The Aroma of Great Exegesis

qb still remembers what it was like that first time he pushed open the doors to Brown Library at ACU and made his way through the remodeling rubble to the Theology section.  It was January 2006, and qb was beginning his seminary career with a one-week inter-term class with the sterile name, “Introduction to Graduate Study.”  An old friend from Aggieland, Craig Churchill, was the instructor, a younger man acquainted with unspeakable grief but yet possessed of such kindness, such a deft touch, such great sensitivity…and at the same time so funny and delightful, so humble, so knowledgeable, so competent and gracious.


The smells that day were the aromas of centuries of pondering, of working with the Text, of working it out in life, of putting it to the test.  It was a heady time, an assault on the senses, an overwhelming persuasion that Campbellites (of which I am unashamedly one) are but a tiny school of mackerel in a vast ocean of biblical thought.  To walk the Theology stacks in Brown Library – and we’re mindful of how pale a shadow they might be of the truly great libraries at Oxford or South Bend – is to be enlightened:  the Bible in its various forms has inspired a truly incredible mass of thought and reflection and argument, all in search of that most elusive quantity, truth.  (Pilate wondered what it was, anticipating the chaos that is postmodernism.)


Truth, Dr. Willard says, is what you run into when you’re wrong.  (He is so concerned about practical application!)


qb has now read a bunch of Bishop Wright.  Not nearly all that he has written, but the major books, which probably synthesize, interpret, and apply what he has previously written in countless journal articles.  His portfolio, to be sure, is almost inexhaustible.  But qb has read a few of his more popular works – Simply Christian, The Last Word, Evil and the Justice of God – and a few of his massive works for academic audiences, The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God.  There are so many more to read, it seems impossible to take it all in; but by now, the Bishop’s incomparable brilliance is in fairly clear view.

This is an iconoclastic master of biblical study, one on whom many large-caliber guns have been trained as if he were a two-bit heretic.  His task, as he sees it, is to read the Bible as it was received by its immediate audiences in history, to soak himself in its best original manuscripts, and to understand the achievement of Jesus and the purposes of God in precisely those historical terms.  It gets him in trouble with the Establishment.  Frequently.  And the book qb is now reading is one of Wright’s most impassioned, most polemical works in defense of what he has found as he explores the caves and canyons of the New Testament.  In this work, he crosses swords with the Reformed theologian, John Piper.

He is not fighting for a draw.


If there is anything in Justification:  God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision that stands out above the rest, it is how deeply Wright loves, respects, admires, and wishes to emulate Paul, the apostle from Tarsus.  (It is not idolatrous.  Wright clearly imitates Paul as Paul imitates the Messiah, Jesus.)  I have wracked my little brain this evening trying to find just the right verb to express Wright’s posture toward Paul, but I cannot find it.  “Admires” is too distant; “worships” is too obsequious and false.  “Respects” does not go far enough.  “Loves” is certainly true, but it is too ambiguous.  But it is clear that, to N. T. Wright, Saul of Tarsus stands head and shoulders over the rest, with the letter to the Romans

[bestriding] the narrow worlds of scholarship and church like a colossus, and we petty exegetes walk under its huge legs and peep about…nevertheless, all roads led to Rome in the ancient world, and all roads in biblical exegesis lead to Romans sooner or later…The problem I now face is of compression and omission:  how to squash what needs to be said into the space available without shrinking the argument beyond what it can bear, and how to leave out that for which there is no room – which favorite passages to avoid, which key debates to short-circuit, which supporters not to quote, which opponents not to take on – without damaging the argument I wish to put forward.

Dallas Willard is fond of saying that Jesus “was not only nice, he was brilliant.”  His exposition of the Sermon on the Mount proceeds from the assumption that Jesus was a master teacher, a sage whose wisdom bore an almost otherworldly coherence and depth.  Wright sees Paul in much the same light.

I don’t know how best to capture Justification.  In many ways, it’s strictly inside baseball for the academics and theologians and religious cognoscenti.  But I can say this:  I am falling in love with Paul all over again.  This time, though, it’s different, a new perspective on an old friend and teacher.  I have N. T. Wright to thank for it.


3 thoughts on “The Aroma of Great Exegesis

  1. I finished this book last week. It was my first experience with his writing, and I am hungry for more. His exegesis of Romans 2 was especially eye-opening for me, along with how he argued that the entire letter was a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham (God’s single-purpose-through-Israel-for-the-world). Brilliant.

    The earth does in fact revolve around the sun.

  2. Fantastic, jds. Some of it is tough sledding – his impeccable writing skills and dry wit are super helpful with technical stuff – but it’s worth it. He has a knack. Other than an occasional fit of transparent straw-manning about things political, he goes yard with just about every swing.


  3. BTW, jds, I found it a delightful but odd and humbling thing to have spent my whole life unwittingly thinking (and teaching) in hyper-Reformed categories, only to have Wright systematically deconstruct the whole thing in a matter of weeks!


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