Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Close Encounters of The Theological Kind:"New Perspectives on Paul" by N.T. Wright

(I had origionally intended to feature a regular seies entitled "High Theology Sunday." However, my Sundays have been too busy to do much deep reading. So instead of limiting this series to a particular day, I now feel free to post whenever I am able.)
It is easy to be enthusiastic about the presence of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, on the theological scene. We should be greatful that someone of his stature is willing to defend the authenticity of Scripture. He can offer thoughtful critiques of other theologians for their misreading of Biblical passages. He is also correct that scripture needs to be read in light of the Jewish culture in which it was written so as to bring greater understanding. However, reading his writings causes me to wonder why some Christians of my aquaintance accept what the good Bishop says without criticism. I do not question his orthodoxy, as some of his critics have done. Yet I hope to point out disagreements I have with his theology and methods which makes it impossible to give him my unqualified endorsement.
For the past few weeks I have given Wright's article "New Perspectives on Paul" a great amount of attention The article can be found on the N.T. Wright page at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm I have read and reread it, plus reading Romans and Galatians closely to see where Wright and scripture are in agreement and where I believes he misses the mark.
Throughout his aritcle Wright disagrees with the Reformed Tradition's reading of Romans. It is here that I believe that Wright is at his best. He is effective in marshalling correct scriptural exegesis and Biblical Greek to debunk the notion of righteousness as just a state imputed to believers by God. Wright also offers a compelling critique of the Reformed view of "works" and their place in God's final judgement of individual believers. "Works" have no place in Reformed theology because of the fear of living by our own strength. Yet Wright provides ample evidence from Romans that we will be judged on how righteous our actions were. Wright affirms the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura. Yet he rightly makes a distinction betwween this principle and the methodology currently employed by the modern Reformed movement in analyzing just what the Bible actually says. He seems able to criticise those who disagree with him with good humor, without casting aspersions on anyone.
In an earlier post, I describe Wright as a mixture of profound insight and theological naivete. Where does his naivete stem from? While he seeks to understand the Gospels in their Jewish context, this leads him to conclusions that run counter to the plain meaning of the text. In this article , Wright theorizes about what Paul meant when accusing the Jews of "seeking their own righteousness." Wright states that what the Jews were doing was not trying to establish their own righteousness through performance of the Law, but seeking an ethnic status based on the possession of the Torah. Possession signified membership in the Abrahamic covenant. Now, it cannot be denied that the Israelites considered themselves and other nations in terms of race. But my reading of Romans is not in agreement with Wright's. In Romans and Galatians, Paul takes great pains to describe how Gentiles are saved through faith, not through works. And what does he distinguish "salvation by faith" from? Not ethnic status, but seeking salvation through performance of the Law. Wrights enthusiasm for finding the Gospels' Jewish context, while worthy in itself, leads him to see things in scripture that just are not there. In his book The Challenge of Jesus, Wright sees the context of Israelite internal politics behind nearly everything Jesus said or did. This leads Wright to engage in Biblical exegesis that has no basis in the plain meaning of the text. His naivete stems from misplaced enthusiasm which causes him to find messages in scripture that just are not there. I hope to post articles on The Challenge of Jesus in the future. Wright also questions the traditional meaning of justification as God saving us even though we did not deserve to be saved. He bases this questioning on Rom 8:29-30: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many bretheren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." (NKJV) Wright, on the basis of this one verse, declares the meaning of "justification" to be concerned with a calling from God subsequent to salvation rather than equating it with salvation itself. Yet a reading of Romans and Galatians yields plenty of scripture to back the traditional meaning of the word. Wrights enthusiasim runs ahead of him. This should cause one to read Wright with a critical eye, comparing what he writes to scripture, so that our enthusiasm for Wright does not lead us into incorrect scriptural interpretation.

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