In my summer reading, I spent a lot of time with books on Paul (well, one book in particular). That meant also spending a good amount of time reading about justification. In a couple of instances, that was the focus of the entire book. One of those was Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered. The other was R. Michael Allen’s Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and the Controversies.

Allen’s book is composed of three parts, each of which has two chapters. The first part is focused on groundwork and the connection between the gospel and justification. The second part is focused more on Christology and how Christ is for us in the gospel. The final part is more pneumatological and looks at the Christian life in both personal and corporate dimension.

Often, Allen will open a chapter with a clearly defined thesis statement. The first two chapter are a defense of the following thesis (3):

The gospel is the glorious news that the God who has life in himself freely shares that life with us and, when we refuse that life in sin, graciously gives us life yet again in Christ [chapter 1]. While participation in God is the goal of the gospel, justification is the ground of that sanctifying fellowship [chapter 2].

Chapter 3 unpacks the thesis that “in eternal life of the perfect God, the divine Son pleases the Father in the Spirit and, therefore, the divine Son trusts the Father by the Spirit’s power during his earthly pilgrimage, constituting himself perfect and pleasing to his heavenly Father (77).”

Chapter 4 does not have such a clearly stated thesis but is focused on defending the Reformers’ understanding of Christ’s faith and the Christian faith. Here, Allen delves into the pistou Christou debate, but from the perspective of Christian dogmatics rather than as a New Testament scholar.

In chapter 5, Allen tackles the relationship between justification and sanctification. He draws heavily from the Exodus story and uses that to inform his understanding of our standing before God and our obedience in following him. Chapter 6 continues the discussion but focused on the corporate dimension. Allen argues that “the church is a pilgrim people, founded upon and fueled by the triune God of love; therefore, our thinking about the church must be rightly based on our Christology and pneumatology, each befitting the economy of salvation and the eschatological shape of the kingdom of God.”

As compared to Westerholm, this book is much more jargony. That’s not particularly a defect. Allen’s writing is still digestible, but it is not accessible in the wider way that Westerholm’s is. That is not necessarily part of his goal, but I found the book less enticing to read. Readers who are comfortable with the prose style of academic theology (I am, but do not enjoy reading it) may not have any particular issues.

Style aside, Allen makes his central points clearly, although I would disagree considerably with one of them. Specifically, I refer to his contention that justification is the “ground” of our fellowship with God (see above quote). Both our fellowship and our justification are grounded in our union with Christ. Justification, like sanctification, is a fruit of our union. For a detailed defense of this, you should read Marcus Paul Johnson’s One With Christ. While it might be dogmatically defensible to construe justification as the ground of our fellowship with God, I don’t think it is exegetically defensible and Allen didn’t give me any reason to think otherwise. I realize that this is an on-going debate with wider Reformed theology and there are many respectable scholars and pastors who would be inclined to agree with Allen about the ground of our fellowship with God being justification. So, while I think this is wrong, it is surely not a heretical view. I just think it makes more theological sense to see union with Christ as the ground of everything, including justification.

Another minor quibble I have, and this may relate to the previous one, is the dated interaction with N. T. Wright. This is the part of the review where I offer the typical disclaimer explaining to you that I don’t agree with everything N. T. Wright says and so I’m not an apologist for each and every one of his positions on Paul. I did however read his entire Paul and The Faithfulness of God over the summer to actually wrestle with what his views are. Allen, though he is critical of Wright, only cites his 1997 work, but also lets readers know that “scholars continue to poke holes in his claims (109),” even though no scholars are footnoted. This is also the only interaction with Wright in the book. Though Allen isn’t obligated to interact with Wright, it seems fairly appropriate given the title of the book. I would have liked to see him interact more with Wright and with more recent works of his, even if he were brief and critical in doing so. At the very least, Allen could have directed readers to someone with a similar perspective who had done so.

