Paul and the Faithfulness of God: A Review

Article by   July 2014
wrightfaithfulness93.jpg

N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. London/Minneapolis: SPCK/Fortress, 2013. pp. 1658. $57.99 /£44.99

Let me begin by stating the fact that most obviously strikes the recipient of a copy of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (henceforth, PFG): it is 1658 pages long. At one point, probably about a third of the way or half-way through, I had a feeling which - unprompted - interpreted itself in words similar to those of John Newton's Amazing Grace: 'When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun | We've no less days to sing God's praise, as when we first begun'. I felt at this stage at the book that, having read hundreds and hundreds of pages, I still had as many to go as I did when I first begun. One of the chapters is over 250 pages. But I did make it all the way through to what I assume was the George Herbert allusion at the end.

No-one could read this book and not learn an enormous amount. In addition to Wright's well-known interest in the 'big picture' there is also close reading of a great number of passages in Paul, some of which are revisited again and again. There is the characteristic confidence of tone, and - in contrast to how Pauline scholars feel sometimes - there are very few places in the epistles which are opaque to Wright. There is some excellent cut-and-thrust dueling with other scholars as well, especially in the closing chapters where there are extended lively debates with John Barclay (on empire), Troels Engberg-Pedersen (on Paul and Stoicism) and Francis Watson (on Jewish exegesis).

Wright's work is the product of an individual voice within Pauline scholarship. My use of 'individual' here is not a Sir-Humphrey-like way of saying 'eccentric', but rather that PFG cannot be said to belong to a particular 'school' of Pauline interpretation. There is some affinity to other Pauline scholarship, perhaps especially the work of the dedicand, Richard Hays. But one cannot summarise this book as a New Perspective, anti-Empire, narrative treatment of Paul, because, for example, Wright's disagreements with other new-perspectivists and other Paul-and-empire advocates are very marked indeed. In some ways, Wright's approach is anti-traditional - some of his favourite targets are Lutheran readings of Paul, pietistic understandings of the life after death (e.g. p.188), and understanding Paul 'in terms of an abstract theological system' (p.1176). On the other hand he is rare in current New Testament scholarship for seeing Paul as, in some sense, the author (I think) of all thirteen Pauline epistles New Testament, though the position on 1 Timothy and Titus is a little unclear (p.61). Or, perhaps more accurately, he is a rare example of someone who is open about his convictions on this matter. Acts is similarly treated with a healthy scepticism of scepticism. The atonement is understood to a large extent in traditional terms, as substitutionary and penal (even if perhaps its main emphasis lies elsewhere). Wright also joins together what man sometimes puts asunder. He is much happier with an integrative approach which rejects the antithesis of juridical versus incorporative approaches to Pauline soteriology, seeing such a contrast as a 'category mistake' (p.530, cf. p.991). Again, the atonement is not either representative or substitutionary, but both (p.865, with respect to Gal. 3.13). Furthermore, the apocalyptic lion lies down with the narrative lamb in Wright's account. Wright, then, clearly does not belong to a particular party.

Summary 

To summarise a book of over 1500 pages - roughly 800,000 words, or 25 times the length of the 13-letter Pauline corpus and probably longer than the Bible - in a sentence might be thought a foolhardy enterprise, but I think it can be done, because of the book's overall coherence. Its central contention, at least as far as Paul's theology is concerned, is as follows: Paul inherited from his pre-Christian Judaism the central foci of monotheism, election and eschatology, and he retained but fundamentally rethought all of these in the light of Christ and the Spirit. These are the three major focal points of Jewish thought, 'one God, one people of God, one future for God's world', each of which is 'substantially reinterpreted, reworked, around the Messiah and the spirit' (p.46). We can expand a little on each of these three themes. 

