NTW Lecture on the Purpose and Use of Doctrines

On May 2nd I had the opportunity to hear N.T. Wright deliver a lecture on the subject ‘Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture’, here in St. Andrews. I am not the fastest note-taker, and so the following is a rough reconstruction of the basis gist of Wright’s lecture, based on my sketchy notes. For this reason they really should not be used as a point of reference for Wright’s thought.

Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture

NT WrightThe first half of the paper will be primarily methodical; the second half primarily exegetical. We currently face a puzzle of perception. There are those in the Church who are troubled by what they see as the hardening of theology into dry doctrine. Scripture, they believe, brings life, not ‘doctrine’. Scripture can often function like a favourite movie or symphony for them. For others, however, Scripture has become as dry as doctrine itself. Extended prayer and praise meetings are what they regard as important — the Spirit. In addition to such people there are those who love dogmatic theology and are bored by labyrinthine exegesis.

We need to recover an understanding of Scripture in the light of narrative. One can almost anticipate the sighs of some hearers of this lecture. Narrative theology is so passé. They are even giving it up in Yale! However, a narrative structure is very clearly present in Scripture. This stands in contrast to the Gnostic gospels. Lacking such a narrative they would quite likely function as a cuckoo in the nest of the canon. Genesis to Revelation is one massive narrative. The various writers of Scripture, particularly the earlier ones, can be compared to engineers from many different workshops producing the many nuts, bolts and cantilevers that would eventually come together to form the Forth Bridge, something far bigger than anything that they could have envisaged.

When we read Paul we need to read him as one who thinks Scripture. His mind is full of the Scriptural narrative (and the various subnarratives) and he regards himself as one who inhabits the big narrative that Scripture presents us with. As we read Paul we need to ask how he can function as Scripture for us. When we read Scripture are we really looking for Scripture itself, or are we merely looking for something else — such as doctrine or devotion — that we try to mould Scripture into.

As a suggested way forward for our thinking on this matter, perhaps we should start to think of doctrines as akin to ‘portable narratives’. Doctrines are like suitcases that enable us to transport longer narratives from A to B. However, like suitcases they need to be continually packed and unpacked. Sometimes we need to, in order to address important questions that the Church faces in the course of its mission, to speak about the meaning of Jesus’ death. On such occasions it is better to say ‘atonement’ than have to give a more long-winded statement.

However, as a note at this point, it is important to remember that, when Jesus wanted to teach His disciples about the meaning of His death, He didn’t give them a ‘doctrine of atonement’. Rather, He gave them a meal. When we think about the atonement we need to recognize that the Eucharist is the grid of interpretation that we have been given.

Creeds can be compared to portable stories. Although some have treated them as such, creeds are not like ‘checklists’, arranged in no particular order. Rather, they follow a clear narrative order, telling, in broad brush outline, a story that begins in creation and reaches its climax in Christ. They are telescoped narratives. If we leave our suitcases unpacked for long periods of time there is always a danger that the contents will become mildewed. The same is the case with the creeds. We must always be prepared to ‘unpack’ the narrative of the creeds.

One of the purposes that the creeds serve is that of enabling the narrative to function as a ‘symbol’, as something that we can subscribe to. Doctrines also enable us to more adequately defend the narratives from attacks at key points.

The packing and unpacking that we are here speaking of can be observed within the text of Scripture itself. Paul frequently packs and unpacks his narrative. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we find the terse statement, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.’ This is a very closely-packed version of what Paul unpacks, expands and lays out in detail in Romans 7. We see much the same ending in Romans 7:25 as we do in 1 Corinthians 15:57. The packing and unpacking of doctrines, then, is not just something that the Church does; Scripture does it too.

It is possible to treat dogmas as items on a checklist in a way that detaches them from any narrative framework. It is also possible to place them into the wrong narrative. Dogmas are like the dots on a dot to dot puzzle. The dots by themselves are not enough; they must be joined up in the correct order. Implicit narrative is all-important. If we put our doctrines into the wrong narrative we can end up falsifying them. This is very significant when we come to the doctrine of the atonement. We must recognize that it is the story of Israel that drives the NT and Jesus himself. This is what Paul means by ‘according to the Scriptures’. The cross isn’t merely predicted by isolated proof-texts within the OT, but is the fulfillment of the entire OT narrative of Israel. This can be very hard for those who think in terms of a creation-fall-Jesus pattern to understand. However, if we miss out Israel we are in danger of becoming Marcionite in our thinking and losing out in such areas as ecclesiology.

Some understand the divinity of Christ in terms of a ‘Superman’ type narrative. Others understand the Second Coming in terms of the narrative of the rapture. These are examples of ways in which our implicit narratives can falsify or distort doctrines. The doctrine of atonement is a self-involving doctrine. Whilst all doctrines are to some extent self-involving, atonement is more so. It is about reconciliation with God and outside of the context of reconciliation with God it can never be properly understood. The atonement is not just an ‘involving’ doctrine in the sense of being something that we must mentally and emotionally commit ourselves to. The truth of the atonement is embodied in the practice of the Eucharist.

Unlike those who adopt the ‘checklist’ mentality, we need to recognize that not all ‘doctrines’ are the same sort of thing. For instance, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ is not necessarily the same sort of thing as ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’. Particular doctrines are, to some extent, sui generis.

