Where do I begin with Paul and the Faithfulness of God, the 1,700 page behemoth by N.T. Wright? How do I begin to review such a book? Considering factors such as its size, the difference in our views, and my own sheer busyness, why am I even taking the time to read this book? In this post I’ll address these questions and introduce the book and its first chapter.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Paul and the Faithfulness of God has been a long time coming and is much anticipated as it reflects Wright’s decade-long study in Paul and his theology. As a Bible College teacher (teaching Romans next semester, no less!) and student of the Word, it is fitting that I work through this book, however slowly. Wright is a top scholar and has excellent insights, so despite some of our differences, I don’t want to dismiss him. Also, Wright’s approach here is quite unique and covers a lot of ground that is fresh to me. I decided that I would review this in portions – possibly chapter-by-chapter – so that I can take my time with reviews coming fairly regularly.
So how could Wright take 1,700 pages on Paul? Paul and the Faithfulness of God is actually broken into four larger parts. Part 1 focuses in on the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds, all of which Paul was a part. Part 2 looks at Paul’s own worldview. Part 3 canvasses Paul’s theology. Part 4 pulls all these threads together to see how Paul applies his worldview and theology to his own world. At least, I think that’s how the book is broken down! My own understanding of the layout remains to be seen as I work my way through it.
Chapter 1: Return of the Runaway?
What a fascinating way to begin a book. When one recounts Paul’s letters, Philemon is often completely forgotten or at least relegated as unimportant, and yet Wright begins with Philemon. Wright first compares Paul’s letter to Philemon with a letter from Pliny the Younger (a close contemporary) in surprisingly similar circumstances: a runaway slave wanting to return to his master. The broad similarities are seen on a surface-level reading, but surprising differences are soon discovered. Why would Paul see reconciliation between a slave and master as so important? How could Paul have the audacity to expect Philemon to welcome his returning slave (Onesimus) with the same respect as if he were Paul himself? Who was this Paul, to think he could overturn and reverse the social norms and expectations of his day? Who is this Christ/Messiah that Paul refers to as a common bond between himself, Philemon and Onesimus?
Wright then launches from an exegesis of the passage to doctrines such as reconciliation, imputed righteousness, and corporate identity in the Messiah, but then takes a left turn (though it’s surprisingly seamless) and uses Philemon to discuss history, historical and theological approaches, Paul’s worldview, and so on. Wright sees theology and history as being estranged much like Onesimus and Philemon (using Philemon as an excellent allegorical illustration) and needing Paul to reconcile them. So this is Wright’s ambition in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, to approach Paul and his worldview and theology while remaining firmly in his historical context.
There is much in this chapter and I can’t hope to summarize or comment on it all, so instead I will offer a few thoughts or questions for each section:
- I’m constantly surprised how Wright can transition so seamlessly from one topic to the next and cover so much ground in doing so, but this is a two-edged sword. At times it just feels like he is meandering. Likewise, Wright is a great communicator and is very clear and articulate, but an unfortunate by-product of this is that he waffles just a little too much for my liking. All in all though, I’m happy with how interesting this book has been so far, much of this has to do with Wright’s creativity in his approach, not something one would expect from such a large book on Paul, of all topics. This chapter was surprisingly quick and enjoyable read.
- Wright musters a great defense of Pauline authorship of Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (disputed letters), and to a lesser degree the Pastoral epistles also. Wright’s defense pushes beyond the usual arguments and goes straight for the jugular, seeing much of this issue stemming from a) a neglect of certain letters in order to shape Paul into our image, “Even if we’ve given up making Paul the preacher of our favourite theology, we still want him to back up our assumed ideology” (p58) and, b) scholarly “fashion and prejudice” (p58). One will not be treated as a serious scholar if they don’t conform to the fashions of the day, such as denying certain Pauline letters authenticity. Wright’s motive for doing this is in order to reclaim these letters (particularly Col, Eph and 2 Thess) as reliable sources in the study of Paul.
I will probably close each post with my favourite quotes, so here goes.
On Paul’s theology:
The letters consist of a few bucketfuls of water drawn from a deep well, poured out into whichever vessels Paul thought appropriate for the audience and the occasion. (pxx)
On the letter to Philemon:
Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation’. God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5.19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon. (p20)
There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his native Jewish world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention such as obtained in the world of Pliny. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical (in this case, ethical) schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. (p30)
The reason history is fascinating is because people in other times and places are so like us. The reason history is difficult is because people in other times and places are so different from us. (p50)
Next up, Wright turns to the worlds of Paul – Israel, Greece, and Rome – beginning with Israel.
[Many thanks to SPCK for providing a copy of this book for review. I was not required to give a positive review]