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“Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: Wright’s big Opus

March 17, 2014

Late in 2013 I was asked by the journal, Theology, to review N.T. (Tom) Wright’s then-forthcoming book on Paul.  As I am committed to preparing an essay on Paul for a conference in Rome in June this year, I agreed.  A few days later a huge parcel arrived for me, and upon opening it I found that I had agreed to read/review a work of two volumes comprising over 1600 pages!  I’ve sent off the review now, and it’s been accepted for publication in due course.  But, even with the special generosity of the editors, I had to confine the review to 1800 words, which required brevity and a selection of things to mention.  I have more to say about the work, however, and so in this and subsequent postings will give some further observations and thoughts beyond what I was able to include in the Theology review.

I want to indicate right away that Tom and I are on friendly terms.  So, if/when I include critical comments these reflect honest questions, reservations and/or disagreements.  But before any of that, I want to register my admiration of the massive labour and learning, the obviously prolonged pondering of texts and issues, Tom’s passion and fervour for the subject, and the accessible (often conversational) writing style demonstrated throughout the massive opus.  The work obviously reflects decades of previous publications on Paul and his letters, and incorporates the results of those publications (with references to Wright’s prior publications at numerous points).  But Paul and the Faithfulness of God is clearly Wright’s magnum opus on Paul, and should be now the key reference point in engaging his views on Pauline matters.

I found his discussion of a number of particular matters incisive and helpful.  As an example, I found stimulating his emphasis that in Paul the “justification” of believers is essentially God’s eschatological judgment, extended now to those who put faith in Jesus’ vindication expressed in God raising him from death and exalting him to heavenly glory.  Even in cases where I remain unpersuaded, Tom’s views justify the time to engage them.

But, for this first posting on the work, perhaps the first thing to comment on is its size.  It is, to my knowledge, the largest single-author work on Paul in print, likely the largest ever published.  When J.D.G. Dunn published his big book, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), which weighed in at some 800 pages, there were comments about its bulk.  So what are we to think of Wright’s work coming in at twice that size?  I have to say that I found it off-putting.  It’s a huge demand on readers, even if Wright’s writing style makes it readable. For writing on Paul, we have a handful of his epistles and Acts of the Apostles from which to work.  To produce from these a work of 1600 pages is, shall we say, impressive.

But I wonder if it’s misjudged.  For one thing, the sheer bulk of the work runs the risk of taking centre-stage more than its subject, Paul.  Wright seems to require so much space in which to lay out his approach and the framing notions that he makes essential to his reading of Paul that all this intellectual “machinery” can get in the way.  Was it really not possible to set out relevant matters much more concisely, and foreground more Paul himself?  It isn’t till chapters 9-11 (of 16 total) that we really get down to serious and in-depth discussion of Paul’s beliefs, and to extended consideration of Pauline texts.  By Wright’s own account, chapters 9-11 form the crux, the fulcrum of the larger work.  I found myself impatient to get into them (but I’ve been accused of impatience often).  It appears that Tom can’t get enough of pondering Paul and writing about him.  But as a busy reader I confess that I found myself restless with the frequent digressions, and the leisurely pace taken, especially in the first few chapters.

In so far as others may share some of my impatience, I suspect that they will read selectively in this massive work.  Chapters 9-11 are essential, to be sure, and these chapters alone comprise some 660 pages (roughly the amount of space that I devoted to the first 150 years of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ)!  But beyond that, I suspect that at least some readers will survey the rest of the work to choose portions that they judge important.  Tom will likely find that a shame, and will hope that it doesn’t characterize too many readers.  But I fear that the decision to produce such a sprawling work will have this result.   More on the contents of the work in subsequent postings.

