October 22, 2020

For Me: The Year of Paul

Wright Paul

Thanks to a generous gift from a dear friend, I received my study assignment for 2014 the other day when N.T. Wright’s massive, two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God arrived on my doorstep.

Digesting this is going to take some time, and I look forward to working through it slowly and carefully. My only hope is that you won’t get sick of hearing about it, because I’m sure its contents will prompt many a post here at Internet Monk.

At the outset, Wright gives us the “map” by which his work proceeds. It is written in four parts.

Part I Part II Part III Part IV
Paul’s World

His contexts

Paul’s Mindset

His worldview

Paul’s Theology

His beliefs, reworked
around Jesus and the Spirit

Paul in His World

His mission in his contexts

* * *

Parts I and IV are parallel. The first encompasses the historical background — Paul’s Jewish context, the world of Greek philosophy, ancient religions, and Roman empire. The final section shows how Paul, his message, and mission related to those various contexts.

Parts II and III bridge these two by discussing the symbols, stories, and myriad influences that would have played a role in how Paul as a human being thought about and viewed the world of his day — that is, what we might call his “worldview” (Part II). Part III forms the climax of the book. This section discusses how Paul radically reworked the core beliefs of his Jewish world around Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit, and formed his “theology.”

I find this approach much more compatible with the nature of the Bible than the dogmatic and systematic approaches that have dominated Western Christendom (particularly of the Protestant Reformation variety) and have given such a scholastic air to the study of theology.

Wright’s approach honors history and story first, which is as it should be when discussing the Christian faith, which relies upon a narrative of God’s faithfulness in history to his promises, culminating in the exaltation of the King and Kingdom he pledged would come to the world. Christianity certainly has ideas and doctrines, but these are played out through actual events in the world, and as the story continues, we take our place in it not so much by reciting our tables as by heeding the call, “Follow me!”

Let Wright’s words suffice to introduce one of the key “doctrines” this approach impacts:

mosaic-of-st-paul-in-veria-greece2Most works on “Pauline theology” have made soteriology, including justification, central. So, in a sense, does this one. But in the Jewish context “soteriology” is firmly located within the understanding of of the people of God. God calls Abraham’s family, and rescues them from Egypt. That is how the story works, and that is the story Paul sees being reworked around Jesus and the spirit. This explains why chapter 10, on “election,” is what it is, and why it is the longest in the book. I hasten to add, as readers of that chapter will discover, that this does not (as some have suggested) collapse soteriology into ecclesiology. Rather, it pays attention to the Jewish belief which Paul himself firmly endorses, that God’s solution to the plight of the world begins with the call of Abraham. Nor does this mean that “the people of God” are defined, smugly as it were, simply as the beneficiaries of salvation. The point of the Jewish vocation as Paul understood it was they were to be the bearers of salvation to the rest of the world. That, in turn, lies at the heart of his own vocation, issuing in his own characteristic praxis.

– Preface, xvif

N.T. Wright calls his method, “critical realism.” By this he means “the application to history of the same overall procedure as is used in the hard sciences; not simply the mere assemblage of ‘facts,’ but the attempt to make sense of them through forming hypotheses and then testing them against the evidence.”

One of the most interesting facts about Paul and the Faithfulness of God is where Wright begins. He relates how, as a young boy just learning to read, he was given a Bible. Leafing through it, he found a one page epistle written by Paul that seemed to tell a story. It was Philemon. That young boy, now grown, begins this mature work of history and theology with that same NT letter.

How unconventional. And yet, what would you expect from N.T. Wright?


  1. I have seen a couple of recent examples of Paul-hatred on the Christian Internet. He gets pilloried as a misogynist, a legalist, an apologist for slavery, a misuser of Scripture, and someone who radically altered the simple message of Jesus, which is, of course, wuvv.

