If theologians were NCAA basketball coaches, N.T. Wright would be Mike Krzyzewski, head coach at Duke University.
I was raised within a context in which Coach K was anathema. He was the foul-mouth, whining, arrogant, overrated, mouse-faced arch-nemesis at the privileged wannabe Ivy League university down the road. His floor-slapping, charge-taking, overzealous Anglo-Saxon point guards were mere clones of his own obnoxiousness, and his players never did anything in the pros. He was unlikeable, aloof, mean to fans, horrible to be around, and probably hated kittens.
Then I got a little older, got a little more perspective, and started hearing these reports and reading news articles that painted the guy in a different light. He smiled more. He started coaching the USA basketball team … and actually doing a pretty good job at it, which is saying something when you are coaching the largest group of athletic alpha-dogs imaginable. He started showing up in commercials – yes, even the famous take on the Risky Business living room dancing scene – that weren’t entirely a disaster and were, dare I say, kind of cute. His players started doing well in the pros. Heck, even J. J. Redick, the worst ever Duke player and biggest Coach K clone imaginable (followed closely by Wojo, Hurley, and Paulus), turns out actually to be less a villain and apparently a pretty likeable guy. Suddenly Coach K seemed to be not the most horrible person ever.
In the same way, N. T. Wright is the Coach K of biblical studies. Let me explain.
The Wright Experience
Ever since the whole New Perspective on Paul thing blew up in the late 70s and early 80s, N. T. Wright has been a very divisive figure within Christian circles: including both evangelicals and non-evangelicals, as well as both academics and non-academics.
Today he came to Cambridge to speak at our NT Seminar as well as launch his new ca. 190,242 page book entitled Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Generally speaking within Reformed circles, Wright has been viewed with a heavy dose of suspicion. While folks generally like his work on the historical Jesus and the gospels, when it comes to Paul and the variety of issues relating to justification, covenant, faith, righteousness, etc., he has been seen as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some seminaries and denominations have embraced Wright’s views wholesale, while others have more or less categorically rejected them. The following quote from Al Mohler (from 2010, posted on Ligonier.org) is fairly representative of how a wide swath of Reformed (and, in many cases, broadly evangelical) folks view Wright:
His writing is scintillating. His arguments, however, are exceedingly slippery and often dangerous. What he proposes is nothing less than a complete reconception of what Christians believe about salvation and the gospel of Christ.
As the third of the three-headed horsemen of the New Perspective hydra (with E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn), Wright has been at the center of controversy about how to understand the letters of Paul ever since. Many popular Christian pastors as well as biblical scholars have penned responses to Wright et. al., and the general stance (if not explicitly, then implicitly) is that he is not to be trusted and has parted ways with the Protestant Solas. Or, at best, one might say that he’s ok on Jesus but bad on Paul. He is Coach K, but with a clerical collar and a much more pleasant demeanor.
I am not an N. T. Wright aficionado by any means, but I have read a few of his seemingly innumerable (and very long) books. As with the Coach K situation, I have experienced some shift in the way I understood Wright through the course of actually reading the guy’s work. What often has happened in the whole New Perspective debate is that folks (myself included) access the actual ideas second-hand, through someone else’s critical response to the source material; that is, you “learn” what Wright, Dunn, et. al. believe about Paul and justification through what their critic has (selectively) read, analyzed, and attacked, at least in part. Of course, this is the way we learn many things; we cannot read everything, so we often learn second-hand through others. But a funny thing happens when you actually read the things that you were led to believe were the “bogey-man”: they’re not quite as bad as you had been led to believe. Yes, there are problems (it’s not like the critics got everything wrong by any means), but you also learn that you may have had a poor or incomplete understanding. As I listened to Wright this afternoon and tonight, I found myself again reevaluating my preconceptions about his teachings: embracing some of his insights, recalibrating some of what I thought I knew, and continuing to reject others as mistaken. I still don’t agree with a lot of things he says (faith as badge; present vs. final justification; justification as ecclesiological; much more), but I do appreciate and agree with much of it as well (covenant emphasis; importance of “in Christ”; continuity of God’s purposes from Abraham to Christ, etc.). In other words, as with Coach K, it is hard not to respect Wright for his theological contributions, his service to the church, his defense of the historic truths of the faith, and, in a lot of ways, his holistic take on Paul – regardless of any prior notions of his villainry.
