October 25, 2020

Theology and Life

House believed to belong to Ananias of Damascus

House believed to belong to Ananias of Damascus

After discussing Philemon at the outset of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright takes time to present an overview of the method he is using to understand the apostle, his message, and his ministry.

In short, Wright follows what he calls a “worldview-model.” Believing that studies of the Bible and Paul in particular have been pursued for too long in an idealist world of disembodied thoughts and beliefs, he thinks it crucial that we take into account the “three-dimensional world of ordinary, full human life” when trying to grasp Paul.

What follows is a quote from PFG in which Wright explains the interplay of theology and life that we must always keep in mind.

PFG…For far too long, in the western tradition at least, it has been assumed that the task and aim of “theology” was to bring everything back in the end to a system of interlocking ideas and beliefs. The reaction against this from sociology, and materialistic viewpoints of various sorts, has been understandable, but it is important that neither side retreats from this engagement into prepared and polarized positions. Rather, what I am attempting to do in this book is to show how a historical and social analysis of Paul and his communities helps to explain why he needed to develop “theology” and theology of just this sort, with its Messiah-and-spirit-driven emphasis on the one God and on the unity of the people of this one God. This theology cannot be reduced to a system of ideas, though it has plenty of ideas to offer and affirms that they do indeed interlock in a coherent, indeed elegant, whole — just as this worldview analysis cannot be reduced to the interplay of social and cultural systems, though there are plenty of such things in evidence in Paul’s letters, and they do make sense in their own terms. Nor is it the case that Paul simply developed “theology” because the symbolic praxis which seemed appropriate demanded it (theology simply as the handmaid of sociology). The reason Paul’s symbolic praxis seemed appropriate in the first place was because of what he believed about Jesus.

In particular, this way of approaching the matter explains why the tendency since at least medieval times in the western church to organize Paul’s concepts around his vision of “salvation” in particular has distorted the larger picture, has marginalized elements which were central and vital to him, and — because this “salvation” has often been understood in a dualistic, even Platonic, fashion — has encouraged a mode of study in which Paul and his soteriology is seen in splendid isolation from his historical context. Paul experienced “salvation” on the road to Damascus, people suppose; his whole system of thought grew from that point; so we do not need to consider how he relates to the worlds of Israel, Greece or Rome! How very convenient. And how very untrue. If we take that route, a supposed “Pauline soteriology” will swell to a distended size and, like an oversized airline traveller, end up sitting not only in its own seat but in those on the either side as well. In particular, it will become dangerously self-referential: the way to be saved is by believing, but the main theological point Paul taught was soteriology, so the way to be saved is by believing in Pauline soteriology (“justification by faith”). For Paul, that would be a reductio ad absurdum. The way to be saved is not by believing that one is saved. In Paul’s view, the way to be saved is by believing in Jesus as the crucified and risen lord.

– PFG, p. 30f

N.T. Wright is attempting to take a more wholistic approach to the Apostle Paul. It’s not just about his thought — his ideas, his doctrines. It is also about how he processed the complex Jewish-Greek-Roman world in which he lived through the Hebrew scriptures and his encounter with the One he believed to be the promised Messiah. Nor can Paul’s emphasis be reduced to “personal salvation.” Paul’s Messiah is Lord of all creation: “And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.” (Eph. 1:10, NLT)

Our “worldviews” are the usually unrecognized atmospheres in which we live, move, and have our being. As Wright notes, the characteristic questions they answer are: (1) Who are we? (2) Where are we? (3) What’s wrong? (4) What’s the solution? and (5) What time is it? The stories we tell, the ways by which we live (praxis), the symbols we use to think and communicate, and the questions we ask about life give us implicit answers to those questions.

When Paul was overwhelmed by the risen Jesus en route to Damascus, it forced him to reexamine not only his own deepest thoughts, feelings, and values, but also those of the world(s) in which he lived. Paul’s theology is the new symphony that he wrote by pulling all these strands together. At its heart, Wright argues, this symphony grows out of Paul’s foundational identity and experience as a Jew, newly reworked and reinterpreted through Jesus and the Spirit. This deeply rooted Jewish-Messianic perspective became a springboard by which he then boldly engaged the whole world with “good news.”

Out of this rich mixture of life and theology, Paul could write a letter like Philemon — simple as it seems — yet filled with echoes from stories and laws in the Hebrew Bible, sensitivity to the business interests of his friend, understanding of the culture’s patronage system, and most of all, a whole new view of the possibilities of human relationships in which Paul expressed his own personal willingness to be an agent of reconciliation because of Jesus.

* * *

This is part three of our reflections on N.T. Wright’s book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.


