The Heart of N. T. Wright’s Paul

In his book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright identifies the heart of Paul’s worldview as the unity of God’s people in Christ. For Wright, “Paul’s theology” is the sustained reflection on what God has done in Christ and how that relates integrally with the intentional practices of a profound unity in communities of Jesus-followers.

Wright, PFG

These two paragraphs, taken from the midst of a discussion of Paul’s worldview with reference to Philemon, sum up the heart of Wright’s project:

Paul’s over-mastering aim in this letter is what elsewhere he calls reconciliation. This is new. There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his native Jewish world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention such as obtained in the world of Pliny. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical (in this case, ethical) schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. Here, sharply focused within this tiny letter, we glimpse one of the large and central claims of this present book: that Paul’s worldview was a radically redrawn version of the Jewish worldview he had formerly held, with some elements (the symbolic praxis) radically reduced in significance and others (the narratives) radically rethought. The new symbolic praxis which stood at the heart of his renewed worldview was the unity of the Messiah’s people. In letter after letter he spells it out in more detail, but here in Philemon we see it up close: in this case, the unity of slave and free. Paul puts everything he has into making this unity a reality.

Why does he do this? Why would Philemon and Onesimus be motivated to go along with this costly and socially challenging plan? Answer: because of the implicit theology. Because of who God is. Because of the Messiah. Because of his death. Because of who ‘we’ are ‘in him’, or growing up together ‘into him’. Because of the hope. The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular ‘theology’ to sustain it, but also requires that ‘theology’ itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. Paradoxically in terms of the traditional division between social science and theology, it is by studying Paul within ‘worldview’ categories that we acquire a new way of seeing not only what was really important within his fully blown theology but also why theology as a whole became more important for him, and ever afterwards within the community of Jesus’ followers, than it was (and still is to this day) within the worlds of either Jews or pagans. In studying Paul in a more holistic fashion, we discover the roots of the discipline known as ‘Christian theology’, and why – from Paul’s perspective, at least! – it matters. This is the central subject of the present book (p. 30).


19 thoughts on “The Heart of N. T. Wright’s Paul

  1. Kris

    It’s been interesting to watch (or rather listen) to Wright’s development in regards to this thesis. I’ve been keeping up with an NT Wright Podcast in which, Wright gave a lecture at Wheaton back in 2010 on this central theme. Unity –rather than justification) –must be the foundational idea of Pauline theology in order to make 90% of Paul’s letters relevant.

      1. timgombis

        Thanks, Kris. It wasn’t too long after this quote that he made a comment similar to the notion you mentioned. Justification takes its place within a larger frame of reference (at least in Paul).

  2. Craig Benno

    While I haven’t read Wrights latest work, I am interested in your comment to Kris about justification.

    I have been reflecting a lot lately on Roman 10:9 and how we are justified through the resurrection. The old Adam is put to death. The new Adam raised. In him we are a new creation, where there is no gender, social class, nationality and age distinction.

    How does Wright draw the themes of resurrection and unity together?

    1. timgombis

      I can’t quite say, yet, Craig. I’ll need to get into his work a bit more to find out. I think he’d probably want to say that justification and resurrection are both multi-faceted–there’s just more going on with those rich concepts than a category called “soteriology” can account for. But the manner in which the Messiah’s people embody the work of God in all of this is to pursue unity (slave and free, Jew and non-Jew, male and female).

      1. Craig Benno

        I certainly think the theme of unity in Christ is Paul’s major concern in Romans. He pulls the rugs from under their feet and tells the Jews / Gentile believers they are bad as one another. Draws it all together in a climatic unifying theme in chapter 13.

        I wonder if in our modern context Paul wrote a letter to us today, would he include denominational terms in that letter.

      2. timgombis

        It depends. If he was writing to a church he didn’t know (Romans), he might be very deferential and say things from an angle. If he knew the church well (Galatians) and was fired up, he might be more direct–and blistering!

      3. timgombis

        I think that makes great sense for Ephesians, but it seems to me that Galatians is a screed that is targeted directly (and only) to the Galatian churches and is relevant to their situation. I’m not sure he’d say these things to other churches in general, nor would he (I think) use that tone!!

