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Paul: A Biography. By N.T. Wright. HarperOne, 2018. 480 pp.

N.T. Wright never ceases to amaze me. His prose is captivating; his turns of phrase, creative; his rhetoric, symphonic. It certainly takes a unique individual, with an astounding set of skills, to write at the highest scholarly level as well as at the popular level with such clarity of thought and powers of persuasion. These are the very characteristics that have made Wright one of the most well-known authors in our day. It therefore comes as no surprise that his new book, Paul: A Biography, which captures Wright’s unique gifting, is currently listed as Amazon’s number one best seller in Paul’s letters.

But Wright remains a controversial figure. Whether in the academic world or in the church, scholars, pastors, and Christians in general are unsure about him. They no doubt praise him for his seminal work on the historicity of the resurrection over against liberal scholarship (The Resurrection of the Son of God), benefit greatly from many aspects of his biblical theology, and especially enjoy his excellent criticisms of rapture theology (see Paul, pp. 221, 224–25). But they undoubtedly raise concerns about his views on justification, righteousness, works, and final judgment. Of course, not everyone is a critic. Many in the evangelical world read Wright appreciatively, love Wright unswervingly, and promote Wright zealously. But those who have been influenced by Reformed theologians, whether from the sixteenth or twenty-first century, read Wright more critically, scrutinize Wright closely, and challenge Wright tenaciously. This is where I stand, and I could do no other than write a review that considers the author of this best seller as a historical biographer and a theological polemicist, ultimately focusing our attention on one critical point of departure between Wright and Reformed theology. But, before doing that, a word is necessary about the intended audience of this book.

N.T. Wright’s Intended Audience

It seems Wright has two primary groups in view: those who have a wrong hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological framework (i.e., followers of either the Reformed tradition or medieval Roman Catholicism; see especially p. 408), and those who have an overtly skeptical framework (i.e., people who find the earthly easier to comprehend than the heavenly; see p. 9). Still, the one group that rises above the others into Wright’s crosshairs is the one most influenced by the Reformed tradition.

Although he tersely commends Martin Luther for reading Paul in a “fresh” way (p. 420), Wright consistently critiques the Reformed tradition. One of my favorite instances is when he discusses the “‘heaven and hell’ framework . . . of the High Middle Ages, to which the sixteenth-century Reformers were providing important new twists but which was at best a distortion of the first-century perspective” (p. 8). There is also when he says, “Once again we must avoid oversimplifications, especially any suggestion (this has been common) that the Galatian Jesus-followers, having been taught good Reformed theology, were now embracing Arminianism or Pelagianism and trying to add to their God-given salvation by doing some ‘good works’ of their own” (p. 152, emphasis added). And I can’t leave this one out: “The traditional translation of [the Philippian jailer’s] question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ makes it sound more like a plea from a seventeenth-century Puritan anxious about how to go to heaven” (p. 183, emphasis added).

Again and again, Wright delivers a modern ad fontes call, saying, in effect: “Back to Paul and his first-century context! Away from Luther, Calvin, and the sixteenth century!” This has been the consistent call of the New Perspective on Paul. We have been told that we cannot simply accept what “later theologians and preachers have assumed [Paul] was talking about” (p. 8), because, according to Wright and many others, they were wrong. Any discerning reader can detect a post-Enlightenment return to the individual, skepticism toward theological tradition, presuppositionless exegesis (see pp. 12–13), and even a form of biblicism in his autobiographical notes, especially when he makes it seem that all we need is a Bible and a Greek lexicon to arrive at his conclusions (see pp. 5–7). Even more disconcerting, Wright also comes across as someone who either runs with caricatures of the Reformed tradition or who has never really read the primary sources of the Reformers. Thankfully, however, there are many critical scholars who have read the Reformers and do not adopt Wright’s anti-Reformational, idiosyncratic reading of Paul. Stephen Chester’s new book, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives, is the most recent example of this. But more criticism of Wright later. For now, it’s just helpful to know whom he is after before knowing what he argues.

So, what did he argue? That seems like a strange question to ask when speaking about a biography, but this is as much a polemic by Wright as it is a biography on Paul.

N.T. Wright as Historical Biographer

According to Wright, the primary task of the biographer is to search for “the man behind the texts” (p. xi). He sets out to accomplish this first by getting “inside the mind, the understanding, the ambition (if that’s the right word) of Paul the Apostle, known earlier as Saul of Tarsus. What motivated him, in his heart of hearts?” (p. 2, emphasis added). Then, second, since Paul’s “mind” was not a blank slate when he encountered Christ, “and since he was bent on Jewish obedience to ancient codes, even enforcing that obedience with violence,” Wright also asks, “Why did all that change? What exactly happened on the road to Damascus?” (p. 2, emphasis added). These two questions—what motivated Paul, and what caused his radical shift in loyalty on the road to Damascus—set the tone for Wright’s biography.

