Interview with N.T. Wright (part 6 of 6)
I should also mention that I plan to include a lagniappe, a Christmas gift if you will, at the end of the interview: part seven, which includes sections printed earlier in The Living Church Magazine.
(Read part 1 here, 2 here, 3 here, 4 here, or 5 here.)
Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 6 of 6)
Alongside your work on Jesus, you have also written on the topic of Pauline theology and the new perspective on Paul. (In fact, one of the major figures in the new perspective on Paul, James Dunn, teaches at Durham!) I wonder if you could unpack just what impact this sort of debate might – or should – have on a parish clergyperson, or the average layperson in the pew? How might taking one view or the other affect preaching or otherwise change parish life? (In other words, I am asking how this issue matters outside of the academy.)
Wow. Point one: there is no single thing called the new perspective. There are as many new perspectives as there are people writing about it. My view is significantly different in some ways than Dunn. Dunn and I both disagree significantly with Sanders, very significantly with Sanders. Richard Hays at Duke would be another person who would in all sorts of ways be part of the new perspective, although he doesn’t seem to pick up the sort of flack that Dunn and I do, for some reason. So the new perspective grows out of an awareness of the deep Jewishness of Paul’s writing, and an attempt to do justice to that which has many roots, and many courses and many different sides to it.
Different people construe it in many different ways. People have reacted against the new perspective by imagining that it is anti-theological – which in some people it is, but certainly not in Dunn or me, by imagining that it has no view of sin and salvation and justification, which is absolute rubbish as far as I’m concerned. Or by imagining that it’s simply concerned with the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, and not at all with people being saved by grace through faith. That is a totally, totally spurious antithesis, however much some of Sanders and some of his followers may have given that impression.
Just to cut to the chase: two things in particular that I would notice at the parish level. One is, if people had even had a smattering of this a couple of hundred years ago, it would have been impossible for anyone reading Paul to imagine that you could have a church in which Black and White were separate or distinct or on two different levels. Because the sense of the equality of all humankind at the foot of the cross, and with that being lived out ecclesially, is absolutely central. And to be honest I worry about some of the opposition to the new perspective, as to what implicit political drivers there may be behind that.
The second thing is this: Paul insists in some passages on the principle of what you could broadly call tolerance, tolerance of differences. Some people think you can eat meat, some people think you can’t eat meat, keeping special days, and so on. Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8. On other points Paul is absolutely emphatic that there are rules for behavior and if you break those rules there are sanctions. He does not say ‘some of us think that committing incest is fine, others of us think it is wrong, so let not the one who does judge the one who doesn’t or whatever. It’s 1 Corinthians 5, he says ‘nope, the person living with his father’s second wife is just not on.’ And he says ultimately, if he’s impenitent, he must be sanctioned in terms of being put out of the community. In 2 Corinthians he talks about how to deal pastorally with the next stage in that, I take it, same situation.
Now, under the old perspective, this always seemed a bit loose and floppy, because it looked like Paul was just choosing some ethical issues to go soft on and other ethical issues to go hard on. Whereas with the new perspective you can see very clearly that the issues he is saying you must not make an issue of breaking communion is an issue which will divide you on ethnic or cultural grounds, the eating of meat, the keeping of holy days. These are things which would keep Jews and Gentiles, or possibly other cultures, apart. And therefore you must work at living together across those boundaries.
However, there are other things which are central to what it means to be the renewed human race. Paul’s whole vision is of being a renewed human race, and that includes sexual morality. And on those issues there is no room for saying ‘some of us think this, some of us think that.’ So that the new perspective actually gives us a whole new fresh angle on how to live together as God’s people. It gets way beyond the old idea that it’s all either law or grace, and if it’s law, i.e. ethics, i.e. moral codes, you can be fuzzy because we’re justified by faith and that’s what matters. That is the low-grade Protestantism to which the new perspective makes a very important corrective.
What new books or projects do you have in the pipeline?
I have just finished doing the Hulsesan Lectures in Cambridge, England, that was eight lectures on Paul. It was an outline sketch for volume four of my large project. I think the publisher is going to want me to publish those lectures more or less as they stand as a sketch for that larger project. I want to spend the next several years of my study time working up towards the larger project which will be a book on Paul, God willing, on the same scale as the book on Jesus and the book on the resurrection. That’s really the big thing I want to do. Along with that, I have a major commentary on Philippians and a major commentary on Galatians that I am supposed to be writing. Both of them are somewhat overdue, both of them are for multivolume series. I really want to do those at the same time as the big book on Paul, because they sort of feed off each other.
Finally, I am curious what you have been thinking about and reading most recently?
I was reading on the plane yesterday a book edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays called The Art of Reading Scripture. I also just finished two things by Wittgenstein, which I only caught up with recently, which are posthumous, shorter writings like Jottings, which I’ve never read before and should have done on religion and culture and so on. I’ve always found Wittgenstein fascinating and some of what he says there is just astonishing. And at home I’m reading a book by A.N. Wilson on the Victorians, which is a wonderful, huge book. I’m not a Victorian scholar and it’s opened my eyes to all sorts of things in the nineteenth century, so I’m thoroughly enjoying that. He doesn’t know about Jesus and Paul, but he does know about the Victorians. I just finished reading a book by Graham Robb on homosexuality in the nineteenth century, the book is called Strangers. A very, very interesting historical study. I just read and reviewed a book by Gerald O’Collins, the Roman Catholic theologian, who is an old friend, which is I think the fifth book he’s written about the resurrection. I reviewed that for The Tablet. And having just written a big book on the resurrection, I wasn’t sure if I was going to find anything fresh in it, but sure enough, there was. There were all sorts of things that I thought, ‘well, I wish I’d read that before I had written my book.’
I have noticed in pastoral work over several decades now, that often when there are major crises in somebody’s life, that it may be the case that God is doing a new thing in and through them and that they have to work through that very difficult and painful crisis to get to the place where the new things can happen. My hope and my prayer for the Anglican Communion at the moment is that that is where we are corporately. In the nature of the case, you don’t see it. If you could see it, it wouldn’t be a crisis, because you would be able to say ‘oh, look, that’s where we’re going.’
It’s something that’s only seen in retrospect?
Exactly. I go back again and again to 2 Corinthians 4:6 where Paul talks about being persecuted but not killed, struck down but not in despair, and overwhelmed but not utterly forsaken, and so on. The point about that is that at the time it felt as though you were being killed, you were in despair, as though you were being utterly forsaken. It’s only with retrospect you can look and say ‘somehow that didn’t happen, and something new and good has come as a result.’ Now, I have no idea what God is doing in and through the present crisis. But I hope and pray that it is working according to that model. Maybe The Living Church readers could get on board with that and pray their way through it.
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