Jesus, Paul and The People of God: a Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright

Perrin, Nicholas & Hays, Richard B.
SPCK (2011)
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The peril of meta-criticism in general, and the Festschrift in particular, is that the initial corpus being critiqued is incapable of bearing the weight even if, as in this case, the meta-criticism is on the light side as in: I agree with Tom in almost everything but I wonder if I might just empty out this sachet of quibbles.

Those familiar with the work of Tom (and even more so N.T.) Wright will know that his massive corpus of original work will bear any weight imposed upon it and so the only really important issue is whether a book of not-too-weighty quibbling is worth the price. Well, it is, but for the simple paradoxical reason that the two best pieces in it are Wright's own responses (meta-meta-criticism) to the meta-criticism in essays on the future of Jesus and of Pauline studies. He has said much the same things at much greater lengths in other places, notably Jesus and The Victory of God whose arguments constitute the fulcrum of this book, but these two essays are gems of clarity and directness compared with his cuddly critics.

Wright has the enviable knack of generating immense subtlety without resort to multiple subordinate clauses which accounts for the clarity. You might say that his writing resembles a diamond whereas most attempts to achieve subtlety and nuance look more like rococo jewellery.

But if you want more, here are some gems (from various contributors): the idea of Jesus forgiving sins outside the temple sacrificial structure is important; Luke 19 and Matthew 25 "parables of talents" are not exhortations to use what you have got but are excoriations of  usury; it is Jesus who is the Scripture quoter not reductionist evangelists; the Church is the Kingdom of Christ; righteousness is socio-political flourishing not personal; we have to know that Jesus is The Saviour not just that he saved me; Christian faith is public truth; if Christian faith appeals to history, to history it must go.

Wright's central claim which is, regrettably, not met head-on in any of the essays is that the divide is not between the canon and history but canon and tradition: if, according to much tradition, Jesus was born of a virgin and died on a cross, what, asks Wright, is all the rest about? There has been a refusal to see the canon as a narrative about the inauguration of the Kingdom. Instead, says Wright, tradition is obsessed with how the second person of the Trevealed his divinity and saved people from their sins so that they might pass into a disembodied  heaven. There is much truth in this, particularly trenchant when it comes from a self-avowed Protestant but more might have been said by his critics about that practical aspect of Christianity which still so permeates Western secular society (as I write, the UK has, in a week, contributed over £20m each to Children in Need and Philippines disaster relief.) Still, wright has a way of, firmly but courteously, clearing the ground so that opponents have precious few places to hide.


From the perspective of a teacher who thinks that a re-evaluation of the ancient Creeds is long overdue - in spite of the discord this would initially generate - Wright's condemnation of Christianity's air brushing out of Judaism is welcome. So is his affirmation of the link between the Kingdom and the Cross, although he tactfully does not go on to lay this at the door of Martin Luther where it rightly belongs.

Turning to Paul, again it is Wright that towers over his critics although his most telling point is almost an aside, echoing the monumental work on Romans by <D.A. Campbell>, by stressing that we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus, not by our own faith not least because, Wright points out somewhat playfully, if we are saved by our own faith then it becomes a work. Wright's notion of 'Life after life after death" is mildly questioned but never put to a severe test. He is right to say that there is no necessary corollary that we will go to heaven because  Jesus did but he then  goes on to assert an equally strong corollary that because Jesus was raised from the dead so shall we be. The key to this over emphasis is,  I think, not an academic slip by Wright but an overpowering urge to wean us off escapism into a strong socio-political commitment to Kingdom building but, all the same, he should have been pressed harder because, in the end, it may not be the job of academics to be right but it is certainly their job to be sceptical.

Not surprisingly, the best piece of writing outside Wright's own is a wonderfully witty essay by that most unlikely of figures,  a jolly Evangelical; but both in his breadth and wit Kevin Vanzhoozer is one of the best theological writers we have. He calls for engagement between Wright and the Evangelical movement where there has been a good deal of foot shuffling and side stepping (my phrase). It is hard to disagree: the disfigurement of patristic Christianity by an obsession with personal salvation - from indulgences to atonement - requires radical debate. IN spite of what I noted above about charitable donations, the Western Christian churches are still obsessed with personal ethics rather than social obligation. To be able to say that clearly may be Wright's greatest contribution to theology.

In summary, this is an interesting book for the Wright specialist but if you are not that, spend your money on Jesus and The Victory of God