Before providing answers to those questions, he makes known two important assumptions and then describes the historical task of writing a biography. He assumes a southern Galatian address for Galatians and an Ephesian imprisonment as the location of the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). He then outlines the historical task in a threefold manner. First, we need to get into the mind of Paul. Anyone who glances at his endnotes will assume that he does just that. He primarily cites the biblical text. Secondary sources do not play a major role at all. Second, we discover “what Paul was really talking about” when we realize that he himself was “talking about ‘history’ in the sense of ‘what happens in the real world,’ the world of space, time, and matter” (p. 9). This goes against the skeptic who thinks one can affirm an otherworldly dimension only by denying the earthly dimension. Third, it follows that analyzing Paul’s historical context and setting is essential. Paul was, after all, a “contextual theologian” (p. 10, emphasis original). Painting a portrait of Paul therefore involves a deep consideration of the two worlds he inhabited: the “Jewish world” and “the multifaceted Greco-Roman world,” along with their conceptualization of politics, religion, philosophy, etc. (p. 10).

This book is made up of three parts: “Beginnings,” “Herald of the King,” and “The Sea, the Sea.” And I have to admit, although his chapter headings appear historically mundane (e.g., “Cyprus and Galatia” or “Antioch and Jerusalem”), this is probably the easiest, most novel-like biography written on Paul, and his beautiful description of Paul as a person of ministry, mission, and prayer is simply stunning. But that’s precisely what makes reading this book so dangerous. Wright, with lucid prose and a biblically informed imagination, tells the tale of Paul’s revolutionary journey in the most charming and captivating way. However, readers may unwittingly imbibe his erroneous views on Paul’s theology that he sprinkles into the storyline. Although he claims that biography “involves thinking into the minds of people who did not think the same way we do” (p. 133), Paul strangely appears to think Wright’s thoughts after him throughout this biography of Wright—I mean, Paul.

In the final chapter (“The Challenge of Paul”), Wright provides answers to his initial questions. What motivated him, in his heart of hearts? Answer: Isaiah 49. That is, the call of Israel to be a light to the nations, the very means of God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6). (Again, one should note that Isa. 49 constitutes Wright’s “vocational framework” that plays a key role in his theological construal [see pp. 408–11], but a detailed response cannot be given here.) To the second question, Why did he stop enforcing Jewish obedience to the law violently, both for himself and others? In other words, what exactly happened on the road to Damascus?, Wright argues that Paul discovered the true meaning of “faith” (Greek pistis). It meant “believing obedience,” and, in this way, Paul and others will be rescued and renewed so that they might enter the new creation and dwell with God forever. The mention of “faith” as “believing obedience” brings us to a critical point of departure between Wright and Reformed theology.

Wright’s implicit theological framework results in illegitimate redefinitions, erroneous conclusions, and unfounded caricatures of Reformed theology.
N.T. Wright as Theological Polemicist

Many of Wright’s familiar theological themes appear in this book, such as his particular views on the kingdom of God, new creation, Paul’s politically driven gospel, etc. Readers will have to obtain evangelical reviews of his massive two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God to understand Wright’s idiosyncratic perspectives on these and other important topics. In the remaining space, I merely want to focus our attention on what I think is the most detrimental theological claim advanced in this book. Wright polemicizes by arguing that we should change the famous line “justification by faith” to “justification by loyalty.” He reasons, “If pistis [faith] can mean ‘loyalty’ as well as ‘faith,’ might one express Paul’s most famous doctrine as ‘justification by loyalty’?” (p. 411). It’s not really a question. This is a claim made throughout the entire book, but it’s a claim that is theologically detrimental. If “loyalty” entails faith and (good) works, then “justification” would be by faith and (good) works. But, one’s gut instinct might be to say, “Wait a minute, isn’t justification ‘apart from works of the law’ or ‘acts of loyalty’?” Not quite, Wright says. He argues that the Reformed tradition has long held “the wrong framework” when considering Paul’s famous “doctrine of justification” (p. 408). He insists that we “miss what Paul’s ‘justification’ is really all about.” How? By holding to “a moralistic framework,” one that asks, with Luther, “How can I find a gracious God?” and then searches frantically for “a store [of merit or righteousness], amassed by someone else on our behalf” (p. 408). Apparently, then, the Reformed tradition is filled with a bunch of frenzied moralists who only care about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and encountering God as a gracious Father rather than as a condemning Judge. And that’s “moralistic”? I have to disagree. Still, let’s try to understand Wright’s perspective fairly before challenging it forthrightly.

The number one difficulty with Wright is that he redefines common biblical terms, making it tremendously hard to have a discussion about the text. It’s like an American and a Brit trying to have a conversation about “pants” and “suspenders.” They’re bound to miscommunicate. But Wright argues that we’re the ones who are in the wrong. Due to our modern Western thinking, we have come to embrace definitions of biblical terms that were completely foreign to Paul, especially the terms conversion, faith, and justification. Let’s consider these in turn.

