Book Review: Paul in Fresh Perspective (Part Two)

This is the second part to a two part review. Part One can be found here.

In the first part of the review, I briefly summarized Part One of Wright’s Paul in Fresh Perspective. This part was entitled ‘Themes.’ This post deals with the second half of the book, which Wright calls ‘Structures.’ ‘Structures’ refers (I think) to the structures of Paul’s thought. This part of the book deals primarily with how the three key Jewish doctrines (monotheism, election, and eschatology) are redrawn by Paul around Jesus and the Spirit. Hence, the chapters entitled, “Rethinking God,” “Reworking God’s People,” and “Reimagining God’s Future.” The final chapter deals with the relationship between Paul and Jesus in the light of the rest of the work: “Jesus, Paul, and the Task of the Church.”

Wright begins, appropriately enough, by exploring Paul’s understanding of monotheism. His argument is Paul’s primary polemical target is not Judaism (or even Jewish Christianity), but Paganism. Wright notes the varieties of monotheism that existed in Paul’s period and defines Paul’s as “covenantal and creational monotheism.” The thrust here is that God is passionately involved with the events of the world, but different from the world (against both stoic pantheism and epicurean deism/atheism). This God of Paul’s has created the world and is working toward putting it to rights. This is a typically Jewish understanding of God, but then Wright shows how Paul’s understanding was different than historic Judaism: it had been redrawn around Jesus and the Spirit.

Beginning with Jesus, he cites several passages where Jesus has been put in places reserved for God in the OT. These include Romans 10:5-13 (where Jesus is the Lord in Paul’s OT exegesis), Philippians 2:5-11(where Jesus is the name at which every knee should bow, though this is Yahweh in Isaiah), and 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 (where Jesus is inserted into the schema, the classic monotheistic confession of Israel). In light of these, he thinks Romans 9:5 should be understood as Jesus being called “the one is God over all.” People often claim that Paul couldn’t possibly be calling Jesus God here, but this a priori dismissal doesn’t hold in light of these other passages. Next, Wright discusses the Spirit. He examines several passages, including Galatians 4:1-8, Romans 8, Romans 10:3, and 1 Corinthians 12:12-14. Wright notes that the Spirit and Son are working together to fulfill God’s promises. The Spirit is instrumental in bringing about the “new exodus.” Additionally, the Spirit marks us for the age to come as members of God’s family. 1 Corinthians 12, while referring to the unity and diversity of the church, serve as a way to understand the complex interactions for Paul of Father, Son, and Spirit. Wright then closes the chapter by examining how this played out in Paul’s churches.

The next chapter deals with the theme of election, “Reworking God’s People.” Election exists to deal with Sin and Death, it calls “a people from, and for, the whole world.” Wright sees Paul as both affirming Israel’s election (as in Romans 9), but redefining it as well (as in Galatians 2:11-21). Here Wright builds off his understanding of justification by faith. For Wright, Paul’s doctrine of justification is not a description of “how people get saved,” but rather “how you know who your family members are.” The question is not one of “getting in,” but rather, “how can I tell who is in?” He cites Gal 2:11-21, where justification deals with a conflict over table fellowship. He then proceeds to discuss Jesus and the Spirit in relation to Election.

Beginning again with Jesus, Wright argues that election is now by the “faithfulness of the Messiah” and not by Torah. Jesus is both the end and fulfillment of Torah. Faith functions as a marker by which we tell who our fellow brothers and sisters are. He discusses the constitution of God’s people in the Messiah, referring both to 1 Cor 10 and especially Eph 2:11-3:13. He cheekily notes when discussing Ephesians that even if Paul didn’t write Ephesians, he would have heartily endorsed it as a statement of his theology. God’s family is now Jew+Gentile and depends on the Messiah, not on Torah. When discussion turns to the Spirit, Wright notes passages like 2 Cor 3. Here, The Spirit stands over against Torah. It is not Torah which marks out God’s people, but the seal of the Holy Spirit. Not only does the Spirit mark God’s people, but he also empowers them to be God’s people, to be who they are.