It is interesting to observe that, whilst Paul mentions the cross all the time, he never gives it any expanded treatment. This contrasts to the way in which Paul unpacks the doctrine of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The cross is woven deep into the fabric of 2 Corinthians, for instance, but it is always treated in connection with other doctrines.

The book of Romans is about the δικαιοσυνη θεου (righteousness of God). It is about God’s addressing the problem of humanity and of Israel to keep the covenant. The significance of Israel in this picture is that Abraham was going to be the one through whom God was going to set right that which went wrong in Adam. However, it seems that God’s purpose for Israel has failed. Traditional readings generally fail to see this and, as a result, marginalize sections like 9-11, 2:17-29 and 3:1-9. Subtly different questions than those of Paul are brought to the text.

In his approach to the cross in Romans, Paul seems to take traditional statements concerning the cross as the basis for his argument in such places as 3:21-26. In the early chapters of Romans Paul demonstrates the failure of Israel to be the light of the Gentiles and the reality of universal sin. God’s plan seems to have collapsed. In 3:21-26 Paul gives an exposition of the manner in which God has been faithful to His covenant in dealing with sin.

It is unfashionable to go to the book of Acts in order to discover Paul’s theology, but the parallel between the reference to passing over sins in Romans 3:25 and statements made by Paul in Acts 14 and 17, where Paul speaks of the times of ignorance of the Gentiles, are interesting. Romans 3:21-26 does not give us a generalized statement of atonement, but rather declares how, in the present time, God is dealing with Jews and Gentiles.

Has the traditional argument just taken a wise course of action, by cutting to what it has deemed to be the ‘heart of the matter’? The problem here is that we run the risk of forcing texts onto the Procrustean bed of our own assumptions. Our eagerness for ‘doctrine’ can result in the muting of the Jew/Gentile point that was so important for Paul.

Later in the epistle, Paul goes on to claim that the death of Jesus demonstrates the sovereign love of the Father. From this we can deduce the fact of final salvation. While we were weak, while we were sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us. Paul spells this out in terms of Christ’s obedience, a Pauline theme of which the Reformed emphasis on the active obedience of Christ turns out to be a parody. Whilst we can agree with the Reformed doctrine in what it is trying to say, it misses Paul’s point. We needn’t lose the idea of imputed righteousness, but we will get it back within a larger framework, which might threaten some pet assumptions.

In Romans 8:3 Paul speaks of God speaking sentence on Sin itself, not just sins, or sinners. This is the clearest statement of penal substitution in the epistle. God condemned Sin (not Christ); Christ has borne the sentence. What is the larger argument within which this is the turning point? The larger underlying argument is that of the role played by the God-given Torah in Romans 7. Sin does its worst in Israel and will be dealt with there. In the ινα of 5:20 and 7:13 we see that this was God’s purpose all the way along. God’s purpose was to make Israel the place to raise Sin to its height. Torah heightens, rather than alleviating, the problem, turning sins into transgression. God then passes sentence on Sin at the point at which it has been gathered together. The cross then brings into effect the larger purpose of God (Romans 5:21). The story that Paul is telling here is far bigger than the one that has been told by many of his interpreters.

How can this be relevant to the sinner on the street? The significance of this narrative is often implicit and assumed. When you are talking to a person on their deathbed you would not usually discuss the question of why God gave the Law in the first place (although you never know!). If you were going to mention the Israel dimension of the story you might focus more on the truth of God’s faithfulness through death, using Abraham and others as illustrations of God’s trustworthiness. It is worth noticing that, when Paul presents the gospel to pagan Gentiles, his message usually takes a different form to that which we see in the epistles.

In the rest of Romans we see that the cross is not mentioned in 9-11. However, it is implicit throughout. The cross is far wider in meaning than one particular account of how human individuals can be saved.

The frustration experienced by dogmaticians and exegetes when faced with each other’s objections is quite understandable (exegetes and dogmaticians may just be two different types of people). Rather than trying to get at supposedly Pauline ‘doctrines’, we should focus on his larger narrative arguments. ‘Atonement’ is not the primary thing that Paul is talking about. We must read Paul in the context of his implicit narratives. We should never protect Paul from this story. We need to rethink the way that we engage with Scripture. Scripture is not merely a peg to hook ‘doctrines’ on. We need to listen to Scripture when it disagrees with us or we don’t understand it. The faultline that so often exists between Scripture and doctrine can only be overcome by the authority of Scripture being exercised in such a way.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to NTW Lecture on the Purpose and Use of Doctrines

  1. Pingback: The Boar’s Head Tavern »

  2. Elbert says:

    Thanks Al, an interesting read. It seems that the ‘connect the dots & mix’m all up’ formula is becoming something like a signature to NT Wright’s lectures🙂

    Interesting to note maybe that Schilder in a play of words expands the obedience of Christ in ‘lijdelijke en dadelijke gehoorzaamheid’ (simply translated: “passive” and active obedience, the word for passive also alluding to ‘suffering’ and the word for active perhaps to ‘immediate’ or ‘in the near future’). But then, Schilder also follows the narrative more closely I suppose than the ‘reformed’ Wright is referring to here. I’ll read him again I’ll bear these points in mind that Wright is making.

  3. Elle says:

    NT Wright has this way of making complex theology seems less complex. I appreciated your ability to share these notes for us. Thank you!

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