Book Review

What Saint Paul Really Said

N.T. Wright, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub.Co., 1997

It is well known that an unfortunately wide gap exists between the seminary and the church, between the world of Christian scholarship and the world of pastoral theology. In fact, the overarching trend in New Testament scholarship today is the postmodern splintering of disciplines, divorcing exegesis (interpretation of the Scriptures) from hermeneutics (application of the Scriptures) and even theology. Keen thinkers with a foot in both worlds, however - biblical scholars who are willing to remain accountable to the church - are able to bridge this gap, bringing the insights of such disciplines as historical criticism into the theology of the church. N.T. Wright, author of What Saint Paul Really Said, is one such thinker.

To appreciate the significance of Wright's book, we must go back to the publication of E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, which exploded like a bombshell in Pauline studies by demonstrating that Protestantism has consistently misinterpreted the Judaism of Paul's day. Most evangelical Christians are still unaware of Sanders' work and "the new perspective on Paul" with which New Testament scholars have been grappling ever since. But like most meaningful scholarly discussions, the positive insights of "the new perspective" are certain to filter into the church's collective consciousness as the issues are tested, weighed, and confirmed by the teachers of the church.

To date, most books on "the new perspective" have largely been inaccessible tomes prepared for the seminary classroom. However, with the publication of Wright's little book What Saint Paul Really Said, the church at large now has access to the best insights from contemporary Pauline scholarship. I highly recommend it as one of the most useful introductions to the topic, as it puts into proper context the works of E.P. Sanders and others while simultaneously retaining the integrity and theological consistency of Paul's writings. But Wright goes far beyond that, spelling out for us in clear and lucid terms what "the new perspective" means for our interpreting and applying Paul's writings today.

Wright's focus is the gospel and the doctrine of justification. With incisive clarity he demonstrates that the core of Paul's gospel was not justification by faith, but the death and resurrection of Christ and his exaltation as Lord (pp. 45,88,113,114,151). The proclamation of the gospel was the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the Messiah who fulfilled Israel's expectations. Romans 1:3,4, not 1:16,17, is the core of Paul's message to the Romans, contrary to traditional thinking (pp. 52-54,126). Justification is not the center of Paul's thought, but an outworking of it:

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by 'the gospel'. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But 'the gospel' is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ....Let us be quite clear. 'The gospel' is the announcement of Jesus' lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. 'Justification' is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other (pp. 132,133).

Wright brings us to this point by showing what "justification" would have meant in Paul's Jewish context, bound up as it was in law-court terminology, eschatology, and God's faithfulness to his covenant.

Specifically, Wright explodes the myth that the pre-Christian Saul was a pious, proto-Pelagian moralist seeking to earn his individual passage into heaven. Wright capitalizes on Paul's autobiographical confessions to paint rather a picture of a zealous Jewish nationalist whose driving concern was to cleanse Israel of Gentiles as well as Jews who had lax attitudes toward the Torah. Running the risk of anachronism, Wright points to a contemporary version of the pre-Christian Saul: Yigal Amir, the zealous Torah-loyal Jew who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for exchanging Israel's land for peace. Wright writes:

Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say, 'going to heaven when they died'. (They believed in the resurrection, in which God would raise them all to share in the life of the promised renewed Israel and renewed world; but that is very different from the normal Western vision of 'heaven'.) They were interested in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel (pp. 32,33).

When Saul became a Christian, Wright contends, he maintained the Jewish shape of his doctrine, but filled it with new content. The zeal of Saul the Pharisee was now the zeal of Paul the Apostle; God's covenant faithfulness (righteousness) with regard to His people was indeed fulfilled, in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Wright maintains that as a Christian, Paul continued to challenge paganism by taking the moral high ground of the creational monotheist. The doctrine of justification was not what Paul preached to the Gentiles as the main thrust of his gospel message; it was rather "the thing his converts most needed to know in order to be assured that they really were part of God's people" (p. 94) after they had responded to the gospel message.

Even while taking the gospel to the Gentiles, however, Paul continued to criticize Judaism "from within" even as he had as a zealous Pharisee. But whereas his mission before was to root out those with lax attitudes toward the Torah, now his mission was to demonstrate that God's covenant faithfulness (righteousness) has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.

At this point Wright carefully documents Paul's use of the controversial phrase "God's righteousness" and draws out the implications of his meaning against the background of a Jewish concept of justification. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of the party who is "justified" cannot be confused because the term bears different connotations for the judge than for the plaintiff or defendant. The judge is "righteous" if his judgment is fair and impartial; the plaintiff or defendant is "righteous" if the judge rules in his or her favor. Hence:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favor. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge's righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works (p. 98).

However, Wright makes the important observation that even with the forensic metaphor, Paul's theology is not so much about the courtroom as it is about God's love (p. 110).

Wright then goes on to flesh out the doctrine of justification in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. The "works of the law" are not proto-Pelagian efforts to earn salvation, but rather "sabbath [keeping], food-laws, circumcision" (p. 132). Considering the controversy in Galatia, Wright writes:

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God....The problem he addresses is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone's reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? Circumcision is not a 'moral' issue; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds. Nor can we simply treat it as a religious ritual, then designate all religious ritual as crypto-Pelagian good works, and so smuggle Pelagius into Galatia as the arch-opponent after all. First-century thought, both Jewish and Christian, simply doesn't work like that....

[T]he polemic against the Torah in Galatians simply will not work if we 'translate' it into polemic either against straightforward self-help moralism or against the more subtle snare of 'legalism', as some have suggested. The passages about the law only work - and by 'work' I mean they will only make full sense in their contexts, which is what counts in the last analysis - when we take them as references to the Jewish law, the Torah, seen as the national charter of the Jewish race (pp. 120-122).

The debate about justification, then, "wasn't so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church" (p. 119).

Commenting on Philippians 3:9, another key text, Wright points out that it is:

[M]embership language. When Paul says he does not have a righteousness 'of my own', based on Torah, the context of the previous verses must mean that he is speaking of a righteousness, a covenant status, which was his as a Jew by birth, marked with the covenant badge of circumcision, and claiming to be part of the inner circle of that people by being a zealous Pharisee. That which he is refusing in the first half of verse 9 is not a moralistic or self-help righteousness, but the status of orthodox Jewish covenant membership (p. 124).

Similarly, in Romans 3:27:

This 'boasting' which is excluded is not the boasting of the successful moralist; it is the racial boast of the Jew, as in 2:17-24. If this is not so, 3:29 ('Or is God the God of Jews only?) is a non sequitur. Paul has no thought in this passage of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case his contemporaries were not guilty. He is here, as in Galatians and Philippians, declaring that there is no road into covenant membership on the grounds of Jewish racial privilege (p. 129).

Properly translating the doctrine of justification into contemporary terms, Wright notes with irony that this doctrine, which was principally concerned with unity and acceptance in the body of Christ regardless of social barriers, has been one of the most divisive doctrines in the history of Christianity, particularly between Catholics and Protestants who have interpreted it as a question of precisely how salvation is to be attained (pp. 158,159). He also draws out the social implications of a gospel in which Jesus is proclaimed as Lord over all things (including "politics," pp. 153-157,164) and which will not allow for a rugged individualism. "The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community. If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning, at the centre of your theology, you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism" (pp. 157,158). Hence Wright destroys the artificial distinctions between spiritual piety and social concern.

Lastly, Wright concludes the book with a chapter considering A.N. Wilson's book Paul: Mind of the Apostle, arguing contra Wilson that Paul was not in fact the founder of Christianity, but rather the faithful herald of Messiah Jesus.

At once sweeping and incisive, Wright's book makes great strides in the muddled waters of Pauline scholarship. My only criticism is that in his sweeping style of writing and thinking, Wright comes up short on subtlety at points. For example, in his chapter on christology, Wright seems overly eager to read back Nicene categories of thought into Paul. Nevertheless, overall What Saint Paul Really Said is a book that will challenge the reader in an exciting quest to understand better the meaning of the New Testament and how it ought to be used in the church today.

Mark M. Mattison

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