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Wright and the New Perspective

Jan 8, 2018

N. T. Wright is arguably one of the most important New Testament scholars of our day. Whether you agree with everything he writes or not, you cannot ignore him. Theology, biblical studies, New Testament studies, and Pauline studies are all being given new vigour, discussion and debate because of his many important works.

He has said many things which are contentious, and plenty of disagreements have arisen. A major area in which new ground is being broken is now referred to as the New Perspective on Paul. I will explain what this means in a moment, but it is wise to say that there are actually various new perspectives on Paul, not just one monolithic view.

Before proceeding any further, let me make some necessary qualifications. I am not a New Testament scholar, I am not an authority on Paul and his theology, I have not mastered the Wright corpus, and I make no claim to being a great theologian.

However, I am greatly interested in all four areas, and my humble 6000-volume library has a very large number of works on these and related areas. The literature – pro and con – is now voluminous, and it is hard for most of us mere mortals to keep up with all of it.

One not only needs to read Wright and his massive contribution to the discussion – running into many thousands of pages now – but the others, such as Sanders, Dunn, etc. Then there are those interacting with Wright and the NPP. One very wise man nailed it when he said long ago: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

That’s for sure. But those who are pastors, or teachers or keen students need to keep a little bit abreast of all this, so here I am offering the briefest of introductory thoughts, as well as some recommended reading on all this. There is no question that discussions about Wright and the NPP often can generate more heat than light.

Some critics of Wright have not actually read much of him, yet are quite happy to blast him for what they think he has said. Sure, it is hard to keep up with everything he has written. He has penned around 75 volumes at least (it is hard to keep up with accurate numbers here).

Indeed, the standing joke about this prolific author and his prodigious output goes like this: A student calls his office and his secretary says he is busy writing a book. The student says, “That’s OK, I’ll hold.” For what it is worth, I have around 50 of his 75 books (including his 18-volume popular level New Testament commentary series), but I have not read every word of course, and likely never will.

But I do seek to follow him a bit, and I pen this not as any sort of authority on him and his theological position, but to help direct others who may want to learn a bit more. Obviously the best way to do this is to simply read his stuff – and read a lot of it.

One tip might be of help here: his more academic, scholarly and hard-core works has N. T. Wright offered as the author. His more popular and easier to read books has Tom Wright as the author. So if you want to break into his works slowly and easily, start with the volumes with Tom as author!

As to the NPP, so much has been penned on it that it is almost suicidal to try to offer a brief overview of it here. But let me just mention of few of the issues that generate controversy. Wright thinks much of the church has got Paul wrong over the past 2000 years, and much of the Reformation has as well over the past 500 years.

Key aspects of Reformed thought, including justification in general and imputation in particular, are especially given a rather different spin by Wright. Many related issues arise, such as the nature of Israel and the people of God, the nature of the gospel, and our understanding of the exile theme, to name but a few.

Let me here offer just one brief assessment. It of course has its own biases, as its author, Ligon Duncan, is for the most part critical of the NPP. He does however offer a balanced and gracious assessment along the way (although Wright would likely beg to differ).

It is a lengthy piece, so here I will just provide one very small quote from it, as he seeks to answer the question, what is the “New Perspective” on Paul?

In a nutshell, the NPP suggests that:
1. the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit;
2. Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about a “works-righteousness” view of salvation, over against the Christian view of salvation by grace;
3. Instead, Paul’s concern was for the status of Gentiles in the church;
4. So justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community and what are its boundary markers than about how a person stands before God.

Thus the NPP on Paul purports to help us
1. better understand Paul and the early church in their original context,
2. vindicate Paul and early Christianity from the charge of anti-Semitism;
3. clip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul; and
4. articulate an understanding of justification that has inherent social dimensions and thus secure a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism among evangelical interpreters of the Scriptures; among other things.
www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/attractions-new-perspectives-paul/

Recommended Reading

The 8 points provided above are of course all rather inadequate, and a million more words would be useful here to better understand what the NPP is all about. But that leads me to a list of recommended books on all this. As I say, the printers are working overtime to keep up with all the new literature coming out on this.

There would be far too many articles to choose from here, so let me offer just some worthwhile books. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it may help those wishing to look into these matters further. I break it up into three main sections:

Overview, interaction, and both views

Anderson, Garwood, Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey. IVP, 2016
Chester, Stephen, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives. Eerdmans, 2017.
Westerholm, Stephen, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. Eerdmans, 2003.

