The Wright Way To Read St. Paul


In November, the Dish noted the publication of N.T. Wright’s 1700-page, groundbreaking exploration of St. Paul and the origins of Christianity, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In a profile of the Anglican priest and scholar, Jason Byassee takes the measure of his intellectual ambitions:

Wright’s goal in his teaching and writing is to massively revise the way Christianity has been articulated for generations. Christian faith, for Wright, is not about going to heaven when you die. It is not about the triumph of grace over the law of the Old Testament. He says its key doctrine is not justification by grace alone, the cornerstone for the Protestant Reformers. The church has misread Paul so severely, it seems, that no one fully understood the gospel from the time of the apostle to the time a certain British scholar started reading Paul in Greek in graduate school.

“Apologist” and “revisionist” usually don’t fit on the same business card. A significant New Testament scholar told me of the time he first heard Wright speak. “He sounds like the voice of God,” he told a friend on the way out. Then he overheard someone else leaving the same lecture quip, “That guy thinks he’s the voice of God.”

He goes on to highlight Wright’s contributions to the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), described as “a relatively recent theological discussion about what Paul really taught about salvation”:

According to the NPP (a phrase coined by Wright), Paul was not worried about where believers’ souls would go after death. Christians of the late medieval period were worried about hell and felt they had to earn entry to heaven with works. This is the theology Martin Luther taught and wrote against, helping to ignite the Protestant Reformation.

But Jews of Paul’s time were nowhere near so individualistic, so obsessed with the next life, so unfamiliar with grace as were the late medieval Christians. Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say the NPP scholars, Paul is centrally teaching about God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is showing that Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises, and so can be trusted to fulfill his promises in history. NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God. Paul doesn’t say not to do them because you’ll go wrong and think you’re earning salvation. He says not to do them because the Messiah has come and the world is different now. All people can worship Israel’s God and should do so together without ethnic division.

Update from a reader:

I used to work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where Saint Paul Writing His Epistles is on view. The fascinating story behind the work is that there are several under paintings on the canvas, most visible to the naked eye if you look carefully at the writing desk. The head of Jesus, crowned with thorns (from an earlier painting), feels as though it is staring up at Paul while he composes. An x-ray of the painting reveals an earlier self-portrait, one of the artist at his easel.

While the artist most likely did this because he could not afford to buy more canvas, it sets up a nice metaphor for the conversation about Paul. There’s Paul, Jesus, and finally the individual layered over one another, leaving the rest of us to hash what it means. Here’s more from the MFAH website. It was always one of my favorites, and I miss visiting it in the gallery.

(Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, most likely by the 17th century French painter, Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons)