In the past two posts, I’ve been writing mostly about the (capital P) Problem with the human race: what’s gone wrong. The Bible has much to say about that, much that is ignored in popular theology, which tends to focus on a mistaken interpretation of the Genesis 3 narrative. The biblical idea of human evil is more complex and more interesting than conventional evangelical theology allows. And getting the problem right is important. Every proper theology must include a clear and cogent explanation for what has gone wrong for the human race. And—this is where we were—it must also include an answer to the problem, a solution.
Two posts ago I promised to say something about the solution as I see the Bible portraying it. At the end of a post called “The Human Peril: A Reading of the Story of the Fall”—sounds cheery, doesn’t it?—I wrote:
What does the Bible say in response to this story of who we are, the creatures inclined and equipped to ruin creation? I’ll come to that in the next post in this series. There are, it seems to me, at least two answers in the Bible, one provisional and the other promised. Stay tuned.
But since publishing that piece, instead of doing as I promised, I published another post on the problem, entitled, “We Are in This Together: Genesis 9 and the Idea of Total Depravity.” Cheerier still. Once again, I had in view the human race as a whole. And once again, I, following the lead of the Bible, portrayed the human race as a species bent on destroying ourselves and pretty much everything else. It’s this inherent human destructiveness that constitutes the deep truth somewhat obscured in the doctrine of Total Depravity.
While I’m still on this, I might note that it’s not just that humans destroy things; we take pleasure in it. We like destructiveness. If you go to a movie theater these days or, worse, plug in a video game, you are likely to be subjected to an endless, computer-generated montage of carnage: cars smashing into each other, buildings being blown up, bullets filling the air, all in the name of entertainment.
And not just on the screen. We came up behind a large pickup recently with one of those vanity plates that creatively encoded what could easily be read as “burning coal.” Presumably, the license plate expressed the truck owner’s desire to, as they say, “roll coal” over the world: gin up the truck’s diesel engine so that it will create clouds of smoke, purposely polluting the air. What’s the pleasure in that? It’s the sheer senseless destructiveness of it. Just saying. We are such creatures, and not just those of us who drive pickup trucks.
All of this begs an answer, a “plan of salvation” to use the language of older dogmatics. Often in those older dogmatics, the plan was not really to save the human species or the earth but to teleport us—some of us, at least—to another place very unlike the earth and to let the rest of humanity and the earth itself be destroyed or worse, exquisitely punished for all eternity. But this is not what the Bible is about. The biblical answer is more interesting than that. I promised, as I’ve already said, to sketch out two biblical approaches to the rescue of the human race and, with it, the earth itself, one provisional and one promised, and so I will (I promise) in the next post.
But not here. In this post, I will return to the dominant theme in this blog: how to interpret the Bible. What put me in mind for this post was reading two passages in short order from two of the leading interpreters of Paul in our time: in the one corner, James (Jimmy) D. G. Dunn with his big Paul book, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), weighing in at 808 pages and in the other corner, N. T. (Tom) Wright with his even bigger Paul book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Grand Rapids: Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), weighing in at an astounding 1659 pages.
I have another reason for writing this: it’s to call the attention of my readers to the work of the older of these two authors, the late James D. G. Dunn. In the circles in which I move, I find much talk of N.T. Wright, and with good reason, but little or none of Dunn (sorry). Both belong to the New Perspectives on Paul school of thought. Along with E.P. Sanders, they are jointly credited with changing how Paul is to be read from an older dogmatic reading (heavily influenced by Luther) to a newer way of approach that takes fuller account of Paul’s setting in Second Temple Judaism. Dunn died just two years ago, June 26, 2020, at the young age of 80. He was a giant in the field of New Testament studies, loyal to his family and to his homeland Scotland, and a deep Christian. Oh, and he and I once shared an elevator, and all I could come up with was “Hello.” I recommend reading him without endorsing everything he says, and I might add, if you do so, you’ll discover he’s a much better writer than Wright.
But it’s not my intention nor am I qualified to make a thorough comparison of the two. Over a lifetime of interaction, Dunn and Wright agreed and disagreed on many things. I looked through the many references to Dunn in Wright’s big Paul book. I noted that early in Wright’s book, he mostly cites differences with Dunn in the interpretation of one text or another, often in the dismissive tone that Wright too often allows himself to adopt: These benighted interpreters claim this or that, but I, of course, have seen the truth clearly. Later in the book, say two-thirds of the way through, Wright seems to change his tone about Dunn, more often giving him credit. I wondered what led to the change of tone.
