By Jonathan Merritt
N.T. Wright is one of the top five theologians alive according to Christianity Today, and given his accomplishments, it’s a difficult claim to dispute. Wright is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St. Andrews, and before that, he served as Bishop of Durham for The Church of England and taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He has written a stack of widely-acclaimed and bestselling books, both academic and popular, and has a cult following among young Christian thinkers in the United States and Europe.
But Wright has also become a controversial figure in recent years, igniting a heated debate among American theologians with his so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Many prominent Christian leaders wrote rebuttals of Wright’s perspective–most notably pastor John Piper, who devoted an entire book to the matter (The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright).
How does one respond to such controversy? If you’re N.T. Wright, by penning a 1700-page tome on the life and theology of the Apostle Paul–the most comprehensive published work on Paul in the history of Christianity. It’s called Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and it promises to extend the debate he sparked years ago. Here, we discuss the book’s thesis, how it may inform gender and political debates, and what he thinks will make John Piper most upset.
JM: And how do you anticipate that this historical and theological study of Paul will reframe Christian theologies of salvation, justification, and law?
NTW: The main point is that most second-temple Jews weren’t discussing “salvation” and “justification” in anything like the way later Christians did. They were anxious about how Israel’s God was going to unveil his long-awaited covenant purposes, returning in person to deliver Israel from subservience to pagans and to launch “the age to come”. That, for them, was “salvation”; and “justification”, not that they discussed it much, was about how you could tell in the present who God would vindicate in the future. Their debates focused on how all that would happen, and what they should be doing in the meantime.
I have shown how Paul’s teaching on justification, the law, etc. is best understood as the radical reworking of these debates around the new fixed point: that Israel’s God had returned in the person of Israel’s Messiah and that, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he had not only launched but had also redefined the “age to come”–right in the middle of ongoing and contested history. For Paul, this sovereign, saving act of the creator and covenant God was then being implemented through the work of the Spirit and in the announcement of the “gospel” in the pagan world. We only “get” what he means by “justification” and “salvation” when we put it all in this larger context. Nothing of value is lost thereby from older traditions (though some cherished formulations, themselves unbiblical, will need to be revised in the light of what Paul actually said); but much, much is gained, particularly the large and utterly coherent vision of his whole thought and work.