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.

One thought on “N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 1.2

  1. I think I remember Wright saying (maybe in What St. Paul Really Said?) that different theologies have to ignore certain parts of Romans in order to make their reading of Paul fit.

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