Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Three

One of the things about being a global thinker is that you realize the merits of a spectrum of viewpoints, and even realize that it is not often wise to pick sides in the history vs. theology debate, not least because the Gospel involves both. Christianity is after all an historical religion, and as I am prone to stress nothing can be theologically true that is historically false, if we are talking about the places where theology and history intersect. Fortunately, Tom Wright is insistent that history and theology need to be held together to understand Paul and his thought world and his praxis and his symbols and his stories. In other words, we need to history and theology to understand just about anything of importance about Paul. Tom is not enamored with either those who would want to reduce theology to history, or alternately ignore history as irrelevant to doing theology. In a creative and interesting allegory towards the end of Chapter One, using Philemon and Onesimus as ciphers he says this “There are many Philemons out there, the self-appointed guardians of Pauline orthodoxy (of whichever sort) who will only be prepared to have the slave [in this case history] back in the house once he’s been suitably chastised and given strict conditions of service. Do not give us this History they say; do not tell us that in order to understand Paul we have to study his context, to learn about the Jewish world of the first century and the pre-Pauline meanings of Paul’s favorite words! How will Theology be able to speak the good news if it is festooned with footnotes about Pharisees and spattered with speculation about the sectarians? How can we sing the lord’s song in such a strange land? Is this not an appeal away from the Text, and is not our calling (as devout scripture believers– or simply as good, quasi-Barthian postliberals) to deal with the Text and nothing but the Text, and to keep away from everything else? Were not the years AD 1-30 a special time, different from all others, so that all we need to know is that in that time God walked the earth, died for our sins, and rose again? Or (another voice from a similar point of view) is it not the case that the great traditions of the church, with their creeds and canons have provided a wise and authoritative reading of all scriptures, so that we should pay attention to them rather than to historical reconstructions based on the wider world of the first century?”(p. 69).

And Wright pin points just why it is that so many conservatives become if not agnostic about history (it doesn’t matter or affect my faith), then gnostic (the Gospel is about spiritual truths and eternal verities not historical particulars) about history. “History is after all about danger; the danger of contingency, the possibility that things might have been otherwise, the prospect of being adrift a night and a day on a sea of unsorted data, the likelihood of being lashed, beaten, and stoned by other evidence, other world views, determined to provide a harsh reality check by which to measure Theology and cut it down to size.” (p. 70). In short, conservatives happily exchange the messiness of history for the apparent tidiness of an airtight theology which very rarely has any contact with history. Unfortunately for this approach, God himself has vetoed it by getting involved repeatedly in the messiness of history. It’s what the word incarnation connotes. Christianity and the Christian faith is not just about having a set of nicely connected theological ideas. It certainly involves ideas, mindsets, worldviews, but that is by no means all it involves. Tom Wright quite rightly wants a both/and approach when it comes to theology and history. We must all beware of lusting for a kind of certainty when it comes to the knowledge of God or his ways, that makes faith unnecessary and history at best a sub-floor, best unseen and unexamined, in the theological hotel.

One final thing about Chapter One… its full of interesting metaphors and zingers. Tom Wright is fun to read, even when he is in deadly earnest. For example, for the sake of focusing on the main thing he says he will focus on the seven letters widely regarded as authentically Pauline “and bring in Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians rather as Winston Churchill said he would bring ancient languages into a modern school curriculum; he would, he said, ‘let the clever ones learn Latin, as an honor, and Greek as a treat.’…1 Timothy and Titus… will be used, in the opposite way to that in which a drunkard uses a lamppost, for illumination rather than for support.” (p. 61).

  • Ross Royden

    Dear Ben A very Happy New Year! Just to say a big thank you’ to you for taking the time and trouble to post on Tom Wright’s book. With the best will in the world, I am not going to be able to read it any time soon, so truly appreciate a reliable summary with comments on it. I am sure I am not alone!

