9780830838639mThere are already several reviews of NT Wright’s response (Justification: God’s plan & Paul’s vision) to John Piper’s criticism of his views of justification (The Future of Justification) that I want to draw your eyes to before reading my review series:

Craig L. Blomberg;

Michael Thompson;

Nijay K Gupta;

Scot McKnight (beginning of his series);

Denny Burk hosts the audio of a roundtable of reviewers (Schreiner; Seifried; Vickers; and Burke).

You may be wondering, “with these reviews having already been composed why add yet another?” I think that’s a fair question. One I have asked myself before committing to do a multi-part review. The answer is certainly not that I believe myself best equipped to do such a review series. I do not.

What I seek to offer in this four-part review series is what I believe will help the conversation move forward inside blog-discussions of the book. I intend to offer an in-depth synopsis of Wright’s book, “Justification: God’s plan & Paul’s vision,” in two separate blog-posts following the pattern of division laid out in his book: Part 1 introductory matters; and part 2 exegesis. After giving a synopsis, in a single post, I will offer some constructive feedback on Wright’s view of justification. My interaction will be very small, because I plan on including a list of reviews for both books where you can find how people who are sympathetic and critical engage Piper and Wright’s proposals.  Finally in the last post I’ll offer readers a bibliography of Post-New Perspective New Testament scholars who are engaging the issue (somehow this group continues to be hardly mentioned even though they have been wrestling with the NPP(s) and reformational theology for quiet some time). In these scholars I hope you’ll get a sense of how this debate is continuing to push biblical scholars to engage scripture, their world, and the mission of the church.

With hesitation, and with a bit fear and reverence, acknowledging that I will experience at least a partial failure in the task to come I undertake yet another review on the book. I hope what I offer affords you as readers a clear picture of what’s being debated by these two pastor/scholars, and that you leave equipped to consider how this debate is being reviewed by the next generation of scholars beyond these men, the Post-New-Perspetive perspective(s). If that at all happens then the series was a success.

My four part review series will unfold like this;

  1. Part 1: Summary of “Introduction” – Chapters 1-4.
  2. Part 2: Summary of “Exegesis” – Chapters 5-8.
  3. Part 3: A constructive interaction with Wright’s understanding of justification (hint: connecting “incorporated righteousness with imputed righteousness; I’m working toward a “both and” answer btw Wright and Piper as much as can be had).
  4. Part 4: “A bibliography of Post-New-Perspective proposals that are in constructive yet critical dialogue with Wright and Piper.”

Part 1: Summary of “Introduction” – Chapters 1-4

Preface: Wright opens his response to Piper’s book by noting the main pressure points of the doctrine of justification. In discussions over this doctrine people’s attention are drawn to the nature and scope of salvation; the means of salvation; and the meaning of the term justification itself. If these areas aren’t discussed then the topic of justification hasn’t really been engaged. Wright notes that Piper while critiquing Wright has actually left out significant items from Paul’s description of justification;

First, Paul’s doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel…For many writers, of whom Piper is not untypical, the long story of Israel seems to function merely as a backdrop, a source of prooftexts and types, rather than as itself the story of God’s saving purposes.

Second, Paul’s doctrine of justification is therefore about what we may call the covenant – the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized.

Third, Paul’s doctrine of justification is focused on the divine law-court. God, as judge, “finds in favor of,” and hence acquits from their sin, those who believe in Jesus Christ.

Fourth, Paul’s doctrine of justification is bound up with eschatology, that is, his vision of God’s future for the whole world and for his people. (pgs. 11-12)

For Wright the main field of battle over justification, while being connected to the whole of the biblical story, will be fought in the area of Pauline exegesis which he devotes half his present work to after four chapters of introduction (the first 107 pages are introduction). 

Chapter 1 – What’s All This About, and Why Does It Matter?: Wright opens this chapter with a parable of a man who is trying to explain to a friend that the sun is actually the center of the universe, not the earth though countless scientist up until their day have believed so. The man wakes his heliocentric friend up the next morning and walks him down to a valley where he shows him with plain perception that indeed the sun rises and sets on opposite ends of the earth, it circles the earth not visa versa. The heliocentric man leaves his geocentric friend in disheartenment over not being able to help him come to grips with the paradigm shift that has taken place in the world he’s now living with.

Like this story, says Wright, his evangelical critics aren’t even beginning to come to grips with the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus which is something evangelicals should be anxious to do. Piper, says Wright, isn’t even hearing his argument on its most basic levels, “And the problem is not that he, like many others, is disagreeing with me. The problem is that he hasn’t really listened to what I’m saying.” (pg. 21) Wright suggests what is causing people like Piper to not even begin to hear what he is arguing for is that they have mistakenly believed that the way one honors the Reformation is by keeping its doctrines in an infallible light rather than engaging them. “The greatest honor we can pay the Reformers is not to treat them as infallible – they would be horrified at that – but to do as they did.” (pg. 23) But not only is Piper and others like him caught in a misappropriation of tradition but Wright suggests that their theological system is causing God to go around humanity as though we were the center of the universe, the sole focus of God’s saving purposes [at this point I believe Piper would say Wright has misunderstood me]. “We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might have never have happened. But it has, and we must deal with it. The earth, and we with it, go round the sun of God and his cosmic purposes.” (pg. 24) Wright at this point moves on to clarify his posture toward Piper, and the nature of the New Perspective, as well as the way he intends to respond to Piper and his many critics.

The perception readers of Wright could have at this point is that he came to the task of responding to Piper with a dismissive spirit, assuming he had nothing to learn from Piper. Wright is quick to say this wasn’t his intention at all, “And, critics please note, I do not expect to remain unchanged through that process. I am not defending against all comers a fortress called the new perspective. I hope not just to make things clearer than I have done before, but to see things clearer than I have done before as a result of having had to articulate it all once more. Perhaps if I succeed in seeing things more clearly I may succeed in saying them more clearly as well.” (pg. 28)

Not only does Wright want people to understand his posture toward Piper but he wants them to understand the New Perspective itself. “...there is no such thing as the new perspective…There is only a disparate family of perspectives, some with more, some with less family likeness, and with fierce squabbles and sibling rivalries going on inside. There is no united front...” (pg. 28) Simply put just because you’re read Wright doesn’t mean you understand the New Perspetive in toto, they’re actually New Perspetive’s (Sanders, Dunn, Wright the most typically cited, but several others as well could be included).

Lastly Wright clarifies how he will engage Piper and his critics in this book; not in a blow for blow hand combat manner, but rather in a big picture out flanking military strategist style. So some may be disappointed that he doesn’t reply to all the individual exegetical questions they pose but he suggests the larger moves he makes carry the victory of the day.

Where will Wright and Piper’s views on justification really be shown in the light of their full difference? Wright using a metaphor says reading Piper’s book is like watching someone put together a jigsaw puzzle by removing half the pieces and forcing things to fit un-naturally together. The pieces missing in Piper’s construction of justification is where the stark contrast between these two pastor/scholars comes to light. Wright says;

“…several of the key elements in Paul’s doctrine were simply missing: Abraham and the promises God made to him, incorporation into Christ, resurrection and new creation, the coming together of the Jews and Gentiles, eschatology in the sense of God’s purpose-driven plan through history, and, not least, the Holy Spirit and the formation of Christian character. Where were they?…Nor is it only themes that go missing. You can tell a lot about a book on Paul by seeing which passages don’t appear in the index. John Piper, astonishingly, has no discussion of Romans 2.25-29 or Romans 10.6-9, absolutely crucial passages in Paul and certainly in my exposition of him. Nor does he deal at any point with what is central for me, the question of Paul’s understanding of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15.” (pgs. 31-32)

What is all this about and why does it matter? It seems like the difference between Wright and Piper is very large, and the topics matter a great deal. More on these in the ensuing synopsis’s to come.

Chapter 2 – Rules of Engagement: Wright focuses in on his methodology in this chapter, for him defining justification must be done through exegesis, systemize all you want but exegesis is vital. But there’s a twist to how he goes about it that most people have missed. “If we are to give primary attention to Scripture itself, it is vital to pay attention to the actual flow of the letters, to their context (to the extent that we can discern it) and to the specific arguments that are being mounted at any one time...In particular, it is vital (within any Christian theology, and, indeed within good hermeneutical practice on any corpus of texts) to allow one writing to illuminate another.” (pg. 41-42) For Wright, rightfully so, the canonical context of a book matters to how we read it but so does its historical relation to others as they were written. What seems odd to Wright is that for much of Western history Ephesians and Colossians have been read in light of Romans and Galatians instead of visa versa. He says that makes sense in liberal circles where Ephesians and Colossians Pauline authorship is denied but what is odd is that in reformed conservative circles that same pattern of reading has occurred. But what if it were different;