In any event, neither of the two issues should be considered major. If you are looking for a book that is going deeper into the doctrine of justification using the resources of Christian dogmatics past and present, this book is certainly one that should be on your radar. If you are looking for extended engagement with the New Perspective, this isn’t your book, but then again, it isn’t trying to be. Instead, Allen is offering readers what he thinks is a constructive way forward for Christian theology to affirm the doctrine of justification in all its fullness and connect it tightly with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

R. Michael Allen, Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, October, 2013. 208 pp. Paperback, $21.99.

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

As a Christian, I can think of several better answers, but this is about the best you can do from an atheistic perspective.


Last week, we actually started our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 Today, we’ll continue and finish Part I of the book. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this. For now, we’ll focus on chapters 3-5 and round out Wright’s view of Paul’s world.

Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of The Greeks

Here, Wright turns from first century Judaism to first century Greek philosophy. The early Christians had obvious religious ties, but Wright notes three things they did that were more commonly associated with philosophy:

First, they presented a case for a different order of reality, a divine reality which cut across the normal assumptions. They told stories about a creator God and the world, stories which had points of intersection with things that the pagans said about god(s) and the world but which started and finished in different places and included necessary but unprecedented elements in the middle. Second, they argued for, and themselves modelled, a particular way of life, a way which would before long be a cause of remark, sometimes curious and sometimes hostile, among their neighbours. Third, they constructed and maintained communities which ignored the normal ties of kinship, local or geographical identity, or language—not to mention gender or class. (202)

Given this, Wright will spend this chapter placing Paul on the map of first century philosophers. To do this, he will sketch a brief history of Greek philosophy. He starts with pre-Socratics, moves through Plato and Aristotle, and then concludes with two schools of thought. Those schools are the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Wright then makes the key point of the chapter:

Here is perhaps the most important thing in this chapter for today’s readers of Paul to take to heart. Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two, particularly at the level of assumptions, is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the word ‘god’, we think at once of a distant, detached divinity—as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do—we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos. (213)

With this in mind, Wright focuses on four leading Stoic thinkers: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. He then compares the Cynics and Skeptics before sketching what he considers a basic first century philosophical worldview.

Wright closes the chapter showing a typical Jewish response to Greek philosophy via the Wisdom of Solomon. In conclusion he says.

When we ask, therefore, what has happened in the Wisdom of Solomon to the traditional topics of logic, physics and ethics, the answer must be that they are all present, but in a strikingly transformed mode. The underlying ‘logic’, the means whereby the writer apparently claims to know what can be said, is not simply the combination of accurate sense-impressions and clear reasoning. It is the scriptures of Israel, and particularly the narratives of the exodus and the monarchy. The ‘physics’, the account of the world’s creation and constitution, is a fresh reading of Genesis, with sophia filling in the picture. The ‘ethics’ is both a fresh statement of the Stoic development of Aristotle’s system of virtues and a fresh reading of the biblical tradition of ‘righteousness’. Athene’s owl has peered into the darkness and come back to report what he has seen; but, at the same time, the birds which hovered overhead to protect the wandering Israelites have told their own story. (243)

A Cock For Asclepius: “Religion” and “Culture” in Paul’s World

Wright now turns his attention to the wider world of first century religious and cultural practices. Wright initially shied away from treating “religion” as a separate chapter, but ultimately decided, “Hey, why not?” (he gives a more extended reason, p. 251).

After his all too brief survey of the religious terrain, Wright says,

This extremely brief summary of complex matters is, again, not merely of antiquarian interest. It is vital if we are to sense the flavour of life in a Roman environment; and much of Paul’s most important work was carried out in a Roman environment, albeit overlaid on a Greek base and with plenty of other imported material coming in alongside. Though we must address such questions properly much later, a moment’s thought will make it clear that Paul, in founding a ‘church’ in Corinth or Philippi or elsewhere, was not setting up a new ‘religion’ in any of the kind of senses we have been exploring. He seems to have had no interest in a sacred calendar, and indeed at one point has harsh words for those who do. He never suggests that one should sacrifice animals, whether to eat them or to inspect their entrails. He never indicates that one ought to pay attention to thunderstorms, or to the flight of particular birds. The sacred texts he interprets are of a very different order to the Sibylline Books. He does not attempt to establish anything remotely corresponding to the priesthoods of either Greece or Rome. (273)

While religion might not be the best category for analyzing what Paul was doing, “it is certainly a key and basic element in what his contemporaries will have seen him doing and heard him saying. And with ‘religion’, in all of these complex senses, we are dealing with what today we might call ‘the fabric of society’, the things which held people together and gave shape and meaning to their personal and corporate life (274).”

In his concluding reflections, Wright says,

The main thing to emerge for our purposes from this short survey is that what Cicero and others referred to loosely with the word religio penetrated more or less every area of life. From the home, with its hearth and household gods, right up to great affairs of state, noble works of art and culture, and the most important public buildings and civic ceremonies, ‘religion’ was everywhere, because the gods were everywhere. Paul, as ‘apostle to the gentiles’, believed himself to be sent by the one God of Israel into this world of many gods. (274)

Worth noting as well, is the Jewish response:

It is as well known today as it was in the ancient world that the Jews would have nothing, or next to nothing, to do with all this range of ‘religion’. They denied the existence of the pagan divinities. They regarded pagan worship, offered to cult objects, as ‘idolatry’ in the full biblical sense. They believed that pagan life was a distorted version of the genuine humanness to which the one God had called Israel and would, in principle, want to call the whole world. They did their best to remain detached and separate from the whole thing. (276)

While a short chapter, it does help to give a feel for the way religion permeated every day life in the ancient world. Christianity certainly fits into this religious territory in Paul’s account, but it is not merely a religion, and it is noticeably different than the pagan approach (similar though it may be in some respects).

The Eagle Has Landed: Rome and The Challenge of Empire

Wright closes out this section by moving to politics. In a way though, this is an extension of the religious discussion. Setting context, Wright says,

By the time Paul was born, the empire of Augustus Caesar stretched from one sea to another—the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to the English Channel—and from the river Euphrates to the ends of the known world, the far western outposts of Spain and France. There, of course, lay the problem for the devout Jew: that was more or less the extent of empire which the Psalmist had promised to the Messiah. Whether many Romans knew or cared we may doubt. Rome’s military adventures had not been undertaken in obedience to such ancient visions. It had acquired its foreign territories piecemeal. One conquest led to another and, with tax and treasure flowing in to the centre, it became advantageous to annex the next country, and then the next, first as allies, then as buffer zones, then as clients, and finally as a new piece of straightforwardly ‘Roman’ territory. Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die. (284)

From here, Wright sketches a brief history of Roman emperors, starting just after Julius Caesar, on to Augustus, and ending with Vespasian. With a feel for how the empire was established (or at least how it solidified around the turn of BC to AD), Wright then turns his eye to the rhetoric this empire employed. To clarify, he says,

It was not by military force alone that Augustus consolidated his power, or that his successors maintained it. It has been shown in great detail that from the beginning the empire used every available means in art, architecture, literature and culture in general—everything from tiny coins to the rebuilding of entire city centres—to communicate to the Roman people near and far the message that Augustus’s rise to power was the great new moment for which Rome, and indeed the whole world, had been waiting. This is what I mean, in this broad sense and in the present context, by ‘rhetoric.’ (294)

Key to his analysis of the Roman empire’s rhetoric is how the empire constructed a narrative in which it was the culmination of where the story was going. This then leads to a discussion of the “religion” of empire, or more commonly, the imperial cult. From here, Wright then traces how the emperor was gradually “divinized.”

