Thursday, 28 January 2010

Wright on Paul

What St Paul Really Said was written in 1997 by NT Wright with I think an aim to bridge the gap between scholarly writings and the popular Christian writings. N.T. Wright touches on a series of scholarly ideas and presents his case for understating what Paul wrote in the New Testament.

His first main premise is that we need to remember that Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Pharisee who became Paul the Apostle and that he remained zealously Jewish. He saw that Jesus was the Messiah and applied that to everything he had learned about Judaism. Paul didn't give up his Jewishness when he hung around gentiles, he continued to tell them about the Jewish Messiah who was the God of Israel.

Wright see the phrase "the gospel" not as something that modern day Christianity see as a means for salvation, but rather, historically, it simply means a declaration that "Christ is Lord". The contents of "the gospel" may bring about salvation, but what it was, was just a statement which throws everything in that day on its head. This meant that Cesar was not lord and that we should really submit everything to Christ. Write explains how Paul would show the implications of the Gospel to the pagan world and how Christianity was the true form of what the pagan religions were trying to parody.

Throughout the different aspects of the implications of Christ being Lord, there was a few references to Jesus conquering sin, but there was probably more emphasis on restoring and renewing of the world and building a community. It wasn't that Wright overlooked Jesus' plan to forgive sins, it's just that it seemed that renewing the world was more His main task. Wright also added the last chapter of the book to be pointed argument against A.N. Wilson's book Paul: The mind of the Apostle which has the idea that Paul was the founder of Christianity and not Jesus.

By far the most controversial idea in the book is Wrights idea of justification and his denial of imputed righteousness. Justification is seen as only in a law court term, and that we a justified by the righteousness judge, because he declared us to be righteous, we do not receive righteousness and it is not imputed to us. God's own righteousness is a possessive quality not a quality that is given to us.

The phrase 'Righteousness of God' (dikaiosune theou) from 2 Cor 5:20-21, Rom 1:16-17, 3:21-26, 10:2-4 is looked at in depth and is argued that the righteousness isn't given to us, but it is an attribute of God epically shown in his covenant keeping. Phil 3:9 is not considered in this discussion as it doesn't mention dikaiosune theou but dikaionsune ek theou, a righteousness from God and the passage shouldn't be the yardstick used for dikaiosune theou (page 104).

Wright has a good writing style, although sometimes packs up his sentences with too many ideas. Also it does take him a while to get to his point as he is adding lots of background to build upon and to make his case. At the end of the book I still think imputed righteousness to be true (even though he said I have to detach 2 Cor 5:21 from the chapter and context to get it) and wonder why this issue can't be an 'and' and not an 'or' situation. God has an attribute of righteousness and the saints are counted as righteous through Jesus. Perhaps I've miss the argument...

John Piper has replied to this book as well as other N.T. Wright writings in his Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (full pdf download is at the bottom); to which NT Wright has responded with another book called Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. Since "What St Paul Really Said" is over 10 years old, the discussion might have moved on a bit. Also in the American Fall (our Spring) Piper and Wright will be on a panel together for the Evangelical Theological Society's general meeting. That meeting could be interesting (or it might have people talking past each other).


  1. An interesting (and always emminently readable) take on this is by Gerald Bray.

    See and then click on the issue 123/2.


  2. Thanks James that was a good review. I do wish I had the time to read Pipers and then Wrights book. Maybe sometime in the future...

    Here is the direct link to the review in pdf

  3. The Gospel Coalition Blog also pointed out this list of resources on the New Perspectives on Paul