Jesus, Paul, and the People of God

Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: a Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, Perrin, Nicholas, Richard B. Hays, and N. T. Wright (IVP Academic) $24

At the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference, nine prominent biblical scholars and theologians converged to interact with the scholarship of N.T. Wright. The subsequent book, Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright from Intervarsity Press, is the result of their combined work.

While their interaction with Wright’s work is critical in nature, editor Nicholas Perrin describes the book as type of festlich, saying, “the highest honor that can be paid any scholar is not undiluted applause, which in the end amounts to empty flattery, but a sympathetic and critical assessment.”

Jesus, Paul and the People of God, is divided into two parts, the first dealing with Wright’s scholarship on the historical Jesus, the second, his scholarship on Paul, often referred to as the new perspective. Each chapter is followed by a brief response by Wright, followed by his own essays on Jesus and Paul.

In the first part of the book, “Jesus and the People of God”, Marianne Meye Thompson questions why Wright appears to have neglected the Gospel of John in his scholarship, instead focusing much of his work on the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Richard B. Hays, looks at the theological gains and losses in Wright’s approach to using history and biblical criticism. Sylvia Keesmaat, and long-time Wright friend, Brian J. Walsh, use a dialogue format to analyze views of justice in the Gospels. And Nicholas Perrin attempts to bring together Wright’s views of eschatology and Kingdom ethics. Their work is then followed by Wright’s essay, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?”

In the second part of the book, “Paul and the People of God,” Edith Humphrey is intrigued by the “beautiful feet of N.T. Wright”, analyzing the “feat” of the scholar’s work on Paul and his views on righteousness. In “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies”, Jeremy S. Begbie wonders why the emerging church movement has identified so strongly with Wright, identifying components of this work the movement has emphasized and neglected. Markus Bockmuehl’s “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?” is the most critical of all the essays, challenging Wright’s views of what happens after death, namely do we go to heaven when we die? In the cleverly titled “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology”, systematic theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer, tries to bring together the work of N.T. Wright with Protestant theology and the Reformation. Again the section concludes with an essay by Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?”

While critical in nature, Jesus, Paul and the People of God, ultimately is favorable to the body of Wright’s work. While scholarly rigorous, it is also accessible, and likely to be a worthy introduction to N.T. Wright’s scholarship. It also works as a helpful review of his various views on Jesus and Paul, causing this reviewer to revisit several of Wright’s books such as his seminal, Jesus and the Victory of God.

One of the most revealing insights into the work of N.T. Wright is his ecclesiology, which he admits to never having focused on. Yet even to his own surprise, much of this work has inadvertently developed a theology of the church. As he writes in his response to Begbie’s essay on Wright’s ecclesiology and the emerging church, “I have been developing an ecclesiology for the last few decades without being aware of it.”

Both essays on Jesus and Paul by Wright, are worth the price of the book alone. In his essay on Jesus, Wright challenges many contemporary views of Jesus, particularly the personal Jesus, removed from history. Saying, “we must today stress that it isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is ‘my savior’ or even ‘my Lord’; you must know who Jesus himself was and is. Without that, merely saying that we have Jesus ‘within our heart’ or that we ‘have a sense that Jesus loves me’ or whatever can easily turn into mere fantasy, wish fulfillment” (119). Therefore, Wright argues, we need history to prevent the church from reinventing more non-historical Jesus figures.

In his essay on Paul, Wright surprisingly considers Paul’s letter to Philemon as a good starting point for understanding a theology of Paul. Based on the relationship between the master Philemon and his slave Onesimus, Wright contends that the central symbol of Pauline theology is the united family. It is practical theology at it’s best – a case study of Galatians 3. According to Wright, Paul’s work was the beginning of Christian theology and it was never meant to be removed from being worked out in the life of the church. Therefore the task of theology comes down to standing between the Philemons and Onesimuses of the world and saying “In Christ you are reconciled, and here’s how it might work out. This life, this community, here now is where it matters.”

Jeff Gang is a pastor at Crosswalk Church in Redlands, California, where he has been working for six years to shape a  missional conversation in suburban Los Angeles. He is a devoted family man and a two-time Ironman triathlete.

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