  1. “The way to be saved is not by believing that one is saved. In Paul’s view, the way to be saved is by believing in Jesus as the crucified and risen lord.”


    And we can’t even do that. He has to do it for us (give us the gift of faith through the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His sacraments).

  2. “a supposed “Pauline soteriology” will swell to a distended size and, like an oversized airline traveller, end up sitting not only in its own seat but in those on the either side as well. In particular, it will become dangerously self-referential…”

    Isn’t this the fundamental problem, at least among contemporary protestants, in our age? That Jesus is basically a vaguely distant, ideological, transactional, theosophic, pixie-dust-sprinkling savior-in-the sky (or “savior-in-my-heart” if you the less cerebral type)?

    The average Gospel presentation sounds something like this: “You’ve been trying to earn your salvation. You need to believe that Jesus took the penalty for your sins and receive salvation as a free gift, because right now your just a legalist.”

    Interesting. Jesus is really just a foil for faith alone/grace alone theology here. You could almost take him out completely, and as long as the hearer professed that they now believe “salvation is a free gift and that you can’t earn your way to heaven,” we’d be satisfied that a conversion had taken place.

    1 Corinthians 15 contains Paul’s summary definition of the Gospel. Justification by faith, imputation, and penal substitutionary atonement are conspicuously absent. Likewise every single Gospel sermon in Acts presents the resurrection of Christ as God’s vindication of the Messiah. Many of them even contain the Ascension of Christ. None of them, to my knowledge, contain faith alone theology, or even grace alone theology. This is why we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John “Gospels” but not Romans. We NEED the later doctrines of the church. We DON’T need them as a replacement for an enfleshed Messiah who has risen from the grave and is present with the church.

    For the Apostles, the Gospel was Jesus himself. Not a magic payment at the cosmic cash register of personal salvation, but a real person, in history, fulfilling Israel’s hope and assuming the title of “King.” It was the events of his life. His death, resurrection, ascension to heaven, and inaugurated Kingdom of justice and peace, to one day be consummated for all to see. None of this was ever sidelined by the doctrines of the church any more than it was a “metaphor” for the generalized human goodwill or something. The endgame of what Wright is pushing back against is, however ‘conservative’ it may sound, is Bultmannian liberalism that ultimately denies the basics of Incarnation and the events for which it was ordained, or at the very least de-centralizes it. “Go to heaven when you die” personal salvationism is basically a flavor of this.

    Let’s do the world and ourselves a favor and shoot this animal behind the barn before any more damage is done.

    • Your post side by by side with god_and_god_alone….ironic…

    • Interesting. Jesus is really just a foil for faith alone/grace alone theology here. You could almost take him out completely, and as long as the hearer professed that they now believe “salvation is a free gift and that you can’t earn your way to heaven,” we’d be satisfied that a conversion had taken place.

      I”d never thought about it this way before, but the “grace alone” profession is just as turned inward as any other trust in a profession of…. (fill in your favorite soteriology package). Rather than focus on a real Person, and real outside of ourselves events (starting with the resurrection), we focus on a very particular profession: nothing else counts. I think it is the “particular” that is the rub: all christians have a profession of something, and a testimony to something, or Someone. End of ramble.

      • That really is a brilliant observation 🙂
        I often wondered after years of Study how many churches are continuing steadfastly in the Apostles doctrine. It led to several years of asking many Christians have you been taught the foundational doctrines of Christianity Paul stated was the milk of the Word. The answer no or what foundational doctrines ? It makes you wonder for sure. Eternal life defined by Jesus in John was to know God eternal life defined by Paul was to know Him the Power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings being made conformable to His death a whole lot different than the doctorinal emphasis and theologies of many ministers today. I read a comment by an editer for a Christian magazine a minister and she too ask the same. Are we following apostolic doctrine with the same priorities they had and doctrinal emphasis ? likely for the majority are not. T.Austin sparks once said grace taught by the letter apart from teaching on the Spirit of grace who is the very Spirit of the Lord and expected to be Lord in the sight of God and Jesus Christ himself will almost always end in doctrinal err. I think He was right. He went on to state if we do not understand the cost of our purchase according to the Word then likely we may miss Gods rights of ownership and miss or fail to understand almost every warning in the new testament to Christians… I hope the Lord comes soon.

      • I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a fiery evangelist calling people’s faith into question (some no doubt needed it – probably a lot more than they thought) with something like ‘do you know the day and the hour?’ or ‘you need to nail it down tonight so you have something to hang your hat on’ as though that was real faith. It seems to me that is a good example of ‘faith in faith’ or faith in some experience rather than faith in Jesus. Now some probably do come to genuine faith that way (God seems to be much more generous in his definition of faith than many of us) but it’s almost faith in spite of the ‘experience’.

