What Tom Wright Really Said

February 18, 2011 — 6 Comments

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A couple of years ago, I started wrestling with some of the issues related to the New Perspective of Paul. It was while I was in soteriology class, so the focus was of course on justification, and it was also about this time that N. T. Wright produced a book in response to John Piper’s book criticizing his views on justification and Paul.

I reviewed Piper’s book here, and also reviewed Guy Waters’ response to the New Perspective on Paul here and here. I ended the second part of the Waters’ review by postponing the discussion of N.T. Wright’s views until I could read Justification. The time to resume that discussion has now arrived.

Thankfully several things have changed. Being a 2nd year seminary student (which is essentially a theological sophomore) at the time of the original writing, I was out to prove N.T. Wright wrong. I may have been slightly generous, but in general, in my mind, getting to the bottom of the justification debate entailed proving someone wrong. You’ve probably noted the hubris involved in a second year seminary student looking to prove a world class scholar wrong on something he has devoted a considerable amount of scholarly time to unpacking, but such was the mindset at that point in my life. I’m sure I still have some entanglements in thoughts of theological grandeur, but in general, the more I come to know, the more the boundaries of my knowledge push up against how much I really don’t know.

Since then, I’ve tended to move away from being overly dogmatic about theological positions. I do hold them strongly, but I am trying to be more charitable to views that seem antithetical to ones I hold. Part of my growth in that area has been from reading John Frame, who both demonstrates a very irenic approach to disagreement and also articulates a theological methodology that is better equipped to handle disagreements.

So, hopefully this time around, I will approach the whole issue with a bit more humility in my ability to discern right from wrong, and in so doing, give everyone involved the most charitable reading possible. As part of this program, rather than just reading N.T. Wright’s latest book on Paul, I’ve decided to go back and read What Saint Paul Really Said, as well as Paul in Fresh Perspective. I am additionally working through his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, with the hopeful aim of being caught up there before the book on Paul in that series is released.

In a way, my approach to the whole discussion might have gotten off on the wrong foot the first time around anyway since my introduction was through Piper’s critique. Coming in by that door certainly set me up to be on the offensive and try to sniff out heresy wherever it might be found. This time around though, I am not so much concerned with proving one or the other wrong, but rather am hoping to come to a better, more complete understanding of both Paul in his original context and his arguments concerning justification, specifically in the book of Romans.

I have been delaying taking Romans until my last semester, and lo and behold, the time is coming and now is. In this instance, the drive is to understand Romans, and because of the current theological landscape, this includes understanding what N.T. Wright really said, and that involves actually reading him on his own terms, and not through the lens of his critics, regardless of how charitable they may seem.

All of that being said, I just recently finished What Saint Paul Really Said, and I personally liked it a lot. In my reading I did come across several of the quotes that Piper had jumped on. I am interested to see how Wright expands on some of those, and overall am really interested if what Wright is bringing to the table is an expanded perspective on Paul that needs to supplement the original, or whether much of what he is saying is mutually exclusive to older ways of reading Paul.

I realize a lot of things may fall into that latter category (like how one defines “righteousness” and “justification”), but part of the benefit I’ve found in exploring John Frame’s triperspectivalism is its ability to reconcile seemingly contradictory perspectives. It may not help in areas like word definitions, but it could come in handy with conceptual frameworks. To what extent it will prove to be helpful remains to be seen.

One thing about Wright that I noticed in reading this book is how well he writes. It is no wonder that many people love him. Even when I maybe didn’t agree with the point he was making, his arguments and style have an aesthetic appeal to them that other people writing in this field lack. I don’t think this comes down to the aesthetic fallacy mentioned in yesterday’s post, but rather its that Wright presents his arguments in a very attractive manner. I think regardless of whether or not I ultimately agree with most of his conclusions on reading Paul, I have a lot to learn from the way he presents his ideas and from the rigor of his scholarship.