  • Jean

    Thank you for blogging on this book. Your insights are highly valued.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Dimitri

    I admire Wright’s approach to Paul’s rhetoric. I also was persuaded, after making the switch to the ESV translation, that much of the content that was gleaned as straight theology by Protestantism was in fact intended rhetorically. But I disagree with Wright when he says that historical knowledge and analysis must be used to open up the meaning of the Epistles. He assumes that history is authoritative, when in fact it is a very human process, not God-given or even divinely inspired, whereby scholars collect and sort through “data” which are in turn a record of that which other people thought worth preserving at an earlier time. If we cannot discover the meaning in Paul’s letters as they stand, then they are simply letters and not Scripture, fodder for a new canon that must be constructed from them and other sources. This puts the ordinary layman at a disadvantage to the historian, undermining Sola Scriptura and thus taking us back to the dark ages, when no one could be trusted to read the Bible for themselves.

    My approach to studying Paul is to discard every historical Jewish assumption, and to treat his writings as something totally new. We should see all the Jewish references as points of contrast, not of similitude or theological support. New skins for new wine and all that. Wright relies heavily on Jewish thought for discovering the meaning of justification, in essence making the New Covenant just an extension of the Old. But the Old was destroyed and made obsolete, therefore, it is a mistake to go back and mine through the Old to figure out what the new means. The Old Covenant merely gives us a rhetorical frame of contrast for the New. The Old has been consigned to mere history; the New is not history but should be considered contemporary.

  • BenW3

    Dimitri what you’ve said is simply false. Every translation including the ESV is already an interpretation of the original language words, an interpretation based on historically grounded understanding of those words meaning. A text without a context is just a pretext for what ever you want it to mean. A good deal of the new covenant is simply a renewal of the old , for example a renewal of some of the 10 commandments. Sola scriptural has never ever meant that the Bible doesn’t require contextual study, including a study of the original languages and history. It means the Bible is the only final authority in matters of faith and praxis. What you have suggested was rightly condemned by the early church as a form of Gnosticism or even Marcionism. BW 3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Dimitri

    “… an interpretation based on historically grounded understanding” … Ben, that’s exactly what I am against. The meaning of words always changes over time, and we have to recognize the flexibility of language in a work of literature such as the Bible. We have to look to the rhetoric and not just the individual words for meaning. It is my contention that with a new covenant came a new understanding of some old words. We have to let the rhetoric guide us to those new meanings.

    Yes, I agree that the moral precepts of the Old Covenant were restated. but in entirely different language, not “thou shalt” but “let” reflecting a new wider understanding of righteousness, no longer by the letter but the spirit. But I think the New Testament itself is sufficient to explain God’s moral precepts.

    I’m not a Gnostic, just someone who thinks that the New Testament is the clearest and fullest revelation of the gospel. It should be expounded and explained to those who are still ignorant of it, of course. But to try to find additional information from the Old Testament or other Jewish writings to fill in any imagined gaps in the New Testament’s explanation of the gospel leads to a kind of blend of Christianity and Judaism.

  • davidweinschrott

    I think your view distorts and dismisses Paul’s intention in writing as he did. Like a modern missionary Paul was translating God’s promises to his gentile creation that had been rooted in his Jewish creation. Paul told us not to dismiss that sacred history on pain of being removed from our roots. Your right, your view is not Gnostics, but rather a combination of Manicheism (dismiss the Hebrew history) and post modernism (dismiss the author’s intent). What possible meaning is in ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ unless it’s grounded in Israel’s history? Or how does one respond to Paul’s plea to follow Abraham’s belief rather than Moses’ law giving without knowing Abraham’s history. Or, to turn it around, why does Abraham’s faith do us any good if God didn’t really make Abraham the father of many nations as he promised. We are not opertunists on Israel’s failure, but beneficiaries of God’s promise through them. That is Paul’s intent in Romans 3-4 and 9-11.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Dimitri

    I always appreciate it when someone gives me new challenges to recheck my thinking. Let me see if I can answer without being too long-winded. I don’t dismiss Hebrew history as irrelevant to the revelation of the gospel. It had its place in foreshadowing the gospel and preparing the way for Jesus. Of course, all the essential historical background is re-presented in the N.T. as points of reference to their fulfillment in Jesus, and it is all validated in the N.T. as being true prophecy, and as a tutor to mankind until Christ arrived.

