Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Climax of the Covenant

The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology by N.T. Wright71ibzgv4n-L

The Frame for Wright’s Canvas

The Climax of the Covenant is a collection of papers regarding Paul’s theology from early in Wright’s career, slightly edited and organized into their present form. They consist of detailed exegesis of some key Pauline texts regarding his Christology, his view of the Law, and his theology of the Covenant.

The first section of the book, on Paul’s Christology, deepened my understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and caused me to worship deeply. He goes deep into 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, Philemon 6, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, and 1 Corinthians 8. Along the way, he explains the various interpretations (and history of interpretations), and interacts with them, before positing his own. There is quite a bit of Greek, in the typeset, as well as the discussions of grammar and vocabulary. Anyone who questions Wright’s view of “the deity of Christ” hasn’t read this book yet. His Christology is of the highest strain.

The middle section deals with the Law in Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 3, and Romans 7-8. All throughout, he cross-references every section of the Old Testament, constructing a framework in which the whole picture fits together. Over and over and over again I had my Bible out, looking up references in Deuteronomy, or Isaiah, or the Psalms, and seeing how Paul used those references in his own theology.

The climax of the book is his chapter on Romans 9-11, which he takes section by section, while building on his previous chapters on Romans 7-8, and referencing even earlier chapters (1-6). I have underlines and notes on almost every single page of this chapter. I had my English and Greek Bibles on the table, tracking along, and loving every minute of it.

This is a book that may restructure your entire hermeneutic, your understanding of the big story of the Bible. I found it to be the perfect companion to The New Testament and the People of God. Where NTPG is the huge canvas of history and theology and story and worldview, CC is the deep exegetical analysis of the words and phrases of the Bible. It is the exegetical frame on which that big canvas is stretched. I found myself rereading sections in NTPG after CC and getting things in light of the exegesis that I didn’t grasp the first time around. If you’ve ever listened to Wright lecture and heard him say “fine, let’s do the exegesis”, it’s more than rhetoric — it’s an invitation onto Wright’s home court.

Wright’s big picture of the Story of the Bible is incredibly refreshing, stimulating, and compelling, both in its sweeping portrayal of the forest, and in its detailed analysis of the twigs. I recommend it highly.

Review: The New Testament and the People of God

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright512ffv6IEUL

“Show your work, Tom!”

N.T. Wright has written many popular level books. For a new reader, many of his ideas are very different, and use lines of thought that are completely foreign. Many of them are intriguing, but very often the reader is left saying “that was interesting, but I don’t quite see how he got there.” Or as a 3rd grade math teacher would say, “Show your work, Tom!” In the Christian Origins series, Wright shows his work, and it is rigorous and worldview shaping.

NTPG is the introductory book 1 of a 5 part series: 2. Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of GodThe Resurrection of the Son of God), 3. Paul (Paul and the Faithfulness of God), 4. The Gospels (forthcoming), and 5. Conclusion. In NTPG Wright lays the groundwork for the rest of the series methodologically, philosophically, historically, and theologically. He hints at how the rest will follow, but only offers the briefest of sketches of his later books.

After an Introduction, the second section explores his epistemology – “critical realism” and makes the case for coming at the New Testament material with the integrated lenses of Literature, History, and Theology, rather than an isolated and fragmented “specialist” perspective. This was the most rigorous philosophy I’ve read in awhile, but it gives direction to his project, and was enjoyable to read as only Wright can be.

The meat of the book is found in part 3, “1st Century Judaism within the Greco-Roman World.” He reconstructs the history from 587 BC to 135 AD within which the various strands of “Judaisms” developed. This time period came alive to me while reading this. The revolutions, the various sects, the would-be messiahs. I felt like I was breathing the cultural air that was swirling when Jesus came. This was incredibly helpful.

Wright takes it much deeper though, and this is where your entire paradigm is in danger. He uses Israel’s stories, symbols, and praxis to reconstruct a basic worldview, and then delves deeply into Israel’s beliefs in the climax of this section “The Hope of Israel.” Understanding the worldview, beliefs and hope of a 1st century Jew has opened up the entire Bible in ways I never understood before. Wright knows the Old Testament intimately, a well as the later developments showcased in the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and other literature of the period. It takes effort to work through these sections, but the result is a big picture grasp of the whole Bible in which the various parts fit coherently, not bits and pieces tacked awkwardly together.

