31 July 2008

Richard Bell's Conversion from the New Perspective

Richard Bell teaches theology at the University of Nottingham in north-central England. He had a dramatic conversion experience as a student investigating All Souls Church in London (where John Stott and Richard Bewes were rectors). He shares his story here. After finishing his PhD in theoretical atomic physics, he went to Oxford and then Tubingen to study theology. His dissertation was written under Peter Stuhlmacher on Rom 9-11. He's written three NT monographs (1994, 1998, 2005, all published in the WUNT series).

I mention him because of the fascinating autobiographical account that opens up the third of his monographs (The Irrevocable Call of God - yours for only $165, which at 550 pp is 3 pages per dollar).

When I studied theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, the "new perspective" on Paul was starting to dominate British scholarship and like many others I adopted this new approach. There was a certain excitement in arguing that the traditional Lutheran approach to Paul was mistaken. We could now set the record straight: Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness and neither was Paul criticizing Judaism for being such. I was particularly attracted to the work of N. T. Wright (now Bishop of Durham) who argued that Paul’s criticism of Judaism was not for works-righteousness but for ‘national righteousness’, i.e. trying to confine God’s grace to herself and not sharing it with the Gentiles. As I started my curacy in the Diocese of London I studied Romans in detail and decided that one of the best ways to understand this great epistle was to preach through it. . . . I applied the new perspective to Romans and when I reached Romans 9:29 took a holiday. It was to be a theological holiday. I spent some time in Bonn reading German protestant work on Paul, then traveled further through Germany eventually reaching the charming town of Tübingen where I had arranged to meet Professors Hofius and Stuhlmacher. Meeting them and reading their work (and that of Professor Martin Hengel) was to change the direction of my theological thinking. When I returned to England and to Romans (at Romans 9.30!) I found myself taking a more traditional ‘Lutheran’ approach and I (and the congregation) discovered that my sermons were beginning to make much more sense of the text. (My consolation about those earlier ‘new perspective’ sermons is that I happen to have a ‘high’ view of preaching, i.e. even if the exegesis of the text is not right, God can nevertheless speak to his people.)


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