This brings us to eschatology, “Reimagining God’s Future.” Wright starts here by tracing out the eschatological hopes common in Second Temple Judaism. He maintains that the “return from exile” played a big part here. He discusses several other themes, like Renewal, Resurrection, and Judgment. When discussing Jesus, Wright notes especially that through Jesus, “these are the last days. “ In the resurrection, God’s future has broken into the present (of course noting the now/not-yet dimension of eschatology). The final judgment is redrawn as a resurrection and judgment with Jesus in the middle of things. Likewise, with the Spirit, the Spirit’s coming denotes the “last days,” using Joel 2 has a basis for this. Wright is quick to note that the Spirit’s work links present justification with final justification. By the Spirit, we anticipate in the present our final vindication, the final verdict where God will declare us as ‘righteous.’ Likewise, the Spirit’s work in us and through us assures us that God will have firm grounds to make this declaration.

This brings us at last to the final chapter, “Jesus, Paul, and the Task of the Church.” Here Wright focuses on the relationship between Paul and Jesus. The problem is that Paul doesn’t seem to refer to Jesus’ teachings much. He doesn’t mention the Kingdom of God often, nor does he refer to his ethical rules like the Sermon on the Mount very much. Wright claims that we see a problem because we have reduced them both to “expounders of universal ethical truths.” In doing so, we hopelessly misunderstand them. He argues that when we recover them as “historical people,” we can understand their relationship much more easily. Wright likes the metaphor of “composer and conductor,” or “architect and builder.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3). Basically, Paul is not out to reproduce Jesus’ teaching verbatim, but to implement the much larger project that Jesus inaugurated. The Kingdom of God ‘discrepancy’ is simply a change in audience. “Kingdom of God” talk resonated deeply with a Jewish audience. It conjured up images of the Messianic Kingdom and the rule of God. This wouldn’t have made much sense to a pagan though, so Paul used different language. “Gospel” and “Lord” were perfectly comprehensible to pagans, so Paul’s announcement of the “real Gospel” of the “real Lord” would have been entirely understandable for pagans. In talking about ethics, Wright argues that Paul is teaching his churches to think Christianly, and not simply giving them a list of rules. This is why he spends much more time grounding his practical instruction in “first principles” rather than giving a laundry list of Jesus’ sayings.

That rounds out the book. This section got quite a bit longer than I anticipated, so my apologies for that. This is a terrific little book from Wright. There’s all sorts of fine details that he doesn’t address, but he does a terrific job of highlighting the “big picture” concerns for Paul. I’d recommend the book to anyone who’s interested in Paul. The book isn’t overly technical, nor is it terribly long, but the content is thought-provoking and worthy of attention!


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Paul in Fresh Perspective (Part Two)

  1. Thanks for this. This book was my introduction to NPP. I’m still not settled on pistis christou being “the faithfulness of Messiah.” Reading Dunn has me in limbo. ;-)

  2. Yeah, it’s an interesting debate. I’ve been weaned on Wright, so I’m pretty skewed in his direction (I’m also reading Campbell’s Deliverance of God, which doesn’t help ;-) ) I need to go back and look at Dunn. I have his Pauline theology sitting on my desk, I just haven’t read very much of it.

    What do you think are the most persuasive arguments for “faith in Christ”?

  3. Ah, Wrightian, are you? for me, not quite. I’ve been told that I need to read Campbell’s work. Eventually, I will. Frank Thielman is also good in this debate, from the little I’ve read in his NT Theology.

    Yes, reread Dunn on the matter.

    The absence of the Greek article in these constructions (cf. Rom 3:3). Another one, interesting enough, is negative: the argument against redundancy by those who hold to “the faith/fulness of Christ.” It is not convincing. Consider Gal. 2:16.

    Moo is also good on the traditional reading of pistis christou as “faith in Christ” (Romans commentary).

  4. Yeah, Campbell’s a must read. He interacts with an astounding number of scholars. His interaction with Dunn is particularly noteworthy: he concludes that on a big picture level, Dunn’s project fails! Of course, he does this diplomatically, and praises Dunn on several points, but he does have some biting critique.

    Beware, it’s a chunky book though!

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