The Broken Way

Ann Voskamp's style is hard for some people to take. Her books are prose poetry, and those who are interested in a strictly academic systematic theology will be disappointed. I find that her writing style is the most common criticism by people who don't like her books. I, however, love the way she writes. It's like an amalgam of T.S. Eliot and Bonhoeffer.

Another criticism I've heard of Voskamp is that her theology is heretical mysticism that perverts the gospel. I read one "discernment" blogger saying that she could hear the whispering of the serpent through Ann Voskamp's writing. I honestly don't get this one at all. I didn't find any trace of bad doctrine in this book at all. Maybe she emphasizes things in a different way than I would, maybe she uses non-standard theological vocabulary, but what she is presenting here is a pretty solid theology of suffering such as Martin Luther would have undoubtedly approved. She's also probably more well…

Tom Wright and the Search for Truth


N. T. Wright is a giant in New Testament studies. It has been 20 years since he published What Saint Paul Really Said, a book which made him internationally famous and changed the way countless pastors and students viewed the New Testament. To be fair, E.P. Sanders and James Dunn had been teaching what came to be called the New Perspective on Paul for many years, but they were mostly confined to “scholarly” circles. N. T. Wright, while not identifying fully with the NPP, popularized many of the ideas associated with that line of reasoning.

Tom Holland has been researching and writing in the same areas as Wright since the 1970s, and, while appreciating many of Wright’s contributions, thinks that Wright has set in place some bad ways of reasoning and doing biblical studies that have the potential to cause major damage in the realm of biblical theology. So this book, Tom Wright and the Search for Truth, is an interaction between two thinkers: from one Tom to another, as it were.

Holland writes: “In the end, I suggest that he [N. T. Wright] has given us ‘What Saint Paul Ought to Have Really Said’ rather than ‘What Saint Paul Really said’. This claim is the burden of this book…” p. 17

Holland is clearly uncomfortable to have to write this book. He seems to find it distasteful to write an entire book as a critique of one person. However, he believes that it is necessary that someone point out Wright’s methodological and theological shortcomings, as they have been so influential on the course of New Testament studies. Despite the critical nature of this book, Holland does appreciate the many helpful contributions made by Wright. He says, “I do not deny that Tom Wright has done some truly excellent work, introducing millions of people to a greater knowledge of Christ and challenging many cherished ideas that needed to be reconsidered. The thrust of my argument is, however, that some of his solutions are badly constructed and that they need to be subjected to the same detailed examination which he performs on other peoples’ writings.” p. 160

Finally, Holland wants to show that Wright’s criticism of the legacy of the Reformation is off target and wrongheaded. “I would suggest that the Reformers are better overall guides to the apostles’ understanding [than N. T. Wright], for they are much more careful in dealing with some of these possible levels of meaning I have highlighted within the term justification.” p. 449

Summary

In chapter 1, Holland introduces his main ideas and sets the course for the book. In chapters 2-3 he focuses on the Apostle Paul’s understanding of himself and his role.
Chapter 2 attempts to refute Wright’s claim that Paul came from a Zealot background. Holland argues that Paul was simply a Pharisee of the Hillel school who wouldn’t have sympathized with the Zealots. Among many strong arguments, the one that struck me the most here was the fact that Paul had kept up his Roman citizen which we see him utilizing multiple times in the book of Acts. A zealot would have repudiated Roman citizenship. In chapter 3 Holland examines how Paul saw his mission after his conversion. Holland shows that Paul utilized imagery from the servant in Isaiah to understand his role as a Christian teacher and missionary rather than intertestamental Maccabean imagery.

In chapter 4, the book shifts to a discussion of N. T. Wright’s methodology. One of the big complaints Holland has about Wright is that he often goes to Hellenistic literature to find context for Paul’s writings when it is far more likely that Paul is referencing the Hebrew Scripture, i.e. the Old Testament, rather than sources of Hellenistic origin. Chapter 4 is not specifically directed at Wright, but rather at other writers who have followed his lead and taken his methods even farther than he would himself. Chapter 5 deals with more examples in Paul’s writings where Wright sees Hellenistic imagery. In each case, Holland attempts to show a more plausible Old Testament antecedent to Paul’s writings as an alternative to Wright. Chapter 6 discusses Wright’s heavy use of intertestamental literature in his interpretation of Paul. He argues that much of the intertestamental literature Wright references was not widely distributed in the 1st century. If Paul had even read some of it, which is not certain, it would still be unlikely that he would be influenced by it. Furthermore, the likelihood that any of his readers would have ever read this literature and be able to understand his context would be even more implausible.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Paul’s Christology and view of the atonement are examined. Holland argues that by taking the story of the martyrs in 2 Maccabees as a major influence on Jesus’ self awareness, Wright creates a “disconnect between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.” While in his theology Wright is orthodox, in his biblical interpretation he creates a Christ who did not know He was God, did not know the purpose of His death and atonement, and, at best, believed that His crucifixion would avert future political judgment on Israel. Holland says that this is because Wright ignores the birth narratives of Jesus which give a clear indication that Jesus would know who He was and what His purpose was.

Chapters 9-12 deal with Wright’s view of Justification juxtaposed with Paul’s teaching on justification in his many letters. Holland says that Wright has greatly misunderstood the teachings of various Reformers and creates a straw man of the Reformation in the area of justification. “…if Wright had known his historical theology better he might not have ran with the claim s of the New Perspective in the first place.” p. 328 Holland sees a weakness in Wright’s view of the law as wholly positive in the life of Israel and never negative or condemning. Because of this Wright presents justification almost entirely ecclesiologically rather than soteriologically. Holland identifies 9 different uses of the term “justification” in the New Testament, or perhaps more precisely 9 levels of justification. He argues that the fact that Wright misses the various shades of meaning in Paul, mostly due to his missing the Old Testament background, leads to Wright’s narrow view of justification.

The book concludes with Holland giving his own account of the meaning of justification and the atonement for Paul.

Evaluation

This book is certainly relevant given the level of influence N. T. Wright has had on New Testament Studies. When I was writing my thesis on Philippians 3 back in 2003-2004, the New Perspective on Paul was all the rage. While I don’t hear it named as much now, its influence is pervasive. Almost everyone who writes about the New Testament feels the need to interact with intertestamental literature. Holland is certainly making a gutsy move by writing this book. However, I have been uncomfortable in the past with how Wright plays fast and loose with history and his claims for his constructions. I’ve never been able to put my finger on anything specific though. After hearing Tom Holland’s arguments, I think that anyone who has been strongly influence by Wright should read this book and consider it well.

In addition to his direct interaction with Wright, Holland made me think about many passages in new ways. Holland reads Paul’s assertion that the Corinthians were “bought with a price” not as the purchase of a slave from the slave market, but as the bride-price being paid by a kinsman-redeemer. This seems to make much more sense in the context of the passage and sets these passages in a new light. His rules for using historical sources, his various meanings of “justification”, and his emphasis of the Exodus/Passover as the main theme in the life of the church in the New Testament have all given me a lot of food for thought.

I wasn’t persuaded by everything in the book. His seeming denigration of the place of water baptism, for instance, never fully made sense to me. Perhaps he discusses this more in other books he has written, but as it stands I was not convinced by his movements in this direction. On the whole I have a hard time understanding why many theologians today emphasize the corporate aspect of several passages in the New Testament and use this to argue against the individual application of those passages. It would seem that whatever applies to a group would apply to the members of that group by subimplication, and so drawing a sharp corporate/individual distinction is confusing for me. Holland does a better job than many theologians in avoiding this problem, but there are times when I see this tendency creeping in. There were a few other questions I have about Holland’s theology as well, but none of these things detracts from the importance of this book. I enjoyed reading and thinking through Tom Wright and the Search for Truth. Whether you end up agreeing with all of Holland’s positions, if you keep up with theological trends you’ll definitely want to interact with this book.

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