    In Rom. 11, Paul uses the olive tree metaphor to illustrate being chosen or rejected by God, and wants to reassure the reader that Israel has not been rejected or condemned for any past failures, and they are not irretrievably cut off from him. But they have to come to him under the terms of the New Covenant. The promise to Abraham is the root that supports us only because it was a promise of the New Covenant to come. I don’t see anything in the text that Paul meant it to illustrate the entire history of Israel.

    However, my whole point is that even if we had no Old Testament, the gospel would, or should, speak just as clearly to us, just as it did to the early gentiles. Sin, redemption, forgiveness, and grace can be understood even by native islanders who have only heard the gospel of John. But without the O.T., we wouldn’t have the historical validation that we do have. So it is necessary for us to study it, but not to fill in any gaps in the gospel or to explain it more fully.

  • Matt Johnson

    When Tom portrays those who respond, “How will Theology be able to speak the good news if it is festooned with footnotes,” I must confess that I find myself reflected in the sentiment. Last Spring I preached on the first three chapters of Romans after listening to some lectures by Wright, and being inspired by his focus on the faithfulness and righteousness of God as focal point for interpretation. Sadly, as I attempted to bring my congregation through this paradigm shift, it became clear that A) it was very difficult for me to adequately illustrate/explain and B) the congregation simply wasn’t interested in the gospel presented in such a historically grounded way. This isn’t an argument against the accuracy of the New Perspective, but simply a confession of one pastor who has found it difficult to preach.

  • BenW3

    Hi Matt. I understand the difficulty, especially if you are preaching to largely Biblically illiterate folk. I would simply say that the New Perspective is only partially correct In its analysis of works of the law. Ben W.

  • Craig Allen

    Dimitry -
    You are making good points related to emphasis and fulfillment. But in making them, it seems you are cutting off the legs of the chair on which you sit. Continue to sit on the top (the New Covenant fulfilments). But keep the legs attached. You’ll see everything even better and your support will be stronger. Do not confuse the reality of the sufficiency of the New Testament gospel to save with the fiction that the OT basis or historical outworkings are no longer relevant. That’s precisely the arrogance that Paul warns the Gentiles about in Romans. Our branches do not hang in mid-air. We are grafted in to something. That something is the very heritage which you are minimizing. I urge you to keep your conclusions related to emphasis, but rework your foundations in light of the very helpful constructive criticism offered above by Ben and David.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    My take on understanding Scripture is I need all the help I can get to try my best to understand what it meant to the original audience, since I am not them.

  • Brian Midmore UK

    It seems to me that biblical exegesis can be a bit like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle. The answer to a clue can only found by thinking up a number of possible answers and then seeing if one of these fits the cryptic clues. The historical approach of Wright is a means of coming up with one possible answer to the meaning of the often cryptic Greek of Paul. Wright claims that what results solves the puzzle, and gives a coherent and satisfying meaning. You need the historical approach to suggest a solution which is then verified or otherwise by whether it fits.

  • Brian Midmore UK

    NTW makes the point that if we don’t approach Paul’s Greek with Paul’s historical concerns then we will approach the text with our own. As Protestants this will certainly include aspects Reformation thinking or even postmodernism. Where we start our theology determines where we end up. If we start with the Reformation concern of ‘how might I merit a right standing before God’ this will be answer we get from Paul. NTW argues that Paul’s concern was ‘how has God been faithful to his covenantal promises to Israel’ and ‘who are the people of God (the righteous)’. NTW argues that starting here makes more sense of Rom 9-11 which otherwise are left high and dry.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    I agree that our starting point for our theology is vital, but, I disagree that we need to turn to historical scholarship to find it. We can discover the meaning of the main theme of Scripture just as we would discover the author’s meaning in a novel. Now, if we took a great novel, say, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and tried to figure out its meaning by collecting all the historical evidence surrounding Hugo, we would in effect be trying to debunk the novel, showing that its themes were not universal ideas that the author endeavored to illuminate for us, but in fact were the product of historical influences of mid 19th century France. Historians need to respect the boundaries of literature, and we need to respect the literary vehicle of the gospel.

    The problem of translation of an ancient text can be assisted by historical knowledge — I don’t deny that. But again, the problem is boundaries. At what point do we stop using that knowledge and let the meaning of the text come through to us directly? Is righteousness an historical concept, or a universal one? Isa. 40:8 tells me that the essential meaning of the texts cannot be lost in the changes of history because the ideas are for all time and place.

