[K:JNWTS 20/1 (May 2005) 68-75]

Book Review

Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. 177 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-664-22785-6. $14.95.

Paul for Everyone proposes to be a study of Galatians, and first and second Thessalonians for—you guessed it—everyone. Dr. Wright's writing style is simple, clear, and conversational in tone. This conversational tone is set as he begins each section with a story to illustrate his main point. The book also includes a glossary of terms to help everyone.

So, written for everyone? Probably not. It seems better suited to "Western Christians in mainline churches" (p. 159). Most of its insights are those that many people might gather from a second or third reading of these texts with added bits that might require some outside study. Some of these additions—as we might expect from Wright—are influenced by the New Perspective.

From such a well-known biblical scholar, we might expect some insights into these texts as texts. And we do get a few. For instance, he suggests that 2 Thessalonians 1:12 "'so that the name of the Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him' is full of echoes of Jesus' great prayer in John 17" (p. 145). He also sets out the contrasting associations of Isaac and Ishmael clearly before our eyes (pp. 59-60). And, while he doesn't note the function of thanksgiving sections in Greco-Roman letters, he does indicate that 1 Thessalonians 1:2 through 3:13 is framed by thanksgiving (p. 105; alluded to on pp. 89 and 93).

But in many other places he says nothing about framing devises, key words, or other literary conventions. As a result, the book lacks coherence, and Dr. Wright appears free to emphasize whatever themes he pleases. This tends to support the general moralistic orientation of the book. (The book often seems like the ruminations of a British moralist.)

For instance, when dealing with the closing parenetic sections of 1 & 2 Thessalonians he does not unfold their semi-eschatological context. To make this clear, let's take a brief look at the two texts. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the semi-eschatological context of the parenesis is noted by the repetition of "peace" in verses 13 and 23. In verse 13 Paul tells them to live at peace with one another. Then he concludes by saying, "may the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly" (v. 23). In calling God the "God of peace," Paul probably alludes to a theme that he develops more in Romans. "God of" is covenant language, and in Romans, Paul calls God the "God of peace" because he has triumphed over his enemies semi-eschatologically, bringing the peace of the kingdom (15:33; 16:20). This is seen by its parallel with the "God of hope" (15:13) which results from God's "rule" over the Gentiles (15:12). The "God of hope" gives the "peace" of the kingdom (15:13) and is thus the "God of peace" (15:33; 16:20).

Therefore, Paul is calling the church to live by the peace of the kingdom. When people focus on what they can get out of the world, when they focus on the horizontal as their supreme good, there is discord (for there is only so much to go around). Besides, it can never satisfy. But when they are content with the heavenly gift of Christ (who transcends this world), they can be at peace. They are lifted with Christ into heavenly places (to use the language of Ephesians). Paul is telling the Thessalonians, you have heavenly peace in the heavenly kingdom of Christ now. Therefore, don't be unruly (1 Thess. 5:14) or repay evil for evil (5:15), but "rejoice always" (v. 16), etc. The God who rules in heavenly peace is sanctifying you unto his own heavenly habitation for the coming day of Christ (v. 23).

The concluding parenetic section of 2 Thessalonians is similar, though lacking framing key words. Instead 2:16 and 17 introduces this section. Paul states that the Lord has already given us eternal comfort. This is the semi-realized comfort of the Messianic kingdom. ("Comfort, O comfort my people" has been semi-realized.) As a result he calls them to "comfort" their hearts "in every good work and word." This is similar to his prayer that "the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace—in every circumstance" (3:16). They are to comfort their hearts in the peace of the Messianic kingdom—and so to live in every work and word. Paul elaborates those words and works in 3:1-15 (verse 5 providing another bracket with the repetition of "hearts" and the theme of the stedfastness of Christ). They are to work (vv. 8, 10, 11, 12) out of the comfort of Christ—and not be "unruly" (3:6). Christ's heavenly (semi-eschatological) comfort will allow them to suffer hardship in their labors (3:8)—for they possess him who is above.

Much of human laziness arises either from discontentment and despair or the sense that hard work is depriving us of worldly ease and pleasure. Either way, it arises from a focus on the horizontal as the supreme good. (And this later truth is assumed in the semi-eschatological perspective of the text). But hard work cannot separate believers from their supreme benefit—Christ himself—in heaven. They have treasures in him (now) of which the world is but a glimmer. Thus, they may give of themselves with hard labor in the comfort of Christ. In this way, the church lives in peace—in Christ.

I have elaborated these texts (and their implications) partially to show that Dr. Wright's approach cannot provide this comfort to the church. His own eschatological perspective forbids it—for it doesn't appear to be anything more than earthy and linear. And his failure to pay close attention to literary devises hasn't helped him. Therefore, his comments on the parenetic sections are fundamentally moralistic (for instance, see pp. 116-122).