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20 Comments
  1. John Moles permalink

    Donald,

    In proper academic procedure, books are presented to publishers. The latter commission readers. These readers present a preliminary evaluation of the quality of the book. These preliminary evaluations do not have the status of proper, fully considered, reviews, published AFTER (sometimes long after) the publication of the book. Therefore (a) to publish these preliminary evaluations on the back of the book as if they were properly considered reviews; and (b) actually to print them within the book itself, is immoral and misleading. Since it is done by Christians, it is obviously additionally reprehensible. ‘It’s all about selling books’. That’s the charge. I stick with it. In the classics context, which is my ‘proper’ field, I have always refused to give books preliminary endorsements of this kind, because I think it immoral. In the Christian context, publishers who do this – and Christian writers who collaborate with this – are obviously trading on Christian anxiety – as if it really mattered for salvation whether one accepted NT Wright’s views on Paul.

  2. Scot McKnight permalink

    Here, here … 750 pages on one theme (christology) from LWH and you complain about length in NTW? OK, I would prefer less than 1000 as well.

    • Yes, Scot, but the 750 pp. in Lord Jesus Christ address the full sweep of evidence of “Jesus-devotion” ca. 30-170 CE. That’s a bit different from 1600 pp. on one figure, don’t you think?

      • Scot McKnight permalink

        I have always thought CFD Moule’s little books, or most of CH Dodd’s books (other than the big ones on John), were models of academic work. So I like the shorter over the longer. Having said that, Tom covers an enormous span of evidence and not in the way Hengel did, with fine-tuned examination of intricate details from (at times) obscure texts, but instead by canvassing areas… the only parts of PFG that wore me down were the worldview sections. Each of his major chapters functions as a smaller, readable book.

        You know I really like your christology book … but I go back to Moule and Dodd. We need more like them.

  3. CJ Tan permalink

    Thanks Dr Larry for doing a series on NT Wright’s massive work. Along with the others, I find your comments on the size of the work to be a timely reminder for authors and would-be authors.

    While one has to build up one’s case with care, simplicity and conciseness are to be prized. Readability should not be an excuse of over-indulgence in presenting the material.

    This is where the editorial team at the publisher’s should have played their role better, even when dealing with an author as formidable as Tom Wright!🙂

  4. David Chumney permalink

    Perhaps one could say of Professor Wright what we said of Karl Barth in seminary: He couldn’t hold his ink.

  5. John Moles permalink

    Don’t know whether you will print my previous comment or not.

    I want to make a separate comment. I have complained in the past – including on this blog – of the unprincipled practice of pre-publication ‘puffs’ appearing on the back of books. Here it is taken to a new stage: pre-publication puffs as an integral part of the book. Christian? Not remotely. This is all about selling books. Hope your review made this point.

    • John: I didn’t publish your previous comment as it seemed to me too much a slam. And, yes, your view that pre-publication endorsements are an academic crime has been noted before. Certainly, endorsements are intended to help commend books to potential buyers and readers. I make it a rule, however, to read the proofs before commenting on the book (something we can’t be sure is always the practice), and I’ve declined to “blurb” books that I couldn’t endorse. To my mind, if I read the book, it makes no difference whether my comment appears on the cover or in a journal-review. So long as it’s based on reading the book.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I am a bit confused why endorsements should be un-Christian. I don’t follow the logic at all, I must be missing something.

      Professor Hurtado I wanted to ask you something, somewhat related to the length of this book. Academics sure need to read an awful lot of stuff, long monographs included. I wonder if you can speed read and make use of that in your work, and do you encourage it. Books on speed reading are certainly very popular but I’ve only made modest progress myself. If it’s really true that reading time can be cut by three quarters or more, with no loss of comprehension as some books claim, then perhaps it is a skill that should be encouraged among academics and students. It might make to tomes of 1600 pages slightly less daunting.

      • Yup. I had some training in the old “Evelyn Wood” speed-reading technique in college. But I haven’t seen many references to it in recent decades.

