Dissecting the thinking of Marmite Man

18 August 2009

Is he hero or bigot? Richard Burridge commends two books of Pauline exegesis

Justification: God’s plan and Paul’s vision
Tom Wright

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ST PAUL is, to use a current phrase, a “Marmite Man” — which means that you either hate him or love him. For some, Paul is the great Christian hero, the first theologian of the Church, and the proponent of justification by faith. According to this view, the rediscovery of this through the atoning death of Christ drove the Reformation, and has given Christianity its distinct em­phasis ever since, especially in the Evangelical traditions.

For others, however, Paul is the bad guy: a convert to Christianity, even an apostate from his own Jewish faith, and a reactionary bigot whose letters have oppressed many groups down through history, notably women and, more recently, homosexuals.

The Bishop of Durham is also a Marmite Man, who has legions of devotees. His talks sometimes generate an atmosphere akin to a pop concert or political rally, while the internet is awash with webpages about his work, complete with videos across YouTube. The books pouring from his pen are bought in such quantities that he has single­handedly kept SPCK afloat in difficult times for publishers.

Yet, like Paul, he is not without detractors. Many in the liberal tradition, especially in the Episcopal Church in the United States, view him as an inquisitor, sent to bring them to heel through the Windsor Process and the Anglican Covenant.

What is perhaps less well known among Church Times readers is that Bishop Tom is also viewed with grave suspicion by the conservative tradition, especially the ultra-Reformed, who want to preserve the emphasis on personal justification by faith derived by Luther from Paul. This is because he is the best-known exponent of the “new perspective on Paul” — indeed, he invented that phrase in his Tyndale lecture back in 1978!

Naturally, the “new perspective” is more diverse than any one scholar, even the good Bishop. It began with Krister Stendahl’s Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1976), arguing that the Reformed understanding of justifica­tion owed more to Luther’s struggle with his introspective conscience than to first-century Jewish thought. This was expanded in E. P. Sanders’s influential Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and by the writings of J. D. G. Dunn and Tom Wright himself, plus too many others to list.

These new perspectives (for it is not monolithic) have revolutionised our understanding of the Second Temple period, and the Jewish context of Jesus and Paul, in terms of “covenantal nomism” rather than being oriented towards righteousness through works. As a result, the Reformed emphasis on how we are justified before God appears to be­long more to Calvin and Luther than to Jesus and Paul.

However, conservatives have fought back, notably through John Piper’s book, The Future of Justifica­tion: A response to N. T. Wright (Cross­­way, 2007), to reassert a reformed understanding of justifica­tion.

Tom Wright’s book Justification replies to this attack on both his own work, and the new perspective more widely. Written in a readable manner, the first half explains the history of the debate and why it matters. Wright provides a clear account of the current understanding of first-century Judaism — but he is nothing if not a “big picture” thinker. So Paul’s understanding of justification is set in the wider context of the whole story of Israel, and the history of the human race itself.

Justification cannot be limited to individual salvation. Rather, Wright stresses that “God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centred upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah”. Thus justification has to be under­stood not only in terms of the law court and atonement, but also through the centrality of Christology for the divine Plan.

The second half of the book con­sists of careful exegesis of Galatians and Romans, but also including Philippians, Corinthians, and Eph­esians, to demonstrate that this covenantal understanding of God’s plan is properly rooted in the biblical text.

Coming out of a different tradi­tion of liberal Methodism, Neil Richardson (who has taught at Lincoln, Wesley Bristol, and Queen’s, Birmingham) also seeks to bring new perspectives on Paul, especially regarding the charges about slavery, sexuality, and women. His Paul for Today also has Pauline exegesis at its heart, undertaken in the light of the new perspectives.

Richardson, however, also applies it to contemporary questions about homosexuality, justice, climate change, suffering, and our multi-faith context, so that his book makes an interesting complement to Wright’s.

Love him or hate him, Tom Wright is a crucial figure in New Testament scholarship and the life of the Church today. Even more important, however, similarly loved or loathed, Paul remains the tower­ing figure at the centre of attempts to grasp what God has achieved for the whole human race through Jesus Christ.

Both these books help us under­stand our contemporary arguments as well as the eternal Plan. To assist further, however, we “wait with eager expectation” for Bishop Tom to put aside these wrangles, and complete the promised fourth volume of his magnum opus, devoted to Paul — with or without Marmite.

The Revd Dr Richard A. Burridge is Dean of King’s College London, and Professor of Biblical Interpretation.

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