Wright within the modern interpretation of Paul's theology
I recently taught an advanced survey course at Duke Divinity School on modern theological accounts of Paul and related scholarly trends, and – sadly – a general impression formed that this entire interpretative trajectory is somewhat impoverished. Three recurring problems emerged that can help to set the scene for Wright's important recent statement in PFG.
First, the reconstructions of Paul's thought offered in the modern period have generally been dominated by one particular model, despite its manifest flaws – a reconstruction Krister Stendahl famously dubbed ‘the Lutheran reading’.
This model departs from a particular reading, unsupported by any explicit warrant, of a single Pauline sub-section within a single Pauline letter,
yet it exercises a dominance over Pauline theology out of all proportion to its actual presence within his work, not to mention within the broader theological conversations in the church. (It is also arguably a tendentious account of Lutheranism.)
Second, the conversation has been strangely constricted by a pervasive thought‒act or being‒act dichotomy.
The analysis of Paul's thought has generally taken place in splendid isolation from the analysis of his (other) acts and activities, that is, his ‘practical’ missionary work that established and maintained congregations.
Paul's practical activities were a theological text (and vice versa), and so they must be in play within any account of his theology.
Third, the conversation with actual theologians has generally been muted if not absent. It is as if NT scholars expect a mature analysis of theological questions to spring fully formed and self-evident from Paul's text, when long training in these questions is necessary even to recognise the issues in play, along with the culture-bound assumptions that might be distorting their handling by the modern western reader.
Wright's reading of Paul in PFG – the culmination of many decades reflecting and publishing on the apostle – promises, by way of contrast, to break through these debilitating strictures. He is well aware of the Lutheran reading and of its post-Sanders conundrums, and is widely known as one of its most important revisionists. He eschews a merely conceptual account of Paul's thought, embedding it in a worldview analysis that stretches across to include what other scholars might view as merely practical activity. And he frequently claims to be interested – contra much modernity – in theology, and not to mention, in God. So, for example, his long account concludes by interacting with Walter Benjamin (PFG, pp. 1473‒84, 1511‒12). Hence the basic agenda and resulting architecture of Wright's reconstruction of Paul's theology are a dramatic and brilliant break with most previous analyses and an important step forward – a significant set of achievements that ought to be fully appreciated. But closer analysis suggests that his project also contains some serious problems.
First, it is not well executed. I will articulate my main concerns in more detail shortly, so suffice it to say here that there are basic problems of method and exegesis with Wright's manner of reading Paul's texts, while his engagements with other scholarly interlocutors frequently lapse into mere polemic.
But my main concern here is, second, that the basic account of Paul's theological thought Wright offers his readers is still unresolved. Lutheranism and various modern dichotomies have not been purged sufficiently thoroughly from his reconstruction, resulting in tensions of truly tectonic proportions. I hasten to add that these difficulties have usually been acknowledged, and even engaged with, but they have not been dealt with properly. And the result of this is a sense of disappointment. One is left with the impression of a magnificent venture foundering in its haste – haste perhaps extending back to the venture's original design, when certain contradictory tendencies needed to be confronted and, however painfully, solved, but were not.
Much of this tension results from the fact that PFG pursues two quite distinguishable agendas when reconstructing Paul's theology.
What we might call a soteriological agenda programmatically resists its Marcionite construal,
while a revelational agenda resists adoptionist and gnostic elements in reconstructing the apostle's thought.
But the soteriological, anti-Marcionite agenda dominates the project,
so I will focus on it here, scrutinising its internal coherence and its implicit occlusions – the first source of tension – before returning at the end of my review to consider quickly how these two fundamental agendas fit together, espying then a second key fault-line.
The anti-Marcionite agenda
In most of PFG Wright argues in familiar terms: that to understand soteriology in Paul, as indeed to understand anything else he says, one must grasp the story the apostle presupposes that is grounded in the Jewish scriptures of his day. The story moves from a plight to a solution, although Wright detects a more complex, extended narrative here than most.
The story begins prior to creation with Wisdom, who sports with God, and through whom creation duly takes place. But creation is fractured by the fall of Adam and Eve, as recounted in Genesis 3. Almost immediately then we have to speak of a plight. Wright goes on to emphasise strongly the continuation of this biblical story to and through the call of Abraham. God promises to save humanity from its post-Adamic plight, and calls or elects Israel, descended from Abraham and Sarah, to do so; these moments constitute the all-important covenant.