  6. Bookzilla. Capable of destroying Tokyo, for sure.🙂

  7. Hi Prof Hurtado, thanks for the comments on N.T. Wright’s book. I agree that it will be a bit difficult for the average reader like myself to read, let alone purchase, it. Of course the media won’t read it. They will and have read Reza Aslan’s book, for example, because a) it’s controversial and B) it’s short. Forgive me for saying this, but there is a disconnect between the “pro-Christian” scholars and the “anti-Christian” scholars . . . . . The latter understand that short books are what gets noticed and reported on. I’d be very surprised if any mainstream media outlets even mention Mr Wright’s book let alone review it. That’s depressing.

    Anyway, do you have any plans for another book, Prof Hurtado? I’d love to read some more of your thoughts.

    Byron

    • Dear Byron: I suspect that the major reason that some books get more media attention is that they (a) appear more sensation (the press loves naughty things and controversial claims, whatever their bases), and (b) some authors have better media connections (nowadays, some have literary agents). It’s nothing to do with the inherent worth of the book. (BTW, the ellipsis in your comment = where I’ve deleted names from it. I try to avoid gratuitous “slams” on this site.)
      As for me, I have plans for another book (or two), but for the last couple of years have been tied up in delivering the many commitments I gave for conference papers, reviews, and essays for journals and multi-author volumes. But I’m trying to say “no” a bit more often, and hope to get to one of my book ideas by late 2014.

    • adrift98 permalink

      thinkright5, I don’t think its the case that there’s a Christian/anti-Christian disconnect. Wright’s book, “Surprised by Hope” seemed to get plenty of good media attention (it was featured on the Colbert Show for instance). It was also a smaller book. I’m assuming that Paul and the Faithfulness of God is intended for a more academic audience, which would explain its length.

  8. Thanks for your synopsis (and tip to focus on chs. 9-11 of Wright’s book). I think it’s unfortunate for Wright that the work is so massive. As you mention, many people simply don’t have the time to read 1600 pages. Therefore people will have to skim. Some of the most fruitful reading and research for me has come from simply reading through a book from start to finish in order to see the overall flow and argument. No doubt this work took several years of effort and research, and I feel it a disservice to such a renowned scholar to simply skim his magnum opus (as you so aptly put it.

    • adrift98 permalink

      Technically Prof. Hurtado said it was his magnum opus on Paul. I imagine most people think his magnum opus is still The Resurrection of the Son of God

  9. Thank you for posting your review here! I’m looking forward to the rest of your analysis.

    From the perspective of an interested lay person I have to say that I agree with comments on length. I have about an hour per day that I dedicate to reading and it took me 4 months to finish! It took a lot of stamina, as I really had a hard time pushing through when I was about 1100 pages in. I felt like it could have been much shorter, especially when I compared it to Deliverance of God. While I know Campbell’s book was shorter, it was much, much, much easier to finish. I felt like Campbell used his space more effectively. Some of it may have been the organization of each work, as well. With all of that said, I am very glad I finished Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I learned a lot from it.

  10. Brad Henry permalink

    I have been a huge fan of Wrigth’s academic works. Yet, this time, with you, I found myself frustrated; not simply because of the size but because it seems that it could have been half as long. There is an unnerving amount of repetition and several times it felt like he said in four paragraphs what could have been said in one. Out of sheer exhaustion I had to put down volume two for a while, which was, unfortunately, just when it was ‘getting good’. But I realized that if I didn’t, I would just ‘charge ahead’ and lose out on all the insights. These are just structural problems I’ve had with it. Substantively, well, I’ll await your comments but, again for the first time, I found myself scratching my head more often than not.

  11. Robert permalink

    Thank you for going into more detail here as that will help people get a good overview of the work, and help us to focus on specific issues that may happen to interest us. The first section I jumped to was the discussion of pistis christou subjective genitive. I’ve always found that to be Crux interpretum of Paul’s thought. Hope you might say something about that.

    • I don’t have any particular, unique wisdom in the matter of “pistis Christou”. It’s clear that Paul calls for a faith(ful) response to the Gospel, and it’s clear that he portrays Jesus as having been obedient to God and faithful to his own mission. I take the texts on a one-by-one basis, suspicious of a one-size-fits-all interpretation of the various uses of the expression.

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