N. T. Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Part 1: Description and Summary. N. T. Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective is a compelling look at the Apostle and the multiple worlds—Judaic, Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian—he inhabited. The first chapter, in fact, examines the impact of these three worlds on Paul, and how they form the backdrop to his thought and his work. This in turn underscores the ways in which Paul’s legacy has been contested, particularly with regard to his own rather complex relationship to Judaism. In the second chapter, “Creation and Covenant”, Wright shows how Paul’s own background as a devout Jew—a Pharisee, at that—informed his understanding of how the world had come to grief since the Fall, and how Christ came to bring it back to the grace of God. In chapter three, “Messiah and Apocalyptic”, Wright analyzes Paul’s understanding of the Messiahship of Christ, and its apocalyptic character, with the revelation of God’s plan of salvation for all who believe.[1]

“Gospel and Empire”, the fourth chapter, analyzes Paul’s message vis-à-vis the claims of the Roman imperial state. Here again Wright draws on Paul’s Jewish heritage, showing how Paul took from Jewish critiques of pagan empire and advocated an alternative to the imperial ideology. Chapter five, “Rethinking God”, shows both the ways in which Paul adhered to, and the ways in which he departed from, traditional Judaism in conceiving of God—Christology being a notable example of the latter. Chapter six, “Reworking God’s People”, shows how Paul refashioned the doctrine of Israel as the Chosen People to the Christian doctrine of the Church as the Chosen. Similarly, Paul re-envisioned Jewish eschatology around Christ as Messiah and the Holy Spirit, the focus of chapter seven, “Reimagining God’s Future.” Finally, Paul’s conceptions of his own roles as servant, apostle, and one set apart are analyzed in chapter eight, “Jesus, Paul, and the Work of the Church.”[2]

Paul: In Fresh Perspective started out as a series of lectures, which Wright gave at Cambridge University as a part of the Hulsean Lectures. The book is expository, making a series of arguments about Paul, the worlds in which he lived, and how he saw himself. The purpose, as Wright explains in the preface, “was in fact to let in some new shafts of light on Paul, even if that meant carving a notch through some of the traditional ways of studying him.”[3] In particular, Wright is at pains to argue that Paul’s was a truly formidable intellect, on par with such intellectual greats of antiquity as Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca. Wright sees much of long-standing opinion as very dismissive of Paul as an intellectual, and countering this opinion forms a major thrust of the book.[4] The intended audience would appear to be seminary students, as well as others with strong theological interests.

Reclaiming Paul’s proper place as an intellectual, and understanding his thought and his work, requires seeing him in the context of the worlds that he inhabited. This is absolutely central to Wright’s perspective, and requires some exposition. For Wright, Paul was a citizen of at least three different worlds: Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman. Understanding this means understanding how these worlds influenced him, and how he participated in them: the claims that each had upon him, and how he responded to those claims. Himself a Jew—a Pharisee, in fact—Paul was very much the product of Second Temple Judaism, and as such must be situated in the milieu of the debates then ongoing about Jewish identity, what it meant to be chosen as a people, and loyalty to the Torah. Of course, Second Temple Judaism had also its eschatology, with a rich tradition of prophecy and anticipation of the redemption of Israel. It is this tradition from which Paul came, and his thought evinces clear continuities with it, even though much of what he believed and stood for represented a break with many beliefs and assumptions commonly held in this community.[5]

Paul was also a part of the Hellenistic world, established by the conquests of Alexander the Great about three and a half centuries before his time. As such, he spoke and wrote in Greek. Moreover, he participated in a Greek-influenced and –derived culture, complete with philosophy, established modes of thought, and rhetorical styles. This, too, was a world that left its indelible stamp on Paul, although as with the Judaic world, he also broke with many common assumptions and beliefs that sustained it. Of course, Paul was also a Roman citizen, albeit one who critiqued the imperial ideology, which was then coalescing into emperor-worship. Finally, Paul was a Christian, and as such arguably a member of a fourth world: a world defined by worship of a single but triune God, a God who had sent his Son to die as a sacrifice for sins, and rise again on the third day. This world, and the community of believers it represented, formed the most important part of Paul’s identity.[6]