Concerning this and other Roman perspectives on deities, Wright says,

The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match. (342-343)

Wright then concludes the chapter and the book as a whole with a typical rhetorical flourish of his own:

The birds that had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon had come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light. Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occurred which, upstaging even the ancient cult and priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, would bring healing at every level. Instead of the eagle with its talons and claws, Jesus summoned people to a different kind of empire: peacemaking, mercy, humility and a passion for genuine and restorative justice. Saul of Tarsus, born and bred a Pharisee in a world shaped by the wisdom of Greece, the religion of the east, and the empire of Rome, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that this Jesus had called him, Saul, to take the ‘good news’ of his death, resurrection and universal lordship into the world of wisdom, religion and empire. That transformative vocation, articulated through the worldview which it provided and the theology which it produced, is the subject of the rest of this book. Earlier three birds on a tree; now only the one. (346-347)


  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!


One of my favorite book series is New Studies in Biblical Theology. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but I’ll say it again (and probably again). This summer I actually read quite a few volumes in the series that were either new or that I hadn’t gotten around to before now. One of those in the new category is Brian Rosner’s Paul and The Law: Keeping The Commandments of God. I read it during a beach weekend, because that’s what I do, and as usual, was not disappointed.

Though most scholars come to a study like this via Romans or Galatians, Rosner comes via 1 Corinthians and Paul’s ethics and Jewish background (13). His goal is to “bring some neglected evidence to the discussion and to defend some proposals that sharpen and build on the work of others (13).” His main focus is on “what Paul does with the law, especially for questions of conduct,” rather than on what Paul says about the law.

Chapter 1 open by noting many of the attendant puzzles related to Paul and the law. A key verse for the study is introduced (1 Corinthians 7:19) and terms are defined. The New Perspective on Paul enters into the discussion. As Rosner wraps up, he summarizes his basic outlook and maps out the way ahead:

In his letters Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation and rejection of the law as ‘law covenant (chapters 2 and 3) and its replacement by other things (chapter 4), but also a reappropriation of the law ‘as prophecy’ (with reference to the gospel; chapter 5) and ‘as wisdom’ (for Christian living; chapter 6). This construal finds support not only in what Paul says about the law, but also in what he does not say and in what he does with the law. And it highlights the value of the law for preaching the gospel and for Christian ethics (43-44).

This gives you a general idea of the ground covered in Rosner. However, one of the strengths of this book is Rosner’s closing summaries/paraphrases in each chapter. I’ll highlight of couple of these to give you more of a feel for the kinds of conclusions Rosner makes.

First off, in chapter 2, Rosner explains that Christian are no longer under the law as “law covenant.” He closes the chapter “in Paul’s own words” (a summary and paraphrase):

Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one recieves life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances (81).

Further along these line, Rosner concludes chapter 3 with this summary:

Paul never says, as he does of Jews, that believers in Christ rely on the law, boast about the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth because of the law, do, observe and keep the law, on occasion transgress the law, or possess the law as letter or a written code, as a book, as decrees, or as commandments. Paul also never says, as he does of Jews, that Christians learn the law, walk according to the law, and expect good fruit and good works to flow from obedience to the law (109).

Rather than relying on the law or interacting with it in the ways for Jews delineated above, Christians rely on Christ. Rosner explains this in more detail in chapter 4. In his conclusion he contrasts more fully: “Believers in Christ do not rely on the law, but on Christ; do not boast in the law, but in God through Christ; do not find God’s will through the law, but in apostolic instruction, wisdom and gospel; are not instructed by the law, but by the gospel; and are not obliged to obey the law, but rather must obey apostolic instruction (134).”

With this in mind, Rosner goes on to explain that the law (speaking as Paul), “was written for us Christians and is part of the prophetic writings which disclose my gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ, which was a mystery kept secret for long ages, and is now made known to the Gentiles to bring about the obedience of faith (157-158).” Further, “the law was written for us Christian to teach us how to live. It was written for our instruction and the events it records were also written down to instruct us. In fact, all of the law is useful for moral teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (205).”

The final chapter of the book ties everything together and Rosner repeats all the concluding paraphrases in one place back to back. In that sense, you could read the final 2 pages of the book and get a clear snapshot of what Rosner is arguing (if you’re not satisifed by my presentation of the same material so far).

