N. T. Wright has written a new book on the theology of Paul, The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle, scheduled for release October 1, published by Baylor University Press. I have been given a pre-release version to read and review. My review does not have to be favorable or pre-approved.
The book may be pre-ordered at either the Baylor University Press website ($34.95) or Amazon ($33.28). However, readers of this blog are granted a 20% discount at the Baylor site plus free shipping, which may be claimed by entering discount code BP48. That drops the Baylor price to less than $28, which is much better than Amazon.
Evidently, the book will only be released in hardback initially. There is no electronic version available for order, and Accordance and Logos do not yet have versions available.
According to Wright’s Preface, the book was written in response to questions, criticisms, and concerns raised by various scholars in response to Wright’s monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a 1700-page work on Pauline theology (hereinafter, “PFG”). I’ve written several posts on this book, but it was too large to cover thoroughly in a blog format, and many of the issues were too academic for most readers.
Nonetheless, not only did I manage 22 posts on this incredibly important book, PFG helped establish the foundation for my most recent series on covenant theology and theosis, the salvation of the Jews, and the salvation of Christians. While much of what I’ve most recently written is not taken from Wright, Wright’s writing, especially PFG, laid the foundation, making it possible for me to discover a host of new (to me) biblical insights.
The fact is that, in academic circles, Wright is quite controversial, and there are a number of currently debated issues regarding Paul in which Wright is largely a school of thought of just one. And yet his scholarship and writing are of such great skill that he is persuading scholars across the globe to his point of view. Even those who aren’t convinced on all points increasingly find themselves conceding that, in general, Wright is right.
Wright also has the huge advantage of being well read among ordinary Christians and ministers. Most academics carry out their arguments behind closed doors in periodicals too expensive for non-academics to buy. Hence, they are largely debating among only themselves, whereas Wright is very well read outside of academia — so that his influence on the church has been and will continue to be vastly greater than his opponents’.
His opponents are in several camps, some very conservative and some very liberal, and many somewhere in between. Those who insist on traditional readings of Paul as taught by Calvin or Luther find Wright largely uninterested in their debates, because Wright is seeking to read Paul as a First Century rabbi, not a 16th Century heir to Medieval Scholasticism. So he simply doesn’t argue for or against Luther or Calvin — and this infuriates many in those camps.
Wright seeks to exegete the text as we have it, has no interest in speculating about how the Gospels came to be, largely considers Paul to be author of the epistles traditionally credited to him, and takes the present work of the Holy Spirit very seriously. Hence, he is no liberal, even if is also not an American-style evangelical. Nonetheless, his writings appeal to American evangelicals because he takes the text and historical context very seriously. He believes we are supposed to live under, that is, in submission to God’s authority as communicated through the scriptures. This is an attitude we evangelicals can understand and learn from.
And while I don’t agree with all 1700 pages of PFG, I found it, on the whole, very persuasive and insightful — and yet a very difficult read. Part of the difficulty arises from Wright’s exchanges with his opponents. I’m just not familiar with most of his opposition, and so much of the book is rather like listening to only one end of a telephone conversation.
With that in mind, I’ve read several of the reviews of PFG in preparation for this post. Wright helpfully provides a list of these at the end of The Paul Debate. Some of these are available for free on the Internet. The rest have no interest to me. Sorry, but if you want people to care about your ideas, don’t publish them in absurdly priced journals.
The most helpful article I read is by Simon Gathercole. Chris Tillings’ review is very detailed and also available for no charge. Part 1 and Part 2. I’d love to have read James D. G. Dunn’s review, but it costs $39 to rent for one day! Obviously, the academic publishers don’t live in the free market. I’d far rather spend the money on a good book. Like a commentary by James D. G. Dunn.
The strongest and weakest feature
Now, The Paul Debate has one feature that is both its strongest and weakest feature.
Under threat of my publisher, I have kept the focus upon the issues under debate, rather than individual scholars or schools of thought. Thus, each chapter in what follows turns on a key debatable issue in Paul, a specific either/or, or sometime several either/ors.
In other words, Wright does not often cite to his critics, quote their arguments, or footnote to particular reviews or texts. Rather, he presents questions, possible positions, and the reasons he takes the positions he does.
Necessarily, his explanations tend to repeat material already provided in PFG, but he adds details, nuances, and clarifications here and there — although it would take me several days — which I do not have — to cull the new from the old.