    This reminds me of that saying of CS Lewis that when people fear to attack the king directly, they become vehement in their criticism of his Prime Minister. To paraphrase Fr. Stephen [Freeman], tell me about the Paul you hate and I probably hate him too. Now, let me tell you about the REAL Paul.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      This comes from reading the Bible as if it were a legal code, where any given snippet you pull out stands on its own. It is easy to compile a list of Pauline snippets that support all those characterizations, whether to support those positions or to condemn Paul. This is merely a special case of the more general misunderstanding of genre in the books of the Bible.

      • Richard – exactly. And it would be easy enough to do the same thing with snippets of what Jesus said.

        Misunderstanding and faulty logic/interpretation have harmed a lot of people…

  2. I’m looking forward to this series, CM.

  3. I am unfamiliar with Mr. Wright’s work….so I have zero opinion about him or his writings except what little I have gleaned here at I-Monk. I do, however, smile at the mention of Philemon. One of the very first books to challenge my faith and thought process as a (very) young Catholic College student in a theology course was “Philemon’s Problem: A Theology of Grace”. (Or, what do we do if the slave IS our brother…?)

    I look forward to your thoughts and observations as you work through your new Pauline series. He has always struck me personally as one of the first, and certainly the most vocal, of the “new” Christians who did NOT know the Lord while He was in the flesh. Despite his access to the Apostles, Paul, like us, had to learn of the Christ without being an eye-witness to the Incarnation and Resurrection. WHO is this Jesus and what does He WANT is the issue we all wrestle with…..

    • David Cornwell says

      Pattie, I think I understand what you are saying, however Paul did not consider himself to be at a disadvantage from the others. Just last evening I was reading 1 Corinthians 15. Paul’s testimony here is that his encounter with Christ was as real as it was to the others. He was a real witness to the truth of the risen Christ. Chapter 15 begins with this testimony, then he goes ahead with a more theological explanation as to the meaning of the resurrection in the remainder of the chapter. Theological, that is, as it relates to what it actually means to us as His followers.

      • @David…..I was being literal, that Paul did not know Christ in His human form prior to the Resurrection. I was not commenting at all on the validity of Paul’s encounter with Christ, only that it occurred after the Apostles watched this whole thing play out in real time on earth. In this way, he is the first Christian of note who based his faith on encounters with the Risen Christ only, who had not eaten and slept and walked with Him first.

  4. Paul was knocked off his horse and onto his keester while he was on his way to bag some Christians.

    He had a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus.

    Why was Paul chosen by the Lord AFTER all the others?

    The others didn’t quite get it. They were still mucking around being religious (what ‘we do’).

    Paul was the perfect instrument for God, inasmuch as Saul (Paul) was all about ‘what we do’ to become right with God.

    Jesus turned that around 180 degrees in Paul. The rest is history. An ongoing, living, continuing history.

    • “Why was Paul chosen by the Lord AFTER all the others?

      The others didn’t quite get it. They were still mucking around being religious (what ‘we do’).”

      Wait a minute, are you saying that all the Apostles except Paul got the Gospel wrong?

      • Didn’t Paul have to straighten out Peter and that Jerusalem crowd? Were they not trying to make people Jews first before they could become Christians?

        The answer is yes.

        That’s right…they didn’t quite get it. They were stuck in Jerusalem playing religion.

        Then the Lord grabbed a hold of one of there biggest religionists to turn his world upside down…and then used him for His purposes. And one of those purposes was to straighten out the others.

        • No, I don’t buy it. I’ve heard this line of ‘If no Paul, then no Christianity’ before, but it’s usually used by those who imply that what Jesus did and taught was radically reimagined by Paul, and we need to get back to the pure teachings of the man Jesus.

          The NT indicates clearly that Paul was commissioned by the other Apostles (AFTER he had been chosen but BEFORE he’d made any kind of name for himself) specifically to go to the Gentiles with the Gospel. And Paul protests that he taught nothing that he did not first receive from them.

