Wednesday, May 05, 2004

N.T. Wright & the "New Perspective" on St. Paul: Did Luther Misinterpret Paul's Soteriology?

Excerpts from "An Interview With N.T. Wright," by Travis Tamerius; conducted for The Reformation & Revival Journal, a publication of the ministry of John Armstrong. It was originally printed in two parts in volume 11, numbers 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring 2003) respectively. All the words will be Wright's own excepting the indented portions, which are the interviewer's words.

Tom Wright is one of the freshest voices within orthodox evangelical Christian thought today and is a major contributor to both the study of the historical Jesus and the theology of the New Testament. He is an unusual academic theologian because he is comfortable in the work of the parish as well as in the world of academic New Testament study. He serves as canon theologian of Westminster Abbey in London and just recently was appointed the [Anglican] bishop-elect of Durham.

. . . the Jews, in the first century . . . simply were not discussing at great length what Christians have meant by the question, "How do we go to heaven when we die?" or something like that. They were, to the extent that they were discussing such matters at all, doing it in a way that was deeply bound up with political realities and agendas in a way quite foreign to a lot of evangelical Christianity since the Enlightenment and the Reformation. You have to understand that the Reformation was as political as it was theological. This is actually an example in the other direction . . . my post-Enlightenment style evangelicalism didn't have room for this approach. So I've had to get away from sure pretty anachronistic eighteenth century assumptions in order to understand the Protestant Reformers. And I have also had to get away from some of the Reformation assumptions, which are basically late medieval assumptions, in order to understand the first-century and the New Testament . . .

Alister McGrath says, when it comes to reading the Apostle Paul on "works of the law," that "if N.T. Wright is correct, Luther is wrong" . . . So which is it? Is Luther still riding in the car with you or have you dropped him off at the last truck stop?

. . . Luther comes to the question, "How can I find a gracious God?" He approaches this question from his Augustinian framework. He was an Augustinian monk. Actually he claimed that he didn't understand Augustine that well until after he had been converted, which might not be the case. This we do know - his antithesis of grace/works, or faith/law, was very strongly conditioned by his own soul struggles, the struggles to be an obedient monk and what he thought this all hinged upon. This was all rooted in the world of late medieval Catholicism. Luther, then, is reading Paul looking for the bits and pieces that will help him resolve this particular question . . . the problem here is that this has led us down some pretty murky paths.

The way that I came into this is a bit interesting. I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, "Whew...the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ." All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin. I think a lot of evangelical debates in North America, at the moment, are still right around that axis although they don't come right out and actually say so . . . But I found then, and this was the mid-seventies before E.P. Sanders was published, before there was such a thing as a "new perspective," that I came out with this reading of Romans 10:3 which is really the fulcrum for me around which everything else moved: "Being ignorant of the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own."

In other words, what we have here is a covenant status which is for Jews and Jews only. I have a vivid memory of going home that night, sitting up in bed, reading Galatians through in Greek and thinking, "It works. It really works. This whole thing is going to fly." And then all sorts of things just followed on from that. I mean Sanders was a great boost but he didn't start this for me and he hasn't given direction to what I did or was doing. It was more like Sanders was saying, "Actually first-century Judaism never was like what Luther said it was."

. . . The "new perspective" hasn't run out of steam. It's actually assumed now by probably three-fourths of British and North American Pauline scholars. But the phrase, "the new perspective," which is James D.G. Dunn's phrase is clearly a very, very broad brush. Those of us who live a bit closer to the canvas know that there are lots of different paint strokes that have to be taken account of. So I certainly don't want to be labeled as a clone of Sanders and Dunn.

. . . the "new perspective" is a way of saying, "Hey guys, there has been something quite remarkable happening in the last twenty years in Pauline scholarship but let's not imagine that this is anything other than a call to wake up and read the text a bit better . . .

. . . the big question throughout the 1517 to 1530 period [was] "Where have you been for the last 1500 years?" If that's what Paul meant, why didn't the church notice it before now? Luther was saying, "God's Word. God's Word. Here I stand." And thousands of people were saying, "Yes, yes, yes." So, this is always the puzzle. Then it's back to this methodological issue. I do think that God has new light to break out of Holy Scripture. But it's not new light in the sense of throwing away all that's good in the past.

. . . people have started to realize that our traditional readings of Paul have been part of a limited way of construing reality . . .

. . . When Paul is talking about justification he is talking about God's declaratory act of validating or vindicating those who are at this point in the ordo salutis, the point where they have come to faith. When people hear that they at once say things like, "This sounds like an odd mixture of what was semi-Pelagianism and hyper-Calvinism," because I believe that grace through the gospel causes people to believe and then when they believe God justifies them.

. . . Look at what Paul actually says when he talks about how people become Christians. Look for instance at 1 Thessalonians where he says quite a lot about it without ever using the word justify or any of its cognates. He talks about the gospel coming to you in the power of the Spirit. You accepted that word not as the word of man but as what it really is, the word of God that is at work in you believers. It's quite clear what Paul is talking about, that he comes into town announcing that Jesus is Lord, as a royal herald. He is saying that the crucified Jesus is the Lord of the world. And this is not, "Here is a way of salvation. You might like to apply it to yourself." It's not, "Here is a new way of being religious and you might enjoy it." This is really an imperial summons: "On your knees!" Nobody ever went into a Roman town and said, "Caesar is lord and you might like to have this experience of acknowledging him as lord if that suits you." They said, "Caesar is Lord, get on your knees and we want the tax right now."


I find Wright to be an extraordinary, exciting thinker and exegete. I haven't read him till now (only so many hours in a day . . .), but have heard a lot about him (with all the controversies going on in Reformed circles). I plan to read a lot of his stuff in the near future, and will highlight it and comment upon it on this blog.

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