The result, to me, is a very helpful work explaining in an accessible way, how Paul uses the law in his writings, and so how it is applicable to Christians of the first as well as the twenty first century. Rosner is attentive to questions raised by the New Perspective. But at the same time, he is more or less charting his own way forward. This isn’t to say that his view is without precedent. Rather, he is not simply repeating Old Perspective positions. Neither is he following New Perspective trajectories uncritically. Instead, he is wrestling with the text from his unique perspective and coming to what I think are exegetically sound conclusions. If you are serious about understanding Paul or are interested in the theological question of how the law fits in the Christian life, this is a book you can’t miss.

Brian S. Rosner, Paul and The Law: Keeping The Commandments of God(New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August 2013. 249 pp. Paperback, $24.00

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!


Just a week ago, Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth released. Over at Christ and Pop Culture, it’s part of the rotating bundle given away to members. You can read my write up to get a 30,000 ft. overview and join Christ and Pop Culture to get the book for free.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use Cosper’s book as a launching point for discussion. In some ways, this is a book I wish I had written. Most of his main ideas I wrote about in my Th.M thesis. As it stood though, the thesis was a work in theory with no actual exposition of how it plays out in actual movies and TV shows. Cosper’s book on the other hand is mostly exposition with sparing, but when it appears, substantive interaction with other literature on the topic.

I realized after graduating that if I wanted to convert my book into something more accessible, it needed to be more focused on actual examples in movies and TV shows that people (for the most part) actually watch. I had plans to do this, but no discipline to devote to it, and inevitably, there was always something else I’d rather work on.

Luckily for all of us, Cosper had the time and the discipline and the result is an excellent read on the topic.

As the subtitle of this blog post indicates, Cosper’s introduction unpacks the way our world is full of stories. Specifically, we see this in the world of TV and movies. Considering the draw both of these forms of entertainment have, there is probably something more to stories than mere enjoyment. Cosper says, “In what follows, I intend to explore our addiction to these stories. In particular, I want to look at their common threads, and I want to explore why we keep telling them, over and over again. I believe we’re watching because TV and movies are both echoing and forming our desires, and I want to delve into what those desires really are (23).”

He then says, “I believe the gospel has given us a framework for the whole story of history. I want to explore the way our ordinary, everyday stories intersect with the bigger story that God is telling, and I want investigate what these stories reveal about being human, being fallen, and longing for redemption (23).” Ultimately then Cosper will be “less interested in debating the merits of watching content” than “in understanding what drives it (24).” Cosper wants to get to the heart of the stories we tell through TV and movies. He says that “the motivation for our stories is deeply connected with the gospel, and by thinking about that connection, we can more deeply appreciate both (24).”

I couldn’t agree more, and in fact, I might go a bit farther. You could make a case that the pervasiveness of stories and the draw of TV and movies provides a strong apologetic for the Christian worldview. It doesn’t necessarily “prove” it, but as we’ll see next week, given the arc of most stories, it is a piece of data that fits more comfortably within a Christian view of the world. This is a bit of transcendental reasoning (different than a transcendental argument), asking what would need to be true for our obsession with stories to make sense. Cosper is probing why this is and does so in a way that connects it to the gospel. I would take the same path and say that it also provides a strong argument the gospel being true. There is a “fittedness” that emerges between a world obsessed with stories and the Christian belief in a story-telling God who made humans in his image. People have an almost innate gospel longing and if they are not confronted with the Christian gospel, will find a substitute elsewhere.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but next week we’ll look a bit more at the first two chapters of Cosper’s book. On the one hand, stories tend to be “gospel-shaped.” On the other hand, many TV shows and movies are full of “objectionable content.” In immersing ourselves in these stories, how can we reflect wisely on the content both on the surface and what lies beneath? That’s what we’ll look at next week. In the meantime, join Christ and Pop Culture, pick up a free copy, and read this book for yourself!

I failed to mention in my reflections on the end of summer that I got to see one of my favorite bands play live a few weeks back. To give you a feel for it, here they are playing three songs. (via Scale the Summit – Audiotree Live from Audiotree Live on Vimeo.)


(via Lifehacker)


I’m not particularly a big fan of Heidegger, but this is a good introduction to one of his major ideas.

For a while, I’ve been thinking about doing a series on book reviewing. It’s something I’ve been known to do in semi-prolific proportions. It’s also something that my interest and capacity for is waning.

Book reviewing was a way of keeping my free time under guardians and managers until the date of resuming school. Since the fullness of time is at hand, it’s time to set aside what is essentially hobby. Throughout the fall, I’ll still be reviewing books on pretty much a weekly basis. But, come January and Ph.D studies, I don’t imagine that will be the case.

Before getting there though, I wanted to pass on the insights I’ve gained in being an active book reviewer for the past few years. Think of this as a way of kind of “reviewing book reviewing.” If you’ve seen the show on Comedy Central called Review, this is kind of like that (minus most of the mayhem though).

If you’re looking to get started or just do what you like to do better, this series is for you. I can’t say I’ll cover everything, and much of what I might say could be found elsewhere. For that reason, I’m going to focus more on my experience and what I learned, rather than best practices for reviewing books (which are widely available).

If you think of it triperspectivally, which is my preferred mode, you could roughly outline the series this way:


Under the normative perspective, I would talk about the norms for reading and reviewing well. This would includes topics like:

  • How to Read a Book (well)
  • How to Interact With a Book
  • How to Organize Your Review

There may be more, but you can see how to some extent, there won’t be much I say here that you couldn’t find in another reviewers archive or in a full length book.


Here, the focus is more on the context of reviewing itself. A key consideration is how to get review books. Rather than a single post (which I think I’ve done in the past). I’m going to go publisher by publisher, focusing mainly on the ones I’ve worked with:

  • Baker Books
  • Baker Academic
  • Brazos Press
  • Crossway
  • Eerdmans
  • Fortress Press
  • IVP Academic
  • Kregel
  • Moody
  • New Growth Press
  • P&R Publishing
  • Thomas Nelson
  • Wipf & Stock (includes Cascade, Pickwick)
  • Zondervan

There are certainly more publishers out there you can connect with, but these are the primary ones that I have worked with. I’ll explain what the publisher is about, how I got connected, and you can see what I’ve reviewed from them.

Also considered under this perspective is cross-posting your reviews to sites like Amazon and Goodreads. I’ll explain what I do, and talk about reviewing for other outlets beyond your own blog or website.


In this final perspective, the focus is on what I do as a reviewer, what I’ve learned, mistakes I’ve made, etc. This is the part of the series that will be most unique. You can probably find the information in the other perspectives elsewhere around the web. You may find other people who have had similar experiences to me in reviewing books, but hopefully what I’ve learned in the past few years doing this regularly will be helpful to you. If nothing else, at this point, it is the main reason for doing this series in the first place.

Given all this, and the ability of a triperspectival analysis to start from any perspective, where do you think I should start? I’ll go off comments here and Twitter and decide what to start with next week. Until then…


A long time ago, in a blog post far, far away, I mentioned I would do a review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 I went back and forth about whether to actually go through with it over the summer. But, as I was reading it, and finally finished it last week, I’m now ready to review. I thought about still just doing a concise review, but I think it’ll be too concise if that’s all I do.

Today, we’ll start, and you can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed. We’ll get our feet wet with the first two chapters in the first part of the book. The focus is on establishing a context for Paul’s world. Much of the ground is retreading and expanding on Wright’s exposition of the New Testament world in the first volume in this series, The New Testament and The People of God (or when you’ve been reading Wright too long, NTPG).

Return of The Runaway?

Interestingly, Wright decides to set his opening context by an extended look at Philemon. He compares Paul’s letter to similar letters written by Pliny. This comparison leads Wright to conclude:

[T]he heart of this difference between Pliny and Paul is a difference of master. Two roads have here diverged. Something has happened, at the heart of Rome’s empire, that has made all the difference, not only to the social world but also to the world of power within which that society lived. Paul the Jew, whose controlling story had always included the narrative whereby the living God overthrew the tyrant of Egypt and freed his slave-people, had come to believe that this great story had reached its God-ordained climax in the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, who according to multiple ancient traditions would be the true Lord of the entire world. In being faithful to his people, God had been faithful to the whole creation. Paul lived under the authority of this ‘lord’, this ‘Messiah’, and devoted himself to making that authority effective in the lives of the communities that had come to share that same faith. Because, however, this ‘Messiah’ and ‘lord’ was the crucified and risen Jesus, this ‘authority’ itself had been radically redefined. Because of Jesus, Paul understood everything differently—God, the world, God’s people, God’s future, and in and through it all God’s faithfulness. It is that world of difference, intersecting with the world of Pliny but radically transforming it, that the present book now aims to explore (22).

Wright then digs further into Philemon in order to introduce the broad contours of Paul’s worldview and its similarities and differences with other worldviews in the first century. Wright notes, ““The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particulartheologyto sustain it, but also requires thattheologyitself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. (30, italics original)” This more or less sets the trajectory for the book which will do the historical background research to sketch out Paul’s worldview (parts I & II), then underlying theology (part III), and how that impacts Paul’s aims in his context (part IV).

Since he is dealing with the interface of history and theology, Wright reassures readers, “This book is part of a project in which I have tried to avoid collapsing either into the other, have tried to avoid history becoming a slave of theology or vice versa. The fact that I have been accused of failure in both directions indicates to me that I may be getting the balance somewhere near right, though presumably not completely (67).”

In wrapping up this chapter, Wright summarizes his purpose in writing:

The argument of the present book is that when we use the worldview method I have set out above, and thus bring a larger ‘thick description’ of Paul and his mindset into play alongside and as a way in to a fresh analysis of his central theological concepts, we find a fresh coherence. More specifically, we find that we can understand the deep and organic links between the history of Paul, and of his letters and his churches, and the theology which he articulated in those letters. We will not need to collapse the one into the other, whether theology into history, as with some of the sociologists, allowing the slave to come back and dictate his own terms, reducing Philemon to a mere puppet in his own house, or history into theology, as with some of the preachers and guardians of orthodoxy, allowing the slave back as long as he’s bound hand and foot and told to mind his manners in future. And, just as Paul’s way to a reconciliation between master and servant was through a complete identification with them both, reaching out either hand to embrace them so that they were to be united in him, with anything owing in either direction put down to his account, so the way of reconciliation between history and theology, between Christian Origins and the Question of God, comes to rest in this volume on Paul as the announcer and embodier of God as the faithful one, faithful to creation and faithful to covenant, the God whose faithfulness came to life and walked and talked in Palestine and died on a Roman cross to reconcile God and the world. The cross, indeed, will be central to our project here, both structurally and thematically, and part of the underlying and implicit proposal will be that Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death, while having of course other and better known highlights than that which we find in Philemon, may help us wrestle too with the question of reconciliation between the two elements of our split world (70-71).

Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel

To begin sketching Paul’s worldview, Wright starts with his Jewish context. Importantly, he notes:

This chapter needs to adjust, perhaps even to correct, the balance in Part III of The New Testament and the People of God, which was designed as the equivalent introduction for this book as well as for Jesus and the Victory of God. Because I had Jesus particularly in focus at that time, and because I was heavily concerned then with the Jewish context for understanding Paul, I concentrated almost all that section on the Jewish world of the first century, giving particular attention in chapter 7 to the Pharisees and the movements of revolt, which remain extremely important in the present volume, and then to the elements of Israel’s worldview (story, symbol and praxis) in chapter 8, finishing with the two chapters, which remain foundational for the present volume, on Israel’s beliefs and hopes (chapters 9 and 10). The point of writing those chapters there was to avoid having to do so here, so I shall not repeat them, but refer the reader to them as part of the necessary preliminary work for the present book (77).

