New Perspectives on Paul and Why They Matter (4) – N. T. Wright

Nicholas Thomas Wright (born 1 December 1948) is an Anglican bishop and a leading New Testament scholar. He is published as N. T. Wright when writing academic work, or Tom Wright when writing for a more popular readership. His books include What St Paul Really Said and Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, and MANY more.

He reports that he can never remember a time when he was not aware of the presence and love of God, and reports a time when he was four or five when he was sitting by himself and was overcome to the point of tears with a sense that God had loved Him and that Christ died for him. He says that awe and joy has been replicated and exceeded all the years since.

His educational credentials and professional positions would take one or two blogs themselves. Suffice it to say that from 1968 to 1971, he  studied “classics”, i.e. classical literature, philosophy and history at Exeter College, Oxford, receiving his BA with first class honours in 1971.  In 1973 he received a second BA in theology with first class honours from Exeter.

From 1971 to 1975 he studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, receiving his (Oxford) MA at the end of this period. In 1981 he received his DPhil from Merton College, Oxford, his thesis topic being “The Messiah and the People of God: A Study in Pauline Theology with Particular Reference to the Argument of the Epistle to the Romans.”

His teaching and professional career is impressive, having taught New Testament at McGill University, Monteal (1981-1986), New Testament at the University of Oxford (1986-1993), and serving at the highest level as an expert on Christian doctrine in the Anglican Communion.  Among these positions, he served as Bishop of Durhan until his retirement from that position to take up a new appointment as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews in Scotland, which will enable him to concentrate on his academic and broadcasting work. Among modern New Testament scholars, Wright is an important representative of more conservative Christian views compared to more liberal Christians such as his friend Marcus Borg. He is an advocate of New Perspectives on Paul.

Wright used the phrase “the New Perspective on Paul” even before Dunn. In a 1978 article he spoke of “a new way of looking at Paul which provides. . .  a new perspective on Paul.”

As we have been saying in this series, there are a variety of new perspectives, and there is by no means agreement among its various adherents.  For example,  Wright and Dunn are by no means in full agreement, and perhaps we will get into some of that in a later blog post.  For now, I want to concentrate on some ways in which I disagree with Wright, and not me alone.

N. T. Wright is unabashedly a supersessionist: “Paul explicitly and consciously transfers blessings from Israel according to the flesh to the Messiah, and thence to the church . . . . Gal. 2-4 argues precisely that the worldwide believing church is the true family of Abraham, and that those who remain as ‘Israel according to the flesh’ are in fact the theological descendants of Hagar and Ishmael, with no title to the promises.”[1] This is supersessionism in the raw.

Following Barth, Wright collapses all of Israel’s destiny and identity into Christ.  While Paul and the Jews of his day expected that Israel would return from exile and pagan Rome be driven from the Land as a consequence of Israel’s suffering, Wright contends that it was the suffering of Messiah that brought this to pass. For Wright,Israel’s destiny had been summed up and achieved in Jesus the Messiah.”[2] Within such a scenario, ethnic, national Israel simply drops out, and Jesus himself (and in Him, the Church) becomes the new Israel. Wright’s construal could hardly be more supersessionistic, nor more negative in its implications.

He holds that “Paul argues that ethnic Israel has failed in the purpose for which she was called into being. . . . Israel, the chosen people, has failed to accomplish the mission to which she was called, that is, Israel as a whole has failed; Israel’s representative, the Messiah, Jesus has succeeded. . . . He was the true, representative Israelite. . . . Israel’s true fulfillment is now to be found in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. Israel rejected the call of Jesus, and now rejects the apostolic message about Jesus, because it challenges that which has become her all-consuming interest: her relentless pursuit of national, ethnic and territorial identity.” [3] Oy!

Most Jews would join me in characterizing this statement as nasty. And I say this as an admirer of Wright (read his Surprised by Hope and see if you don’t agree with me on that), but I emphatically do not admire his supersessionism. You could scarcely devise a more negative portrait of the Jewish people than the one just quoted. But it gets worse.

