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.