Reviewed by Mark Baker
N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) was released in 2013. At almost 1,700 pages, this two-volume work is of planetary size. The gravitational pull of PFG is so strong that it has already accumulated several moons: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (2015) started out as prolegomenon for PFG but soon became a separate volume (see Books at a Glance review by Andreas Köstenberger). The Journal for Paul and His Letters devoted an entire issue to evaluating PFG (4.1; 2014), and Wright soon responded to his reviewers in The Paul Debate (Baylor, 2015). But the most substantial of all the critical responses is God and the Faithfulness of Paul, edited by Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael Bird.
God and the Faithfulness of Paul is not just another collection of review articles of PFG. Even the longest of book reviews is quite limited in its depth because of the need to cover the entire book; therefore, God and the Faithfulness of Paul has created space for key scholars to support, critique, and continue the conversation in specific areas of PFG without having to cover the entire work. While the areas covered are quite broad, the editors claim that they all fit under the rubric of two of Wright’s unique contributions: “1) That Paul invented the genre of ‘theology’ by re-working the Jewish worldview in light of the messiah and the Spirit; and 2) Paul’s most lasting symbol of his theology and apostolic work was casting the church as a united body of Jews and Gentiles worshipping the God of Israel” (5–6). The editors hope that the result of such a project is an “intentional and comprehensive engagement with Wright’s PFG” (6).
Second, the editors have noted that there is a noticeable gap between the English- and German-speaking world in Pauline scholarship, and God and the Faithfulness of Paul is an attempt to bridge that gap. As a result, many of the essays were written by German theologians, including several essays originally written in German and translated into English for this volume. Overall, the editors claim that God and the Faithfulness of Paul is
neither a Festschrift nor a refutation, but something entirely different. It is perhaps best described as a conversation among those involved in biblical and theological scholarship as to the positive achievements, potential failings, matters requiring clarification, and future questions that Wright’s PFG elicits for his scholarly peers (6).
The work is divided into six parts. Part I includes the introduction by the editors and an essay by Benjamin Schliesser that compares PFG with other Pauline theologies. Part II covers methodological issues including hermeneutics, history, and philosophy. Part III looks at contextual issues such as Paul’s political and religious environment. Part IV covers exegetical issues and could be considered the main body of the volume. Part V addresses the implications of PFG, addressing its relevance for the church. Finally, Part VI contains a “partial and preliminary response” from N. T. Wright himself.
Before providing a section-by-section review of the book, allow me to give an initial caveat. By nature this review will probably sound too critical. Since God and the Faithfulness of Paul is a critical response to Wright’s work, I will either agree with the author of the essay and thereby disagree with Wright, or agree with Wright, and thereby disagree with the author of the essay. So before engaging in extensive critical commentary, let me say that this work represents an excellent work of scholarship. The volume contains a “who’s who” of German Pauline scholarship, and the editors have for the most part accomplished their goal to provide a “comprehensive engagement with Wright’s PFG.” I am thankful to the editors for the tremendous undertaking of putting together a volume such as this. In addition, I am thankful that Fortress Press will release a much more affordable edition of the book available March 1, 2017.
Part I: Prologue
God and the Faithfulness of Paul begins with an excellent essay by Benjamin Schliesser entitled “Paul and the Faithfulness of God among Pauline Theologies.” Schliesser seeks to place PFG among a variety of others who have attempted a full-scale synthesis of Paul’s works: Rudolf Bultmann, James Dunn, Thomas Schreiner, Michael Wolter, and Udo Schnelle.
Schliesser’s essay is impressive on multiple levels. First, he pointedly compares Wright’s work and five other major Pauline theologies in a relatively small amount of space. Second, his choice of theologies for comparison is penetrating and serves the purposes of the book well. Bultmann’s theology is the only older work; the remaining four represent recent contributions to Pauline scholarship (Dunn’s Pauline theology is the oldest of the four, published in 1998). These authors are also well represented geographically and theologically. Bultmann represents the fountainhead of much of German scholarship from the previous century and, in many ways, is the theological antithesis of Wright’s work. Though Dunn is similar to Wright in both theology and nationality, Schliesser does well to point out many differences between the two. Schreiner represents some of the best of North American Pauline scholarship and serves as a good representative of the “old perspective on Paul” (OPP). Michael Wolter and Udo Schnelle represent more recent German theologians who have distinct methods and theological emphases.
