Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Fresh Prince of the New Perspective

One is easily disheartened by the abyss of scholarly literature on Paul. Conflicting views abound, and the interpretative waters continue to muddy.

For this reason, I am always excited to read works which attempt to transcend some of the current impasses. N.T. Wright's 2005, Paul in Fresh Perspective is one such work. The book represents brilliant Bishop Tom's most recent attempt at a grand construal of Paul’s thought. Supplementing earlier work with (inter alia) insights on anti-imperial rhetoric and narrative substructure, he provides an interpretation of Paul which takes the Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman worlds in which he lived seriously (3-13). Wright operates with a critical realist hermeneutic that simultaneously eschews na├»ve objectivism and despondent deconstructionism, and with a view to the significance of Paul’s thought for contemporary life (cf. 13-20; ch. 8). A sweeping proposal for Pauline theology emerges, which is strong in conveying the “big picture,” yet lacking in the detailed exegetical substantiation of said picture.

The strength of Wright’s proposal rests in his ability to cast a coherent picture of the constitutive elements in Paul’s thought. Emphasizing the themes of creation and covenant, messiah and apocalyptic, and gospel and empire, his summation of the apostle’s message is both elegant and forceful. According to Tom, Paul fundamentally believed that Israel’s (and creation’s) hope has been fulfilled by her Messiah, who has ushered in a new age wherein the powers of this world (not least Caesar) are called into account (58). Such a summary succeeds at (1) encapsulating salient Pauline themes, (2) acknowledging the various worlds in which Paul operated, and (3) appreciating Paul’s thought in a manner which does not divorce it from his apostolic mission. Similar remarks obtain for Wright’s understanding of monotheism, election, and eschatology as reshaped around Messiah and the Spirit. Moreover, one is struck by the apostle’s incipient Trinitarianism, and how classical Jewish doctrines such as the oneness of God are reconfigured in accordance with Paul's new paradigm.

In so emphasizing the theological forest, Wright has, however, overlooked a few significant trees. On several occasions he appears to mischaracterize his opponents. For instance, he believes that a resistance to identifying implicit narratives is driving scholarly opposition to the New Perspective on Paul (henceforth NPP) (12). This seems a misleading, for the primary objections against the NPP have been directed at E.P. Sanders’s covenantal nomism and reductionistic interpretations of key Pauline phrases (e.g. "works of the law"; "righteousness"). Elsewhere, Wright accuses NPP detractors of attempting to smuggle Pelagianism into Second Temple Judaism (109). Such an indictment is quite uncharitable, given that (1) NPP detractors are claiming nothing of the sort, and (2) are publishing quite detailed and nuanced studies on Second Temple soteriology. Anyone who has spent time with the first volume of Justification and Variegated Nomism, or the massive monograph by Mark Elliot (The Survivors of Israel) would be reticent of making such an indictment. Wright is also subject to criticisms of inconsistency. In articulating his “fresh” perspective, Wright criticizes the myopia of both the old perspective and the NPP (116-17), claiming that each perspective needs to be appreciated (36). However, he consistently sides with the former view, while consistently chiding the latter (12; 109). Additionally, he fails to articulate the relation between these two perspectives. In a lecture in our Pauline Theology class last semester, Seyoon Kim helpfully noted the interrelation between the universal elements of Paul's gospel (e.g. justification by faith apart from works in virtue of the vicarious cross-work of Christ) with the sociological elements (e.g. Jewish and Gentile reconciliation/unity). This schematization in Paul's thought is clear in Romans 3 and Ephesians 2, where Paul first states what God has objectively accomplished, and then moves to the sociological implications. Wright should probably take note of Kim on this point. Finally, Wright tends to major in what are ostensibly exegetical minors. He is committed to taking echoes and implicit storylines seriously (10), yet it is intriguing that such implicit features often furnish him with substantiation for interpretations which lack more explicit textual verification (cf. 26-33). In contrast to Wright, I am wary of finding anti-imperial "echoes" in Paul's letters. As John Barclay pointed out in an SBL lecture from last year, Paul explicitly mentions the empire/Caesar infrequently in his letters, which is precisely why we shouldn't be too optimistic about finding imperial allusions.

To sum it up, Wright has written a work which should provoke scholarly discussion for years to come. Yet, its brevity renders it susceptible to critique. Many questions arise from reading the book, and Wright consistently refuses to go into more detail in substantiating his proposals (cf. 38-39; 75; 107; 153). This is inevitable when an author attempts to summarize such a massive topic, yet one feels Tom leaves too many proposals on the table. One also gets the sense that readers must await the fourth volume of the epochal Christian Origins and the Question of God series to receive Wright’s definitive word on the apostle’s thought and life.


bobbym51 said...

Mr. Bruce: Who are you trying to reach with this blog? What was the purpose of posting your review of Wright's book on Paul?

Those two questions are related, by the way, because if you are writing primarily to seminary trained readers then your audience is either very thin or it may consist of fellow students and teachers of your acquaintance.

I, on the other hand, am just a self trained bible teacher and perpetual student who enjoys some of Bishop Wright's books, but I found your review so full of intellectual jargon so as to make it discouragingly opaque. It was almost as if you were trying to write to impress the Christian intelligentsia among your readers.

If Wright's book is as full of insider terms and concepts as is your post then there is no way in the world that I'll pick up that book.

Please...write for the common man if at all possible. Thank you.

Carrie Marie said...

But that's just how Jeff thinks in his head...

bobbym51 said...

Communication is supposed to be the goal of any blog. If a blog is your own personal diary then I guess one could post in any manner one felt like. But if it is a means of communication then the poster must take the audience into consideration.

If the book is worth reading then the poster must make the review as accessible as possible. Unfortunately it was not accessible to me.

My guess is that he felt that he was crystal clear.

Jeffrey Bruce said...

Greetings bobbym51,

I apologize if the review was overly jargony. Thanks for the admonition.