N. T. Wright’s “Paul: In Fresh Perspective”

N. T. Wright. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005. 195pp. $25.00.

In many ways, there is not much that is “fresh” about N. T. Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective. The book consists largely of a rehashing of material that he has already written about elsewhere. Wright acknowledges this fact in the preface where he states that the current work develops themes from three of his previous writings on Paul: What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), The Climax of the Covenant (T. & T. Clark, 1992), and his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreters Bible (Abingdon, 2003). Wright is not so much attempting to break new ground in this work, but rather he intends for it to stand as a pointer to a fuller treatment of Paul that will form volume IV of his series “Christian Origins and the Question of God” (p. xi).

The book divides into two parts that broadly define the direction of Wright’s thinking on Paul. In part one, “Themes,” Wright’s introductory chapter locates Paul in his own historical setting. According to Wright, Paul was a man shaped by “three worlds” plus one: Second-Temple Judaism, Hellenistic Culture, the Roman Empire, and the church. In this chapter, Wright also reaffirms his commitment to the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. The remainder of part one is taken up with three dyads that according to Wright form the matrices from which Pauline theology develops: Creation and Covenant (chapter 2), Messiah and Apocalyptic (chapter 3), and Gospel and Empire (chapter 4).

In the first three chapters of part two, “Structures,” Wright offers a sketch of the shape of Paul’s theology (p. 83). Because Wright finds the familiar topics of Reformation soteriology an inadequate framework in which to understand Paul (p. 83), he suggests that Paul is best interpreted within the framework of what the Jews of Paul’s day believed. The structure of second-temple Jewish faith had three tiers: monotheism, election, and eschatology. For Wright, “Paul’s thought can best be understood, not as an abandonment of this framework, but as his redefinition of it around the Messiah and the Spirit” (p. 84). For this reason, Wright’s argument proceeds by explaining Paul’s rethinking of God in chapter 5, his reworking of God’s people in chapter 6, and his reimagining of God’s future in chapter 7. The concluding chapter of the book takes up the difficult question of how Paul’s gospel relates to that proclaimed by the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, how Paul conceived of his apostolic task, and how Paul informs our understanding of the task of the church in the present day.

In this book, Wright has made his case once again that Paul cannot be properly interpreted apart from his historical context. Wright does not argue that Paul merely mirrors the philosophical and theological premises of his Jewish and Greco-Roman background. Rather, he shows that Paul both agrees and disagrees at significant points with both. This fact enables Paul to be both thoroughly Jewish and Roman, while at the same time confronting both with his gospel. This reviewer looks forward to seeing how the details of this approach will work out in his forthcoming volume on Paul in “Christian Origins and the Question of God.”

Yet even for all of his learned explication of Pauline theology, Wright’s exegesis in this book leaves much to be desired. Rather, I should say, that the exegesis is nearly non-existent. Rather than getting bogged down in the details of careful exegetical work, Wright is constantly referring the reader to his former works on Paul. These notices come up so often, that one wonders why Wright has chosen to write this volume at all.

Nevertheless, one theme that Wright returns to time and again appears to be at least one “fresh” emphasis on his part. In chapter 4 in particular, Wright argues that Paul’s gospel contained “echoes” of the rhetoric of imperial Rome. The upshot of this observation is that Paul thought that his message offered a direct political challenge to the dominant world power of his day–the Roman Empire. This so-called “fresh perspective” on Paul argues that the unveiling of the Messiah as Israel’s king and the world’s true Lord challenges the grand claims of pagan empire (p. 40). This means that, for Paul, to confess Jesus as Messiah is to confess that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not” (p. 69; cf. 58).

This much of Wright’s proposal is not controversial. Even the most traditional readings of Paul recognize that his gospel makes Jesus out to be the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Most interpreters would probably agree that there are no political or spiritual rivals to the kingship and lordship of Jesus in Paul’s theology.

What is truly “fresh” about this perspective is the implication that Wright derives from this reading of Paul. It means first of all that Paul’s gospel calls Christians to oppose political entities that make claims to empire and world domination. Wright even hints (via Richard Horsley) that this message of Paul offers a special critique of “today’s monolithic American empire” and that this emphasis should not be dismissed “as a mere leftie fad” (p. 16). Given Wright’s open and frequent critique of American foreign policy elsewhere, this particular application of Paul’s gospel will likely prove to be very controversial.