        • “Faith in faith”

          I’ve had that exact thought. There is a version of the faith that would be better known as “Faithianity” than “Christianity.”

  3. Reminds me of Scot McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel”. But given the polarizing reactions to both Wright and McKnight, I have to wonder, what is at stake for those who disagree so strongly?

    • What’s at stake is they’ll have to get off their hobby horses. And that’s never easy, for anyone…

    • Piper’s (who seems to speak for many in the Reformed Baptist camp anyway) greatest fear (in ‘The Future of Justification’) seems to be that if first-century Jews were not ‘work-your-way-to-heaven legalists’ after all, and Paul wasn’t arguing against that (works vs grace), then the whole Reformation enterprise might come tumbling down and we might all revert to being semi-Pelagians (or worse). That is an over-simplification of Piper’s statements but not by much. His main argument against Wright’s historically-based exegesis seems to be that Luther and Calvin got it right so there’s nothing new to add (that again, is an over-simplification of his argument, but again, not by much).

      But I don’t think Wright challenges the idea that salvation is by grace through faith at all (though those who read between the lines suspect him of it); he simply broadens the discussion by pointing out that those issues were not the exclusive issues in Paul’s thinking (and certainly not understood in the way the Reformers thought). Paul is much more complex than the one-dimensional caricature most Western Christianity has made of him (the only apostle who ‘gets it’ battling those who believe works are necessary for salvation – a classic example of anachronism – reading the issues of the 16th century back into the first). In fact, as is often pointed out, only two of Paul’s letters deal with Law/Israel and the church to any great extent (Romans and Galatians) and those books almost certainly are not concerned with those issues as Luther and the Reformers thought (i.e. Paul is not arguing about whether one is saved by grace or works in either of those books). Thus, a fresh reading of Paul, as Wright provides, challenges long-held assumptions based on reading Paul against the backdrop of the middle ages rather than the first century, which, as Piper fears, does in fact raise questions that are uncomfortable to some. However, I find it fascinating and exciting, as one who came out of a fundamentalist ‘it’s all about getting folks saved’ background, to see that Paul’s concerns are primarily about how to get these folks to live out their faith in community, looking beyond their ethnic and culture issues, to be the new People of God. That has much more relevance and application in churches today than simply preaching sermons over and over about how we are not saved by works but by grace (I think we get that part by now).

    • “I have to wonder, what is at stake for those who disagree so strongly?”

      Well, if history is any guide, it was usually the stake.

  4. I appreciate many things Wright says, but with these kinds of comments he always ends up taking swipes at caricatures. Wright is a brilliant historian, except when it comes to historical theology. The fact that he can so easily dismiss the whole of Western theology in a paragraph, without so much as a single reference to a single major theologian who purportedly does theology the way he describes, it laughable.

    But his prose is so engaging that he will continue to get away with it.

    • Perhaps he feels that since it is to ubiquitous there is no need to list names. If I say ‘almost every cop wears a badge’ there isn’t much need to list all their names.

    • Perhaps the problem lies more with blogs like this, which often present Wright in summary and in sound bites.

      It’s hardly fair to accuse NTW of “dismissing the whole of Western theology in a paragraph” when said paragraph is taken from a 1650 page book that is part of a detailed and carefully argued set of four volumes!

      From early on, a Gentilized church distanced herself from her Jewish roots and started down the path of becoming discarnate. The best of new perspective and fresh perspective teaching is engaged in trying to restore that connection. But this also involves pointing out that many of the Church’s traditional theological emphases, having ignored the roots, amount to both small and large distortions of the Gospel.

      • True, perhaps I am too dismissive of Wright here, not having read the 1,650 pages. But I have read many of his other works. I wrote a dissertation on the new perspective (unfortunately, before this work was available). I have read enough of Wright’s material to notice that he is not always careful in the way he represents the Western (especially Lutheran and Reformed) theological traditions. And I think that is because he is not a specialist in the field of historical theology.

        In that regard (and perhaps only in that regard!) I find him to be very similar to John MacArthur. Both men, I have found, have a tendency to make sweeping statements about whole traditions, relying often on the least flattering examples as representatives of those traditions. MacArthur has the crazy charismatic caricature, and Wright has the Platonic Reformed caricature.

        Here is one example from the quote: What major theologian or confession of the Western tradition has ever claimed that we are saved by believing in justification by faith instead of by believing in Christ crucified and risen?

        • I take your point Aaron and would agree that historical theology is not his strongest area. But…John MacArthur? Ouch. Wright is a first-class scholar with weaknesses. JM is pretty much a fundamentalist demagogue as far as I can tell and he is not even very good at exegesis, which is supposed to be his strength.

