Justification, God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision
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In my debating with myself about reviewing this book by N. T. Wright, one of my staff members asked, why I was going to do it. From time to time it is important to mention a book that is important and influential even though I have to disagree with its content. Also because of the popularity of the author in some of our circles it is easy to read him in a non-critical way and be influenced by what he writes. This is not a book for a new Christian nor for those lacking a strong theological perspective. Because Equip to Disciple is intended primarily for pastors, staff, and other church leaders and because our PCA General Assembly has dealt with the general framework into which this book fits, namely “the New Perspectives on Paul” I decided to comment on it.
This is not an easy task because there are many good things that I have read and appreciated by the author even though I disagree with him on a number of issues; justification being one. First, a word of background. Two years ago John Piper wrote a book The Future of Justification which was critical of Wright’s view of justification. Much was based on the book What Saint Paul Really Said, with which I was familiar. Though I have some appreciation for what Wright is saying, I had some problems with Piper’s critique of Wright for his covenantal emphasis on the topic. This book is intended to respond to Piper and clarify the issue of which Wright is critical of Piper’s critique.
Second, I think there is merit, from our Presbyterian and Reformed context, for a covenantal hermeneutic regarding interpreting Scripture, as long as it does not cause us to misinterpret Scripture. Lacking the covenantal focus, I believe, is a weakness of Piper’s dealing with justification, as I believe it was with Luther. One of the strength’s of Calvin’s theology in contrast to Luther’s was Calvin’s understanding the heart of the gospel, the good news, was the kingdom of God, of which salvation and its parts, including justification, were included. Luther focused primarily on soteriology but especially justification as though it were the heart of the gospel. Wright’s point which I believe has some validity is that Luther’s and consequently the other reformers reading of justification as an aspect of salvation that changed our relationship to God and failed to see the covenantal aspect of it. I believe we miss so much by simply focusing on the individual and his relation to God exclusively or almost so as though that reflects the good news of the kingdom.
Wright challenges Luther, Calvin, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The 39 Articles of his own church, and others such as D. A. Carson, and the late Edmund P. Clowney on this matter. He believes that the 16th and 17th century reformers have caused the western reformed and evangelical world to allow those reformers to interpret Paul for us; therefore, we have not actually understood what Paul said. For example, the WCF Shorter Catechism definition of justification is: (Q and A 33). “What is justification.” A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” This view clearly reflects Paul’s teaching in Romans. The idea of imputation is foreign to what Paul says, according to Wright. It is not about our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us. That concept according to Wright came from those 16th and 17th century reformers.
What Paul has in mind both in Romans and Galatians is not the catechisms definition of justification. Instead, Wright defines justification as “God’s faithfulness to keep the covenant made with Abraham.” That is a good statement but it does not actually apply to the concept of justification. This has implications and application on Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God and the righteousness of man. What he says sounds good at first reading, that the reformers allowed their context to determine their interpretation. They should have gone back to the original context of Paul and using extra canonical sources such as the Second Temple documents to interpret Paul, as though they actually represent Paul’s context. In fact while there are good things we can learn from the STL, including the Mishna, they reflect the antithesis to Paul’s teaching about law, works, justification, and even sanctification. This has implications on our view of Scripture being the only infallible interpreter of Scripture and not some extra canonical documents which can be of some help in our understanding but not the determiner of Scriptures’ meaning.
Wright believes that Paul’s references to the law in Romans and Galatians are not references to the traditional understanding of the Judaizers and their emphasis of a legalistic moral works type scenario. For him the law of God from the Jews perspective was to attempt to nullify God’s covenant with Abraham to save both Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish use of the law erected a barrier between Jews and Gentiles that God’s work had torn down. That is not all wrong but it does not fit with Scripture at this point. To illustrate, Wright points to Anselm the Bishop of Canterbury by criticizing him for allowing the Latin concepts of things like “law” and “right” to determine his interpretation of Scripture rather than using the Hebraic thought forms. Again, some truth, but not here.
He uses another example of the reformers interpretation of 1 Corinthians 1:30 to point out how they constructed an ordo salutis (order of salvation) from this text which caused them to miss what Paul was really saying namely, the way in which the status of the believer in Christ overturns all social pride and convention of the surrounding culture. He says this has caused the church to reach for tradition vs. Scripture to hear Paul.
Basically for Wright, justification has more to do with God keeping his Word than man’s right standing with God and how justification influences that. “Many supposedly ordinary readings within Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote,” (page 50). Justification is really about God’s righteousness not ours and according to Wright that is what Romans and Galatians are referring to. In summary, Wright believes that justification is God’s faithfulness. His understanding includes God’s promise to Abraham to have one people and that is the context of Romans and Galatians. According to Wright being justified by the law, for the Jew, meant building a barrier between the Jew and Gentile. Thus he claims that in Galatians 2:20 Paul is speaking of being crucified with Christ and the life we now live in the flesh, we live by the faithfulness of God, not by our faith in the Son of God. This interpretation tends to diminish the result of justification on man’s part, as Wright translates it.
I believe this book illustrates a different view of Scripture and its interpretation, as though the Second Temple documents are trustworthy extra canonical sources in interpreting the Scriptures. I have a problem, as I read the book, with his view of the righteousness of God and righteousness of man. I am troubled by his definition of justification. Then, there is his definition of the law of God. I have trouble with his criticism of the reformers making justification merely a reference to God’s righteousness In doing this I believe he has constructed a straw man as I think he does in other places.
Piper says that he doesn’t believe Wright is preaching a false doctrine but rather a confusing one. That may be a very generous statement. It certainly is confusing and I believe a confusing gospel can easily lead to another gospel. Paul says unless there is a clear sound from the trumpet of God, who can prepare for battle? We need to speak with clarity and as little confusion as we can. I believe there is the possible danger, even as Wright points out. We can read, as I believe he does, our own definitions into a text or our own context to the extent that we can miss the message, but at the same time I believe to interpret Scripture, we need to consider three horizons to use Anthony Thiselton’s word: the original context, the whole of church councils and church history, and our context today.
Read this book, carefully, discerningly, and with much caution. Remember as you do, our final authority is the inspired Word of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
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