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An Evening Conversation on Paul with James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright

dunn wright conversation

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. This article is an edited transcript of the second of a two-part conversation recorded on October 25, 2004. The complete conversation used to be available in PDF format from the N.T. Wright Page but appears to no longer be available. Special thanks to James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright for graciously taking the time to proofread and further revise the manuscript to enable a more effective transition from the spoken word to the written word.

The New Perspective

Wright: Jimmy began the last session by quizzing me about the phrase “the third quest for the historical Jesus,” which I coined, and so I’m going to begin this session by quizzing him about the phrase “the new perspective on Paul,” which he coined.

Jimmy and I go back a long way when it comes to the new perspective, but the phrase “new perspective” comes from a lecture in 1982 which was published in 1983. So, Jimmy, where is the new perspective now? And in a nutshell, because obviously we could talk about it all night, how do you see the debate sitting now?

Dunn: Let me go back and set the scene a little.

The new perspective was an attempt to set the record straight in reference to the traditional or Lutheran perspective. That perspective tended to operate with a view of Judaism as very legalistic, narrow, and bigoted, so that what Paul was objecting to was the idea that you could “earn” your way to salvation—that you paid your way to heaven—and that this is what all Israel taught. “Works of the law” were works that you did to prove to God that you were deserving of entry into the new age. Your “boasting” was boasting in your achievement, in good works.

The new perspective really begins by asking whether this is the case. In Judaism it doesn’t appear that it was assumed that you had to “earn” your way to become acceptable to God. It was E.P. Sanders who made this breakthrough, but before him there were many Jewish scholars, very sympathetic to Christianity, who were quite puzzled by this presentation of the Judaism that Paul was attacking because it wasn’t the Judaism they knew.

E.P. Sanders started with the observation that Judaism begins its soteriology with the conviction that Israel had been chosen by God to be God’s people. The ten commandments begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2, NRSV). The act of salvation—the act of deliverance—is God’s prior choice of Israel. Then comes the ten commandments, the statement of what God expects of his people. So the commandments are not a way of earning God’s favor but a way of showing how the people of God should live. That’s the basic point that had to be made in terms of the new perspective.

The other key feature of the new perspective begins from an observation made particularly by Krister Stendahl in the last generation: that Paul’s theology of justification emerges as his attempt to explain how it is that Gentiles are acceptable to a Jewish God. Prior to Paul it was characteristically assumed that in order to be acceptable to God they had to become Jews. But Paul discovered—the early Gentile mission discovered—that the gospel of Jesus preached to Gentiles was received by faith, by faith alone. Gentiles received the Spirit, God’s sign of acceptance; so that was that! Paul’s whole concern, as apostle to the Gentiles, is to defend this gospel, this understanding of how the gospel works. This gives a quite different twist to the old debate about justification by faith. It’s not just about the problem of individuals trying to earn salvation by pulling their bootstraps. It begins as a statement of the way in which God accepts all who believe. The gospel is for all who believe, as Paul again and again emphasizes.

Those were really, I think, the two basic starting points.

Wright: Would you agree with the following analysis of how all this happened? The mainstream of New Testament studies from the Reformation until very recently—certainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—was being led by German Lutherans who had a very definite law-gospel antithesis. Had it instead been led by people in the Reformed as opposed to the Lutheran tradition, the new perspective would never have been necessary. If you take the theology of someone like Ridderbos or Charles Cranfield, you find exactly the same idea in principle, which is that the law was never given as a ladder of good works up which people ought to climb to save themselves; if anyone ever thought that, that was an abuse of the law, because grace and particularly the covenant precedes obedience.

I find this very ironic, because if you were to go on to Google and were to type in “Tom Wright” +”justification by faith,” you would turn up many American web sites from the Presbyterian Church of America and various other strongly Reformed centers like Westminster Seminary which are extremely rude about the two people sitting on this platform tonight for having sold Paul down the river and given up the genuine Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. This is really quite bizarre, because I think that what we have both done in taking forward Sanders’ proposal theologically—Sanders is really not a theologian, he’s more of an historian—I see what we’re doing as actually much more on a Reformed map than a Lutheran map, precisely because of the emphasis on the covenant and grace as basic, and on the Law from the start as being the way of life for the redeemed people. This corresponds to Luther’s tertiary use of it, if you like, but it’s much easier to do it in a Reformed or Calvinist framework. Would you be happy with that?