          • Well, I have a much higher view of John MacArthur than that. I would differ with him on a number of issues of theology and methodology. And, certainly, he is no scholar in the sense that Wright is. But that’s not his calling. He is, first and foremost, a pastor, and I think his preaching ministry, in spite of its flaws, is something to admire.

            But, to get back to the point at hand, note the key words in parentheses in my above comment.

        • “What major theologian or confession of the Western tradition has ever claimed that we are saved by believing in justification by faith instead of by believing in Christ crucified and risen?”

          Well obviously no one states it that way. But really, you shouldn’t have to look far to find this. Be creative in how you interpret the phrase. For a slightly crass & extreme case, take any anathemas pronounced against RC’s or EO’s because they “believe we’re saved by our works.” That’s basically a denial that Jesus is the Gospel, with sola fide theology a substitute for him.

          I don’t know that we need a major historical theologian to make the point. Even giving the benefit of the doubt to the best of Reformed or Evangelical theologians, the “man on the street” theology you hear on a nearly daily basis , when it comes to identifying the Gospel, is a version of what Wright is talking about when he says “believing in justification by faith.” I’ve been to churches where the most Biblically literate people of the lot think that what you need to believe to be saved is that “you’re not saved by your own works” followed by some explanation of PSA theology. Literally WITHOUT MENTION of the Resurrection. At times in my life I would have believed that a minority of evangelicals actually believe the Resurrection IS Gospel, let alone the Kingdom of God.

          Thankfully, I’m personally not as exclusively exposed to this kind of myopia anymore. But I believe that’s in part due to the work of people like Wright who is helping to revitalize the western church’s view of Jesus and the Gospel.

    • “. . . without so much as a single reference to a single major theologian who purportedly does theology the way he describes . . .”

      I’ll step in the gap. Just off the top of my head, Luther and Calvin. Who tho not exact contemporaries would each probably have signed off on the death by torture of the other for incorrect belief.

  5. It appears to me that most Evangelical Christians I meet are not as disincarnate in their thinking as Wright and his followers make them out to be. They haven’t been served well by their leaders and their Academy, though. Like Paul, they have had a life-changing experience with the risen and enthroned Christ, but unlike the great apostle, they have only the thin gruel of Rationalism, Materialism, and Nominalism to sustain them.

    “An Enemy has done this.”

    The ‘Jesus-in-your-hearts’ soteriologies and the Marvel-Comics-worthy popular eschatologies are monuments to their imaginative powers.

    • Oh my….. somewhere there are some ….uh..”theologians”…ahem.. saying “new niche marketing”…. meet the newest members of SHIELD….

      • LOL!! Oh, wow…my creative mind is racing with the idea of a “theological supehero team”…

        Meet the NEW Avengers…

        Burnt Offering
        Nard Woman
        The Prodigal
        Leprous Man
        Lazarus, the Original Zombie
        Wrath of God
        Arrogant, Self-Righteous Guy who Knows the Truth

    • “Marvel-Comics-worthy popular eschatologies…?” I suppose this is comparing premillennialism to the 30th century of Kang the Conquerer / the Scarlet Centurion, one of the Ultron-raved futures (Age of Ultron, Avengers Next), the Marvel Zombieverse, or perhaps one of the distopian X-Men futures (Days oif Future Past, Age of Apocalypse)…? Well, they do both have Nicolas Cage (star of Ghost Rider and soon, Left Behind).

  6. That Wright tramples the notion that we gain salvation by believing in a particular doctrine about salvation is to me crucial, and sums up his entire argument. He’s right; the tendency is to proclaim a message about one’s views of how salvation works instead of proclaiming Jesus as the message.

    When I first read that idea (being justified by believing in Jesus vs. believing in “justification by faith”) in What Saint Paul Really Said about five years ago, it was eye-opening to say the least. “Self-referential” is a great way of putting it and helps make sense of the kind of angst I have experienced about how much I actually truly believed I was saved by grace vs. subconsciously trying to earn God’s approval. I, for one, have always been sensitive to the kind of salvation theology that is highly introspective, so I’ve struggled with that over the years.

  7. Wright might only be able to do this within the Anglican fold. Over the years they have not only had to tolerate those awful Catholics but those awful Baptists. And not only in the church down the street, but lurking in the congregation. Or, God forbid, up front wearing clerical sheepskins. And in the process they more or less managed to avoid the label of Protestant. If John Shelby Spong was the price we paid for Tom Wright, I’d call it a good deal.