Monotheism is rethought especially in the light of the fact that God has not only acted through Christ but - in a strong sense - in Christ. Jesus was not merely messiah of Israel according to the flesh, but God over all, to be forever praised, Amen (Rom. 9.5). In particular, this 'Christological monotheism' is expressed in Paul's reformulation of the Shema, which in 1 Cor. 8.6 speaks both of one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. The way Paul speaks of the Spirit is also crucial for Paul's monotheism according to Wright.

Election is reformulated in a manner which would have seemed strange to many of Paul's contemporaries but which nevertheless was fundamentally consistent both with the promises to Abraham and the destiny of the Messiah. In the former case, God had promised to bring blessing to the nations, and in the latter that the nations would be the inheritance of the Messiah: hence, the inclusion of the gentiles is a key element according to which the new covenant family of God is to be understood, so that the Messiah's people come from both Jews and gentiles, and indeed constitute a kind of third race.

Eschatology is also freshly understood, because the Messiah has come. It is not as simple as that, however, because the Messiah has come in the middle of time, and so the end has come in the middle. Furthermore, a great number of Paul's fellow-Jews have not responded to the Gospel, and so what remains in the 'last days' in which Paul lives is not merely the ingathering of the nations but also the expansion of the remnant of Israel. In the end, Jesus will judge the world - in a judgment not understood primarily as punishment (though this is included), but as setting right everything which has gone wrong.

This summary is at risk of downplaying a key additional set of dimensions in both Judaism and Paul, namely 'story', 'praxis', 'symbol' and 'questions' (p.33). One should add, furthermore, that the whole account of Paul's world-view and theology is discussed in the context of philosophy, empire and pagan religion. Unfortunately we will not have room in this review to touch on these latter issues, which is a shame, because it is where Wright gets into the thick of some juicy contemporary debates in Pauline scholarship. (The feisty challenges to Engberg-Pedersen and Barclay in particular will require rejoinders.) Here, I will expand upon aspects of the three main themes, monotheism, election and eschatology, and offer some responses.

Monotheism

Wright's construal of Paul's Jewish monotheism is, to my mind, admirable. The emphasis on the way in which the God of Israel is understood by Paul in terms of 'Christological Monotheism' is, to my mind, exactly correct. In line with the exegesis of scholars such as Richard Bauckham, Wright sees passages such as 1 Corinthians 8.6 and Philippians 2.6-11 as reflecting a view of God in which the crucified Jesus has a central place in the Shema. He even goes so far as to speculate (admitting it is a speculation) that Paul might have regularly recited the reformulated Shema of 1 Cor. 8.6 in the same manner in which he had previously recited the Shema of Deuteronomy: 'for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.' (1 Cor. 8.6). On the broader theme of the Christological reinterpretation of election, I had minor quibbles about some points. I am not as convinced as Wright is that we can easily identify the impulse which led Paul to come to the conclusions that he did. I wonder whether the combination of (a) the return to Zion motif, and (b) Wisdom theology, played such an important role in the development of Paul's Christology (655). Indeed, one might wonder whether it is necessary (or for that matter, possible) to try to identify from Paul's letters how he came to the Christology that he did. For Wright, such scepticism might I suppose appear to be an abdication of the historical task. But on the other hand, we know so little about the so-called "tunnel period" between c. 30-50 CE: we know what the Christology of Paul's earliest letters looked like at the end of the tunnel, but before that, the outlook is dark, or at least rather gloomy.

Election

Election is a thornier issue because it contains within it, in Wright's presentation, the theme of justification (p.926). It is important to note in any discussion about this book that it is not a book primarily about justification by faith, or a defence of the 'New Perspective on Paul' (whatever that is!). 

I note one way in which there is perhaps a slight movement in Wright's manner of expression. In his 1997 book, What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright contrasted two approaches to justification: 'Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. . . . In standard Christian language, it wasn't so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church' (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.119). In a more recent volume, however, the doctrine of justification is both thoroughly soteriological and ecclesiological at the same time: he denies that one can be considered primary and the other secondary (Justification, p. 144; cf. pp. 105, 111). Here again in PFG, Wright resists strongly the accusation that he collapses soteriology into ecclesiology (p.xvi): justification is a soteriological theme (one among many), which is also about the definition of the people of God (e.g. p.971).

