N. T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, is primarily a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright though he engages others as well (e.g., Westerholm). For another extended review of Piper’s book, sympathetic to Wright, see Trevin Wax’s interaction with the book as well as his interview with Wright.
Reformed theologians and scholars are disturbed by Wright’s defense of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and his, as they see it, rejection of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. Guy Waters, of Reformed Theological Seminary, has written a fair-minded and on point review of Wright’s new book. If you want to read a good Reformed response to Wright, I think that is a good place to start.
I have no desire to pursue a point by point discussion in this post. Rather, I simply want to offer my thoughts on what I think is at issue in Wright’s book. I have not followed the “debate” over NPP and justification very closely in the past few years and consequently, to some extent, I am “out of the loop” on this one. But as one who has studied Refomed theology and read widely in Wright, I want to share what I think is significant about this particular contribution by N. T. Wright.
As I read Wright, his intent is to “go beyond the new perspective/old perspective divide” and appropriate from both perspectives since “both are necessary parts of what Paul is actually saying” (p. 212). The “emphases of the old and new perspectives belong…intimately together” (p. 200). Wright intends to present “Paul’s own majestic synthesis” where “old and new perspectives on Paul come together and, though tossed and tumbled about in the process, they are transformed and transcended, and together they give rise to prayer and praise” (p. 174-175). In many ways, the old and new perspectives “sit comfortably side by side” like a “parit of theological Siamese twins sharing a single heart” (p. 118). For example, faith in Christ is both (1) our boundary marker rather than Torah works (NPP) and (2) the means of our justification before God (OPP).
I have shared this approach to the NPP and OPP for several years. I think the approaches can be complementary rather than antagonistic. But let me first point out where the NPP (as Wright presents it) would be problematic in terms of traditional Evangelical/Reformed/Lutheran theology. While there are many exegetical issues, my concern in this brief review is the theological points of contention–the soteriological questions. Here are a few:
- Centrality of Justification. Is the central soteri0logical doctrine of the Christian faith ”justification by faith alone”? Protestants, based on Romans and Galatians, have generally thought so. But Wright thinks the emphasis on justification in Romans and Galatians is primarily about the question of Torah or faith in Jesus as boundary markers of the people of God. Justification is not so much about individual appropriation of the forgiveness of sins (though it includes that!), but the identification of the covenant people of God (pp. 75-76, 242). The overemphasis on Romans and Galatians–particularly a stress on justification–creates an imbalance within Paul’s own theology (e.g., what if Ephesians and Colossians had been the center of the Reformation movement?) as well as an imbalance in relation to the gospel of the kingdom in the Gospels (pp. 43, 176, 248). Justification–as traditionally explained– is one piece of soteriology, but it is not the whole of it.
- Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness. Are we justificed by the forensic imputation of the moral righteousness of Christ? While Wright believes in a substitutionary atonement based on the representative faithfulness of Jesus who enacted the covenant for us, he does not believe it is necessary to read Paul as grounding this in the imputation of Christ’s moral efforts to our moral account (pp. 206-207, 217, 231-233). The faithfulness of Jesus is his “faithfulness unto death, the redeeming death, the dealing-with-sin death” which is the declaration that we are “in the right” (p. 203). Our present status (justification) derives from God’s righteousness faithfully enacted by Jesus and we claim this status through faith in Jesus.
- “Works” and Salvation. In what sense are we “judged by works” on the last day? Evangelicals, Reformed, and Lutherans have generally relativized Paul’s language in Romans 2 (and other places) such that obedience (sanctification) does not function as a criterion of judgment. While recognizing the legitimate pastoral concerns about assurance, there is–acccording to Wright–a role for works in the eschatological judgment of God through love (not merit!) empowered by the Spirit (pp. 184-189).
Without reviewing Wright’s sustained argument in the book, his positive presentation which seeks to transcend the divide on the above three points looks something like this.
