Book Review: Jesus, Paul and the People of God
From THE PNEUMA REVIEW, Spring 2012
Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 294 pages.
Every time I read N. T. Wright I come away edified, instructed, inspired, and even transformed. This book is no exception. As in much if not all of his other work (I am reluctant to be emphatic about the all since I do not want to give the misleading impression that I have read all of Wright's books—I do not think that I will live long enough to do that, especially since the former bishop of Durham writes books faster than I can read!), Jesus is lifted up; the benefit of this book is that we also get a glimpse of how Wright sees St. Paul lifting Jesus up as well. Let me explain through a cursory overview of the two parts of this book.
As a product of the nineteenth annual Wheaton Theology Conference (at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois) held in April 2010, the volume features eight chapters responding to the work of the newly appointed chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. Half engage Wright's focus on Jesus (in part I) while the other half interact with Wright's understanding of Paul (part II). Each chapter includes a brief rejoinder by Wright at the end, while each part concludes with a lengthier reflection by Wright on whither historical Jesus and whither Pauline studies in the life of the church, respectively (in part I on Jesus, quite a bit lengthier—about 45 pages worth, the longest chapter of the book). To be sure, the conference organizers had to be selective in inviting respondents to Wright's work, so the essayists engage Wright's corpus from their respective vantage points.
For instance, Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller Theological Seminary) probes the relative absence of the Fourth Gospel in Wright's christology that has so far been the focus of his multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God series, while Richard Hays (Duke Divinity School) takes up methodological questions (in dialogue with Karl Barth and Hans Frei, among others) in Wright's quest for the historical Jesus. The contemporary socio-economic relevance of Wright's understanding of Jesus' inauguration of the reign of God is dialogically and creatively presented by Sylvia Keesmaat (Institute for Christian Studies and Toronto School of Theology) and Brian Walsh (University of Toronto). Jesus' eschatology is also discussed by Nicholas Perrin (Wheaton College) vis-a-vis the ethics of the reign of God. On the Pauline side, topics such as the gospel and of the righteousness of God (Edith Humphrey, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), the doctrine of the church in relationship to "Emerging" ecclesiologies (Jeremy Begbie, Duke University), St. Paul's eschatology (Markus Bockmuehl, University of Oxford), and the Reformation doctrine of justification (Kevin Vanhoozer, Wheaton College) are taken up. Each of the authors writes insightfully and engages with the broad spectrum of relevant scholarship, while the back-and-forth "theological dialogue with N. T. Wright" (the book's subtitle) effectively keeps readers tuned in.
As Vanhoozer points out, Wright's body of scholarship is slowly but surely initiating a paradigm change, not just in historical Jesus or historical Paul scholarship but also in the fields of New Testament Studies and even of historical, dogmatic/doctrinal, and systematic theology. Of course, this is happening in tandem with other developments such as postliberal theology and the New Perspective on Paul initiatives, the latter especially to which Wright has made his own substantive, even if also critical, contributions. The result, methodologically, is a sure-footed via media between conservativism and liberalism, between orthodoxy and historicism, between modernism and postmodernism, between biblical theology and theological interpretation, etc. More importantly, it is precisely in and through a careful rereading of the New Testament in particular and the biblical canon as a whole that Wright is forging a fresh understanding of the Gospel in Jesus Christ as it relates to God's election of Israel, to the formation of the church as new people of God in relationship to the restoration of Israel, and to the mission of the people of God in the present time. To be sure, there will be detractors a plenty given all of the ground covered across the Wrightian corpus, but even if he is only half right, there are many implications for what that means for faithful Christian discipleship in our present time. (And again, even if Wright is only half right, there will be even more implications to be discerned from out of the process of correcting his proposals.)