At risk of going over old territory, I want just to mention a few points in connection with justification, works of the Law, and some related matters.

Righteousness/Justification 

First, a point of confusion, which I freely admit may be one in my own mind rather than in PFG. In his discussion of dikaioō ('justify' - pp. 945-946), Wright states - contrary to what I have always assumed him to be saying - that God's justifying of the believer is 'not a description'; it is rather a declaration, which 'creates and constitutes a new situation, a new status' (p.946). I am puzzled partly because Wright has always polemicized sharply against the idea that justification is 'how one becomes a Christian' (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.125), or the like. Rather, '"Justification" is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis [sc. "faith"] and no other' (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.133). This sounds to me to be something like an emphatic description, a (public) confirmation, a matter of definition - another term which Wright very frequently uses in connection with justification. To take one example: 'For Paul, "the gospel" creates the church; justification defines it' (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.151). Perhaps part of the difficulty here is that the word 'define' very often means 'describe exactly the way a thing is', but can also mean something like 'fix' or 'decide' something not yet fixed or decided. But less ambiguously, Wright has stated: 'Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian' (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.125). I do not see how this can refer to anything but a description. Again, in a discussion of Gal. 2.15-16 in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright defines justification: 'At a stroke, Paul has told us what it means to be "declared righteous". It means to have God acknowledge that you are a member of "Israel", a "Jew", one of the "covenant family"... Justification is all about being declared to be a member of God's people' (PFG, p.856; italics original). Again, the natural reading of the language of divine 'acknowledgement that you are X' is that it refers to recognition of what is already the case.

What confuses me, then, is that the event of justification 'creates and constitutes a new situation, a new status' but at the same time is not the event in which one moves from not being a Christian to being a Christian. Or to put it differently, if justification emphatically does not refer to the event of 'becoming a Christian' (as Wright clearly states it does not), but emphatically is the event of God granting someone the status of covenant membership or the event of being 'reckoned to be part of the covenant family' (PFG, p.930) (as Wright equally clearly thinks), then this seems to drive an unfortunate wedge between becoming a Christian and becoming a covenant/family member. I feel slightly embarrassed to have to write here that, despite considering myself a reasonably intelligent person and having read almost everything Wright has published on the subject of justification, I remain slightly puzzled as to what kind of event justification is on his view.

Second, and more importantly, I still remain unconvinced about Wright's interpretation of 'righteousness' language in Paul. In PFG as in Wright's previous work, the verb 'justify' means 'declare to be a member of the covenant', and the noun 'righteousness' therefore is 'covenant membership': to both of these, glosses about the family are frequently added, so that righteousness means something like a certificate of adoption. To cite one clear example, in his interpretation of Gal. 2.16:

'Words mean what they mean within their sentences and contexts, and dikaiōthōmen here must refer to God's declaration that all believers are part of his family' (p.968).

I will touch here upon (i) a historical-theological point, (ii) an apparent inconsistency in Wright's treatment, (iii) the Jewish background, and (iv) the Pauline usage.

(i) First, Wright appeals, here as elsewhere (e.g. Justification, p.80, and frequently in Pauline Perspectives), to Alister McGrath's authoritative history of the doctrine of justification as grounds for the claim that the meanings of justification in Paul and in the history of dogma, are quite different: 'the word has long since ceased to mean, in ecclesial debates, what it meant for Paul itself' (PFG, p.913). At one level, this of course is a truism: 'justification' has meant so many things that it is hard to see how Paul could be even in theory consistent with all the various proposals in the history of the church. It could be said, however, that all that Wright's appeal to McGrath amounts to is that each of them understands the New Testament differently from what one might call the broad areas of agreement in the Protestant tradition. In fact, they each disagree with this Protestant tradition for different reasons. This is readily apparent when one compares McGrath's account of justification in the Bible immediately prior to the publication of his Iustitia Dei, and Wright's work on justification from the same time.(1)