I was astonished to discover Wright using as simple description a metaphor I have used hyperbolically writing elsewhere in my attempt to describe the hubris of supersessionism. He says this: “The covenant always envisioned a worldwide family; Israel, clinging to her own special status as covenant bearer, has betrayed the purpose for which that covenant was made. It is as though the postman were to imagine that all the letters in the bag were for him.”[4] Wright seems to neither notice nor care how insulting it is to reduce God’s everlastingly beloved first-born to the status of being a postman for the church. For Wright, Israel was chosen for a missional purpose with respect to the nations. Since she failed to accomplish her task, God has made other arrangements. In such a construct, in Douglas Harink’s stark words,  “God himself does not remain loyal to the actual Jewish people.”[5]

Let me add that I have found SOME of Wright’s writings to be extraordinarily helpful and brilliant. To catch a measure of the man, look at him here on the Colbert Report!

Still,  I disagree vehemently with Wright’s views on Israel.  And I guess most of you do too!

[1] Wright, N. T. ‘The Messiah and the People of God: A Study in Pauline Theology with Particular Reference to the Argument of the Epistle to the Romans.’ D. Phil. diss., University of Oxford, 1980: 193. cf. 135-40, 194-97; The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 237, 250; “Jerusalem in the New Testament.” Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God (Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992), 53-77

[2] N. T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 37.

[3] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 84.

[4] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 108, emphasis added.

[5] Douglas Harink, Paul Among the Post Liberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 200), 159.

About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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6 Responses to New Perspectives on Paul and Why They Matter (4) – N. T. Wright

  1. It always amazes me how such learned and intelligent people as Wright and so many others just can’t get over their personal bias toward Israel. There’s something very spiritual about this, something that perhaps only G-d can open their eyes to (even though it has been right in front of them all along). On a more simplistic child-like level, perhaps it’s about their need to feel “chosen”, firstborn.

    Thank you, Rabbi, for this series. I may not always comment, but I am certainly an avid reader.

    • Thanks for ringing in, Gene. Yes, I do wonder how many people are reading this out there. As for people like Wright, part of the problem is a failure to recognize how much our views are shaped and predetermined by environment. Fifty years ago when I came to Yeshua-faith, a friend used to lament how British evangelicals tended to be supersessionist. It is still true, and more than they realize it is due to treating as obvious and natural what one has been accustomed to hearing. The first step in new learning is realizing that you don’t know. As long as you feel you do, no new information will penetrate.

  2. Zuzu's Petals says:

    I have no doubt he’s a very good minister of God and have learned not hold a grudge against supersessionalists. Even some of us believing Jews even had similar beliefs when we first entered a relationship with Messiah.

    Supersessionalism is like Newtonian Physics: a very neat and seemingly comprehensive view of the universe. You can get a man to the moon and back using Newtonian ideas of the universe. But as one particularly bright Jewish fellow named Einstein discovered, the standard rules start to break down when you zoom out to the greater span of the universe. Even the constants of light and time’s arrow start to bend. So it is with the Jewish people throughout the ages.

    I keep reflecting on the verse that Israel is “a cup that will send the nations reeling”. Be it for Christian orthodoxy or secular naturalism, the existence of the Jews is fundamentally disorienting , leaving anyone with a theory of everything confused and dizzy, as if to enter into a familiar household den and find oneself walking on the wall. Why do the Jewish people persist and even thrive in world where both the godly and godless have for generations work to subjugate and destroy us? How could a nation be repatriated, by the same people even speaking the same ancient language, 1800 years after its total defeat and apparent extermination? The existence of Israel is terrifyingly anomalous, and growing stranger and stranger as history progresses to a close. One way or another, I doubt that Bishop Wright and those like him will be able to resist the vertigo of their faulty concepts for much longer

  3. Chris says:

    Daniel Gruber explains supersessionism very well in his ‘Copernicus and the Jews’.
    The church believed everything revolved around the earth and the church was at the centre of God’s plan. Copernicus discovered it was not so, but the earth revolved around the Sun, astronomers and mathematicians were employed to maintain the church’s position with more and more complex theories to explain the anomalies found in the universe, such as planets not traversing according to their plans.
    In the same way theologians are employed to maintain the church’s position as the ‘new Israel’, by more and more complex theologies striving to explain the anomaly of the Jewish presence.

  4. Guarionex Sandoval says:

    I think your characterization of N.T. Wright as a supersessionist indicates you need to read something a bit more recent than 1980 and 1997. He is explicitly not so and criticizes supersessionism as theologically defective.

    • Thank you for your responsible critique. You are the second person who has made this point to me, and I may need the correction. However, can you give me the specific location of places where Wright specifically disavows supersessionism in the manner you outline? I would be interested to examine those contexts. I have a friend who is a world class Pauline scholar who assures me my assessment is not inaccurate, but we could both be wrong. Please supply specifics. And thanks.

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