    1. timgombis

      Caught a little of it. I’m eager to see how things unfold in the new year. Adam Scott looks so good right now, as does Rory and Henrik Stenson. I wonder if those three, and perhaps Rose and Phil are going to make things really exciting. I wonder if Tiger will keep up or will he continue to fade, playing only courses and tournaments where he feels comfortable. It’ll be interesting!

      1. Craig Benno

        I know I debated with you about Tiger. I have to now concede that it looks like you were right. Australian commentators are saying that Scott could be breathing life back into the game, in the same way Greg Norman did. It’s as you said, “exciting times ahead.”

      2. timgombis

        Tiger is still so compelling to watch, but he’s not helping himself by playing only courses where he’s comfortable. He’s no longer challenging himself–a HUGE departure from earlier in his career. So, when he shows up to majors on courses where he is challenged like everyone else, he’s not up to it. Augusta may be an exception, but I think he’s pressing too much anymore and if he’s not in the lead on a Sunday, he won’t be able to do it. I wish him the best, and I’ll still watch him, but I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t win another major. Two at the most before he’s done.

  3. imaginewithscripture

    Hi Tim, I read that chapter in Wright’s book last week and was fascinated by it. I warmly recommend everyone to read it. What I have been pondering is the theme of reconciliation in Paul, which is prominent in Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5, and is highlighted by Wright in this chapter.

    In the context of Romans, I am thinking of the unity of the Christ-community in Romans 14–15. While I think it is likely that the strong and the weak refer primarily to the Gentile and Jewish believers, the terms “strong” and “weak” are significant. The use of the “powerless” in 15:1 to refer to the weak is particularly noteworthy. Reconciliation is expressed in the call to “welcome” one another. There is no longer such a thing as one group being superior to the other because of their ethnicity, theology, faith practice or social/economic location. There should no longer power-play or manipulation of power. “Unity of the church” is probably a good shorthand for this. But the underlying reconstructed worldview is that God has reconciled the cosmos and we are to embody that reconciliation as participants of the new creation. Perhaps this is why Paul says that the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteous-justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (14:17)? In other words, in the inaugurated kingdom of the Messiah, what matters most is the faithfulness of God expressed in shalom-filled and joy-filled communal relationship empowered by the Spirit.

    1. timgombis

      Very well-put! And I’d agree. I’m still trying to get my head around the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ in Rom 14-15. I read something by J. Barclay the other day and it seemed to be so helpful. Have you read him on this? Email me, if not, and I’ll scan it as a pdf and send it to you (when our scanner gets fixed, which should be soon!).

  4. Nathan Smith


    In my N.T. class, I’ve always taught that justification is a primary aspect, but not a over-arching aspect of reconciliation. In the context of Hebrews 1, Colossians 1 (all things reclaimed and brought to the feet of the father), it seems clear that justification in Paul’s theology has always been an aspect fit within a greater context of God’s design to reclaim his reign over the cosmos and creation – of which we are a part making justification necessary. I know this isn’t new but it seems like some of the comments above indicate that it’s new to Wright’s work. Is that true?

    Prophetic OT texts are primarily concerned with re-establishing or proclaiming God’s reign over the cosmos and creation while only 2% (and that’s generous) pertain to messianic foretelling. It would seem that the messianic agent comes to be part of a much bigger plan of establishing God’s reign.

    I then take them to 1 Corinthians 15 where the Gospel begins with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but if we don’t stop there and keep going to verse 28 – which most people don’t do when they use chapter 15 to define the Gospel. If one continues to verse 28 it ultimately leads to the bigger context again of Jesus’s goal to reconcile all things (Col. 1) so that they can be turned over the to the father – so that he may be all in all. Hebrews 6 reinforces this when it convinces its readers to not give up, to move beyond the basics of the faith (essentials of salvation, i.e. Justification) and persevere knowing the bigger context of God’s design to reclaim his penultimate reign which Christ establishes by being greater (creator, heir and sustainer of all things). Essentially don’t give up in the midst of persecution because Rome’s kingdom is an earthly kingdom that can’t encompass “all things” – but Christ’s can and will, so wait for it.

    Is this kind of thinking new to Wright or is he articulating if for the first time or am I being cocky?