After this Wright detects what we might call an Exodus complex. God rescues the people of Israel from their oppression in Egypt, dwells with them in the tabernacle and provides instructions through the Torah gifted to them on Sinai. After all this they begin their long journey to the promised inheritance of land, having had a brief but deadly dalliance with idolatry in the golden calf. Once in the land, Wright detects the arrival of kingship and of the cult in the Jerusalem temple. However, all does not go well: Israel fails to be faithful either to God or to its calling to be the salvation of the rest of the world and is punished with devastation, foreign rule and exile – conditions that Wright sees continuing to Paul's day.
In short then, an extended, multi-phase plight runs from Wisdom, through creation, the garden of Eden, the covenant with Abraham (comprising promise, and election in Wright's distinctive sense), the exodus, the temple, the monarchy, and, of course, the exile, right down to Paul's context of late Second Temple Judaism. The solution then pivots around the coming of Jesus, the Messiah (who is also God returning to Zion) – a consummate act of divine faithfulness to the original covenant with Abraham, the importance of which for Wright is indicated by the title of his project.
As the Messiah, or Israel's king, Jesus, in the key participatory moment, shoulders the sins of the rest of Israel, which has itself already had the sins of humanity ‘heaped’ on it after failing to address them.
His death on the cross atones for these in an act of distinctive faithfulness or obedience, and this event justifies all those who respond to it with faith, removing the justified from exile and from the wrath of God in general, at which point an ‘eschatological’, and somewhat different Israel begins to form.
This people passes through the new exodus that is baptism and emerges wearing only the badge of faith. Beyond this they are shorn of ‘the symbolic praxis of Judaism’
– something that apparently drives them to theology (see p. 729). But they possess the hearts long promised in the scriptures that are circumcised by the Spirit,
and these enable them to undertake what is basically a virtue ethic,
while they wait for their bodily resurrection, presaged in Jesus’.
This then is basically the story that Wright sees animating Paul's most important thinking. Moreover, he contends that it resolves many of the tensions apparent between other, rival schools of Pauline interpretation. Ostensibly different notions like, for example, participation, justification and theosis are in fact mere moments within a larger story that moves through them, holding them all together within a broader narrative arc. So participation denotes Christ's representative activity on Israel's behalf as Israel's king; justification denotes the verdict of acquittal realised for Christians by the atonement; and theosis denotes the ensuing devotion of the ecclesial Israel to virtue. Clearly one of these emphases does not need to be played off against another.
Now this is a distinctive account of Paul's thinking, and even Wright himself would admit that it does not exactly jump off most pages of the Pauline corpus. Hence undergirding it is a set of three methodological moves that enables Wright to tease his story out of enough Pauline texts to facilitate the claim that this is the corpus's key underlying dimension: (1) worldview analysis; (2) ‘intertextual maximalism’; and (3) ‘Romanocentrism’.
With respect to (1), Wright constantly introduces the worldview of late Second Temple Judaism into his analysis of Paul, utilising a classic sociological text by Berger and Luckman.
And the presence of this interpretative dimension allows the critical claim that, although Paul's worldview might seldom be explicit, it can nevertheless still be ubiquitous, like the lenses on the glasses of a myopic scholar, which are seldom directly seen themselves yet enable all the pages on the desk to be read.
With respect to (2), the intertextual dimension in Wright's analysis is clearly central, but comprises several modes that need to be distinguished. First, it is maximal. Wright sees intertextuality in play everywhere – assisted by the worldview analysis that I just noted. A mere verbal gesture evokes the entire system and so allows the legitimate introduction of that system into Paul's thinking. Paul's intertextuality is also Jewish. He engages with Greco-Roman texts and culture but is shaped by the Jewish scriptures. Moreover, those scriptures are to be read in an integrated, narrative and referential fashion. They tell one principal story that accurately reflects external reality. Hence they recount, we might say, the history of God's relationship with history from creation, through the history of Israel, to the history of the church – an approach, one is tempted to say, that sits comfortably with post-Renaissance expectations of textual construal.
