Home » Bibliology » A Quick Word on Wright and Paul And The Faithfulness of God

A Quick Word on Wright and Paul And The Faithfulness of God

Just a brief word on my reading of NT Wright’s new book Paul And The Faithfulness of God: I am very happy to learn things in a critical fashion from the heart and head of Wright; there is a richness to grasping the reality paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-godthat the linear historical aspect and development of the story of Scripture, unfolded, provides for us—it in fact humanizes and personalizes Scripture (at least for me). It allows me to resonate better with the characters of Scripture in concrete and thus not abstract ways; with the result that I sense a connection between the character’s of Scripture and their lived realities, and mine. In other words, what developing and reconstructing the history of the New Testament period does for me, personally, is allow me to appreciate better how what, for example, the Apostle Paul was writing to Philemon, could just as easily be written to a Christian CEO of a corporation today (with its employees, socio-culturally being viewed as parts of the machinery of the wheel that makes the corporation and the world go ’round).

But then there is also a lacuna in what Wright offers, at least for me. Simply understanding the linear flow of salvation-history—as Wright is so expert at detailing—just cannot do it for me spiritually. Just like when I was in Bible College and Seminary, I learned how to use the tools of literary analysis to interpret the text of Scripture. After awhile I could identify a chiastic structure or inclusio a mile a way; but after awhile, I began to say “who cares?” Wright has this same affect on me. I think all of the things he develops and underscores and un-covers are really neat, but there has to be more to it. What I find missing in Wright is what Matthew Levering has called the participatory historical reality and what Thomas Torrance has called the dialogical and depth dimension of Scripture. In other words, Scripture needs to have more of a theological frame, and grace-conditioned ontology and order supporting it; in other words, it needs a doctrine of God behind it that explicitly understands that God has spoken & speaks. I think what is missing for me, with Wright, still, is an emphasis on Scripture and prayer; an emphasis on the fact that we personally know the Teacher & Savior of Scripture, and that he speaks, we listen, and we know his voice. I like to focus on that; and indeed, the neat things Wright and others bring out about the history of Scripture, can be prayed through as well. But I think Wright just needs to spend more time and focus on this particular reality; especially sense he is not just a historian, but a theologian (as they say).

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22 thoughts on “A Quick Word on Wright and Paul And The Faithfulness of God

  1. Though not having read the new book yet, this is exactly my impression from Wright’s other works. The problem with Wright, as his detractors have complained over and over, is his lack of theological acumen — which is remarkable given his incredible acumen as a biblical scholar, ANE historian, and exegete. So, why the lack? I really don’t get it. This will hurt his long-term influence. People are mesmerized by Wright because he fills a certain deficit in much of evangelical theological thinking, but correction cannot replace construction. And Wright’s constructive proposals, to redefine and reduce δίκαιος along a historical-fulfillment motif, is only interesting for so long. The richness of dogmatic reflection and pastoral application is lost. This is why Wright gives the impression of hubris — he does not do the necessary work to critically engage and appropriate the theological tradition that came before him, which is in marked contrast to a similarly innovative thinker: Karl Barth. If Wright’s new book changes my impression, then I will happily welcome it.

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  3. This may be a bit longer of a comment than it should be, so forgive me – and obviously, if I misunderstand/misrepresent anyone, you will correct me.

    I’ve seen this basic criticism of Wright before, and I think there’s a couple things going on here. He’s not doing dogmatics like Barth and Torrance were. He’s not interested in discussing the being of God in act, or the history of Jesus becoming the history of the world, or encounter with God, or throwing around terms like ontology, hypostatic union, or participatory historical reality, or how our thinking of God has to be Einsteinian rather than Newtonian. He’s interested in thinking like a first century Jew (like, say, a carpenter from Nazareth) would have thought.

    His theological acumen is sharp – it is, however, readically different. He’s not using the language or even really playing the same game as, say, Barth, Torrance, Hunsinger, McCormack, Brunner, Webster. He’s using the language, arguably, of Jesus (don’t read too much into that). He’s simply doing theology in a different category which, when you think about it, is exactly what Barth/Torrance did. The grammar/concepts of a more classical metaphysical picture (say, Thomism, or various brands of Calvinism) don’t really apply to their thinking about God. They simply think in a different way. That’s what Wright does. If you look for the same dogmatic-ness of those guys in Wright, you ain’t gonna find it. You’re not going to find, like I said above, discussions about actualism, the ontology of Scripture, the being of God in Jesus Christ, etc, etc, etc. You’re going to find someone thinking like a 1st-century Jew would have thought about the Scriptures, God and in light of the coming of the Messiah. If Barth and Torrance don’t have to play by the rules of classical metaphysics or classical Westminster Calvinism to do good theology and dogmatics, Wright doesn’t have to play by the rules of 20th/21st century Protestant dogmatics to do good theology.