All of that would make an interesting study, but what I have in mind for this post are just two small sections in which each of them steps back for a moment and looks at what they are doing, and in these moments of self-reflection reveal something about their methods. I’ll begin with Wright.
The passage from Wright comes near the end of his big Paul book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, well, relatively near the end, on page 1258 of 1660 (he still has 261 pages to go before the indices and bibliography). He begins the section by saying, “Our sketch of Paul’s theology is complete.” It’s a “Whew! Finished at last!” moment. And having finished, he has occasion to reflect on what he has been doing.
What he is concerned about in this section is how Paul’s theology hangs together—or whether it does. The problem with Paul is that we have too small a sample to be sure one way or another. What we have are a handful of letters (and some of those may not be from Paul’s own hand) addressed to specific churches on specific subjects but nothing—not even Romans—that constitutes a comprehensive statement of Paul’s theology. Paul was not writing systematic theology, after all; he was guiding and encouraging churches and people in those churches in the way of faith. He was serving the mission to which Christ had called him on the Damascus road. Can one sketch a coherent picture of Paul’s theology on the basis of these few letters with some of them, perhaps, not even from Paul himself?
Wright thinks we—no, he—can. That he has in fact done so. Wright is never in much doubt about his achievement. He seizes on a metaphor. Suppose you have some family photograph albums. You could study each picture and try to make sense of what is happening in that picture and leave it at that. “Or,” Wright says, “one could try to reconstruct the story of the family whose albums they were.” String together the pictures into a narrative.
One could do this, of course, and come up with a story. But what would be the chances that you would get it right? Not great, I think. Nor do I think that this is the situation we are in with regard to Paul’s letters, although some scholars do. We are not just stringing together random pictures. The letters do connect at points. We have more to go on in describing Paul’s theology than Wright’s metaphor would appear to allow. But that said, Wright’s use of this metaphor points to a weakness in his approach, a weakness not just in his approach to Paul but in his approach to early Christianity in general.
The weakness is that Wright assumes that it all, all of Paul or all of the New Testament in other books, forms a unity, adds up to a single narrative. If you follow his approach, you take all the ingredients you have—the data (the photos in the metaphor)—and you spin out a theory that makes it all work together. You tell a story that connects the pictures. Wright says of his approach that “I have tried here to see what happens if we follow up, and join up, those glimpses [of Paul’s theology in the letters] . . . (my underlining). In other words, he constructs a plausible Paul out of the fragments. Interesting, but it remains a construction made out of paper: it’s Paul according to N. T. Wright.
This is the sort of approach that Christian theology has generally taken towards the Bible. Think of the Bible as many snapshots of God’s relationship with people. You would have a scowling Job, shaking his fist at God; a cynical Ecclesiastes, slouching in a posture of disdain; the couple from Song of Songs, with eyes only for each other (get a room); a young Mark, with his early gospel in which Jesus speaks in pithy parables; an old John, with his later gospel with Jesus speaking in long theological discourses; an intense Paul, clutching his letters, still the zealot underneath; a scholarly Luke, delighted to be telling the story of the early church; and many, many more. The approach taken by theologians has been to find a way to string all these pictures together, emphasizing some, deemphasizing others, and creating a narrative that fits every picture together.
The problem with this approach is that the pictures are forced to serve the narrative more the narrative serve the pictures. Some things get left out. Interpretations are forced. In his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, tells a story about a photograph taken when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. The picture captured the moment when the new leadership gathered in a reviewing stand to observe the troops parading in front of them—a moment of triumph. Among the leaders at the time was one Vladimir Clementis. It was a cold day. Worried that the General Secretary, Klement Gottwald, might catch a cold, Clementis graciously took off his hat and put it on Gottwald’s head. Later, when Clementis fell out of favor with the leadership, they tried to write him out of the history of the regime. They literally airbrushed him out of the picture. But they couldn’t entirely get rid of him. In the airbrushed picture the hat was still there, firmly on Gottwald’s head.
