Review: Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright

Jesus, Paul, the People of God and N.T. Wright
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Jesus, Paul and the People of God, A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, is the collected essays as presented at the 2010 Wheaton College Theological Conference with reactions from N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, now chair at St. Andrews, and leading scholar in the field devoted to Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament thought world. Volume Editor, Nicholas Perrin, writes in the introduction:

Our common goal throughout was to relate Tom’s history of Jesus and Paul to the church, that is, as the title indicates, “the people of God.” For the layperson, the pastor or the scholar who ask, “What difference does Wright’s readings of Jesus and Paul make on the ground level?” We hope that this book provides some answers – as well as the beginnings of some important conversations. (p11)

I’ve often wondered what it might be like to be in a Wrightian Church, to see how Wright’s theological teachings might play out on the congregational level. Here, we aren’t invited to participate in service at the First United Wrightian Church of the Protestant Remnant, but we are called to attend a wrestling with the scholarship, generally in high admiration, of Tom Wright. While it may be that you will need to read Jesus and the Victory of God and the host of Wright’s other works to fully appreciate the dialogue, it is no more necessary than having to read the catalog of works by the other authors. One may even be able to use this as a means to break into the ongoing dialogue over Wright, the New Perspective on Paul, and current scholarship into Second Temple Judaism. Finally, as Wright will latter expound upon, one could use this dialogue to help bolster faith in the historical Jesus and the Scriptures of Christian Tradition.

This review will, given the nature of the book in that these were originally papers delivered at the 19th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference (April 16th-17th, 2010), be arranged differently than a straightforward one required of an author of an entire work. I will identify the speaker/essayist, their topic, and briefly describe their position as well as Wright’s response.

  • Marianne Meye Thompson, The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God, takes on Wright’s almost refusal in Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) to consider John as a contributor to the understanding of the Historical Jesus. She aptly shows that Wright’s Synoptic Jesus is not that far off from John’s Jesus and indeed, creates a constant conversation between the two in order to show that Wright’s exclusion, an almost life-long pursuit, of John’s Jesus is unnecessary. Wright, in his reaction to Thompson, kindly disagrees on a few points but doesn’t answer the great majority of her points, and yet, he admits that he wishes he had more time to study the Jesus of John. Here, the scholarly kindness which many assume Wright naturally carries, comes through in that he is able to take criticism, respond, and yet, admit that he would need to study more. From this discussion, the audience begins to understand the role in which the Jesus of the Christian Tradition is magnified by the reflected Jesus of the Gospels built upon the historical Jesus, a first century Palestinian Jewish teacher. In this presentation, however, is the the cue to what has become a very important theme, that of Jesus as the Temple.
  • In reading the section by Richard Hays, Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth, there is an edge which is muted in the actual presentation. What is missing is the guffaws from the audience and the slight rewording by the speaker, but what is present is a certain harshness against Wright as a direct result of Wright’s previous taking to task of a book by Hays. He opens his presentation by referring to an incident which occurred at the 2008 SBL meeting in Boston in which Bishop Wright “delivered a withering attack” on Hays’ book, Seeking the Identify of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. It would seem that the well decorated scholar, Hays, had kept his feeling simmering for a long time, which caused him to reassess his previous adoration of Wright’s book, Jesus and the Victory of God. Of course, in defense of Hays, one has to look no further than Wright’s words to see that it might have been a little too tough, especially among friends and colleagues.  