Wright uses Scriptural exegesis, comparing Paul’s work with other Scriptural passages as well as drawing on commentaries by other scholars. By these means, he subjects Paul’s writings to the most thorough of hermeneutics. The information is presented firstly as themes and secondly as chapters: thus, part I, “Themes”, consists of four chapters that give prominent themes in Paul’s work. The second part, “Structures”, consists of four chapters that present major structural aspects of Paul’s thought, including his conceptions of God, which being Trinitarian, differed substantially from traditional Judaism. Another key example of a structure, of course, was Paul’s conception of the people of God: the shift from a conception based on the nation of Israel to the church, a community drawn from many nations but united by faith in Christ.

Part 2: Evaluation. In so many ways, this is a beautifully and sublimely realized book, one that brilliantly fulfills the promise of the preface. Wright shows, in part 1, how Paul understood his world, and the ways in which he not only drew upon, but also participated in, the traditions he had inherited from his predecessors in Judaism. Paul situated himself in this tradition, and so his work must be appreciated in light of it: Paul saw the work of God in Christ as a part of a single great narrative, ultimately going back to the Creation and the Fall. The apocalyptic character—‘apocalyptic’ in the Classical sense—of Christ’s saving work on the cross, rather than somehow undercutting or undermining the covenantal aspects of Paul’s theology, adds to and completes it. It thus becomes a part of the narrative perspective which Paul applied to the totality of God’s dealings with humankind. This narrative perspective is, again, firmly rooted in a Second Temple Judaism understanding of history: Paul’s contemporary fellow Jews, like Paul himself, “believed themselves to be actors within a real-life narrative.”[7]

Wright’s thesis about Paul’s theology is that it is both covenantal and apocalyptic, with the two aspects reinforcing and supporting and fulfilling each other, rather than existing in some kind of tension. In Christ, Paul believed that God fulfilled the covenant in such a way as to renew it, and creation with it: Christ’s work is God’s fulfillment of his part of the covenant, necessary for right fellowship between God and mankind. In Christ, God has made it possible for us to be renewed, for just as Christ stands as the second Adam, the one who takes away the sin of the world, so too believers stand as new creations by the grace of God, having accepted the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as atonement for the remission of their sins. For Paul, one ramification of this is that “The new age has already begun, though the old age continues alongside it.”[8]

This perspective of creation and covenant, Wright demonstrates, pervades Paul’s thought. With the covenant narrative comes the conviction that the covenant is necessary to affect a restoration of that which was diminished, cut short, and lost in the Fall. In other words, the covenant is necessary to restore right relations between God and mankind, and thus between human beings. It is this diminution brought about by the corruption of the Fall that is responsible, in Paul’s thought, for sin, suffering, and death. The covenant is therefore necessary to restore right relations and remove the taint of suffering and death caused by sin. Thus, Paul uses the word sarx, “flesh”, to denote “material within the corruptible world” as a way of “drawing attention to the fact that it is precisely corruptible, that it will decay and die.”[9]

As Messiah, Christ acts to restore the covenant. He is the Messiah anticipated by the prophets of the Old Testament, an absolutely vital element of continuity between Paul and earlier Jewish thought. He is also the apocalyptic revelation of the plan of God: in Christ, God reveals his purposes to restore the covenant and bring all those who so will into a right relation with him. Thus, Paul is “apocalyptic” in the Classical sense: his theology is “apocalyptic” precisely because what God has done through Christ is a new thing, not the unwinding or unraveling of the world. It is a new act of creation, Wright explains, and this is what makes it so truly revelatory, so truly apocalyptic. In Christ’s death and resurrection, God has acted powerfully in an entirely novel way, and in so doing has revealed much about himself, about his desires, and his plans for humanity. As such, the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ constitute the single most apocalyptic series of events in history to this point, and until the Last Day. Understanding Paul in this light enables one to see his work from a fresh perspective, one that underscores the precipitous transformations inaugurated by his thought.[10]