    As for the OP’s comment about Wright’s lack of emphasis on Scripture, prayer and the Teacher and Saviour of Scripture, his popular books/commentaries really show that side of him, specifically ‘Scripture and the Authority of God,’ which is about nothing else but Scripture, prayer, devotion, God, etc. Or listen to his small interviews on youtube – not one goes by where he doesn’t talk about knowing and loving the Saviour.

    Anyways, I’ll wrap up my coffee-fueled rambling 🙂

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  4. @WF and Derek,

    Kevin makes good points!

    Because what I said is brief, it is rife for misunderstanding; and you have misunderstood my broader point WF.

    Let me get some shut eye and I’ll explain why you are mis-reading me.

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  5. I don’t get this sense at all when reading Wright. Have you only read his academic studies? I think of his books like “Evil and the Justice of God”, “Surprised By Hope” or his recent one on the Psalms and simply can’t imagine how someone could read those and not be moved at the level of practical theology.

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  6. Re: whitefrozen

    Yet, Wright puts himself into dialogue with the theological tradition — albeit haphazardly — in order to disparage it, dismiss it, show its inferiority, etc. (and, no, I do not accept his attempts to bring Calvin on his side). And, once again, both Barth and Torrance mastered the classical tradition of metaphysics and dogmatics while making their departures. Wright has done nothing of the sort.

    Having said that, I agree that Wright is immensely stimulating and valuable. Some of his detractors have been too quick to dismiss him, out of fear of novelty than anything else. And my estimation of his work may change over time — I wouldn’t be surprised — so I don’t even take my criticisms too seriously!

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  7. As I see it, Wright engages with modern proponents of older traditions – so yeah, the charge of his not mastering the traditions he’s engaging in all their historical depth may be justified. But, (again, as I see it) I don’t think he’s out to disparage/dismiss/et al like you said (I disagree with your point about Wright and Calvin). I think a lot of that is just the rhetoric, on both his part and his opponents/partners. But again, I don’t really think he’s doing dogmatics so much as taking current theological positions to task on historical grounds and developing a historically solid Jewish theology.

    So basically: yeah, you’re right that he’s not mastering the traditions he’s criticizing. He’s not doing historical theology in that sense. He’s not interacting with every aspect of (in the reformed case) a 500-year old tradition, like Barth did in the CD (the billion references to reformed scholastics). He’s doing something akin to what C.S. Lewis did in ‘The Abolition of Man.’ Lewis argued against popular moral relativism – ‘Einstein proved everything was relative’ kind of thinking. He didn’t survey the literature, engage Buddhism, Wittgenstein, the positivists the existentialists, or engage in dialogue with major proponents of the issue. He took the current, popular philosophy of morality of the day and took it down to the mat, and I believe that is exactly what Wright is doing. He’s taking popular Reformed theology, the John Piper world, down to the mat. ‘Justification’ is Wright’s ‘Abolition of Man’.

    Forgive my long-windedness!

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  8. Yes, I can see your point. Wright is definitely engaging the pop-evangelical world in America, both Calvinist and dispensationalist. ‘Justification’ is targeted mostly at the former, and ‘Surprised by Hope’ is targeted mostly at the latter, though he routinely conflates these groups. At that level, I can be less critical of Wright and find much with which to agree. Nonetheless, I think his doctrine of justification is severely limited and, frankly, doesn’t preach (I almost threw my copy of ‘Justification’ against the wall multiple times, but I controlled myself!).

    As always, I enjoy your thoughts and push back.

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  9. We’ll have to save a debate on justification for another day, as I’m quite in agreement with Wright – but I appreciate the good conversation and pushback as well.

