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Review of: N.T. Wright, The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle

Review of: N.T. Wright, The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle

N.T. Wright. The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 110. ISBN: 978-1-4813-0417-7. $34.95 [Hardback]. Reviewed by: Shawn J. Wilhite. In the past year and a half, many have read, reviewed, discussed, dismissed, accepted, and acquitted N.T. Wright’s Paul and Faithfulness of God. In this new book, Wright seeks to answer 16 selected critics and five major objections that emerge from these critics. In The Paul Debate, New Testament and Pauline scholars will find a brief repository of Pauline theology that should serve their understanding of Paul and his world in five central areas.

Overview of book:

It is important to take note of the Preface in this book. It functions not only as a typical book preface, but as an introduction as well. Wright details the reasons and method for his proceeding argument within the book. In the past year and a half, many book reviews have been written on Wright’s larger Pauline work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God(hereafter PFG). Thus, Wright seeks generally to respond to 16 critical reviews from prominent Pauline and New Testament Scholars—including, John Barclay, Douglas Campbell, James Dunn, Simon Gathercole, Michael Gorman, Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, and more. This five-chapter book “represents a response to the five most questioned elements in my book. In fact, nearly all the reviewers I have listed above have lingered on most or all of these points, even if there were other specific points of disagreement as well” (p.ix).

With this aim, Wright devotes five individual chapters to the top criticisms of PFG. In chapter one, “Paul and the Messiah,” Wright seeks to observe the theological coherence about the story of Israel as it intersects with beliefs about Jesus. In his view, then, the Messiah restarts a new world (p.7, 9)—similar to new creation and new exodus motifs—and transforms a new-creation people of God (p.19). Essentially, Wright identifies Paul as a coherent Jewish thinker, even after spiritual conversion (p.11). Second, in “How to Begin with Jesus,” Wright centralizes his discussion around questions of Christological unity and disunity. Are Paul’s belief of Christology new and a development of early Christianity? Or was Jesus as Messiah continuous with extant Jewish literature (p.21–22)? Wright affirms the latter and identifies the resurrection as a pivotal event for recognizing the divinity of Jesus (p.29–39).

In the third chapter, “Apocalyptic,” Wright interacts with some of the apocalyptic views of Paul. He does not affirm the apocalyptic version of Paul; any form of apocalypticism is in literary form only, not a worldview (p.42, 52–53). Next, in “The Justified People of God,” Wright engages various perspectives on Paul (Old and New) and the affect of justification on the people of God. He notes that justification fits within the larger schema of union and participation motifs (p.71–72, 76–77). Furthermore, justification and union, then, becomes a sociological implication due to the prevalence of these motifs surrounding Jew and Gentile table fellowship in Gal 2 (p.75–76). Wright goes to great lengths to clarify what is meant in the intersection of union, justification, and new membership:

“In the Messiah," then, they become a single family, whose one and only badge of membership was pistis, their faithful allegiance to the one God of Israel who had revealed himself as the God who raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as Lord of the whole world. It was scandalous then. For some, it is still scandalous still (p.91).

Finally, Wright finishes his response by detailing the mission of Paul in “Theology, Mission, and Method.”

Critical Analysis:

In The Paul Debate, Wright, once more, provides a gift to New Testament thinkers, in general, and Pauline scholarship, in particular. This book deserves high praise for a number of general reasons. To begin, another Wright book emerges to influence Pauline scholarship. It is beside the point if one agrees or disagrees with his conclusions. Wright devotes countless hours of attention to a Pauline worldview that he attempts to situate within second temple Judaism. Scholars and Bible interpreters are afforded a small, readable text as an interlocutor. Pauline scholarship in the 21st century is unable to advance without positive or negative interaction with Wright. Second, this text is a model for scholarship in dialogue. Sixteen critical reviews are in Wright’s mind as he writes this book. He notes, “I wish to express my thanks to them all, even if in some cases their reviews have been unflattering” (p.vii). And again, “If I say that I am dedicating this book to my reviewers, as seems only right, I hope they will not be offended by the honour. We are engaged in a common task” (p.xi). This is a wonderful lesson for all. Have concern for the greater discovery of truth, recognize the common goal of clearer communication, and take great efforts to give honour to critics.

A third helpful feature of this book is the opportunity for further clarity. As one reads PFG, it is very easy to lose the argument because of the length of the sections. It is so big in some portions that a given chapter could be a book in and of itself. Although this present book is not a distillation of PFG, Wright utilizes brief chapters to clarify research questions—which begin each chapter—and colloquially responds to broad criticisms of PFG.

The book, even still, is not without some criticisms. First, I doubt that each critic of Paul will be satisfied by Wright’s responses. While reading The Paul Debate, no footnotes, quotations, or actual references to his critics emerge. Wright vaguely responds to five central critiques. The systemic problem undergirding this method of response is, at least, two-fold. It lumps together critics in broad categories that they themselves might not self-identify. Next, no specific response is given to particular criticisms. “Responding to these reviews,” as Wright notes, “not line by line but in outline, is the purpose of the present little book” (p.ix). Thus, informed readers will only be able to identify these major critics and their criticisms: “Those who have ears will hear my critics and their specific criticism on every single page that follows” (p.ix).

A second criticism is overt bifurcation of ideas for the sake of simplicity. For example, in the apocalyptic chapter, Wright only identifies two possibilities. Either Paul evokes an “apocalyptic worldview” that negates a “covenantal narrative,” or apocalypticism is a literary form that does not determine a particular worldview (p.41–42). It is obvious to Pauline scholars that Wright is responding to Douglas Campbell and other “apocalyptic Pauline” advocates. But is this bifurcation helpful to the discussion? The issue is not simplified to these two positions and it doesn’t totally cohere with apocalyptic Pauline scholars. So, Wright creates two binary possibilities that straw-man opponents so that his view appears the most obvious. I find Wright creating a word-based fallacy, in that because apokalypsis is not a word frequently used by Paul, he cannot be an apocalyptic thinker (p.48–49). Paul does not need to use apokalypsis in his literature to note, discuss, or affirm basic apocalyptic views.


The Paul Debate will not be one of its kind. This is a shorthand text that affords Wright to respond to a number of critics over the past year and a half. In the forthcoming future, however, Wright will be asked to do something likewise. Scheduled to release in late 2015, God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N.T. Wright will appear in the WUNT Mohr Siebeck series. In like fashion, The Paul Debate is a far more accessible version of what will later appear in God and the Faithfulness of Paul.

To conclude, The Paul Debate is a helpful book to engage emerging Pauline scholarship. It affords scholars immediate and accessible access—more of a front row seat—between premier Pauline scholars. This text must not be confused as an abbreviated form of Paul and the Faithfulness of God—and assumes some knowledge of its contents. I readily encourage Pauline thinkers and scholars to acquire this text in order to garner quick access to five key topics in Pauline thought.

New Journal: Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, no. 4 (Winter 2015)

New Journal: Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, no. 4 (Winter 2015)

New Book Series: The Apostolic Fathers Greek Reader

New Book Series: The Apostolic Fathers Greek Reader