Simon Gathercole and Larry Hurtado have published very helpful reviews of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Gathercole’s review is at Reformation21, and Hurtado’s is on his blog where you can find the pre-publication version and links to earlier comments.

Gathercole focuses on the three key issues at the heart of Wright’s project: Monotheism, Election and Eschatology. The longest section is on election where Gathercole raises some sharp questions about Wright’s view of justification focusing particularly on Wright’s view of justification as event and his definition of righteousness as covenant membership. In his review Hurtado remarks on Wright’s view of Paul’s Christology, election and eschatology. He also raises questions about Wright’s presentation of Paul as a novel thinker and whether Wright has given sufficient attention to ‘how much Paul also drew upon, reflected and developed convictions and traditions of “those who were in Christ” before him (e.g., Rom. 16:7), those with whom, Paul insists, he shared basic beliefs and message (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-11)’ (p.3).

One interesting feature of these two reviews is the differing opinions about the value of attempting to explain how Paul came to his Christological views. Note these comments, first from Gathercole and then Hurtado:

On the broader theme of the Christological reinterpretation of election, I had minor quibbles about some points. I am not as convinced as Wright is that we can easily identify the impulse which led Paul to come to the conclusions that he did. I wonder whether the combination of (a) the return to Zion motif, and (b) Wisdom theology, played such an important role in the development of Paul’s Christology (655). Indeed, one might wonder whether it is necessary (or for that matter, possible) to try to identify from Paul’s letters how he came to the Christology that he did. For Wright, such scepticism might I suppose appear to be an abdication of the historical task. But on the other hand, we know so little about the so-called “tunnel period” between c. 30-50 CE: we know what the Christology of Paul’s earliest letters looked like at the end of the tunnel, but before that, the outlook is dark, or at least rather gloomy. (Gathercole under Monotheism section)

In any case, for all his emphasis on Paul’s historical context, Wright’s aim really seems more to show that Paul’s beliefs form a coherently rounded theology than to address adequately how (in historical terms) Paul came to hold them. If, however, as Wright contends, Paul developed an unprecedented ‘mutation’ in ancient Jewish ‘monotheism’, it is surely all the more important to ask how this remarkable innovation arose. Certainly, Wright is correct to emphasise that Paul reflects a creative use of Jewish scriptures in developing/expressing his theology. But what in particular prompted and shaped this novel reading of these texts? Wright’s focus on Paul’s ideas is no doubt appropriate for a theology of Paul, but may leave some historical questions insufficiently addressed. (Hurtado, p.2)

Another interesting point is that both reviewers raise questions about Wright’s presentation of other views. Hurtado remarks, ‘In line with his previous publications, Wright also ridicules what he portrays as the view of some other scholars that Paul expected the dissolution of ‘the space-time universe’ (which may be another instance of caricature), and the undoubtedly widespread popular Christian notion that the future hope is to depart to a heavenly realm for existence as spirits/souls’ (p.2; his other instance of caricature is with Wright’s presentation of his view of the role of ‘divine/principal agent’ traditions in early Christology [p.1]). Gathercole comments on the second of Hurtado’s points:

Wright continues the emphasis here which he expounded at length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. I suppose my slight reservation lies in the presentation: the continuous polemic against a spiritualised heavenly eschatology becomes a little repetitive. Of course there are many people in the world who believe that our final destiny consists of our souls going to heaven when we die. Wright explicitly mentions American Evangelical Protestantism of the popular variety, at e.g. PFG, p.142 and n. 271. But such people are not the people who are going to read this book. In fact, ironically, the main scholarly target of Wright’s polemic against ‘going to heaven’ is someone who is about as far removed from popular American evangelicalism as one could imagine, namely Troels Engberg-Pedersen (pp.1399-1400). (in the section on Eschatology)

Both reviewers raise valid concerns about the way in which Wright has described these positions. I think the lack of specific examples of scholars who hold these views and detailed engagement with them is unfortunate particularly in light of Wright’s extensive engagement with Engberg-Pedersen, John Barclay and the apocalyptic circle associated with J. Louis Martyn.

These reviews give much more to think about and highlight issues that remain to be resolved in the study of Paul.

Ian Boxall’s new book, Discovering Matthew: Context, Interpretation, Reception (London: SPCK, 2014), is a welcome addition to the study of the Gospel of Matthew. Designed as an introduction to Matthew, Boxall sets out well the main issues in current scholarship and the key players in the various debates. He is not limited to only the classic works or the most recent positions; rather, he tries to give readers a feel for how debates have progressed, where they are, and where they might go. As well as gaining a sense for the state of present scholarship, Boxall aims to keep the text in front of the reader. His discussion is guided by Matthew and his presentation of Jesus, not simply what is fashionable at the moment in Matthean scholarship.

After a brief introduction that summarises the critical turn of the 19th century and lays out the content of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2 describes the range of critical approaches for reading Matthew. One finds here the standard references to source, form and redaction criticisms. As well, though, Boxall highlights (so-called) pre-critical readings. He also gives much attention to social scientific and narrative approaches. The strategies outlined in chapter 2 are taken up, more or less, in fuller detail in the remainder of the book. In chapter 3, the issues of authorship and date, source criticism and textual criticism are addressed. The structure of the book is also discussed. The characters and, to a lesser extent, places in Matthew’s Gospel are surveyed in chapter 4. With the rise of narrative criticism, interest in the characters of the Gospels has risen and Boxall develops this in his discussion. I had hoped for slightly more on the places mentioned in Matthew’s gospel.

Set within a narrative framework, in chapters 6-12 (about 100 pages) Boxall walks the reader through the content of Matthew’s Gospel highlighting the key themes and topics debated by scholars. He begins with the infancy narratives, addressing issues like Jesus as teacher and healer, the function of scripture, the church, and concludes with discussions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the discussions of these issues will be familiar ground to most scholars (even those of us who do not work much in Matthew), students should find this discussion insightful and accessible.