Helpful collections of essays (featuring pro and con views, and Wright himself) include:

Newman, Carey, ed., Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus & the Victory of God. IVP, 1999.
Perrin, Nicholas and Richard Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright. IVP, 2011.
Scott, James, ed., Exile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright. IVP, 2017.

Proponents

Dunn, James, The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed. Eerdmans, 2007.
Sanders, E. P., Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Fortress Press, 1983.
Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress Press, 1977.
Stendahl, Krister, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Fortress Press, 1976.
Wright, N. T., The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Fortress, 1994.
Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. SPCK, 2009.
Wright, N. T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols. Fortress, 2013.
Wright, N. T., Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Fortress, 2015.
Wright, N. T., The Paul Debate. Baylor University Press, 2015.
Wright, N. T., Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Fortress Press, 2006.
Wright, N. T., Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013. Fortress, 2013.
Wright, Tom, What Saint Paul Really Said. Lion, 1997.

Other authors could be mentioned here, and many other volumes by the above authors could be mentioned as well. Most of the ones featured here especially have to do with the Paul debate, and the justification debate. For those wanting a somewhat easier introduction to Wright and his thought, the two shorter volumes The Paul Debate and What Saint Paul Really Said may be worth starting with.

Critiques of the NPP

Barcley, William and Ligon Duncan, Gospel Clarity: Challenging the New perspective on Paul. EP Books, 2010.
Carson, D.A., Peter O’Brien and Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism. Baker, 2001.
Carson, D.A., Peter O’Brien and Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul. Baker, 2004.
Kim, Seyoon, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel. Eerdmans, 2002.
Piper, John, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Crossway, 2007.
Stuhlmacher, Peter, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective. IVP, 2002.
Venema, Cornelis, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul. Banner of Truth, 2006.
Waters, Guy Prentiss, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul. Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004.
Westerholm, Stephen, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Eerdmans, 1988.
Westerholm, Stephen, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Eerdmans, 2013.

Simply listing these few volumes may get me into trouble with those in the know, since I have had to leave so many other volumes out. But I do think these are some of the better works on Wright and the NPP. They should keep anyone interested in this topic busy for a little while at least.

Happy reading and happy studying!

[1605 words]

8 Responses to Wright and the New Perspective

  • This has introduced me to a new author, and in reading about him in Wikipedia (may I be forgiven), see much to be considered. In that cursory overview of his work I see a lot with which I agree and have always believed. I must read his work to have a more honest and level opinion.

    Thanks, Bill, for the introduction and information.

  • Unfortunately Nicholas Thomas Wright’s tone can sometimes seem patronizing, and his ‘prods’ at rival intellectual positions incendiary. E.g. this extract from his 2014 book “Surprised by Scripture: Engaging with Contemporary Issues”:

    “I wonder whether we are right even to treat the young-earth position as a kind of allowable if regrettable alternative, something we know our cousins down the road get up to but which shouldn’t stop us from getting together at Christmas. Yes, of course any confrontation must be done with courtesy and civility, charity and gentleness—though if the truth is at stake, look at how Paul confronted Peter at Antioch …”

  • I presume that Wright’s perspective on Jews and Gentiles in the Letter to the Romans is also likely to have considerable bearing on the current state of debate between Judaism and Christianity: There is also likely to be implications for the conflicting views on the place of the nation of Israel in Heilsgeschichte and in the various strands of contemporary Christian eschatology.

    At any rate, Wright is right to ask we pay more serious attention to the discourse about Paul’s Israelite “kinsmen according to the flesh” in Romans 9-11.

    To assert, in some sense, as some scholars have, a certain failure of earthly Israel in her divinely ordained mission is surely to suggest that, in some sense, the Church is herself liable to “fail,” in some sense, as part of the “trigger events” for Messiah’s return to “restore all things”.

    Christendom has historically been too often impoverished by a stubborn refusal to acknowledge and explore its Middle Eastern Jewish roots.

  • Mmm, I wonder how the conversation would go between NTW and SP (Simon Peter) as they lounged on the roof top at Joppa, and NT gasped “what the . . is that coming down from the sky”, or what counsel he might have offered Pete after a swig from the water bottle as they pressed on towards Ceasarea, or indeed how it might have wound up as the ‘Rock’ waited for the soldiers to bind and take him “where he didnt wish to go”?

    (BTW thoroughly enjoying Alec Motyer’s commentary on Amos (Isaiah pretty good too)

  • I can’t understand how Wright is getting away with defining “works of the Law” as “markers of Jewishness (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, etc)” when Romans 3:19, 20, 7:7 make it clear that any definition of “works of the Law” that does not include moral imperatives like “do not covet”, whereby sin becomes known, must be wrong.

