Thursday, November 20, 2003

What Wright says that "Saint Paul Really Said"

Been rereading two books for two different studies. One is, for the gazillionth time, R.C. Sproul's Chosen by God. The other is N. T. Wright's What Saint Paul Really Said.

These books couldn't be more different.

The two authors, each with impressive credentials, couldn't be more different.

Sproul approaches his subject (predestination) with humility. His style is: here is what is written in scripture and, logically, this is what it must mean.

That is not Wright's approach to his subject, which is the theology of Paul. (The punch line being that Luther misinterpreted Paul, because he did not understand 1st century Judaism, a deficiency that resulted in a serious error: an undue emphasis on, and a faulty understanding of, justification.) His approach, seemingly adopted by his followers, would never be accused of being humble or charitable. And while scripture is referred to, a great deal of Wright’s conclusion are based on historic arguments and reckless speculation, presented as fact, about what Paul was thinking, before and after his conversion.

This of course means nothing in terms of which writer is correct. In fact, their subject matters are sufficiently (but not perfectly) orthogonal that both could be essentially right, or both wrong, or one of each.

In my opinion, it is the latter. Sproul hits a homerun in his introduction to predestination. His book is, in my view, a classic. Wright’s book is, on the other hand, so flawed as to almost take my breath away.

That is the last I will mention Sproul. I just felt like contrasting them since I am currently studying both.

Criticizing Wright is not for the thin skinned. He has amassed a following that surpasses, in its zeal, Doug Wilson's acolytes, another camp of which I have, in the past, run afoul. Challenge Wright and you are likely to be called dimwitted, anachronistic, and, my personal favorite, prone to worshipping a dead white man (that would be Martin Luther).

This will not be a comprehensive review of Wright's book. I will get to that sometime, probably after my Sunday school class ends. I am taking notes as I once again go through What Saint Paul Really Said in anticipation of just such a review. This is just a broadside.

Wright's arrogance astounds me. He writes of his lonely journey toward the pinnacle of Pauline scholarship:

I still have the sense of being only half-way up the mountain, of there being yet more to explore, more vistas to glimpse. Often (not always) when I read what other scholars say about Paul, I have the feeling of looking downwards into the mist, rather than upwards to the mountain top. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 7.)

I have not read any reviews of Wright's book, critical or favorable. I would be amazed if I am the only critic to point out what appears to be the biggest flaw: Wright elevates the importance of Paul's historic context far beyond what he should, given the fact that we are dealing with inspired scripture.

If Wright were examining uninspired writing such as 1 Clement, or even non-canonical Pauline writings, if ever discovered, then his approach would be legitimate. But when dealing with inspired scripture, historic context, while it can be illuminating, must always be a secondary consideration.

Wright treats Paul's letters as, well, Paul's letters. He does not give enough weight to the fact that they are actually God's letters.

Wright says that we cannot understand what Paul really meant unless we put it in the context of an accurate representation of 1st century Judiasm.

I say that the Holy Spirit has inspired scripture that we can understand without such knowledge, although it might be helpful. The Holy Spirit did not inspire scripture that awaited 20th century studies of 1st century Judaism before it could be correctly understood.

That's my opinion. I cannot prove it.

I’ll say again, historic knowledge is not irrelevant. But it cannot be critical. Here is an example. In Romans, Paul writes: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24). Now that can be understood as it stands. Nevertheless, if we know that Paul is alluding to the gruesome practice of chaining the corpse of a murder victim to the murderer, then the verse is further illuminated. However, that knowledge is not required in order to understand the gist of what Paul is teaching.

Furthermore, while Wright is no doubt correct that our knowledge of 1st century Judiasm has grown, there is no guarantee whatsoever that we have a correct, let alone a comprehensive, understanding. There exists the very real possibility—perhaps even a probability—that our supposedly lofty understanding of 1st century Judaism will undergo radical changes over the decades to come.

Imagine 2000 years from now as archeologists try to piece together Wright's theology. Suppose all they know is that he was a Protestant. No literature from the era survived. Then, amazingly, a Scofield bible is uncovered. And a complete set of Left Behind books. Imagine what incorrect inferences about Wright's theology would likely be made from that "incredible development in the understanding of 20th century Christianity". That is the situation with Paul, but Wright argues as if he knows what Saul/Paul was thinking.

Wright often talks about Pauline theology. This is representative of his error. Whatever Paul's theology was is irrelevant. What Paul wrote in his epistles, due to its inspiration, was not Paul's theology but God's theology.

Wright also writes:
The dislocation of biblical studies from theology, particularly in many North American institutions (where the majority of contemporary biblical studies takes place) has meant that Paul is often studied by people who are not trained either philosophically or theologically, and who indeed resent that such training should be necessary. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 21.)

Notice how he elevates not just theology but philosophy as a required discipline in order to study Paul. Wright is qualified to study Paul. Jonathan Edwards—sorry no.

Wright goes on:
Some still use him [Paul] to legitimate an old-style 'preaching of the gospel' in which the basic problem is human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ. Others, without wishing to deny this as part of the Pauline message, are struggling to do justice to the wider categories and the larger questions that seem to be a non-negotiable part of Paul’s whole teaching. This, indeed, is the category into which I would put myself, as the present work will make clear. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 22.)

I think I will not bother to comment on that quote.

Wright repeatedly makes unsubstantiated claims about what Saul/Paul believed and what he thought. For example, he wrote:
But Saul of Tarsus was not interested in a timeless system of salvation, whether works-righteousness or anything else. Nor was he interested in understanding and operating a system of religion, a system of 'getting in' and/or 'staying in' (Sanders’ categories).(What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 32.)

This is pure speculation and one could argue not even very informed speculation. It is, however, convenient speculation given that it assumes what he wants to postulate: that Paul never criticized the Jews for works-based salvation. He then compounds his error by wrongly assuming that his guesses actually matter. Even if by spectacular luck he is right about what Paul thought, as I said before, it was not Paul's theology that was penned under divine inspiration. Nor was it writings that were unduly influenced by Paul's background.

No matter how much our knowledge of Paul's particular Pharisaic type increases, it is foolishness to overestimate what this implies about what Saul/Paul thought. We know a great deal more about, say, the twenty first century PCA beliefs than we do about 1st century Judaism. Yet that knowledge permits permits only educated guesses about what a particular member of a PCA congregation believes.

If Wright, as a historian, wants to theorize about Saul's/Paul's personal beliefs and personal theology, then he is correct in his assumption that a better understanding of 1st century Judaism is essential. To understand what Paul wrote in the book of Romans is another matter altogether. Whatever Paul wrote in Romans is correct, if necessary, in spite of Paul’s personal theology. And it is understandable to believers without advanced degrees. To assume otherwise is to underestimate the Holy Spirit. It puts Him at the mercy of doctrinal errors of the human writers (actually, transcribers) of scripture and denies the Creator of the Universe of the ability to formulate scripture that is understandable to His people apart from an almost Gnostic insight of an elite class, be it a Magisterium or those with Ph.D.'s in Philosophy from accredited universities.

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