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Denver Journal - 9:0212 - Paul In Fresh Perspective

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Volume 9 - 2006
Editor: Richard S. Hess

N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005. Xii + 195 pages. $ 25.00. ISBN 0-8006-3766-6.
How does Dr. Wright manage to serve as the Bishop of Durham and to turn out the number of booksmany
heavyweight ones at thatyear after year? One answer is that he manages to give major lecture series that can be then
turned into books. That is the genesis of this book. However he does it, here is yet another worthy offering from one of the
most engaging New Testament scholars of our day. Previously he published a small book on Paul, What Saint Paul Really
Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? This current book presents his more mature understanding of
the great apostles context and convictions; it covers some common ground with the earlier one, but goes off in many new
directions.
He starts by outlining Pauls world, covering Pauls place in Judaism, Hellenism, and Rome. What changed Paul, of
course, was his encounter with the risen Christ, forcing Paul to revision all his categorieswhich is what Wrights book is
mainly about: what came to be Pauls understanding of Gods program for the world and his own place in that plan. Central
to the thought world of the Jews of Pauls day was that they were participants in a grand narrative or story that began with
creation, involved the call of Abraham, and that would continue into the future when God would judge the world. Central to
that story were the themes of creation and covenant. Gods covenant was implemented to solve the problems of creation,
i.e., its fall. As a Jew Paul believed God would be faithful to his covenant to put the world to rights as Wright regularly puts
it. In fact Paul came to understand that God has been faithful to his covenant by sending his son Jesus to be crucified and
to rise from the deadthereby solving creations ills and creating a redeemed people. In this way Pauls message is
apocalyptic. An unheralded and unlikely young Jewish carpenter appeared on the scene to bring Gods grand program to
its climax. This Jew, Paul came to believe, proved to be none other than the long-awaited Messiah. The age-to-come has
been inaugurated, overlapping the present age in a way unforeseen by the Jews. In a sweeping summary Wright says,
God has declared in advance that he has dealt with sin and death, and has summoned the world to the obedience of faith,
with the corollary that all those who believe find themselves declared in advance, as part of the apocalyptic unveiling of the
ultimate future, to be within Gods true family, whether they be Jew or Gentile (p. 57).
In three central chapters (5 - 7) Wright shows how Paul revised his understanding of his core Jewish beliefs. In
Rethinking God Paul revised his conception of monotheism to embrace Jesus and the Spirit as divine. In Reworking
Gods People Paul came to understand Israels election to take a new shape around Jesus. Gods people are now the
people in the Messiah. Because they have come to believe in Jesus, they enjoy the covenant status (righteousness) that
comes from God. Only such a person, whether Jew or Gentile, is a Jew and is circumcised (Romans 2:28-29). Rejecting
any two-covenant theory or charges of supersessionism, Wright puts the matter this way: Jews who fail to believe in Jesus
are not debarred from entering the people of God due to their ethnic origin; but neither are they currently all right if they
persist in their unbelief. The people of God are now marked out solely on the basis of trust in Jesus. In Jesus God is
showing his faithfulness to the covenant he made to redeem his people. In Reimagining Gods Future we find Wright
echoing some of his favorite themes. In a nutshell, the complex of events for which Israel had hoped had already
happened in the events of Jesus of Nazareth (p. 136). Paul reshapes around Jesus all the elements of Jewish
eschatology. The Jews exile began when Torah arrived in Israel; the new exodus has been launched through Jesus
work. The day of the Lord has arrived; Jesus has appeared; Jesus will return to transform the earth and judge people
according to the life they led. Then all creation will be renewed (back to the creation theme). As the down payment of what
awaits Gods people, the Holy Spirit is now transforming their hearts to enable them to keep Gods commands.
In a stirring concluding chapter, Wright shows the implications of Pauls perspective for Pauls own ministry (giving
some space to contrasting his task with that of Jesus) and for the church in the twenty-first century. First Wright looks at
Paul. In his own words, Paul believed that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide
community in which ethnic divisions would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus
was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flower (p. 157). Wright shows
how Paul implemented in his task as an apostle the various redefinitions of Jewish theology that he came to adopt. It
affected his praying, his preaching, how he developed communities of faith, what it meant to be human, the imperative of

