A Review of
Paul: Narrative or Apocalyptic
Christiaan Beker & N.T. Wright
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
My keen interest in a book with an admittedly less-than-scintillating title like “Paul: Narrative or Apocalyptic” is directly tied to my own theological journey, and the unresolved tension that still lies at the heart of it. Like many who grew up in a conservative, largely white evangelical context, I was taught (via flannelgraphs and wonderful, well-meaning, elderly women) a smattering of isolated Old Testament stories. I knew all about Eden, Noah, Moses, Jericho, Samson and Jonah, though for some reason we skipped over the stories like Ehud or the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, and of course I knew the broad contours of the life of Jesus. While I genuinely enjoyed these mini-narratives, apart from the through-line of God’s involvement, there was no meaningful sense of interconnection or overarching narrative. In fact, it wouldn’t be until I was well into my 20s (even after attending 4 years of undergraduate education in a private, Christian institution in which courses on biblical literature were part of the core curriculum) that I would discover the “story of God” movement, popularized especially by publications like the chronological-narrative NIV bible The Story or Sean Gladding’s The Story of God, The Story of Us or Bartholomew and Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture.
Frankly, these titles were mind-blowing to read, and the experience was like pouring refreshing water onto hermeneutically-parched ground. The coherence of the grand biblical narrative was (and still is, in my view) inspiring, and the literary genius of the biblical writers shows forth in powerful ways when the entire canon is in view. This set me on a course to discover the Bible Project (probably the most widely-successful popularization of so-called “biblical” or “narrative” theology) and the writings of those like Robert Alter, John Goldingay, Michael Morales, Michael Heiser and N.T. Wright. In my own life and ministry, the discovery of narrative theology has been nothing short of a Copernican-level paradigm shift, and deeply reinvigorated my own love of scripture. This framework has helped me approach with awe and wonder the centuries-long buildup of covenantal hopes and promises, enshrined in Hebrew literature, that are beautifully and marvelously fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the continuity of scripture that the narrative movement focuses on revealing.
On the other hand, I have more recently studied the so-called “apocalyptic” theology movement with some energy and interest. Scholars like J. Louis Martyn and Douglas Cambpell, as well as the apocalyptic influence on the masterful writing of Fleming Rutledge, were my introductions to a theological stream that would complicate my newfound love of biblical-canonical narrative continuity. This stream focuses on Paul’s impassioned exploration of Jesus in his epistolary writing, as the decisive revealer of God’s unfolding plan throughout the ages, a mystery hidden until the events of Jesus’s life. The radical, shocking and unexpected nature of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and particularly the reality that Paul, though himself an expert in Israel’s life and teaching and apparently “blameless” in the ways of the Torah, completely missed the fact that Jesus was God’s own Messiah during his life, introduce an undeniable element of discontinuity into biblical theology. Apocalyptic theology helps one wrestle with the sheer unexpected nature of God’s work in Jesus, a facet of theology that might just be smoothed over a bit too tidily in the aforementioned narrative approach. Such work is compelling to this student of scripture, and the tension between these poles runs deep. Which framework is ultimately more persuasive? Which makes better sense of the entirety of the canon? Or is there a way in which the two camps are simply “talking past each other?” Might they be meaningfully integrated? What if two of the strongest proponents of each approach were to directly interact over the question and publish a conversation that revealed the key differences between them?
And so, it is with all this in mind that I eagerly approached the new publication from Fortress Press. Perhaps my expectations were given a bit too much freight, although I would argue that it is not my fault for loading some serious scholarly expectations onto a book about Paul that has the names J. Christiaan Beker and N.T. Wright on the same cover, but it is with a deep sigh that I must admit the book was not what I hoped for. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was quite a disappointment.
“Paul: Narrative or Apocalyptic” is composed of two essays. Beker’s essay historicizes and defends the apocalyptic movement itself, and helpfully distills it into a futuristic-focused interpretive approach to the apostle’s writings. “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Paul’s thought is motivated by the future consummation as God’s goal within history and creation” (54). “In Paul, the cross is embedded in the apocalyptic framework . . . so that the proleptic victory of the cross and resurrection moves toward the future public victory of God in the final resurrection” (59). While the essay is a helpful contextualization of the apocalyptic movement itself, it did not counter the prominent critics of the movement from the narrative approach. And so I began to worry that the conversation/dialogue I hoped for might not happen. Perhaps Wright’s essay would bring some clarity and argumentation.
Alas, Wright’s contribution is an exploration of “apocalyptic” as a Jewish genre of writing in the centuries building up to the New Testament era, with a particular focus on Daniel. I read on in a bit of befuddlement and increasing frustration, as someone who has been deeply formed by Wright’s contribution to the current theological landscape, because not only does his essay not engage with any of Beker’s ideas directly, but also never engages a single verse of Paul’s own writing. Then, curiously, the book ends.
I closed this book in confusion. The two essays were interesting enough on their own, but why didn’t the two contributors interact directly? A response from each, to the other’s work, would have enlivened the material significantly. The actual stakes of the debate could have been highlighted, and the interpretive decisions could have been clarified. Especially with Beker and Wright’s acumen, this would have been electrifying to read, but as it is, it must remain in my imagination. So why exactly was this book published in this form? How did it come together?
Most of my confusion was explained by one sentence of fine print on the page before the table of contents: “This content was previously published as part of Paul the Apostle by J. Christiaan Beker and The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright.” Had I known before opening this book that it was merely a selected and re-published compilation of previous writings, I would have adjusted my expectations appropriately. As it is, this small paperback is a fine introduction to some of the themes of two of our finest Pauline scholars, if that is what the reader is looking for, but for me, it merely highlights what could have been written in its place, and thus left me deeply disappointed.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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