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Books: Revisiting the apostle

Books | A.N. Wilson's brilliant mind is a terrible thing to waste

Issue: "The persecuted church," Nov. 1, 1997

What role did Paul of Tarsus actually play in the establishment of the Christian faith in the first-century Roman milieu? Was he the faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus, a missionary to the gentiles, and an exponent of the gospel once and for all delivered unto the saints? Or, was he a radical innovator, a pioneering visionary, and a fabricator of an entirely new faith out of equal parts Jewish mysticism and Greek rationalism? These are questions that have prompted a furor in academic and theological circles-and that lie at the heart of these two brilliantly conceived but very different books.

A.N. Wilson is a prolific journalist, novelist, and literary biographer. His latest tome, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, is undeniably learned and witty. It is chock-a-block with surprisingly vivid details about the world Paul might have experienced in the first century, the regions he visited during his missionary journeys, and the sundry cults, philosophies, sects, religions, and worldviews that he might have encountered along the way.

Certainly, Mr. Wilson possesses rare gifts. He is a writer of uncommon presence, power, and passion. But more often than not, his wide-ranging genius leads him far afield. He wildly speculates about various psychological influences in the apostle's life. He takes the bizarre approach of never taking the primary source documents-in this case, the epistles-at face value but instead baptizing a Freudian construct upon them. Thus, he concludes that Paul was not a follower of Jesus at all but the tortured architect of a guilt-laden mystery religion rooted in an ahistorically mythologized Christ. Indeed, he attributes the whole of the church to the "unhappy accident" of a "restless and almost Nietzschean mind." In the end, despite his stunning eloquence, Mr. Wilson is reduced to fantastic ravings.

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Mr. Wilson-a former Christian who a few years ago noisily renounced his faith-has pulled the same kind of outdated psychologizing on C.S. Lewis and has even written a "biography" of Jesus based on the liberal biblical scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.

Thankfully, N.T. Wright is Mr. Wilson's intellectual and rhetorical equal. But where the latter unleashes his gifts in pursuit of some speculative wild-goose chase of psychobabble and academentia, the former has harnessed his to the steady discipline of careful exegesis and discerning isogesis.

What Saint Paul Really Said weighs the evidence and finds that only historic biblical orthodoxy has sufficiently answered the thorny questions of the apostle's contribution to the faith. Hardly the founder of a new religion, he was but the loyal witness and herald of his sovereign, the Lord Jesus. Indeed, Christ was not for him a mere cipher, but the "King, Judge, and Lawgiver" at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue confess: "He is Lord." Mr. Wright pores over the New Testament data with forensic precision to add new weight to a conservative theological interpretation.

Mr. Wright has done us all good service by highlighting the powerful impact of the Apostle Paul with such discrimination and finesse. In addition, he has reassured us that brilliance need not always lead to a prideful lording it over God.

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