Zwinglius Redivivus

"Philosophers are the Patriarchs of heretics" – Tertullian

God and the Faithfulness of Paul

9704_00_detailI appreciate Christoph Heilig pointing out the existence of this new work: God and the Faithfulness of Paul – A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N.T. Wright, Ed. by Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird.

Christoph has also, very kindly, arranged a review copy which which arrived several weeks back.

I’ve made way through the volume at this juncture and want to simply, firstly, briefly observe that it is utterly stimulating and thoroughly engaging.  Wright’s work is here subjected to honest and thorough evaluation and in many instances weighed in the balances and found wanting (or at least lacking).  Indeed, it’s fair to say that if Wright’s work is viewed as the bite of a poisonous snake, ‘God and the Faithfulness of Paul’ is the perfect anti-venom with which the adherents of Wright’s views must be inoculated lest they perish.

It is comprised of the following materials:

Part I: Prologue

  • Michael F. Bird/Christoph Heilig and J. Thomas Hewitt: Introduction
  • Benjamin Schliesser: Paul and the Faithfulness of God among Pauline Theologies

Part II: Methodological Issues

  • Oda Wischmeyer: N. T. Wright’s Biblical Hermeneutics Considered from A German Exegetical Perspective
  • Andreas Losch: Wright’s Version of Critical Realism
  • Theresa Heilig and Christoph Heilig: Historical Methodology
  • Eve-Marie Becker: Wright’s Paul and the Paul of Acts. A Critique of Pauline Exegesis – Inspired by Lukan Studies
  • Steve Moyise: Wright’s Understanding of Paul’s Use of Scripture
  • Joel R. White: N. T. Wright’s Narrative Approach

Part III: Contextual Issues

  • James H. Charlesworth: Wright’s Paradigm of Early Jewish Thought. Avoidance of Anachronisms?
  • Gregory E. Sterling: Wisdom or Foolishness? The Role of Philosophy in the Thought of Paul
  • Seyoon Kim: Paul and the Roman Empire
  • James Hanges: “A World of Shrines and Groves.” N. T. Wright and Paul among the Gods

Part IV: Exegetical Issues

  • Gregory Tatum: Law and Covenant in Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  • Sigurd Grindheim: Election and the Role of Israel
  • Jörg Frey: Demythologizing Apocalyptic? On N. T. Wright’s Paul, Apocalyptic Interpretation, and the Constraints of Construction
  • Aquila H. I. Lee: Messianism and Messiah in Paul. Christ as Jesus?
  • James D. G. Dunn: An Insider’s Perspective on Wright’s Version of the New Perspective on Paul
  • Peter Stuhlmacher: N. T. Wright’s Understanding of Justification and Redemption
  • Torsten Jantsch: God and His Faithfulness in Paul. Aspects of the History of Research in Light of the Letter to the Romans
  • J. Thomas Hewitt and Matthew V. Novenson: Participationism and Messiah Christology in Paul
  • Larry W. Hurtado: YHWH’s Return to Zion. A New Catalyst for Earliest High Christology?
  • John R. (Jack) Levison: The Spirit in Its Second Temple Context. An Exegetical Analysis of the Pneumatology of N. T. Wright
  • Richard H. Bell: Individual Eschatology
  • Volker Rabens: The Faithfulfness of God and Its Effects on Faithful Living: A Critical Analysis of Tom Wright’s Faithfulness to Paul’s Ethics

Part V: Implications

  • James Crossley and Katie Edwards: Paul and the Faithfulness of God as Postmodern Scholarship
  • Edith M. Humphrey: Bishop Wright. Sacramentality and the Role of Sacraments
  • Frank D. Macchia:The Spirit and God’s Return to Indwell a People. A Systematic Theologian’s Response to N. T. Wright’s Reading of Paul’s Pneumatology
  • Andrew McGowan: Ecclesiology as Ethnology. The Church in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  • Eckhard J. Schnabel: Evangelism and the Mission of the Church
  • Sven Ensminger: Barth, Wright, and Theology

Part VI: Epilogue

  • N. T. Wright: The Challenge of Dialogue: A Partial and Preliminary Response

As each essay engages with the work of Wright and as I made my way through them I was constantly reminded of the one fact concerning NT Wright’s work which, frankly, is the most telling and the most annoying: hubris.  Prof. Wright is utterly convinced of the correctness of his views in spite of the fact that his take, for instance, on Luther and the ‘first quest’ is utterly inaccurate.   Luther had Paul far more ‘in hand’ than Wright and yet Wright simply cannot, or will not see it.  What Wright does share with Luther, though, is the absolute conviction of correctness.