Finally, with respect to (3), it is of course in Paul's letter to the Romans that Wright primarily detects this extended Jewish history.
The biblical story I summarised earlier that stretches from pre-existent Wisdom, through Adam, Abraham and the tangled history of Israel, to the coming of the Messiah and the eschatological Israel, is detected by Wright in every major sub-section of Romans. So, for example, he claims at one point:
Romans 6‒8 constitutes (among other things) a massive retelling of the Exodus narrative. It takes us on the journey through the water by which the slaves are set free (chapter 6), up to the mountain where the Torah is given, with its attendant paradox in that it simultaneously (a) invites Israel to keep it and so find life and (b) confronts Israel with the fact of indwelling sin (chapter 7), and then on the homeward march to the ‘inheritance,’ again with sombre warnings about not wanting to go back to Egypt [i.e. chapter 8].
Once it has been established in Romans, Wright can detect this story more frequently elsewhere in Paul than would otherwise be the case.
This then is the methodological system that Wright uses to detect Paul's central narrative ‒ an integrated deployment of worldview analysis, intertextual maximalism and Romanocentrism.
It is time to ask what we should make of it.
I actually had an ‘aha’ moment when I was reading through PFG, when all the disparate pieces swirling around suddenly clicked into place and I felt that a window had opened up onto Wright's worldview. There is a sense in which Wright's account of Paul's soteriology in terms of a sweeping biblical story is, underneath it all, simply the Lutheran reading writ large. This might seem a surprising claim at first blush so let me try to explain what I mean by it.
The Lutheran reading is a simple but powerful account of the Pauline gospel that moves from a plight established by failed law-observance to a solution made possible by Christ's satisfactory atoning death and grasped by faith.
Hence it moves from Judaism to Christianity (as well as, in some versions, from Catholicism to Protestantism), from a phase characterised by law to a very different, somewhat denuded phase characterised by faith alone. Hence it imposes a harsh binary opposition on the Bible that Wright suspects (probably correctly) of facilitating Marcionism.
Furthermore, it is a highly individualised account and consequently somewhat atemporal and ahistorical. Scholars frequently denote this with the word ‘anthropological’, but really mean ‘anthropocentric’: salvation is the journey of a single person, oriented by her thinking throughout.
We could, however, conceivably address these difficulties if we simply historicised this story more comprehensively – if we spread its phases out through time and space. We could then take in the full sweep of the Bible (reading it in a certain sense, of course). The plight would stretch from Genesis 3 to Malachi, with the solution arising out of this extended Jewish story. We could go on to speak of peoples and histories (as against speaking of individuals and introspection), and we could even introduce the occasional sociological flourish.
Moreover, the Marcionite danger would seem to be well and truly repulsed as a more complex and palatable story binds the plight articulated by the Old Testament tightly into its Christian resolution.
But the underlying plotline here would still be fundamentally Lutheran, moving from a plight under the law to a solution in Christ effected by way of a penal substitutionary atonement that is grasped by faith alone.
I would suggest that this is basically what Wright does for much of the time, such that his principal, soteriological agenda in PFG is, at bottom, underneath it all, what we could call ‘panoramic Lutheranism’.
The key challenge for him in this strategy is, of course, finding this broadened, corporate narrative in Paul, since the all-important opening texts in Romans have usually been understood to speak of individual justification. But we have already seen how Wright makes his case, rereading Romans 1‒4 (along with 5‒8) in terms that devolve into the more panoramic discussions of Romans 9‒11, although reading those later discussions consistently in terms of the fundamental plight-to-solution argument of the earlier chapters. One important result from this strategy is a highly hermeneutical Paul. He is now above all a reader of Jewish scripture, although one that reads in a particular way.
This realisation explains quite a lot about Wright's reception, and subsequent position on the broader scholarly chessboard.
Those with biblicist proclivities find much to like here. This Paul remains recognisable for those journeying away from what we could call classic Lutheranism. Wright's Paul is more satisfyingly canonical than the old model, not to mention more historical in approach, although he remains reassuringly stable in hermeneutical terms.
And this is all potentially much fresher homiletically than the somewhat tired and strident Lutheran assertions.
But outside of this constituency, Wright has caused offence. The classic Lutherans are of course offended by Wright's abandonment of classic Lutheran soteriology. They complain that he is unclear at critical points about key questions.