It is within this historical and theological setting that Jesus comes, lives dies and rises, and the christian church is born. When set against that backdrop the New Testament explodes with significance. I am devouring my Bible with more enthusiasm than I have had in quite a while.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the big picture of the Bible. If you have read the Bible enough times to be familiar with all of its parts and have wrestled with various hermeneutical structures (covenant theology, dispensationalism, all the inbetweens) this book will do wonders for you. The pieces that never quite fit quite right will fall into place. Even the guys who disagree vehemently with specific details or implications (think “justification”) praise Wright for his big picture of the Bible. This is the book that starts it all off.

I recommend plowing straight through, even the difficult sections. Don’t bother with the footnotes – they will still be there the second time around. It will take multiple readings to fully digest all the details and then the implications of Wright’s picture, but it is envigorating and delightful.

Review: Who Was Jesus?

Who Was Jesus? by N.T. Wright

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Taste the Galilean Dust

There seems to be a pattern: N.T. Wright sets to working on a massive piece of New Testament scholarship, that ends up taking years longer than anticipated. In the meantime, while in the thick of his research, certain events come about that dovetail directly into his current project, so he takes a week and writes on a popular level before getting back to his main work. (think What Saint Paul Really Said, etc. -> Paul and the Faithfulness of God). This little book came out after The New Testament and the People of God while Jesus and the Victory of God was still in the works, and unfortunately for them, Thiering, Wilson, and Spong walked right into the crosshairs.

Wright first spells out “The Quest” of the historical Jesus in its various stages and sets the stage for the various scholarly (and otherwise) takes on who Jesus really was. There is a really great, and concise, overview of The Quest, touching on all of the various authors and scholars. He then reviews, in turn, Thiering’s Jesus the Man, Wilson’s Jesus: A Life, and Spong’s Born of a Woman. Each book has its own peculiar method for sifting the evidence and constructing its “portrait,” and Wright evaluates each of them, before positing, in a 10 page summary, what an accurate picture might actually look like.

This book is an amazing combination of wit and razor sharp scholarship, humor and cold-blooded historical research. I laughed out loud at some of his critiques – he can be absolutely hilarious, while taking an opponent right out of the contest. None of these three books have any significance 20 years later (except whatever permutations of their theories found their way into The Da Vinci Code — which Wright has also reviewed). Nevertheless, reading their fantastical theories and Wright’s solid refutations is a faith-settling exercise nonetheless.

I had a great deal of confidence in the historicity of the Christian faith before I read any Wright. What Wright has done is made the Galilean dust from that solid historical ground come alive so that you can smell it, and feel it, and taste it. He makes history and apologetics delightful, and tells such a coherent, compelling version of the story, that when you hear one of these attempted “exposes” (and there will be more), you realize instantly, “Nope, that just won’t do. You haven’t even begun to deal with [x,y, or z] of the hard facts. And not only is your story less than historical, it’s not nearly as interesting as the truth.”

I recommend this as a delightful, historically rigorous, apologetic work.

Review: The Challenge of Jesus

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is by N.T. Wright

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The New Perspective on Jesus

I found this book for $1 at my local library’s quarterly book sale. (application: frequent your local library, and find out when they have book sales. You’re welcome.)

N.T. Wright is famous for his place in the “new perspective” on Paul. That’s really just one grove of trees in the fresh view of the forest that Wright presents. What Wright really does is show us the mind of a 1st century Jew. From there we see Jesus in his actual context, and Paul from there.

“What did Jesus mean by the kingdom of God? That and a thousand other cognate questions are far harder than often supposed, and the place to go to find new light is the history of Jesus’ own time. And that means first-century Judaism, in all of its complexity and with all the ambiguities of our attempts to reconstruct it.” (p. 25)

Wright is extremely well-versed in the literature of 1st century Judaism, but unlike many scholars today, he approaches his task with a belief in and reverence for Scripture. Where other scholars veer off due to their own disbelieving presuppositions, Wright does his scholarship as if the Bible were true, yet interacting with all of the rest and proving his case.