Schliesser draws three insightful conclusions from his comparison. First, though Wright continues to draw strong distinctions between the NPP and the OPP, some of those distinctions are based on misleading portrayals of the OPP. Second, though Schliesser applauds much of Wright’s narrative method, he is sometimes guilty of “narratological positivism,” meaning that his narrative reading of Scripture at times reads like the tail is wagging the dog and distorts what the text actually says. Third, Wright highlights Paul’s “worldview-redefinition” in light of the coming of the Messiah. Again, Schliesser sees Wright’s emphasis as generally helpful but comments that his conclusions are “remarkably pragmatic,” perhaps to the point of creating false dichotomies (66; cf. 62). Overall, Schliesser’s essay provides fresh conclusions as well as penetrating summaries of Wright’s scholarship and other major contributors in the field. Anyone who wants to read PFG or engage with it critically should read this chapter; it may be the most important one in the book.
Part II: Methodological Issues
Part II contains six essays—over one hundred pages—on methodological issues. Since so much of Wright’s unique theological conclusions come from his method, this section stands out as a crucial contribution to the book.
First, it provides tremendous help in understanding Wright’s method as outlined in PFG (and in his earlier work on method in the first section of The New Testament and the People of God, a work he often refers to in PFG). It becomes immediately evident to readers of PFG that Wright reads and interacts broadly with historians, sociologists, and many other disciplines. Interaction or even understanding of all these categories can be challenging for most mere who attempt a close reading of PFG. But these six chapters were written by scholars who have expertise in these areas and provide adept interaction with the likes of Ian Barbour and Ben Meyer concerning critical realism as well as with specialist terminology such as Peircian abduction and Bayesian Confirmation.
Second, this section also provides key critiques of Wright’s method. While all of the chapters express general appreciation for Wright, they also candidly deliver probing challenges, many of which are rather convincing. For example, Andreas Losch aptly notes that, though Wright claims dependence on Meyer’s critical realism, Wright’s version of critical realism is actually more akin to Ian Barbour’s version, especially when it comes to the relationship between the individual or corporate dimensions of critical realism. Theresa and Christoph Heilig offer a compelling critique of Wright’s criterion of “simplicity” (a rubric for determining which “story” is the guiding narrative behind Paul). They claim that, although Wright claims to follow Bayesian Confirmation, his notion of simplicity actually contradicts Bayesian results (135). They also question how Wright can claim to appeal to Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” yet marginalize the book of Acts, a point that Eve-Marie Becker also focuses on in her chapter. Similarly, Joel R. White provides excellent interaction with Wright’s methodological antecedents concerning narrative, especially Algirdas Greimas, Richard Hays, and Norman Peterson. White transparently favors many of Wright’s conclusions, including his focus on the Jewish narrative and Wright’s covenantal definition of righteousness. He, among others, therefore offers genuine critiques from within the camp of the NPP.
This section also showcases some of the unique strengths of the volume. First, the editors are to be commended for the yeoman’s work they put forth in showing the connections between the various essays. Most multi-authored volumes either contain needless repetition in their essays or miss a chance for necessary connections between the essays. This volume does neither; the footnotes are full of references to other chapters—footnotes that contain more than just references but also brief summaries of the connecting points (see, e.g., 192n38). There are also copious footnotes containing up-to-date bibliographical information on pertinent topics such as the Israel-in-exile debate (see 171n15; 193n40) and often refer to important forthcoming works.
Evangelical readers should also be aware that most of the contributors do not share their conservative moorings. While many of the critiques that are leveled prove valid and insightful, the reviews often reference ancillary issues with which evangelicals would disagree. For example, Oda Wischmeyer claims that Paul and James “draw opposing theological conclusions” (96). Eve-Marie Becker holds that Paul only wrote the so-called authentic letters and refers to the disputed letters under the rubrics of Deutero- and Trito-Paulinism (153). While these points do mark significant differences between the contributors of this volume and evangelical readers, the conclusions of the essays are rarely based on these presuppositions and therefore many of their conclusions remain pertinent.
Part III: Contextual Issues
One of Wright’s main emphases in PFG is contextualizing Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman backgrounds. Part III devotes four chapters to an analysis of Wright’s work in investigating these backgrounds. James Charlesworth authors the first entry entitled “Wright’s Paradigm of Early Jewish Thought: Avoidance of Anachronisms?” This chapter is a treasure trove of insight from an expert in Jewish thought. Charlesworth is able to bring helpful corrections to Wright’s description of history, complete with ample bibliographic evidence (see, e.g., 223n42). He also provides valuable interaction with 4QMMT and suggests additional sources for study such as the Samaritan papyri, the Self-Glorification Hymn, and the Parables of Enoch.
While overall Charlesworth’s essay proves beneficial, there are some rough edges that could have been smoothed out. First, he seems to detect “anachronisms” in Wright that are not really there, such as his dislike for Wright calling followers of Jesus “Christians” (see 209; cf. Acts 11:20–21!). Second, it is understandable for scholars to hold strong opinions but there are times when Charlesworth’s harsh tone seems unnecessary (e.g., the language of “canon” should be “relegated to the dust bin” ; “all who claim to agree with Wright on every conclusion should be exposed as unreflective idiots” ).
Gregory Sterling, in his essay “Wisdom or Foolishness? The Role of Philosophy in the Thought of Paul,” highlights Wright’s limitation in his lack of engagement with Middle Platonism’s influence on Judaism. It should be noted that in his response to this essay Wright willingly concedes Sterling’s points, noting that Sterling’s essay provides the most helpful critiques of all the essays in the book (754). While Wright’s admission should be applauded as evidence of academic humility, this concession is relatively “safe” in that none of Sterling’s critiques really challenge the heart of Wright’s theological paradigm; rather, they simply provide more philosophical tributaries for Wright and others to explore.
James Hanges’s essay addresses the topic of Paul’s cultic contextualization but its conclusions are pedestrian and overshadowed by the following chapter by Seyoon Kim, “Paul and the Roman Empire,” which stands out as the highlight of this section. Kim’s thesis challenges Wright’s view that Rome is the fourth beast of Daniel 7, saying that this view relegates Rom 13:1–7 to an “implicit nevertheless” which would contradict Paul’s claims in 1 Corinthians 15 (285). The reader need not agree with every detail of Kim’s argument to benefit from this chapter; Kim provides an excellent overview of the current state of the “counter-imperial” conversation, including a summary of the exchange between Wright and John Barclay on the subject. Scholars and pastors who want an up-to-date assessment of the topic should look no further than this essay.
Part IV: Exegetical Issues
Part IV represents the heart of the volume. It contains twelve substantial chapters and totals 271 pages. Sadly, the section begins with a disappointing chapter by Gregory Tatum on Law and Covenant in PFG. Tatum begins his essay with a full disclosure: E. P. Sanders is his Doktorvater, and he comes from a Roman Catholic perspective. Such a perspective could be helpful if held in an exegetically responsible way; unfortunately, Tatum seems to have missed Wright on some significant points. Tatum blames Wright for holding to a strictly forensic view of justification (319–26), which is a view that Wright does not hold but which instead belongs to many of his evangelical critics, a point which Wright himself brings out: “Indeed, those who do want to see justification in terms of legal status and nothing more—the position Tatum seems to think I have adopted—have fulminated against me for the last decade or so for not agreeing with them, a point which seems to have passed Tatum by” (727). Readers of this chapter will find themselves at best unconvinced and at worst confused.
Sigurd Grindheim’s article on election and the role of Israel is much better. He rightfully questions Wright’s “salvific” understanding of the fall of Israel (339). Grindheim brings a needed corrective here: Israel suffers because of its own sin; it does not bear the wrath of God for the sake of the nations, as Wright claims (see 332–33). He concludes that Wright has “put the cart before the horse” in saying that Israel’s major failure was not being a light to the nations. Rather, their lack of being a light was a consequence of not living faithfully before God (344).
Next, James D. G. Dunn provides “An Insider’s Perspective on Wright’s Version of the New Perspective on Paul.” The essay is essentially an extended book review—only Dunn, Sanders, and Wright appear in the bibliography—but it is valuable in that it highlights the similarities and differences between Dunn and Wright. Peter Stuhlmacher’s essay, “N.T. Wright’s Understanding of Justification and Redemption,” is another highlight of the book. He features two major substructures of Wright’s theology: (1) first-century Jews are still “in exile”; and (2) the role of Abraham was to “bring the world to rights” or to fix the problem of Adam. Stuhlmacher’s questions concerning these two substructures seem to be some of the key discussion points in the current debates on Paul. A highlight that deserves mention is his interaction with Genesis Rabbah, a Jewish document (c. 300–500 A.D.) that Wright often cites.
John R. Levison’s essay on the Spirit in its Second Temple Context highlights two key texts that Wright has omitted as theological antecedents for Paul’s pneumatology: Isaiah 63 and Haggai 2. The result of Levison’s critique is a challenge to Wright’s claim that the Spirit-filled temple “can only mean” that the Shekinah glory has returned to the temple as the Spirit (458). Levison keenly notes that Wright’s confident tenor might need to be toned down with the inclusion of these two important texts.
Torsten Jantsch’s essay, “God and His Faithfulness in Paul: Aspects of the History of Research in Light of the Letter to the Romans,” is one of the most important contributions in terms of the second stated goal of the volume, namely to bridge the gap between English- and German-speaking Pauline scholarship. Here Jantsch provides a history of research concerning the (strangely) neglected theme of the role of God in Paul’s letters. Though Jantsch limits his scope to monographs on the concept of God in Paul’s letters, the survey includes a vast amount of German scholarship with which Wright does not interact in PFG. The conclusion of the essay provides a beneficial comparison between Wright and the survey of German scholarship. Not surprisingly, Wright’s distinctives prove to be his controlling narrative approach and his covenantal definition of righteousness.
Anyone wanting to engage with current Pauline scholarship is going to need to be conversant with the recent developments of apocalyptic readings of Paul. Jörg Frey’s chapter entitled “Demythologizing Apocalyptic?” provides an excellent survey of Wright’s view of the “apocalyptic school” or the “Union School.” In PFG Wright engages with J. Louis Martyn and Martinus C. de Boer of the “Union School” and with Ernst Käsemann, their intellectual predecessor. In addition, Wright devotes significant space in Paul and His Recent Interpreters to Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans: 2013). Frey rightly pulls in the Wright/Campbell dialogue in his chapter.
Though Frey claims that apocalyptic interpretations and Wright’s covenantal narrative are not necessarily mutually exclusive (523), he does maintain that Wright wrongly forces apocalyptic data into an overly rigid narrative, sometimes even lapsing into a systematic, birds-eye treatment (526). What is more, Frey presents a clear picture of the contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to apocalyptic thought. While most evangelical readers will probably find themselves siding more with Wright’s narrative approach rather than Frey’s apocalyptic approach, any reader interested in engaging with current Pauline scholarship will benefit greatly from this essay.
Richard Bell’s essay “Individual Eschatology,” like Gregory Tatum’s chapter, represents an unhelpful outlier to the project. With the exception of the first section on judgment according to works, instead of providing critical engagement with Wright, he seems to simply state that his own views are quite different from Wright instead of why they are more exegetically responsible. What is more, his views are so radically different from Wright’s that it seems almost inevitable that the two simply talk past one another. To name the most extreme example, methodologically, Bell prefers transcendental-idealism over against Wright’s critical realism, which leads Bell to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ (541–42).
