03 September 2019

A Few Passing Thoughts on "God and the Faithfulness of Paul"

I ordered the 2017 volume God and the Faithfulness of Paul--the title of which is a little too cute as a response to N. T. Wright's 2013 magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God--only so that I could read one essay, the one by Seyoon Kim critiquing Wright yet again on Wright's alleged anti-imperial polemic in Paul, which is relevant to a research project I'm working on. But I got sucked in as I began skimming a few of the other chapters. And reading Wright's response at the end of the book made me want to go see what the contributors had actually said. So I began reading the essays one by one.

What a fascinating book. The editors have done a good job bringing together a diverse collection of authors to engage with Wright. They deserve our thanks.

A few reflections, amid broad appreciation for this volume.

The Key Critique of Wright

It was striking to see a consistent refrain coming through from this very diverse group of contributors. The common thread of critique throughout the essays, amid much deep appreciation, was as follows:

Wright's brilliant and creative connecting of the dots, his shaping of the master-story of which Paul believed himself and his readers to be participants, refreshingly resists the staid categories within which the New Testament has been read for the past several generations (law/gospel, the objectivity of justification vs the subjectivity of the Spirit, covenant vs dispensational theology, etc) and rethinks Paul from the ground up; and yet the very creativity of Wright's schema of monotheism/election/eschatology, all reworked around Jesus as Messiah and the spirit (he doesn't like capitalizing the third Person of the Trinity), is itself at times imposed onto the text to fit neatly with Wright's broader reading of Paul.

In other words, his gift for seeing the forest makes one wonder if he is misreading some of the trees.

I find this critique accurate, time-tested, and confirming of my own reading of Wright over the years.

Why No Historical Theology?

One of the temptations and weaknesses of the New Testament guild is to neglect church history and historical theology. This is understandable; as Wright laments in his closing essay, one cannot possibly master even the contemporary literature on Paul, let alone what others over the centuries have said. Even to master the literature on a single Pauline letter is itself a full-time job--and of course, as soon as you feel on top of the secondary literature, a fresh wave of journal articles and monographs appears and the mastery instantly vanishes!

But it does not follow that just because one cannot cover all the contemporary perspective therefore one should say nothing about historical perspectives. In his 2009 justification book, Wright repeated aligned himself with Calvin as over against Luther. But the way he cast the two key reformers bent both of them out of shape, especially Luther. Why not have a chapter in the 2017 volume on Wright's reading of the reformers, or just of Calvin? Someone like Mike Allen or Mike Horton or Gerald Bray or Tony Lane could have provided a fascinating essay. The essay on a postmodern reading of Wright could easily have been dropped to make room for such a chapter.

Befitting the current academic climate, there's a chapter putting Wright in dialogue with Barth--but Wright doesn't engage with Barth in his books. He does engage with Calvin and others. And Barth's own historical hero was Calvin. Go to Calvin and see what he and the reformers would say of Wright's vision of Pauline theology. (This volume did just this.)

One way we can learn from Wright without letting him set all the terms in such discussions (putting us in danger of missing key questions that Paul probes but Wright doesn't) is to ask what thinkers 200 and 500 and 900 years ago were saying about Paul's letters.

As C. S. Lewis put it, there are two ways to get out of your own time and thus expose your generation's blind spots: (1) Get in a time machine and travel into the future and see what writers are saying about Paul; (2) Get in a time machine and travel into the past and do so. We can't do #1, but we can do #2, and we miss a great opportunity for fresh insight if we don't.

The Cappadocians and the Puritans and the Princeton School didn't have the Dead Sea Scrolls or SBL. But their insight into what Paul was saying often outstrips our own, sometimes in surprising, refreshing ways.

Why Ignore the Evangelicals?

Several of the contributors are pretty obscure, with some not even working in New Testament. In his closing response essay, Wright points this out more than once. While he appreciated the response from Gregory Sterling on the need to bolster Wright's reading of Paul through engagement with philosophy, Wright was rightly mystified by the essays of a few others who simply were not tracking with his argument (see Andrew McGowan's comments about Wright's use of "symbol" language as an example).

