The interwebs is a-buzz with talk and analysis of N. T. Wright at the annual ETS meeting. Unfortunately I did not attend because 1) I had class and homework (if teachers can have subs to go to these things, why can’t students?!) and 2) I’m not a member of ETS and really don’t care to be one (that’s a different story). However, I am/have been interested in N. T. Wright and the New Perspectives on Paul. I must report, sadly, that my former excitement is beginning to wane. This is not to say that I have learned nothing from it all. Indeed, I have greatly appreciated the realization that a major part of Paul’s letters is devoted to reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christians. Lately, upon the prompting of a good friend, I have had to ask myself the historical question–I am half-historian after all.
The Historical Question
What is the historical question? Well, the name I just made up, but the principle is not new. It is determining how a given theory fits within it’s historical context–before and after. This is not (and I emphasize the not) a method of determining the truth of a statement based upon the historical reality. For example: “the Early Church didn’t baptize infants (except in emergency cases); therefore infant baptism is wrong.” The historical fact is irrelevant if the question is whether or not infant baptism is true (i.e., a right expression of baptism). That must be determined primarily upon the nature of baptism (i.e., if it is a sign of the covenant which correlates to circumcision). For other examples, see my post on Bulverism.
What the historical question is, is seeing whether a given theory explains what comes before and after it historically. This principle is one that is often used in linguistics, but not so much in theology (unfortunately). I will not attempt to explain it anymore because it would be a better use of your time if you just listened to Everett Ferguson’s lecture “Why Study Early Christian History and Literature.”
Can We Get There from Here?
So, what has this principle to do with N. T. Wright? Simply this: can his theory (or the NPP as a whole) explain the understanding of justification that came after it? Wright has worked hard in studying the background of Second Temple Judaism and to show how Paul and Jesus fit in that milieu, but I have seen very little work done on what comes after. It is not so simple as to say “well, it got messed up right away.” One has to be able to show how what Paul originally meant by justification changed into what arose in the Post-Apostolic Church (if it is different). So, please, will someone who is studying the New Testament do this? I would love to do it, but my studies are elsewhere and I am no Renaissance man. Until then, I’m sorry NPP, but it’s just not working out between us and I think we need some time apart. It’s not me, it’s you.