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Denver Journal - 9:0212 - Paul In Fresh Perspective

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unity among Christians, the paramount significance of baptism, and standards of behavior (not merely what Christians
should or should not do, but why, in view of their standing in Christ).
In turning the spotlight to the contemporary church, Wright calls us to live as the people of God in view of Paul
understanding of Gods grand narrative. Wright accepts the postmodern critique of modernity, but urges us not to stop
there, for postmodernism gives Christians no sure foundation on which to stand or build. But acknowledging
postmodernisms valid points, Wright calls Christians first to help our world reconstruct a new way of being human rooted,
through baptism, in the Messiah: I am loved, therefore I am. Second, we need to show the world a new way of knowing,
and the Christian way of knowing is lovedeep involvement. And third, we need to help our world reconnect to Gods great
story. Modernity has run out of steam (though, Wright observes not, alas, in western imperialism). Whats next? We can live
out Gods story, not of power, but of love; or, put differently, power that is made perfect only in weakness.
Though this review may already be too long for a book of this size, a few final observations are in order. Much has
been made of the New Perspective (NP) on Judaism and Paul, and Wright has ben a prime defender of this new way. One
thing this book shows is Wrights ongoing refinement of the NP in light of the ongoing debates (with those holding so-called
traditional view), critiques, and counter-arguments on both sides. He is more convinced than ever of its validity, but he has
nuanced it considerably from what we find in, e.g., E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, or even Wrights prior statements (in this
book he calls it his fresh perspective on Paul). Those who have more easily dismissed some of the eccentricities or what
they saw as the aberrations of earlier versions of the NP will find Wright here much more difficult to refute. So much of his
presentationwhen it takes into account the central tenets of Judaism (and Wright recoils against the current fashion of
speaking of many Judaisms) and all of Paulsimply rings true and makes sense of Paul. So, e.g., he understands pistis
Christou (faith of Christ) to mean Christs faithfulness to the divine plan for Israel, not faith in the Messiah. And, justified
refers not to how one becomes a Christian, but as a descriptive term about who belongs to the people of God and how you
can tell that in the present. And works of Torah refer not to works that people did in order to gain entrance into the people
of God, but the works they did to show they were members of Gods people.
A couple of nits to pick. No doubt some of the annoying stylistic features owe to the books origin in a lecture series. I
wish he would avoid the too common scholarly ploy: as I have written elsewhere Of course this is a small book that
cant do everything, but I dont think we need to be reminded so often that he has written many more books that deal with
some of these matters more fully and more convincingly. Just make the point, Tom, and go on. Also, he repeatedly reminds
us that assertions he makes merit entire books, but that he doesnt have the space to do more than mention them here.
Again, just do what you can do and stop the caveats or apologies. But the virtues outweigh by a long shot any such nits.
Of course, not all will be as convinced as I have become that some version of the NP (or fresh perspective) will
probably carry the scholarly day, but time will flesh this out and give scholars the opportunity to write more books and
articles. He remains convinced that Paul wrote the poem in Philippians 2:5-11; not all will agree. The same can be said for
other points. He takes some broad swipes at the (mostly) North American views of escapist eschatologyrightly so, to my
mind, but it will annoy some. On the other side, he is certainly conservative in his views of some controversial matters:
Pauline authorship of Ephesians and other letters typically considered pseudonymous by many scholars, the essential
historicity of Acts, his willingness to challenge the fixed points of scholarship mentality that limits certain kinds of pursuits
and conclusions, to name a few. It is refreshing to hear a scholar assert that there are texts that actually mean something,
that there are compelling readings of texts, and that there is a Holy Spirit who is at work in the world. I appreciated his
repeated emphasis on the incorporative use of Christos, that is, the corporate identity of the church in Christ. Overall the
book is a persuasive summary of the essence of what made Paul tick. I will use it as a textbook.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
May 2006

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