The Paul Debate- More of the Wright Grist for your Mill


On first blush, one might expect The Paul Debate. Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle (Baylor, 2015, 102 pages), to be rather like Tom Wright’s book on Justification—a straightforward rebuttal book, challenging and seeking to dismantle the arguments of his harshest critics. In fact, The Paul Debate is more of a re-statement book, than a rebuttal book, with Tom attempting to clarify in a succinct form his major arguments in his magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. On closer inspection however the chapters, and various of the major points in the chapters in fact do attempt not only to clarify but also to refute some of the major misunderstandings of his earlier major work. And furthermore, there are points at which Tom goes on the offensive taking on, for example ‘apocalyptic’ readings of Paul’s thought. Notably, there are however almost no references by name of those whom his critiquing, and no footnotes to provide clues. One has to know the earlier Pauline discussions well to figure out whose ox is getting gored when and where. One also has to have read some or most of the major earlier critiques of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which are listed in the brief bibliography (though oddly, he doesn’t mention the some 90 blog posts I did chronicling and critiquing that earlier more substantial work).

The book (at 100 pages or so), is written in very clear prose, does not wander from the topic at hand, and consists of five chapters, the last of which is labeled Theology, Mission, and Method, though most of the content of the final chapter is a critique of exclusively inductive approaches to Paul’s thought world. The first four chapters are as follows: 1) Paul and the Messiah: Knowing the Name or Having the Mind? 2) How to Begin with Jesus; 3) Apocalyptic: Covenantal Narrative or Cosmic Invasion? 4) The Justified People of God: Messianic Israel or Saved Sinners? In each of these chapters Tom seeks to address several critical questions having to do with the listed topics.
Those familiar with Tom’s earlier work, will not find much new here. I asked Tom whether it would be fair to suggest that despite the various critiques of the larger work, this book makes clear that Tom has not in any significant way changed his mind or altered his earlier arguments in the wake of those responses. He affirmed that this is a correct assertion. Thus, the real usefulness of this book is that one can hand it to those who may have been unfamiliar with, or simply did not have the time or fortitude to take in the earlier two volume larger work, and say ‘these are some of the more salient points he was making and is still making about Paul’s thought’.
What of course this means is that this little book has some of the same virtues and promise, and some of the same issues and problems as the earlier work. One of the virtues is that it shows the value of global thinking about Paul’s thought as a whole, taking all the major letters together. Tom is quite right that the inch worm approach, better known as the inductive approach needs to be balanced by what he calls an ‘abductive’ approach— having a hypothesis about the larger framework of Paul’s thought and testing it again and again against the exegesis of particular texts. One needs to see the forest as a whole as well as examine the individual trees.

Tom is correct as well, that surely Paul was the first major Christian theologian, though I would suggest it’s probably pushing the envelope too far to say he is the creator of Christian theology, especially since Tom also wants to say that much of what Paul says, he shares in common with the other earliest leaders of the Jesus movement. It is also interesting that Tom follows A. Schweitzer in wanting to suggest that justification in Paul’s thought world should be seen as a crater within the larger category of ‘being in Christ’. Clearly, he is not happy with either an over-emphasis on justification or with an apocalyptic approach to Paul’s thought that negates the notion that Paul sees much continuity and fulfillment between previous covenants and the new covenant, the earlier people of God and the current people of God, and so on. In agreement with Richard Hays, however, he thinks that Paul is reading backwards, which is to say with eschatological and Christological and ecclesiological spectacles when it comes to the way he reads and uses the OT, especially its prophetic portions.