“Suppose we conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we come to Ephesians first, with Colossians close behind, and decide that we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in the light of them instead of the other way round. What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology.” (pg. 43)

The challenge for setting rules of engagement in defining justification can’t be answered by merely a retreat to traditional readings. Exegesis has to be a vital part of the answer, and as Wright so well points out, it is not just the New Perspective that abandons traditional readings but the reformational readings as well. After all they, rightly so, left many of the tenants of medieval catholicism because of their belief that it was not coherent with scripture’s teachings on the matter. Thoughtful exegesis is THE rule of engagement on the matter of defining justification for Wright;

“The more we know about first-century Judaism, about the Greco-Roman world of the day, about archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls and so on, the more, in principle, we can be on firm ground in anchoring exegesis that might otherwise remain speculative, and at the mercy of massively anachronistic eisegesis, into the solid historical context where – if we believe in inspired Scripture in the first place – that inspiration occurred.” (pg. 47)

Wright’s statement above should not sound off any alarms to any atypical exegete of scripture but what is distressing is that Piper seems to be encouraging alarm toward it. Wright, rightly notes, that if we don’t begin with exegesis grounded in its 1st century context we certainly don’t begin with a blank tablet, “. . . there is no neutral, “ordinary reading.” What seems ordinary to one person will seem extraordinary to others. There are readings which have grown up in various traditions, and all need testing historically and exegetically as well as theologically.” (pg. 50)

Simply put, and to restate what has been stated several times by Wright in this chapter, for him “The rules of engagement for any debate about Paul must be, therefore, exegesis first and foremost, with all historical tools in full play, not to dominate or to squeeze the text out of the shape into which it naturally forms itself but to support and illuminate a text-sensitive, argument-sensitive, nuance-sensitive reading.” (pg. 51)

Chapter 3 – First-Century Judaism: Covenant, Law and Lawcourt: A few years back a very large and significant two volume compendium of conservative evangelical scholars was put together to respond to the New Perspective. That work was called “Justification & Variagated Nomism” edited by D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid. The first volume was supposed to show that during the time of Christ there was a great variety of views on the law and that Ed Sanders “covenantal nomism” view was only one among many. The first volume met with some succes. There were several forms of nomism at play demonstrated nevertheless the redundant theme in all the essays in the volume depicted that the 1st century Jews had shared hopes and expectations, and that most of them saw they law as a means for their growth and maintenance of their faith rather than the grounds for their access into it which was instead tied to their ancestry and to grace. So Ed Sanders theory wasn’t entirely overturned but it was appropriately challenged.

Before Wright offers some broad themes believed in 1st century Judaism, and engages Piper’s understand of the period, he first inter acts with this landmark two-volume work edited Carson (among others);

“. . . Judaism was richly varied, right across the period from the last two or three centuries B.C. to the second century A.D., so much so that many have understandably wanted to speak of “Judaisms,” plural. There are many different theologies, many different expressions, many different ways of standing within, or on the edge of, or in tension with, the great ancestral traditions of Israel. There is what has, perhaps unhappily, been called “Variegated Nomism,” a rich panoply of ways of understanding Israel’s laws and trying to obey it. Not only is it too simple to say, as some versions of the new perspective have said, that all first-century Jews believed in grace; they meant many different things by “grace,” and responded to those meanings in a rich variety of ways. Yes. All this I grant.

And yet. There is a swell, a surge, an incipient flood tide, which sweeps through between the sand dunes of history and soaks into acre after acre of the evidence, whether it be the cynical politician Josephus or the wild sectarians scribbling the scrolls, whether it be the agonized visionary who wrote the book we call 4 Ezra or the wonderfully detailed lawyers’ minds we see revealed in the early rabbinic traditions. The tide which was carrying all Israel along in the time of Jesus and Paul was the tide of hope, hope that Israel’s God would act once more and this time do it properly, that the promise made to Abraham and his family would at last come true, that the visions of the prophets who foretold a coming restoration would find their ultimate fulfillment. What we in the Western world have come to see as the “individual” hope, and indeed the individual life of faith, piety or virtue, found their place within that. So I and many others have argued, up and down.” (pg. 56-57)

Wrights response to the most formative critique of the New Perspective’s understanding of 2nd Temple Judaism is, we ll yes you’re right it was variegated but no your wrong it wasn’t a bunch of dispersed ideas with nothing holding the people together. Like in Daniel 9, Israel was searching for these hopes of the covenant to be made true and visible.