From Dr. Wright's other writings and lectures, we learn that the kingdom is earthy in nature. And this book seems to flow from that assumption. This may fit with his claim that "heaven" in "kingdom of heaven" only refers to "God" and not also to the place (heaven, p. 170). Dr. Wright says that "the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, joining the two dimensions for ever" (emphases his, p. 168). His emphases (on the earth as the end point) seem to indicate a renovated earth that doesn't transcend the first creation. Thus, its semi-realized aspect cannot transcend this world and overlap it (recall Geerhardus Vos's diagram). It is not vertical. It is only horizontal. Dr. Wright is known for making much of the Messianic kingdom, but his semi-realized Messianic kingdom is purely linear.

Dr. Wright's kingdom is not heavenly. Thus, he cannot understand the peace of the heavenly kingdom vertically intruding into this present world. As such it cannot inform his view of life in Christ or the parenetic sections of Paul's letters. In fact, his exposition of the letters as a whole is flat (eschatologically speaking).

Here his debt to the New Perspective is evident, especially in his treatment of Galatians— in which he misses Paul's semi-eschatological perspective. Paul himself framed Galatians with semi-eschatological deliverance in Christ. Dr. Wright doesn't even comment on the first part of this frame, in which Christ died to "deliver us out of this present evil age" (1:4). And we see in the second half of the frame that this has been semi-realized even now. For Paul boasts in the cross of Christ "through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (6:14). By surrounding this last statement with circumcision (6:13 & 15), we see that he associates the era of the law (in some respects) with the "world." This is especially evident in verse 15 where he contrasts circumcision with "new creation."

Dr. Wright comments on 6:14 that "Calvary was the turning point of history" (p. 82). This results from the fact that the "world itself has been crucified." But again, Dr. Wright's "eschatology" seems to be purely horizontal.

The fact that Paul's own eschatological statements have a vertical orientation is especially evident when he contrasts the "present Jerusalem" (4:25) with the "Jerusalem above" (4:26). These correspond to "according to the flesh" and "according to the Spirit" (4:29) respectively. This is the already/not yet contrast of chapter five. The eschatological gift of the Spirit is "above." The Spirit gives himself to his people and raises them "above" with Christ. Paul's eschatology is vertical.

The New Perspective (followed by Dr. Wright) is purely horizontal in its approach to justification. And this is evident in the book. Jewish covenantal nomism put up horizontal boundary markers (circumcision, dietary laws, etc.) to bar Gentiles from horizontally entering into the covenant community. But Christ has taken away these boundary markers so that Gentiles may horizontally enter into the new community. That's basically what justification means—even when Wright gives it eschatological overtones.

But Paul's eschatology is vertical, and justification inherently possesses a vertical eschatological nature. As a result of the new vertical deliverance in Christ, the Jerusalem above is "free" (4:26) in contrast to the present Jerusalem which is in "slavery" (4:25). This new freedom results from the new justification brought in Christ. The era of the law (relatively speaking) was one of slavery (4:1) "in bondage under...the world" (4:3). But this era "in custody" (3:23) looked forward to the day "that we may be justified by faith" (3:24). This is a historical referent. Thus it points to something new brought to God's people with the coming, death, and resurrection of Christ. It results in freedom from custody (3:25, 4:7). Thus, it is the source of the Jerusalem above's freedom. This justification must be eschatological in nature—as the basis for the eschatological freedom of the Jerusalem above.

Wright recognizes the historical background to justification. The curse of the law (Gal. 3:10) is reflected in the "curse of exile" (p. 33). In this way, justification must be Israel's future vindication. While this is eschatology in some way, it is not Paul's vertical and horizontal eschatology. That's why it is finally reduced to the horizontal—the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant. But for Paul, justification provides Jews and Gentiles entrance into a fuller vertical covenant fellowship with God, a semi-eschatological fellowship above. This covenant fellowship surpasses what Israel had under the law (but only relatively speaking).

From this point of view, we can see why the Reformation was right to view "faith" as the alone instrument of justification, and why Dr. Wright is wrong to make "faithfulness" the instrument uniting us to Christ's justification (p. 39, 167). For in Galatians 3, Paul is contrasting two different means of receiving an "inheritance" (Gal. 3: 12, 14, & 18), one under law and the other with the coming of faith. Whatever "faith" is, it is different than the means by which Israel increased her blessings in Canaan. However, even those in the New Perspective would have to confess that Israel received her blessings in the land by grace through her faithfulness to the covenant. Or, as we might say, through her faith and obedience. Thus, Paul is contrasting "faith" as the means of eschatological justification to "faithfulness" as the means of Israel's possession of inheritance blessings in Canaan. For Paul, "faith" cannot equal "faithfulness."