(ii) Second, there is a matter of consistency in Wright's treatment of 'righteousness'. I don't intend here to quibble with the understanding of dikaiosunē Theou as covenant faithfulness or covenant justice. But it does seem to me an inconsistency to identify human dikaiosunē in second-temple Judaism and Paul as covenant membership without reference to (or certainly without emphasis upon) faithfulness - in particular, without containing the element of 'doing', i.e. very different in its semantics from the divine version. (Cf. the insistence in What Saint Paul Really Said, p.124, that God's righteousness is covenant faithfulness; ours is covenant membership.) Why not translate dikaiosunē consistently as 'covenant faithfulness', whomever it belongs to? I would argue that this makes perfect sense in Paul, who saw the event of justification as God reckoning to the believer the status of one who had fulfilled all the covenant stipulations of the divine will. 

(iii) Third, the sense of righteousness in Jewish literature. Here I have serious reservations about understanding 'righteousness' as 'covenant membership': the problem is with the latter part, not the covenantal nature of righteousness. Righteousness is something you do (as well as being about not doing certain things), and also the status you have when you have done it. This is apparent in OT passages such as Deut. 6.25: 'And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.' 'Righteousness' is often paired with words such as 'justice' (1 Kgs 10.9), 'integrity' (Ps. 7.8), 'cleanness of hands' (Ps. 18.20). Its frequent antonym is 'wickedness' (Deut. 9.4-5; Job 35.8; Ps. 45.7; Prov. 10.2; 11.5; Eccl. 3.16; Ezek. 18.20; 33.12; cf. Rom. 6.13; Heb. 1.9). Of course 'righteousness' is as Wright points out, relational and covenantal, but it is about doing what the Lord has instituted in the covenant, obeying its (and therefore his) terms. The 'doing' that I have mentioned above is not general 'doing good' in some abstract sense, as if about amassing merits, but the 'doing' specifically of what God has commanded. At one point Wright gives as a sense of righteousness, 'covenant behaviour' (p.802; cf. pp.796-798), but this has no impact on his wider Pauline discussion of passages in Romans and Galatians. It seems to me to be just an impossibility at the philological level to see dikaiosunē as meaning 'membership within the covenant'. I am not aware of any OT or postbiblical Jewish writing where dikaiosunē has this sense. (Wright often quotes the Phinehas parallel between Num. 25.12-13/Ps. 106.31, but this commits the fallacy that parallelism means synonymy.) If there is no substantive evidence for this meaning in the OT and Judaism, it should surely be abandoned. 

(iv) In consequence, it is hard to see that Pauline usage of 'justification' and 'righteousness' can be about family membership. Of course in Galatians membership of God's (and Abraham's) family is an important theme, but this cannot easily be read backwards into the justification discourse in Galatians 2. Table-fellowship at the Antioch incident does not necessarily imply that what was at stake was a family eating together: then as now, lots of different groups share table-fellowship. In Cambridge today, many academics - rightly or wrongly - eat just as frequently with other college fellows as they do with their families. In the Roman empire in Paul's day, cultic meals, including meals with other members of one's guild, were part of the fabric of society. Family language only appears in two places in the surrounding context of the justification language in Galatians 2: in connection with the 'false brothers' (Gal. 2.4) and Jesus being Son of God (Gal. 2.20).

This concern with 'definition' relates too to 'works of the Law'. As mentioned above, Wright occasionally makes reference to 'covenant behaviour' and related ideas, but much more influential upon his wider discussion is the role of works as defining

There is an interesting passage in PFG in which Wright defines 'what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by "justification by the works of the law"' (PFG, p.184, italics original). The four components are as follows: (1) God will judge the world and reckon some people in the right; (2) certain works in the present define those who will be acquitted at that judgment; (3) those works mark out loyal members of the covenant from disloyal ones; (4) 'as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present' (p.184). These elements are then applied very closely to the specifics of the document '4QMMT' from the Dead Sea Scrolls (p.185).

