Douglas A. Campbell on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God
N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the climactic study in a massive and controversial project, nothing less than provision of the correct reading of the apostle Paul, who is effectively the foundational figure for Christian thought and practice. This reading, like all readings, is formed in a particular context; Wright is responding to another widespread reading of Paul that he finds problematic in various ways, one found across Liberal, mainstream, and conservative circles. Pauline specialists know this as the “Lutheran” approach to Paul, thanks to a classic 1963 exposé of its dynamics and inadequacies by Krister Stendahl. “Lutheran” is admittedly not the happiest of definitions. Luther sometimes advocated this approach to Paul, but he also advocated a lot of other things, some of them diametrically opposed to the so-called Lutheran understanding of Paul. And the same observation applies to many of his Protestant allies and descendants. So the Lutheran reading of Paul is a narrower construct than its name might suggest, but we should not underestimate its power or popularity.
This misnamed Lutheran reading is very much a Plan A/Plan B approach to Paul’s gospel, with the gospel proper as Plan B. Lutheran readers insist that in order to appropriate, and even to understand the gospel, however, one needs to travel through Plan A, which is not a pleasant experience. Plan A is God’s basic created posture toward humanity and the world: Law governs everything. God’s just demands hold sway over all people, and he will punish every infraction. But ultimately God intends no one to stay within Plan A, a supremely uncomfortable location indeed. The only purpose of Plan A is to teach people that they need Plan B and to act accordingly, that is, to grasp the gospel and become Christian. One accomplishes this by finding out that one is a sinner. And one finds out that one is a sinner by attempting to observe the Law, which does not lead to salvation but to condemnation as one sins. Hence Plan A indicts everyone as something of a cosmic felon. Plan B, presented by missionaries and preachers, offers salvation to those smart enough and self-reflective enough to grasp it. And here God has made things easier. He redirects a person’s just punishments onto Christ, on the cross, provided that one takes hold of this new offer by believing it, believing also in Christ’s resurrection and lordship. Then one passes over into the more comfortable location that is the church of forgiven sinners.
The Plan A/Plan B model gives a nice, clear account of the Christian Gospel. It has its stern side, but it is compelling. However, its critics have long been unhappy with its focus on Christ’s death as a satisfactory atonement for the sins of humanity (i.e., one that soaks up God the Father’s angry retributive punishment of sin), and its relative lack of attention to his life, something the four Gospels pay a great deal of attention to. The Plan A/Plan B model also has difficulty making sense of his incarnation, and of his resurrection and ascension, the heart of later Christian orthodoxy. Around 1100 CE, one of the greatest minds in Christendom, Bishop Anselm of Canterbury, attempted to justify Christ’s divinity in terms of this model of the atonement — in Cur Deus Homo/Why God Became A Man — but one wonders why it took a thousand years to create a compelling connection between the two, and his attempt remains highly contestable.
Critics have also pointed out repeatedly since World War II that the model is very hard on Jews and on the Old Testament. It clearly excludes Jews who do not hold typical Christian beliefs about Jesus, as well as any future law-observance within the church, which would simply be misguided — the stubborn assertion of a false piety, which some Protestants go on to attribute to many Catholics. But the Plan A/Plan B model also presents the pre-Christian Jew as the quintessential occupant of Plan A. They above all other people strive for salvation in the terms set out by the Law and God’s justice. But they are supposed to realize that this attempts fails because of their sinfulness. So if they remain recalcitrant, they are also, above all other people, stupid, morally unreflective, and deserving of their fate as convicted cosmic felons destined for the death penalty on the day of judgment. Plan A reads the Old Testament as basically telling this story over and over again. Israel is a pre-Christian people foolishly battling its own sinfulness, occasionally receiving promises that a better dispensation will eventually arrive — and when it finally does come, Israel largely chooses to ignore it.
N.T. Wright, like many other leading interpreters of Paul in our day, understandably wants to modify this account of Paul’s gospel. But he also wants to resist another agenda that is quite widespread within Pauline scholarship and, in fact, within much scholarly reconstruction of the sweep of the New Testament as a whole.
