March 2014

I’ve just listened to N. T. Wright’s lecture on “Israel in Pauline Theology” from the HBU conference held a little over a week ago (see below). I’ve read Wright plenty before on this and related issues, so there were no real surprises here in his exegesis and overall reading of Paul. For Wright, Jesus Christ and the multi-ethnic church are the true Israel. Thus, Paul does not anticipate any yet-fulfilled mass conversion of Israelites prior to the second coming (as the scholarly majority seems to understand Rom 11:25-26 to predict).

I’m quite happy with the way Wright interprets many individual texts, though I disagree with him on at least a couple of significant issues in the lecture (esp. Rom 11:25-26), and ultimately with his final position. I won’t quibble with the content of his exegesis, since many capable scholars have already done this elsewhere (in addition to many mainline commentators, see, e.g., the recent article by my colleague Michael G. Vanlaningham, “An Evaluation of N. T. Wright’s View of Israel in Romans 11,” BibSac 170 (2013): 179-93). But there are a few things Wright says or does (methodologically) here that I think are just plain odd, even for him.

First, given the topic of Wright’s lecture, I was surprised by how quickly he asserted his position on the meaning of “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 and then just moved on. Near the end of the 57th minute, he says, “[In] Galatians 6:16, he [Paul] calls the church ‘the Israel of God’; I think there is no doubt about that.” That’s it. No exegesis and no argument. This is unfortunate considering how much discussion that verse has received and how many scholars plainly disagree with Wright on this text (see, e.g.,  Susan Grove Eastman, “Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9-11,” NTS 56 [2010]: 367-95; Bruce Longenecker, “Salvation History in Galatians and the Making of a Pauline Discourse,” JSPL 2 [2012]: 65-87, at 79-80).

To be sure, Wright warns at the beginning of the lecture that he will principally focus on passages that don’t use the term “Israel” at all. I suppose that’s fine. But it is astonishing that he then so quickly bypasses those that do while also maintaining how crucial they are for a coherent reading of Paul. What I mean is that, in my opinion, Wright terribly exagerates the significance of Gal 6:16 and Rom 11:25-26 in Pauline thought when, at the 59th minute, he says, “if those passages don’t refer to the church, then Paul has just unmade the whole theological structure he has so obviously got throbbing through his head and his heart.” Again, this is just asserted, not argued: it is as if he simply forces his entire pre-conceived ecclesiology onto the two passages. Exegetical debates aside, it is just baffingly to me that Wright would place so much significance on two texts he hardly discusses in this hour-long lecture, or to put it the other way around, that he would hardly discuss two texts he considers to be so important.

Finally, as a progressive dispensationalist, I was confused at the 12th minute when he responded to the claim of some dispensationalists (not me) that in Romans 11 Paul predicts the return of the Jews to the land. Wright says in response, “This would be odd [for Paul to predict], not least, because of course when Paul wrote Romans, they [Israel] had not left it [i.e., the land] in the first place,” a comment that sounds like it incited a great deal of laughter. But what does Wright mean about the Jews having not left the land? Had the Jewish Diaspora come to an end before 57 AD? There were obviously thousands upon thousands of Israelites still scattered across the Mediterannean. So I don’t get it. This is a very odd criticism, and one that too quickly won the audience’s approval.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Wright’s attempt to read ALL of Paul and to make his entire theological vision work together, even if I disagree with how he goes about it. I may have my summer school Romans class listen to this lecture (and maybe another one of Wright’s on justification), since it provides a good representation of Wright’s system and is generally quite easy to follow.

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.

I noted this at the Texts and Traditions in the Second Century

For those of you in the North Texas area, TCU has a regular gathering to discuss the second century called the Second Century Seminar. The next meeting will be April 3rd and features a paper by David Moessner on the Papias fragments in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical Histories. For more details and to RSVP (please RSVP by March 24th) send an email to Lindsey Trozzo at

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.

Paul and Judaism landscape

Let me invite you to a major event we’re hosting here at HBU next week. N.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now Professor at St Andrews University, will be giving two public lectures in Dunham Theater: Wednesday (3/19) at 11am and Thursday (3/20) at 7pm. All are welcome, and there is no cost to attend nor need for registration for the conference (see below) to come to Wright’s lectures. In addition to his very helpful For Everyone series, Wright has written numerous scholarly works that have helped shape the face of New Testament studies in the last several decades, not least his Christian Origins series. In fact, his very recent work on Paul in this series will be the source of his talks here: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. (If 1600 pages is too much, check out the short version in Paul: In Fresh Perspective.)

Concurrent with Dr Wright’s visit, we are hosting a conference on Paul and Judaism. Internationally respected Pauline scholars, Beverly Gaventa and Ross Wagner, will be our other plenary speakers, in addition to shorter paper sessions. If you want to push in a little deeper on Paul, we would love for you to join us for the conference.

We hope you invite friends to come hear these excellent scholars with you. For more details on any of these items, see the conference website:

Since I regularly teach book studies in the Pauline epistles to students who have no knowledge of Greek, and I generally dislike assigning lengthy commentaries as textbooks, I am always on the look out for non-/less-technical, affordable academic resources focusing on individual NT books. A good example of what I mean is Bruce W. Longenecker, The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians (Abingdon, 1998). Although Longenecker’s volume provides a focused reading of Paul’s letter and engages various scholarly debates, the book itself is intended to be accessible to non-specialists and does a fine job of showing how one scholar interprets all/most of Galatians. Additional examples include Timothy Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (InterVarsity, 2004). Similar, though in certain ways quite different, is Joseph Hellerman’s Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, 2013), which, dispite its title, is really a distillation and more practically-oriented version of his SNTS volume Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (CUP, 2005).

I’m seeking to identify additional titles belonging to this genre. If readers know of similar resources, please do share in the comments. Thanks!