An important and welcome feature of Boxall’s book is the constant reference to the history of interpretation. Inspired, of course, by Luz’s monumental work, scholars have been keenly interested in how Matthew has been interpreted throughout church history. An important feature of Boxall’s contribution is that he often shows how today’s readings mirror ancient ones. For example, he notes the similarities between Bornkamm’s interpretation of the calming of the storm as a model of discipleship and earlier readings, such as Peter Chrysologus, bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century, who ‘offered an ecclesiological interpretation of the boat’ (p.117). Linking present interpretations with similar ones from the past should help eliminate the notion that all early interpretations are simply wrong and must be abandoned.

Boxall also notes how Matthew has been depicted in art. I think this is important as it helps us see how the texts have influenced others, and in turn how the depiction of scenes from the gospel may influence us in our readings. Perhaps if a revised edition is done, some pictures can be included to help get the full fell of the paintings.

While I would quibble over certain positions, as far as an introductory volume goes, this one is helpful. The book addresses all the standard features that one expects in an introductory book, but in a user-friendly and especially student-friendly manner. Students will benefit from the clarity of Boxall’s discussion.

The meaning of Romans 7 finally uncovered:

I was once alive apart from teaching, but when the end of the semester came, grading came alive and I died.

The very job that promised life proved to be death to me.

For grading, seizing an opportunity through the teaching, deceived me and through it killed me.

So the teaching is holy, and the classroom is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was grading, producing death in me through what is good, in order that grading might be shown to be sin, and through the classroom might become sinful beyond measure.

For we know that the teaching is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under grading.

I’m not clever enough to come up with this, but Marc Cortez is. (And on a more serious note, his little volume Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed is really helpful.)

Plan to arrive at SBL a day early this year. On Friday 21st November starting at 12:30 some of the world’s top Pauline scholars will gather to discuss ‘Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination’. This special session, being organised by my co-bloggers Ben and John and myself, includes presentations from N.T. Wright, Martinus de Boer, Loren Stuckenbruck, Philip Ziegler, Michael Gorman, Edith Humphrey, Douglas Campbell, Beverly Gaventa, and John Barclay.

Here is the description:

Across various branches of biblical and theological study, there is a renewed interest in ‘apocalyptic’. This development is seen particularly in the study of Paul’s theology, where it is now widely agreed that Paul promotes an ‘apocalyptic theology’. However, there is little agreement on what this means. Scholars from different perspectives have, as a result, continued to talk past each other. This special session provides an opportunity for leading Pauline scholars from different perspectives to engage in discussion about the meaning of Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Indeed, one of the strengths and aims of this event is that different and opposing views are set next to each other. The session will hopefully bring greater clarity to the ‘apocalyptic’ reading of Paul by providing much needed definition to central terms and interpretive approaches and by highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses.


One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

N.T. Wright’s volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God was eagerly anticipated by many and broke the back of many mail carriers. For those looking for some help through the massive two-volumes, Larry Hurtado is posting on some key issues. After an introductory post, in which he comments on the length of the work, Hurtado focuses on Wright’s Christology. In the second post, he questions Wright’s claim that in Paul’s view Jesus is the personal return of YHWH. In the third post, he challenges Wright’s understanding of how Jesus’ messiahship functioned in Paul’s thought and its significance for Pauline theology. All three posts are very helpful for seeing the differences between these two leading scholars. Also, in the comments Richard Bauckham and Crispin Fletcher-Louis have weighed in.

The posts can be found here: “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: Wright’s big Opus; “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: 2nd Posting; and Messiah and Worship.

In my experience one basic problem with contemporary preaching is that most preachers are poor speakers. Not only do many of them not have a good command of their subject matter, but they give relatively little time to thinking about how to present the material. This could stem from several reasons, for example: a lack of confidence when speaking publicly; lack of time to prepare; or a rejection of the idea that a sermon should be well delivered. The first of these can be overcome with time. The second arises because of the general downplaying of the sermon in many of today’s churches. The role of the pastor-preacher has shifted away from the preaching of God’s Word to an administrator who manages church resources and staff. Ministers find all their time occupied by hospital visits or counselling sessions . Well these things are important (and I don’t want to downplay their signficance), the focus on them as the key components of a minister’s responsiblities reveals a shift away from preaching.

The third point stems from a misunderstanding and misuse of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 2.1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (ESV)

This text is taken to mean that Paul didn’t give attention to how he spoke and whether he attempted to speak persuasively or not. Such a reading misses the contextual issues at play in the Corinthian church and overlooks the way in which Paul composes his letters.

The outcome of such neglect of speaking well, though, is that many people find the sermon boring and powerless, which breds the sense that the sermon is irrelevant to our contemporary lives. The striking thing, though, is that the ‘monologue’ is still a key element of public speaking in other fields. Political speeches are still highly valued, while people will listen to lectures from famous academics on subjects about which they know very little. The reason people listen to these others is because they speak well.

I think that the sermon has a vital role in the future of the church and the development of disciples. One key to recovering the power of the spoken Word is for ministers to give attention to how they speak. There has been signficant discussion about this in recent years, and a good place to start is the recent blog post by Ian Paul ‘Rhetoric in Preaching’, which draws attention to the place of rhetoric in contemporary society and in current reflections on preaching. He concludes by drawing attention to the practical implications of preaching persuasively:

Given the sense of growing hostility to Christian faith, the importance of good, persuasive, engaging preaching is not just about satisfying religious consumers in the supermarket of faith. Increasingly, Christians in the West need to have good reasons for what they believe, and encouraging faith involves continually making a persuasive case for trusting in God.


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