Dunn: That’s entirely so. I rediscovered, as it were, my Reformed heritage in all this because I was brought up Presbyterian. I was a strong Calvinist in my youth, and one of the impressive things about Calvin is that he sees the continuity of the covenants. The covenant of grace is the dominant category running through the Old and New Testaments.

Wright: Grand narrative, you mean.

Dunn: Well, a motif, shall we say. And likewise, a very important point: Calvin’s work is systematic – Luther was never systematic like that. Calvin is able to integrate better what is typically called now a “participationist” soteriology (“in Christ”) and the forensic emphasis. One of the sad things about this rebuke coming from many in the States is that they want to operate entirely in forensic categories. They haven’t really integrated the en Christo, the “in Christ” motif, which is so fundamental to Paul. The term “in Christ” occurs far more frequently in Paul than justification language.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: It’s absolutely crucial—the whole sense of Christian life as being conformed to Christ, becoming like Christ in his death and resurrection. This is a way of understanding how it is that Christians can be expected to do good works. This is a very important motif that a law-gospel antithesis almost prevents you from getting into. It really snarls you up in your Christian theology and in its outworking.

Judicial vs. Mystical

Wright: Yes. I would just be interested to hear your comments on this, Jimmy. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer was writing in Paul and his Interpreters about, and then developing further inMysticism of Paul the Apostle, this same antithesis between “juridical” categories, as he called them, and “mystical” categories. He would say Romans 1 to 4 is juridical because it’s all about justification and the law, and then Romans 5 to 8 is what he called “mystical,” it’s about being “in Christ.”

Now we could argue whether “mystical” was actually the right word to use, but there’s a great divide between those two, and there’s an oddity already about that in that if you look at Galatians 3 and 4, you get all the material which is in Romans 1 to 4 and 5 to 8 scrunched together as though it’s all about the same thing. It’s not a different set of categories at all; these two belong together. But then between Schweitzer and Sanders you get much more Lutheran exegesis, not least from interpreters like Käsemann and Bultmann, for whom justification (whatever they mean by it) is still the primary thing. Everything else is just kind of an outworking, trying to subsume it under the Christian life, post-justification. Then in Sanders you get the same antithesis between “forensic” and “participatory” categories, which are really just like Schweitzer’s categories.

But I have argued—and others have agreed with this, I think Richard Hays not least—that if we take the covenant as the real theological controlling category, in a way in which (ironically) Sanders never did, then you see that the forensic outworking (when Paul needs to argue about Jews and Gentiles not least) and the so-called “participationist” outworking are two different outflows of the same basic covenantal theology, which is for Paul a new covenantal theology, a renewed covenantal theology, à la 2 Corinthians 3 or Romans 8. Would you be comfortable with that?

Dunn: Not so much on the covenant as the governing linking thing. It strikes me that the two antithetical positions that are characteristic of the debate fail to take seriously passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3 which talk about the righteousness of God “in Christ,” the righteousness from God as only possible “in him.” Paul had no difficulty, it would appear, in integrating these two categories which theologically have been pursued separately.

Wright: Which implies that we’re telling the wrong story or getting the wrong framework or something.

Dunn: Again, the “story” thing I’m less comfortable with, because what I see is different ways of presenting the divine-human relationship and the soteriological relationship. There is a forensic story, a judicial story, a story of law-courts. That’s one metaphor which runs quite far, but the “in Christ” doesn’t naturally fit with that. Well, does that matter? It’s not a matter of synthesizing it into a single story; these are different ways of putting the same spiritual reality, the same divine reality, the same soteriological reality, and the fact that Paul was able to hold the two apparently incompatible images together, that should be enough for us.

Wright: I basically agree with that, though I think we tease it out slightly differently, and probably I would want actually a more holistic, elegant view.

Dunn: A grand narrative.

Final Judgment

Wright: Exactly. So, let me cut to the chase. I’d really like you to tell me how that comes out for you at the moment in relation to those several passages, three or four at least in Paul, where he talks quite explicitly about a final judgment according to works. Now, whenever I mention anything about a final judgment according to works, somebody pops up like a jack-in-the-box and says that I’m going soft on justification by faith. What do you do with all that?

Dunn: This is right. I get the same rebukes thrown at me: “Ah, you’re going down the Pelagian route! You’re a semi-Pelagian!” I just have to say, there is this emphasis in Paul on judgment according to works. He expects his converts to do good, to produce the fruit of the Spirit, the harvest of righteousness. He hopes to be able to present his converts before God’s throne, the throne of Christ, “irreproachable,” “blameless,” “mature,” “perfect.” If your only theology is that the believer is a sinner, as much a sinner until the day he or she dies as from the day of conversion, you’re missing out that whole dimension.

