A Book Review. Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright

Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds. Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 294 pages.

N.T. (Tom) Wright is one of the best known biblical theologians in the world, and one of the most prolific. With the deepest respect, I affectionately call him an “Evangelical-party pot-stirrer” in the Christian Church. (Well, actually the term I use is a little more earthy, but some readers find the smell of dung disturbing.) His scholarship is formidable and gracious, and he has a well-earned reputation for allowing fresh air into knotty problems of historical research and problems of faith in the contemporary world. Jesus, Paul and the People of God is the fruit of friendly-yet-critical interchange between Bishop Wright and some of this close academic friends: well-known names in Evangelical and Anglican circles like Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Richard B. Hays, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The symposium that gave rise to the published volume focuses on Jesus and the Victory of God, the second volume of Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God.

The book itself is divided into two sections, one on the historical Jesus and the other on the historical Paul. Each of Wright’s interlocutors offers a paper on an aspect of his work, followed by his brief appreciation and response to any issues that were raised in the main essay. An extended essay from Wright ends each section, giving an excellent summary of his work in that area and what many of the implications might be for good preaching and Christian formation.

Far be it from me to even attempt a meagre summary of such rich material, but I’d like to point out a few things that I’ve found personally interesting. First, Wright’s writing is beautiful, rhetorically forceful, and moving. I wish, in the words of my friend, theologian Christopher RJ Holmes, that I “had one-fifth Wright’s erudition.”

Second, he is generally very humble, but he also believes he’s correct in dismissing large portions of the Church’s tradition, which have, on his account, cut the nerve of what Jesus, Paul, and the Scriptures have been saying all along. Edith Humphrey and a few others in the collection tease him about “being a good Protestant,” something which Wright doesn’t seem to mind. He clearly believes that he is right, and is prepared to answer against all comers, because he believes that the Bible–which is always more important than the tradition–must be the final arbiter of the Church’s life. He wants to be faithful to the large metanarrative of the Bible, and doesn’t seem to mind being a lone voice in Evangelical circles if that’s what it takes. I often feel very similarly about issues around ethics and sexuality in the Christian tradition–but I think many conservatives hear me as a “modern ego,” more like the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost than a faithful prophetic voice. It is difficult to determine the difference objectively, especially when a voice like Wright’s, or mine, insists that it intends faithfulness to Jesus and the person’s life seems to bear good fruit, overall.

Third, the essays of Richard B. Hays and Kevin J. Vanhoozer offer substantial challenges to Wright’s theological programme. Hays argues against Wright’s strong dislike of Karl Barth, especially since Barth, for him, cuts the nerve for historical Jesus research. Hays wants to suggest that his own approach to Jesus research and Wright’s are fundamentally compatible–in part because Wright is closer to Barth than it may first appear. Vanhoozer suggests that Reformed perspectives on Paul are not fundamentally wrong, as Wright believes, but rather Reformed work and Wright’s can mutually inform each other, especially about such central theological concepts as righteousness, justification, and salvation. I appreciate these essays precisely because I always feel suspicious about rigid demarcation of views that usually stands on stereotype: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Wright’s researches and Reformed theology can dance together, it seems to me, the Church will only benefit.

Readers who haven’t read much of Wright but want a good summary of his research and his friendly critics would do well to pick up this volume. It is a rare thing to read an academic book so full of joy in the Gospel and love of Christ, where even sharp disagreement can be managed because we are all in the service of the One who demonstrates the victory of God over sin, death, and destruction: even Jesus Christ, the first century Jewish boy who saves the cosmos.


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