I am in the early stages of working on God’s Justice, a Bible with notes on… drumroll…. God’s justice. At the moment I am slugging my way through Romans, one of the five biblical books I am using for a prototype we will publish in September.
For Romans I am using Douglas Moo’s commentary–a well written, thoughtful, irenic but fairly traditional Reformed view. And, I am using N.T. Wright, through his Romans commentary and a variety of his books on Paul and justification by faith.
Romans is rich, dense stuff, and while Wright is a fluent writer I sometimes feel as though I am drinking from a fire hose. Largely that is because he is presenting a new paradigm. For someone like me, who has read and studied Romans many times, it is hard to escape your prior readings. You try to hold in your mind the argument that Wright is making, but your mind keeps slipping back into comfortable categories.
Wright is trying to read Romans within a Jewish thought-world, which is to say: he sees it as addressing salvation from within the Old Testament narrative in which God’s creation has gone wrong and he has promised (to Abraham) to redeem it through Abraham’s children. For a highly traditional Jew like Paul, there are many, many crucial questions to understanding how these promises come true in Jesus. Questions about Abraham, circumcision, the Law. Romans addresses such questions, extending the story from Adam to Abraham to David to Jesus to us–both Jew and Gentile.
This is very much in line with what Wright did with Jesus in his scholarly works on the gospels. But in some ways the task was easier, because Protestants have never had a very developed understanding of the gospels. (Ask any good Protestant, for example, how the sheep and the goats can be divided on the basis of their treatment of the needy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 25, given that we are saved by grace.) In writing about the synoptic gospels Wright got substantial resistance to a new paradigm built around a Jewish story for Jesus, but nothing like he gets regarding Paul, where his fellow Protestants have a very well-developed, highly theological understanding. Whew! Some circles are very hot!
I can’t sum up a paradigm shift in a paragraph. I’ll just say that I am thoroughly sold on what Wright does. It makes a unified whole out of Romans in a way I have never seen. It ties Paul’s theology into Jesus’ seamlessly, so it’s not Jesus or Paul, but Jesus and Paul. And it fits with my understanding of faith and life, lived practically.
From what I can gather in my interactions with New Testament scholars, lots of people are reading Wright and working through this paradigm shift. Its impact could be very large, not least because it tells a story of global salvation, the flourishing of God’s creation, and the destruction of evil–a much larger and more action-oriented story than what much of Protestantism has fallen into, salvation limited to the forgiveness of personal sins so that I can experience God’s love and go to heaven when I die.