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N.T. Wright’s Australian visit sparks respectful arguments on Paul’s writings


Friday 19th July 2013

Theologian  N.T. Wright, who manages to be both respected and controversial at the same time, has unveiled the contents of his new book, the massive tome Paul and the Faithfulness of God, in events run by Ridley Melbourne and the Uniting Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne this week. In between talks on Jesus, Israel, Paul, Paul and Israel, Paul and Empire and Paul and Justification, were a range of critical responses from a number of Australian scholars, including Mike Bird, Brian Rosner and David Starling. Wright is in Australia for the Society for New Testament Studies conference in Perth next week.

Wright is seen by some evangelical Christians as a polarising figure because of his non-traditional take on Paul’s theology, specifically the doctrine of justification by faith and the place of the law in light of Jewish beliefs at the time of Christ. But whatever side you might sit on what many writers call the ‘New Perspective’ (a term N.T. Wright recoils from), you cannot help but be taken in by his passion for biblical scholarship, his sharp mind and eloquent speech. The first thing which stood out during his visit was his great intellect. This is a man who will quote Shakespeare alongside the Bible, in German, Greek and English, in a single breath.

However, as tempting as it is to go along to hear N.T. Wright to see him ‘in action’ as some kind of spectacle, it’s not the point. As one friend put on Facebook: “Theologians like poets are not those who are to be looked at, but through – we don’t treat him as a spectacle but as a set of spectacles.”

So what was the prescription N.T. Wright offered? There were a number of lenses which N.T. Wright offered during his visit, and which in a sense sum up his ‘perspective’. I have tried to explain them simply below to give the ordinary reader an idea of his thinking, but I am no means an expert. Feel free to have a look through these lenses and judge how they fit Paul’s letters for size:

-“We need to find 21st Century answers to 1st century questions, not 19th century answers to 16th century questions.” In other words, Wright argues, we need to avoid making assumptions about how Jews at the time of Jesus thought, and instead become ancient historians, seeking to understand the context in which Paul was writing, and trying to understand his writings from there. For too long we have read Paul’s letters as if he were addressing the issues which the Reformers were dealing with in the 1500s.

-Christianity is more than just a game of how to get to heaven when you die. Wright argues we have shrunk the gospel down to an individual’s salvation, and that it is actually, at a broader level, about God fulfilling his promises to Abraham in Jesus, who is the crucified and risen Lord – the Messiah. It is about God “putting to rights” the creation after the fall, and a necessary part of that is dealing with the sin of humans.

-“Paul had a Jewish message for the pagan world”. Wright argues the story Paul was telling was “an Israel-shaped narrative with the Messiah at the centre”. It was not about a radical new way of salvation, totally disjointed from the history of Israel. It is the message that the Messiah Israel was waiting for, is here; God has done what he has promised to do-return to Zion-and it’s time to “join the party or be judged”.

-Paul, Wright says, takes up three areas of Jewish theology in his letters:

  • monotheism (that there’s one God),
  • election (who make up the people of God) and
  • eschatology (the end times),

and rethinks them around Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. This began the discipline of Christian theology which Christians continue to do.

-Who the new people of God are is defined by whether they have been crucified and risen with Jesus. “The Messiah sums up God’s people in himself,” says Wright.

-The word “justification” in Wright’s understanding, describes the way God puts things right. He puts humans “to rights” through Jesus death on our behalf. But he says, the point of Jesus’ death on our behalf (God’s drawing of all humankind’s sin onto one spot in order to condemn it in the flesh of Jesus) is that it shows God’s faithfulness to his promises. It deals with sin. But it is ultimately, God fulfilling what he promised to do—to put things “to rights”.

-Justification is not Paul’s primary concern in Romans and Galatians, says Wright. He argues Romans is primarily concerned with the gospel as expressed in Chapter 1:2-4 ( ‘…the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.’). Justification is a necessary implication of the gospel, but not the gospel itself. The gospel according to Paul (according to Wright) is Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. Justification is the outworking of the gospel which gives those who believe assurance.

-Righteousness, in Wright’s view, is the word Paul uses to describe God’s faithfulness and our membership in the people of God. It is not about a human status that comes from God, but God’s own righteousness. Wright argues against the idea (held by many Christians) that we are given God’s righteousness, and prefers to talk more in terms of righteousness being a word used to describe our membership in God’s people.

Each of these points has its own corresponding argument “against”, and many of these were presented during Wright’s visit, making for a rich time of discussion and debate. What struck me was the lack of controversy, the lack of ‘attack and defend’ and the spirit of scholarship and unity in the gospel which characterised the gathering. This was hard Bible work, done well and in public, away from the easy insults which the written word and virtual world can invite. It was, to keep up the metaphor, a healthy array of spectacles, each new lens challenging the sight of those present.

Image: courtesy of Wayne Chan, Ridley Melbourne.