Wrightsaid Q&A – September, 2004

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions occasionally from the Wrightsaid email list. I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page.  These are his responses for September, 2004.

Question:

In your mind, what is the most interesting under-investigated question in Christian scholarship today?

Answer:

Difficult question, but I suspect it’s something that relates to the unspoken and unexamined assumptions about the split between religion/faith and real life. The effort to come out from under the shadow of the Enlightenment without falling into the black hole of deconstructive postmodernity — and to do so at every level, from the epistemological to the political with theology in the middle — is so huge, and to many Christians unimagined, that it will take another generation to make real headway, I reckon. Especially if the agenda is set by the wrong questions…

Question:

Other than the Bible, what books have been most influential in your life?

Answer:

Difficult because I have read quite eclectically all my life. But I did learn an enormous amount by reading C. S. Lewis’s main theological works, most of them two or three times, at a formative stage in my late teens. Even though I firmly disagree with C. S. L. on some things now I still regard him as having taught me some of what I know about how to think.

As I look round my shelves now and ask what I am most grateful to have read, Albert Schweitzer’s books on Jesus and Paul stand out — quite wrong in some ways but gloriously right in others. Ernst Kasemann’s commentary on Romans was a major milestone, again as much where I disagree as where I agree. Charles Cranfield’s commentary on Romans — and the essay now incorporated into it, on Paul and the Law — were enormously important to me in the early 1970s. My own teacher George B. Caird’s book The Language and Imagery of the Bible remains spectacularly important. But of course the books which are constantly getting off the shelves and on to the desk are the ancient texts, classical and Jewish, not least the Scrolls and Josephus; and the dictionaries (Oxford Dic of the Xn Church; Oxford Classical Dictionary; Oxford Companion to Xn Thought; and similar) which keep me up to date with all kinds of areas I haven’t been able to research for myself.

Question:

Does the Pauline phrase, “works of the law” refer exclusively to the so-called ceremonial portions of Torah (circumcision, sabbath, dietary laws) or to all that Torah required?

Answer:

Oh dear, this again. I wouldn’t call those portions ‘ceremonial’; that’s a label the C16 stuck on them, with its own baggage. And this can only really be answered by looking at the relevant passages – both in Paul and in 4QMMT. I refer the reader to my commentary on Romans in the New Interpreters Bible vol 10…

Question:

Is it possible that Paul’s phrase in Romans 12:1 “living sacrifices” might be his shorthand way of summing up and referring to baptism as a symbolic sacrifice, echoing back and picking up his discussion earlier in ch. 6?

Answer:

I doubt it. I don’t at the moment see anything in ch. 6 that makes me suppose Paul had in mind there a reference to the sacrificial cult. The Exodus is the main OT link (coming through the water and so being set free from slavery) — not that the Exodus and sacrificial cult are mutually exclusive, but I’d need to see it in the text.

Question:

When did you change your mind on the PISTIS CHRISTOU debate, and what was the deciding factor in the change?

Answer:

I don’t know when it was but I would guess some time in the mid 1980s. I suspect getting to know Richard Hays and his work was a factor in it, though I hasten to add that the fact that RH and I became good friends in the early 1980s has not prevented us going on seeing some things quite differently, so I wouldn’t have changed just to agree with him! The main factor was my grasp of Romans 3.1ff. in terms of God requiring faithfulness from Israel for the covenant to function. Again, see the commentary. This does not make me think that ALL possible references MUST go the same way, but it’s a strong push.

Question:

How would you evaluate your 1970s contribution to the Banner of Truth book The Grace of God in the Gospel?

Answer:

Well, the main thing I was learning at the time was the way in which divine sovereignty and human responsibility don’t actually cancel each other out. I can’t now recall which bits I wrote and which bits the others wrote: Sadgrove and Gardner wrote most, I wrote maybe 1/4, and Cheeseman a short section. But we all commented on one another’s bits of course. Amusingly, Michael Sadgrove is currently the Dean of Durham, where I am bishop. I haven’t actually looked at the book for years and years but I guess I would feel about it like I feel about most things I was doing at the age of 21: fun at the time, but I wouldn’t do it quite like that now.

