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 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 1 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, 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.