I don’t disagree with the fact that we always remain sinners, and every time we come to God we come as sinners, but there is this other dimension of Paul that has to be taken seriously, and if you don’t take it seriously, you’re just ignoring large chunks of Paul’s letters.

Wright: Yes. Can I just have a stab at it? Because each time I say it, it comes out slightly differently.

I do think that Paul actually makes a clear distinction in time between the future justification or judgment (those are the same word, basically), and present justification, which is on the basis of faith. I think he keeps those in absolute and appropriate tension throughout, because the point about justification by faith in the present is that it is the anticipation in the present, on the basis of faith, of the verdict which will be issued in the future on the basis of the entirety of the life led.

Interestingly, in the first main chapter of Francis Watson’s book, he says much about Romans 1:16, 17 and Romans 3:21-26, as well as some of the earlier verses in chapter 3, but he never discusses any of the verses in chapter 2, which really makes sense of how you get from chapter 1 to chapter 3. This is odd because part of his argument is that you have to pay close attention to the actual detail of what Paul says. But in Romans 2:1-16 you have a future scenario which could in principle be said, I imagine, by many second-temple Jews, although Paul nuances it in terms of Jew and Gentile alike (then the crunch at the end is that God judges the secrets of people “according to my gospel by Christ Jesus”). But the basic thrust is that at the last day, all will be judged according to the totality of the life that they have led. Some have said that Paul is just setting it up as a hypothetical thing and then just knocking it down, saying no one can get in that way, so there’s got to be an easier way, namely faith. That’s a trivialization of Paul’s argument.

The whole point then is that God in Christ brings forward the verdict of the last day into the present and says that when somebody believes the gospel, they are declared to be dikaios, in the right. Then they are launched upon this life in which—and I’m totally in agreement with Jimmy here—Paul again and again speaks about doing things which will redound to one’s credit on the last day.

All those who were brought up as good evangelical Protestants are tempted to say, “You’re not supposed to say that, Paul.” But then you read 1 Thessalonians (I heard a paper by Lionel North inCambridge a year or two ago on this) where Paul asks, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” And we expect him to say, if we’re good evangelical Protestants, “The blood and righteousness of my Lord Jesus,” but he doesn’t. He says “Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19, 20, NRSV)!

Paul is quite clearly not so embarrassed about saying things that we have done will redound to our credit at that last day. But the point is that this does not in any way undermine justification by faith, because justification by faith is a statement that in the present time, on the basis of faith alone—hence not on the basis of ethnic identity, moral achievement, any personal civic status whatever—one is declared to be a member of God’s people, which is why justification by faith is the basis of ecclesiology.

Perseverance & Assurance

Dunn: Yes. One of the most difficult things for me as a junior Calvinist in days gone by was to face up to Paul’s warnings about failure to persevere in Christian life, his own presentation of himself as running a race, and having to be very disciplined in case he’d be disqualified, as well as the warnings to his readers in Rome that if you Christians live according to the flesh, you will die.

One of the five points of Calvinism, as you know, is the perseverance or preservation of the saints, and I had to face up to what seems to me undeniable: that Paul brings out the real possibility of Christians falling away and failing to attain the finishing line. For example, in Philippians 3, you remember, he insists on his own account:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14, NRSV).

It’s the same imagery as the end of 1 Corinthians 9 about the danger of being disqualified. He doesn’t hesitate to use this language. So Paul is very clear on the importance of Christians being very serious about their ethical responsibility in discipleship. And I think it should be equally clear that he warns of the possibility of failure. So final justification, judgment and so on, is going to have to take that into account as well.

Wright: I actually do it rather differently from you, and I think I’ve just discovered why you’re a Methodist, which I’ve always wondered. The move against final perseverance might indicate a more open Wesleyan stance. I don’t know, maybe that wasn’t the only reason.

Dunn: No, it was ecumenism.

Wright: But consider Romans 5 through 8. I think that’s a set piece argument. I think when Paul starts to dictate Romans 5 he has the whole thing in mind. It’s almost formulaic, you know. Every 11 or 12 verses you’ve got the argument rounded off “through Jesus Christ” or “in Christ Jesus.” It’s a very sustained argument. He knows at the beginning of 5 how he’s going to end in 8 because it has a symphonic structure to it. The whole of Romans 5 through 8 is an argument for assurance, and despite the truth in everything you say, nevertheless Romans 5 to 8 is saying “those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30, NRSV), and that’s part of the point of justification by faith. Then and there is given that assurance, even though that has to be tested to the limit and has to face the possibility that faith itself might prove false.