I may of course be criticised for being simplistic at this point, but this seems to me to be overly convoluted. This four-fold scheme seems to me to over-complicate matters by importing a concern with definition which is not of direct concern in the texts. We can look at the particular case of 4QMMT here, where Wright's application of item (4) above reads: 'therefore you can tell in the present who will be "vindicated" or "justified" in the future, because they are the people who, here and now, are performing this "selection of works of the Law". Do these things, and "it will be reckoned to you as righteousness"' (p.185). My objection to this sort of language is that 4QMMT does not claim to be talking about how you might - from a bird's eye view, as it were - be able to see in the present who will be reckoned as righteous in the future. What it says is: the things we have written about are good for you; reflect on them; you will find at the end of time that they are true; 'do what is upright and good', and it will be reckoned as righteousness to you (cf. again Deut. 6.25). 

As a result, on Wright's (correct) assumption that this framework in 4QMMT is a more widely held scheme, it seems to me that one could more easily gloss 'what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by "justification by the works of the law"' as follows: (1) God will judge the world and reckon some people in the right; (2) the criterion of judgment will be obedience to the Torah ('works of the Law', 'doing what is upright and good'); (3) therefore obey the Torah! 

Certainly 4QMMT is engaged in a debate about what how rightly to interpret what the works of the Law really are. In fact, though, it is only concerned with giving the correct interpretation of some of the works of the Law (miqsat ma'ase ha-Torah). The shared assumption of author and reader alike is, presumably, that obedience to the Law (which of course needs to be understood correctly) leads to being reckoned as righteous.

I am actually rather happier with the way Wright puts it elsewhere: as for example, in the discussion of Leviticus 18.5: 'Torah insists on obedience as the way to "life" (as it was bound to...). But where this obedience has not been forthcoming the Abrahamic promises are blocked. It looks as though Jews will not inherit the promises, because of their failure to keep Torah, and gentiles, because Torah excludes them anyway.' (PFG, p.973). However, when it comes to defining justification, it is cast differently, along the lines of Wright's (I would say, overconvoluted) interpretation of 4QMMT: 'That model (the signs in the present which tell, already, who will inherit the coming age) remains in Paul. His doctrine of "justification" has a similar shape' (p.930). Here it is precisely the element which is introduced against the grain of 4QMMT which defines the shape (though not the content) of justification in Paul. 

Eschatology

This leads naturally into Wright's final element in the triad, eschatology. Part of the reason for the way in which Wright frames the justification/election discussion in the way in which he does is because he sees the view of the age to come in Judaism as not particularly concerned with the destinies of individual souls. There are two parts to this: Wright's emphasis on (a) the materialism (in a positive sense) of Jewish eschatology, and (b) its primarily corporate/national - as opposed to individualistic - nature. Central to the Jewish worldview is how the nation takes the story forward (p.116) in context of exile (p.140, p.158). In short, their concern was '"deliverance of the country". Not "must contribute to their own post-mortem life of bliss in heaven"' (p.188). Both of these emphases in Jewish eschatology carry over mutatis mutandis into the Pauline view.

As far as (a) the materialism of Jewish and Pauline eschatology is concerned, I am in basic agreement. As Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 make clear, one's final destiny is not 'going to heaven' after death, though there is an 'intermediate state' of being with Jesus in anticipation of the great resurrection and life in the age to come. Wright continues the emphasis here which he expounded at length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. I suppose my slight reservation lies in the presentation: the continuous polemic against a spiritualised heavenly eschatology becomes a little repetitive. Of course there are many people in the world who believe that our final destiny consists of our souls going to heaven when we die. Wright explicitly mentions American Evangelical Protestantism of the popular variety, at e.g. PFG, p.142 and n. 271. But such people are not the people who are going to read this book. In fact, ironically, the main scholarly target of Wright's polemic against 'going to heaven' is someone who is about as far removed from popular American evangelicalism as one could imagine, namely Troels Engberg-Pedersen (pp.1399-1400).

