The Wright Stuff: “God and the Faithfulness of Paul” Editor Interview

I recently had the privilege of sitting down (virtually) with the three editors of a large collection of essays by leading biblical scholars and theologians engaging with the highly esteemed and highly controversial N.T. Wright. That volume is God and the Faithfulness of Paul (GFP), edited by Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird.

The book is massive, although not quite as large as Wright’s 2-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). The contents of GFP are a treasure trove for those interested in where the conversation is going in Pauline studies. Indeed, I would not hesitate to state that this book is now required reading for anyone going into seminary and/or postgraduate biblical studies; if you’re interested in Paul, you must now know Wright. Enjoy the interview, then get this book into your Logos library and get to work.

TB: It is somewhat remarkable that such a large contingent of voices are here amassed to engage with the work of one man. Why are 32 world-class scholars needed to engage with the work of Wright in one volume, and should there have been even more?

CH: I think the breadth of topics Wright touches on in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God and our desire to scrutinize these aspects against the current state of research in the respective areas necessitated such a division of labor. If you want to know how a certain thesis of Wright relates to other opinions in the field, you can now be certain to have a leading voice in that area putting Wright’s approach in perspective to other positions on the same issue, and commenting on it from his or her own standpoint. I think the length is almost perfect—with the exception of one or two additional essays I would have liked to add in hindsight. There are none, however, that I regret having included.

JTH: In one sense, it is not remarkable, and in another it is. It is not uncommon for a large (but maybe not 32) cohort of scholars to contribute to a festschrift containing essays catalyzed by the cumulative accomplishments of an influential thinker or mentor. As we noted in GFP’s introduction, however, it is not a festschrift. Essays in that genre are often marked by a more uniform disposition of appreciation and do not very often consist of direct critical engagements with the scholar’s work.

GFP is different. The contributions to GFP represent a range of stances toward Wright’s ideas, and the contributors themselves do not necessarily have any long-term associations with Wright. So, yes, in those respects it is unusual, and insofar as it is unusual, it is valuable.

As for why so many scholars were recruited, I think one answer is the complexity and breadth of Wright’s presentation. Because Wright engages with many different areas of expertise (whether he does so successfully is debated), it is fitting to have many different experts assess what he’s done. As the editor responsible for proofing, typesetting, etc. such a large manuscript, I’d say we have enough of those experts. But as a scholar interested in the details, sure, I’d always have been interested to hear more. That said, I think the volume is usefully comprehensive even if not utterly exhaustive.

MFB: This volume shows the breadth of Wright’s influence, the diversity of those who take interest in his work, and who have some response—affirmative or corrective—that they’d like to add to the conversation that Wright is influencing about Paul. Yes, I would have liked some more voices from the global south and Asia, however, I think we’ve achieved a remarkable diversity, and certainly gotten away from the domination of Anglo-American scholarship by including a lot of European voices.

TB: What is the payoff for Pauline studies that GFP is a combined Anglophone/German collection?

CH: At least ever since Climax of the Covenant Wright has been an important voice in Pauline studies in the English-speaking sphere. In the German context, things have developed a bit differently. Due to the strong Durham-Tübingen connection, it was almost exclusively Jimmy Dunn who has been associated here with the New Perspective on Paul. The fact that Wright before his professorship in St Andrews hadn’t had an academic position probably further decreased the reception of his work. To this day, there is not a single review of one of his works in the “Theologische Literaturzeitung,” the leading German publication of book reviews. And a recent dissertation on the New Perspective, which even received an award by the faculty, manages to mention Wright only in two footnotes: as an opponent of the New Perspective!

Regardless of what you think about the merit of Wright’s work, I think it should be uncontroversial that so far he has not received sufficient attention on this side of the English Channel. Even if it might at points be difficult to engage with Wright from the perspective of the German-speaking exegetical tradition due to different style and methodology, his enormous influence among English-speaking academics requires us to take his arguments very seriously. Otherwise, we are simply in danger of losing contact with anglophone scholarship as a whole.

I think GFP is an important step in the right direction, closing the English-German divide to a certain extent, particularly through the important contributions of the “Bultmann-grandchildren” Peter Stuhlmacher and Oda Wischmeyer. Wischmeyer’s piece in particular, which I helped Wayne Coppins to translate, is a wonderful example of how the dialogue can successfully take place, hermeneutical differences notwithstanding.

JTH: The payoff is understanding contexts for the debates. Pauline theology has moved along different and diverging trajectories in North America, Britain, and Germany due in part to language and in part to historical circumstances which shift the foci of scholarly interest. These trajectories, however, have some common points of departure and they also cross in important ways down the line. If we had only recruited one group, we would be missing large swaths of the conversation and be all the more prone to misunderstanding.

MFB: It means that instead of two conversations going on in parallel, you effectively bring them together.