          Peter’s fault was hypocrisy. He was neglecting the Torah at Antioch until some Jerusalem folks came, at which time he did an about-face and started keeping Torah again for their sake. One could argue that he was following the principles outlined in Romans about respecting weaker brethren. There is nothing in the text to indicate Peter (or the Jerusalem crowd, for that matter) were trying to make new converts Jews. Paul rails in his letters against ‘Judaisers’ but this is nowhere implied to be in accordance with what the other Apostles are teaching. It was Peter’s own behaviour, not his teaching to new converts, that earned Paul’s ire.

          So, to answer your questions: “Didn’t Paul have to straighten out Peter and that Jerusalem crowd?” Yes. (So that implicates Peter and James, but not any of the other Apostles)

          “Were they not trying to make people Jews first before they could become Christians?” No.

          • “Paul rails in his letters against ‘Judaisers’ but this is nowhere implied to be in accordance with what the other Apostles are teaching.”

            Just read that back, and that’s not so clear. I mean, the Judaisers were not Judaisers because the Apostles had taught them to be so. The Judaisers were doing their own thing.

    • If you read the first chapter of Wright’s book (it is 70-some pages) and study it seriously, it will disabuse you of most of those ideas. Paul is much more complex than just a former Pharisee who now preaches salvation by grace (which is not a major emphasis in most of his letters). And he didn’t get knocked off his horse (Acts doesn’t mention a horse at all).

  5. Here’s a link to the N.T. Wright web page. Has writings and such, if folks are unfamiliar with his work:

    • Thanks, Rita!

      Imo, far too many people have been harmed by misinterpretation/misapplication of Pauline texts. It will be interesting – and possibly freeing for many – to see how Wright develops his theses.

      One of the things that I lack and would like to remedy is lack of knowledge and perspective on Paul and his writings per his education and the overall cultural setting of his era.

      • I’ve been reading Wright for more than a decade. I started with a small book of sermons, “Following Jesus,” and his first book of the Christian Origins series, “The New Testament and the People of God” (the 2 volumes Ch Mike is reading is the 4th installment of that series), which sets the stage for the appearance of Christianity and describes the overall cultural setting of 1C Palestine, and more. That was indeed the beginning of a great deal of freedom…

        When I finished NTPG, along with reading a couple of articles specifically on Paul from the Wrightpage, I felt like I finally understood what Paul was trying to say. Wright includes a sort of digest of NTPG in the first volume of Paul, but he writes that he hopes for familiarity with it on the part of the reader. Parts 1-3 are sort of a cartographic blow-up inset map of much of NTPG: from the context, worldview and beliefs of C1 Jews to the context, worldview and Jesus-focused beliefs of this particular C1 Jew, Paul of Tarsus.

        If anyone wants to understand what Wright is about, a knowledge of his Christian Origins series (NTPG, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, now the Paul books) is imperative. Everything Wright has penned, except his doctoral thesis that became the book “Climax of the Covenant,” is to be traced back to them and found in them. I think CoC sets the stage for the CO series, so is worth reading, but everything he wrote there will come up later. I didn’t need to read his book on justification to know what he thinks about it – although I did read it, and was glad to have done. I already knew what he thought about it from reading NTPG and those couple of Paul-specific articles. After I finished “Following Jesus” and NTPG, and digested them for a (relatively short) time, I found that I actually had some good news to tell people, and a coherent theological basis for it. After JVG I was left with a God who is actually good and worthy of worship, and who has big, big plans for his creation – and this continued right on into RSG.

        “Watershed” is not too strong a word for the Christian Origins series; in the future it will be seen as the most significant Christian theological work of our time, and perhaps even since the Reformation. There are a very few of Wright’s particular points with which I do not agree, but it all makes sense in the context of his background and studies, and where he is in his relationship with Christ. The overall sweep, esp of the 1st three volumes, totally rearranged the furniture of my theological “house.” And a word of, perhaps, caution… Wright is the non-EOrthodox person who is most responsible for my entrance into the Church. He could not lead me all the way in – he is Anglican and Reformed, and claims no great familiarity with the Greek fathers – but by the time I started learning what EO is, I found he had led me right up to the doors. (This has been the case for others of my acquaintance as well, and when people tell him of the connection between what he is saying and what EO says, he’s a bit taken aback and mystified…)

        In so many ways, I am so very grateful for Tom’s life and work.


        • I plan on an attempt at reading the Christian Origins series at some point in the future. Slightly intimidated, but I need to at least give it a try. I’m very intrigued by this latest installment.

          I too noticed the interesting similarity between Wright and my study (from outside) of the EO Church. I became interested in both simultaneously. Fascinating.

      • I couldn’t agree more. His writings have had a direct impact on my life for decades, and not in a positive way. His views on sexuality are the reason so many gays are on the outs with God.

        I too look forward to hearing what Chaplain Mike gleans from these studies.

        • My reply was intended for Numo.

        • Debra – no worries, and I hear you re. gay people being put off by some of his stuff as well. That’s highly problematic, and I can only hope that Wright’s views will change – inclusive, rather than barring the doors.

          • “Barring the doors” is a misreading of what Wright is about. He does believe that sexual continence was something the first Christians advocated. He basically says that we haven’t yet had the discussion we need to have about sexuality in general. I’m not going to say any more; I respect you, numo, and don’t want to have an argument, simply clarifying.


  6. That picture on the cover looks a lot like Tom Wright.

  7. If I didn’t have 400 unread books already piled up beside my bed, I’d pick grab this. Sounds very intriguing. And I find it fascinating (and kind of cool) that Philemon had such an impact on Wright. Philemon is one of my favorite go-to books in the Bible. Great story, great message, great theology…it’s the gospel story, really!…all in one short letter/book.

  8. Wright has been writing about Paul for years.

    It would be a major (worthwhile) effort to read this.

    You may want to start on one of his smaller books to get a taste for what he is like. He is interesting in that he can write to the layperson (and has done a lot of this) and also writes to the theologian.

    • > “He (Wright) is interesting in that he can write to the layperson (and has done a lot of this) and also writes to the theologian.”

      Yes! I’m facilitating a class in Hebrews and using Wright’s “Hebrews for Everyone” as one of my guides. An amazing mix of down-to-earth and theological.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      And you can usually tell the difference by whether the book is written by N.T. Wright (more academic) or by Tom Wright (more popular). I’m a big fan of much of Wright’s stuff. I don’t always agree with all of his conclusions, but I love his questions and thoughtfulness. And I could probably listen to him read the phonebook and remain fascinated. He just has one of those voices.

  9. Many people tend to take Paul and look at his writings as if he lived in the 21st century which is why having some knowledge of the historical and cultural setting for Paul is so important.

    Pattie… the Priest presenter in the wonderfully done Catholicism series (floating around the airwaves the last few years) quotes N.T.Wright a few times throughout the series..

  10. I’m making way through this book right now. I finished Volume I before Christmas, and started into Volume II, and am about 200 or so pages into that right (didn’t get to read a whole lot over the holidays). So far, I’m finding Wright to be a bit more accessible in this book than I found him in the earlier books in this series. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m more familiar and comfortable reading theology now, or he has simply changed his writing style somewhat. It’s probably a mixture of both. I also feel that even thought this is a massive, two volume book, that it’s more focused than the earlier books.

  11. CM, since books like Wright’s,regretfully, don’t come with a Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur (unless jacket blurbs or word-of-mouth play those roles among evangelicals), I look forward to reading your evaluation of these volumes as much as your description of them.

  12. Kent Haley says

    Andrew Perriman has a synopsis of the first three volumes in the Wrights Christian Origins series at http://www.postost.net.

  13. Mazel Tov! I’m slowly making my way through my Logos Software version.