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  10. Wright I think stands as someone who reveals the chasm that still exists between the disciplines of biblical studies and theological studies. I was warned by a former prof, who is also a theological mentor, before coming to the UofE for my PhD studies that this chasm is still gaping and its easy to get caught in the middle. I have experienced the truth of this several times this term, the latest being just a few weeks ago while sitting in Rainey Hall (the lunch room). On one side were theological studies people who complained to the biblical studies people of his ‘disparagement’ of the tradition. And the response of some of the biblical studies people was to note that for them he was still yet too theological – in particular his application of a proto-trinitarian structure onto Paul. It seemed to me a classic case of biblical studies folk wanting systematicians to be doing biblical studies and systematicians wanting biblical studies folk to be doing systematics … and thus tend to talk (w)right past each other. 🙂 So, I tend to resonate strongly with what WF says here. As a side note: I thought both sides in this lunch room discussion tended to totally miss Wright’s basic narrative posture.

    But, Bobby, I don’t want to assume to much here about what you mean so I’ll wait to hear what you have to say. I do have a brief comment on this quote however: “I think what is missing for me, with Wright, still, is an emphasis on Scripture and prayer; an emphasis on the fact that we personally know the Teacher & Savior of Scripture, and that he speaks, we listen, and we know his voice.” I’m not going to say your experience of Wright here is mistaken per se, but like JM Smith above, I can’t say it mine. I tend to gravitate toward scholars who are ecclesial in orientation and churchmen (or women). And when I read Wright, I think that I am reading someone who has experience as a pastor who writes as he does because he feels its important to the church (and I read Torrance and Barth for much of the same reasons). Its important for me to read theologians and biblical studies scholars who know that to do theology and/or biblical studies well means to pray well with the church. In my reading of him, this describes Wright. I look forward to your further clarifying remarks. Peace to you.

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  11. whitefrozen,

    Once last thought. I don’t completely dismiss Wright’s doctrine of justification. After all, Barth argued for the subjective genitive translation of pistis Christou, long before it became cool to do so, yet Barth managed to do this without throwing the Western tradition under the bus. Okay, that’s all for now — I’ll hold back from commenting further! As Russell notes, the divide between ST and BS is deep, and I don’t see a solution anytime soon.

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  12. Wow, look what happens when you’re sleeping! None of this good discussion may have happened if I hadn’t slept, WF 😉 .

    Have any of you read Matthew Levering’s book: Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation or John Webster’s The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason? Both of these book together clarify exactly and inform directly my brief word in this post.

    Here is a post that is less brief, and gets deeper into what I was really only reiterating from the point I was making in this past post–which dovetails with Russell’s point about the divide between ST and BS, but also hits on the deeper point about not just a piety of prayerfulness and pastoralness (i.e. Wright)–which Wright clearly has in his experience as a pastor, and as evinced in his more “pastoral” or “popular” works–but also on the issue of a critical a dogmatic and I would add, methodologically Christian and Trinitarian prolegomena in regard to a doctrine of Scripture. It is a matter of starting not as a historian (first), which has roots in a ‘naturalist’ and thus abstract posture toward Scripture and its interpretation; it is a matter, in my estimation, of the need to start out methodologically as a Christian, meaning allowing the ecumenical creeds’ grammar (i.e. Trinity, homoousion etc.) to impinge on one’s doctrine of Creation etc., which then also informs and shapes one’s doctrine and ontology of Scripture (which I allude to in this post), which then impinges on ones hermeneutic (as hermeneutic), and interpretation of Scripture. Wright does not start with God, he starts with the Bible–in my view–and as such the primary reality that God has spoken is taken too much for granted and not given the place of prominence that it ought to have for Wright; a practical consequence for me, then, is that God’s voice does not have the dominant and thus dynamic and relation spot it ought to have in what Wright offer’s (because of his thin posture toward Dogmatics and theological reasoning); instead the historian’s voice has more dominance, only working back to the voice of God. I also see Wright working from the classical mode of creation then Covenant, instead of seeing Covenant then creation (so Barth, Torrance, et al); which for my money, then, really does not allow Wright to out-flank Piper et al formally (even if materially he comes to different conclusions).

    But really this post has more to do with the existential impact that Wright’s offering offers. Like I said in the above post, I see Wright offering neat things and points through his historical work; but no neater than the prospects of Literary analysis offer; they are missing the depth theological and personal reality that invites us FIRST and methodologically to approach things through the primary reality that God has spoken Deus dixit, and for me, again, this has the consequent of elevating the historian’s word and diminishing God’s Word and Self-revelation and interpretation (a theological/dogmatic reality, which Wright does not emphasize except through his piety and after the fact [his historical work]) as the last and final Word. I think another thing, while I’m at it, that bothers me about Wright is that what he is offering is too closed, it is too totalizing, it is too modern, it is not open, and provides (like Dispensationalism) a closed conception of salvation instead of an open one (in the sense that Torrance would think of open see: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/an-open-system-of-theology-evangelical-calvinism-thomas-torrance-and-travis-stevick/).