More broadly, I was surprised at how little evangelical scholarship was engaged, by which I mean the work of those who teach at confessional Protestant institutions and who take all 13 letters attributed to Paul as authentically Pauline. Some of the best Paul work is being done by evangelicals--Doug Moo, Greg Beale, Frank Thielman, Don Carson, Clint Arnold, Bob Yarbrough, and others. Tom Schreiner's contribution to Paul study was discussed in the opening essay, but that was about it.

Perhaps if Doug Moo's Pauline theology (in the big Zondervan series that Andreas Kostenberger is editing) had been available, Doug's work would have been more involved in the discussion--it would have been a fascinating exercise to put Moo and Wright in dialogue. But aside from the few pages putting Wright in interaction with Tom Schreiner, there is almost no interaction with evangelical scholarship. One reason that's striking to me is that Wright himself in more than one place has identified Doug Moo as among the most incisive of his critics--"a truly great Paul scholar" were Wright's words. So why not make him a major dialogue partner?

A Few of the More Interesting Chapters

Some of the essays were less useful, connected only glancingly with Wright's project. But a few are worth pointing out as particularly worth reading.

Benjamin Schliesser opened with an essay of impressive breadth as he placed Wright's Paul work among others. The discussion of Dunn vis-a-vis Wright was fascinating. As just mentioned, too bad there wasn't more engagement with evangelicals.

Seyoon Kim's essay built on John Barclay's strong critique of Wright's reading of Paul in which Rome looms large as a foil to Paul's gospel and the proclamation of Jesus (not Caesar) as Lord. Kim incisively shows why Wright's claim is overdone. It is not Rome and Caesar in themselves that are the threat to the church--it is Sin and Death and the Flesh that are the problems, problems which manifest themselves through Rome and in many other earthly constructs, but the problem is deeper than a particular imperial construct in itself.

Dunn's essay was a real chuckler. He's in the "scholars-who-have-nothing-left-to-prove-and-simply-say-what-they-think" bucket. Wright lamented in his closing essay Dunn's "schoolmasterish" tone, but I found Dunn's comments right on, with the exception of Dunn's continued skepticism toward the recent consensus building around an early high christology championed by Bauckham and Hurtado.

Sigurd Grindheim was masterful in treating Wright on election and showing that Israel's basic failure was not so much that they were not a light to the nations but, more deeply, that they did not trust and love the Lord above all.

The elderly Peter Stuhlmacher is always a joy to read, representing (with Martin Hengel) the best of German NT scholarship in my view, appreciating the New Perspective but retaining the deep and right anthropology that understands the perversity of fallen humanity and Paul's solution to it in the gospel as lying deeper than ethnic exclusivism and corporate inclusion, respectively.

Eckhard Schnabel's engagement with Wright's understanding of "mission" helps fill out and at points correct Wright's explications of conversion, evangelism, and the saving nature of the gospel. It is a firm, clear, and needed essay--though the objection to Wright calling Paul's travels "endless" and "restless," asserting that Paul's travels did come to an end and that surely Paul rested from time to time, was bizarre.

And then there's Wright's lengthy closing essay, filled with the usual elegant prose and gentlemanly appreciation of most of the essays, combined with annoyance at others caricaturing him (despite his own caricaturing of others) and, at times, magically melting away substantive disagreements with a wave of his monotheism-election-eschatology wand and Voila, all objections go poof!

In Closing . . .

Fascinating book. Interesting to see how others are understanding Wright, and good to keep benefiting from Wright himself, who is a gift to the church when read duly critically. But I hope collections of essays like this one don't reinforce the impression that NT scholarship doesn't need the insights of pre-Enlightenment readers of Paul.

And Doug, please get that Pauline theology in our hands quick as you can!

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