NT Wright

NT Wright is a theologian proper, which means that some of his books are not for everybody. A friend of mine, a very spiritual, godly person, with a good pastoral ministry tried to read his book Simply Jesus and got nowhere although it is far from being a heavy work . In this article, which I am reviewing constantly, I will talk a little about Wright the theologian, but he also is more generally a thinker; he was a pastor, actually a bishop, and his pastoral concerns come through again and again in his concern for the gospel to be relevant in today’s world; I will look at a book called Creation, Power and Truth in its own article.

Where he is both theologian and a thinker, Wright also has popular level books, a series of simple commentaries to accompany daily reading of each book of the New Testament, and although I think they have good points I wouldn’t  at this stage strongly recommend them, but they might serve to some as a good introduction to the New Testament; Wright is very sensible in his approach as well as readable, as the text is peppered with very nice anecdotes and illustrations. Although I have introduced Wright as a theologian, as I say he also has substantial pastoral concerns and was a bishop in the Church of England who cared for people. It would be difficult to negate the view, judging from the range of his sympathies, that he is one of the occasional people you come across who is not just a formidable intellect – and he is a hard-working scholar – but really a rather remarkable man. What seems to have happened is that early in his ‘course’, as Paul would term it, the modern word being ‘career’, he seems to have come across a fundamental flaw in the way much theology and church life was, and is, working, and this gave an impetus to his thinking that has carried him vigorously forward.

Wright’s major area is serious reappraisal of current thinking about God, which involves him in historical research, writing full length commentaries and engagement with academia, and, more loosely just  ‘talking about theology’. I suggest in the article Theology that there may be room for ambivalence about theology per se; personally I want ‘more of God’ and a lot of the theology is intellectual rather than spiritual; but, while engaging in theology can be a hiding place from God, somebody needs to do the intellectual spadework (so long as it’s not me); but Wright is more than this, having important things to say to our time. He frequently says things that for me are worth knowing and if I dip into his writing I always find something useful, some of it in a limited intellectual way, some of it touching fairly deeply the way I think, and some of it very illuminating.

Here is an example of the limited things. I knew I didn’t like the NIV translation; it’s biased. What I didn’t know is why I react like that. Here is Wright from Justification p.52:

Again and again with the Greek text in front of me and NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one [exact translation]: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.

Does this help my walk with God? Not really, but it does confirm what I think and points in the direction of what Wright is saying. You note in this quotation Wright’s interest – what did Paul really say? He wants to find out what that is, rather than what current tradition says he said. This involves him in something very familiar to me – it is basically literary criticism by placing things in a historical context. This is what I studied at university, only we did it with Shakespeare and the like. A lot of what Wright does is therefore as a historian. Here is a nice example:

in 1 Thess. 5.3, Paul says, “When they say, there is a peace and security, then sudden destruction will come upon them”. Now, of course it is easy to read this text against the background of a placid German society on, say, Oct 30, 1517 [Luther], or placid American scene on Sept 10, 2001. But it helps to understand Paul if we know – as we certainly do – that phrases such as “peace and security” were part of the stock in trade of Roman imperial propaganda at the time. (Justification p.47)

The work that Wright does in this area seems to me to be outstanding, though here I cannot speak as a trained theologian, merely as a trained literary critic. (It is worth noting in the same breath that I can point to a similarly outstanding literary/historical/critical reading of the Old Testament in books by Walter Brueggeman; stunningly sensitive literary investigation; I don’t know at this stage that his work has so much to contribute to daily spiritual life.)

 I came to Wright’s writing out of an interest to get an improved understanding of Paul, but he also spends a lot of time talking about Jesus, again with the  reconstructive historical approach; I intend to add an article on Simply Jesus, a book which I initially misunderstood after a cursory first reading, but which on closer examination proves of great value. For now, the focus is on introducing what is said about Paul.

Apparently in academic circles there is a quite a lot of controversy about what is called the New Perspective, of which Wright is seen as a principal promoter. Basically what they and he says is that it doesn’t do to read Paul (and the New Testament) through the ‘perspective’ of questions raised 400 years ago. The Reformers had particular issues by which they needed to distinguish themselves from the Roman church and justify their activities; they found in Paul what they were looking for to help their case and in so doing read things into Paul which were not part of Paul’s thinking and this distorts Paul. Well, all this seems quite familiar to me because with my background I found it hard to know what Paul was on about in the book of Romans in particular and a lot of the way I understood to approach what he says made it seem very sort of religious and headache producing; for this reason I began exploring Wright.

