Sunday, June 08, 2008

Book Review: Paul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

I couldn't help but be interested in the book that had caused such a fuss in my former Protestant denomination (even if it did earn me some enemies at Bob Hope airport). I finished it over my camping vacation as I usually do with books. I have to say that overall I was a bit underwhelmed. In Wright's defense it's probably due to both my high expectations (having read his masterpiece Jesus and the Victory of God) and also because whatever was theologically sound in the book, I was already pretty well aware of. (That is, I didn't really learn anything new, unlike with Jesus and the Victory of God where I was still theologically wet behind the ears).

Despite heavy Catholic leanings in theology, Wright approaches biblical study purely as a Protestant in my estimation. There is a comment he made early on in the book which I have been unable to locate where he speaks of the ongoing usefulness of the scholarly approach to studying the Scriptures to keep Scripture study from "collapsing into Church history". I can only agree with him partially here. There is a certain sense where he's right, historical critical method is useful and we can learn from it (but as Pope Benedict pointed out, that can only be admitted up to a point and it does have its weaknesses). On the other hand, there is certainly a sense in which Scripture study does collapse into Church history. The irony of this whole matter is that Wright here and elsewhere, as arguably the top Protestant biblical scholar of our time is only discovering things that Church history would have told us a long time ago if we had only paid attention. That is, the Catholic Church knew all of this without Wright's help.

The book starts off slow and he doesn't really get to the meat of the matter until well into the second half. With all the negative things I've said so far, let me just quote a few passages which I did like and which would save the curious reader the time of wading through the book:

Pg 143:

Despite those who have wanted to insist that 'works' never come into Paul's mind in a positive sense, he clearly envisages not only a future judgment at the bema tou Christou, the Messiah's judgment-seat, but also that this judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of the life that has been led.

Pg 148:

You cannot understand justification by faith in Romans 3 and 4 unless you see it flanked by the long statement of judgment according to works in Romans 2.1-16 and the spectacular scene in Romans 8 which explains why there is indeed 'no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah, Jesus'.

I also found this admission on page 162 interesting:

He [Paul] describes it quite cautiously in Romans 15.20: it is his task to name the Messiah where he has not so far been named, rather than building on anyone else's foundation. This may well be directed at an awareness with the small Roman church that its founder had been Peter himself,
So there it is for what it's worth. All this seems to be scholarly common sense to me. I don't see how anyone can get so hung up on sola fide to absolutely miss the rest of the New Testament. Actually I do, but that is a different post altogether.


R. E. Aguirre. said...

Good review Tim.

Tom Wright in my opinion is the logical conclusion of the Protestant mindset. In many places he has made it clear that his novel interpretations (that go against not only Catholic precedant but also Reformational precedent)of doctrine are simply the natural outworkings of Luther's dictum, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Wright in a way is a fascinating look into the Protestant principle of individual interpretation. Sad but fascinating - I guess like the slow camera scenes of explosions in modern cinema.

R.E. Aguirre

Heather said...

Hi, I am, by the Grace of God, a born-again, baptized (by choice) Believer regenerated or washed by the work of the Holy Spirit through my repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood. As I read through your posts here, I was disappointed by how complicated and "impossible" it is to dig through all various Saints and texts and overwhelming distraction to what really matters. The Gospel is what really matters, to present the TRUTH- Christ died for our sins. So simple, but so hard to accept by the scholarly. I so admire your quest for the truth and can understand how one would find comfort in rituals and accountability to man (more than to God I'm afraid). But in all the *extra* the graven images, icons, ritual prayers etc- the truth becomes obscure. Truth is pure. There is more than enough in the Bible to keep me busy and every learing! :) I love the Lord with all my heart and am found to be a hypocrite on many occasions, yes, as I am but flesh. But, I am continually drawn to what is important to God...we are to be "fishers of men". There are so many lost souls that need to know the TRUTH, the pure simple truth. So, how *does* one witness to a Catholic when they appear to have it all figured out? Isn't there a nagging within you that tells you something is amiss? (I ask with all sincerity)~Heather

Rene'e said...

Just a thought.

If the Catholic Church is the Church who gave us the Holy Bible (which most agree on), is deceptive and incorrect in her teachings and interpretations, and poses an hindrance to God, because of tradition, saints, icons, etc. Then is it not strange, that the Church did not manipulate the text, to defend her position on all these issues and most importantly her authority, as well as a more pronounced and straightforward explicit detail of Peter’s papacy in the Bible. I believe that the opportunity could have existed at the time, and the Church if she is truly not the Church, could have simply created her case in the Bible, therefore assuring that all Christians would be Catholic.

I am mystified how those who live and believe entirely from Scripture, can feel confident that the Catholic Church gave them the correct inspired books and scriptures, but is in error on everything else. Especially when you look around and are witness to so many various opinions and beliefs all claiming to be Christian, who imply by their beliefs and opinions , that the only directive Jesus gave to his apostles was to write his words down and make sure everyone reads them, and it is not important if they all read different things.

Not to mention the fact, that
the Bible does not say anywhere that it, itself, is the sole authority.

I just don’t get it……..

Tim A. Troutman said...

