N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said

This book is like a doughnut: Sweet around the rim but hollow at the core. Though often brilliantly biting, elegantly enlightening, and powerfully persuasive, it finally fails to fulfill the promise of the title, to tell us “What Saint Paul Really Said.”Paul’s Background Right away, Wright anticipates his eventual conclusions by describing what he considers to be the background of Paul’s thought. As in the first two volumes on Jesus, Wright shows that many, perhaps most Pharisees of Paul’s day believed that political freedom, including liberation from Rome, was the only way to ensure the faithful observance of Torah. Thus, Paul’s zeal for the Law meant not only careful study, earnest prayer, and faithful teaching of Torah, but also intentional violence against all who stood in the way of perfect obedience, or who blasphemed God by teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. Justification by faith The controversy over Wright’s reading of Paul centers upon his understanding of justification by faith. We hear opening salvoes in his attack on the traditional view when he reviews the thought of Albert Schweitzer, noting that justification by faith is found “after all, in only two letters and in a single passage in a third”(13). Method Wright’s fundamental method appears early in the book: He first surveys various attempts to find a “centre” to Paul’s thought. Then he isolates two main possibilities (justification by faith and participation in Christ) and opts for the latter. Wright thus allies himself with those who believe that we must find one grand organizing principle to all of Paul’s theology. Though this approach dominated German and English-language liberal scholarship most of the 20th century, other scholars have decided not to limit the wealth of Paul’s multifaceted teaching in this way. Instead, they weave a tapestry of many interlocking themes. Hermann Ridderboss, George E. Ladd, Leon Morris, and F.F. Bruce (to a great extent) are examples of this more balanced treatment. Another feature of his method is to find the key to understanding Paul, not in his own letters or the rest of Bible, but in Second Temple Judaism. Thus, he quickly discounts Paul’s own statement that he was a student of Gamaliel, and reconstructs Paul’s (supposedly) real theological allegiance by evidence gleaned from later documents that, in Wright’s mind, prove the Apostle was a follower of Shammai, not (like his admitted teacher Gamaliel) of Hillel. We note, therefore, that the main authority for Wright’s re-reading of Paul is a collection of Jewish documents produced both before and after Christ, with heavy emphasis upon the latter. May we not legitimately ask, are these the best sources for interpreting a Christian writer? Are they reliable indicators of 1st century Jewish thought, or are they so compromised by later events and debates, and perhaps also by the ongoing encounter with Christianity, that they cannot be trusted to give us a true picture of Paul’s intellectual milieu? We might further ask, In the light of 2 Timothy 3:15-16, are extra-biblical writings to be placed on a par with the Bible itself for the correct interpretation of any Scripture? Or were the Reformers wrong when they held to the principle of Sola Scriptura? Again: Since Second Temple Jewish literature and the Mishnah which followed by about 200 years are, to say the least, not easily accessible to the ordinary reader, and usually not to any but the most advanced scholars, what has happened to the Reformation principle of the perspicuity of the Bible? Is Scripture so unclear that we need non-biblical Jewish writings to unlock its meaning, and an elite corps of scholars to tell us what Paul really said? Clever rhetoric, or ad hominem slander? This slender volume is filled with depreciatory remarks, with the objects of Wright’s scorn sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes clearly identified. For example, he refers to those “who clutch eagerly at a scheme of theology or religion…” (12). The rest of his thesis leaves no doubt that he speaks of upholders of the traditional Reformation/Protestant view of justification by faith. In his discussion of Schweitzer’s views, he writes, “If what mattered was ‘being in Christ’, rather than the logic chopping debate about justification, then one was free to live out the life of Christ in new and different ways.” (14) “Logic-chopping” vs. freedom – what would you choose? Schweitzer himself is called “a lonely and learned giant amidst the hordes of noisy and shallow theological pygmies” – the pygmies presumably being those who disagreed with the great man, and perhaps also with Wright, his humble admirer? The party of Pharisees to which Paul is said to have belonged were the Shammaites. Paul, we are told, “was a hard-line Pharisee – what we today would call a militant right-winger” (26). Despite the fact that this party of Jews were committed to political revolution, technically a feature of “left-wing” extremists, one can only surmise that the current linking of militant Muslim terrorists and the much-despised Religious Right in the United States – both often labeled “fundamentalists,” whose theological counterparts Wright has openly derided - came more easily to the author’s mind. Clever, but inaccurate. I, for one, do not appreciate this sort of condescending, supercilious rhetoric, which appears also in his first two volumes on Jesus in Wright’s derisive dismissal of the idea that “the son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” refers to the Second Advent of Christ, rather than the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Wright once again sets up a straw man by caricaturing the view he rejects as a literalistic picture of Jesus astride clouds on his way down from heaven.