Reviewing Paul and the Faithfulness of God

My name is Michael Metts. I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Studies from Criswell College (summa cum laude), and am presently completing an Advanced Master of Divinity degree, with a biblical languages major, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

A few points should be mentioned before proceeding forward with this multi-part review of N. T. Wright’s hefty book on Paul (1,660 pages), Paul and the Faithfulness of God. [I enjoy tackling large works. Such as Karl Barth’s fourteen volume Church Dogmatics, or, better, Carl F. H. Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation and Authority.]

First, I am not a scholar. More informed readers will readily identify the missing pieces in my graduate level of understanding, to which I welcome outside correction and learning. I enjoy reading N. T. Wright for the same reasons most everyone does: (1) he is imaginative and creative, (2) refreshing and (3) challenging. I have carefully read all volumes of Christian Origins and the Question of God. I also labor to be a student in the truest sense of the word. (I thank Professor Kirk Spencer of the Criswell College for demonstrating such love of learning for not only myself, but for countless other students.) I enjoy reading, with a pen, and thinking deeply about what an author is doing, especially when they take the time to create such a comprehensive portrait as Wright has done; honestly representing their views as best I am able, and admiring them for the virtues demanded by such extensive laboring. The chapter reviews that follow should be read as both charitable and thoughtful — even when I am often critical. And hopefully profitable as well. I will try to focus my criticisms primarily on Wright’s methodology as he practices it and not simply in its theoretical garb.

Second, I remain convinced of the centrality of justification by grace through faith in Christ. It is my deeply held belief that this is the theologia crucis of Paul’s gospel and of the New Testament. I will, therefore, have reasonable criticisms of some of the New Perspective elements taken up in PFG, though they do seem to be limited, at least in the first book.

Third, I want to point out a quite obvious gap in Wright’s work that I have not seen anyone else address at this point. It occurred to me this past year while reading James D. G. Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem: Wright never actually describes Christian origins. What I mean is that there remains a very large historical gap between Jesus’ resurrection and the apostle Paul’s epistles in Wright’s extensive project. He has yet to take us from the ascension of Christ, the movement’s beginnings in Jerusalem, the early preaching of the apostles and the formation of the early Church, to the letters of Paul. In short: Where is Acts? How does Wright see it all starting? How does he see it originating?

Fourth, PFG is arranged chiastically. This means that the material treated in earlier chapters of the first volume (Parts I and II) will be treated again in the second (the corresponding Parts III and IV). Please recognize that I cannot anticipate what Wright may say ahead of time, I treat only each chapter as it arises. Should Wright validate his arguments later in the book, we will be certain to discover those validations. With very few exceptions I am reviewing each chapter as I read it.

Lastly, I have grown increasingly impressed with N. T. Wright’s literary artistry. Though a first rate historian and formidable scholar, Wright’s default mindset (to borrower his term) is not far from that of an artist. Wright likes to paint the big picture, using the most broad and meaningful brushstrokes as he does so. In this manner he is a methodological coherentist. He wants to understand not just the exegetical statements of Paul or the New Testament, but the entire historical portrait behind them, and how the historical processes both define and shape them. I think at times Wright’s emphasis on this larger, reconstructed portrait is not nearly critically qualified, at least not to the extent that many of his peers labor to accomplish such as James Dunn.

The problem with this, though, is that coherentism – as a historical-critical tool – always functions by necessity as a secondary criterion. Unless primary criticisms operate first, the entire portrait is jeopardized. My point here is simply that coherentism, or Wright’s critically-realistic, narrative worldview model, cannot stand on its own. The resulting portrait may be very compelling, but it undoubtedly will be an impressionist’s portrait, since no primary criticisms have stabilized Wright’s easel. Coherence is ill suited as a Monet (perhaps it’s no accident the French also gave us Derrida?). Coherence should more resemble the natural feats of, perhaps, Florentine Renaissance artisans, where every care is taken to replicate the painted object with more exactitude — and less impression.

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