This relative contrast (between two eras of redemption) reflects the absolute contrast between God's people (per se) and those judicially in Adam (3:10). Thus, David participates in this eschatological verdict before the time and is justified by faith—not works (Romans 4:6-8). But Dr. Wright does not provide us any of this doctrinal insight. For, unlike Paul, he doesn't recognize the vertical dimension—which is present in the Old Covenant and simply comes to its fullness in Christ's resurrection (Gal. 3:10-14).

Yes, Dr. Wright defines faith as "both the specific belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead . . . and the response of grateful human love" (emphases mine, p. 167). This definition sounds very similar to that of Rome—faith formed by love, or historical assent and love. Admittedly, "trust" is a part of faith (p. 109), but it also includes "faithfulness" to God. This is especially evident in his translation of Galatians 3:24, "that we might be given covenant membership on the basis of faithfulness" instead of "that we might be justified by faith."

Justification may be the means of entering the covenant judicially, but covenant is a broader category. It also includes sanctification. Dr. Wright has stripped justification of its specific character by making it equivalent with the broader category of covenant. He has done the same thing with faith by equating it with the broader category of "faithfulness," which includes faith and obedience.

Dr. Wright's failure to deal with the vertical eschatology of Galatians finally leads him to moralize Galatians 5 in spite of his comment that "God's new age has broken in upon the world, and winter will never come again" (p. 62).

For Paul, the relative vertical contrast between the present Jerusalem and the Jerusalem above (4:25, 26) informs his Spirit/flesh contrast (4:29) in chapter five.

Christians possess the eschatological arena of the Spirit at the same time that they live in this world. This is the semi-eschatological tension. "Envy" results from a focus on this world. But Christians possess all that this world points forward to in Christ's eschatological resurrection. Thus, they may be content with whatever provisional gifts God gives them here. The joy of the Spirit is the joy of receiving a heavenly Jerusalem that cannot be cursed like the Jerusalem below (in exile). For Christians have received the eschatological Jerusalem the prophets predicted. Thus, they need not despair, in spite of the sufferings of this age. Wright can't provide this comfort and joy because his eschatology is purely linear.

But perhaps, even if Dr. Wright is a moralist, we will find in him a friend of Christian orthodoxy. He appears to hold several conservative positions on these Pauline letters. He regards them all as genuinely Pauline. He rejects the argument that someone else wrote 2 Thessalonians—placing a forged Pauline signature at the end to fool the Thessalonians (p. 161). He also affirms the resurrection of the body (p. 126).

In addition, he believes that the Old Testament itself teaches the resurrection of the dead (pp. 173 and 174). All this might seem to imply that Wright believes that both the Old and New Testaments are the very word of God from heaven.

However, while claiming that the Old Testament teaches the resurrection of the body, he only sights the prophets, saying, " When ancient Israelites wrestled with the goodness and justice of YHWH, the creator, they ultimately came to insist that he must raise the dead (Isaiah 26.19; Daniel 12.2-3)" (emphasis mine). If they ultimately came to believe in the resurrection (with the prophets), then by implication, they did not believe in the resurrection before that. By implication Abraham was not looking for a city whose maker and builder was God (contrary to Hebrews 11:10). This is not biblical orthodoxy (see also Job). And it would gut all pre-prophetic revelation of its eschatological orientation.

Wright also questions the personal nature of Satan (p. 105) and the reality of the final judgment (p. 141). On the later, he writes, "This notion of a coming judgment, in which would be righted and evil would receive its just deserts, was commonplace among Jews of Paul's day. In this Jewish thought . . ." (p. 141). This seems to be the writing of a man who wants to please everyone. He can say to some that he hasn't denied eternal judgment, and he can say to others that he hasn't affirmed it. At least, we may say, he doesn't want to commit himself in print to the reality of final judgment.

Therefore, his view really isn't eschatological. On the other hand, traditional orthodoxy, while it has more to learn about the eschatological nature of Christ's kingdom, is instinctively eschatological in its best doctrinal formulations. For the Reformation's doctrine of justification recognizes the need of forensic imputation before the throne of God's justice—inherently eschatological.

However, Dr. Wright has denied forensic justification, and with it questioned the reality of eternal judgment. These go hand in hand. Whatever he may make of Dr. Wright's Messianic kingdom, it is not the intrusion of eschatological judgment and justification. It is a purely linear earthy kingdom. And apart from his claim of a bodily resurrection, it is hard to distinguish his view from the moral kingdom of classical nineteenth century liberalism.

We can also say that, apart from his repudiation of circumcision, it may be difficult to distinguish Dr. Wright's view from that of the Judaizers themselves. For they were focused on this world, its transformation and dominion—i.e., its justification. And, as a result, they refused to distinguish their justification from their sanctification (by which they were to justify themselves and their world). Perhaps that is why Dr. Wright is so interested in making Paul into his own image—so that he can dodge Paul's strong critique of himself. Thus, in the end, remaking Paul into his own image, N.T. Wright is not right about the N.T.

Scott F. Sanborn