Dunn: Yes.

Wright: But in 1 Corinthians 3 (where albeit he’s talking about Christian work rather than simply Christians per se), he speaks of those who build on the foundation with wood and hay and stubble, whose work will be burned up when the Day appears. He says nevertheless that person will be saved “but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15, NRSV), which is (as far as I’m aware) the only passage in the New Testament which says something like that, “saved nevertheless by the skin of your teeth.” It’s a very strange and dark passage.

Dunn: Well, can I come back on that one?

Wright: Sure. Yes. Absolutely.

Dunn: My point there is, as in all these arguments, to take seriously all that Paul says.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: I keep meeting people who have taken up one aspect of Paul and so emphasized it that they either forget the rest or fit it in awkwardly.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: On the one hand Paul can speak with unshakeable assurance. I am thinking of Romans 8, a wonderful passage, my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, with its wonderful hymn of assurance at the end. Paul can speak like that. But he can also say the other things—all these warnings and expressions of concern for his converts, that they persevere right to the end. So it’s holding both emphases in balance. Often we’re not able to tie them all together into a neat package or a grand narrative or whatever, but that shouldn’t worry us. What should worry us is that we’re not giving weight to things that Paul gave weight to.

Wright: I totally agree. For me, if there are grand narratives, they’re scaffolding around the building to help us appreciate and clean up and tidy up the building. But when you’ve got the building straight you take the scaffolding down again, not because it hasn’t done its job but because it has.

So for me the bottom line is, whether having done all the homework and looked at all the stories, you can then sit down with Romans, Galatians, Philippians, whatever, and actually read it through and appreciate, verse by verse and line by line, what is being said. If you can’t – if you have to say, as people did for generations about Romans 9-11, this is in square brackets, it’s an old sermon that Paul just stuck in here, like C.H. Dodd said—then basically you should assume, if you draw that conclusion, that you’ve taken a seriously wrong turn in the exegesis somewhere. Paul can have little asides, but again and again, his letters are very carefully crafted. Until you’ve seen how the different strands fit together in that symphonic fashion, you haven’t actually done business with him.

We should move on. There are just two other areas which we promised ourselves we would talk about. We haven’t actually covered “the works of the law,” but I think we probably more or less agree about that. We disagree about how Paul sits in relation to 4QMMT, but that’s a bit technical.

Dunn: We do, yes. You miss the point there.

Wright: Well, that’s for another time. There’s one more thing which I suspect we agree on, and then one thing which Jimmy and I have never I think talked about, which I really do think is important and want to get to.


First, the ecumenical subject. Ever since I read Richard Hooker on justification many years ago, I’ve taken this very seriously. We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, we’re justified by faith by believing in Jesus. It is remarkable how many people make belief in justification by faith the thing which divides the church. Hooker said, very dangerously, early in the Elizabethan period, that because this is so—and forgive me my Roman Catholic friends, but this is the way he saw it; the Roman Catholic forbears of the Church of England, who many in the Reformation period were inclined to consign to darkest theological oblivion—that they were in fact justified by faith because they believed in Jesus. But because they didn’t believe in justification by faith they didn’t lack justification or salvation; they lacked assurance. That was deeply controversial to the Puritans who were Hooker’s opponents, who really wanted to say, “No, if you don’t believe in this, you’re not even saved.”


From that I move on to say that for Paul, justification is the ecumenical doctrine. In Galatians 2, which is the first place we meet justification language in Paul, the point about justification is not “this is how I get saved,” it’s “this is how you and I sit at the same table and eat together, even though we come from different sides of the great cultural divide.” That is what Galatians 2 is about. And I think anyone who tries to resist that is simply resisting what Paul is clearly saying on the surface of the text.

Dunn: Yes, I agree entirely with that. Remember that Galatians 2 is speaking of the Antiochincident, where Peter had eaten with the Gentile Christians—table fellowship presumably including the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, at least on occasions. But when certain men came from James, Peter and the other Jewish believers, even Barnabas, had separated themselves from that fellowship.