What does this mean for Paul and the early church?

“First, many first-century Jews thought of themselves as living in a continuing narrative stretching from earliest times, through ancient prophecies, and on toward a climactic moment of deliverance which might come at any moment…The second thing, equally important and this time frequently noted and attacked, is this: this continuing narrative was currently seen, on the basis of Daniel 9, as a long passage through a state of continuing “exile.”” (pgs. 59-60)

For Wright one of the key themes of 1st century Judaism is this desire to see God be true to his covenant and return his people from exile, though geographically they have in part returned, spiritually and in terms of their nation-hood-identity they were still living in exile.

The other key themes were law and lawcourt. Another area Piper and Wright have significant disagreements. To see all the nuts and bolts of their differences you’ll have to buy the book and read it for yourself but here are the bullet point differences. (Notice the first one is in regards to what “dikaiosyne theou” means (the righteousness of God));

“First, there is a huge mass of scholarly literature on the meaning of God’s righteousness, and Piper simply ignores it. I am not aware of any scholar…who thinks tsedaqah elohim in Hebrew or dikaiosyne theou in Greek actually means “God’s concern for God’s own glory.” (pg. 64) [Wright suggests this technical phrases rather points to] “…his faithfulness to, and his powerful commitment to rescue, creation itself.” (pg. 65)

“Second, it is not at all clear how Piper’s idiosyncratic definition of “God’s righteousness” works out within the scheme of imputation that lies at the heart of his own reading. If “God’s righteousness” is “God’s concern for God’s own glory,” what does it mean to suggest that this is imputed to the believer?” (pg. 66) [Rather than imputation, Wright suggests that the phrase “God’s righteousness” is there to remind readers of God’s own faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham that his seed would bless all creation.]

“Third, Piper’s failure to grapple with the larger context of Romans 3 and 4 – specifically, the great argument that runs from 3.21 to 4.25 as a whole on the one hand, and the smaller train of thought in 3.1-8 on the other, picking up 2.17-19 – means that his attempts to distance “God’s righteousness” from the notion of covenant faithfulness (Piper, pp. 67-60) fail to convince.” (pg. 67) [Contra Piper, Wright says the key is in the covenant, that God is the one who will keep covenant above and beyond Israel’s failure to do so.] “God has made a plan to save the world; Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite. That is what God has now provided.” (pg. 68)

“Fourth, Piper’s attempt to downplay the importance of the lawcourt metaphor within the whole discussion is deeply unconvincing.” (pg. 68) [Wright argues here that instead of God imputing to those guilty Christ’s active and passive obedience God instead declares them right in his sight, acquitted. I read the metaphor differently than Wright here which is partly why I still see an active and passive obedience of Christ imputed to those who place their faith in him, more on that in part 3 of this review series.]

Fifth, there is a sense in which what Piper claims about “God’s righteousness” could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love – God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else.” (pg. 70)

How does the Law, the Torah, feature into Wrights views? Wright says there’s variegated nomism actually inside the history of reformational understandings of Law: the Lutheran’s see it as a curse; the Calvinists see it in light of its pedagogical sense (actually Wright could have expanded on this for his sensitive reformed readers and discuss the “three uses of the law”; more on this point in my third installment in this series). For Wright Torah functioned in a covenantal and an eschatological framework.

The “age to come” would see Israel vindicated at last. Bu the way to tell, in the present, who would thus be vindicated in the future was to see who was keeping Torah (in some sense at least) in the present. The debates within Judaism at the time, which were often extremely fierce, tended then to turn on the question: what exactly does it mean to keep Torah in the present?” (pg. 76)

Chapter 4 – Justification: Definitions and Puzzles: This chapter opens up with Wright relying heavily upon Alister McGrath’s magnum upos on justificaiton called “Iustitia Dei.” One of the ironies here as a reader is that I’m beginning to realize how much Wright relies on reformational guys on the continent in responding to reformational guys in the States. What he may not realize is that there are plenty of people who look at Jim Packer and Alister McGrath as more evangelical than reformed in their scholarship. That aside I’m glad Wright is clearly making a case for himself using current reformational scholarship. I hope his critics stateside genuinely appreciate that.

