N.T. Wright’s New Book on Paul and a Primer on the “New Perspective” on Paul

I want to draw attention to a new book on Paul that will become a “must reference” (note: not a “must read”!) for anyone preaching or teaching on the apostle Paul or any of Paul’s writings.

The book is N.T. Wright’s 2-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), and I say “must reference” instead of “must read” because almost nobody is actually going to read the full volumes’ 1,700 pages!

(I recall when Wright spoke at the British New Testament conference in Edinburgh, 2004, his doctoral supervisor, Prof. Morna Hooker of Cambridge, introduced him by saying that as a PhD student they couldn’t get Wright to write anything; now, they can’t get him to stop!)

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Wright is arguably the greatest living New Testament scholar. And while this obviously doesn’t make his views on everything correct, his encyclopedic knowledge of the New Testament, Christian origins, and Second Temple Judaism warrants paying careful attention to anything he has to say.

Wright is the most famous proponent of what’s been called the “New Perspective” on Paul, a project in re-reading Paul’s writings through the eyes of 1st-century Judaism that ultimately challenges a number of cherished convictions we’ve inherited through Augustine and Luther. (See here for a quick summary, and follow the links for more information.)

The “New Perspective” actually isn’t all that new. Although its origins are often credited to E.P. Sanders’ 1977 landmark book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders himself acknowledges that he’s really building on the work of Albert Schweitzer, particularly The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (published in 1930 in German; 1931 in English translation).

Since Schweitzer, several scholars – including Jewish scholars – have criticized Luther’s reading of Paul. Their chief complaint: Luther’s presentation of “Judaism” with its accompanying notions of “legalism” and attempts to “earn salvation” through “good works” is completely alien to actual Judaism, whether Judaism today or in Paul’s own day.

Instead, Luther reads his own struggles against the medieval Catholic church into his readings of Paul, identifying the Judaism of Paul’s day with the Catholic legalists of Luther’s own situation.

From a “New Perspective,” Judaism was never a “legalistic” religion. Rather, it was a people who identified themselves by their covenant with God: What makes Israel special is not that they’ve “earned” God’s favour by perfect performance under the Law, but that they, as a people, have been chosen by God.  “Good works” are the “identity markers” that show they belong to that covenant relationship, often summarized as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws.

Paul’s agenda in pitting “faith” vs. “works” doesn’t have to do with whether we do “good deeds” (in 2 Cor 5.10 Paul makes pretty clear we’ll be judged for our deeds! Cf. Rom 2.6). Instead, Paul is battling notions of Jewish identity as it pertains to gentiles.

Paul combats the Jewish assumption that the only appropriate response to covenant relationship with God is to display the assigned “identity markers” (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws), and that this goes for gentiles, too.

Not so!, says Paul. Jesus has extended the boundary to include gentiles as “God’s people” without the accompanying Jewish identity markers. Faith in Jesus is now the only identity marker for Jew and gentile (Rom 2.11). Thus although Jewish Jesus-followers can (and probably should) continue to practise circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws as a distinct people within “God’s people”, they should not impose these practices on gentile Jesus-followers.

I’m in the “New Perspective” camp myself, though it’s important to note that the camp is far larger and more diverse than N.T. Wright’s particular take on things.

For an ongoing review of Wright’s latest book I point you to Larry Hurtado’s blog: here, here, here and here.

“Cool Runnings”: Preaching without Notes

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m in a phase of preaching without PowerPoint or notes.

Preaching without notes is actually not something new for me. Although I’ve also utilised manuscripts over the years, preaching without notes is my preferred practice.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the actual process I undergo when preparing to preach without notes. It got me thinking about Cool Runnings, a movie about the Jamaican bobsled team that debuted at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Image         Image (The team has competed in 6 Olympics, including Sochi.)

I was a kid living in Calgary during the ’88 Olympics and remember well the hoopla generated around a team from the tropics that had barely seen snow competing in an Olympic winter sport.

In the movie version of events, there’s a scene where team captain Derice is up later than all his teammates, mentally running through the bobsled track, visualizing and anticipating every turn to the finish line, becoming aware and alert to accommodate whatever conditions the track will throw at him.

I find I do something similar when preaching without notes.

Reading or memorizing a manuscript, my main efforts have already gone into the writing process so when it comes time to preach I focus on articulating specific words and phrases. That is, I become less concerned with what I’m saying than with how I’m saying it.

Preaching without notes, however, my efforts go elsewhere.

First, shortly before I speak I need time mentally to run through the track. I need to visualize the whole track generally, being familiar and comfortable with my content, ready to adjust for changing conditions, and anticipating every turn to the finish line. I prefer doing this in the early morning rather than the night before I speak.