On the matter of (b) individualism, I have a little more reservation. Wright asks: 'were the Christians aware, or were they not aware, of living within a narrative that was larger than that of their own sin, salvation and spirituality' (p.460). For Wright, this is even what the New Perspective on Paul was all about. Wright argues that all dimensions of eschatology - of the individual, the church, Israel and the world - are important, but that there is a series of concentric circles: the story of the world envelops the story of Israel; in turn, the story of Israel consists of her liberation from the curse of the Law, along with the ingrafting into Israel of believing gentiles; in turn, the story of the individual is enfolded into all of the larger stories. How does this affect the importance of personal salvation? Wright insists that it matters (p.164), but maintains (i) that it is not about the soul going to heaven (see on (a) above); (ii) 'that it is in any case not the main topic of most of the texts', and (iii) that it is not the main narrative which they are trying to explicate' (p.165): in the New Testament as a whole 'the rescue of human beings from sin and death, which remains vital throughout, serves a much larger purpose, namely that of God's restorative justice for the whole of creation' (p.165). 

The argument here is, at risk of caricature, that big is better. The broader the canvas and the more all-encompassing the narrative, the more important the theme is. But I'm not sure that that does best justice to Paul. It remains unclear to me that the main theme of Paul's gospel was 'God's restorative justice for the whole of creation'. When he summarises his gospel, he uses not themes and language comparable to those of Romans 8.18-27, but rather talks of Christ's death for our sins and his resurrection on the third day. This is the focus in 1 Cor. 15.3-4, in the passage where he explicitly describes in nuce the content of his gospel, and he states that that is what is 'of first importance'. Paul does not generally summarise his ministry as contributing in some way, however indirectly, to justice for the whole creation. Rather he talks of preaching Christ and him crucified, or presenting his churches blameless on the day of Christ. To be sure, this needs to be set against the backdrop of Romans 8.18-27, but - I would aver - this is more the backdrop than the foreground. This passage in the middle of Romans 8 is comparatively unusual in Paul. Much more prominent in the letters is what Wright defines as the subsidiary theme, 'the rescue of human beings from sin and death'.

Conclusion

When one watches politicians on television, one can easily come away with the impression that they spend all their time disagreeing with one another and that therefore they do not agree on anything. That is a non sequitur, of course, and similarly it would be untrue to deduce from this review that Wright and I disagree more than we agree. I remember smiling when I read, in Wright's first scholarly article in the Tyndale Bulletin in 1978, that 'controversy is the breath of life to the German theologian', according to Ernst Käsemann. That might not be quite true for the English reviewer and reviewee, but it is perhaps not too far off! Yet overall, we agree in large measure.

I enjoyed this book enormously. I won't say that at times it didn't feel like hard work, but I did enjoy it. At risk of sounding patronizing about a scholar far more eminent than myself, I think that it is Wright's most compelling academic book. Not only does it give the clearest exposition yet of Wright's take on Paul, but it is also his most generous exposition - not just in word-count, but in the way in which Paul is seen as a rich and expansive thinker. Here is a Paul who thinks both in terms of participatory and juridical categories, who is thoroughly Jewish but not without considerable reworking, whose understanding of the cross is representative and substitutionary and a good deal more besides, who is the originating ancestor of Christian theology but also one who - by divine inspiration - though being dead, yet speaketh. 

Simon Gathercole is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College at University of Cambridge

Notes:

1. Cf. e.g. A.E. McGrath, 'Justice and Justification. Semantic and Juristic Aspects of the Christian Doctrine of Justification', Scottish Journal of Theology 35 (1982) 403‑18, and N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives (London: SPCK, 2013), 21-41 (an essay from 1980).



reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2014   |   Privacy Policy   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login