Question:

How do you understand James 2:14ff? What does James mean when he says we are justified by works? How do you reconcile James to Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, and the Protestant tradition of sola fide? Are works instrumental in justification in some way?

Answer:

What James means by ‘works’ are clearly the living fruit of a lively faith; he does not mean ‘the works which mark out Jews from Gentiles’ (see above!). What he means by ‘faith’ is clearly ‘the bare Jewish confession of monotheism’, not the lively faith of which Paul speaks. What he means by ‘justify’ is the ultimate justification of which Paul too speaks in e.g. Romans 2.1-16, the future verdict delivered on the basis of the whole life led. Too many people forget that that remains basic for Paul; Paul’s ‘justification by faith’ is all about the future verdict being brought forward into the present. That isn’t what James is talking about.

Question:

IN NTPG, p. 461, the last paragraph, you said:

The forth and final aspect of Christian hope is the expectation of the return of Jesus. It is vital to stress both that most of the texts normally drawn on in this connection have nothing to do with the case, and that there are several others which still bear on it directly. Following our exposition in chapter 10, it should be clear that texts which speak of the “coming of the son of man on a cloud” have as their obvious first-century meaning the prediction of vindication for the true Israel.

According to what you wrote in other places, 1 Thess 4:15 – 17 and 1 Cor 15:51-52 are among “several others which still bear on it directly”.

Paul uses “we” in 1 Thess 4:15-17. The obvious referent of this pronoun in this context seems to be his readers and himself. When Paul said “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord”, it seems that he did not think of the possibility that none of his readers and himself would be alive until THN PAROUSIA TOU KYRIOU.

So, how does Paul’s “we” language does not suggest that “the Lord’s return itself must happen within a generation” (p. 463, NTPG)? Similarly Paul said in 1 Cor 15:51-52, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”. The obvious referent of this “we” here is also his readers and himself. So, how can “we shall not all sleep… at the last trumpet” not imply that some of his readers and himself would not sleep at the last trumpet?

Answer:

From Paul’s point of view, of course the return of Jesus might have occurred at any time, therefore it could be tomorrow — or today — and he and his readers might still be alive. But by Philippians he has faced the possibility that he may well die first (though he still thinks he may not), and by 2 Corinthians he has concluded that he probably will die first. Certainly from his perspective it remains a clear possibility that some of them will still be alive. But nothing in his theology hinges on that as a prediction which would then be falsified by subsequent generations of church history.

Question:

How do we explain the wide divergence of opinion between brilliant scholars in religious history regarding the historical Jesus and the Bible, and how can lay-believers, and nonbelievers particularly, correctly navigate and judge whose presuppositions, methodology, and conclusions re: Jesus and the Bible are (most) correct given the enormous number of different voices to be heard, the level of specialization, and apparent advanced education that the various scholars have?

Answer:

This is tricky of course, but it comes down to that rich combination of study, faith, support from Christian community, and so on. Actually, things have always been like this in reality, but most Christians have only known one tiny strand of the many traditions and so haven’t realized that they were being fed from one particular menu. The main thing is to go on coming back to the central texts and go on reading them, praying over them, puzzling over them in prayer and humility. God will not allow those who genuinely do that to be very much led astray, however much we may still disagree.

Question:

What are your views on the continuation or cessation of the charismata based on your studies of Paul?

Answer:

Nothing in Paul suggests that the so-called charismata would cease until the time when we shall know as we are known. The Spirit continues to blow at will, and anyone who tells you they know where it’s coming from and going to had better face John 3 and think again.

Warm greetings to all my readers! I covet your prayers for my somewhat rushed and pressurized ministry. You may like to know that Paul for Everyone: Romans is coming out next month (SPCK in UK, WJKP in USA); that a small book provisionally entitled Scripture and the Authority of God is due out in a few months; and that I am working on the book-version of the Hulsean Lectures I gave on Paul in Cambridge last spring — provisional title, Fresh Perspectives on Paul…

+Tom

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