TB: GFP is organized into four main sections, excluding the prologue and Wright’s response, including essays on Wright’s methodology, understanding of context, exegesis, and the implications of his work. NTW faces the fiercest critique, I found, from those scholars analyzing his exegesis (including Grindheim, Dunn, and Stuhlmacher, amongst others). Is Tom Wright, therefore, an exegete, a proper biblical scholar, or should we think of him more in terms of a theologian (or perhaps preacher)?

CH: That’s an interesting observation. However, that there is much criticism directed against his exegetical theses shouldn’t be taken, I think, as an indication that in the end, he is something else (a theologian, a preacher, etc). If anything, I think one could infer from it that Wright sees himself as an exegete, a scholar who wants to contribute primarily to the understanding of the Pauline texts and who, thus, formulates his most controversial contributions in that regard, and that we as editors also have strong exegetical interests, therefore having wanted to ensure that this critical area receives the most thorough treatment possible.

As we have indicated in the preface, this is not a Festschrift and we thus intentionally looked for scholars who we knew were critical of at least important aspects of Wright’s ideas on a certain topic. What was important to us was that, the differing opinion notwithstanding, the discussion would be carried through in a respectful tone.

J. Thomas Hewitt

JTH: I agree here with Michael Bird that Wright sees himself primarily as a historian and the text of Paul’s letters as the primary historical data of interest. However, because the Apostle Paul’s own “theology” has been normative for many Christians for many centuries, Wright is also, of course, contributing something to a picture of Christian theology. Some unsurprisingly contend that Wright’s historical work is done simply to bolster Anglican theology. Whether that is the case is for his readers to decide (and GFP will be a help in investigating such a question).

My only comment on the matter is to point out that correspondence between Wright’s findings and aspects of historic Christian orthodoxy do not in and of themselves invalidate his methods. His methods must be assessed by other criteria (as they are in GFP).

MFB: I think Wright would see himself above all as a historian, a dispute I would not claim. However, he is very much doing history with a view to theology, what Christian origins tell you about the question of God. You could also call Wright a biblical theologian or a narrative theologian since he’s expositing Christian stories in order to create a normative narrative for Christians today.

TB: There has been so much already said about PFG, both in reviews, articles, and individual monographs, so why is this volume necessary? What is being said in this volume that is new and fresh that bona fide Pauline scholars should know?

CH: I first had the idea for this volume when studying in St Andrews for a postgraduate degree in 2012-2013. Also, during International SBL, there was a session devoted to the then still unpublished PFG with leading Pauline scholars. (Their assessments were later published in the JPL.) The discussion was great, but it was my impression that in a certain way all the speakers felt forced to comment on the whole project, thus making it more difficult for the audience to identify the specific issues that are really critical to Wright’s project.

The most significant contributions, in my opinion, where those comments where they simply focused on a specific topic that was close to their heart. For example, Markus Bockmuehl showed a word cloud of PFG and raised some really important questions as to whether the book was portraying the apostle Paul mainly as a “thinker,” ignoring important aspects of his “practice,” while Bockmuhel stressed the theological significance of the latter. But these precious nuggets were side remarks that I was afraid would be buried under the requirements of the genre.

A written book review, even a lengthy one, is quite similar in that regard. It is, for example, certainly quite interesting to know that John Barclay is really uncomfortable with Wright’s emphasis on the category of “narrative.” But I don’t think his critical remarks—as interesting and perhaps even justified as they might be—can serve as a sufficient foundation for the critical engagement with this fundamental aspect of Wright’s work for future generations of scholars.

The kind of in-depth critical engagement with a specific Wrightian thesis and the integration with the breadth of the best of current scholarship is only possible, in my opinion, in a format as GFP, and I am very confident that Pauline scholars will greatly benefit from the labour of their colleagues (many months of work in some cases!) spent on a specific aspect of PFG.

JTH: I have two answers to this. The first is that there are a large number of questions that are investigated thoroughly in the volume but that only get a few passing comments in shorter treatments (one that comes to mind is the debate between Frey and Wright over “apocalyptic”).

The second answer is that GFP provides its readers with a large-scale assessment of PFG’s overall thesis, that Paul “invented” Christian theology. Not every essay concludes with a direct assessment of this thesis, but every essay fits into a larger project which does.

Michael F. Bird

MFB: One of the frustrations of Wright—which I’m quite sympathetic to—is that most reviewers so far have tended to focus on their pet topic and how Wright measures up against that.

For evangelical reviewers, that entails spending most of the review evaluating what PFG says about justification by faith. For others, what does PFG say about supersessionism? For others again, what does PFG say about the thought-world Paul is operating within.

Most reviewers haven’t really assessed the main thesis of PFG: did Paul invent theology and did Paul regard the united people of God, made up of Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles, as the central symbol of what his ministry was about? With that in mind, a more global and thorough review is necessary to properly ascertain the significance of PFG.

TB: What reasons would you present to a pastor, seminary student, or postgraduate student for why they need to read GFP? To state it another way, should your book be the essential follow-up for anyone who reads PFG?

CH: To take the second question first: Yes!