Volker Rabens’s essay provides a transition between the exegetical section and the implications section. His engagement with Wright’s understanding of “plight and solution” in Paul is top notch and includes extensive bibliographic material on the subject. He also includes good interaction with Wright’s development of Paul’s ethics, although he seems to misunderstand what Wright means by “blameless” in a pivotal section: Rabens defines “blameless” as “moral perfection” (573) whereas Wright seems to simply refer to “blameless” as having outstanding character undergirded by ongoing Christian repentance (see PFG 989). However, Rabens has rightly identified a missing link in Wright’s work between God’s faithfulness and the need for humans to be faithful.
Part V: Implications
The fifth part of the book moves beyond exegetical issues to the implications of Wright’s theology. It begins with the important topic of ecclesiology in an essay by Andrew McGowan. While the essay highlights some of the salient issues such as the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology, it does not seem to break any new ground or go as deep as it could have. For example, McGowan briefly brings up the debate between John Piper and Wright but does not offer any engaging commentary on the exchange (594). Such an oversight is unfortunate since much of the Piper-Wright dialogue has to do with the interplay between soteriology and ecclesiology. If there is any “chink in the armor” in the editors’ desire to provide a “comprehensive engagement with Wright’s PFG” it would be the lack of evangelical voices. Could Thomas Schreiner have written a chapter? What about John Piper who, in addition to having published a book critically engaging Wright (The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, 2007), received his terminal degree from the University of Munich?
One of the highlights of his section is Frank Macchia’s essay: “The Spirit and God’s Return to Indwell a People: A Systematic Theologian’s Response to N. T. Wright’s Reading of Paul’s Pneumatology.” Macchia essay covers familiar ground in this volume; Hurtado and Levison both wrote an essay on the same topic. Yet Macchia brings not only a systematic perspective but also in-depth analysis from a historical-theological vantage point, providing engagement with the likes of Athanasius, Augustine, and Luther. Since Wright’s theological claims in PFG bring a radical challenge to traditional Reformed theology, Macchia’s chapter keeps God and the Faithfulness of Paul from having a historical lacuna. The only way to improve this essay would be for Macchia to engage with John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (2015) in relation to PFG.
A final highlight in this section is Eckhard Schnabel’s chapter, “Evangelism and the Mission of the Church.” Of particular interest is his engagement with Wright’s view of Paul’s conversion, or, more accurately for Wright, his “call.” Schnabel provides warranted pushback to Wright’s definition of conversion and instead favors Richard Longenecker’s view: a conversion is “a radical change of thought, outlook, commitments, and practices, which involves either an overt or a subconscious break with one’s past identity” (694). Schnabel qualifies this definition in that at his conversion Paul did not cease being a Jew per se but did have a radical break and repentance from his church-persecuting zeal as described in Philippians 3.
Part VI: Epilogue
The epilogue consists of fifty-seven pages of Wright’s response to his critics. Factoring its large page size and small font size, the essay is probably a similar word count to Wright’s 2015 stand-alone response to his critics, The Paul Debate. The essay is vintage Wright: brilliant, informed, and somewhat circuitous. Though it is divided into twelve topical sections, with the exception of the section on apocalyptic thought, he does not linger on a certain topic for very long and often brings up the same author in three or four different places, making it difficult to evaluate the points made between Wright and his critics. It would have been ideal if Wright could have provided a one- or two-page response to each of his critics that could have been included at the end of each chapter. But with twenty-nine chapters that is probably too much to ask.
The real highlight of the essay is the ten pages that Wright devotes to apocalyptic thought in dialogue with Jörg Frey. Wright has also devoted Part II of Paul and His Recent Interpreters and chapter 3 of The Paul Debate to the same topic but the focused dialogue between Wright and Frey in this section brings great clarity to the conversation. Essentially, Wright distinguishes between six different meanings of the term “apocalyptic” which can be outlined as follows:
- Apocalyptic (M): the view of J. L. Martyn which, in Wright’s view, separates the idea of apocalypse from its Second Temple context.
- Apocalyptic (End): “end-of-the-world” apocalyptic, namely, the view commonly attributed to Albert Schweitzer that refers to the actual end of the time-space world.
- Apocalyptic (Par): the belief that the sayings of Jesus refer to the parousia, the “second coming” of Jesus that would occur within a generation.
- Apocalyptic (Ex): the existentialist reading espoused by Rudolf Bultmann and resisted by Käsemann.