Wright is incredibly stimulating. He has helped to show more depths to Jesus the Messiah than I have ever seen before. He helps the big picture of Scripture come together in ways I have never seen before. I am reading my Bible with fresh eyes and an eager expectation to see more light from the text than I have before. I found myself reading sections of this book aloud to my wife, which doesn’t often happen.

I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s work. I would recommend anyone to start with The Challenge of Jesus. From there, What Saint Paul Really Said will finish your basic introduction, and you can begin delving into the thicker tomes (The New Testament and the People of God, etc.)

Review: What Saint Paul Really Said

What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? by N.T. Wright

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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 one is a history of the last 100 years of Pauline scholarship, covering SchweitzerBultmannDaviesKasemann, 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, its 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.

Review: Christians – A Chosen Generation . . .

Christians: A Chosen Generation, A Royal Priesthood, an Holy Nation, and a Peculiar People by Jonathan Edwards

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Another gem from the Great Awakening

This is a sermon that was preached from 2 Peter 2:9 “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

Edwards takes each of phrases and expounds them. “Chosen,” “generation,” “royal,” “priesthood,” “holy,” “nation,” “peculiar people” all get expounded, and he also offers “reflections” at a couple points during the sermon.

The first section expounds the Biblical doctrine of election at length, using the word “chosen” as a springboard for developing the doctrine with reference to dozens of other texts in the Bible. The same method applies to the other points as well.

This is a great verse explaining the identity of a believer. Chosen by God, begotten as his people, made holy, given authority, separated from the world, and “peculiar” in the sense of the unique value God places on His people.

There was nothing particularly “Edwardsian” about this sermon, just a straightforward exposition of the doctrines referenced in the text. It is a great sermon for understanding who we are as God’s people.

It can also be found in Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2

Review: Jonathan Edwards: A Life

Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden

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Historical Biography as Exquisite Art

I have heard this book highly praised by anyone who has read it. It’s been called “one of the best biographies ever written.” I’ve read a fair amount of Edwards, and decided it was time to get the full picture of his life. What an incredible experience!

Marsden says, “one of my goals has been to understand him as a real person in his own time.” (p. 2) He succeeds marvelously. I am guilty of gross historical inaccuracies in my thinking. I generally read my own circumstances back into the events of the past in more ways than I can even begin to realize: geography, population, theology, politics, education, etc. Marsden brings 18th century New England alive, and it is very different from what we are used to. In particular, he highlights the Englishness of pre-revolutionary New England, in contrast to our own Americanism. They had family based hierarchies. Boston was the hub, New York was just getting going. Schools that we view as ancient (Princeton) were just being born. The western edge of Massachusetts was the western edge of the “civilized world”! People were literally being kidnapped and killed by Indians, and the wars with the French were a constant tension. After reading this biography, I feel like I know the history of the period like I never have before. I understand the founding era of our country like I never have before. Combined with The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, I feel like I have a grasp of the facts, not just the popular simplifications of today.

More important than early New England history, though, is that I now know Edwards, and he is inspiring. Marsden portrays him in all his depths. The depth and development of his thought is explored at length, in particular his philosophy and his theology. I was stretched intellectually by this treatment of Edwards’s intellect. But this is not at all at the expense of the depth of his heart and his affections. I was moved to rapturous worship reading this biography. Edwards combined deep thinking about God with equally deep love and delight in God, and this shines through.

The events of his life are given full detailed treatment all the way through. Even if you are familiar with most of the key events, this brings them to life like no conference message can. His character is displayed. He was a great christian, but he was also a sinner. This is no hagiography. The good shines forth brilliantly, and the sin (which Edwards himself deeply lamented) is shown as well.

Lastly, I must comment on Marsden’s writing, which overlaps with his scholarship as well. This is an example of historical biography as exquisite art. Reading this book was at times a deeply aesthetic experience to be savored the whole way through. This is one of those books where 50 pages in you wish the book was twice as long, and realize that you will need to take care to relish every page.

On so many levels, these and others as well, this book is a masterpiece. It’s as good as everyone says it is — one of the best books I have ever read.