A key ramification of this is that, following Paul, the church is actually currently living in a new age in history. The work of Christ was to inaugurate a new age in salvation history, a new dispensation, and it is this age in which we are living now. While it has yet to be fully consummated, nonetheless this new age is still present in a very powerful way, one that must needs command the observance of the church. This in turn means that justification by faith “is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3.26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2.1-16).”[11] Understanding this is absolutely vital if one is to understand Paul at all: justification is a present-tense process or action. Only by adopting this understanding may one begin to have any rightly-guided conception of that which Paul speaks of. Christ, the source of this justification, stands as true King and Lord. As such, Paul was in no uncertain terms saying “that Jesus was Lord, and that Caesar was not.”[12]

This, of course, was highly significant and potentially very dangerous. The Roman Empire of Paul’s day ruled supreme in the Mediterranean world and a number of the lands beyond, with no challenger remotely worthy to be called a peer. Since Augustus, the Empire had appropriated the symbols and the legitimacy of the earlier Republic, with its ideals of justice and freedom. Since Augustus, Roman emperors styled themselves sons of god, the surest sign of their vaulting ambitions and pretensions. Paul drew upon and in many ways, participated in Jewish critiques of pagan empire, while preaching a Gospel that was scandalous to many of his fellow Jews. Like his forebears the prophets of the Old Testament, Paul saw Rome as another worldly magnificent but ultimately morally bankrupt empire: arrogantly confident in its possession of supreme power, like Macedonia and Persia and Babylonia and Egypt before it would ultimately falter. And yet, Paul was also a Roman citizen. This is what makes his theology if anything all the more fascinating, due to its counter-imperial character: while a Roman citizen who advocated obedience to the authorities, he was above all a Christian, who preached the reality of Christ crucified and risen. Christ, for Paul, embodied a reality far above the claims of Rome and its Caesars: he understood Christ as true Lord, the only rightful King to whom allegiance was due, claims that flowed from Christ’s status as Messiah and the one who renews the covenant.[13]

Overall, the quality and organization of the book are outstanding. Though derived from separate lectures, they all are well ordered by theme and content, each adding to and building upon that which came before it. Wright has made a remarkably cohesive and compelling narrative out of this series of lectures, and his scholarly acumen is quite evident. The organization of the book is also quite logical by theme: Wright first frames Paul in the context of the worlds which he inhabited, and then moves on to analyze Paul’s legacy, and then to discuss creation and covenant, and thence to Paul’s understanding of Christ as Messiah and the apocalyptic manifestation of the will of God. This in turn provides the setup to situating the gospel in context with the empire. The second part of the book analyzes the key structures in Paul’s thought, including his monotheism, and how it compares and contrasts with traditional Judaism. This in turn leads in to a discussion of the people of God, Israel and the church, and thence to eschatology, and thence to a consideration of how Paul saw himself vis-à-vis Christ. The Scriptural evidence is remarkably thorough and sound, and overall makes Paul’s argument very well indeed. Indeed, Wright’s approach is extremely logical overall, and contributes to an effective presentation of a very compelling case, one that properly portrays Paul as the intellectual that he was.

Bibliography

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), pp. 3-15, 29-35, 42-50.

[2] Wright, Paul, pp. 83-92, 108-125, 130-147, 154-162.

[3] Wright, Paul, p. ix.

[4] Wright, Paul, pp. ix-x.

[5] Wright, Paul, pp. 3-4.

[6] Wright, Paul, pp. 4-6.

[7] Wright, Paul, pp. 9-11.

[8] Wright, Paul, pp. 30-34.

[9] Wright, Paul, p. 35.

[10] Wright, Paul, pp. 44-53.

[11] Wright, Paul, p. 57.

[12] Wright, Paul, p. 58.

[13] Wright, Paul, pp. 56-72.

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