And they are unconvinced by his detailed exegesis, especially of Paul's justification texts. Romans 1‒4 just does not say explicitly what Wright says that it does, in their view.
And what of the agendas of the academy? It is important to appreciate that I am not suggesting that PFG is entirely reducible to panoramic Lutheranism, even if it is, in my view, dominated by it. Wright also affirms Paul's engagement with the imperial cult, and with surrounding popular piety (i.e. religio) and philosophy.
He doubles down on the recent divine identity debate (as I will note in more detail momentarily). And he strongly emphasises bodily resurrection, to oppose an ostensibly gnostic Paul. Peeping through the cracks of many of these concerns is a connection with his work on the historical Jesus, so the ‘Jesus and Paul’ debate is also in view. But a lot of modern scholarly concerns are still missing from this account.
Paul's contextual engagements are generally characterised conceptually by Wright as a clash of worldviews.
But Paul's utilisation of Greco-Roman culture was arguably a more subtle, complex and multi-directional process than this sort of characterisation would suggest.
Similarly, the sociological analysis of Paul's communities in PFG strikes me as just a tad reductionist and haphazard.
We do not learn about how they were established, or about how their key dynamics fitted coherently together (i.e. other than hermeneutically).
Indeed, it is significant that we gain very little sense from all this of Paul the missionary (which is primarily what he was). He tends to disappear behind Paul the Bible reader.
Wright has little interest in contingency – a major methodological concern of North American scholars since the work of Beker in the 1980s.
He makes scant use of Paul's biography, overlooking certain moments when it problematises his reading.
Post-modernism is dismissed.
Alternative accounts of intertextuality are not really dealt with.
The apocalyptic reading of Paul is generally rebuffed, if not mischaracterised.
Participation is reduced to a clutch of obscure intertextual motifs in the Old Testament, undergirded by the implausible notion of corporate personality.
And the massive recent concern of scholars, both within Pauline studies and within the modern university more generally, with alterity, is rebuffed. So Wright largely overlooks the question voiced clearly at least since Sanders in 1977 that certain readings of Paul construct Judaism in a sinister fashion and yet depend on that construction for their own validity.
Hence it seems significant that Torah-observant, Jewish Christianity is simply missing from Wright's account: his reading erases it, and his fundamentally Lutheran plotline is revealing itself in much of this.
We could summarise this by saying that Horsley, Bauckham and Hurtado are in play, along with a certain account of Hays (i.e. one he might not be entirely happy with), but the development of Meeks is thin. And the work of Baur, Sanders, Beker, Stanley, Juel, J. L. Martyn, D. Martin, Engberg-Pedersen, Gaventa, Gorman, Watson and Barclay is rebuffed. It goes without saying that Bousset, Bultmann and Stendahl are off the table, along with, perhaps most surprising of all, Ernst Käsemann.
One is tempted to observe at this point that Wright has cut himself off from almost every other major interpretative approach in modern Pauline studies, which is to say, that Wright himself must view the bulk of modern scholarly work on Paul, especially in North America, as an aberration. But the underlying reason why this spread of occlusions has happened is now becoming clear: the advocacy of a fundamental description of Paul as a reader of scripture, who reads, moreover, in a fundamentally Lutheran way – although in a manner that offends classic Lutherans. This is a big problem.
If Paul is primarily a Jewish Bible reader telling a Messianic story that builds from a massive Jewish plight to the Gospel's solution, then it is hard to see how the main problems of Lutheranism have been avoided rather than simply recast in a corporate mode. The people of Israel still fail self-evidently to fulfil their assigned task, and the law still proves to be self-evidently inadequate. Hence the fundamental othering of the Jew is still apparent, although here within the historical journey of an entire people; and this alienation is still the basis for a Christian solution that erases the symbolic praxis of that people – somewhat opaquely, I would add.
And it remains puzzling why God would relate to Israel in terms of a plan A, the law, which is designed to fail, moving only later to his personal involvement through a different plan B – all the while continuing to hold Jews, along with the rest of humanity, accountable to the impossibly harsh requirements of plan A. This God is unrecognisable to most Jews,
while Christ's involvement in salvation in these terms is secondary, and only partially successful (!). So some of Lutheranism's key problems are still present and, given time, I could add many more.
Moreover, it is very difficult to extend this analysis of Paul in fundamentally hermeneutical terms into the other scholarly areas just mentioned. The picture of Paul as fundamentally a professor of scripture, reading in a certain delineated way, does not unpack smoothly or obviously into missionary work, community formation, network evangelism, semantic contextualisation, participation, apocalyptic construed as revelation, polysemous intertextuality, dissonant worldview analysis (i.e. in post-modern terms), or sensitivity to the other. And he will not even necessarily unpack into good Christian theology, as the posture of many Bible scholars in the South before the Civil War – to pluck just one example from church history – makes abundantly clear.
So it is becoming increasingly apparent that this basic strategy might have painted Wright into a corner. His recast Lutheran plotline has failed to solve most of its old problems, while his fundamentally biblicist portrait has ended up rather isolated, with few places to go in terms of the broader scholarly agenda.
However, let me be quite clear: it is important to resist Marcionism – along with adoptionism and gnosticism – within Pauline interpretation. I fully share Wright's concerns here. And it is quite acceptable to argue for a hermeneutical dimension within Paul's description; indeed, it is essential. But the acceptance of a fundamentally Lutheran plotline in this hermeneutic is a major mistake; Paul's plotline is christological! And the reification of hermeneutics into the basis of Paul's entire description is a mistake as well. It seems that, if we make this move, we start Paul's description in the wrong place. Indeed, this is arguably just a classic instance of ‘methodological foundationalism’.
In PFG a particular concern or anxiety has led to the foregrounding of a particular response – up front. The need to deal with this concern is so great that the (putative) corresponding solution has been inserted into the very foundation of all further analysis. So Wright's anxiety (for example) about Marcion's sundering of the testaments has led to the insertion of Paul's biblical work into the heart of his analysis; it is the basis for everything else. This commitment is supposed to guarantee the practice's success and permanence. However, the result of this decision is arguably the opposite of these worthy goals, and for two principal reasons.
First, this foundation must now be laid and defended up front precisely as a foundation – i.e. established ‘objectively’ – which is always difficult if not impossible. A massive a priori descriptive task has been assumed and the likelihood of success looks slim, as it requires Wright basically to be right about everything in the OT and its ancient Jewish interpretation.
And, secondly, this particular foundation – which is a certain set of concerns and a point of view for their solution – must now occlude all subsequent agendas and data that it cannot explain or incorporate, because if it does not do this, then its own role as a foundation will be called into question. An explanatory foundation that cannot comprehend or explain key pieces of the data is clearly not in fact a valid foundation. So unexplained data are deeply threatening to foundationalism, leading to the reduction of data to the concerns and perspective already in place.
In short, in methodological foundationalism, anxiety begets a putative solution in the form of a foundational commitment to that solution. And this begets, in turn, a massive and fragile initial descriptive task, followed by a characteristic reduction of everything to that agenda, at which point the entire project begins to crumble, and this response to the initial concern turns out to be self-defeating. And this is where I suspect that we have ended up in PFG. Wright actually develops his foundationalism in a revised Lutheran format. But it still thereby retains all the difficulties of foundationalism, along with the particularly nasty difficulties Lutheran foundationalism activates to boot.
Now Wright would probably respond that we have to start somewhere, and I agree. But we need to start in the right place – at a point in Paul from which all his other activities and concerns can ideally be comprehended and explained constructively. And I think we know where this is. Indeed, I think Wright does as well. It is time to introduce – very briefly – the second main interpretative agenda in PFG.
The anti-adoptionist agenda
In chapter 9 of PFG Wright argues that Paul ‘freshly reworks’ conceptualities drawn from late Second Temple Judaism to articulate Jesus’ inclusion within the divine identity.
That is, Wright is well aware that these conceptualities do not lead directly to the key Christian claim that Jesus, a low-status Jew from Nazareth, is divine – the recognition that later theologians articulated more precisely in terms of the incarnation and the hypostatic union. The Jewish conceptualities allow the articulation of this claim but do not generate it, while their original scriptural authors might have been somewhat surprised by it. Indeed, this claim is unexpected, even shattering, and especially when it is recalled that Jesus, resurrected and enthroned as Messiah and Lord, was first executed. An executed Messiah and a crucified God?! This is new from a human point of view.
Consequently Wright himself refers to the arrival of the realisation concerning the cross of Christ as ‘a flash, at a trumpet crash. . . as though a sudden bolt of lightning, right outside the window, shone a beacon into a previously dark room’ (p. 407), and to the cross itself as ‘a strange, outlandish event, in which the one God did something completely new, utterly drastic, world-changing, world-shaking, [and] world-remaking’ (p. 408).
So Wright is well aware that a moment of revelation has taken place, in the light of which some of the conceptualities of late Second Temple Judaism have been ‘freshly reworked’, and in certain respects, dramatically so. It has been revealed to Paul and the early Christians that the executed and resurrected Jesus is the Lord, something from which much will now follow. This was the revelation that stopped Paul in his tracks on the road to Damascus, turning him from a fundamentalist persecutor into the champion of the pagan mission. But it follows directly from this that the nature of God must now be understood with primary reference to the figure of Jesus, from which it follows further that the purposes of God, in creation, redemption and the eschaton, ought to be understood with primary reference to the figure of Jesus as well.
It is, in short, apparent in Wright's endorsement of Paul's christological monotheism that the correct starting point for the analysis of Paul is – to appeal to the Greek root instead of to the Latin – apocalyptic.
So I would suggest that Wright already knows the answer to the question posed by his struggling hermeneutical programme, because he endorses it vigorously himself in his second principal analytic agenda concerning monotheism and eschatology – that is, his agenda concerning God. The analysis of Paul's thought must begin with the revelation that the fullness of divinity dwelled bodily in Jesus – a starting point that must immediately devolve into a freshly reworked account of creation, history and scriptural interpretation. But where does this realisation leave us in our overarching assessment of the account of Paul's theology offered by PFG?
It is immediately apparent that Wright needs to stop trying to saw off a branch that he is actually sitting on for half of his project, and that he needs to sit on for the other half. A consistently apocalyptic starting point would ground his soteriological and hermeneutical agenda on an unshakeable foundation, and might also buy him some much-needed allies within the academy. Indeed, let us be crystal clear at this moment.
I fully endorse Wright's trenchant repudiation of fundamentally Marcionite, adoptionist and gnostic, elements within Paul's interpretation, whether ancient or modern. These are historically implausible and theologically destructive. And I fully endorse the importance of Jewish conceptualities for Paul's thinking, and the consequent relevance of the apostle's subtle interactions with the Jewish scriptures. But it is quite clear that these worthy objectives cannot be achieved by reconstructing Paul's thought in terms of an a priori hermeneutical foundationalism. That foundation will occlude key conversations, isolate itself, and ultimately collapse. And it will be especially unhelpful to construct that foundation with a fundamentally Lutheran plotline, that runs from a plight under law to a deracinated Christian solution. It is therefore self-contradictory and self-destructive for Wright to deny the importance of starting Paul's interpretation in apocalyptic terms. Instead, a freshly reworked account of Paul should begin with the revelation of God in Christ and go on to deconstruct and rework any fundamentally Lutheran plotline and its associated reading of scripture – just the agenda of the apocalyptic camp that Wright spends so much time marginalising, that is, when he is not advocating it himself.
In short, the key lesson that arguably emerges from a careful parsing of Wright's account of Paul's theology in PFG is the realisation that a robust, coherent, and dynamic account of the apostle's theology cannot compromise with Lutheranism; to do so is to doom that account to failure, as here, and in numerous ways. Rather, the future of the apostle's theology is – as Wright himself intimates, at times in spite of himself – apocalyptic. But it must be apocalyptic in a resolute manner that moves consistently and courageously beyond Wright's ambivalence, both by committing to that starting point with all its consequences, and by purging the apostle's thinking of alien categories that most often intrude under the guise of a law-gospel sequence that is derived ultimately from a vulgar account of Lutheranism. As Wright himself might say, a proper account of Paul must not be a (bad) twentieth-century account of a sixteenth-century problem – although neither must it be a twenty-first-century response to some second-century problems; it must in fact be a universal response to a universal problem, albeit one that arrived in all its particularity around about ad 30, and that showed us then exactly what problem it is that has trapped us all.