Of course, this divide allows the audience to examine the Historical Jesus, and the subsequent quest, differently. Hays follows Barth in viewing Christ through the lens of Tradition while Wright seeks to look past Tradition, while not discarding it, and get to the flesh and blood person. Personally, I’m not sure I would agree that Tom Wright dismisses Tradition altogether, but he does have in his sights what, or rather, who, the Tradition is based on. As Wright notes, “I believe in the creeds. But I believe in the Jesus of the Gospels a good deal more.” (p64). Of course, Hays would contend that Wright believes in three gospels more than four gospels and the Jesus represented therein. For Wright’s response, the words become cooler on the page than Hays, hammering home some of the hypocrisy in Hays’ own works (such as Hays omitting Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastorals.) But, in his response we find hope for Traditionalists and Biblicalists, in that Wright draws on the Christological debates of the Fourth Century which deflected, in his mind, from the Kingdom of God Theology of the first century.
  • Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, ‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God, present a rather interesting essaying, in the form of a dialogue between Brian and Sylvia about N.T. Wright. This is where the ‘ground-level’ discussion actually begins, in that the two actors on the stage ponder if the Wrightian theological reflection actually matters to ‘the woman subjected to violence’, asking a ‘So What?’ question. Wright’s response here is generous and humble, admitting that they were most likely right, in that economic concerns had an equal part of the plight. There is a lot to be said about this essay, especially in light of current financial woes and the current, in the United States, debate on raising the debt limit and our responsibilities, if any, in regards to foreign aid. In asking that particular question, we discover how to apply scholarship past Christian Theological Tradition to reforming said Tradition and perhaps in reforming our social structures. In doing all of this, they are able to take Tom to task for his ignoring of socio-economic concerns in favor of socio-political concerns, i.e., nationalistic zeal. They highlight new developments in the field, largely due to the door opened by Tom Wright which should provide a set-back for those who see the message of the Gospel as something only other-worldly. By far, expect for Wright’s essays, this was the most enjoyable chapter in the book, and the more so because it puts the scholarship of Wright at our feet and asks us what are we going to do with it. “So What?”
  • Nicholas Perrin, Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet, doesn’t offer much of a wrestling with Wright, and instead offers a critique of Wright through critiquing Bornkamm  and Caird (a mentor to Wright). Indeed, Perrin contributes to Wright the place of corrector both to the Jesus Seminar and to the theologians of Bultmann’s School. As with the previous essay, Perrin says that Wright doesn’t go far enough, however, with his conclusions on Jesus, or at least in Jesus and the Victory of God. Perrin is right, however, to note that Wright, ever the critical scholar, is critical of himself and continues to expound and expand his own view of Jesus using his own methodology, a methodology which is neither Bornkamm or Caird. Wright’s response is as cordial as Perrin’s critique, providing a drop in attention following Hays and Keesmaat/Walsh.
  • N.T. Wright, Jesus and the People of God: Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies and the Life of the Church, doesn’t so much answer his critics but provides insight into how use the studies associated with the Historical Jesus, not solely Wright’s studies, but the goal of these quests in the life of the Church to renew the faith in Scripture. It serves as a sermon to scholars and students alike. What he does answer, though, has been hinted at earlier. For as much as he gives the reasons for continued scholarship, he gives evidences for a prejudice against Bultmann which may or may not be warranted. While he doesn’t expressly say it for Bultmann, he does for Kasemaan, a concern for Wright is that a lack of serious scholarship on the Historical Jesus produces the ability to shape Jesus as we see fit, for which he gives the example of Aryan Jesus. There is too much to tackle in Wright’s essay here, but again, this allows the audience to see how scholarship fits into the life of the Church. He takes on Tradition, namely the Chalcedonian Creed as an attempt as “de-Judaizing the Gospels.” He ends his essay with prospects for the future of historical Jesus studies which always points back to the use by the Church. My only concern with Wright is his take on Barth, but in that, we have to understand where the two are coming from, and has Hays pointed out, understand that they are not as far off as Wright likes to make it seem.

Part Two of the book deals with what can be called the Historical Paul, entitled Paul and the People of God.

  • Edith M. Humphrey, Glimpsing the Glory—Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright, does not focus on Paul so much as she does, what I may call, the Gospel as perceived by Paul as perceived by N.T. Wright. Humphrey comes across as more than a mere student of Wright, but perhaps an equal. She is able to craft her words in an eloquent manner, as Wright often does, and draws vivid pictures using the New Testament in contrast with other ancient works that in reading her, it remains a fast paced adventure. But, her goal is not to outdo Wright, but to show what great feat his feet has accomplished. In examining Wright as a “psychopomp”, she looks at Wright’s work on Righteousness (which is interesting as her first volleys are across the bow of John Piper) in which she is a solid Wrightian ally until she differs with his interpretation of 2 Co 5.21 in which Humphrey says the “we” is a reference to the incarnation shared by all believers; the “Apocalyptic” in which she gives Wright the status of having saved Jesus… from a previous generation’s literalism but differs with him on how far to take the language of the apocalyptic; and the Ascension in which she argues for a basis not just in historical scholarship but in Church Tradition. She does so, intermittently, using the early Church Fathers and a certain light from the East, which I think Wright can and should appreciate. Wright’s response in point to point and offers no change, but does show understanding of the issues raised.
  • Jeremy S. Begbie, The Shape of Things to Come, brings to light something even Wright wrestled with – why does the notoriously anti-establishment ’emergent church’ find themselves so enthralled with Tom Wright? he connects the two though Wright’s ecclesiology which Wright notes that he didn’t know he was developing. It is interesting to follow Begbie’s detail of Wright’s work, and the more so because this is the wrestling which is long desired, in that the author is pulling from Wright something Wright didn’t know he had. Further, the takes that theology and both invites and helps to correct the emergent church tradition, and again, in a way which astonished both the audience and Wright. How unique is Wright’s place to be alive to hear his words and thoughts parsed in such a manner and more, used, to build a Christian Tradition which he gives approval.
  • Markus Bockmuehl, Did St. Paul Go to heaven When He Died?, challenges the notion that Christians do not go to “heaven” as found in recent works by Wright, such as Surprised by Hope. One of the major faults of Bockmuehl, and Wright picks upon this, is the author’s misunderstanding of Wright. Instead of taking Wright as Wright, he seems to judge the Bishops’ lexicon through the current, pop-culture, dictionary. Bockmuehl’s heaven is not Wright’s which is not the current thought. He quotes from later church fathers, including Origen and Clement of Alexandria, noting that there was a huge shift between them and Paul, and yet, doesn’t see the correction needed and brought by Wright. It is difficult to follow the essay, seeing that it doesn’t so much as interact with Wright as an image of him as seen by another. Further, I was displeased with the use not of Wright’s scholarship or other scholarship on this matter, but by quoting early Christian writers, themselves only interpreting what had happened before through their cultural hermeneutic.
  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation, a systematic theologian, seeks to incorporate Wrightian theology into his field, and takes to task the neo-Reformed (Piper, et al, for their almost refusal to actually apply sola scriptura, which Wright seems to focus on. This is an interesting take, and a welcomed one, in which biblical studies is being placed as a theological reformer so that Scriptural Authority, over that of Tradition, can be maintained, although Vanhoozer seems to worry that Wright’s rush to biblical studies may in fact damage Protestantism (p241). He seems to hedge his bets though, not wanting to waffle from what some unnamed NT Scholar told him about being right and being convincing. So, he seeks to unite the two, Wright and Piper’s neo-Reformed, which allows him to no longer pressing either of the Reformation mottoes, that of sola scriptura and ever reforming. He writes about the idea of the preservation of the gospel, something one hears constantly when a Reformation interpretation is questioned, but Wright calls him on that, noting that the gospel’s message is preserved if we return to a more Pauline concept, over that of the Tradition of the Reformation, something that Wright doesn’t dismiss in importance. It is in my opinion that Vanhoozer goes almost the brink of theological integrity, but steps back in order to try to bring some union of the two (Wright and the neo-Reformed concerns with preserving Reformation Tradition). Wright seems to appreciate this in his response, although noting in what is now a familiar pattern that Vanhoozer simply doesn’t understand him. I’m not sure I do.
  • N.T. Wright closes the book with an essay on the use of his Pauline studies in the Church, Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?, much as he did with his previous work. He opens by speaking of Paul as a dear friend, and perhaps he is for Wright, as he has spent much time in discourse with the Apostle. He speaks of the Apostle’s worldview, of community almost as sacrament, and the misuse of Paul by both conservative and liberal camps. Moving from there, he seems to take up nearly never book in the Pauline corpus and gives his audience a brief, Wrightian, theology lesson, using it to build his case up to his views on Justification. In this, he is able to bring in the pisteuo christo debate as well as serving to correct supersessionism, showing that Wright is not merely limited to the library, but as an exegete preaches to correct our misunderstandings. All of this is bound up in Paul’s symbolism. And, Paul’s theology. Wright takes us through a revised, Pauline, monotheism, election,  and eschatology. Wright, briefly this time (or, perhaps time speeds up as one drinks int he words of Wright), speaks to Paul as the prophet of community, one in which Wright sees as his work in restoring, not the absent community, but the Paul who first preached that in Christ, there is a community.

Conferences come and go, as do works and scholastic trends, and more than those combined, theologians. Wright has been challenged by the liberals and the conservatives, most notably, the systematic theologians of the neo-Reformed. And yet, here, in what many theologians and scholars are unable to see accomplished in their own lifetime, those challenges and adorations are presented before Wright in which he pushes back and even, at times, accepts correction. Further, this book, and the conference which produced it, shows the results of Wright’s theological scholarship on the life of the Church, from the emergents to the systematic theologians, and in a sense revitalizes the work of a biblical scholar, as something which should not, must not, be separated from the Church, or the theology of the Church. While I may not see a Wrightian Church of sorts, it is interesting, however, to watch as people interact with his scholarship, to discover the theology which it, and then they in turn, produce.

The book is a must read for anyone interested, either for or con, in the work of N.T. Wright, as it takes his works and analyzes them, finding deficits or even high points. Further, it allows the reader to see Wright’s reactions to those wrestlers which shows even more the importance of wrestling with the still-alive theologians. For those interested in Tom Wright’s work, begin here.

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