Now we can understand, we can even sympathize with Peter, although we read the episode through Paul’s writing. One can appreciate Peter’s concerns, given that for centuries, Gentiles had been regarded as some kind of a threat to Israel’s holiness. To be holy, to be set apart to God, meant being set apart from other nations. Leviticus 20:24-26 spells it out quite explicitly. Why do you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods? Because it marks your separation from the nations, the people of the land, who may defile you and prevent your total commitment to Yahweh. That is why you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods. So the law of clean / unclean animals / birds wasn’t simply about unclean foods, it was about unclean people, people who are not acceptable as table companions.

Now that’s clearly the logic behind the action of Peter and these other Jewish believers in separating themselves from the Gentile believers. This was part of the core commitment of the covenant of the people of Israel, and nothing that they knew of—even though Peter had been with Jesus, eating with sinners and so on—nothing seems to have prepared him to take a firm stand on this, to see that this was no longer appropriate (despite Acts 10:10-16, 28)! So what does Paul say? Paul gives voice to the great Reformation “justification by faith” formula and draws it from this episode. “Peter, you are requiring these Gentile believers, in effect, to “Judaize,” to do “the works of the law,” to live like Jews in order to be acceptable to us (that is, in your thinking, to God, because you still think that’s what God requires of his people).”

So this first formulation of “justification by faith” (Gal. 2:16) is actually a protest against any attempt to require more from other believers than justification by faith, than the fact that God has accepted us. That’s a very fundamental, ecumenical position to take up.

In a little article which was published in the Heythrop Journal years ago, I draw this very point directly from the Antioch incident, Galatians 2:11-16: That Paul rebukes Peter for laying down more strict controls on the Lord’s table, on eating together, in spite of the fact that we have all been accepted by God by grace through faith (“Should Paul Once Again Oppose Peter to his Face?” The Heythrop Journal 34 [1993] 58-65).

Wright: I am totally in agreement with that and I too have challenged my Roman Catholic friends with this. Justification by faith is not simply a doctrine about which we ought to be able to agree, it is the doctrine which says we are one in Christ, that all those who believe in Jesus belong at the same table. I do not see that as the El Dorado, the reward at the end of the ecumenical endeavor. I see it as a necessary step on the road of ecumenical endeavor, and I expect there will be warm agreement in some quarters in this room, and probably strong disagreement from other quarters.

Dunn: But I think the point has to be pressed even more. There is only the one thing necessary for us to worship together, to work together, to mission together, and that is that God accepts us, has accepted us, and accepts others on the same terms, by grace through faith.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: And to make further requirements before we can work together, can come together, as churches, before we can work together in mission and service, is actually to destroy the fundamental character of justification by faith, to call in question what Paul calls “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5, 14).

Wright: Yes, it’s ironic because it is in fact an attack on justification itself.

Let’s be quite clear what Jimmy is saying. Some recent writing continues to polarize justification by faith in terms of “how I get saved and how I get into a personal relationship with God,” on the one hand, and on the other hand, how Jews and Gentiles come together, and the fact that Gentiles don’t have to get circumcised. These are not two separate things to be polarized in Paul. It is because of the one that the other is true. They go absolutely together and it’s not an either-or.

Political Meaning of Paul

Let me move you on, Jimmy, to what we’ve got down as the last of the things we thought we might discuss.

There has been a whole new movement in the last ten or fifteen years in Pauline studies examining the political meaning of Paul. I have taken part in this. The moving spirit really behind much of it has been Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts. He has argued very strongly—and pulled together teams of scholars from classics and elsewhere in various symposia that he’s edited—to make the point that since the Caesar cult was the fastest growing religion in Paul’s world; and since the Roman empire itself with all its ideology (irrespective of the Caesar cult itself) was a massive ideological movement announcing justice, freedom, peace for the world (at a price), a movement which had an emperor who was the divine Son of God, who was the Savior, who was the kyrios, the Lord; if all those terms and ideas would have carried those meanings in Paul’s world (and there is massive evidence that they would), we can no longer ignore the fact that when we read Paul saying “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios, Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11, NRSV), we ought to see that there and perhaps in dozens of other passages as well, there is an implicit and sometimes an explicit subversion of Caesar’s world.

Now, Jimmy, I have never heard you reacting to this whole new movement of thought. Where are you on it?

Dunn: Yes, this new movement really emerged after I had completed my main work on Paul, in which I was dealing more with the theology of Paul than with the social interaction of his mission and churches, although I take your point that it’s not simply social interaction that is in view here.

I’m quite sure you’re right. There was a political dimension which is inescapable in all this.

We’ve just come back from the west coast of Turkey. There you visit Pergamum and Ephesus, which were centers of the Caesar cult and even the worship of Roma. Anybody operating in that context could not have been unaware of it. It was simply too much “in your face.” It wasn’t so strong in Rome itself, but certainly in Asia Minor it was already strong. No question about that.