As to the different audiences: as a postgraduate student who works on a topic of Pauline studies, GFP will certainly be invaluable for you. We took great care that the contributors would not only express their personal concerns and agreements with Wright over a disputed question but that they would also include the relevant literature on the scope of opinions that are currently in vogue in scholarship.

In fact, I think quite a few chapters might actually constitute a rather perfect template for a research plan for a dissertation. With interested people outside academia, things are obviously a bit different. But with the extraordinarily affordable Fortress edition and the Logos version at least the preconditions have been created for pastors, seminary students and even interested laypeople to access this critical scholarly assessment of Wright’s work.

I am always amazed to see how many people outside academia have read PFG cover to cover, especially in the USA. To those, I would say: Yes, if you’ve managed your way through PFG, GFP will certainly also be of value for you, especially since we have made sure that the high-quality content does not come alongside unintelligible technical language. (By the way, it’s mostly my co-editor, J. Thomas Hewitt, who has to be credited with meticulously improving the accessibility of the contributions!)

Lastly, I would add: the non-academic audiences we’ve mentioned are not only in the position to read GFP—I think they even should! It is precisely the fact that Wright is so popular among (certain kinds of) churches that ensures his influence far beyond lecture halls. If you are someone who wants to integrate Wright’s conclusions into the everyday life of church and society and you want to do so in a critical and responsible way, GFP is certainly a great resource for this kind of reflection.

JTH: If you’re a postgraduate researcher, GFP is a bibliographic gold mine and a usefully jolting reality check for anyone perhaps overly enamored with, or hostile toward, Wright’s work. Aside from Wright, however, the volume is also an excellent introduction to countless debates about this or that detail (and here, the ancient sources index is your friend).

If you’re a pastor or seminary student, GFP is an important handbook on scholarly disagreement. This is worth being apprised of since the “results” of various scholarly positions are in ecclesial settings often only assessed with respect to that ecclesial body’s own theological and practical disagreements. Those disagreements are of course important and pressing, but they are often not in the background of scholarly debate.

MFB: I’d say, PFG is a big contribution to Pauline studies, it is not a conversation stopper, it is a conversation starter. If you want to know where the conversation is going, where Wright is recognized as right, where there is push-back, and new avenues to explore, new problems to be wrestled with, then GFP is the place to start.

TB: Where will Pauline studies go now after N.T. Wright? With so much disagreement over his metanarrative schema from all sides, even coupled with an appreciation for his efforts, is the foothold of the NTW perspective strong enough to inspire this generation of Pauline scholars, or the next?

CH: This is a great question! Benjamin Schliesser in his opening essay of GFP quotes a comment by Ulrich Luz (he just celebrated his 80th birthday) who said in a lecture: “I suppose that in fifty years one will speak of your overall view on Paul just as in our days one is appealing to Bultmann and Schweitzer.” I think that’s a very plausible prediction, in several ways.

On the one hand, I think Wright is such a towering figure whose influence will have a lasting impact (and he is of course not finished yet with making contributions to the field!). On the other hand, the analogy also points to how a legacy is indeed “successfully” preserved through the generations: the students of Bultmann who had the most profound influence didn’t simply replicate his views but offered at least some critical adjustment of his paradigm—such as Ernst Käsemann.

In a similar way, I think that what Wright has contributed to the field (and what he will contribute) will be best preserved through critical re-thinking. Just as Wright might have understood Paul better than the apostle himself, the best reading of Wright’s output might in the end not be the one he would agree with most. The fact that Wright explicitly designates his whole approach as “abductive” (you can read more on this on Theresa’s and my chapter in GFP) makes it very suitable as a point of departure for future research endeavours that might also come to significantly different conclusions from his own. In trying to come up with explanations for aspects of the Pauline text that so far had not been incorporated sufficiently by alternative hypotheses, Wright is to be credited with making an incredible number of undoubtedly fresh proposals. That’s a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in itself!

Testing and modifying these explanations—and at times coming up with alternative, even better hypotheses or strengthening old ones so that they can do the job—is the task of the next generation of scholars. (With regard to the category of “narrative” that’s exactly what I have tried to accomplish at least in part in my most recent project … so stay tuned for that).

JTH: I also anticipate a strong continued interest in Wright’s work within ecclesial communities. Also, my guess is that Wright’s perspective will remain a point of debate in Pauline scholarship at least because of an ongoing interest in Paul’s relation to Judaism, a question on which Wright has much to say, even if his views are hotly contested by those investigating the so-called “Paul within Judaism.” More generally, I also think there will be an increasing interest in the degree of creativity we might attribute to Paul’s own exegesis and “theology.” Wright’s is one of several important accounts of the degree and nature of Paul’s ingenuity.

MFB: I think we’ll see some interaction with John Barclay on grace, more on Paul within Judaism, and after that, who knows!

Both God and the Faithfulness of Paul and Paul and the Faithfulness of God are available now on Logos, in a highly searchable and fully integrated format for the most efficient research experience possible.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger