Q: What earlier sections from the Christian Origins and the Question of God series would you suggest as the most fruitful portions to go back and reread so Paul and the Faithfulness of God can be understood most fully?
NT Wright: Basically the whole of The New Testament and the People of God forms a foundation on which everything else stands. Part II of The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) outlines the method of ‘critical realism’ for historical study and the ‘worldview’ model through which we can get at the social, cultural and narrative world of a person or group. Part III of NTPG provides a historical and theological account of the first-century Jewish world, which I then develop further in chapter 2 of PFG but which remains foundational. Part IV of NTPG outlines the early history and worldview of the church which is the framework for Paul – note especially my refutation of the common idea that ‘the delay of the Parousia’ formed a major feature of its life.
Q: What do you consider the most “controversial” aspect of Paul and the Faithfulness of God? Or rather, what will mainstream biblical scholars take issue with? What will traditionalists or conservative evangelicals wrestle most with?
NT Wright: Mainstream biblical scholarship has gone in several directions on Paul over the last twenty years, so there is no one ‘school’. In America one major strand has tried to make Paul an ‘apocalyptic’ thinker – but with a working definition of ‘apocalyptic’ which, as I argue in detail, doesn’t fit anything in the first century and imposes false twentieth-century antitheses, ruling out (for instance) any continuity with Israel’s history and anything to do with ‘covenant’. Since I argue the opposite, I imagine I will get strong resistance from that school. The people who have studied ‘Paul and the philosophers’ will I hope welcome my account both of ancient philosophy and of Paul’s encounter to it, though they won’t all like my conclusions (especially the critique of engberg-Pedersen); the people who have written on ‘Paul and Politics’ will I hope welcome my account there, though again there will be differences of emphasis. There is a strong sub-current on ‘Paul and Judaism’ just now which is trying to make out that Paul retained ‘Jewish identity’ of a form that fails to take account of Paul’s theology of the cross and its implications (‘through the law I died to the law’, Gal. 2.19); they won’t like what I do at that point, either, but the case rests on careful exegesis and that’s where it must be wrestled with. There is a very new movement calling itself ‘post-supersessionist’ and since I think, and say, that they are perpetuating a category mistake I don’t expect them to be happy. My major argument, though, completes undercuts the old C19 paradigm of F. C. Baur for whom Paul was an unJewish and even antiJewish thinker; and since that is still very influential in some quarters I expect some cautious scholars to be shocked by my, to them, radical proposals.
On quite another front, my account of Paul’s redefinition of the One God through Messiah and Spirit (chapter 9) is a development of, but also significantly different to, the accounts of early Christology offered recently by Hurtado and Bauckham. They were themselves controversial – many still cling to the idea that Paul had a ‘low’ Christology – and so I will possibly be opposed both by that older group and by devotees of Hurtado in particular. I have emphasized particularly the theme of ‘the return of YHWH to Zion’ as the matrix for understanding both Christology and pneumatology; this is quite new in the discipline and will need to be properly evaluated.
I expect ‘conservative’ and ‘reformed’ critics will make a bee-line for the account of justification, which I place within Paul’s definition of the people of God (chapter 10)—i.e. as a subset of ‘election redefined’. This has the effect of locating ‘soteriology’ not as a doctrine on its own about ‘how to go to heaven’ (this, I suspect, will be the real problem—see my Surprised by Hope, which argues strongly for resurrection and new creation as the ultimate goal, and which then sets all the questions on a different trajectory) but within the different framework of the question, How has God’s promise, to rescue the world through Abraham’s family, come to fruition in Jesus and the Spirit? And then, How has God’s creational intention, to bring the created order to wise flourishing through the stewardship of image-bearing humans, been reconstituted and reaffirmed? Since these are not the normal ways of approaching the questions about (e.g.) the meaning of the cross and resurrection, it will require an effort of rethinking (and re-reading of the epistles) for people to get the point. Not all critics, I suspect, will be willing to make that effort, preferring to reassert what either Luther or the Westminster Confession had to say. If in the first battle I am opposing F. C. Baur, in this I am opposing the entire framing of western theology from the Middle Ages onwards . . .
In particular, ‘conservative’ protestants have always had, deep in their DNA, the idea that the gospel constitutes a radical break with history – ever since Luther said ‘No’ to the mediaeval church. They have imagined that this meant, also, Paul (and Jesus) saying ‘No’ to ancient Judaism, often on the basis of a comparison between the religion of Judaism and the new ‘religion’, or ‘faith’, that Jesus and Paul were offering. This is highly misleading. The point is that if Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s history has reached its God-appointed goal (‘when the time had fully come’, Gal. 4.4); this plugs in to the Jewish expectation, going back to Daniel 9, that redemption would come 490 years after the Babylonian exile. This note of ‘fulfilment’, of a single great story now coming to its appointed goal, is precisely the sort of thing that protestants are conditioned to reject, but the historical evidence for it is massive, and the exegetical evidence that Paul expounded exactly this line of thought is massive as well. It means, of course, that Paul affirms the ancient Jewish traditions while insisting that in their messianic fulfilment they now all look very different from what he and others had imagined. This brings us back to the neo-‘apocalyptic’ school: it’s a form of Protestantism too, but with a cosmic emphasis which tries to screen out ‘justification’. Lots of tangled lines of thought there, not least in America right now, but I think my exposition carves a straight path through the whole thing . . .