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.