    • Hmm, you could have written the Epistle Dedicatory to the King James Bible;

      So that, if on the one side we shall be traduced by Popish persons at home or abroad who therefore will maligne us, because we are poore Instruments to make GODS holy Trueth to be yet more and more knowen unto the people, whom they desire still to keepe in ignorance and darknesse: or if on the other side, we shall be maligned by selfe-conceited Brethren, who runne their owne wayes, and give liking unto nothing but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their Anvile; we may rest secure, supported within by the trueth and innocencie of a good conscience, having walked the wayes of simplicitie and integritie, as before the Lord; And sustained without, by the powerfull Protection of your Majesties grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endevours, against bitter censures, and uncharitable imputations.

      • Daniel F Crawford says

        Hmm. “Popish persons” and “self-conceited Brethren” – see how these Anglicans love one another.

  8. For a long time I believed that the correct soteriologic interpretation of Paul – indeed, the very “gospel” – was as Nate describes above: “You’ve been trying to earn your salvation. You need to believe that Jesus took the penalty for your sins and receive salvation as a free gift, because right now you’re just a legalist.” People I trusted, who had spent years studying the bible, told me this was so; because of that trust, and because of the kind of personality I have, I believed them. Then I set out on a journey to find out what Jesus said “the gospel” is in the Gospels… a search, as it were, for Meaning.

    After a few years, I was introduced to Wright’s work. Having studied a foreign language to fluency, I knew that the Meaning of the biblical text was uppermost, and those worldview components must be taken into account. Wright gave me Meaning in spades, connecting all the dots and closing all the loopholes of what I had previously been given – so unlike the “systematic theology” approach of “pick a topic and then find all the verses in the bible that (purportedly) speak to it,” and the general lack of a Meaning that could connect everything. I found that the so-called “meat” I had been given was in reality empty-calorie food devoid of almost all Meaning; that’s what drove me into the wilderness.

    I don’t agree with Wright about everything, but my issues with him are relatively minor and have to do with his formation as a particular kind of Anglican. What he gave me was not only an understanding of what Paul was saying, but, more importantly, actual good news centered in Jesus Christ – good news about a creator God who is truly and completely good and actually loves humanity – and also about my own agency and that of every human in light of that Meaning and that good news.


    • >”I don’t agree with Wright about everything…”

      Bravo! You shouldn’t. We should NEVER agree with anyone about “everything.” I think that’s the main issue. Too often we take hold of a certain person’s perspective and theology and hoist that up as ABSOLUTE TRUTH. The only ABSOLUTE TRUTH is found in the Bible. Everything else someone says is only an attempt to capture that truth, or give their perspective of that truth. We need to recognize that it won’t be 100% accurate, 100% truth.

      I’m battling that with several Calvinist friends of mine. They keep bombarding me with scripture that supports the concept of the elect and TULIP. They’ve essentially propped Calvinism above the Bible. I’m not sure, if I challenged them, that they’d find ANYTHING that Calvin got wrong.

      I love NT Wright. I love Brennan Manning. But I don’t agree with everything they say. I’m perhaps more Wesleyan than anything else, but that’s not to say it’s a perfect theology, that there aren’t parts of Calvinism I agree with…but I’ll never put anybody’s take on scripture and the Bible above what the Bible itself says. And never ever agree with what someone says 100%! Even with what I’ve written here!

      • I don’t even agree with the Bible 100%. It does not hold with consistency in each and every detail. (Who woulda thunk?!) BTW, the Bible doesn’t claim to think for itself; that’s our job.

        I used to be a Calvinista, but even as such I KNEW that TULIP wasn’t the Gospel. However, I had friends who thought otherwise and always looked askance when challenged on that.

    • I think I’ve had a journey similar to yours, Dana, based on your comments on this site. Wright and Scot McKnight both really opened my eyes and changed my whole opinion about what the fundamentals of the New Testament are, and what the Gospel is. I’ve also benefited much lately from the writing of FF Bruce. There really are some great thinkers/writers in modern evangelicalism, if you can train yourself to sift through the nonsense.

  9. Paul : Christianity = His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada : Hinduism

  10. I love NT’s articulation of what the Godspell IS;

    “The powerful announcement of the Gospel is that God is God, Jesus Christ is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun. This announcement, stated as a fact about the way the world is rather than as an appeal about the way you might like your life, your emotions, or your bank balance to be, is the foundation of everything else.”

    N.T. Wright from Surprised By Hope

    I have yet to see that statement NOT torque Evangelicals I’ve sprung it on–not used to having the Gospel not be about mememememe….

    • You mean it might not be true that ‘if you were the only person who ever lived Jesus would still have died for you’? I thought it WAS all about me.