Allan Bevere, a rare combination of pastor and professor, and I will now begin a series of looking at N.T. (Tom) Wright’s new book, Paul, In Fresh Perspective. We will do two chps per week, Monday and Thursday, if our plans work out. Today’s post is a summary (by McKnight) of the first chapter and a response to the chapter by Bevere. Why don’t you read with us? If you can’t, go ahead and ask questions anyway. Wright studies in this chp Paul’s context — both historical and modern. What are the major influences on the Apostle Paul’s thinking?
1. The Three Worlds of Paul
Oddly, Wright actually has four worlds for Paul: Judaism, the Greek world, the Roman world, and then the ecclesial/church world in which Paul creates his response to and within the first three. Tom Wright has clearly landed in new territory in the last few years with his emphasis on Paul as someone seriously challenging Caesar (see his What Saint Paul Really Said). What made Paul unique was that he “had been entrusted with a Jewish message for the whole world” (5). Thus, on p. 6: this all meant “embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination, while being both more and less than a simple combination of elements from within those three.”
I would add (McKnight) that Wright is not thinking simplistically here: it is that Paul embodies a gospel expression of Israel’s story at a particular time (history, meta-history) and in a particular place.
This leads Wright back to his grids: narratives, symbols, praxis, and questions. And then Wright extensively sums up what he means by narrative and its significance. He chafes at those who think this means the death of systemic thinking and he chafes at other New Perspective scholars (Sanders, Dunn) for not seeing enough narrative in Paul’s theology. And he chafes at those who deny the narrative as if it is the undoing of Reformation theology — he’s now taken on just about all his critics.
In essence, the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus opened up a new chapter in the narrative story of Israel. The story does not illustrate the systemic thinking; the story is the thing itself.
2. Fighting over Paul’s Legacy
This is worth the price of the book: pp. 13-17. Here Wright locates, deconstructs, and re-shapes Pauline scholarship into both historically-conditioned and at the same time there is no other way. He again restates his penchant defense for a “robust critical realism” (15). He contextualizes Schweitzer, Bultmann, Davies, Stendahl, Käsemann, J.Louis Martyn, E.P. Sanders [where’s Dunn, Tom?], Hays, Engberg-Pedersen, Horsley — and ordinary Christians (who don’t know about any of this and love Paul).
He opts for real texts, for fresh readings, and for the presence of the Holy Spirit. He then pokes at the “fashions” of our day — like the non-Pauline authorship of Eph/Col, and of the value of Acts for material about Paul (which he then playfully says he’ll have to avoid to make his statement credible).
Wright begins ready to offer some fresh insights on Paul and his theology. As a pastor and a professor, I take great heart in his comment on page x of the preface, that reminds us of the integrated nature of theology and practice: “The church and the academy both urgently need a new generation of preachers and teachers who will give themselves totally to the delighted study of the text and allow themselves to be taken wherever it leads, to think new thoughts arising out of the text and to dare to try them out in word and deed.” In the first chapter, Wright begins the journey of allowing Paul to lead him through the richness of his thought.
Wright’s discussion of the central place of narrative is going to form the structure of his argument. His insistence that story is central and not just beside the point is necessary to comprehending what he will do in the rest of the book. Of particular interest to me is his criticism (rightly so) of those who reject the centrality of narrative believing it puts “‘story’ over against ‘doctrine'” (p. 7). Years ago, theologian Nicolas Lash argued that doctrine should be understood as grammatical constraint, that is, doctrine should provide the framework for how one discusses theology. In the same way, it seems to me, that Wright is using story as the indispensable framework for understanding doctrine; in other words, as doctrine is the grammar of theology, so narrative is the grammar of doctrine. Thus any pitting of story over against doctrine will, by necessity, distort the nature of doctrine precisely because it is story that makes doctrine intelligible. Thus Wright can correctly claim that while history and theology are not the same, they are inseparable (pp. 14-15).
This is to say that Wright will not only poke and prod at the biblical scholars (i.e. authorship questions, questions of high christology and the New Testament), but he will needle the theologians as well (i.e. justification by faith, rethinking the doctrine of God); and his argument, no doubt, will be formidable.