But there are two other aspects of Paul I’d want to bring in here. I don’t think we want to push the political so much. In the passage we’ve been talking about already, namely Galatians, the truth of the gospel is not the political message so much as the fact that Gentiles are equally accepted by God through faith. This is the truth for which Paul was willing to die.

The other aspect struck me when I did my work in Romans back in the 1980s. Here was Paul writing to the capital city of the largest empire to date, certainly around the Mediterranean world. When you remember that, the things he says in Romans chapters 12 and 13 are flooded with light. He writes these passages clearly with an awareness that they are in this situation, no doubt aware that the Roman authorities had their agents out and were deeply, deeply suspicious of any little groups and societies coming together. So what is the advice he gives them? He advises them to keep their heads down, to be good citizens, to not respond when people try to provoke you, to pay your taxes, to observe the laws. So it’s an interesting, very strongly political statement, but it’s kind of a quietist political statement. Of course the subversion is working away underground, below the surface, as it were, but in that situation, for the little house churches in the center of the Roman Empire, it was not overtly or “in your face” political.

Wright: Well, I’m happy to disagree with you once again. I would never use the world “quietist” of Paul vis-à-vis Caesar. I just think that’s completely out of line and I think that Romans 13 has to be understood within the framework that Paul has set up.

In chapter 1 he says essentially “I am defined by ‘the gospel,’” which is also a Caesar word, as we know from the Priene inscription and perhaps elsewhere. The gospel is “the good news” that we have an emperor. As I said in a seminar the other day to somebody, when a Roman herald came into town saying “Augustus is dead but Tiberius is the emperor, he is the Savior, he is the Lord,” they didn’t say, “If you fancy having an imperial-type experience, you can come and have an after meeting here and we can talk about it.” They said “Tiberius is Lord, down on your knees and pay the taxes,” and actually that is much more like what the gospel is about. The gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord, which doesn’t mean “If you fancy a new sort of religious experience sign on here.” It’s a demand for, as Paul says, the obedience of faith, which is very strong. But then Paul defines the gospel as concerning the Son of God who is descended from the Jewish royal house (as opposed to anyone else’s—you know the Roman emperors tried to claim descent from all sorts of people way back to Romulus and Remus if they could), and he was designated Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit through the resurrection of the dead. He is the Lord who claims the allegiance of the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, and through this message—this gospel—God’s justice, dikaiosune, is revealed to the world because it is God’s message of salvation. Those are all Roman imperial buzzwords.

That’s Romans 1:1-17. Then when you come to the end of the theological exposition of the letter, in the middle of chapter 15, Paul very carefully structures a catena of quotations in 15:7-13. The last one is a quote from Isaiah 11, which states “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Rom. 15:12, NRSV). I just think that is a framework for Romans. I think that is as near to “in your face” as he could get.

Now of course I agree with Jimmy that Paul wanted them to keep their heads down and not to go in for the normal kind of political revolution, but there is something far deeper, something far more remarkably revolutionary going on there.

Household Rules

Dunn: Well, yes, I don’t disagree basically with the framework, but the political outworking is pretty clear. I think a better example of the kind of politics that Paul operated with is in the household instructions in Colossians (Col. 3:18 – 4.1). His “household rules” give very strong advice in regard to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. It’s very striking that these rules all follow the normal pattern, though there are some important variations. So he accords there with the insight which lies behind the typical household rules of the time, that the household is the basic unit of society, and that it must be stable and well ordered if society is to be well ordered. That is why, for example, wives must be “subject” to their husbands, for as the pater familias, the head of the household, its good order depends on him. In effect, Paul goes along with that. He doesn’t want to rock the boat in any overt way.

Where he does rock the boat – and this is where the subversion comes in—is that it’s all to be done “in Christ,” “in the Lord.” That changes the whole perspective and the whole motivation in a very subtle way. Not in an open way, as if Christian families operate differently from non-Christian families, but the whole rationale and value system was thereby so radically changed that over generations, it was bound to have effect, to make a fundamental difference.

Wright: I’ve just seen how fast the clock is moving on. We did promise you some question time. Sorry we have run on a bit, but I hope it’s been a good survey of a bunch of current topics. Are there questions now which you’d like to ask about Paul, reasonably briefly before we go to a glass of wine and the bookstore? Yes.