  • Thanks Bill,

    N T Wright’s work needs to be paid attention, just because of its volume alone.
    And now that people are paying attention we need to be aware of what influences are coming from it.

    There have been quite a few ‘popular” theologies getting traction in the church in the recent past, and thanks to you, Bill, our attention has been brought to them. Many of them have elements of truth that are helpful, but go too far. The teachings of Joel Osteen of Lakewood has got plenty of press here. Those of Bill Johnson of Bethel Church Redding, are much discussed and there seems to be a mixture of things good and doubtful, depending on who is making the comments.

    Where angels fear to tread! Anyhow some comments and “observations”.

    From my observations N T Wright had a fond connection with William Barclay, and has some respect for the work of Hugh Shonfield “The Passover Plot”. Surprisingly to me, Barclay gave support to Shonfield’s thesis that Jesus didn’t really believe himself to be the Messiah. Wright has picked up part of that idea and asks whether Jesus knew that he was God.

    Wright is likely to step on toes and scare sacred cows, but that is not all bad, it’s mostly just uncomfortable. There are many deep discussions going on about his NPP theory.
    I would like to see how his ideas about this are, or are not, reflected in the early church fathers, since apart from the NT authors, they are the closest to Paul. Another issue for me is how the NPP theory fits in with the rest of the NT and indeed the old.

    Early on, Wright was apparently exercised by the idea that we as Westerners or rather “non-Easterners” and 2000 years after, plus ecclesiastical, and plus social etc influences; may have got some important things wrong about our understanding of scripture and therefore of the faith. I too have been concerned about that and have spent some time studying with Jewish people to come to grips with that. In response to a direct question about this, surprisingly the rabbi said something like “you have got it right”. Wright has expressed some trepidation about the American versions of the faith. I therefore ask the question of him and of me; “Do we properly understand our own foundational platforms of understanding?”

    Watching some of his videos, I am inclined to think that Wright is a genuine christian holding mostly orthodox views, in a deeply considered way. He seems quick to say amidst all of the detailed and organised logic of his presentation that “there is mystery”.

    Some theologians are iconoclasts or wreckers, for the hell of it.
    Some genuinely struggle with biblical ideas that seen incongruous to them, and never really come to a settled faith. I believe Schonfield to be more like that.
    Some are genuine believers, are deep thinkers and are not afraid to think strange things and examine them.
    Some are genuine believers, always looking to understand all the nuances of the scriptures, in their original context, and how they should be held in our modern society. I believe that N T Wright could well be amongst them.
    Some theologians are more ecclesiastical than biblical.
    Some theologians are more of a theological school than genuinely open to discussion.
    Some theologians are so contemporary and “relevant” that it is hard to discover if they have a foundation other than modern popular opinion.
    Some theologians are……

    Wright is not afraid of discussion and apparently rates some of his protagonists as close friends. He does not appear to be at all like those who would say “agree or depart”.
    He appears also hold his own views with some lightness, and is heard to say that he is “still growing”.

  • Also, OF COURSE Judaism was / is a religion of “works-righteousness”. It doesn’t matter what 2nd Temple Judaism taught, as they were incorrect (or else they would have believed in Jesus and not been scattered); even if it would help to understand what it was that Paul was addressing in particular, what ultimately matters is what Paul was pointing out was being required of Jews by Torah Itself.
    Righteousness was and is the grounds for justification and the life belonging to the righteous; the only question is as to what constitutes “righteousness”. According to Paul, faith in the Gospel is the righteousness leading to justification and life, whereas Judaism (Torah) ipso facto teaches “works-righteousness” when it hinges life on works of righteousness.

    “… I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ … THE… COMMANDMENT… PROMISED LIFE… .” [Ro 7:7, 10]

    “For Moses writes about the RIGHTEOUSNESS that is based on the Law, that the person who DOES THE COMMANDMENTS SHALL LIVE… .” [Ro 10:5]

    “For all who rely on works of the Law are under a curse, for… ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by ALL THINGS written in the Book of the Law, and DO THEM.'” … the Law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who DOES THEM SHALL LIVE… .'” [Gal 3:10-12]

  • Hi Bill and readers.

    Strident criticism of N.T.Wright (and his “New Perspective”) may be found at the following site as well:

    www.trinityfoundation.org/

    Mick Koster.

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