Read for Yourself!
I have a friend who is really into N.T. Wright. I decided I needed to get caught up and set him straight on a few things, so I printed out the bibliography from The Future of Justification and decided to start with one of the most referenced (and shorter) books, What Saint Paul Really Said. I had my nit-picking glasses on, and a pen in hand.
I didn’t get past the preface before making a note that Wright is, “quite engaging and very enjoyable to read.” All the more need to be careful, of course. Chapter 1 is a history of the last 100 years of Pauline scholarship, covering Schweitzer, Bultmann, Davies, Kasemann, and of course Sanders. At the end of this chapter, I felt like I was “all caught up” on the theological situation, had a good overview of 20th century New Testament studies, and a sense of a Wright’s “big picture” theological strategy. I was also enjoying his writing style more and more. When people say that N.T. Wright is a master communicator, it’s true. His writing is simply a delight to read.
The next 8 chapters are Wright’s brief attempt to show Paul in light of his 1st century Jewish context. He covers Paul’s own Pharisaic background, his encounter on the Damascus road, what realizing Jesus is the Messiah would have done to Paul’s whole theological framework, what that means for pagans. Jews, justification, the future and The Gospel. The final chapter is a critical review of A.N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In the back is an excellent annotated bibliography, including all of the classic works on Paul, the New Perspective (as of 1997), and a good sampling of the classic reformation view of Paul.
My final analysis? I find Wright to be incredibly stimulating, and I find the 1st century context to be shedding fresh light on how I read the Bible and think about theology. There are depths to the message of Christ that are incredible, and in order to dig deeper, we must understand its own actual context, and not read our own (or our favorite theologian’s) back onto it. Wright helps us see the incredible forest, not just our favorite trees.
That said, I think Wright’s portrayal of the forest leaves a few bare patches, justification and imputation being a couple. I’m not ready to go all the way with him here, though I have been stimulated to think deeply again about these issues. There just isn’t space in such a short work to lay out all the groundwork that goes into Wright’s formulation of these doctrines — that’s what his larger books are for. For most, I don’t think this abbreviated treatment will be convincing, but I don’t think it warrants the shrill charges of “heresy” either. To understand Wright, you really need to read further than this.
Wright’s work can be divided into two categories, I think: His massive scholarly work, and his popularizations. This fits into the latter. If you want to understand Wright, I recommend reading the shorter popular works and getting a sense of his general themes before diving in over your head. I would personally recommend The Challenge of Jesus first, then What Saint Paul Really Said, and then dig into his larger works from there. After reading Wright, I am getting more fresh light from the Bible than I have in a long time. I am excited to read the Bible like I haven’t always been. I am seeing depths of who Jesus the Messiah Is that I’ve never seen before.
Don’t just read the reviews, critical or otherwise; read Wright, and see for yourself.