Just as German-speakers have bequeathed the Lutheran reading to the world of Pauline interpretation, they have bequeathed some of its most widespread alternatives as well. One such, more modern, conspicuously developmental reading is in fact embarrassed by any connection with Jewishness at all — the posture of most educated Europeans, it should be noted, prior to the Holocaust — and so seeks to locate the most important insights of Paul within a Greco-Roman context. The early church expanded through a vigorous missionary movement in which Paul played a fundamental role. It spread from the Jewish communities of Galilee and Judea to the great cities of the Roman Empire inhabited by all manner of people, especially by the superbly educated Greeks and the politically savvy Romans. And it was there, in the salons and temples of the Romans, that the nascent Christian movement achieved its decisive insights into Jesus, as a savior, within whom one died to be reborn and to live a new life, ultimately forever. It was here, on Greek soil, that Jesus became God.
Wright sees in some modern interpretations of Paul a reemergence of Marcionism and Gnosticism.
Wright, not unfairly, sees in this reading the reemergence of some ancient Christian problems: Marcionism and Gnosticism. In the second century Christianity fought a fierce battle to repudiate these approaches, both of which seem to have appealed to Paul. Marcion sought to separate the Old Testament and — in his perverse reading — its vengeful creator God entirely from the New Testament and its God of love, in part by publishing a Bible that contained only ten letters of Paul, suitably edited, along with an expurgated gospel of Luke. The Old Testament was abandoned altogether. And the Gnostics sought to accommodate Christian hope in the resurrection to a deeply dualistic worldview, maintaining that only the spirit really mattered. Bodies and the rest of creation were optional if not problematic, a view that called the creator God of the Old Testament into question again, and also undercut Christian ethics.
Wright sees this agenda reemerging to some degree in the Lutheran reading, but reemerging with a vengeance in the scholarship of F. C. Baur and W. Bousset, and so he wants to contest vigorously their vastly influential readings of Paul as well.
Wright does this, first, by locating Paul firmly in a historical context and asserting that he must have possessed a worldview as a Jew living during the time of the second temple. He then uses recent scholarship to suggest that such Jews were devout monotheists. God was very real, and unified or one. Moreover, the Jews also believed almost universally in a dramatic future resurrection of their bodies from the dead, to live from that moment forward — after a judgment — on a newly reconfigured earth. Hence, the early Christians, who were Jews, simply pulled together all these convictions, linking them firmly to Jesus. And since one can detect this synthesis all through Paul’s writings, it is inconceivable that the agenda of Baur and Bousset was correct. Paul clearly was rooted in his Jewish past and especially in his Jewish Scriptures. He believed in the one God of the Jews, believed fervently in the resurrection of humanity and of creation, but believed all these things in relation to the Messiah Jesus, the one who was God returning to his people in person and was now raised from the dead and ruling on high. So far so good, although one can immediately ask if, in making these affirmations against latter day Marcionites, Wright has not ended up endorsing one of the key problems of the Lutherans, namely, the imposition on Jews of a particular worldview that is both monochromatic and somewhat alien to their own concerns; more on this momentarily. But what of the Lutheran reading of the gospel, that is, of how humanity actually finds salvation?
Here Wright does something rather ingenious. It is as if he takes the simple and rather individualized lines of the Lutheran model — the journey of the individual, and especially of the law-observant Jew, through Plan A (hopefully) to Plan B — and dramatically expands them in temporal, corporate, and historical terms. He panoramically rewrites the Lutheran story as the story of the whole Bible and of the people of God, Israel (Plan A), journeying toward the arrival of the church (Plan B, itself strongly anticipated in the OT). A small sketch of an individual has become a panoramic fresco depicting all of creation and history. In order to reorient the Lutheran model so significantly, Wright utilizes the recently fashionable method of intertextuality, detecting scriptural narratives within and underneath many of Paul’s texts, although principally underneath Romans and Galatians, which are frequently held to be the key letters for determining the apostle’s thinking.
In short, by combining this renarration with historical work on Paul’s “typically Jewish” convictions about monotheism and resurrection, Wright eliminates many of the problems he detects within modern readings of Paul. Marcionite and Gnostic readings, whether in ancient or modern variations, are repudiated, as is the strangely individualized journey undertaken by converts according to the Lutheran gospel. Paul was much more of a biblical theologian than an apostle of the individual. He charted the journey of Israel from its inception and its founding promises, through its long and turbulent history, to its fulfillment in the people of God that is the believing church.
