N. T. Wright and Christmas Carols

Peter J. Leithart points out that N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas for him.  After reading Wright all he can hear in the carols are all about Israel and the (re) establishment of the davidic Kingdom.  This is a great point, and one that I made in a recent Sunday School series on the “hymns” in Luke’s birth narratives.  it is amazing to me how political the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon are. O Come Emmanuel is a great example of this, since it is based on  the hymns of Luke 1-2.  How would a first century Jewish listener understand these words — “Ransom captive Israel”?

I realized this when I visited Israel the first time in 2003.  We went into St Anne’s church, a beautiful little church dedicated to the mother of Mary.  The church is ideal of singing, so out group gathered around, but I am not the person who ought to be starting out a hymn.  Nancy Robinson (a music major with a lovely voice) realized this and began to sing O Come Emmanuel.  Not only did it sound fantastic, it brought to mind all sorts of political and spiritual connections to both the past situation of Israel in the land and their present state.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 2.2

The second plank in Wright’s method is establishing the proper context for reading the letters of Paul.   What he means here is that Paul needs to be read in the context of the first century, both as a Jew and as a Hellenistic Jew.  As he described in Fresh Perspective, Paul is a man with a foot in three worlds who is creating a fourth: He is re-interpreting the Jewish Scripture, speaking and thinking in Greek, communicating to a Roman world, and providing the foundation for Christianity.  As such, the “background to Paul” should be the Hebrew Bible, Judaism as described in  first century sources, and the literature of the Greco-Roman world.  To me, this seems obvious, and I spend a great deal of time academically studying what is loosely described as “backgrounds” to the New Testament.

What could possibly compete for this context?  As Wright explains it, many commentaries (and translations) place Paul in the context of the Reformation and Reformation doctrine.  This develops out of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which savaged New Testament scholars for reading Paul as Luther, battling proto-Pelagians.  Sanders’ point was simply, “read Paul against the background of real Second Temple period Judaism, not Luther and Reformation theology.”  Perhaps where Sanders went wrong is intensity of his attack.  When scholarship shifts into polemic, it is usually on shaky ground.

Following Sanders then, Wright is correct in that Paul should not be read as Luther, but on the other hand there is at least a fair chance that Luther got quite a bit in Paul correct.  I am not willing to say that the doctrine of justification which developed out of the reformation is wrong, but I am willing to say that it is not the central idea within Paul’s theology.  Like James Dunn in his Pauline Theology, I think that justification is an important metaphor for salvation which Paul does in fact use, but it is not the primary foundation for all of Paul’s theology.

But context is not to be done for context’s sake.  The reason we study Second Temple period Judaism, or Greco-Roman culture, or “Proper evangelicals are rooted in Scripture, and above all in the Jesus Christ to whom Scripture witnesses, and nowhere else” (51).  In my copy of Justification, I have the whole sentence underlined, and three underlines under nowhere else. I am very interested in Second Temple period literature and have genuinely enjoyed reading books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I see so much in them that is useful for my understanding of the Gospels and Paul, but this literature are not the goal.  The goal of all this background” study must always be a proper understanding of Jesus and Paul.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 2.1

In the “Rules of Engagement,” Wright lays out his methodology for studying Paul.   Of primary importance for understanding Paul is the Hebrew Bible. I have often said that you cannot really understand the New Testament without a thorough knowledge of the Old.  I do not mean that the Hebrew Bible is just a “background” to the Gospels or Paul, but that it is foundational to the New.

A second element of Wright’s methodology is what books “count” as Pauline.  As anyone who has taken a Pauline Lit class knows, books like Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals are usually set aside as deutero-Pauline.  They are assumed to be written a generation after Paul, even if they come from people who were Pauline in their theology.  In short, they do not “count” toward determine what Paul thought.  Romans and Galatians are read first, the Ephesians and Colossians “fall short” because they do not focus on justification in quite the same way the real Pauline books do.

Wright proposes a thought experiment: Start with Ephesians and Colossians and then read Romans and Galatians.  What one finds, Wright states, is a “(very Jewish) cosmic soteriology” in which God has a plan to rescue Jew and Gentile through the person of Christ and to unite them into a church which can be described as “Christ’s body.”  If Luther had started here, Wright thinks, the New Perspective on Paul would have started with the Reformation!  (He jokes that the New Perspective actually started with Ephesians, which I find humorous since I know people who think Dispensationalism started with Ephesians as well!)

What this is all about is the “center” of Paul’s theology.  This is an old problem and something  of a “chicken and egg” type question.  If you select the central first, Pauline doctrine, you will then find a “canon-within-the-canon;” if you select the “most important book” first, that limits the doctrines that might be thought of as central.  For Luther (and the Reformation), the central doctrine is justification by faith; Romans and Galatians become the“canon-within-the-canon.”  Ephesians and Colossians are simply not that important to the central theme anymore.