In short, it’s hard to tell what Wright is saying new in The Paul Debate. Which is a problem. But it’s also a great advantage. For the many Wright fans who don’t have the time or tenacity to read the entirety of PFG, The Paul Debate serves as an excellent executive summary — if I might refer to a 104-page book as a “summary” — of the key Pauline arguments made in PFG.
Obviously, The Paul Debate omits a great deal of valuable material from PFG, but for a great many readers, The Paul Debate will prove a much more accessible read — and the church universal is blessed to have this material in a format that most interested Christians will find very readable and interesting.
For those of who’ve read PFG, The Paul Debate is not quite as important, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading these ideas in a much more compressed form. The format makes his arguments more persuasive in many cases.
I believe I now have a much better understanding of PFG having read The Paul Debate, both because of its relative brevity and, I’m sure, because in answering his critics, Wright has clarified or even strengthened his arguments as to several of his positions.
Now, the academic debates over Paul are not always interesting to the non-academic. And so I’m going to give the readers a sense of the questions addressed in The Paul Debate. The following questions are the outline of the book.
It’s important to know that Wright doesn’t always pick one of the two (or more) positions. He may prefer an in-between or more nuanced position by the time his discussion is over. And often the real value of a chapter is not the answer given but the analysis by which Wright gets to his answer. Sometimes he rejects both proposed possible answers.
a. Was Paul simply a Jewish thinker who happened to know the name of the Messiah?
b. Was Paul, then, a Hellenistic thinker who constructed a non-Jewish scheme of thought in which fragments from his Jewish world remain but without influencing the real structure?
c. Was Paul, then, a Jewish thinker whose thought had been radically renewed from within by a new event which meant what it meant for him within a Jewish and particularly scriptural frame of reference?
a. Did Paul have a robust belief about Jesus, including identifying him in some sense with the God of Israel, or are beliefs like that only to be found later in early Christianity, after Paul’s day?
b. Was Paul’s belief about Jesus a fresh flowering of already existent Jewish material, or is there some other signal means by which he developed his mature view?
a. Is Paul invoking an “apocalyptic” worldview which rules out a “covenantal” narrative?
— or more particularly —
Does Paul see the cross and the resurrection of Jesus as the divine “invasion” which brings an end [to] the narrative of Israel’s covenant with God, and begins a new non-covenantal era in which the dark powers which ruled the world are defeated?
b. or, Is “apocalyptic” simply a literary form which does not necessarily determine the worldview being expressed?
— or more particularly —
Can the cross and the resurrection of Jesus invoke Israel’s covenantal narrative in a way which shows at the same time how the “cosmic” powers are dealt [with]?
a. Does Paul see the people of God as a company of “saved sinners,” a new group who, being “justified by faith” rather than “by works of the law,” have left behind everything to do with “Israel according to the flesh”?
b. Or does Paul see the people of God as in some sense the “new Israel,” envisaging a kind of transformation through which the people of God as whole, not merely individuals, have been turned through Jesus’ death and resurrection into something new?
c. When Paul speaks of “justification,” is he talking about the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” to the believer despite the absence of meritorious works?
d. When Paul speaks of “justification,” is he speaking of the inclusion of all believers, gentiles as well as Jews, within the single family who are to share table fellowship?
a. Was Paul’s “mission” a matter of saving as many “souls” as he could from the wreck of the world and the wrath of God?
b. Was Paul’s “mission” a matter, rather, of infiltrating the culture of his day, transforming it steadily from within?
The Paul Debate is not a place to become informed on both sides of these issues. Wright has only argued his side, and often says little about the other side. He does give a list of articles and reviews that he’s responding to, but most are locked behind academic fire walls and only available to non-professors and non-students at absurdly high prices — although a few are available at no cost on the Internet. The academic community largely does not care to share their ruminations with us amateurs.
However, even if your not an academic interested in defending or challenging a Pauline school of thought, the discussion is fascinating and informing — far more so than the questions would imply. Wright brings such learning to each topic that, even if you disagree with him, you can’t help but learn something of value along the way.
It’s much more accessible and readable than Wright’s other academic works. It’s not quite in a popular style, but it would be great fun to study in a small group or similar setting. And if you’re new to Wright, it’s not a bad place to be introduced to many of his insights.