Renewalists—those who find themselves within and/or identify with pentecostal and charismatic Christianity—need to take up and read Tom Wright's many books, if they have not begun to do so already. For the uninitiated, this volume under review will serve as an excellent introduction to what Wright has been up to, in particular his two chapters concluding each part of the book. Four major points of intersection deserve mention (among many others that constraints of space and time prevent from registration here). First, Wright's dogged quest for the historical Jesus presents us with a fresh perspective on the identity of the Galilean Jew occluded by the theological tradition. This is a fully-human Jesus who yet fulfills through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven God's plans to restore Israel and redeem the world. The Gospel is thus about what God accomplishes in Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder what might ensue in a conversation about Jesus, about God, and about God's saving purposes when, for instance, Oneness pentecostals engage with the work of N. T. Wright? Renewalists in the pentecostal tradition—both Oneness and trinitarian—love Jesus; it is also palpably evident that N. T. Wright does as well. How might a reconsideration of the person and work of Christ unfold in a dialogue between pentecostal renewalists and Wright's understanding of Jesus? Such a conversation may be best positioned to revisit the scriptural witness afresh, especially in light of the anti-creedal postures that animate Oneness readings of the Bible.
Second, renewalists are people of mission. What shows forth plainly in Wright's scholarship is not only that Jesus was a person on a divinely ordained mission, but also that those who embrace his name—beginning with St. Paul, for example—are also called and empowered to engage with that same mission, one that involves the renewal of Israel and the redemption of the world. Renewal missiologies, however, can receive a major boost in light of Wright's insistence that the salvation intended by Jesus involves not only individual hearts and lives but also has sociopolitical and economic dimensions. Renewalists who proclaim a "five-fold" or "full" gospel often still are not as holistic as they might be. N. T. Wright shows how the basic thrust of the Gospel involves these domains as well. In turn, might renewalists also show that the full Gospel includes the charismatic and empowering work of the Holy Spirit that transforms even the ends of the earth?
Third, renewalists are eschatologically oriented. They are, as Steven Land notes, people who have a passion for the kingdom or reign of God. Wright's Jesus is the eschatological king who inaugurates God's final plans to save the world, and Wright's Paul proclaims this eschatological Gospel while inviting the people of God to inhabit, embrace, and work out its meaning in the world. Here then is a vision of the coming reign of God that does not get hung up with elaborate "end-time" charts but is nevertheless deeply and palpably motivated by what the Spirit of Jesus is doing in these "last days" (Acts 2:17) to save the world. What emerges is a partially realized eschatology, but one that is replete with ecclesiological, discipleship, ethical, and missional implications. In conversation with Wright, renewal missiologies not only can affirm the basic thrust of at least some versions of the prosperity theology (those emphasizing the difference God makes in the material aspects of our lives) without embracing its greed, consumerism, and materialism, but also can be emboldened to bear the kind of prophetic witness to the world that characterized the ministry of Jesus and the message of Paul.
Last, but not least, I read N. T. Wright and am driven back to the scriptures that he carefully attends to. Wright is no bibliolater; but he is committed to the apostolic testimony as preserved in the biblical canon. Renewalists are also people of the book, although their "this-is-that" hermeneutic oftentimes collapses the distance between the scriptural and the present horizons. Wright's critical and historical realism is a solid reminder to renewalists that "what happened back then" is fundamentally important for Christian life today; but renewalists can also contribute to Wright's accomplishments the testimony that what happened back then continues to happen today—thereby providing concrete witness to the possibilities inherent in Wright's own emphasis that the drama of scripture needs to be lived into, replayed, and improvised by each generation. The point is that the Bible is a living book, and Wright's writings and renewal testimonies both bear complementary witnesses to that fact.
In each of these ways, I as a renewal theologian am challenged by Tom Wright. Reading Wright invites me to love Jesus more, to be more emboldened in testifying to the risen Christ, to long for the coming of the ascended one to finally redeem all of creation, and to return again and again to the wellsprings of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ as mediated through the apostolic testimony. When I was a child I went to the altar regularly to give my heart to Jesus. N. T. Wright invites me not to stop converting to Jesus even as an adult.
Reviewed by Amos Yong
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Amos Yong is J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he also is director of the PhD in Renewal Studies program. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and books including Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture (New York University Press, 2011), Who is the Holy Spirit: The Acts of the Spirit, the Apostles, and Empire (Paraclete Press, 2011), The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination (Eerdmans, 2011), and The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Eerdmans, 2011). For a full list of publications, see regent.edu/acad/schdiv/faculty_staff/faculty/yong.cfm