What would we get as a “central theme” if we start with Ephesians and Colossians?  Wright does not really answer that question other than to say that there is a “cosmic plan of God” to fix what is wrong with the world.  I suggest that it is time to reconsider reconciliation as a central theme, as suggested by Ralph Martin some time ago.  Reconciliation is broad enough to include the idea of justification.  In addition, it would draw Corinthians into the discussion.

As always, a frustration I have in reading Wright is that I want a bit more detail that he can give in a book this size.  That cannot be a legitimate criticism of the book, give the target audience.  This is a popular work answering only a specific critic, not a full-blown theology of Paul.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 1.2

The second metaphor is a bit more of a challenge for me.  Pauline theology, says Wright, is like a jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces which must be fitted into the puzzle, but it is easier to leave some of them in the box.  In fact, my theology works best if I use a subset of the pieces to construct my theology and leave the rest of the pieces in the box.  I suspect that most people do not do this out of dishonesty (“that cannot be true so I’ll ignore it”), but rather because it is very difficult to hold all of the elements of Pauline theology together in such a way that satisfies systematic theologians.  (A possible exception to this is the scholar that limits the Pauline canon to certain books, putting “later Pauline theology” in a category which is of decidedly lesser authority.  Wright, in my view, does not do this – he respects the whole of canonical Paul, although in practice the Pastorals are not a major factor).

There are two “pieces of the puzzle” often left in the box.  The first is Paul’s use of the Hebrew Bible.  Looking to the work of Richard Hays, Wright accepts the idea that if Paul cites a text (or even alludes to it), he wants to evoke the whole passage.  This is a semi-controversial, since in other writers in the New Testament it is often argue that the writer does not “respect the context.”  (I will just mention the heated discussion between Greg Beale and Steve Moiyse on the use of the Hebrew Bible in Revelation).  I will state for the record that I am on Wright’s side in this argument, although it is less of a controversial position in Pauline studies. If Paul alludes to Gen 15, it seems to me that he has the whole of Gen 15 in mind.  (The “plot” of Gen 15 is a better way to put this, since obviously Paul did not have modern chapter divisions in mind! )

The second piece of the puzzle usually left in the box is Paul’s use of the narrative of Israel’s history, or perhaps said differently, Israel’s meta-narrative, or the “history of salvation” from the Hebrew Bible.  One of Wright’s contributions to Pauline studies is the an emphasis on the story of Israel in Paul’s theology, but it is not a contribution which is unprecedented.  While I suspect that he would be loathe to hear it, dispensationalists (in their more scholarly forms, Bock, Blaising, Saucy, Dewitt) have always emphasized the grand outline of salvation history, although the culmination is not in Jesus’ death on the cross, but in the establishment of a real kingdom in the future.  This pre-millennial approach is quite different than Wright, but there are some sympathetic notes.

I heartily agree with Wright that these two elements biblical theology are often ignored in scholarship on Paul, although this is more of a result of specialization rather than a conscious decision of a scholar to ignore the larger issues of allusions in the New Testament or narrative theology.  I do think there are clear examples of scholars who flat out ignore data in order to maintain their position (the conclusion to Variegated Nomism comes to mind), but I think that for the most part few scholars chose to put pieces of evidence “back in the box” to consciously avoid a particular conclusion.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 1.1

Wright’s opening chapter uses a pair of metaphors to describe the current state of Pauline theology.  Both get at slightly different problems, so I will deal with the first there, the second in the next post.

The first metaphor imagines a conversation with a person who never has been taught the sun goes around the earth.  After an evening of laying out the scientific evidence for a heliocentric solar system, the friend points to the tradition evidence of the sunrise.  The traditional, common sense answer is correct, the friend claims, and the findings of science are simply new ideas which cannot break the traditional, common sense view.

Wright is describing the efforts of the so-called New Perspective on Paul to challenge the (mostly Lutheran) majority view of Paul’s theology.  This is an oversimplification, but what Ed Sanders claimed was that if you read Paul in the context of Second Temple period Judaism, then he is not arguing against a works-for-righteousness religion (Pharisees or whoever), since that legalistic religion simply did not exist.  People like James Dunn and N. T. Wright (and Richard Hays and many others) have sought to build on that foundation and read Paul as a Jew who did not convert from Judaism to Christianity, but rather as a Jew who interpreted the grand narrative of the Hebrew Bible in the light of Jesus the Messiah and his crucifixion.

On the surface, this New Perspective seems like a great advance in Pauline studies, based on a careful reading of the available Second Temple period literature.  Most of this literature was simply not available before 1950, and really unused until Sanders in the 1970’s.  For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls have only been readily available to scholars for 25 years; Pauline scholars prior to the 1980’s did not have access to this wealth of materials. New translations of the Pseudepigrapha, the Mishnah and other Jewish writings open huge areas of comparative studies – why not include all of this in the database of material which can illuminate Paul?

The real problem is that Sanders said that Lutheran interpreters of Paul got Paul wrong.  Paul was read as Luther fighting the works-for-salvation Catholic church, or Augustine vs. Pelagius. Sanders said that was simply not true because Judaism was not a works-for-salvation religion.  And this means that Justification might not be exactly what Luther said it was.  At the very least, Justification is really just one of many ways Paul described salvation, not at all the central doctrine that twentieth-century Pauline theology makes it out to be.

Wright is part of the “New Perspective” in that he is challenging the status quo on Paul and reading him as a Jew in the first century.  As a result, some scholars take him to task for “teaching another gospel, which is really no gospel at all.”  Wright’s point in his first metaphor is simply that scholarship has always sought more data.  When new data is found, it must be integrated into the system and the system is corrected, or reformed.  Just like Luther, Wright is pushing us back to the texts with the goal of really understanding Paul in his original context.

Since I am not part of a confessional Church committed to some Reformation doctrinal statement, Wright does not threaten me as much, bet he does challenge me to re-read Paul in the light of the first century.

N. T. Wright, Justification

Given that I assign N. T. Wright’s books in several classes, I have been asked quite a few times what I thought of N. T. Wright’s Justification (IVP, 2009).   I picked up a copy at ETS in New Orleans and finally sat down to read the book.  I’ve decided that I will use a bit of my Winter Break to read through Wright, Piper, and perhaps McGrath and blog a few comments along the way.  This will give me a chance to focus on the topic once again and hopefully distract attention away from Women in Ministry for a few days….!

Since I just finished teaching with Paul: A Fresh Perspective in my Pauline Literature class, much of the first two chapters is review.  In fact, if I had it to do over again, I might use Justification as a textbook in the class rather than Fresh Perspective since I think Wright is more efficient explaining the “new perspective on Paul” and what impact that view might have on the doctrine of justification.

Look for a couple of posts a week for the rest of the month and into January on the topic of Justification.

Women in Ministry: 1 Tim 2:11-14

1 Timothy 2:11-14 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

This is an incredibly difficult passage to interpret for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sometimes incendiary rhetoric found in the literature discussing the topic of women in ministry.  And this passage has generated a massive literature.  An excellent introduction to the problems in this text is Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin; Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1995).  The last thing I want to do is step into this firestorm, but since we are moving through the Pauline letters, it is important to at least mention several factors in the debate.

This passage appears to prohibit women from teaching in church or “having authority” over men.  Since these functions are to be carried out by an elder, this passage can be read as a ban on women in the role of Pastor / elder.  On the other hand, if Fee is correct in his assessment of the intention of the Pastoral epistles, then what may be in view is a specific situation in which a woman is a leader of false teachers in the church at Ephesus.  In that case, this text is not a general ban on women in ministry.

In his Systematic Theology, Grudem responds that the context does not seem specific at all, there are no persons mentioned who are teaching, therefore this is a general statement about the problem of women teaching in the church, not a specific ban on a specific woman teaching false doctrine. Grudem also points out that the reason Paul gives is the Fall, and the reversal of gender roles as a result of the fall.  Since the prohibition is tied to such a pivotal text, it should be taken as a general statement.  This is analogous to the use of Genesis 2 in establishing a principle of marriage.  “Men as the leaders of the home” means “men as the leaders of the church.”

Sometimes writers will state that women were not well educated in the ancient world and therefore should be prohibited from teaching.  Once women are allowed to read and are formally trained, there is no reason to prohibit their ordination as pastors. Yet there are several examples of trained women or a command to train women  in the biblical texts (Acts 4:13, 18:26, Romans 16:1, 1 Tim 2:11, Titus 2:3-4).  There were opportunities for women to receive education in the Greco-Roman world.  This strategy is therefore based on an inadequate view of education in the ancient world.

The key word is normally translated “have authority.”  H. Scott Baldwin studeid this word in depth for is article in the Women in the Church volume (“A Difficult Word:  authentew in 1 Timothy 2:12.”)  After surveying the multitude of word studies on aujqentevw , Baldwin argues that the methodology of the studies have been flawed.  We ought to study the verb and the noun separately since there may be a difference in meaning (logos vs. logizomai, for example.) This reduces the database of occurrences to 82, all of which he includes in his article. He then sets up a semantic range for the word, and summarizes his findings in several broad categories.  These categories are then distributed chronologically, so we can see the development of the word from the earliest occurrence (first century through the fourteenth century A.D.)

Baldwin’s conclusions are that the root of the word involves the concept of authority and that the context of 2 Tim 2 makes the idea of “to rule” impossible.  But the ideas of “to dominate or to control” are quite likely.  “To play the tyrant” is possible if we argue Paul is making a hyperbole (which few people do, since it isn’t all that clear that he might be.)  Several possible translations are dismissed simply because the are not in evidence until the late medieval period.  He does note that the verb is intransitive, therefore a translation of “assume authority over” is possible.

Taken along with what Fee says about the purpose of the letter, it is entirely possible then that this difficult text refers to a female leader who has taken control of a congregation.  If she (and her group?) are also the false teachers of 1 Timothy, then it is possible that the order to silence ought to be read as a silencing of a false teacher.