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“The Paul Dialogue”: Barclay & Wright

June 16, 2016

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.



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  1. conorhanson permalink

    It seems Tom is taking Paul’s context and historical situated-ness as an impetus for reflecting theologically. That Paul was forced to think theologically precisely because of his varied and diverse dealings with followers of Jesus within the church is exactly what all Christians have to do at all times. It seems to me this is what Tom has always sought to emphasize, and rightly so. Though, your call of fidelity to the original situation, Larry, does keep us moored to the reality that all we do takes place in a “here.” Wonderful discussion. Is the dialogue available on Youtube or anything like that? Wish I could have been a fly on the wall as well, though I will settle for being a fly on the couch.

    • The event wasn’t recorded, deliberately, and audience was requested not to record the event too, to allow Barclay & Wright the freedom to speak as they wished.

  2. Douglas Campbell permalink

    Hi Larry (Tom!),

    I take your point about missional context Larry; I think that’s exactly right. But Tom is it seems to me responding fairly as well in that his book is an attempt to span historical, social/sociological, and theological dimensions. Where I would side with Larry perhaps just marginally would be in the space he/you is/are creating for ongoing Jewish Torah-observance, and for that as the missional space within which Paul’s critical theological work is done, often in opposition to others in the early church who were clearly offended by this apparent flouting of tradition. Admittedly though that proposal–Stendahlian really–does link hands with Tom’s concerns for Israel, Judaism, etc. It’s not exactly the same claim but there’s overlap.

    Wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

    Best wishes to all,

  3. ANNANG ASUMANG permalink

    Thank you very much for this summary and comment on the conference. Will it be fair to surmise from your comments that you also think scholars need to take Acts more seriously than they currently do? It seems to me that even with the the usual caveats about Luke being driven by his particular authorial purposes, Acts must nevertheless surely be indispensable for understanding the Apostle’s context, even when narrowly constructing his theology, especially his theological praxis?

    • What we do with Acts is another issue. My point is based simply on Paul’s letters.

  4. Jim permalink

    Re theologian potential for Paul; does the Philippians 2:6-11 hymn bear any traces of originally being composed in Aramaic, and as a long shot (in the dark), if not and if this hymn seems to have originally been composed in Greek, could Paul have been the one who composed it himself (based on his transforming vision experience)? Or is this question just out to lunch on all accounts?

    • There have been proposals that Philip 2:6-11 renders an Aramaic original, but I don’t think they’ve won the day. Gordon Fee (and now others as well) have argued that the passage isn’t a “hymn” but just a lyrical passage and likely composed by Paul. The whole question is now up for debate again.

  5. HI Larry, glad you seem to have enjoyed the session. But of course — as you surely realise, since you’ve read my book! — John Barclay chose to focus only on certain ‘theological’ themes in my exposition of Paul, and, since his book was also focused on those themes, that’s what I spoke about in responding to his work; so that set the tone. As I hinted at one point, I found, and find, it frustrating when people ‘reply’ to me without giving the slightest indication that my book was very deliberately trying to situate Paul’s theological reflections, exactly as you indicate, within their wider historical, cultural, philosophical and political contexts. I certainly do not think Paul was the first Christian thinker in the sense you indicate. But so far as we know he was the first to reflect on, and to try to inculcate, ‘Christian thinking’ in the sense he speaks about explicitly, e.g. in Romans 12.2 (‘be transformed by the renewal of the mind’), etc. That’s why I have argued that he effectively invents the discipline we call, with anachronistic hindsight, ‘Christian Theology’. But I have argued that he did this, NOT in order simply to produce a ‘systematic’ account of abstract ideas, but because he realised very clearly that only when followers of Jesus are reflecting prayerfully, scripturally and wisely upon the big questions — who God is, who his people are, what God’s promised future looks like — will they be able even to glimpse, let alone act out, the UNITY and HOLINESS which he insists on all through. In other words, (a) you are right that his theological reflections are situational and related to specific missionary and ecclesial questions, (b) this is exactly what I argued in my book, and (c) it’s perhaps a pity this didn’t come out more yesterday, but (d) granted that JB was leading off in discussing (some abstract aspects of) my work and that I was responding to his book which IS about ‘grace’, that was perhaps inevitable. But I note as well (e) that in his other work JB has done a great deal on the wider context and where Paul belongs within it; it’s just that this other work is not really integrated with, or in, the book of his we were discussing.
    Anyway good to see you as ever, thanks for attending the whole day and for your questions! See you soon no doubt

    Prof N T Wright
    St Andrews

  6. permalink


    Hope you and yours are well.

    Great stuff. Read Barclays book. Also found it and older style theological read. He also speaks about the Gift but does not mention its main manifestation in the collection.

    I still don’t believe a historical Paul has fully emerged.


    Robert Orlando

    Sent from Robert Orlando’s iPhone


  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I find this an interesting comment from Wayne Meeks:

    “Perhaps the most significant discovery about Paul in this [20th] century’s scholarship has been the recognition of his Christian precedents.”

    This seems to assume that we are “discovering” things in the present about Paul who lived in the first century. As if knowledge is accumulating over time and we are getting a better understanding as we go along. As if the further in time we are removed from Paul the better we get to know him. But isn’t it the case that each age views history through the prism of its own concerns? Knowledge is structured differently in different contexts not better or worse, accurate or inaccurate, just differently.

    • Well, Donald, your statement ironically makes an implicit claim that goes against what you profess: To state that we never know anything fresh is to claim a knowledge that belies that!
      But, in any case, though we should beware of claiming to know everything or to have escaped all impediments, we do discover things; we do see things not noticed before; we do correct previous notions, from time to time. There are notions that or more accurate or less so, not just different. Don’t be so jaded.

  8. Larry Burton permalink

    I deeply appreciate your blog and look forward to the next post. Today I found your contextual using comments about Paul especially helpful. I had thought of Paul as a second (or even first!) founder and now very much need to focus on the early Christian context more than I have. Thank you again for a stimulating blog.

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