Then, frustratingly, he says, “In my mind’s eye I see the whole of NTPG Part III as though they were physically part of this book, perhaps as a kind of microdot within the running head for every page, and I encourage readers to do the same (77).” So, while this is a 1500 page book, you need to go back and read his other 400+ page book to have context. Not really, having read both this summer, it was helpful to be able to recall much of NTPG while reading PFG.

As far as the topic of this chapter goes, Wright says.

I hope in particular to bring out the way in which the faithfulness of Israel’s God functions as a theme throughout so much of the period. This was particularly so, I suggest, for the Pharisees, generating and sustaining a complex but essentially single narrative, the long and often strange story of God’s faithfulness which would—surely, they believed, it would!—work out finally in deliverance for Israel and justice and glory in the wider world. ‘Like birds hovering overhead,’ wrote Isaiah, ‘so yhwh of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.’ The echoes of Deuteronomy 32, a vital chapter in this great story, are clear, and picked up too at various points in the Psalter. We should be prepared to hear, underneath echoes such as these, the soft, slow beat of hidden wings, brooding over the dark waters to bring creation itself to birth (77-78).

The bulk of the chapter then is an exposition of the Pharisees. Additionally, Wright looks at the praxis that was most important to them (Torah), as well as the supreme symbol in their worldview (the Temple). This latter point is where Wright expands most on previous work:

The point of the Temple—this is where I want to develop considerably further what was said in the earlier volumes—is that it was where heaven and earth met. It was the place where Israel’s God, yhwh, had long ago promised to put his name, to make his glory present. The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself (96).

All the other symbols of ancient Israel and the second-Temple Jewish world gathered around this majestic, potent building, and from it they took their meaning and power. This was where the great narratives clustered, too, the stories upon which the Jewish people had already been living for centuries before Saul of Tarsus came along, narratives that had developed fresh resonances in the years immediately before his day and would, through his agency, develop significantly new ones as he told them around the world in a radically reworked form (and, he would say, as he worked on constructing the new ‘building’ around the world). These are stories about Israel’s God, about his name and his glory; stories about who this God is in himself and his actions, stories about his power and his faithfulness, about his powerful wings hovering over his people to keep them safe. They are Temple-stories because they are God-and-Israel stories, and vice versa (100).

Helpfully, Wright points to the work of G. K. Beale and John Walton on the significance of the Temple in the Jewish worldview.

Wright spends the rest of the chapter examining the idea of Israel living in a “continuous story.” This leads to rearticulating a popular theme in his writing: Israel remains in exile during the first century, awaiting deliverance. To support his case, Wright traces how the story of the people of God was retold through Scripture, the Second Temple literature, and the literature post AD 70. He then circles back to reinforce his case for Israel’s mindset during the first century to be one of exile.

Wright then details the worldview, theology, aims, and beliefs of first century Pharisees. The short version is present in his conclusion:

The worldview of a first-century Pharisee has thus come into focus. Living somewhere on the spectrum between the extreme and possibly violent zeal of the ardent Shammaite and the extreme and possibly flexible caution of the ardent Hillelite, the Pharisee was passionately concerned about the ancestral traditions, particularly the law of Moses and the development of that into oral law, and about the importance of keeping this double Torah not simply because it was required, or in order to earn the divine favour, but because a renewed keeping of the law with all one’s heart and soul was one of the biblically stated conditions (as in Deuteronomy 30) for the great renewal, the eschaton and all that it would mean. It was what constituted the appropriate and faithful response to the faithfulness of Israel’s God, invoking the protection of the divine bird hovering over Jerusalem. Personal piety, and personal hope, were firmly held within the ongoing story of the life and hope of Israel as a whole. The controlling stories, fleshed out in symbol and praxis, gave the essential body to the theological soul of monotheism, election and eschatology (195-196).

To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community (196).

Hopefully this gives you a feel for the first two chapters. Next week, we’ll run through the next three in this part of Wright’s book.


  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!