  • Brian Midmore UK

    I agree that we don’t NEED to go to historical scholarship to find our starting point, but shouldn’t we use all the tools at our disposal to understand the text. Having gone to historical scholarship to understand the text and finding that it offers an explanation that fits better than other nonhistorical approaches shouldn’t we therefore conclude that the historical method has been helpful in our exegesis. The historical method is our servant in the exegetical quest and not our master.

  • Brian Midmore UK

    It is surely Wright’s point that Paul does not minimise the story of Israel but sees the gospel firmly within the context of this story. Therefore in order to understand Paul properly we must see his very Jewish covenantal way of arguing. If we minimise the story of Israel we will get a very distorted picture of Paul’s theology.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    Historical analysis is frequently based on a series of assumptions and sources which are far less reliable than Scripture. If you start out with something completely reliable, and then process it using not so reliable means, then final result will not be reliable.

    Often we need help in gaining a better understanding of the text. The Bible is a hard read for anyone until they spend a number of years at it. But the test I use is that any other book or source is fine to use, as long as you can put it aside and explain the text clearly without referring to the book or source afterwards.

  • BenW3

    But in fact Greg, we cannot do this with the Bible. If you strip it of its historical, archaeological, rhetorical, social, religious context, misinterpretation happens all the time. The Bible is deeply imbedded in its original contexts, and the meaning of its texts require a careful contextual exegesis, especially when we are 2,000 years hence, and live in a very different culture than the Biblical cultures. Otherwise eisegesis happens all the time, the reading of modern ideas back into the Bible— the old sin of anachronism. BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    Would you agree with Wright in that cultural and historical context is critical even in how we understand salvation? And if so, does that not cast doubt on whether salvation is a universal idea that is relevant to any culture or time?

  • BenW3

    Yes indeed, I do agree with Wright on that. There is a difference between realities and ideas that can be indiginized in any culture, and universal ideas. The latter is a Platonic, not a Christian concept. The concepts and realities in the Gospel are incarnational by nature— expressed quite clearly in a way relevant to the immediate audience and time and coherent in that context. Once we realize this, then it is an exercise in hermeneutics to see how that meaning could be applied in a very different cultural situation. BW3

  • Brian Midmore UK

    Yes the Bible is reliable but our instinctive common sense understanding of it is not. When George II first saw St Paul’s cathedral he described it as ‘awful and artificial’ which at the time were meant as compliments (full of awe and artfully made). We, given our understanding, would read these adjectives in a negative light. So too with a word like ‘righteousness’. For Paul (so NTW argues) the word would have very strong covenantal implications governed by his understanding of Israel’s history recorded in the OT. For most protestants, through the influence of reformation thought, the word has become shorn of its covenantal meaning. It has come to mean an abstract holiness or sinless which an individual must acquire to be acceptable to God. A means of retrieving this covenantal meaning of ‘righteousness’ has involved historical scholarship. You say this is unreliable but is this anymore unreliable than the reformers approach which was influenced by Greek rather than Hebrew thought.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    With the words ‘awful’ and ‘artificial’ we only need to consider their roots to understand their meaning. A philologist or linguist could help us more than a historian. Modern language often contain vestiges or clues to former uses. For instance, the modern Greek word for ‘Friday’ still has the same root as the word for ‘prepare’, so we can understand that it means literally ‘day of preparation’. In order to convince me that the word ‘righteousness’ should be associated with ‘covenant’ in its meaning, you would have to show me similar evidence in the language itself, either the Greek or Hebrew. What Wright is doing, I believe, is trying to cross-pollinate history and language in a new way.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    Ben, when you say that universal ideas are a Platonic concept, you are implying that all universal ideas are in fact limited in scope. That is, they only work as universals in the context of Plato and his time and place. If that is true, then all ideas, including your own statement about universals, must by necessity be limited in scope. Think about it: how can we possibly look at different cultural contexts from the outside without a universal frame of reference? Without that frame of reference, we can only have one culture’s response to another culture. How can we exercise a valid hermeneutic within that context?