Heather, I think you didn't intend to but it's worth pointing out how many jabs you took at my Church and even me personally during your reply. First, you should know that as a Catholic, we view the Church in a motherly role so when you take jabs at our faith, it is like jabbing at one's mother.

So it would be something like me talking to you and saying something like, I saw your mother the other day (idol worshipper that she is) and we actually had a nice conversation even though we disagree on certain issues. Do you see how that stings a bit? It's the same for me when you talk about the Church that way.

Now you've implied that I've let saints and other things get in the way of my relationship with Jesus but I think you're making some pretty hefty assumptions there.

As for the scholarly comment, I'm not really scholarly I'm just a lay person with little to no education. Even if I was "scholarly" we are called to be harmless as doves not dumb as doves. We are to have child like faith not child like learning. The fathers of our faith (and the Scriptures) are solid on this point.

I would enjoy a dialogue between us along these lines but only under the condition that we both watch carefully to avoid ad hominem attacks and jabs at each other's faith and or persons.

As for a nagging that tells me something is amiss, I had that all of my life when I was a Protestant. The nagging stopped when I became a Catholic.

Stephen James Bloor said...

I think it is unfair just to say that if only we listened to the "Mother Church" that we would then know what N.T.Wright was finding out. I'm all for listening to the tradition but I also am in full support of Academia doing the research to back up the tradition.

Tim A. Troutman said...

James, that's fair. I really should clarify what I'm saying a bit more. I don't mean that Wright's work (or others like him) is useless. It can be (and has been for me personally) helpful and insightful. I just mean theologically, we don't learn anything. We do not uncover new dogmas by historical critical scholarship acting outside or apart from tradition.

The basic underlying theological underpinnings of the "new perspective on Paul" i.e. sola fide is a far too simplistic reading of Paul is nothing new. This isn't a new perspective or fresh at all. The fathers said this from the very beginning of the Church (perhaps not in the same way). The Church has sufficiently dealt with the issue dogmatically at Worms, Trent and elsewhere. It's not really new theology.

Still, his method is even more useful for Protestants who distrust tradition. He shows that good scholarship often lines up with tradition. (It doesn't always of course.. I mean a "good scholar" doesn't always line up perfectly with tradition. Even a genius like Aquinas goofed a few times).

I appreciate your comments.

George Weis said...


A little off subject, but I thought I would share that I had a dream that you and I went to a nascar race :D
We bought gloves to race with and you said "These are supposed to be high performance gloves..." I thought "cool" and we went to be a part of the race haha!
Then you lost your gloves, and we went looking through various meeting rooms where people were discussing Biblical whatnot to find them. No luck finding them! Kinda weird huh?

Hope that doesn't freak you out, I just thought it was funny!

Much love to ya man!


Rene'e said...

Tim and fellow Catholics,

There are some people who are looking for Catholics to debate with on this site:

They have some misguided perceptions( ex. Catholicism is a Cult), if anyone is interested.

Phil Snider said...


Interesting post and, while I've read a lot of N.T. Wright, I haven't read this one (I hope to soon). I like Tom Wright. As a biblical scholar he is unusual in the degree to which he combines a depth of scholarship and a deep committment to his faith. This isn't to say I don't have my issues (I have problems with his eschatology which I find a little too 'realized' for my comfort), but he is sound. My wife and I have given him the nickname 'New-Testament Wright', so this gives you an idea of what I think about him.

Yet, I take your point on the Protestant leaning to biblical study. He is, after all, a evangelical Anglican, so he has elements of catholic thinking, but he is Protestant in many ways.

I will, however, note that I suspect his comment about keeping Scripture study from collapsing into Church history is more of a scholarly stance than a Protestant one. Remember that Protestants are deeply interested in Church history (historically, in figuring out where and when we moved away from the 'New Testament' church, so as to be useful in anti-Catholic polemic), but it is this tradition that the academic world wants to dismiss. As someone who is suspicious of this limitation on our understanding (can we say improverishment), I don't agree, but I think this is more of what Wright is getting at.

Still, I find him useful as I slowly plow through his Resurrection of the Son of God.


Tim A. Troutman said...

George, thats funny. Did you see my nascar video - "The God fearin Redneck"?

Phil - I'm with you. I realize that he says certain things out of the interest of remaining respectable as a scholar and I can appreciate that. And like I said, I do agree with his point in a sense. It just depends on how far we're willing to take it I suppose.

NT Wright is a great scholar no doubt about that. I hope my comments didn't come off as me bashing him even though I do have my disagreements.

Phil Snider said...

I didn't think you were bashing Tom Wright. A good scholar is someone you can read and bounce ideas against. I think Wright is one of these scholars.


andrew preslar said...

One of the things I like about Dr. Wright's readings of Paul is that they help me to really think about certain things in the text that I had never really thought about before. For example: I never considered how Romans 3.29 fits with the rest of what Paul says in this pericope (3.21-30).

If you want to dig in on Paul via Wright, read *Climax of the Covenant*. Wright's analysis of Paul's christology (e.g., Phil 2.5-11; Col 1.15-20) is brilliant. It (Paul acc. to Wright) also happens to jibe with orthodoxy.