Paul: A Biography
By N. T. Wright
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
N. T. Wright has written a lot of books, but I have not read a single one. Until this one came along. I’ve always been fascinated by Saul of Tarsus turned Paul the Apostle. He is, after all, second only to Jesus himself on the list of most important persons in the history of Christianity.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus turned a rabid anti-Jesus crusader into a fervent evangelist, organizer, and theologian of the new movement, whom Wright describes as “one of the most successful public intellectuals of all time” (416). What he launched and led for three decades turned into the single most powerful force in Western Civilization—to this day!!
How it happened, and what he did and where he went and what he said comes to us from two sources: his own letters (and there may be as many as 13, although most scholars including Wright put it at ten or fewer) and the narrative published under the name of Luke, The Acts of the Apostles. Piecing it all together means speculating about a lot of things: his age and family connections, when things happened and where, even how he died and when and where. Wright tries his hand at all of these but offers nothing new. His letter by letter interpretation of Paul’s life and thought is way too long; his presentation of the great lion of God could have been with far fewer words.
But I endured to the end—432 pages, plus notes, indices, and a chronological chart. And I did so because I was interested in two elements of his treatment of the theology of Paul: how he connects Paul with the promises made to the patriarchs and how he interprets the meaning of salvation.
The latter is a dominant theme in this book (and in several others, I am told). He rejects the popular Reformation version that places Jesus on the cross to make atonement for our sins—individually and collectively—on the hopes that this sacrifice will push us to contrition, repentance, faith, and obedience, thus assuring us of a future in heaven with Jesus.
This is the salvation I was taught and by which I came to know and love Jesus so many years ago. I have often taught and preached this version of things, but as the years have gone by, I have been less and less compelled by this appeal and have looked for another way to understand what God was doing in Christ.
Wright is one of many who have offered a different version of all this, one that is rooted in both Christian scripture and Christian history. Jesus Christ confronted the powers of his day, political power, economic power, and religious power. He challenged their legitimacy and their future. When they conspired to kill him, God raised him from the dead to signal God’s acceptance of his message and to launch a new way to live—the Jesus way—at once simple, sacrificial, courageous, prayerful, kind, generous, and hopeful. The community produced by these counter-cultural practices is what Jesus termed living in the kingdom of God.
I like this and find it attractive, consistent with the Scriptures, and compelling as a critique of other ways of managing life in these days—ways dominated by political power, economic achievement, artistic performance, and personal pleasure.
But there is a second thing about Wright that helped me, namely, the way he connects the gospel with the promises God made to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but mostly Abraham). God promised them numerous offspring, a specific piece of land, and a way to be a blessing to the whole world.
Jesus rarely spoke about these things, and most preachers have followed suit. Those that have made a big deal out of these promises have focused on the land of Palestine, the modern state of Israel, and the end of the world—none of which I find convincing. (Some do, though, and they are in places of political power these days!!)
The inheritance of which Paul regularly writes, according to Wright, is precisely these promises of space, off-spring, and significance made so long ago and treasured for so long by the people known first as Hebrews, then Israelites, and now Jews.
Far from limiting the promise of land to a tiny space on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Paul envisions God gifting the whole world, the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth to those who are, as Write prefers to phrase it, “in the Messiah” (instead of the more traditional “in Christ”). The progeny of which God spoke to Abram (Abraham), to number more than the stars and more than the sand, is none other than the world-wide fellowship of followers of the Messiah (Jesus).
And the blessing? That, of course, is Jesus himself, born of Mary, bearer of good news to everyone, healer of the sick, host for every meal, rejected by the world, endorsed by God, and anointed the agent of the new creation.
This, also, I find compelling.
So, for these two reason, I tolerate the unimaginative reconstruction of the life, travels, and controversies of Paul the Apostle and accept as a gift from God these two winsome reformulations of what the man tried to teach and practice. And I say, thanks be to God.