    But the evidence of literature and history shows that certain ideas are common to all times and cultures. Morals are universal. The golden rule is found in all religions and cultures. Mercy, kindness, and honesty are all acknowledged as virtues everywhere. We call these things ‘natural law’. Clearly, all societies in all times had at least some understanding of certain basic, universal ideals.

  • Brian Midmore UK

    You are saying that a word itself must in some way contain the essence of its meaning. But when we say awful we do not mean ‘full of awe’ we mean ‘rotten’ and so the word does not contain the essence of its meaning for modern people. Therefore when Paul uses ‘righteousness’ we can not know his meaning from the word alone. Sure it must in some denote ‘correct behaviour’ but what kind of correct behaviour? From Paul’s context NTW concludes that it means correct covenantal behaviour which sets the Jews apart from Gentiles. He may be wrong but I don’t believe his method is fundamentally flawed.

  • BenW3

    Craig what I am resisting is the reductionism of taking Biblical texts and reducing them to a pile of universal ideas, equally applicable in all settings regardless of their original and intended meaning. A word, phrase or text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean now. And it is just nonsense to say that by mere etymological study we can get at the meaning of a word or phrase. Often etymology is no help at all, because the meaning of the word in context A has strayed so far from the original meaning in another context. Words do not have meanings all by themselves. It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. Dictionaries are the distilling of a deep study of how words are used in differing contexts, and we would have no such studies without those contexts being examined. This is not to say that concepts and practices can’t be cross-cultural. But that is what they are–cross cultural, not inherently universal. There is a big difference. BW3

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    With the word ‘awful’, a philologist can trace the usage from its original meaning of ‘awe-full’. Often, words get stuck in a narrower sense. ‘Awful’ got stuck with the sense of being awestruck at something bad and not something wonderful. The word ‘deer’ used to mean any animal, but it also got stuck on a particular animal. I maintain that righteousness got stuck on the external aspects of rightness, the results of having a ‘right’ spirit. The law accomplished this, and in that way, “the letter killed.” Because, when we focus on the external results only and try for those results without being changed internally, the result is even more sin. But, if we widen the meaning of righteousness to include its source, the spirit that gives life and purifies the conscience, then, I believe we are getting the gist of Paul and the gospel. I know this is not orthodoxy or New Perspective thinking. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that it makes the most sense. I have to wrap up these comments now, so thanks for the good discussion.

  • http://bridger.biz/ Gregory C

    I’m not claiming that simple etymology alone is sufficient to understand meaning. Well-written words contain far more meaning than we commonly attribute to them. Patiently examining and pondering the words along with the rhetoric formed by the words is for most people an undeveloped art. Tracing the flow of reasoning, understanding the metaphors, comparisons and contrasts, and all the elements of rhetoric is a fundamental skill for any educated person. Characterizing this as ‘reductionism’ I think does a great disservice to such a necessary ability.

    Your main point seems to be that words alone are insufficient to convey meaning in an ancient text like the Bible. You maintain that many of these words carry a hidden extra meaning lost to us in the mists of antiquity but able to be unearthed by the diligent efforts of scholars working with extra-biblical texts. That the original meaning cannot be conveyed solely through a good translation gleaned by an alert and skilful reader making the effort to carefully ponder all the words of Scripture. And that is where we disagree.

    However, I understand the motivation for thoughtful and sincere people to search for deeper meaning in the teachings of salvation. I respect that, because I too find the orthodox theory of justification unsatisfactory. And I too once thought that the answer was to go back to Jewish roots. It seems quite reasonable to assume that clear teachings get diluted and forgotten over time, and that once, there was a common tradition that was right and true, that really understood what Scripture is talking about. But then I saw that the historical pattern is something different. Tradition seems to preserve nothing good. Jesus disparaged the traditions of men. The story of the Jews is one of a people who could barely hold on to their religion. Their thinking was erratic, complicated, and divided. The disciples of Jesus were slow to understand the gospel. Though they were all Jews, they took some years to really get it. Then they had to fight to defend it, to keep it from becoming adulterated with Jewish traditions, ritual, and myths. After that, the story of the church is not just one of preservation, but of repeated corruption, rediscovery and attempted reform. I concluded that this elusive tradition really didn’t exist. The only thing that is preserved over time is the texts.


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