Second, rather than focus on particular words or phrases I focus on the major points – the turns – that lead to my destination. Although the content remains important between turns – you can’t leave the track! – , the actual words and phrases between turns aren’t set and may even vary from sermon to sermon. Nevertheless, you do have to make each of the turns.

Preaching without notes forces me to be alert, focusing both on what I’m saying and on how I’m saying it. It forces me really to know my stuff and to know how to get that content down the track. But it also introduces freedom to adjust to conditions – audience response, a fresh thought, encroaching time limits.

At the end of the day, I don’t prescribe a single form of preaching and see advantages to different models for different people at different points in lives and in different situations.

For “mature” speakers – speakers who should know their stuff – I think preaching without notes is freeing, though it’s a freedom that needs to be practised responsibly. Stay on the track!

Preachers relatively inexperienced to the content they’re delivering might find a manuscript helps them get their stuff across the finish line without sacrificing grace or clarity. In Cool Runnings and in the real-life ’88 Olympics, the Jamaican Bobsled team crashed and failed to complete the course. In the movie, the crash was caused by faulty equipment; in real life, the crash was attributed to inexperience.

In the end, however, what matters most is that the word itself take centre-stage – whatever its means of delivery.

Preaching without Powerpoint

I’ve entered an experimental phase in my preaching where I’ve moved away from using either extensive notes or powerpoint. I call it a “phase” because I’m not committed to it, and the next time I preach I may just show up with a manuscripted sermon and a gig of powerpoint on a data stick. I don’t see my experiment ending any time soon, however.

I started ditching powerpoint for a couple reasons.

First, as a teacher, I’ve observed the mind-numbing, passive learning powerpoint seems to produce. While teaching, I’ve experienced making a point not supplied on the slide. Although I’ve instructed the students that “this is really important – you should write this down,” and even: “this is something that will be on the exam,” I’ll still have the majority of students not make a note. So I’m not at all convinced that powerpoint in fact aids actual learning.

My second reason for getting away from powerpoint is from something I noticed while at church.

As do most churches these days, my church projects on the big screen the Scripture text being preached. Consequently I, along with most people I’ve observe in our congregation, rarely bring a Bible to church any more. On the one hand, like them I’ve got numerous Bible apps on my iPhone. On the other hand, however, I rarely even need the iPhone since all the relevant Scriptures appear miraculously on the screens at the front.

This got me thinking.

In the “old” days (like 10-15 years ago), anyone engaging deeply in a sermon would have needed to crack open their Bibles and locate the relevant text under discussion. And in the process of locating that text, they would necessarily have had to skim over other texts – books, chapters, verses – that surround it. Whether people were conscious of it or not, the process of locating a given text in the Bible was actually an important part of interpreting that text.

Skimming through the surrounding texts reinforces for readers that any given biblical text is in fact part of a much larger literary project. I don’t just mean the immediate context surrounding a given passage (though certainly that), but the fact that a given passage is part of a larger chapter, which is part of a larger “book”, which is preceded and succeeded by other “books”, which books belong to a collection labeled “Old” or “New” Testament.

Every search through the Bible reinforces the reality that there’s more to a given text than the text itself.

Now I think about my own kids’ experience of Scripture in church.

My kids are nine and five. All they’ve ever known is the contextless appearance of a given text on the screens at the front of our church or on my iPhone.

It doesn’t matter whether the pastor explains there’s a wider context involved with this passage: my kids won’t experience the passage’s place in the wide world of the Bible because they won’t encounter that wider world through their incidental skimming of it.

I can’t be sure of the longterm effects of this new reality, but that loss of familiarity with the wider world of the Bible doesn’t seem like a good thing.

I realize that preaching without powerpoint doesn’t counteract this new reality, either. We still read our passages context-free on our iPhones. But there’s something about making the congregation work a little harder to receive their message that seems like a move in the right direction.

Still, I’ll keep my data sticks.

(Here’s a sermon I preached recently without notes or powerpoint: From Ebenezer Baptist Church, Saskatoon, March 9.)

Blogging!

After threatening to do it for at least two years, I’ve finally started a blog.

My aim is to unpack some of the thoughts and ideas rattling through my head as I lead a Christian college, read the Bible, and contemplate Christian life and leadership. (Maybe it’ll even inspire me to get something published!)

I’ve put a little of who I am on the About page. I’ve listed some publications on the Publications page and a message on the Speaking page and will update these as warranted.

I’ll try blogging something more interesting than this later, but this’ll do to get us started!