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An apostle and his consistency

28 February 2014

Anthony Harvey considers Bishop Wright's argument

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Parts I and II: Christian origins and the question of God
N. T. Wright
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WHAT sort of a thinker was St Paul? Were the apparent confusions, inconsistencies, and obscurities in his often dense argumentation the result of the different and often fraught situations addressed in his letters, or unresolved psychological problems in himself, or even of his different moods on different occasions (a highly respected German scholar of the early 20th century once suggested that a particularly obscure passage was the result of Paul's having had a bad night before he dictated it)? Or should we think of these texts as the creation of a mind of such breadth and subtlety that any apparent inconsistencies or obscurities must be attributed to our own failure to understand him?

Given that the amount of material available to answer this question amounts to barely half a dozen letters from his surviving correspondence (the remainder of the writings that bear his name in the NT fall under suspicion as inauthentic), it might be thought that the question could be tackled, if not finally resolved, by a relatively brief scholarly treatment. But now it seems that the evidence to be taken into account, culled from study of both his Hellenistic/Roman environment and from new understandings of his Jewish upbringing and background, has been growing exponentially, and previous, more economical monographs have been superseded by books running to many hundreds of pages. And here we have N. T. Wright, who, besides having made a remarkable impact in the field of popular theological writing (under the name of Tom Wright), has continued his series of exhaustive scholarly studies on Jesus, the resurrection, and the beginnings of Christianity by completing a massive two-volume exposition of Paul, in which he claims him to be an entirely coherent thinker, the author of almost all the letters attributed to him, entirely consistent with himself, and to be taken with dead seriousness as the first and fundamental theologian of the Christian religion.

The first volume - a mere 500 pages compared with the second, of a thousand - is mainly concerned with two topics. First, "Paul in his world" - Jewish, Greek, and Roman. Wright covers an impressive range of source material to build up a picture not so much of that world on its own terms (the usual treatment) as of how a person of Paul's training and background would have engaged with it.

A vivid example of this engagement is furnished by Paul's letter to Philemon, with its radical critique of the normal conventions governing relationships between master and slave, social superior and social inferior, creditor and debtor. Wright's analysis of this minor domestic imbroglio offers an admirably crisp introduction to the ex-tensive argument that fills the rest of the book.

The second topic discussed in the first volume is Paul's "mindset", and here we encounter one of the main themes of the whole work. Wright has a passionate conviction (here sometimes rather petulantly de-fended against those who still have not accepted it) that the time in which Paul's contemporaries lived was understood by any "intelligent second-temple Jew" as the time of "exile", of divine promises not yet fulfilled. This fulfilment was not explicitly foretold in, but was "surely implied by", the last chapters of Deuteronomy: the meaning of "exile" had by no means been exhausted by the historical exile to Babylon and the return of a remnant to Jerusalem.

As a "zealous" Pharisee, Paul would have been deeply committed to pressing forward God's still-outstanding "rescue operation", and he evidently belonged to that Pharisaic party that was even prepared to use violence in the cause. Wright admits that the existence of this party is no more than "almost certain"; but it is undeniably supported by Paul's active persecution of Christians before his conversion.

At any rate, all Paul's thinking, Wright argues, was set within this "controlling narrative", and took for granted a world-view quite different from that of his pagan contemporaries: God has a "plan" for the entire world, according to which his elect people (now being transformed into the "Messianic community" of Jesus's followers) would be both a foretaste of the future and a means by which that future would come about. It is the neglect of this narratival assumption underlying all Paul's writing which, according to Wright, accounts for many of the difficulties that we find in his letters; indeed, as his second volume attempts to demonstrate in great detail, it proves to be the key to understanding even the most fiercely disputed passages, and allows the apostle to be presented as a consistent and deeply impressive thinker and expositor of the essentials of the Christian faith.

The insight given by constantly recalling this narrative is supplemented by a slightly more problematic inference. A fundamental Jewish belief, taken for granted throughout scripture and beyond, was that there is a single God, a single creator of the universe. It follows from this, Wright argues, that any instrument in God's hand must display the same essential unity as its creator; thus the new community that replaces the historic Israel must not merely be prepared to assume its messianic role, suffering and redeeming in solidarity with Christ, but must itself achieve a unity among its members which reflects the unity of God - hence the regular occurrence of ethical sections in every letter, which are integral to the argument rather than merely conventional and paternalistic add-ons.

But this leads to an "incorporative" interpretation of what is said about this new community (the Church), even when it may appear at first sight to be about individuals. Paul several times uses the word "I" in relation to the experience of servitude to the law, of the pressure of the power of sin, and of former allegiance to other values and aspirations. We naturally tend to assume that in these passages he is referring to himself. But Wright claims that they are a way of talking about the messianic community, and the larger world that that community is destined to "rescue".

Is this the case? Many scholars might agree that "I" denotes more than just the individual writer; but not all might be willing to go so far as to say that these apparently autobiographical passages are "incorporative", that is, only, or even primarily, about human beings in general and the new messianic community (the Church) in particular. For many readers, Paul's account of "doing things I do not wish to do" in Romans 7 conveys a psychological perceptiveness that could have come only from intense reflection on his own personal experience.

Nevertheless, this collective or social approach to Paul's concern with "justification"- which means becoming part of the "justified community" that is the transformed messianic people of God - is a refreshing counterblast to the individualistic interpretations that have riven Christianity ever since the Reformation. And this makes it all the more surprising that Wright seems to neglect the practical and social implications of Paul's new faith.

For a Jew to become a Christian meant leaving and being excluded from that social world that had until then given its members their identity, their security, and their pattern of life. The debate about the place of "the law" in the new community was not just theoretical: it involved the practical decision whether to make this decisive break and to ignore the taboos and customs that until then had been part of one's identity and social life.

The gravity of this decision can be seen in Paul's confession that he had received the punishment, doubtless administered by the local synagogue, of 49 strokes of the whip. Determined both to affirm and display his new freedom from such identity markers, but at the same time to preserve his access to synagogue members for the purpose of bringing his message to them, he endured no fewer than five times the most severe penalty that could be imposed on an observant Jew for failure to conform. Many of his converts may have wondered why all this was necessary, why they should not have the best of both worlds, enjoying new freedoms in the Christian community, but continuing to abide by Jewish social and religious customs and remaining within the protection of the Jewish community.

This aspect of the situation addressed in the letter to the Galatians, or indeed any explanation of why Paul was "persecuted" (Galatians 5.11), plays surprisingly little part in Wright's exposition.

But no piecemeal criticism should be allowed to temper one's admiration for a work of such wide range and scope, meticulously supported by detailed reference to previous scholarly research, and intending nothing less than to "challenge and reshape in quite a radical way the 'normal' way of interpreting Paul".

The book is a sustained defence of Paul as a wholly consistent and always impressive thinker. For those who persevere in digesting it, it will offer much new understanding, while those who are daunted by its length and the demands that it makes on one's ability to follow such a comprehensive and wide- ranging argument may wonder whether such length and so much detail, even when presented with Wright's outstanding lucidity and persuasiveness, are a price worth paying for the defence of Paul as "an integrated whole: razor-sharp mind and passionate heart working together".

Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

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