    You guys should read this post though to better appreciate my brief word in the above post (that started this thread): https://growrag.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/a-mini-paper-in-rough-draft-form-rapproachment-between-biblical-studies-and-systematic-dogmatic-theology/

    And this one: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/the-problem-with-canonical-critical-biblical-interpretation-applied-to-nt-wright-and-others-making-sure-scriptures-meaning-is-not-history-contingent-but-instead-christ-contingent/

    I have more that flesh out my brief word further, but the above two should suffice. You all should really read them to understand my basic gist in this post. But really my point in this post has more to do with the way I walk away from Wright. Like I said, he offers some helpful neat things, but no neater, for me, than does cool literary analysic etc. But there needs to be a better more intentional emphasis upon the participatory element of biblical interpretation for Wright, and it is this devotio lacuna, at a methodological level that is missing in Wright, I would contend.

    I am not trying to make Wright be Barth or Torrance, or a dogmatic theologian; but insofar as he is labeled a theologian, I would like to hold his feet to the fire; at the moment I think his feet are burning a bit. I also want to avoid the conflation and thus confusion of piety for prolegomena; as has been noted, Wright has plenty of piety when it comes to his personal and pastoral and churchly predisposition, but this is different than my point, which has to do with prolegomena, which I think if better attended to has massive impact upon someone’s piety and prayerfulness in re. to interpreting Scripture from that vantage point at a methodological level.

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  13. WF,

    You’ll have to read some John Webster on this. Here:

    To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction. To speak of the historia Scripturae is to say that Scripture is what human persons author, and that its interpretation is what human persons do to get at the meaning so authored. In describing authoring or interpreting, language about God is superfluous, or merely ornamental, or invoked only as the remotest background condition for human communication. Further, priority is given to the generic features of the biblical writings and their interpretation – the features which they share with other texts and acts of interpretation – over the particular situation in which they function – over the particular situation in which they function – the situation, that is, of divine instruction. That situation is epiphenomenal: most basically, the ontology of the Bible and that of its readers is that of pure nature. Thus, for example, the category of ‘text’, with its linguistic, semantic and literary properties, comes to play a different role in modern study of the Bible from that which it plays in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the text’s linguistic, semantic and literary properties are signa mediating divine instruction, whereas for moderns they are not underlain by anything other than the processes of authorship or the history of religion. Even when the category of ‘text’ is supplemented by those of ‘scripture’ or ‘canon’, these refer largely to the use of and ascription of value to texts, and carry no metaphysical weight. Running parallel to the naturalization of the text there is the ‘deregionalization’ of practices of interpretation, a standardization of its operations and ends which takes its rise in a natural anthropology of the interpreter and interpretive reason. Nor are matters helped much by supplementary talk of ‘God’s “use” of the church’s use of scripture’, for here God’s agency remains consequent rather than initiatory.

    Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and hermeneutics requires, appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function? John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6. (from this post: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/john-webster-laughs-he-sighs-taking-the-bible-back-from-the-errantists-and-inerrantists/ )

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  14. Yippee, I just noticed that ‘The Domain of the Word’ will be released in paperback in March! I will finally purchase it.

    In the last couple years of seminary training at a mainline institution, I have done several exegetical papers, both in the Hebrew Bible and the GNT. As a result, with both of my professors (OT and NT) being explicitly anti-systematics, I am more convinced than ever of my Barth-Torrance-Webster approach to exegesis, which is basically the patristic approach as well.

    The divide between ST and BS is deep because we have fundamentally different ontologies of Scripture. Wright is merely a more conservative variant of the same ontology that arose in the modern period, which means that James Barr and Wright are really not that far apart. There is no bridge or compromise between these two approaches of ST and BS, even if I am happy to glean insights from both Barr and Wright. You will either be convinced of Webster’s able presentation of the ST approach, or you will be convinced of BS’s basic conviction that exegesis is determined by contextual reconstruction. Wright is as good as it gets, using the latter methodology, and it is wholly opposed to what Barth was doing in his Romerbrief, for example. Barth is convinced that Paul’s letter is speaking directly to his situation as a Swiss pastor in the struggles of early 20th century Europe, just as Luther and Calvin did in their exegesis of Romans in their day. Is Barth’s Romerbrief a distortion of Paul or a genuine commentary? It is the latter according to Webster; it is the former according to Barr and Wright.

