Reading “Romans 2.17-3.9: A Hidden Clue to the Meaning of Romans?” from NT Wright’s Pauline Perspectives

At some point soon, I will flesh out a post on what I mean when I call myself a “Wrightian” Christian, one who has been sufficiently influenced in my reading of Scripture, my discipleship, and my perspective on Christian vocation by NT Wright, that his name might be the best descriptor of the shape of my understanding of following Jesus, even if that appellation should horrify the man himself.  One reason for his offense would be how much of his scholarship, writing, and preaching has amounted to a plea for Christian unity, not just as an ideal feature but as an indivisible aspect of the Gospel, and therefore how averse he would be to appropriation among the profusion of labels which segment and divide the church.  I agree.  Yet it is hard to deny that the former Bishop of Durham’s corpus of work is substantial enough, his prolific teaching diverse enough, and his influence great enough in the church that he could well rank among the Schleiermachers and Barths, even as he engages in the kind of work of the Albert Schweitzers and John Stotts of the faith.  The Christianity that is and is to come, including outside the Western world, will have been influenced substantially by Wright.  And as he’s fond of saying, he’s probably got a whole lot wrong, he just doesn’t know which parts.  At this point, the label is probably most appropriate for me for the reason that I don’t know either.

What gives his work durability in the fifteen years that I’ve been an avid reader, durability that withstands the repetitiveness of reading almost every widely published word, hearing hours of audio lectures and sermons, and even hunting down how he is accurately or erroneously cited by countless other authors… what makes his work maintain such a formative position in my thinking is that he has stayed remarkably consistent in his up-close analysis of text after text, and in the large sweep of the story of Scripture, the meaning of the Church, and the mandate of faithfulness, since at least 1978, the date of the first essay published in Pauline Perspectives.  A wrinkle here and a development there, greater specificity and refinement throughout, a broader array of texts adding to a tighter cohesion throughout, but in general, NT Wright’s revolutions in thinking seem to have all happened during what he calls his “prolonged” doctoral studies, and it almost seems as though he’s just spent the last thirty-five years trying to explain what he already figured out then.  Reading 35 years of Wright fills in, rather than revises, the picture.

“A Hidden Clue” feels like an appetizer to Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which promises to be so good (he starts off with Philemon!  Probably three people in the world can grasp why that’s so exciting to me) that I can’t even bring myself to crack it open yet.  I’m going to first chomp on the rich fare of Pauline Perspectives.  I picked this one, Essay 30 in the collection, as one of the first to read because, while I am equally delighted when Wright chaperones me through the contentious landscape of disagreeing scholars, I am most profoundly moved when he illuminates Scripture.  Wright moves so elegantly and seemingly effortlessly between hands-dirty and gloves-off verse-by-verse exposition and breathtaking big-picture panoramas that no essay feels minute or esoteric.  Here, he offers (in perhaps the Wrightism of Wrightisms) a “fresh” rendering of Romans 2.17-3.9, including segments often taken to seem like a poorly-argued finger-pointing session on the apostle’s part, that instead fills my chest with Paul’s dynamic, visionary, and blood-earnest wrestling with the vocation and meaning of his own people Israel, and ultimately, his extraordinary claim of God’s unexpected and triumphant loving intention.

If all this makes my dear readers wary of over-wrought adulation, please take all with a grain of salt and openness to ridicule.  I’m planning to read and post about much more of Wright’s new Paul work and will brandish the critical lens that does, indeed, exist.  But for tonight and for this piece, let me just honor what Wright does so well here and everywhere else, which is to honor the complexity of Paul’s tasks and his efforts, which is to honor the complexity of Israel’s history and calling by their God, which unfolds in Paul’s proclamation to honor the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, light of the world and bearer of our unfaithfulness.  I read Wright because, as I’ll share later, at one point in my life, a great deal that is essential looked to me very murky, and Wright accompanied me back to the Scriptures and particularly to its points of tension, where he was instrumental in God shedding more profound light than I knew I was asking for.

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