N.T. Wright on Scholarly Dichotomies in PFG

One of the things that I most appreciate about N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the way that Wright steers a sober and sensible path between so many stark divisions in Pauline studies. Divisions like Greek versus Jewish backgrounds, theology versus religion, and apocalyptic versus salvation history, etc. Whereas Wright (and Dunn) is often accused of reducing Paul’s justification language to a social epiphenomena – a criticism that has some warrant in light of Wright’s occasional sweeping denials of traditional exegesis – he is clear that Paul’s doctrine of election worked out in his theology of justification does indeed deal with the problem of evil, sin, and alienation from God. Or in other words, Genesis 12-15 is indeed dealing with the problem of Genesis 3, especially in Paul’s reworking of the Israel-story in light of the Messiah-story. Here’s an example of what I mean:

If we manage to get beyond the false stand-off between ‘salvation history’ and ‘apocalyptic’, and also between ‘participatory’ and ‘juristic’, we should also manage, with this analysis, to transcend the low-grade either/or that has been taking place between ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives. I have no interest in perpetuating such a squabble. I trust that the present chapter, and indeed the whole book thus far, has presented an analysis of Paul in which a thick historical description of his social and cultural context, and the positioning of his communities within that context, can be fully and richly integrated with a thick theological description of what he had to say on the key contested topics, not least salvation, justification and the law. The attempt by some ‘old perspective’ writers to suggest that some of us who have been labelled as ‘new perspective’ thinkers have given up on ideas such as sin, salvation, atonement and so on ought now to be seen for what it is. Equally, the attempt by some to use elements of a ‘new perspective’ analysis to avoid theology ought likewise to be renounced. Of course Paul was dealing with actual communities in which the pressure to decide questions of table-fellowship, of adiaphora in food and drink, of the necessity or otherwise of circumcision, was intense; and of course it is trivial to think of such things as irrelevant ‘works-righteousness’ in an older protestant sense. But of course Paul was dealing with the biggest issues in the world: the question of creator and cosmos, of humans and their idols, of sin and death and of ultimate rescue from both of them, of Israel and the nations, and, at the centre, of Jesus and his cross and resurrection, and of the gift of the spirit. And of course all these things joined up, since the theology itself pointed again and again to the intention of the creator God to live in and amongst his people, so that their common life was no mere accident, an incidental function of their pragmatic desire to meet up for worship from time to time, but the rich redefinition of nothing less than Israel’s central symbol, the temple.

  • David Shaw

    Thanks for this Mike. I’m sure Wright’s correct to refuse so many false stand-offs and it’s encouraging that in PFG he’s resisting that temptation. It makes quite a contrast, however, to his article in JSNT from March 2013 where he offers a reading of Rom 4 which, if anything, escalates the “squabble” between OPP and NPP. In his own words his argument “strikes exactly against a position which has become one of the last strongholds of the ‘old perspective’ on Paul” (p215); and he goes on to say that his reading means that “this last refuge of the ‘old perspective’ is dismantled, leaving the occupants nowhere to hide” (p216).

    What makes this stance so surprising (in addition to the contrast with the more irenic noises he makes in the passage you quote, and the contrast with Dunn’s recent characterization of the NPP as simply a “worthwhile hiccup” by no means opposed to the OPP (Early Christianity 4.2 p182)) is that he’s actually arguing against a position very like the one he takes in his NIB Romans commentary.

  • Matt

    I’m curious: how much does Wright interact with the work of S. Westerholm?


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