Something like this happens with the Bible when theologians try to fit what’s there to their preferred narrative. They, in effect, airbrush out those things that are inconvenient to the story they are telling. But always, like Clementis’s hat, something gets left in the picture that challenges their reading of the story: Cain’s wife or the sons of god and daughters of men in Genesis 6 or the ugly violence of the flood, just to take a few chapters in Genesis. Wright’s approach to the scriptures, for all his brilliance, risks being more Wright than right (again, sorry), a scheme imposed on the data rather than one that acknowledges that not everything fits together.
Dunn’s approach is quite different. At the end of his big book on Paul, Dunn adds an epilogue. He calls it, “Postlegomena to a Theology of Paul” (pages 713-37). It’s a reflection on what he has learned writing a theology of Paul. What he comes to is the concept of dialogue. Actually, several dialogues.
One set of dialogues is internal to Paul. Dunn thinks of these on three levels. Deepest is the dialogue between Paul and the theology he grew up with, a conversation, as it were, between Paul the Apostle and Saul the Pharisee. What are those things that remain at the core of his faith and what, in the light of his experience of Jesus, has changed? The second is a conversation with Jesus—the Jesus he met for the first time on the Damascus road. Who is this Jesus and what is he asking of Paul? The third is a dialogue with his churches about a variety of topics, many of them brought to him by the churches themselves. These dialogues involve, in order, Paul as Pharisee, Christian, and Apostle.
The question is how these various conversations relate to each other. Does Paul change his mind over the course of the ten years or so that he was writing his letters? It’s not an easy question to answer, but he gives evidence that various things that happened to him shook him to the core and enabled him to see things in different perspective. Perhaps not all of Paul fits together. It’s not all meant to fit together.
And Paul’s own internal dialogue and development is part of many other conversations happening at the time, conversations in which he participated. One was what it meant to be a Jew. Paul’s letters date from a time just before the revolt of the Jews against the Romans and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. Israel, as we now know much better than we did, say, 100 years ago, was filled with intrigue and presented several options for how to respond the events of the day. The Judaism of the day was not a settled matter.
Another dialogue, still in its earliest stages, was the conversation in the church about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. If Gentiles were to be included, on what terms did they become part of the church? Was this new movement to be a reform movement within Second Temple Judaism or was it something new and different? The church plunged into this conversation at a very deep level almost immediately after the ascension of Jesus.
These and other conversations were swirling about at the time Paul wrote his letters. I could add others. The relationship between the faith and Greek culture, for example. But it’s not the facts on the ground—how the conversations came out—that are important here but the approach taken by Dunn. He sees these various conversations—his preferred word is “dialogues”—as open-ended, as offering real alternatives. It was not inevitable that they took the course they did.
We tend to see the past in terms of the winners. We assume that we call “orthodoxy” was always the clear choice. Other choices were deviations, heresies. But this is not the case. Other choices were serious attempts to understand the meaning of Jesus and his cross and resurrection. They may have had their own claims to Jesus (and Paul).
Take a later conversation in the church, a conversation with the groups we call Gnostic (we 21st century people; they didn’t call themselves that). Some Gnostics believed, among other things, that we are essentially spiritual beings weighed down by our bodies. The metaphor of drunkenness was often used in the Gnostic writings. We stagger around in our daily lives like drunks, only dimly aware of who we really are. So goes the Gnostic creed. We long to be freed from this earthly existence, to become pure spirit—to go to, well, heaven.
The early church eventually rejected this idea, officially, but it’s still very much around. In fact, I would warrant that popular Christian theology is usually more Gnostic than orthodox. The conversation is far from over. We are still negotiating what the faith is. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? No one has yet given a final answer to that question.
What Dunn is suggesting is that these sorts of conversations stem not only from the Bible but that they are found within the Bible itself. There is not, as Wright would have it, a single narrative that connects all the pictures but many narratives, some building on each other and others in conflict with each other. To me this makes better sense not only of Paul (who may have changed his mind from time to time) but of the Bible as a whole. It frees us to read the Bible for what it is, not for how it conforms to our preferred narrative.
And here’s the point: even if this is true, the Spirit of God is still in the midst of all of this. The Spirit of God is not in a single narrative or a single interpretation. The Spirit of God is not limited to what we think is orthodox. The Spirit of God is in the conversation. It’s in the conversation that we, the followers of Jesus come to truth—to what we have been given of the truth. It’s when we stop talking and hug our own little versions of the faith that we go wrong. Jimmy Dunn got that.