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With Bishop Wright, reviewing a life of scholarship

19 September 2014

Robin Griffith-Jones enjoys a refreshing range of discussions

Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013
N. T. Wright
SPCK £45
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is a collection of 33 of N. T. Wright's articles and lectures on St Paul, written or delivered between 1978 and 2013. They are arranged in order of their prior publication, divided into sections according to (Tom) Wright's successive posts (at Oxford and Cambridge, Westminster, Lichfield, Durham, and St Andrews), and introduced with short and illuminating comments newly written by Wright for this volume.

Several chapters have been expanded from their original form. Here are pithy statements of Wright's views on Galatians, Romans, and (in one paper on each) 2 Corinthians and Colossians, on justification, atonement, "the New Perspective", and Paul's response to the Roman Empire and its claims.

Wright is famous for writing long books; beside the two volumes of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, also published by SPCK in 2013, this is a tiddler at 620 pages. There will be readers who welcome the chance to digest Wright's arguments in self-contained, bite-size chunks. Here they will find a rich and varied meal.

"Paul, Arabia and Elijah" (1996) is still a delight. "Communion and Koinonia" (2002) is a feisty lecture (from a conference on the future of Anglicanism), on liberalism, the Enlightenment, and Paul's teaching on homosexuality. "4QMMT and Paul" lays down an important foundation for arguments in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. "Paul and the Patriarch: The Role(s) of Abraham in Galatians and Romans" (2013) will become a classic.

Tone, pace, density of references: all vary widely, in keeping with the chapters' diverse origins. The resulting variegation is in itself refreshment for the mind.

Several of the chapters, in their original form, were (as Wright tells us) hurriedly written. Wright is so steeped in Paul's thought that such haste can do no harm. I wonder, though, whether he might before long give more sustained thought to the Enlightenment, against which he rails here as he often has before. None of Wright's likely readers will deny the dangers of an unthinking, faux-Gnostic liberalism. But he admits that he is no philosopher; and to summarise the course of the Enlightenment as the route from the guillotine to the Gulag is to be as brash about the past four centuries as the New Atheists are, at their most vehement, about Christendom.

The book's organisation does, of course, lead to the recurrence of themes. There are (parts of) chapters, for instance, on the Roman Empire from 2000, 2002, and 2010. Wright candidly guides us through his treatments of Romans 2, from one chapter here (1996), through his commentary (2002) to a quite new reading attained in a later chapter of the present book (2012). Several chapters, as Wright points out, can in retrospect be seen as written en route from an earlier to a later and fuller exposition of a passage or problem. I wonder if I will be alone in finding this sense of an intellectual autobiography the most engaging feature of the book.

From the young Wright commenting on his great predecessors Käsemann and Cranfield, through his opening volumes on Christian origins, to his responsibilities as Dean and then Bishop, and so onwards to St Andrews to give himself time to finish the magnum opus on Paul - it is a privilege to look back with Wright on the trajectories of his thought, and on the humdrum pressures of time and circumstance that have brought forward, pushed back, reduced, or expanded his exploration of different constellations in the Pauline universe.

I am not sure how many readers will prefer this compendium to Wright's Olympian book on Paul or (for a shorter account) his Paul: Fresh perspectives. But I hope it will become standard reading for young scholars of the New Testament, wondering, as they look for their early posts, how their career and their thought might evolve over the coming decades. Reading this book, they may disagree with Wright, and they may hope to follow quite different paths of life and intellectual endeavour; but they cannot fail to be inspired.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple, in London.

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