    Nathan Smith

    1. timgombis

      I wonder, Nathan, if justification and reconciliation are two metaphors for salvation that Paul applies to different situations, or if justification is a subsidiary metaphor under the broader reconciliation — still thinking through that. But there isn’t justification language in Heb 1 or Col 1, is there? Certainly cosmic reconstitution language, but justification language is limited to Rom & Gal, with some in Phil & 1 Cor.

      Wright’s been working with this for some time, noting that ‘salvation’ is a much larger notion for Paul than the justification of individuals. In fact, justification itself is a larger notion, too. It’s something he’s been hitting for a while now.

      If you read the intro to his ‘Justification’ book, he makes quite a bit about this. I haven’t gotten to where he handles justification in the present book, but that other one is a pretty clear statement of how he sees it in relation to other/wider notions in Paul.

      1. Nathan Smith

        I think I was playing fast and loose with justification, meaning to suggest the redemption that God’s holistic salvation provides to humanity. Won’t happen again.

        These two quotes from The King Jesus Gospel help me deal with 1 Corinthians 15.

        ‘If kingdom is the solution, the problem was about the search for God’s kingdom on earth and the problem was the absence of God’s kingdom on earth.” – pg. 137

        “Look again at that gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15: there is nothing direct about being reconciled to God or to others, nothing direct about being declared righteous, nothing about God’s wrath being pacified, and nothing about being liberated from our entrapments to sin, self, the system, and Satan” – pg. 134

        The problem I feel I keep bumping up against on this issue is how everyone seems to use 1 Corinthians 15 differently to say what they want about the Gospel. If McKnight is true about 1 Corinthians 15, then the culmination of the chapter is either the capacity to be resurrected or verse 28 – that “God may be all in all” (taken as God’s uncontested reign over the cosmos and creation). It seems that anyone who uses 1 Corinthians 15 to define the Gospel (and it seems most do) can’t leave out the goal of cosmic reconstitution it would seem, i.e. – we cannot conceive of salvation without cosmic reconstitution which has a direct line back to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in vs. 1-8.

        I guess what I’m getting at is that it seems that 1 Corinthians 15 has a way of tying most of the salvation metaphors together even though they are not explicitly stated but then ends or climaxes with cosmic reconstitution. I realize that he is likely dealing with those who deny resurrection and has to bang it home here, but it does seem like he’s taking the opportunity to make some big moves from Christ’s death and resurrection to what Col. 1 and Hebrews 1 refer to in regards to the cosmos – leaving nothing out (all things).

        I guess I’m asking what you do with chapter 15. If you have something written on it, I’d be happy to chase that down.

  5. Carlos R.

    If we just play stupid, we’re probably closest.

    Salvation, being rescued, no effort of our own, as the splashing of a drowning man may seem like swimming to shore to him, but is nothing but trouble to the lifeguard.

    Justification, balancing the books, again, not by our input, but by divine accounting (bad accounting actually, but gracious accounting)

    Sanctification, being made holy, not as scriptural as people think, though it is there, and holiness is kind of a meaningless concept, but has a lot to do with the gift of the Holy (Sanctus) Spirit, and again something that matters mostly from God’s perspective, at least as a matter of labeling, being called “holy.”

    So every theological thing that people go on about is only (mainly?) for God’s own pleasure. For us, it works like this:

    “Verily you seek me because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (John 6:26)

    And I’m no dang Calvinist.

    But all of this theology is meaningful if we just think of it like this:

    1. Salvation by substitution
    2. Salvation by identification

    1. is from God’s perspective, and includes predestination (gasp, yes, but don’t take it too far). This is how he makes a sinner into a saint. It’s some kind of sleight of hand, I’m not sure. Oh yeah, and the death of Jesus.

    2. is also by the death of Jesus, but as he took our place, we also take his. The cross is made real, and very very practical. This is the Christian life. He is the firstborn of many brethren.

    Peace to all God’s people. As Watchman Nee said, we don’t need better living, we need better dying. “Reckon” it so.

    I know this thread is old, but this is timeless material. Many astute comments above.
    N.T. Wright is probably, scratch that, definitely an apostle for our time.

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