Experiencing him in person also showed me that, despite our best intentions to the contrary, personality and gravitas really do matter. You could have come into that room with nothing but furor against the guy, and after listening to him for an hour, you would have invited him over for dinner or to go fishing. In this regard, he was as-billed: warm, disarming, articulate, engaging, happy to be there, fully present, humble, and pleasant to listen to. If nothing else, he scores huge points in the likability category. Perhaps that is why some folks are wary: his personality alone can make otherwise bad arguments seem delightfully convincing and smooth to ingest.
I thought it might be illuminating to provide a digest of my notes from the two hour-long sessions today, which were, if nothing else, a great tour de force of the latest stuff happening in the studies of Paul. To the extent that there are any inaccuracies, chalk it up to my erroneous note-taking.
Lecture 1: Cambridge Senior Seminar (“Behind the Shifting Paradigm”)
- Introduction: the study of Paul has exploded and fractured into seemingly innumerable areas. It is nearly impossible to stay on top of it all, from the “political reading of Paul” to the debates on “Paul as Stoic” to “Post-Colonial / Post-Everything” readings, to, of course, the Old vs. New Perspective debates. Goal of the lecture: provide a bit of a map to understand the landscape, focusing specifically on five major debates in the 20th/21st century, most of which overlap to some degree.
- Debate 1: Which is the “center” of Romans? Chapters 1-4 or chapters 5-8? This has roots in the question of Paul’s relationship to Judaism as originally understood by Albert Schweitzer. Most scholars today side with either 1-4 (a justification emphasis) or 5-8 (a liberation / participation / cosmic emphasis). Wright argues that all sections of Paul are unified.
- Debate 2: Is Paul to be understood politically-apocalyptically or anthropologically? This has its roots in a longstanding debate between Ernst Kasemann and Rudolph Bultmann as to whether Paul was focused on one’s individual / existential / personal justification (anthropology) or on the great cosmic redemption by God against the rulers of the world in the end-times (political-apocalyptic).
- Debate 3: Is redemptive-history gradual or apocalyptic? This question is rooted in the old Hegelian idea that society makes evolutionary progress gradually towards a higher state of perfection over time. Many mid-20th century scholars had adopted this view within Paul’s view of the present-day church and Christ’s purposes in it; however, the whole idea crashed when the social evolution thesis was demonstrated to be horribly false at WWII. As a reaction against it, many scholars went to the other extreme to reintepret Paul entirely around the idea of the delay of the second coming and the great catastrophic event that will happen in the future.
- Debate 4: Which “Perspective” is right on justification/faith/righteousness, the “Old” or the “New”? In the lecture Wright did not go into too much detail here, since he assumed we were familiar with it. However, he did make the exceptionally valid point that we should be careful not to read the New Perspective debate into everything written about Paul. Not everything in Paul has to do with justification debates, and this whole Old vs. New controversy is not the only one out there.
- Debate 5: Should we understand apocalyptic in terms of personal or cosmic categories? This seems to overlap with #2 in some sense, but it is one of the hottest ones out there today. Should we think of apocalyptic eschatology (e.g., second coming and all that it entails) in forensic categories (dealing with sin, personal justification, saving my soul, etc.) or in cosmic categories (fixing the world, ending the present evil age)? Wright aptly noted that “apocalyptic” has become like “sprinkling cosmic fairy dust onto otherwise straightforward utterances.”
- Concluding thoughts: (a) Everyone tends to focus on Romans 1-8 and on Galatians. We need to include all of Paul’s letters. (b) Romans should not be torn apart into 4 competing sections (1-4, 5-8, 9-11, 12-16). (c) We need to understand Judaism really well to make sense of Paul’s stance on it, but that remains a difficult task. (d) Paul’s radical consistency was the proclaim the radical consistency of Israel’s God.