This book is to be recommended to anyone who wishes to get an overview of Wright’s thinking on Paul. It summarizes the work that Wright has done on Paul up to this point and gives a little bit of a hint as to where he will be going in the future. For anyone who has already been reading Wright’s work, there is not much more here that is not already covered in Wright’s other books. Nevertheless, the book does pique one’s interest in what trails Wright might be blazing in his forthcoming volume on Paul.

8 Responses to N. T. Wright’s “Paul: In Fresh Perspective”

  1. Jim Hamilton January 2, 2006 at 7:36 am #

    Denny,

    Thanks for this great review!

    I wonder if the “Fresh Perspective” folks are really echoing Paul’s supposed “anti-imperialism”? To be specific, do they mean to say, as Paul did, Jesus alone is Lord! Or, are they saying, the Bushies are wrong and the Republicans aren’t the political wing of Christianity and more pew-sitters need to be voting for the non-capitalistic, non-militaristic, non-moralistic political parties?

    We agree that Jesus alone is Lord. The question is, how do we apply that Pauline truth in our modern political context?

    Thanks for your ministry!

    Jim

  2. Tertius January 2, 2006 at 8:48 am #

    I wonder if Wright might help point out how themes and echoes of the Old Testament inform our exegesis of the New Testament. For example how the “deep” – cosmic sea in Genesis 1 along with YHWH delivering his people across the cosmic Red Sea help us see the meaning of Jesus encounters with the sea in Matt 8. If we only do grammatical exegesis and not pay attention to echoes, themes, and the NT rootedness in the OT, we can miss the forest for the trees. I think there is a lot we will miss in Paul if we don’t look for those echoes. Even though I think Wright has gone too far and has made background foreground in certain ways, I think he has also pointed out some blind spots.

    Jared E

  3. Denny Burk January 2, 2006 at 8:57 am #

    Dear Tertius (a.k.a. Jared),

    Wright is self-consciously following Richard Hays’ work in ECHOES OF SCRIPTURE IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL (p. 61). He even utilizes Hays’ seven criteria for determining whether such echos are present in a text.

    I don’t have any problem with such an approach. It’s just that you can’t take his historical approach without also doing traditional exegesis. Sometimes the details of the text get in the way of our historical reconstructions, and I think this will be the case with Wright’s interpretation of Paul.

    Luf,
    Denny

  4. Tertius January 5, 2006 at 7:27 am #

    Yeah, and Wright has ecumenical and political agendas driving his hermeneutics also.

  5. Paulos January 12, 2006 at 5:27 pm #

    A good review, Denny.

    Dittos to Jim’s comments.

    What troubles me about the “Wrightian version of the NPP” is the premise for exegesis, namely what first century Jews believed. Such an approach shifts the basis of interpretation away from the text that is before us to background materials. If reading 2nd Temple Jewish literature is requisite for understanding Paul’s letters, then how pray tell, could any reader understand Paul rightly (hearing pun intented) prior to our rather recent accessibility to that literature? The shift away from the biblical text to background texts for understanding the meaning of the biblical text is a shift that always sends off alarms for me. It is distressing that evangelicals have long been doing exactly the same thing in numerous ways across the spectrum of the Bible.

  6. Barrie January 21, 2006 at 3:09 am #

    “It means first of all that Paul’s gospel calls Christians to oppose political entities that make claims to empire and world domination.”

    Thank you – I’m a first time visitor
    I have yet to read the book, but if this quote is correct, Wright is going well beyond Paul into confusion with modern left [and far right] political agendas.
    Jacques Ellul’s anarchism, for instance, says that Christians must set themselves against all earthly power *as* power. I believe this is unbiblical, and cannot be deduced from the Paul who ‘appealed to Caesar’. Was Paul a hypocrite or devious to use Caesar to save his life, while denouncing the government itself? I think not.
    I do not think Wright can be allowed to go trendy in this way with his Paulinism.

  7. Emmanuel Parmar November 21, 2006 at 1:12 pm #

    Your article is good.
    However, Ehrman set out on a quest to answer precisely those questions that come to any Christian’s mind. In concluding that the words of God are really not inerrant, would be a seismic realization for any Christian.
    In criticizing him, let us keep in mind not to “kill the messenger”. That is his learned opinion and if possible you can provide information to counter his words.
    I am a born again Christian and will never doubt God’s love for me, in that He sent His only Son Jesus to die for me, and the manusripts and the scribes are secondary to my salvation and faith in God.
    The Bible says very clearly in John 5:39 that “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life”.
    To find God, just go and look at the nearest tree or blade of grass. You should see God in there.

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