Against Cottrell’s Rebuttal of Wright

This past week, former Cincinnati Christian Seminary theology professor Jack Cottrell, the dean of conservative Christian Church theologians, posted a brief “takedown” of the New Perspective on Paul, specifically N.T. Wright.  You can find Cottrell’s post here.

This afternoon, I posted the following response.

Respectfully, I see several methodological problems with your response.

1. Although you summarize the New Perspective, you don’t seem to be tracking all the conversations that Wright is part of here. The Davies > Sanders > Wright “school” is ‘re-judaizing” Paul in response to German NT scholarship of the 19th and early 20th century, which de-judaized Paul. Bultmann is the towering example, but aside from a few exceptions (e.g., Schlatter, perhaps Schweitzer but I don’t remember him as well), German NT scholars grossly minimized the Jewish background of all the NT, including Jesus, which facilitated the rise of Nazism and anti-semitism.

In other words: if Davies > Sanders > Wright swing the pendulum too far in one direction (“Judeocentrism”), it’s because it swung drastically and disastrously in the other direction for a very long time.

2. You seem offended by the idea that the New Perspective thinks it has corrected something that theologians have been getting wrong since nearly New Testament times. That’s the kind of claim that the reformers made against Catholicism. It’s also the kind of claim that restorationists frequently make. It is hardly unprecedented.

3. You seem offended by Wright’s attempt to redefine classical theological terms, away from the understanding given them during the Reformation: e.g., the words related to DIKAIOS. This is the entirety of your point C, and it is anachronism run amok. (E.g., your complaint about relying on literature outside of the New Testament.)

The center of Wright’s attempt to redefine the meaning of these terms, which you do NOT summarize and certainly do not refute, is careful exegetical work and literary-historical work that shows that the world of Paul did not use these terms (e.g. the DIKAIOS word group) to mean what later theological formulations say that they meant. For example, Wright claims that a careful literary-historical survey shows that “justification” in Paul’s world was never used to refer to imputed righteousness.

(Similarly, Wright and others have noted that the post-enlightenment West is much more individualistic than Paul or Paul’s readers; this is a given in modern New Testament scholarship. This is at the heart of the New Perspective’s critique of much of reformed theology as nothing more than individual soteriology, something you note near the beginning of your post but do not refute nor [apparently] appreciate.)

If the biblical witness is the basis of and standard for our theology, and if literary-historical work shows that a concept we are using cannot (or even likely did not) mean to the biblical writers what we say that it means in our theology, then we are wrong and need to correct our formulations, no matter how inconvenient or universal our error.

4. You are fundamentally misreading Wright on the relationship between the roles of Israel and Jesus.

You say: “If Israel was God’s original agent for saving the world, and if Christ came only to do what Israel failed to do, the clear implication is that, theoretically, the Jews as such COULD HAVE SAVED THE WORLD if only they had been true to their covenant. There would have been no need for Jesus.”

You do not produce a quote to support this, only a “clear implication.” I believe your “clear” inference is a misreading of Wright, which you fall into because he is doing narrative theology (describing God’s plan in narrative sequence) and you are reading it as systematic theology.

“First Israel, then Jesus” is the order of events. Even if Israel had been faithful, Messiah would have come, but his coming would have looked very different, as would his road to the cross.

But that’s like asking if Jesus failed because Israel rejected him as Messiah, leading to Gentiles and Jews together in the church. God’s purpose is not frustrated.

One thought on “Against Cottrell’s Rebuttal of Wright

  1. As I indicated when I wrote and posted the piece on N. T. Wright, I am not an expert on the New Perspective on Paul. Some of my readers have been kind enough to substantiate and reinforce that fact, and I thank them for educating me.
    I will not try to respond in detail to every complaint directed against my NPP post; I will make only two main points. FIRST OF ALL: my analysis of Wright and the NPP was limited to what he wrote about this in his book on justification (as I so indicated). I assumed that in this book he would be dealing with the essence of the subject, and that whatever he said here would be consistent with his other writings. As for my analysis of his material, I do maintain that my explanation of Wright’s views and claims (as made in the book) is fair, accurate, and honest. I do also maintain that his views on this subject are wrong, i.e., they do not represent a correct understanding of the Bible. I understand that Wright’s fans will disagree with this latter point.
    My SECOND MAIN POINT is much more serious, i.e, that the whole phenomenon of the NPP is based on a seriously faulty view of the nature of the Bible. The issue here is not how many years passed between the writing of the NT documents and the NPP’s alleged enlightenment as to their meaning, whether it be ten or a hundred or nineteen hundred. The issue is whether or not there was a divine power at work in the minds of the human authors of those original documents, including those of Paul. What kind of book is the Bible?
    I made this point in my original posting, and I emphasize it again: the NPP presupposes that the Bible is a one-dimensional book. I.e., it has a human dimension only. Specifically, everything in Paul’s writings owes its origin and meaning to Paul’s human background, experiences, and understanding. It is assumed that his mind was steeped in the second-temple rabbinic culture and writings, and that his concepts and terminology must necessarily be determined by that background and must be addressing that culture. This assumption is what gives the NPP its sense of legitimacy.
    We can follow this approach only if we reject the Bible’s own testimony to itself, including the testimony of Paul himself. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that his message was not from man but from God (Gal. 1:11-17). He consciously wrote and spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-16; 7:40). He knew that his words were not the word men but the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). We must choose whether we will accept or reject this testimony, and we must decide to what extent this divine influence affects the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. How we respond will determine whether or not we feel dependent upon the rabbinical writings to understand Paul’s vocabulary and message.
    If we accept the Holy Spirit’s role in the production of the NT Scriptures, then we should understand that the human authors were not writing just for their first-century Greek or Jewish audiences; they were writing for the church universal in all times and cultures to come. If God wants us to understand that Christ’s death was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, we don’t have to discover the monocultural meaning of that term in long-lost rabbinic writings. If he wants us to understand that our justification is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we don’t have to know how the rabbis used that term. Their understanding of such things was not inspired; Paul’s writing about them was.


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