“The Paul Dialogue”: Barclay & Wright
Yesterday was the day-long dialogue on the Apostle Paul between John Barclay (Durham) and N. T. Wright (St. Andrews) held under the auspices of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins. Both of these scholars have recently published major works on Paul’s thought, and each has reviewed the other’s work in journals: John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015); N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (SPCK, 2013).
Each was given time to offer a critical assessment of the other’s work, followed by responses and dialogue between them, and then questions from those who attended (heavily made up of PhD students). It was a great opportunity to see major scholars exploring areas of agreement, and clarifying areas of disagreement candidly and yet without rancour or hostility. Along with their agreement on some major matters, they each posed matters of difference, and contended that the other had missed some important dimensions of Paul’s thought. It was an instructive event especially for students, not only in content but in style.
In the discussion it became clear that both scholars are seriously concerned to probe particularly Paul as a theological thinker, and that they seek to promote the study of Paul as a resource for Christian theological thinking today. They both displayed an impressive familiarity with the history of Pauline scholarship as well as the details of Paul’s letters. Moreover, for both scholars, Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans were central, and particular passages such as Galatians 3 and Romans 4 received repeated attention.
For my own part, I was left with a few questions about how they went about the task of engaging Paul. I wonder in particular if the historical context of Paul’s letters and thinking was sufficiently considered. After all, Paul does not refer to himself as called to be a theologian, but instead called to a unique missionary role to secure “the obedience of the Gentiles” (Romans 15:18). And he seems to have operated with a very strong sense of eschatological urgency and his own place in that eschatological drama.
Granted, he was a pretty bright fellow, and his letters “weighty” (as his contemporaries recognized, 2 Cor 10:10; cf. 2 Pet 3:16). But it seems to me that his thinking was generated in the context of, and in defence of, his distinctive “Gentile mission.” To be sure, Paul’s thoughts and arguments may well be instructive also for Christian thought today, but I think that we also need to attend closely to the originating context in which Paul’s affirmations arose, and not too quickly lose sight of that context.
So, for example, it seems to me that in Paul’s mind the only potential problems with the Torah (Law) were these: (1) If it were used as a basis for misjudging and rejecting Jesus as God’s Messiah and Son (as Paul had done prior to what he calls the divine revelation of “God’s Son” to him), and (2) if it were laid upon Gentile believers as a requirement additional to their faith in Christ, which would have the effect of relativizing Christ.
In Paul’s own experience, his zeal for Torah (as devout Pharisee) ironically had led him to what he subsequently saw as a misguided disobedient response to God’s eschatological action of revelation and redemption in Jesus. So he knew personally that his former kind of Torah-zeal could even produce this kind of “sin,” and that he had to “die to the Law” (in the sense of recognizing that it is not God’s final revelation of his purposes but is now relativized by God’s Son, Jesus), so that Paul could “live to God” (Gal. 2:19).
But, provided that the Torah wasn’t played off against Jesus and the gospel, or imposed improperly on Gentiles, the continued practice of Torah (including, e.g., male circumcision) was fine for Jewish believers, as I read Paul. For if Torah-observant Jews put faith in Christ that meant their acceptance that Christ was now the “telos” of the Law (Romans 10:5), and that Torah was relativized, continuing as a way of life for Jewish believers, but not a salvific requirement for them or Gentiles.
I also wonder how much Paul saw himself as a radical and innovative thinker/theologian, and how much he sought to reflect and develop beliefs and practices that he shared with much wider circles of the young Jesus-movement of his time. Here’s a statement from Wayne Meeks (Yale) that will state my point eloquently:
“Perhaps the most significant discovery about Paul in this [20th] century’s scholarship has been the recognition of his Christian precedents. Paul cannot be called the ‘second founder of Christianity,’ as Wrede named him . . . Christianity in the ‘Pauline’ form–with sacraments, cultic worship of Jesus as Lord, Gentile members, and the doctrines of pre-existence and atoning death of Christ–had already been ‘founded’ before Paul became first its persecutor and then its missionary.” (The Writings of St. Paul, Norton & Co., 1972, p. 440).
To be sure, Paul was involved in controversy, especially with some other Jewish believers. But it seems to me that the controversy was basically over the terms on which his Gentile (pagan) converts could be accepted as full co-religionists with Jewish believers, what was required of them to make them fully fellow members of the family of Abraham. There are, no doubt, larger and wider implications that can be drawn from Paul’s vigorous defences of his “gospel” and mission. Certainly, Paul again and again bases his defences of his mission on what he posits are the work and will of God and the cruciality of Jesus. So I urge the importance of the context of Paul’s thought, not to minimize its significance, but rather with the conviction that it may help us to see it more clearly and so be able to reflect upon it more productively, perhaps with some appropriate modesty about our own theological constructions.