When we consult Wright’s dictionary entry on “conversion,” we find that Paul’s Damascus road experience was not a conversion from “‘Judaism’ to something called ‘Christianity,’” as if Paul were “comparing these two ‘religions’” (p. 3, emphasis original). Instead, it was a “conversion” from promise to fulfillment. “There had never been a moment when Paul had not been out-and-out loyal to the One God. But the One God had unveiled his age-old purpose in the shocking form of the crucified Messiah, and that changed everything” (pp. 168–69). Affirming more continuity between the Old and New Testaments puts Wright in a better position to redefine another crucial term: faith.

The word typically translated as “faith” can be translated, Wright says, as “faithfulness” or “loyalty.” And that’s precisely what Abraham displayed in Genesis 15:6, when he “believed God—believed, that is, the promise that he would be the father of an uncountable family that would inherit the whole world—and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. This faith, this trust, this loyalty was Abraham’s covenant badge” (p. 328, emphasis original). To be fair, the context is unclear as to whether Wright believes Abraham was declared to be in the right by faith or by faith plus works. He does follow the statement above with, “The family [of Abraham] could not be created either by circumcision (which was added later than Gen. 15) or by following the law (which was added hundreds of years afterward). It could only be by a fresh act of God’s grace, received by faith” (pp. 328–29). But with his emphasis throughout the book on “believing obedience” (p. 409) or “believing allegiance” (p. 90) as a legitimate definition of pistis (faith), it’s hard to know what exactly he thinks occurs in Genesis 15:6. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Wright completely redefines the terms “righteousness” and “justification” in a way that allows him to evade criticism on this point.

The word translated “justification” or “righteousness” (both come from the same Greek root) is a relational term, according to Wright, not a moral term. That is, it has nothing to do with meeting God’s moral standard through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith but about being in right relationship with others (hence, his accusation against Reformed “moralists” above). It is also important to add that he denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and although he affirms the forgiveness of sins in Paul’s doctrine of justification, he thinks justification has more to do with one’s status in the covenant. He writes, “Now, Paul clearly believes in the importance of sin and of being rescued from it. But that is not what is at stake in Jerusalem, Antioch, or Galatia. What matters is status within the covenant family” (p. 147, emphasis added). “Justification” or “righteousness” is therefore about being declared to be a member of the covenant community.1 When he redefines “justification” and denies fundamental truths such as imputation, one can easily see how Wright can affirm “justification by loyalty.” In his mind, it’s equivalent to a Reformed theologian’s affirming that Christians are ultimately saved by a true and lively faith; that is, a person who is saved in the end has works that flow from faith. Put more familiarly, we’re justified by faith alone, but it is a faith that is never alone. It is accompanied by good works (Eph. 2:8–10). Nevertheless, the Reformed theologian makes a crucial distinction between “justification” and “sanctification,” whereas that line of distinction is blurred in Wright’s construal. Consider this quote (though examples could be multiplied):

For Paul, justification was about God’s declaration that this or that person was a member of the single family promised to Abraham—which meant that, though “ungodly” because they were Gentiles, such people had been “justified,” declared to be in the right, to be within God’s covenant family, by God’s overthrowing of the enslaving powers, by his forgiveness of sins, and by the powerful cleansing work of the spirit. (p. 411, emphasis added)

The detrimental aspect of his “justification by loyalty” claim is that his readers, who do not have access to Wright’s larger framework within this biography, may walk away thinking it is only right that justification comes as a result of faith plus good works. Words like “loyalty” and “allegiance,” although helpful in emphasizing the believer’s active, Spirit-empowered role in sanctification, are immensely unhelpful when coupled with the word justification. The latter has nothing to do with human work, Spirit-wrought or otherwise. It has everything to do with divine grace given to unworthy sinners justly under the wrath of God, the full forgiveness of sins, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, received by faith alone. Talk of “faithfulness,” “loyalty,” “allegiance,” or “believing obedience” is welcome—as long as we’re talking about the work of God’s grace in sanctification. But, again, anyone reading Wright can’t be sure they’re talking about the same thing. To Wright, common biblical terms have to be redefined. Theological traditions need to be cast off. Systematic categories must be sidelined. For only the mind of Paul in his ancient context is needed. This will certainly make one a good historical biographer, but it certainly does not make one a convincing theological polemicist.

Reading Wright takes a lot of discernment. This biography on Paul will certainly give the reader more insight into the mind of Wright. But those who do not know how to read Wright discerningly may unwittingly adopt an incorrect view of Paul’s theology. It is an enjoyable book to read, containing tremendous insight at several points, but Wright’s implicit theological framework results in illegitimate redefinitions, erroneous conclusions, and unfounded caricatures of Reformed theology. Wright and others could easily accuse me of being “colored in [my] own stance” (see pp. 12–13). So be it. I still find the “color” of the Reformation and its successors to be a clearer reflection of the divine Scriptures than Wright’s supposedly “uncolored” perspective.

 

  1. For a critique of Wright’s redefinition of justification/righteousness language, one should consult the exhaustive monograph by Charles Lee Irons, The Righteousness of God, WUNT (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 2.386. ↩︎