Wright’s hubris seems to be a longstanding aspect of his personality as it is also on display in the preface to his volume on the resurrection, where we read these endorsements:

‘A monumental achievement in its scope, depth, and execution … a landmark in scholarly studies of the resurrection.’ – Gerald O’Collins, The Tablet

‘The most monumental defence of the Easter heritage in decades … The Resurrection of the Son of God marches through a clearly organized case that confronts every major doubt about Easter, ancient and modern.’ – Richard N. Ostling, Associated Press

(N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), iii.)

It’s hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance created by seeing a scholar approving the appearance of such exaggerated praise in a volume bearing his name.  Can you for a moment imagine Bultmann or von Rad’s works being festooned with such outrageous claims?  And it’s impossible to imagine that a publisher would place such front matter in a volume without the author knowing it (and having a good bit of experience in the editorial task, I can say that with some authority).  Of persons like Donald Trump we expect a tooting of their own horn.  But it is utterly out of place among academics.  If others praise you that’s one thing- but to praise oneself in the pages of one’s own book… that’s simply inappropriate.  But it says something quite important about the scholar permitting it.

Accordingly, the debunking of Wright’s self aggrandizement is the chief achievement of the work presently under consideration.  My personal sentiments concerning Wright aside, the volume edited by Heilig and Bird and Hewitt shows that the emperor has no clothes.

A glance at the table of contents shows the areas in which Wright’s weaknesses can and should be subject to exposure.  Wright’s methodology is – in a word – circular.  Moyise’s essay in particular makes this point with crystal clarity.  Wright’s grasp of contextual issues is tenuous at best, as Hanges shows, writing, for instance

Wright employs a diagnostic category that, in my opinion, prejudices his comparison of the early Jesus communities with other cults no less than the use of either reformationist dichotomies or heuristic categories like religion (p. 258).

Wright, in short, generalizes too much.  And, as the fourth segment of the volume shows, his exegesis is also on fairly unstable ground.  Peter Stuhlmacher in particular brilliantly and astutely shows the weaknesses and inaccuracies of Wright’s exegetical efforts.  After disassembling Wright’s historical reconstruction brick by brick, Stuhlmacher exegetes Romans properly and points out along the way Wright’s misrepresentations.  Stuhlmacher remarks thusly-

  • Wright does not see (and cannot know)…
  • Wright’s idiosyncratic interpretation…
  • Wright’s discussion becomes imprecise…
  • The problem with Wright’s presentation…
  • Wright’s understanding of Paul’s doctrine …needs important corrections.

Torsten Jantsch’s essay, it must be pointed out, in the same section of the volume, is superlative.  The weaknesses of Wright’s arguments are here so clearly laid out that none, literally none of those who count themselves disciples of Wright (and they are Legion) should fail to read it.  They would gain a new perspective on Wright, to be sure.

The fifth section of the collection, I admit, was the least interesting to the present reviewer.  In spite of the fact that it contains a very good essay by Crossley and Edwards (in which we find this snippet:

“Wright argues that ‘some people in the 1930s did indeed advocate a ‘salvation history’ which was really the totalitarian wolf dressed up in biblical sheep’s clothing’….  But does a Wrightian/ Pauline theocracy really escape this charge?”  )

The final bit, NT Wright’s response, is, unsurprisingly, as the subtitle indicates, a ‘partial and preliminary response.’  That doubtless due in part to the fact that the volume is so massive had Wright responded properly to the arguments in each essay the book would have been doubled or tripled in size.  Wright’s response to his critics is polite and genteel but reading it one is left with the definite impression that nothing said has changed his mind about anything he’s written.  Which is an authentic shame.  The moment we fail to learn, we cease to be competent to teach.

On the whole the essays here collected are really quite intelligently done.  There are, of course, some that are better than others- but that’s a subjective judgment and each reader should be allowed the honor of determining for her or himself which are good and which are better.  I’ve already implied that certain topics are of less interest to myself and others will obviously have their own interests in mind as they read through the volume.

This volume is an extraordinary achievement.  It really should be read by persons who have been trapped in the generalizing and hermeneutically suspect web of Wrightianism.  The disciples of Wright will learn much here, if only they have an ear to hear.

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