Like McGrath, Wright says that part of the reason he finds himself in the midst of a controversy over defining justification is due to an early misunderstanding of the doctrine that has only grown as time has elapsed in church history. Wright believes the church has not simply created a theological term to be an over-arching summative term for large quantities of biblical teaching, but rather has misunderstood a term inside the bible and treated it as an arch for much more than what it refers to when it appears in scripture. Three things happen once this mistake has been made;

“First, it [the church] will then misread Scripture at that point, imagining that when the Bible uses that word it is talking about the thing which the church normally talks about when it uses that word. And that may well not be the case. Second, such a reading will miss completely the thing that Scripture was talking about at that point; it will fail to pay attention to the word of God. Third, it will imagine itself to have biblical warrant for its own ideas, when all it actually has are “biblical” echoes of its own voice.” (pg. 81)

How can the church avoid this error when it comes to justification? Wright says by “paying close attention – here it is again! – to what the words themselves actually mean, in their Old Testament roots, their intertestamental uses (Jewish and Greco-Roman) and their specific contexts within Paul himself.” (pgs. 86-87) So for Paul the word “. . . “to justify,”…does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of “justification,” not the character.” (pg. 91)

Just how do some of the larger themes Wright developed last chapter (covenant, lawcourt, eschatology) come together in his understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification?

“Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promise to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated – and so all those who belonged to Jesus were vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.” (pg. 101)

There is one last piece to Paul’s biblical doctrine of justification as Wright understands it, Christology. Wright unfolds Paul’s view on Christ as it relates to justification in seven parts;

“First, as to terms. Paul uses the word Jesus to refer to Jesus himself, Jesus of Nazareth, the human being…When he uses the word Christ he denotes, of course, the same human being, but connotes the Jewish notion of “Messiah.” When he uses the phrase Son of God, he means both that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of David whom God had promised would be his own Son, and that the human being Jesus is the be identified with the one who was, all along, at one with the “Father,” and has now been sent from him. When he uses the word Lord, he means that Jesus, precisely as the Messiah, is now exalted over all things; that Jesus has attained the position of soveriegnty over creation marked out for human beings from the beginning…; that Jesus is therefore the reality of which all earthly emperors are mere parodies; and, strikingly, that he is to be understood in the role regularly marked out, in the Greek Old Testament, as kyrios, which renders the reverent Hebrew adonai, which stands of course for YHWH. (pg. 103)

“Second, the meaning of Messiahship…”The Messiah” is the one who draws Israel’s long history to its appointed goal…the one in whom God’s people are summed up so that what is true of him is true of them.” (pgs. 103-104)

“”Third, the accomplishment of the Messiah…The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was the “through-Irsael” bit: Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the “obedience” which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed…What is needed, following Romans 2.17-19 and Romans 3.3, is a faithful Israelite, through whom the single plan can proceed after all.” (pgs. 104-105)

“Fourth, this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” as in one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Cor. 15.3), is regularly understood in terms of the Messiah, precisely because he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves.” (pg. 105)

“Fifth, the resurrection of the Messiah is, for Paul, the beginning of the entire new creation.” (pg. 106)

“Sixth – it may feel like a different subject, but for Paul it belongs right here – the “Spirit of his Son” (Gal. 4.6), the “Spirit of [the Messiah]” (Romans 8.9), is poured out upon the Messiah’s people, so that they become in reality what they already are by God’s declaration: God’s people indeed, his “children” (Romans 8.12-17; Gal. 4.4-7) within a context replete with overtones of Israel as “God’s son” at the exodus” (pgs. 106-107)

“Seventh,”and finally, the point which has just been hinted at: for Paul, Jesus’ messiahship constitutes him as the judge on the last day. Paul takes the Old Testament theme of “the day of the Lord” and transforms it into “the day of the Messiah” (Philippians 2.16, etc.).” (pg. 107)

Without these four parts, covenant – law & lawcourt – eschatology – Christology, says Wright, there is no Pauline doctrine of justification.