There is a good website, www.ntwrightpage.com where there are a lot of articles. I found that one called The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith said a lot of what I needed. (There is also an interesting article on Paul and Elijah, saying that Paul would have seen himself as following Elijah, which would be why he talks about going into Arabia in Gal 1.17. ) I also bought Paul (in fresh perspective), Justification and, at great expense, his full length commentary on Romans. I have been unable to read any of these books right through because they are initially too theological for me, but every time I dip into them my ability to read theology improves, which I suppose is good.

Romans is a work of massive erudition. Basically, Paul’s concern, according to Wright, is making sure that faith in Christ is thoroughly connected to the Old Testament, or perhaps making sure that understanding of the OT is thoroughly reworked in the light of Christ ; and Wright’s concern is to correctly connect Paul to these concerns. Romans, says Wright, is not fundamentally about ‘me and my salvation’ (Justification p 23) but about God and his purposes; the Reformers concern was about salvation – ‘my and my salvation’ – and rightly so, but their understanding was limited to  this issue, where the gospel concerns so much more than ‘what must I do to be saved’ – and in fact this is frankly secondary. (I always wondered why Paul would be writing a letter to Christians about how to be saved – surely they were already saved). The following is Wright’s modus operandi:-

…when you hear yourself saying, “What Paul was really trying to say was….” and then coming up with a sentence which only tangentially corresponds to what Paul actually wrote, it is time to think again. When, however, you work to and fro, this way and that, probing a key technical term, exploring a larger controlling narrative there, enquiring why Paul used this particular connecting word between these two sentences, or that particular scriptural quotation at this point in the argument, and eventually you arrive at the position of saying, “Stand here; look at things in this light; keep in mind this great biblical theme, and then you will see that Paul has said exactly what he meant, neither more nor less” – then you know that you are in business. (Justification p.51)

Working like this is what Wright actually does. He consistently looks at Paul’s real concerns, that is, his immediate concerns – dealing with the opposition of some Jews, how to respond to the claims of Caesar, relationship between the church and Israel and so on; then, lo and behold! the book of Romans suddenly all fits together, it really does. The result of all this for me is that if I were, as I am not, dealing in a teaching, preaching, pastoral capacity with some specific issue that related to Romans, I would a) look into Wright to find out the background to what Paul was saying – Wright would help me dig into the matter, get some roots; and b) I would find in Wright a good general approach for digging. Personally I don’t need to do this, but believe it would be very useful.

Paul and Justification are more general. I think I have already indicated the way these books work for me – it is good to dip into them. Both books provide more material on getting at the heart of what Paul said – the need to do so and many contributions to doing so. The quotes in this article are from Justification because this is where I looked recently. This book is highly polemical, set in the context of a debate with a gentleman named John Piper who seems to strongly resent and, in Wright’s view,  misunderstand this new perspective. I think both these books are well worth looking at. Paul in particular is very good at bringing specific concerns of Paul which have traditionally been neglected, and make much more sense of him. Going back to Romans, just looking at the historical context in which  Wright shows it to have been written immediately enables a greatly sharpened understanding. I am in no position at present to really go into what the books say, not here or now; to discover what I understand to be Wright’s intent, please look at the articles on Simply Jesus and Creation, Power and Truth. These 2 books provide a good background to what Wright is aiming at. Romans, however, is an extensive exegesis of the book from Wright’s perspective, while the other two look more broadly at Paul; so while these books with their particular focus are all good independently,  they are not the best place to get hold of what Wright is saying to the Church.

Wright is a voluminous, prolific author; this suggests to me the strong tendency towards intellectualism that I am wary of, and I do at times feel there is a piling up of words and ideas to say fairly simple things, but underneath there is the solid basis of having something important to say (which probably is why he can be so prolific). One of the impacts of Wright on me is away from what might be termed ‘mysticism’. What does it mean, for example, to be ‘in Christ’, the frequent Pauline phrase? A mystical approach would say Paul is talking about a felt experience of spiritual communion with Christ; Wright would move it much more towards the doctrinal side and link the phrase with Paul’s very practical interests. In fact, as will be seen in numerous articles elsewhere on this site, particularly those linked with Daniel Bourguet and Orthodox thought, I have a lot of time for a ‘mystical’ approach; but I find the balance very helpful. I think this is a part of being ‘rooted and grounded’ in faith; I like the way Wright is constantly turning to Scripture and new light shines out from it as he does so.. There are further posts under the title NT Wright Quotations