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One God, One People, One Future: Essays in honour of N. T. Wright, edited by John Anthony Dunne and Eric Lewellyn

15 March 2019

Henry Wansbrough on a tribute to a scholar with two monikers

THIS jumbo volume, a fitting companion to other Tom Wright blockbusters, secretly engineered by two grateful graduate students for the honorand’s 70th birthday last December, focuses on three centres of his prolific writing.

It begins with a fond and humorous justification of the arrangement and process of the book, and a digest of each of the essays contributed by a stellar array of New Testament scholars. The title reflects the three focuses of TW’s scholarly endeavour, monotheism, election, and eschatology. The material focus of the whole work is predominantly on TW’s Pauline scholarship, and especially his contributions to the understanding of Romans.

The breadth of the work must also be emphasised: despite the overwhelmingly Evangelical preferences of the 25 authors from all over the English-speaking world, use is made also of a papal document and of insights of modern Jewish scholarship. The editors also point out that, while N. T. Wright is the name of the scholar, there is also a large body of work by the same man, nicknamed “Tom Wright for Everyone”, which brings the fruit of his scholarship to less specialised Christian readers. The method and wealth of this series is illustrated by Peter Oakes’s essay.

It is an enriching experience for a reviewer to spend due time with this heavy tome. Especially rewarding is the approfondissement of so many elements of the Letter to the Romans provided by the contributors who refine or expand on TW’s insights into that longest of the Pauline epistles. His four-hour tutorials on Romans are still a legend in undergraduate circles in Oxford.

It is not unfitting that the introductory essay by Michael F. Bird (enlivened by plenty of Australian humour) should compare TW’s importance and impact to that of Bultmann, with a full and critical assessment of Bultmann’s achievement and a highly appreciative sketch of TW’s massive volume of work. There are, to my mind, only two essays that are less worthy of inclusion. My sole complaint, having sung in choirs with the honorand, is that there is only one mention (and that in a footnote) of the musical metaphors that feature so aptly and so frequently in his analyses.

A detailed description here of each of the essays is impossible, and, in any case, is provided by the editors in their introduction. To me, three essays seem particularly memorable, by chance one connected to each of the three parts of the volume, though I was also gripped by the two final essays (by Richard B. Hays and Stephen I. Wright), tussling with the problem of the eschatological salvation of the Jews in Romans 11.25-28.

In the first part (One God), James Dunn offers an unpublished lecture originally delivered in 2008 on the development of Christology and especially of Wisdom Christology. After a crisp survey of the titles of Jesus in the Gospels, he wrestles with the problem of giving an account of the divinity of Jesus within the framework of strict Jewish monotheism. Despite this monotheism, but within the context of a highly poetic use of language and symbols, both the Word and the Wisdom of God are described in the New Testament in divine terms, though remaining essentially God’s own Word and Wisdom. The problem of apparent tritheism becomes acute only in the controversies of later centuries, with the introduction of Greek philosophical terms, especially when the concept of hypostasis or persona is sundered from its background in Graeco-Roman drama.

In the second part (One People), Michael J. Gorman broadens the discussion to include 1 Corinthians, the only Pauline letter of length comparable to Romans, showing richly how it illustrates and expounds the four classic marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed. This is a valuable contribution from the professor of biblical studies at the Ecumenical Institute of St Mary’s University, complementing TW’s predominant emphases on the unity and holiness of the Church — in which connection, Scot McKnight’s reflections on Paul’s concept of “holiness” are also a notable spiritual enrichment.

Leading into the third part (One Future), Sylvia C. Keesmaat uses Oakes’s Reading Romans in Pompeii to re-create the effect that a reading or hearing of Romans would have had on the financially and sexually exploited Christians of Rome. Evoking a struggling freedman, Nereus, and an exploited slave-girl, Iris, she picks up and enlarges upon the references to suffering and exploitation, e.g. 8.35-39, and especially the widespread use in that letter of the psalms of lament and the plaints of Jeremiah. This, in its turn, may be valuably linked to Andrew J. Goddard’s striking study of the important role played by the concept of obedience in Romans.

This book provides not only a winning tribute to the inspiring influence of the honorand in New Testament and especially Pauline studies, but also many significant advances in those studies, for which we must be grateful to him and to the long-suffering editors.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

One God, One People, One Future: Essays in honour of N. T. Wright
John Anthony Dunne and Eric Lewellyn, editors
SPCK £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

Listen to N. T. Wright talk about his book Paul: A biography on The Church Times Podcast

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