- Postscript: A fellow student Ferdie Mulder asked in the Q&A: “The New Perspective has dealt a lot with the Lutheran views of justification, but you rarely mention Calvin and the Reformers. How do you factor them in?” Wright answered quite notably: “If Calvin, chiefly through the later theologian Herman Ridderbos, had been the focus [of 20th C German scholars, mainly] rather than Luther, then the New Perspective may not have been needed.” He voiced significant appreciation for how Reformed theology does a great job bringing together forensic justification, inclusion in Christ, redemption of the cosmos, the future of Jews, etc. With that I can very much agree, and, incidentally, I used Ridderbos as a grid for analyzing the New Perspective in a presentation I gave last year.
Lecture 2: Book Launch at Westcott Hall
- Introductory (and best) quote: “Everywhere Paul went, there was a riot. Everywhere I go, people serve tea.” Good stuff.
- During this lecture, Wright gave a broad overview of the basic outline of his new book. Since that outline can be found on Amazon, I’ll simply record a few key nuggets from the lecture.
- We need to remember that Paul was living in a huge clash of worlds: Judaism, Stoicism, Imperialism. Octavius had just become Augustus Caesar and was being proclaimed as the “Son of God” who would “save” the empire.
- So imagine what Paul must have experienced when he was spreading the gospel.
- Foolishness to Gentiles.
- “There’s a new lord!”
- “What? Haven’t you seen Caesar’s head on the coins?”
- “No, really, there was this Jewish guy …”
- “A Jew?!?”
- “And he was crucified!”
- “What? That’s the worst possible embarrassment imaginable.”
- “No really, and then he rose again!”
- “Ok, now you’re just plain crazy. No one comes back from the dead.” And so on.
- Scandal to Jews. Some would have been embarrassed and furious about a dead messiah. Others, however, may have found it just compelling enough to believe it.
- Foolishness to Gentiles.
- Central thesis of W’s new book: Paul was called by God to generate and sustain communities of Jews and Gentiles, but without the religious structures of the Jewish community (circumcision, etc.). So he “invented” Christian Theology as the thing that would hold together the community. It was focused on three things: monotheism (reinterpreted to include Christ and the Spirit), ethics (a new understanding of sin in light of the cross), and eschatology (a new vision for the future in light of the dramatic event at the midpoint of history).
- Note: while I agree with the three corollaries (monotheism, ethics, eschatology), I predict this central idea will become the most hotly debated in the book. In talking with folks afterwards, several were uncomfortable with this whole “invented theology” idea.
 For Reformed types, some others would be something like this, in no particular order:
John Wooden (UCLA) = John Calvin (the one who put the sport on the map)
John Chaney (Temple) = Martin Luther (he actually looked like their mascot and chewed a towel)
John Thompson (Georgetown) = John Knox (like a bear: intimidating and cuddly)
Jim Boehim (Syracuse) = Mark Driscoll (kind of rough around the edges, good track record, a little bit of scandal)
Dean Smith (UNC) = J. I. Packer (everybody, and I do mean everybody, loves this guy and, whether they admit it or not, were influenced by him in some way)
Rick Pitino (Kentucky/Louisville) = James D. G. Dunn (everybody loves to hate him, but man is he prolific; oscillates between good stuff and borderline heresy)
John Calipari (Memphis) = Rob Bell (too slick and polished; completely untrustworthy; always a bestseller, though, and keeps people interested)
Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) = tie between Herman Ridderbos / Geerhardus Vos (best winning percentage ever, seriously influential, hardly anybody remembers him; had a weird name)
Bill Self (Kansas) = D. A. Carson (becoming a household name, and you can always bank on solid performance; almost too nice)
Bob Knight (Indiana / Texas Tech) = Bart Ehrman (always making someone angry, kind of arrogant, unclear whether he was actually good at what he did or just sold himself well)
Jim Calhoun (UConn) = Peter Enns (very astute, good credentials, but has a knack for rubbing everyone the wrong way)