N.T. Wright is one of the top five theologians alive according to Christianity Today, and given his accomplishments, it’s a difficult claim to dispute. Wright is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St. Andrews, and before that, he served as Bishop of Durham for The Church of England and taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He has written a stack of widely-acclaimed and bestselling books, both academic and popular, and has a cult following among young Christian thinkers in the United States and Europe.
But Wright has also become a controversial figure in recent years, igniting a heated debate among American theologians with his so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Many prominent Christian leaders wrote rebuttals of Wright’s perspective–most notably pastor John Piper, who devoted an entire book to the matter (The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright).
How does one respond to such controversy? If you’re N.T. Wright, by penning a 1700-page tome on the life and theology of the Apostle Paul–the most comprehensive published work on Paul in the history of Christianity. It’s called Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and it promises to extend the debate he sparked years ago. Here, we discuss the book’s thesis, how it may inform gender and political debates, and what he thinks will make John Piper most upset.
JM: Is it possible to give shorthand to the new way of reading Paul you’ve explored in this book? How would you describe your approach to Paul succinctly?
NTW: I offer a holistic reading of Paul in which the different emphases many have seen, between ‘juristic’ or ‘lawcourt’ thought and ‘participationist’ or ‘incorporative’ thought, are reconciled; in which what some call ‘apocalyptic’ and what some call ‘salvation history’ are brought together in a larger framework of a new-covenant theology; in which Paul’s Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds are all taken fully into account. Paul emerges as a three-dimensional figure, passionate about the very Jewish message of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and aware that in announcing this message he was engaging with the philosophy, religion and imperial dreams of his day.
In particular, Paul emerges as the one who invented what we now call ‘Christian theology’ – prayerful, scripture-fueled meditation on God, God’s people and God’s purposes – to meet the particular need: a community which had to be united and holy but which lacked the Jewish cultural symbols that had helped the Jews with their version of this vocation. “Theology” as Paul was doing it, and more importantly was teaching his churches to do it, was the way to corporate and individual human and Christian maturity and to sustaining the church in its life and witness.
JM: And how do you anticipate that this historical and theological study of Paul will reframe Christian theologies of salvation, justification, and law?