This short sketch cannot of course do justice to Wright’s extensive portrayal, which spreads well beyond a thousand pages of exposition. (And this is only his latest expression of these themes that have occupied him for decades.) But hopefully it does convey some of its drama and expanse, its concerns for all of the Bible’s involvement in Paul’s thinking, and its sheer audacity. But we ought to note an additional complication: Wright is also a well-known advocate of “the new perspective” on Paul — although it is no longer especially new; most of its architects are now drawing their pensions. The new perspective responds to the Lutheran reading of Paul as well, but from a slightly different angle than Wright’s panoramic rereading. It reorients Paul’s key phrase “works of Law,” which appears in Plan A, away from a straightforward demand for right activity informed by the Bible, and toward a more sociological demand that Jews keep themselves separate from the surrounding unclean pagan culture by rigorously observing their own dietary and temporal prescriptions. The phrase refers to these “boundary markers.” Few discussions of Wright overlook his advocacy of this particular reading, although it is important to appreciate that there is a lot more going on in his work than this move alone.
Wright has not always succeeded in convincing the academy.
Reactions to Wright’s project have differed. His massive reorientation of the Lutheran model, coupled with his sociological reading of “works of Law,” have scandalized those who still adhere to its traditional account of Paul’s gospel. Wright presents a problem for such figures, and so he has encountered considerable critique — not all of it especially fair or reasoned. However, his project has encouraged others who are ultimately more enthusiastic about a sweeping biblical agenda. They have affirmed his more nuanced emphases on history and on bodies (rather than on somewhat rationalistic, atemporal individuals), thus contributing, in their minds, to better Bible preaching and teaching than made possible by the Lutheran model. Others again, perhaps so disposed in general terms, have nevertheless not been convinced that Paul’s texts corroborate explicitly and in detail Wright’s more sweeping narrative claims. He often appeals to a complex but integrated story of creation and Israel that he says animates Paul’s arguments but lies out of sight for much of the time. Such an approach is not entirely unfair, of course. One does not always spell out in detail the explanatory structures that one uses. But Wright’s critics here would say that Paul should spell out these structures at least once, if they exist.
Moreover, there are troubling aspects to his celebrated moves in relation to the Lutheran reading. It is not entirely clear how a sociological reading of “works of Law” creates a coherent overarching argument — a smooth, rational progression from Plan A to Plan B. If I repent of my exclusive sociological boundaries, how do I end up believing in Jesus? (At least the Lutherans make sense here.) And underlying both Wright’s sociological move and the broader rereading project lies the even more troubling suspicion that he preserves in both these variations a fundamentally sinister dimension within the Lutheran reading. Wright, like the Lutherans, continues to depict Paul’s Gospel as beginning with an unstable Jewish state, Plan A, however that is defined specifically. Rational and moral people ought to repent of their sinfulness and move on to Christianity in Plan B, a progression Wright links to Israel. So Paul’s Gospel, according to Wright, remains grounded in an account of Judaism that is imposed, monolithic, and yet internally incoherent — a classic instance of othering. And as a result of this it seems that the key of the Lutheran hymn might have changed, but the underlying tune might have stayed much the same.
Ultimately, I do not expect Wright to persuade very much of the academy of the plausibility of his project in toto. His extensive account of it here will not convince those who have already found his exegesis and/or his conceptual claims wanting; not enough has been added. But it would be a great shame if scholars rejected this project completely. It is not necessary to sign off on everything Wright says — which would be to sign off on a lot — to see that there is much wheat lying mixed in with the usual tares. Unfortunately, the complexity of Wright’s claims and the length of his treatment make sifting out the wheat a demanding task, although Wright’s famous textual flair makes the task feel less onerous than it otherwise might. Rather more importantly, however, at the end of the day, the wheat that Wright asks us to harvest is a comprehensive, scripturally informed, and theologically engaged reading of the apostle, and these are deeply impoverished dimensions in much of the apostle’s interpretation today. Anything that gets scholars thinking hard about Paul in these terms — however much the specifics might be debated — is in my view fundamentally a very good thing.