Wrightsaid Q&A – January, 2004

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions each month from the Wrightsaid email list. I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page. The Wrightsaid list offers its humble thanks to Bishop Wright for taking time from his busy schedule to engage in this dialogue. These are his responses for January, 2004.

Question: What few books would you recommend as a foundation for understanding the NT?

The foundation for understanding the NT is at one level prayer, humility, and openness to what the living God may be saying in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  At another level, very closely integrated with this first one through the fact of the incarnation, the foundation is of course the knowledge of the history, culture and language of the time, i.e. NT Greek, a knowledge of the Jewish world of late antiquity, and the wider Greco-Roman context.  This doesn’t mean you have to be an ancient historian before you can understand the NT, but it is vital that those who are teaching in the church base their readings on real historical understanding rather than anachronistic assumptions.
I wrote my book The New Testament and the People of God precisely in order to address this need among my own students.  This was what I wanted them to know before they began; I found in tutorials and seminars I was constantly having to go through these basics rather than the topic set because otherwise they were making the wrong assumptions about what words and ideas meant, etc.

I actually still find that the big reference books, especially The Oxford History of the Christian Church and The Oxford Classical Dictionary, are invaluable on an almost daily basis.  The basic introduction by Achtemeier, Green and Thompson is excellent for those starting out.  The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible is very good.  But actually I would urge anyone who wants to get into the NT seriously to learn as much of it by heart as they can.  If in Greek so much the better.  Talk whole chapters and books on to cassette tape and play them in the car, when doing housework, etc etc.  There is no substitute for a ready, easy familiarity with the text itself.  Apart from anything else, learning whole passages rescues you from the out-of-context readings that so bedevil an early attempt to understand scripture.

Question: Could you give an overview of the remaining volumes in the Christian Origins Series and when they are scheduled for publication?  Has your research on Paul led you to any new conclusions from your earlier work?

I am to give the Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge this spring, on Paul.  I shall be attempting there to do a kind of short first draft of volume IV in the series.  When it will be finished, let alone published, I have no idea.  My new job is exciting and demanding and I hope that I will learn a lot more about what it means to live and preach the gospel in today’s world; but for the moment at least it is bound to slow up the writing.  My more recent work on Paul has helped me sharpen up some things I’ve been saying for a while but I don’t see any major new departures.  I am hoping in particular to show how the various newer readings of Paul – the new perspective (nb ONE variety of this in particular, very different from that of Sanders), the post-Hays reading of Paul and the OT, a combined covenantal/apocalyptic reading, a narrative understanding, and particularly the political reading (that I have called a `fresh perspective’ on Paul) – how all these belong together in a single integrated whole.  This is exciting because I don’t think anyone else is doing this and it’s got dramatic implications for readings of letters and passages.

Beyond Volume IV it’s hard to say.  My intention has always been to have a volume on the gospels and then a final one tying up theological and practical agendas. But the series has changed shape since I thought of it nearly fifteen years ago and I have no reason to suppose the next fifteen years will be any different!

Question: Your work in Paul has generated a great deal of controversy whether you are, or are not maintaining a fully Protestant view of justification.  In some ways, this problem appears difficult to counter, since you seem to be working in exegetical and biblical theology.  Are you working toward a point at which you can articulate a “doctrine of justification,” in a “systematic” or “dogmatic” fashion, or is that simply beyond the purview of your concern?

I would love to be able to do this, and indeed I pray about exactly this every week.  At the moment I do not have time to try. However my Edinburgh lecture sketches out some of the issues, I think.  I would urge those struggling with this issue to remember the question at the start of Alister McGrath’s book on Justification: we need to ask whether what the earliest Christians meant by their use of the dikaiosune word group is the same as what Christianity since Augustine has meant by justification.  Of course the latter is itself problematic.  But many, many Christians have seen `justification’ as more or less a synonym for ‘conversion’, which can’t be right for Paul.  My view (ironically, seeing where many of my American critics come from) is actually very close to a Reformed understanding – but with a strong and consistent attempt to rethink categories in the light of the first rather than the sixteenth centuries.

Question: How do your views of justification relate to what is taught in the 39 Articles on justification? Where do you agree/disagree with the Articles?

I agree with Articles 11, 12 and 13 which deal with this subject. But I do think that the word ‘merit’ in article 11 (‘…only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’) needs unpacking. Clearly in C16/C17 theology it played a particular role, which is not too far from that of Romans 5 where the obedience of the Messiah is the ground of ‘the many’ being declared to be `in the right’. But – this is perhaps a critical difference between my reading of Paul and that of some others – I do not see Paul saying that justification is what happens when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us; I see him saying (in Romans 6, classically) that the death and resurrection of Christ is to be reckoned to us. This needs teasing out further. I have tried to stress in various places that I am not trying to deny what the reformers were trying to affirm, only to ground in more fully biblical thinking the underlying truths of the faith. In particular (let me just say this to those out there who may need to hear it!) I am often puzzled and distressed when people question whether I really believe in the substitutionary meaning of Jesus’ death. I would simply say: read my published sermons; read chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God; ask yourself, not whether I go through the hoops of all the words that your tradition has told you we should say, but whether I represent fairly what scripture, and Jesus himself, said about the meaning of his death. That is my only aim.

Many greetings in Christ to all who read this. Pray for me as I do my best to work for the kingdom in the wonderful diocese of Durham, and particularly as I take my place in the Commission set up by Archbishop Rowan Williams to look into the ways we can live together in the Anglican Communion at this difficult time. Thank you!

+Tom Wright
Feast of the Epiphany 2004