Question: You talked at length about Jesus and Paul, but you haven’t faced the fact that Jesus is venerated, being worshipped as God within nine, ten, fifteen, twenty years. It has been in a way the most remarkable thing.

Wright: Jimmy did mention that phrase in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul takes (and it may already be traditional) the shema: “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4, NASB)—and actually weaves Jesus into the middle of this phrase of Jewish monotheism.

You see parallel things going on in Philippians 2 and in Colossians 1, and of course you also see it remarkably when Paul takes passages about “Yahweh” (which comes out as kyrios of course in the Septuagint), applies them without a “by your leave” to Jesus, and does so in the sort of way which implies that all we early Christians use the Bible like this. When we read kyrios in the Old Testament, we expect that to mean Jesus. And so it’s just very, very deeply rooted from very, very early on.

Maybe Jimmy has shifted his position on it, but I would certainly be completely with you, and agreeing with Martin Hengel, who says that that step—openly to recognize Jesus and to use “God” language of him while remaining a monotheist and not a polytheist—is both one of the most remarkable things ever to happen in the history of theology, and also one of the earliest within Christianity. Do you want to comment on it?

Dunn: Yes. I did refer specifically to that point in response to an earlier question. The features that Tom is referring to are the ones that stand out. You’re probably familiar with the recent book which came out last year by Larry Hurtado—Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity(Eerdmans, 2003)—in which he shows how devotion to Christ (but devotion defined in a very interestingly broad way) was there from the very beginning, or very near the beginning.

The one hesitation I have is—and this is my same point as before, that I want to take seriouslyeverything Paul says—that I see in Paul a reservation about the language he uses about Christ. The probability is that he does not use theos, “God,” for Christ. He hesitates to use language about glorifying Christ and avoids using typical prayer language to Christ. I think that that’s worth noting, as well as the fact that Christian veneration for Christ does not seem to have been a problem with the Jewish constituencies with which Paul was working in the way that the Law was. So I’m not sure how mind-boggling Paul’s language actually appeared then as compared to how it now appears looking back.

Wright: We could go on about that one all night, and I’m going to bite my tongue and not go to what I would say in response, but see if there are other questions. Yes?

Question: Richard Hays has reopened the question of whether Galatians 2:16 should be translated “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ.”

Wright: We actually disagree on this. Yes, go on.

Question: The Greek is apparently ambiguous. Luther translated it “faith in Christ.” Tyndale translated it “faith of Christ.” Every English translation up until the RSV followed Tyndale. All of a sudden, the Lutheran translation took in the RSV. I’m just wondering if there is any discussion as to why the RSV followed Luther as opposed to Tyndale.

Wright: That’s a much more focused question than the one I thought you were going to ask. I have no idea why the RSV did that. I have no inside track on that at all.

Of course, in older English, you could have an objective genitive more easily, so “faith of Christ” might have been heard in the sixteenth or seventeenth century as “Christian faith” or “the faith related to Christ,” not necessarily, as in some of the modern debates, as subjective genitive, that is to say, “Jesus’ own faith” or “faithfulness.”

Let’s see if we can do this in about two sentences each, shall we?

There was a big debate between Richard Hays and Jimmy Dunn in SBL about ten years ago on the meaning of pistis Christou in Paul, and I was sitting at Richard’s left hand as one of his supporters and friends on that occasion.

My own view is based entirely on Romans 3. I do not claim that Paul must have always meant the same thing by the phrase wherever it occurs, but I think Romans 3 creates a presupposition in that direction. Paul says in Romans 3:1-3 that the Israelites who were entrusted with the oracles of God were faithless, which leaves a problem for God because God is committed to working through Israelto save the world. What is required is a faithful Israelite in fulfillment of God’s covenant faithfulness, so when in 3:21 he says God has unveiled his covenant faithfulness, dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, eis pantas tous pisteuontas, I find every reason to translate “God has unveiled his covenant faithfulness through the faithfulness of Jesus for the benefit of all who believe,” both halves of which are important. I think what Paul means by “the faithfulness of Jesus” there is not Jesus’ belief system or act of faith, but his faithfulness to God’s saving plan, which is the same thing as his obedience as we find it in Romans 5. Therefore, I hold my mind open to hearing the same things in Galatians and elsewhere.

Dunn: This is very hard to deal with in two sentences.

Wright: Well, mine were quite long.

Dunn: Right. Well, to pick up an older theme of our conversation, one point would be a slight hesitation, because I hear the grand narrative being brought in again. “The faithfulness of Jesus” becomes a very nice filling out of an important part of the narrative, so I’ll just make that observation.