By way of critique there are several problems, which I have outlined at length in my blog posts (see and click on blog, and then type in Paul and the Faithfulness of God in the search window) where I dialogued with the earlier work. I will simply mention some of the key points here. Firstly, while the argument about Rom. 9-11 by Tom, in which he suggests that Paul would never have expressed the agony he did about Jews who rejected Jesus mentioned in Rom. 9, if in the end in Rom. 11 he was going to say ‘all Israel (meaning non-Christian Jews) will be saved’, seems telling at first, it creates more problems than it solves. For one thing, it makes Paul very inconsistent in the way he uses the term Israel. At various points when Paul says Israel, for instance at the end of Rom. 11, Tom thinks he means Jew and Gentile united in Christ, though Tom admits in some places, such as Rom. 9 Paul does not equate Israel with the church. This simply does not work. The whole argument in Rom. 9-11 is about non-Christian Jews, who have been temporarily, but only temporarily broken off from the people of God, but when Christ returns he will ‘turn away the impiety of Jacob’ and a large number of Jews will be saved then (remembering that the term ‘all Israel’ either in the OT or in other early Jewish literature including the Mishnah, never means every single Jew. It always simply means a larger number of Jews (presumably the majority). One of the real problems with Tom’s argument is that he doesn’t take into account the already and not yet state of God’s people. Already, there are some Jews and Gentiles saved or being saved in Paul’s lifetime. But God is not finished with either his first chosen people or the Gentiles, and will not be before Christ returns. The already-not yet tension in Paul’s thought when it comes to the people of God must be given full weight.
A second issue that arises once again and creates some problems for Tom’s overall argument is the related idea that Tom insists Jesus himself becomes Israel, in an incorporative sense through his death and resurrection. Not merely the Jewish messiah, but the culmination and climax of God’s people. Were this actually Paul’s view, it becomes inexplicable how Paul could use the term Israel to refer to anything other than Christ and those who are in Christ, and yet he does, as Tom admits.

Nor is enough weight placed on the disjunction that Paul insists on in Gal. 4 and 2 Cor. 3 between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. Clearly enough Paul links the new covenant with, and sees it as a fulfillment of, the Abrahamic covenant, but he absolutely does not see a continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. The former was pro tempore, until the Messiah came. The latter fulfills the promises to Abraham and the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant. The former sets Israel apart through circumcision, food laws, Sabbath keeping and more. The latter breaks down the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile set up, not merely by the boundary rituals and rites of the Mosaic covenant, but by much of the law of Moses which is not reaffirmed in the new covenant. In other words, insufficient attention is given to the disjunction between the Mosaic and the new covenant, in Tom’s approach. Paul does not tell Gentiles they are the heirs of Moses and his covenant, he tells them they are the heirs of Abraham and his covenant. And this brings up another point.

The Abrahamic covenant has nothing to do with a return from exile, or Jews feeling like they were still in exile in Jesus and Paul’s day. While there were mixed feelings about Herod’s Temple no doubt in early Judaism, it is perfectly obvious that some early Jews, including some of the writers of the NT, did not think it was true that God’s presence and glory was completely absent from Herod’s Temple. For example, in Lk. 1 Zechariah encounters the angel of the Lord in the holy of holies in that Temple, or in Mk. 15 we hear about the rending of the veil in the Temple when God’s presence leaves the temple, or in the case of Jesus himself, the very reason he is irate with the money changers and sellers of the animals is precisely because he DOES think that temple is at that moment ‘God’s house’ and he says so. On the other hand, it is quite proper to emphasize, as Tom does, that Paul sees Jesus as falling within the definition of Israel’s one God, and so in one sense his own presence in the temple is an expression of God’s glory being there, albeit briefly.

It must also be said that Tom is right on target in saying that Paul does not treat either Judaism or ‘being in Christ’ as ‘religion’ in the modern sense of the word. Nor is Paul contrasting what the Gospel is about with ‘mere religion’ in the form of Judaism and its rituals. He helpfully reiterates all the problems with the history of religions approach to either Judaism or Christianity, and latent anti-semitism that goes along with it. He is also right to raise the issue of latent anti-semitism in some forms of the apocalyptic approach to Paul’s thought.

This little book begins with a discussion about the new worldview entailed in ‘having the mind of Christ’ and what a difference that makes to the way one views, life, salvation, the people of God, the OT, the future, and even God whose identity is now seen to include Jesus the risen Lord. In some ways it is the best chapter in the book, because it puts the emphasis right where Paul does— not on continuity with all the previous covenants, but on new creation, being new creatures in Christ, and the coming full conformity of believers to Christ’s image when we too are raised from the dead, when Christ’s history, becomes our own destiny, and we become what we admire.

It is the characteristic of a good book, especially a good small book that it teases the mind into active thought (to uses C.H. Dodd’s phrase), without providing all the answers to all the probing questions. On this basis, this is a good little primer on Tom Wright’s take on Paul’s thought, and as such it’s very helpful indeed. It is well worth a close read.

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