- Union with Christ rather than Justification is Paul’s central soteriological theme. Justification (our present righteous status before God) happens through incorporation rather than vice versa (pp. 142, 151). We are justified because we are united with Christ. If union with Christ is the central point, then we can more appropriately see how salvation is both declaration (staus–the traditional theological category of “justification”) and participation (life–the traditional theological category of “sanctification”). Indeed, historic Reformed theology has stressed this point, which Wright recognizes (p. 72).
- The righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness enacted through the faithfulness of Christ that gives those who trust in Christ a righteous status before God. The “righteousness of God” does not refer to God’s gift of the righteousness of Christ (p. 233) but rather to the God’s covenant faithfulness through Christ (p. 66-67). Justification is a forensic declaration in terms of status, and God’s declares his people justified (p. 69). It is a lawcourt verdict in terms of status which arises out of God’s righteousness–his faithfulness.
- The living sign of our status is a holy life enabled by the Spirit of God. Righteousness (justification) is also a term used by Paul to talk about life (or, in traditional theological terminology, sanctification). Wright’s critics claim that he is moralistic at this point and ends up saving people by their works, but this misunderstands his point. There is no “Pauline doctrine of assurance” without a “Pauline doctrine of the Spirit,” that is, where there are no signs of holy living, “there is no sign of life” (p. 237). Together, our righteousness status through faith in Christ and the living signs of that status enacted in our life by the Spirit, anticipate the final judgment of justification on the last day (p. 239). The “verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced” (p. 225), and that final verdict “will truly reflect what people have actually done” by the power of the Spirit at work in their lives (p. 191-2).
One of Wright’s major concerns is the introduction of ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatology into the discussion of the doctrine of justification which, he believes, is lacking in some discussions of Justification. We might say it something like this:
- The sign of present justification is “membership in God’s people” (ecclesiology) “as the advance sign of soteriology (being saved on the last day)” (p. 147). This participation in the covenant community (church) is missional–”a people based on the work of the Servant and the work of the Spirit, who now carry God’s light, truth and teaching to the waiting nations” (p. 197). The gospel of the kingdom (which is missional ecclesiology), so prominent in the Gospels, must hearld that God has created in Jesus and by the Spirit a people who celebrate their status (forgiven) through extending God’s purposes in the world (p. 248).
- The Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity in many versions of Justification where God forgives sins in Christ and this is the essence of soteriology. When we recognize that righteousness is also about sanctification and eschatological judgment, then we look to the role of the Spirit as the one who sanctifies us and empowers us for holy living as signs of the future eschatological judgment (pp. 236-240).
- The present status of believers in Christ as justified is the already of an eschatological not-yet. It is an inaugurated reality that is only “partially realized” (p. 101). It will be progressively realized in us by the power of the Spirit and eschatologically verified on the day of judgment. Faith in Christ “includes a trust in the Spirt, not least, a sure trust that” God will complete his work when the Lord comes again (p. 107).
If we are going to use “Justification” as a comprehensive soteriological idea, then it needs to include all the elements of soteriology–ecclesiology, Christology, eschatology, sanctification, pneumatology. If we are going to use “Justification” as a narrow identification of the lawcourt declaration of status on the basis of Christ’s work, then we should not speak of “Justification” as the center (or even the most important aspect) of soteriology since it is only one part of the whole.
If we conceive it “broadly” (and this is one possible angle since “righteousness” is used to describe many dimensions of soteriology, including past, present and future–but there are also other angles as well), it seems to me that something like the following might find some common ground between the NPP and the OPP as well as represent Wright’s point in his book:
God’s covenant faithfulness justifies (declares righteous) those who are in the Messiah because he faithfully surrendered to God’s purposes and thus dealt with sin and death through his own death and resurrection. By faith we are incorporated into the Messiah and thus participate in God’s covenant community entrusted with God’s mission in the world. Empowered by the Spirit, this community anticipates the final verdict on the last day through heralding and embodying that verdict in the present as instruments of God’s kingdom purpose to renew the creation.
If both NPP and OPP can find agreement in such a statement, then perhaps the theological tempest might calm a bit and the mission pursued more vigorously. We can only hope, I suppose.