A Review of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Book I) image

A Review of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Book I)

Whatever you think of him, Tom Wright is a force of nature. I'll save you the premature eulogy here, but suffice it to say that his scholarly output will be shaping discussions for decades to come, long after most of today's academic intramurals and evangelical hot debates have been forgotten. That makes it significant, for all but the theological cave-dwellers among us, that perhaps his most important work - it's on his favourite subject, it's probably his most comprehensive book, and at sixteen hundred pages it's certainly his longest - has just been released: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Books of this significance don't come along very often, so I thought a summary and review would be in order. Plus, how many people are going to read the whole of a sixteen hundred page book anyway?

It’s actually two books. The first and shorter volume, which I’ll cover in this post, covers Paul and his world (part I), and Paul’s apostolic mindset (part II); the second and longer volume, which I’ll look at in due course, contains the load-bearing section on Paul’s theology (part III), and concludes by looking at Paul in history (part IV). For a book of its size, it is admirably navigable and clearly laid out, as well as being written in a style that is lucid, creative (such as using birds as a way of contrasting the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds), often humorous, and occasionally risqué (who else would get away with calling a chapter on Roman religion “A Cock for Asclepius”?) The combination of these makes it easy to read, even when the argument is dense or the source materials are unfamiliar.

The first book, which in many ways is an extended ground-clearing exercise, begins with a chapter on the least known and probably least read Pauline epistle, Philemon. Wright contrasts it with an epistle of Pliny, and shows that despite their superficial similarities, the two letters breathe different air; Paul’s instructions to Philemon demonstrate that a shocking degree of social realignment has taken place as a result of the gospel, and would make us wonder, even if we had no other Pauline letter to draw on, what on earth had happened to precipitate this. This propels us forward into a superb discussion of imputation, based on Philemon 17-20, and then, in familiarly whimsical fashion, Wright turns the slightly puzzling backstory to the letter into a parable, casting history as the runaway Onesimus, theology as Philemon, and Paul (or is it Wright himself?) as the one trying to reconcile the two. The discussion of sources, complete with a robust defence of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, round off a superb opening chapter that everyone who ever intends to preach on Philemon would do well to read.

The next four chapters, I suspect, will be of slightly less interest to most preachers and pastors, but will fascinate those who want to know a bit more ancient history, and prove peerlessly helpful to those studying the relationship between the New Testament and the ancient world. Wright puts Paul firmly in his historical context: that of second-temple Judaism, and Pharisaism in particular (chapter 2), of Greek philosophy (chapter 3), of Greco-Roman culture and “religion” (chapter 4), and of the Roman Empire and its emperors (chapter 5). As ever, there are some wonderfully creative moments, like the use of emblematic birds (birds circling overhead for Israel’s prophetic history, Athene’s owl for philosophy, a cock for Asclepius for Roman religion, and the imperial eagle), and some nuanced treatments of complex issues, like the sketch of the imperial not-quite-cult, and the summary of the four main branches of Hellenistic philosophy (the Academy, the Lyceum, Epicureanism and Stoicism). But in essence, Wright’s argument in this part is fairly simple. Paul needs to be understood against all of these backgrounds - Greek, Jewish and Roman, imperial and local, philosophical and cultural - but primarily, he is a second-temple Jew, and a Pharisee at that.

In the second part, the argument takes a form that will be familiar to readers of two previous volumes in this series, The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright has repeatedly contended that we can understand people’s worldviews by looking at four different elements - symbols, praxis, stories and questions - so it is no surprise that he applies this method to Paul. In Paul’s writings, virtually all major Jewish symbols and praxis, including Temple, land, Torah, food, circumcision and (most controversially) even Sabbath, appear to have been transformed in the light of Jesus the Messiah (chapter 6). The story he is assuming, even when he isn’t narrating it explicitly, is a three-layered story about (1) God’s plan for the world through humans, (2) God’s plan for humans (and thus the world) through Israel, and (3) God’s plan for Israel (and thus humans, and thus the world) through Jesus (chapter 7). His implicit answers to Kipling’s “serving men” questions - what, why, when, how, where and who - confirm the essential Jewishness of his outlook, especially when it comes to the crucial question “what time is it?” (chapter 8). Each of these chapters is helpful, but the middle one stands above the others as a titanic exposition of Paul’s big story. To be honest, at the risk of being called a fawning teenager by Phil Moore, I doubt I have ever seen such a clear diagrammatic exposition of biblical theology as I encountered on page 521 (see the image above).

So that’s the first book. In a nutshell: Paul lived, spoke and thought in a way that only makes sense if we see him as a Pharisee who thought Israel’s history had come to its decisive climax in Jesus the Messiah, and whose defining story was about God’s plan to rescue the world through humans, through Israel, through Jesus. Admittedly, that summary makes it sound exactly like every other book Tom Wright has written, and there’s a very real sense in which that’s the case. But it is still worth reading. For those who are still sceptical of this summary, either because they’re worried by what he says about justification or because they’re haunted by some version of John Barclay’s question at BNTC, there’s a huge amount of backup here; for those who already accept it, there’s a wealth of insight on the ancient world and the biblical story that will add depth and colour to your view of the scriptures; and for those who are Wright fans, there’s all the stuff you’d expect in here, with a few surprises thrown in. I’m using the next few Fridays to quote some excerpts, which I hope will give you a flavour.

The only people who will be disappointed, I suspect, will be those who expect a Tom Wright book as opposed to an N T Wright one - the bibliography runs to seventy pages, and none of the chapters begin with stories about garden parties, flat tyres or cricket matches - or, on the other hand, those who want to pick a fight about justification or imputation, since they are barely mentioned in Book I (and in the one place they are, Wright sounds remarkably like the Reformers). For the former, there is no remedy, other than perhaps listening to his first two sessions at the THINK conference. For the latter, happily, there will be plenty of time for that when it comes to Book II. Watch this space!

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