Home. Quotes Piquantes. Personal. Shorter Writings. My Books.

Book Review

Previous. Next. Surprised By Hope

Understanding Paul and his thought

Many Christians now agree that, for too long, our view of Paul and his teaching has been coloured by the 16th-century experiences of Luther and Calvin, and their reaction to corrupt medieval Catholicism. The so-called ‘New perspective on Paul’ (NPP) has helpfully changed all that, locating Paul where he belongs: in the early first century and in the three ‘worlds’ of Judaism, Greek/Hellenistic culture and the Roman Empire. This book is Tom Wright’s contribution to the debate: Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright (SPCK, 2005. ISBN 978-0-281-05739-9).

Christians of a Reformed persuasion have been more than a bit rattled by the NPP because it questions some of their traditional interpretation of Paul’s teaching. But none of its premises need rock the boat of basic evangelicalism. The Reformed reaction has been, in my view, over-alarmist and too extreme.

The NPP offers a different understanding of such themes as ‘the righteousness of God’, imputation, the relationship between Israel and the church, ‘works of the law’, eschatology and the meaning of ‘justification’. The book is not light reading, but Wright is a good communicator and puts across his views with passion and clarity. If you like a challenge, and if you believe that every generation needs, like the Reformers, to bring all traditional views (including Reformed ones) under the light of Scripture, read it.

[If you own Logos Bible Software the book is also available in electronic format to fit seamlessly with your system.]

For Paul, to be ‘in the Messiah’, to belong to the Messiah’s body, meant embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination.  (p6)

In Genesis, Abraham is promised the Holy Land. For Paul, as for some others in his day, this was to be interpreted as an advance sign of something else. The promise to Abraham and his family, declares Paul, was that he should inherit the world (Romans 4:13).  (p30)

I suspect that it is the failure of previous generations to come to terms with Paul’s theology of creation and covenant that has made them wonder whether the Paul of Acts 17 is compatible with the Paul of the letters.  (p38)

Many writers on Paul in the last two hundred years have paid no attention whatever to the concept of Messiahship, assuming that when Paul wrote Christos he thought of it simply as a proper name.  (p40)

…very likely, in my view, that when Paul speaks in Galatians and Romans of pistis Christou, he normally intends to denote the faithfulness of the Messiah to the purposes of God rather than the faith by which Jew and Gentile alike believe the gospel and so are marked out as God’s renewed people.  (p47)

The whole point about ‘justification by faith’ is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3:26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2:1–16).  (p57)

Freedom, justice, peace and salvation were the imperial themes that you could expect to meet in the mass media of the ancient world, that is, on statues, on coins, in poetry and song and speeches. And the announcement of these themes, focused of course on the person of the emperor who accomplished and guaranteed them, could be spoken of as euangelion, ‘good news’, ‘gospel’.  (p63)

There are many occurrences of this phrase [‘peace and security’] and others like it as the standard thing which Rome offered to its subject peoples. Come with us, obey the rule of Caesar, and we will look after you; ‘peace and security’ is in fact almost a definition of the Romans’ sōtēria, salvation. It functions as a kind of global protection racket. And Paul mocks it. It’s a hollow sham.  (p74)

Romans 8, where again Paul draws heavily on the motif and the language of the Exodus. God’s people, set free from slavery, must not think of going back to it, but must rely on the presence and leading of God as they go on to their inheritance. Within the original Exodus-story, of course, the people were given the tabernacling presence of God, despite their rebellion and sin, as their guide and companion. In Paul’s retelling of the story, the Spirit takes the place of the Shekinah, leading the people to the promised land, which turns out to be, not ‘heaven’ as in much Christian mistelling of the story (‘heaven’ is not mentioned here or in any similar passages), but the new, or rather the renewed, creation, the cosmos which is to be liberated from its own slavery, to experience its own ‘exodus’.  (p98)

