their constitution to mitigate this natural propensity of free civic polities. And they were looking at ancient Greece and Romans as their harbinger. In Greece, it was the perpetual tug-of-war between the aristocratic and democratic parties in the various city states. In the Roman Republic, it was the party of Scipio versus that of Cato the Elder, the cultivated Hellenized Rome versus austere Republican values. Ideology had as much to do as class. There is an uncanny resemblance to modern America.

    Secondly, I utterly reject Wright’s notion that Paul wrote extensively on political/government matters. Indeed, the Book of Hebrews expressed, and the history of the ancient Hebrew state demonstrated, the seminal theme in Scriptures of the utter futility of external (coercive) means to change the person, and by extension, the society. This is not to advocate an otherworldly faith, which is not at all concerned with the here and now, which Wright rightly cites and criticizes. Rather, the critique is about the means of promoting the common good in this world, confidence in its success and excessive onus at the expense of soul discipleship (a more arduous and perhaps tedious process). The problem with Christians of all sociopolitical persuasions is in their de facto confidence in sociopolitical solutions itself; less upon which faction they allow themselves to be co-opted by.

    • Have you read his book(s) on Paul?

      If so, I would caution against rejecting what you think he is saying on the basis of one interview. To make clear, I have not read the books, so I am unable to comment one way or the other.

      I would also point out that you cite Greek and Roman forms of Government. Although these will have had an influence on the Jewish state because of conquest, they have no (or little) relevance to the debate that I believe Paul was having which would have been grounded in the Hebrew / Old Testament view of governance.

  7. It is good that Wright is critical of the views of other theologians (I use the term “critical” here in the academic sense). He clearly appreciates the things he has in common with others and also does not shy away from their differences. No doubt he expects others to approach his work in the same manner taking into account his biases and the theological lens through which he sees Scripture. For my part, Wright’s theology is not exactly my cup of tea. I appreciate him though in that his writing makes Christians serious about the study of God’s word dig deeper. That is always a good thing in my view.

    Wright is an interesting fellow to be sure and I appreciated the thoughtful interview. Too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, Wright remains controversial in many Christian circles. In his response to JM’s question about what Dr. Piper may be most upset with, Wright accuses Piper of reading into Paul’s writing what he wants to find there. A charge Piper no doubt levels against Wright. I would enjoy seeing those two men debate their differences sometime.

  8. I agree with some of the commenters above. Your headline, and some of the things you imply seem quite sensationalized. Nowhere in the top 100 reasons that NT Wright released this book was an intent to extend a debate with John Piper.

    I’m also curious about your reference to Wright as one of Christianity Today’s top 100 theologians. I see that all over the place, but I’ve never seen it linked to a primary source.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      Teddy,

      There is a difference in saying that the book has extended that debate and saying that the intention for Wright’s penning the book was to extend the debate. The former is something I stated and it is true. The latter is something I didn’t state and don’t know whether it is true or not.

      It also might be important for you to know that a link to this interview was posted on Wright’s Facebook page where it was called “a good read on the thesis of the book…and why this new perspective causes controversy.”

      So…yeah.

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