In a recent talk at Mars Hill Bible Church, N. T. Wright declared the need for more Christian scholars, who nearly inevitably nowadays will go after their doctorates, to do work which takes in consideration the big picture. Biblical or theological doctorate degrees are geared to specialization on small parts, knowing them thoroughly with the danger according to Wright that the big picture is missed altogether. N. T. Wright went on to say (along with many other things, he could hold his own with the Apostle Paul and anyone else) that much of what is held to is true, but not seen in terms of the big picture.
Whether or not you accept “the new perspective,” or see in it anything which challenges the old, I think N. T. Wright’s challenge is good for us all. In my case I find myself in basic acceptance and agreement with it, from what I gather and understand. Of course “the new perspective on Paul” or in terms of Jesus, like other theological schools has adherents who disagree among themselves on various matters.
The big picture will have to take into account all of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Fundamentally that can be enough for many of us, except that we never do anything at all in a vacuum, which points to a weakness in “sola-Scriptura.” The idea that scripture alone forms are view of truth has to be qualified to some extent to understand that we read it not in terms of what we understand, but in its own terms which includes ways of communicating and thinking we may miss altogether, given our own context. Yes, context as in philosophical and theological presuppositions will definitely play into our reading and understanding of scripture.
N. T. Wright is among those who argues that we need to do historical work around the texts of scripture, to help us understand. A well worn understanding within the new perspective is that Augustine and Luther were working on Paul more within their own contexts rather than in the context Paul lived in himself. And so, for example, they, especially Luther see a sharper dichotomy between faith and works than what is seen in scripture. Hence Luther’s complaint of James as a “right strawy epistle.”
The systematic theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, I take it without dismissing the new perspective, challenges N. T. Wright a bit on the insistence that history becomes a determining factor in arriving to the meaning of the text of scripture, saying that this could undermine the God-given role of tradition. From what I’ve read of N. T. Wright, he would want to maintain the role of tradition along with the need for ongoing historical studies. Wright within his Anglican tradition recites the creed daily, and sees it as something formed to respond to the challenges of its time, all of it being true. But that the gospels which in Wright’s view are essentially about how God became King in Jesus, in accordance with the promises fulfilled of the old covenant and through Israel, were filled in with details which the creeds skip altogether, zeroing in on Jesus birth, death, resurrection, ascension and return.
At any rate the challenge to see the big picture and to see it on its own terms is a good challenge for us all. We will end up seeing and understanding the parts that make up the whole much better if we can better understand the main point being made, or better put, the storyline of scripture. Not an easy undertaking, but one that can’t be shelved, even as we seek to understand the details of God’s great story fulfilled in and through Jesus.