    Okay, I clearly cannot stop commenting!

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  15. Interesting stuff, Bobby! And an even more interesting discussion.
    Much has already been said. I’m inclined to think one aspect of the problem is not mentioned yet. That is that we, in our age, are thinking different about history in comparison with – say – people in the 4th or 16th century. Look at Rembrandt’s paintings. He paints the biblical figures, wearing 17th century clothes f.ex. Why was that? Because he wasn’t (fully) aware of the ‘ugly ditch’ (Lessing) between different times. The real discovery of history, as a discipline, took place at the end of the 18th century. It is since then that we are fully aware of the gap between us and ‘them’. So, knowing what ‘they’ thought, felt, believed, etc. asks for historical investigation. That’s how history as a science works.
    And that’s how Tom Wright works as a New Testament scholar. And rightly so: that’s what his book is about. Barth, on the contrary, didn’t write his Römerbrief in a historical way. That is to say: he didn’t use the historical method in his book. He had important reasons for doing what he did, but as a result his book wasn’t historically scientific. That’s not to say that his exposition is worthless. Far from that. It was right on target. But it means according to me that its ‘truth-value’ is in a different category. Historically spoken, it basically isn’t a reliable guide to Paul’s letter to the Romans. But that is not to deny that Barth, in his Römerbrief, makes quite a few important and true theological statements.

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  16. @Kevin,

    You know I really agree with you! I can’t wait to see what you think of Webster’s book once you read it.

    @Arjen,

    Yeah. I understand who NTW is. But that’s not really my point. He is offering something, more than who he is; and he is offering what he is offering in an almost totalizing way. He shouldn’t do that. Sure we can critically benefit from him in that way. But I think he should, at least, encourage and not discourage Christian dogmatic thinking. He really doesn’t. Anyway, like I said in the post, I have learned and am learning from him. But I also wanted to say that there is more to be said, not less. The history is important to get right, but history needs to be framed as it is; theologically and Christ centeredly, from Christian intention w/o excuse. NTW’s methodology, in my view, necessarily trumps the possibility for a Christian method to things, and as such needs to be called on that a bit; especially given his massive impact and appeal. And so in my small way, that’s what I was offering in my brief word above.

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  17. Myself as a Brit, and just a year younger than old Tom Wright, I have steadily read all of his books over the years, and watched him change. I mean we all change as theolog’s! My greatest change came after I served in Gulf War I (RMC, Royal Marine officer, now Retired) and then finishing one of my theological doctorates, and then personally living and teaching in Israel in the latter 90’s. But let’s just say, I have out-grown Wright and his so-called “Open Evangelicalism”! Though, I too have his latest Pauline offerings. I won’t labor the subject, save to say I have turned back (since about 1993) to the more Classic form of the Reformation with both Luther and Calvin (however a more modern form of Neo-Calvinism, as Frame and Poythress)… save of course a Zionist (biblical) approach toward Modern Israel… Historic Premillennial, and Post-trib., with the Progressive Dispensational. Yes, an old conservative Anglican eclectic! 😉 May we all just keep rocking-on in our biblical and theological pursuits, but never forgetting the/our great pastoral responsibilities! 🙂

    Fr. Robert

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  18. Btw, just a note, but my critical aspects of Wright have especially become more so, since I have been living in America (last 5 years or so). My little brother (51) and a one time US Marine (he was in Beirut Lebanon, during the American Marine bombing), 80’s. He is now an American citizen. The point is, I am somewhat offended now, that I hear and see Wright speaking against America’s military aspects, and his ignorance too of Dispensational history and ongoing theology! Not to mention the British history in Afghanistan! (Knowing a few RMC’s and British soldiers who have given their lives there!) Funny, I find it hard more so over these issues, than when we were disagreeing (as Anglicans) on the CoE’s women issues. But these are closer and more personal! But of course we all come from somewhere. Mine is certainly more conservative, with my father, great-uncles, uncles, etc. serving in WW II. (RIP all now!) One of my older cousins was killed in Anzio, RIP! Not to mention my own military history! So I find Wright only speaking from his perch of the Theologian’s Ivory Tower, and own liberal ideology! And this is so very easy! So now, this is not just ideology for me, though I am most certainly a real conservative! And I will not hide this! Just speaking from my own place and experience. 🙂

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