Tom Wright, Paul, and the Old Testament

A quick look at how Tom Wright sees Paul using the Old Testament

NT Wright is a world-class scholar, releasing in “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” what is considered, by some, a seminal work. It is also worth noting that Wright’s monograph is the fourth volume in the popular “Christian Origins” series, and so fits in with and builds upon much of Wrights other work and theology.[1] Yet, Wright’s work on Paul is not without critique, with Wright’s treatment of the key reformation doctrine of “Justification by Faith” coming under heavy criticism.[2] Yet, Wright’s work is impressive in both size, and scope, and offers a thorough insight into Pauline theology. One of the most important aspects of this monograph is the way Wright discusses the “worldview” of Paul.[3] Wright argues that Paul has acquired a new worldview and desired other Christians to have it too.[4] This “worldview” is essentially key doctrines of his Jewish faith radically reimagined and reinterpreted around the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.[5] Hence, there is a sense in which Wright’s work is fundamentally about how the NT uses the OT.

            This in turn moves onto a discussion of three core aspects of Paul’s theology that Wright picks up on regarding this “worldview” hypothesis.[6] One of Wright’s primary observations in the book is that Paul takes key Jewish doctrines and OT themes of “monotheism”, “election,” and “eschatology” and reconstructs them around Jesus and the Spirit.[7] As such, Wright goes so far to say that the main argument in the book is that the passion and resurrection of Jesus has, in one sense, created a completely transformed view and epoch in Paul’s heart, mind and theology.[8] As such Paul is radically re-appropriating the OT, and using those texts in exciting new ways, but this same event of the life and ministry of Jesus is the one “promised” throughout the OT.[9] As such, Paul is finding in the Spirit and in Jesus the culmination of what, for him, Judaism has always been pointing towards.[10] Paul is taking the Jewish scriptures and traditions and viewing them through a completely changed worldview with Jesus’ death and resurrection at the centre.[11] What this means, that is critical to this study, is that Wright’s Paul views the OT as a single, unified, coherent story, that is searching for its own conclusion.[12]

            Wright offers a number of suggestions into the discussion of how Paul uses the OT.[13] Wright makes serious efforts to establish the argument regarding Paul’s Jewish worldview, and how that was drastically changed and rebuilt around the Spirit and the Messiah.[14] Critically, Wright suggests that “Paul does a thousand different things with scripture,”[15] but at the core of everything Paul does is the way in which Jesus and the Holy Spirit complete the “covenant narrative”, the story of God’s covenant with Israel.[16] As such, when Paul uses the OT, Paul is completing and fleshing out the total, unified, account of the covenantal story of God with the view that Jesus is the Christ.[17] One of the main problems with Wright’s suggestion is that it seems overly focussed on contextual issues, and often argues from and focusses upon context, culture and setting rather than on the text itself.[18] Hence, for Moyise, Wright focusses too much on the allusions to the OT in the NT, and not enough on the direct quotations made by Paul.[19] However, Tom Wright offers a helpful narratival approach to viewing how Paul viewed Jesus as the culmination and the climax of the OT.


[1] Indeed, those familiar with some of Wrights other works will notice many familiar themes, such as his views on Justification (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 31), God’s righteousness and faithfulness in and to the Covenant (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 814-815), God’s eschatological renewal of creation (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 163-175) are all themes explores in detail elsewhere. For illustrative purposes see many of these concurrent themes in: N.T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives (London: SPCK Publishing, 2005), pp. 21-39.

[2] For an example of this see J. Piper, The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2008). See also: S. Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), pp. 52–58.

[3] See: Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 24-26, 351-154, 609, 1038, 1391-1393 etc. This subject permeates a lot of the material. Yet, this exact concept is seen in an earlier essay by Wright. See: N. T. Wright, “Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans (2002)”, in: N.T. Wright (ed.), Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), p. 249.

[4] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xvi. Moreover, Wright asserts elsewhere that “narrative” is critical to ones own worldview, a concept that has clear ramifications here. See: Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 123.

[5] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xvi, 46, 612, 1256. Wright argues that Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9 has a radical worldview change. See: Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 125.

[6] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xvi. Also see p. 36, 48, 63, 77 etc. See also Wright’s earlier work on worldviews for example in: Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 122-126.

[7] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 612. Also, p. xvi, 415, 566, 634, 641 etc. Wright’s earlier permutations of this whole concept can be found in: N. T. Wright, “Romans and the Theology of Paul (1995)”, in: N.T. Wright (ed.), Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), p. 124. However, Wright does not consider soteriological issues, in terms of a Protestant understanding of Justification, as important to Paul as some insist. Wright tries to argue that salvific concerns are important to his work but makes them more ecclesial than some are comfortable with. See: Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xvi. But Wright is also clear that the Reformer’s focus upon soteriology was unbalanced. See: Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 37.

[8] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 783.

[9] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 783. There is a great section on this regarding how Paul sees the resurrection as fulfilling the OT and uses OT scriptures not as “proof-texts”, but as allusions to how the Jesus is the “climax” of the OT narrative. See: N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), pp. 320–321.

[10] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 721. This is why, in one of Wrights earlier monographs he argues that Jesus’ passion is the “climax” of God’s covenantal promises with Israel. See: N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 143. Hence, the NT is a continuation of the OT narrative. See: R. B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), p. xxxv.

[11] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 612.

[12] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 116. This is cognisant with Wright’s other works on the unified “narrative” of the OT, see: N. T. Wright, “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture: ‘Atonement’ as a Special Study (2007)”, in: N.T. Wright (ed.), Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), pp. 357-359.

[13] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1449-1456.

[14] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1452-1453. Also seen in places such as: N. T. Wright, Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 83-107, especially pp. 83-86. Also, pp. 110-125, 135-149.

[15] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1453.

[16] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1453-1454. For a discussion of this theme of “covenantal narrative”, focussing on the people of God, see also: N. T. Wright, “Romans 9-11 and the ‘New Perspective’ (2009)”, in: N.T. Wright (ed.), Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), pp. 397-399. This narratival approach to scripture is not unique to Wright, as Kirk notes the ground-breaking work of scholars such as Hays and Vos. See: J. R. D. Kirk, Narrative Transformation, in: B. J. Oropeza & S. Moyise (ed.), Exploring Intertextuality: Diverse Strategies for New Testament Interpretation of Texts (Eugene: Wipf and Stick Publishers, 2016), pp. 165-167, see especially 167n6.

[17] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1454. Again, see: Wright, Pauline Perspectives, pp. 397-399.

[18] J. W. Jipp, “God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N. T. Wright.” Trinity Journal 37, no. 2 (Fall 2016): pp. 277-279. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 22, 2018), p. 278.

[19] See Bird, Heilig and Hewitt, God and the Faithfulness of Paul, p. 8. Also: Moyise, Wright’s Understanding of Paul’s Use of Scripturein: Bird, Heilig and Hewitt (ed.,) God and the Faithfulness of Paul (Tubingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2016), pp. 178-179.

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