Jason Byassee has written a wonderful biopic on N.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. The article, titled “Surprised by NT Wright”, is available in full only to paid subscribers, unfortunately, I might add.
There is much to marvel at and to appreciate, but I was struck by several paragraphs which are still haunting me.
“Then the crown jewel: three chapters on the heart of Paul’s theology. Here the sum is greater than the very impressive parts. Theology, argues Wright, is something Paul pioneered. Jews and Romans could talk about spiritual matters such as fortune, or unseen powers that require our placating. But theology does work among the earliest Christians (and us) that it never had to do for their predecessors. Theology does the work for Paul that circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath did for the old Paul, the zealous Jew Saul of Tarsus. It marked out a community as distinct from the world. It still does—just not nearly as biblically in most cases as Wright thinks it should.”
Would Wright himself agree with the summary statement that theology for Paul (or us) does the work that “circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath” did prior to Christ? That seems too glaringly gnostic for anyone of Wright’s historical acumen to buy. Furthermore, the dualistic dichotomy that it predicates between our head and the conduct of our lives would be a devastating blow to integrated, wholesome living.
“But Jews of Paul’s time were nowhere near so individualistic, so obsessed with the next life, so unfamiliar with grace as were the late medieval Christians. Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say the NPP scholars, Paul is centrally teaching about God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is showing that Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises, and so can be trusted to fulfill his promises in history. NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God. Paul doesn’t say not to do them because you’ll go wrong and think you’re earning salvation. He says not to do them because the Messiah has come and the world is different now. All people can worship Israel’s God and should do so together without ethnic division.”
This paragraph starts off so well; it highlights nicely why the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) appeals to so many Millennials and Messianics—folks who recognize that there is a diseased root somewhere in our theology. But it turns unbiblical with jarring rapidity, suggesting (at least in Byassee’s evaluation) that Paul was tweaking our reason for not keeping God’s laws. Which conflicts violently with the statement of the preceding sentence, “NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God.”
I found the man described in Byassee’s article incredibly winsome, but I was alternatively delighted and disturbed by his description of Wright’s conclusions. I’m wrestling now with whether my reading of N.T. Wright is more or less accurate than Jason Byassee’s.
“It’s very Anglican,” he says of his hope to make justification, heaven, and Christ’s return more biblical. He’s engaging critically with a doctrine, saying it’s been wrongly understood, then going to the biblical sources and coming back to that doctrine with greater conviction.
And here again, I find something from Wright that resonates with me deeply.