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.