I said that I had been working on this book most of my life. There was a hiatus: I did not think much about Paul between the ages of five and fifteen. But he was my point of entry. I have written elsewhere about my first experience of the Bible.19 It was 2 June 1953: my mother’s birthday, and the Coronation Day of Queen Elizabeth II. My parents gave my sister and me each a Coronation Bible (King James, of course). Mine was, like me at the time, small and chunky. My sister and I retreated to our bedroom, sat on the floor, and leafed through this extraordinary object. I had after all only just learned to read, and was not quite ready for Romans. But we came upon the letter to Philemon: a single page, with something like a real story. We read it together. That is where I began. And that is one of the reasons, though not the only one, for beginning this book where I do. The Queen is still on the throne; my mother is celebrating another significant birthday; and Philemon is still a good place to start.
From the Preface of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
When you write like Paul seems to have done, at one level you think very hard about what you are doing, but at another level it just happens. Large-scale planning may be going on in your head or on scraps of parchment, but at that point there is an easy commerce of the old and the new, of conscious and subconscious. Finally, you glimpse it, you feel it, it emerges from somewhere, you write it (or dictate it), and it’s done. By the time Paul wrote Romans, writing was part of the praxis of his mindset, a symphonist at the top of his game. The letters were part pastoral, part a substitute for his own presence; as theoreticians were already pointing out in his day, that’s what a letter was and did. But they were also writing: quality writing to match the new thing which Paul must be credited with inventing, that specific, odd, craggy yet harmonious thing we call Christian theology, which demands new genres in which rhetoric, poetry, explanation, persuasion, scriptural exposition, warning and devotion rub shoulders and declare themselves members together of a new family. Whether we agree with him or not, his letters deserve their place (to put it with cheerful anachronism) not only in the Church Times or the Christian Century but also in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. They break the several different moulds, from which they emerge, just as did Paul’s theology itself. Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. If Seneca didn’t read Romans, which he almost certainly didn’t, it is a pity: he would have been puzzled by much of the content, but he would have recognized that this man had something to say and knew how to say it. With style.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 453-54.
[T]he reason Paul was ‘doing theology’ was not that he happened to have the kind of brain that delighted in playing with and rearranging large, complex abstract ideas. He was doing theology because the life of God’s people depended on it, depended on his doing it initially for them, then as soon as possible with them, and then on them being able to go on doing it for themselves. All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology, not in the sense of an unsystematic therapeutic model which concentrates on meeting the felt needs of the ‘client’, but in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep a sharp eye out for wolves. For that, pastoral theology needs to be crystal clear, thought out and presented in a way that teaches others to think as well. That, too, is part of the point: Christian theology, for Paul, was not just about what you know, but about how you know. And, just as the Christian worldview compels people to think in a new way, because otherwise the worldview itself is unstable, so Christian theology remains both a corporate task, one in which the church as a whole has to engage, rather than being spoon-fed by one or two high-octane teachers, and also an incomplete task, because each generation needs to become mature in its thinking, which wouldn’t happen if Paul, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Barth or anyone else had closed off the questions with answers that could then simply be looked up. The ‘authority’ of Paul did not consist in his providing lots of correct answers to puzzling questions. That would have left his converts, and subsequent generations, with no work to do on the questions he had answered, and no starting-point for the ones he didn’t. They would have remained radically and residually immature. Give someone a thought, and you help them for a day; teach someone to think, and you transform them for life. Paul’s authority consisted in his setting up a particular framework and posing a specific challenge. Living as Messiah-people demanded, he would have said, that people work within that framework and wrestle with that challenge.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 568–69.
Larry Hurtado has begun to offer some thoughts on Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
I enjoy posts like these! Hurtado is more than qualified to discuss Wright’s work, and you will find much food for thought here.
My own observations on PFG are similar to Hurtado. I would agree with him that vol. 1 was more than a bit wordy. I mentioned on a number of occasions that if you have already read The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God then you can skim most of the first volume. Wright is an engaging and entertaining writer, but I think sometimes he lets his creativity and style get the best of him.
The reason we study Paul’s theology, I suggest, is that it has had to grow up quickly, to learn its new, complex, leading part within the music. Theology is the lifeblood of the ekklēsia, which is itself the central worldview-symbol. Without it—as any church will discover, to this day, if theology in general and Pauline theology in particular is ignored or marginalized!—the chance of the central worldview-symbol standing upright and supporting the rest of the building will be severely decreased.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 404.
I never thought I would ever hear myself say this, but on March 19-20 Texas is the place to be! That is because Houston Baptist University will be hosting a fantastic conference on Paul and Judaism, with keynote speakers N.T. Wright (St Andrews University), Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University), and Ross Wagner (Duke Divinity School). Besides seeing my best friend in Fort-Wort last May, this may be the only thing that will get me to visit Hades ever again. If you are looking for a conference that will not tickle your fancies, this is it. But if you are looking for something softer, that will tickle more than just your fancies, there is a place in Texas for that as well.
Here is all the info you need to sign up, submit an abstract for consideration, find a hotel, etc. If I were you, I would seriously consider attending.
The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 343.