The other is that it’s pretty clear to me in some key passages, particularly Galatians 3, that pistislanguage is being used of Christian faith, to use that shorthand. The problem with Richard Hays’ presentation, as I recall, is that once you refer one of the pistis phrases, one of the “faith” phrases, to Christ’s faith (“the faithfulness of Christ),” it’s difficult to avoid reading all of the pistis references in the same way—the agreed presumption being that he’s using pistis consistently. But what strikes me again and again is that Paul starts his talk of pistis in Galatians 3 with Abraham: “Even so Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith (ek pisteos) who are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:6, 7, NASB). It’s pretty obvious to me that this means “you believed as Abraham believed”; and it is that pistis reference which sets the pattern for the pistis references throughout the chapter. That would be one of the lines of argument I would want to develop.

Wright: It’s not necessarily a straight either-or. There are many passages in which you can see nuances this way and that, but I regard the fact that that phrase fits really rather nicely into that controlling narrative as yet one more argument that that controlling narrative really was intended by Paul.

Anyway, is there one more question? Yes?

Question: Just one. We read a lot of the statement “justification by faith alone.” You’ve spent much time discussing that, but I felt that it was rather, shall I say, ecclesiastically focused, in the sense of the ecumenical movement, in terms of interchurch relations or in the sense of application today. That wasn’t exactly what Paul had in mind. He was speaking about being all one in Christ, about justification by faith and saying Gentiles don’t need to have all the same systems which the Jewish people had in their heritage. I just wondered whether you would take that phrase, “justification by faith alone,” outside, or with, the ecclesiastical or ecumenical context, in our own context today even, for the twenty-first century. We need to come into social, interreligious, or political debate. Where else does it fit?

Wright: It fits all over the place. The question was where does justification by faith fit outside the context that we were dealing with it in. I think Jimmy and I were focusing on particular contexts, (a) because some of them have been controversial and (b) because some of them are important and often ignored, the ecumenical one being one of those. But yes, it has resonances in all sorts of places. The problem with picking up those resonances is that you really do first have to do justice to the context in which Paul uses it. You can’t simply scoop it out as a theologumenon and just drop it in somewhere else and hope it will do the right job, because it may not. So Romans 3, Galatians 3, Philippians 3, and the other cognate passages are really hugely important to understand, and there is so much there about God’s purpose to reach out and save all—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc., and then from there it goes out via Galatians 3:28 if you like, into all sorts of other areas. You know the sky is the limit then, but you’ve got to get the center of it right first.

Dunn: Yes, it seems to me really rather unfortunate that generations of Christians seem to have focused on that phrase so much in an individual, pietistic, “finding peace with God” way. There is that too, of course. I’m not going to decry that for a minute. Anyone who’s found peace with God through the preaching of justification by faith will know precisely what I mean. But as Tom says, Paul’s teaching of justification by faith occurs in that context where Paul was apostle to Gentiles, so Jews and Gentiles could worship and fellowship together. I just don’t think we’ve recognized how important that was to Paul. In Romans, we think that theology stops at the end of chapter 8, maybe 9-11, then jumps to the ethics, but Paul goes back to it in chapter 15, and the climax to the gospel is his vision of Gentiles and Jews worshiping together (15:9-12).

And if you take Ephesians 2, whether you think it’s Pauline or a Pauline disciple summarizing Paul, the vision there is of the middle wall of partition broken down—of one new person, Jew and Gentile together—it’s fantastic. This was absolutely fundamental for Paul to an extent that has been quite lost to sight. The new perspective, I would say, has been trying to bring that back. Not to replace the traditional emphases. What we’re saying is that there is a dimension that has been lost and needs to be recovered. If we, the Christian people, could really have retained that through the centuries, what a message that would have been in a world which is riven with racial, national conflicts: That in Christ, there is neither east nor west, neither black nor white, neither north nor south, and so on. It’s a tremendous and powerful vision and message.

Wright: Yes. We must wrap up. Just to echo that, I can’t resist just pointing out the passage which Jimmy cited is precisely Paul’s great summary of the grand narrative, “that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8, 9, NRSV). That’s the most elegant statement of the gospel.

Dunn: I have to give the bishop the last word.

Written by
Mark M. Mattison

Mark M. Mattison is an independent scholar of early Christianity and Christian origins, with particular interests in the historical Jesus, Paul, extracanonical Gospels, feminist-liberationist theology, Christian mysticism, and Kabbalah.

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Written by Mark M. Mattison