Jesus, Paul and the People of God (In Review) Part 2

Derek Ouellette —  March 11, 2011

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue With N.T. Wright
Edited by Richard Hays & Picholas Perrin

4.5 Stars (out of 5)

I so badly want to begin at the end because Wright’s concluding essay in this work is simply breathtaking. Alas, I digress.

Part two of last May’s (2010) Wheaton conference focused on Wright’s Pauline studies and – given the climate of this topic in the Evangelical theological world – it was sure to be an excited dialogue.

For the most part it was. Today I’ll keep with the same format as in part 1.

Critiquing Wright’s Paul:

Essay 1: Edith Humphrey’s essay critiques three aspects of Wright’s theology on Paul. First, in reference to 2 Corinthians 5:21 (where Wright believes that the phrase “… we might become the righteousness of God”, means “we apostles – and not you regular Christians – might embody God’s faithfulness to his covenant”), Humphrey argues that the “we” could very well include all Christians. Second she argues against Wright’s insistence that Jesus – particularly in Matthew 24 – had nothing to say about his second coming. And third she critiques what she perceives is a serious omission of Wright’s work: “ascension”, concluding with an impassioned plea for Wright to change allegiances and join the Orthodox Church!

Essay 2: Jeremy Begbie was very much enjoyable to watch! (He hopped on a grand piano and played Wright a little jingle. You don’t that from the book.) Begbie’s essay explores the possible connections between Wright – a high-churchman with a serious commitment to a liturgical institution – with the “emergent ideologies”. Why do those who are associated with the “emergent Church movement” look to this high-churchman as a leader-type? He explores the parts of Wright’s theology that seems to attract them, and what parts of Wright’s theology they seem to ignore.

Essay 3: Markus Bockmuchl’s essay was certainly the most hostile. He engages Wright in a full-out one sided debate (kind of. Actually, Wright’s response to Bockmuchl’s is longer then any other response) on the question of our ultimate hope as Christians. Wright has insisted upon laying emphasis of our hope in the New Earth when “heaven and earth become one”. Bockmuchl argues that Wright’s de-emphasis of heaven as our final hope is a distortion of what the scriptures clearly teach – siting numerous passages to make his point.

Essay 4: Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay was certainly the most entertaining, and also quite challenging. Vanhoozer’s essay explores what it is about Wright’s theology that is making so many of the Reformed get up in arms. It’s a great overall assessment. Vanhoozer sees himself in the position of a crossing guard with Wright on the one side and his Reformed critics on the other, and his mission in this essay is to call both sides to the table of dialogue and to perhaps offer some middle ground. His suggestion that Wright carry Paul’s adoption theology further into the discussion of Justification is quite good as Kevin believes it is “adoption” which may bridge the apparent gap between those who favor the category of “imputation” and those who prefer “Union with Christ”.

Wright’s Response:

My Orthodox readers may be quite curious to know how Wright responded to Humphrey’s summons for the good Bishop to join the Orthodox Church. Wright will have none of it. While being more aggressive towards tradition in his essay on Jesus (“but if the alternative is to say simply that tradition has got it mostly right I reply that the history of the church tells a very different story” p.122), he still resists Humphrey’s appeal here:

“The theologians and exegetes of  later centuries, while right about so much, had important blind spots which we correct best by rereading the text. Tradition is important, but I will drink to Paul first and to tradition afterwards.” – p. 182

Regarding 2 Corinthians 5:21, Wright stands by his position that the phrase, “we might become the righteousness of God” is a reference to Paul’s own apostolic ministry (and that of the other Apostles, hence the “we”); and Wright always remains unmoved in his interpretation that Jesus had all along the destruction of Jerusalem – and not his second coming – in mind in Matthew 24.

In response to Markus, Wright states that he could hardly recognize his own view in Markus’ paper. It seems just as true to me. Wright stands by his position that “heaven” is only an intermediate state and not our final abode. Because Markus’ paper is the most aggressive, Wright gives a brief response to match arguing every step of the way that people do to go heaven when they die but that heaven is neither the point nor our final permanent home.

For Kevin Vanhoozer, Wright praises his article for it’s literary genius, even-handedness and call for honest and humble dialogue from both sides. He sees a bit of a caricature in his position when Vanhoozer suggests that for Wright, God’s covenant with Abraham is the main plot. Wright says the main plot is the story of God and creation, Adam and creation is the sub-plot and the story of Abraham and Israel is the sub-sub-plot. In this way the representative of Israel – the Messiah – drives to resolve the sub-plot so that the main plot can at last be restored (p.260). On a positive note, Wright accepts Vanhoozer’s suggested “Incorporated Righteousness”.

Wright on Paul: A Sneak Peek

When I read this chapter I literally could not put it down. Titled Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church, it could just as easily – and more accurately – been titled A Teaser on Paul since it is essentially a teaser in where Wright is going in his forth coming opus magnum on Paul that everyone is looking forward to.

Wright begins in this essay on Paul in the very most unlikely of places: Paul’s letter to Philemon; which happens to be the very place he starts “in the book I am trying to right at the moment” (p.263). (Teaser)

But here’s the amazing part – and I’m not going to give it away, get the book! – only Wright could take this little obscure letter, that same letter which happened to be the first piece of scripture he and his sister read when he was only four years old because it was small and simple, and find within it everything he has been trying to say in What Saint Paul Really Said?; Climax of the Covenant; Paul in Perspective; Justification; et cetera. You will never read Philemon the same way again. At least I won’t.

He also reveals more of the trajectory of where his book on Paul is going, rehashing some of the themes we’ve seen elsewhere, around Paul’s reinterpretation of Jewish Monotheism, his reinterpretation of Jewish Election, and his reinterpretation of Jewish Eschatology, all in light of Jesus the risen Messiah.

In all of this Wright draws out what he believes to be the central symbol of Paul’s worldview. Not the act of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but of family:

“I have come to the conclusion that the central symbol of Paul’s worldview is the united community: Jew-Greek, slave-free, male-female: the one family of Abraham, the family for the world, the single family created anew in Jesus Christ from people of every kind.” – p.265

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Brian LePort

    I want this book! Thanks for the reviews.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Great review Derek. I loved Wright’s final talk as well, and cannot wait for his book on Paul. Philemon? Who would have thought! :)

  • Trevor

    Good stuff here!
    By the way, the lectures from the conference are available for free on iTunes U.