Paul has a clear and positive view of Torah. Even when it is performing a negative task, it remains God’s Law, holy and just and good (Romans 7). What it cannot do—and, in the mysterious purposes of God, what it was never actually intended to do—was to give the life it had promised.  (p103)

In Galatians 2:11–21 Paul homes in on the crucial issue between him and Peter in Antioch: what does it mean, in practical terms, to be a member of God’s people? The discussion only makes sense if we assume that the Christian community in Antioch has been living as in some sense the renewed Israel, and that they now face the question of whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles count within that company, or whether they belong at a separate table.  (p111)

[Re Gal 6:14-16]  Peace and mercy be on them, yes, even on God’s Israel. In the light of the entire argument of the letter, I cannot agree with those who have pleaded that ‘the Israel of God’ in this verse denotes some subset of ethnic Judaism over against the people of God renewed in the Messiah. Paul has spent most of the letter explaining that God always intended to give Abraham a single family, and that he has now done so in the Messiah. It is special pleading, based shakily on a misreading of Romans 9–11, to suggest that ‘God’s Israel’ here is anything other than the renewed family, the Messiah and his people. It is of course a polemical redefinition. Paul has saved it as a final, crucial point with which to round off the letter.  (p114)

Justification, for Paul, is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God.  (p121)

The word ‘justification’ does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul, clearly and unambiguously, uses a different word for that, the word ‘call’. The word ‘justification’, despite centuries of Christian misuse, is used by Paul to denote that which happens immediately after the ‘call’: ‘those God called, he also justified’ (Romans 8:30). In other words, those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people, his elect, ‘the circumcision’, ‘the Jews’, ‘the Israel of God’. They are given the status dikaios, ‘righteous’, ‘within the covenant’.  (p122)

The promise Paul holds out for at present unbelieving Jews is not that they are actually all right as they are, but that they are not debarred, in virtue of their ethnic origin, from coming back into the family, their own family, that has been renewed in the gospel.  (p126)

Inaugurated eschatology, framed, explained and given depth by the reworking of monotheism and election, is one of the most central and characteristic notes of Paul’s whole theology.  (p136)

I have no hesitation in saying that, had Paul been alive in the year we call ad 70, when the convulsions in Rome during the Year of the Four Emperors were quickly followed by the destruction of Jerusalem, he would have said, ‘That’s it. That’s the Day of the Lord.’  (p142)

Our citizenship, Paul says, is in heaven, and from there we await the Saviour, the Lord, Jesus the King—which means, despite many misreadings, not that we will in the end go off to heaven, but that the one who is presently in heaven will come back and transform the earth, where we have lived as a colonial outpost of heaven waiting for that day.  (p143)

In Paul’s thought the triumphant goal of eschatology is that there should be one future for the one world made and loved by the one God.  (p144)

The ethical struggles of the Christian are the beginning of that sovereign rule over the created order which will be fulfilled in the new world. One’s own body is, so to speak, the small part of the created world over which one is given advance responsibility, against the day when much will be given to those from whom much, in the present, has been expected.  (p149)

The doctrine of justification by faith, from Galatians through Philippians to Romans, was never about how people were to be converted, how someone might become a Christian, but about how one could tell, in the present, who God’s true people were—and hence who one’s family were, who were the people with whom one should, as a matter of family love and loyalty, sit down and eat.  (p159)

God’s gospel was the good news that the covenant had been fulfilled and that new creation had begun. The great apocalypse had occurred, revealing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Jesus was therefore Lord of the world, and Caesar was not.  (p163)

Paul’s practice was to treat the church, and encourage it to regard itself, as God’s redeemed humanity, the new model of what it meant to be human.  (P165)

The New Perspective On Paul

If you would like to know a bit more about this on a broader basis than just Wright’s work, take a look at my notes on the subject here.

Alternatively, there’s a good summary here.

Other Tom Wright books reviewed on this website:

Buy hard copy

Buy for Kindle

Go to top of page for Twitter and Facebook buttons >>>