- Apocalyptic (Pow): Käsemann’s understanding of apocalyptic which focused on the cosmic struggle between non-human powers and God.
- Apocalyptic (TheoPol): Wright’s view in which end-of-the-world language is used to denote devastating socio-political events (746–77).
Wright uses this rubric to show that he and Frey actually have more in common than Frey claims. However, this rubric also brings much clarity to the conversation about apocalyptic thought in general and provides a helpful way forward in delineating the actual points under discussion.
Before concluding this lengthy review, I will just name a few other points of interest in the epilogue: two points of critique and one point of praise. First, it is sad that Wright remains generally unrepentant of his caricaturing. Many of Wright’s critics have rightly stated that he is given to caricature, whether of the Reformation or otherwise. This essay is the first time I have ever seen Wright address this critique but instead of really engaging with it, he brushes it off by saying that he himself has also been caricatured (721). Because Wright is beneficial in so many areas, I wish he could respond more charitably to this point of scholarly dialogue so that his actual points could be heard and received more readily.
Second, Wright refers to many of his critics’ essays as “fascinating” and states that he desires to incorporate their thoughts into his own work. I am thinking primarily of this comment from Wright: “I am delighted with Jack Levison’s proposal that I should add other texts such as Isa 63 and Hag 2 to my collection, associating the spirit more directly with the Exodus” (726). Yet what Wright does not bring up is Levison’s point that the inclusion of Isaiah 63 and Haggai 2 in Wright’s discussion of the Spirit “would challenge Wright’s contention that Paul’s pneumatology was radical and shocking” (461). Wright seems to want to “add other texts” to his collection but misses that these texts challenge to his current way of thinking.
On a positive note, Wright cites two areas in which he wants to continue to develop: first, the connection of Paul’s economic world alongside his Jewish, philosophical, religious, and political worlds; and second, a connection between Wayne Meeks’s world of “first urban Christians” and Wright’s own development of thought forms, narratives, symbols, and patterns of life. It is always helpful to have someone like Wright describe areas where work still needs to be done.
It seems fitting to outline how this book might be used for various people in the church and academy. First, it goes without saying that God and the Faithfulness of Paul should be required reading for anyone engaged in Pauline scholarship or seeking to write a dissertation in Pauline studies. The scope of the volume is so broad that it touches almost every major area in the field. The book is worth reading cover to cover for those in this category. It is also an important work for any biblical scholar to have in his library for reference.
Second, the book will also prove helpful for pastors and educated laypeople who want to stay abreast with cutting-edge Pauline scholarship. The task of staying current can seem overwhelming for busy people in ministry. But there are a few essays in this book that provide excellent overviews of major topics of discussion that will allow those interested to be informed about some of the most important conversations in the field. The chapters by Steve Moyise on Wright’s understanding of Paul’s use of Scripture, Seyoon Kim on Paul and the Roman Empire, Peter Stuhlmacher on Wright’s understanding of justification and redemption, and Jörg Frey on apocalyptic thought come to mind as key introductions to their respective topics. Readers should bear in mind that the essays are unapologetically academic, including untranslated Greek, Hebrew, and German, and that the authors rarely come from an evangelical perspective. Still, receiving the fruit of scholarship from key experts in the field is well worth the effort of a close reading of these chapters.
Finally, anyone wanting to work through PFG in a thoughtful manner will want to have God and the Faithfulness of Paul within arm’s reach as a guide for understanding Wright’s magnum opus. The chapters on Wright’s methodology will prove especially helpful in understanding Wright’s points. Readers who are not familiar with technical epistemological and literary terms may even want to read a few chapters in God and the Faithfulness of Paul before reading Wright’s sections on his theological method. The chapters by Oda Wischmeyer on Wright’s hermeneutics, Andreas Losch on Wright’s critical realism, and Joel White on Wright’s narrative approach will each provide a general outline of the methodological landscape in which Wright engages in these chapters.
Again, I wish to express thanks to the editors of this important volume for the effort in creating such a compendium. It will be an invaluable resource for engaging with Wright for years to come.
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