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A Review of
Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Paperback (2 vol.): Fortress Press, 2013
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Reviewed by Daniel M. Yencich
N.T. Wright’s long-awaited treatise on the theology of Paul is a big book. Indeed: although it is one work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG hereafter) is split into two volumes and spans a mammoth 1660 pages. There is a joke about an author attaining true historical significance when the volume of writings about him surpasses the number of things he actually wrote, but Wright’s five-pound book renders it rather obvious. Beyond physical measurements, however, PFG must still be described as a “big book,” in the sense of the impact it has had and will have in New Testament scholarship, theological reflection, and Christian ministry for years to come. Wright is not always persuasive in his arguments in PFG, but his perspective is certainly interesting and, especially in evangelical circles, his voice certainly commands attention. PFG is an important work, if a bit physically unwieldy, and will challenge scholars, pastors, and interested non-specialists alike with its comprehensive vision of Christianity’s most famous apostle and the theological thought he bequeathed to history.
At the outset of the book, Wright briefly states his thesis: Paul developed his theology within the matrix of Second Temple Judaism by reworking his essentially Jewish understanding of God’s nature (monotheism), God’s people (election), God’s promises (eschatology) in light of the Messiah and the new outpouring of the Spirit. Although Paul remained Jewish in his thinking, the life and death of Jesus-the-Messiah was for Paul a uniquely generative event, causing him to “invent” what the church later came to call “Christian theology” (xvi).
Wright situates and develops his argument over the course of sixteen chapters, and readers will find a helpful chiastic structure to the book. Following the introduction, chapters two through five are akin to the first few weeks in any Introduction to the New Testament course in college or seminary, detailing some of the most salient contextual issues that form the background to Paul’s thought and ministry. Readers are given a bird’s-eye view of Judaism, philosophy, religion, and empire in Paul’s time. Later on (much later on, at the end of the second volume!), Wright returns to these cultural and contextual issues in chapters twelve through fifteen, and situates Paul and his thought in relation to them (e.g., “Paul and empire,” “Paul and religion,” “Paul and philosophy,” and so on). The middle chapters, six through eleven, form the core of the argument. Here Wright lays out Paul’s Jewish mindset (chapters six, seven, and eight) and his theology (nine, ten, and eleven). The latter trio are, in Wright’s own estimation, the climax of the argument. As you might guess, it requires much effort on the part of readers to make it to the climax. It’s a long slog, but there is a pay-off—at least for some. Readers who are unfamiliar with the background issues will benefit from Wright’s discussion and will likely see Paul differently in light of them in later chapters. Others, particularly scholars, will likely read this book selectively, since much of the background material is fairly well established in the field.