All I really have space for in this post was a few cursory remarks, re-opening the discussion and hopefully setting the stage up to move forward with a more even handed and balanced dialogue. Just to do the ideas justice, I may have to go chapter by chapter, or may just post random thoughts here and there as my reading moves forward. We’ll see. A lot of it depends on time. I have to take Horton chapter by chapter for class, whereas for Romans, I just have to produced a well-rounded research paper on justification. What shows up here will be more or less grist for the mill.

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

6 responses to What Tom Wright Really Said

  1. Hey Nate. I came over to your blog, too.

    If you get to interact with my blog, then you will note I do enjoy N.T. Wright. You will note that TC Robinson does as well over at New Leaven. Actually, I have the same video to post on Monday that Robinson had this past week where Wright defines the gospel.

    Once you get past Wright on the NPP, and you finish seminary (for that is a big one), might I suggest you engaging with Andrew Perriman’s newest release, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. Perriman is a great theologian of the 21st century, but has some very challenging points to make on issues, especially Romans and justification. He goes even further than the NPP, looking to fully embed the letter of Romans into its historical narrative, rather than seeing it as being about the way to salvation for humanity.

    I have posted a review of the book here.

    Blessings.

    • Scott,

      Thanks for sharing that review, I think I had seen it mentioned on your blog, but I’ve got it open in tab right now and will work my way through it. I like arguments like what Perriman is attempting, but I have hard time see the burden of proof satisfactorily answered. Even if I come to accept it, it is still a tentative acceptance on par with a scientific theory rather than a once for all delivered truth. If I get far enough with everything I need to read on Wright and the semester still has time left, I’ll try to integrate Perriman in as well. If not, I’ll still probably get around to reading him either this summer or fall.

      Nate

  2. Nate, a promising start. Wright, NPP, Paul, and Romans – that’s really my big interest these days. I’d love to see what you come up with.

    There are so many “Perspectives” these days on Paul. I’m loving it. 😉

    • TC,

      Thanks for stopping by, I’m keeping my eye out on your blog as well for any Romans ruminations. I feel like in my case at least I left the subject alone long enough to now approach Wright in fresh perspective, so we’ll see how it goes. I have a theological take on the whole debate, but we’ll see if the particulars vindicate that thesis or not.

      Nate

  3. Nate –

    I like arguments like what Perriman is attempting, but I have hard time see the burden of proof satisfactorily answered. Even if I come to accept it, it is still a tentative acceptance on par with a scientific theory rather than a once for all delivered truth.

    Scientific theory? He’d probably say embedding the text in its actual historical narrative, rather than universalising what the writers never meant to universalise.

    • To me, and this is probably just my own idiosyncratic perspective, but demonstrating what the actual historical narrative that text should be embedded in runs into the same problems as scientific theories: the problem of under-determination. For a finite set of data, which is what Perriman is working with, there is an infinite number of possible explanations. Most of them are not plausible explanations, but several of them can be at once. For Perriman then, he has to demonstrate what actual historical narrative to embed the text into, as well as demonstrate that that was the author’s original intention, but in both cases there is always another plausible explanation. Or to put it differently, to the extent his argument hinges on Paul’s intention, to that same extent, in my mind his argument can only yield a probable conclusion because the argument is proceeding inductively.

      I may be misunderstanding Perriman’s argument and I could be wrong, I often am. I am usually reluctant to take arguments for a text’s interpretation that hinge on what the human author intended. Mainly because I don’t think authorial intent at the human level is determinative of a text’s total meaning in a timeless sense. But also because, in this case, I have no problem universalising something that Paul may not have consciously intended to universalise. At the exegetical level, maybe it should be noted that Paul probably didn’t intend for something to be universalized, but when read canonically and then theologically maybe it should be. What Paul intended, or what Paul thought he meant, to me, is not the total picture of what Romans means. It can’t be completely disregarded, but neither does it determine total meaning. I don’t know if Perriman is arguing that or not, I’ll have to finish your review and then read his book for myself and reflect.

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