There is gold to be found in N.T. Wright’s fresh perspectives on Paul, but there are also (I think) mistakes or inadequacies or things that need to be stated differently. Let’s not abandon the gold mine; let’s not take the “Nothing to be seen here—move on” attitude that seems to have been the response of many of the scholars who have criticised Wright. This is a situation where the combined wisdom of orthodox scholars is needed both to recognise what is mistaken or mistakenly phrased, and to extract the gold.
Having just completed a series of posts in which I attempted to show “The Crystal Clarity” of Romans 1-8 and “The Clarity” of Romans 9-11, commentaries made with only a superficial knowledge of N.T. Wright’s controversial “fresh perspectives” on Paul, I read two of Wright’s books, to see what difference, if true, his perspectives might make to the conclusions I had come to in those previous series.
The two books were, “Paul: Fresh Perspectives” (2005), and “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009). I read, in the Greek NT every New Testament scripture Wright cited, in its context. I also read a number of the critiques of Wright that see him as seriously in error. While agreeing at some points with their misgivings, I fear that the vehemence of their disagreement may be blinding some teachers to other aspects of the case Wright makes that warrant thoughtful discussion. (More on that at the end of this post.)
My major conclusions from this exercise are these, so far:
1. Wright’s perspectives give many provocative insights into the theology and soteriology of the Apostle Paul, and his books deserve a prominent place in the libraries of every theologian and pastor, even the ones who disagree with him on certain of his contentions.
2. If I read him correctly, he does not think that his much-contested suggestions about the meaning of “justification” erase those aspects of a Protestant understanding of salvation that have traditionally come under the “justification” heading. Rather, Wright sees himself as providing a framework that is a superset within which we must fine-tune our understanding of all the soteriological terms in scripture and their relationship to each other: salvation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and so on. Key elements of a standard Protestant understanding of the gospel: by grace, through faith, not by works, sins forgiven, dependent on the cross of Jesus Christ, are still all present in Wright.
3. Romans 4 and Galatians 3 show me that the covenant of grace is the fulfilment of the covenant of promise that God made with Abraham. Calvin in his Galatians commentary had seen the connection: “[Paul] tells us that God made two covenants with men; one through Abraham, and another through Moses. The former, being founded on Christ, was free; and therefore the law, which came after, could not enable men to obtain salvation otherwise than by grace, for then, ‘it would make the promise of none effect’” (comment on Galatians 3:17). No doubt the Westminster divines were equally aware of the connection, but when in WCF 7 they describe the covenant of grace, they do not mention Abraham, instead mentioning only the realisation of the covenant of grace through Christ and the types-and-shadows administration of it that existed in the sacrificial system of the Law of Moses. And I think that this neglect of the straight-line connection between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant is typical of the confessing Protestant church. Has the church been guilty, as Wright would charge, of wrongly “de-Judaizing” the new covenant? The charge seems plausible, and worthy of humble exploration. Have we been missing something important?
4. While the fresh perspectives deserve to have their place in our deeper study of Paul’s letters and doctrine, I do not think they are essential to our initial study and apprehension of Paul’s teaching, even in those aspects where I think Wright’s insights are likely to be correct. (I think Wright may disagree with me about their non-essentiality, but note that I am referring to our initial study, not to our longer term study.)
In the providence of God, we can come to an adequate and saving understanding of the gospel from within our own cultural and intellectual background, an understanding that is conformable to God’s purpose, without needing a deep understanding of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures in the midst of which Paul wrote. It would be a rare new convert from any era who had the Athanasian grasp of the Trinity (if I may speak anachronistically) that Wright shows is intrinsic to Paul’s soteriology. That teaching can come later; a deep understanding of it is not required for faith to be sparked and righteousness to be reckoned. In a parallel way, it is not necessary to understand the nuances of Paul’s teaching as a 1st Century Greek, Roman or Jew may have done, to savingly grasp the essence of the gospel—further enrichment can come later.
5. In (2005), Wright makes what seems to me an unfortunate conflation of two ideas when discussing the meaning of justification, “…the passage [Galatians 2:17] works far better if we see the meaning of ‘justified’, not as a statement about how someone becomes a Christian, but as a statement about who belongs to the people of God, and how you can tell that in the present” (p.112, italics and emphasis mine).He also says something similar in (2009): “The second element in justification is of course … that of the covenant. The question is, exactly as in Galatians 2.11–21, Who are the members of God’s single family, and how can you tell? (loc 3567, italics and emphasis again mine). But, to my mind, if justification is something granted by God, the question, “How you can tell that it has been bestowed?” is a different question that should be kept separate from the definition of justification.
To best do justice to what Wright is saying about justification (even if, in the end, we disagree with him), I think we should work from definitions and comments such as these: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right…” (2009, loc 2811), and “the verb dikaioō, ‘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.” (2009, loc 1458).
That loc 2811 definition, however, continues on to another (to me) unfortunate conflation: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family” (italics mine). It seems to me that being accepted as a member of God’s covenant family is a blessing that follows as a consequence of justification, and is not part of the definition of justification itself.
A similar conflation occurs at loc 4119, where dikaiosynē (righteousness) is equated with covenant membership, rather than the latter being seen as a blessing bestowed because of the righteousness that has been declared.
6. I think that my concern just expressed about what Wright is happy to include in the definition of justification, and I am not, also arises out of another implication of our Trinitarian faith that Wright has not addressed.
- As re-emphasised by Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary last century, there is an equal ultimacy in the Godhead of the One and the Many, for “The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive”1 and “Each is as much God as are the other two. The Son and the Spirit do not derive their being from the Father. The diversity and the unity in the Godhead are therefore equally ultimate; they are exhaustively correlative to one another and not correlative to anything else”2 and “The space-time universe cannot even be a universe of exclusive particularity. It is brought forth by the creative act of God, and this means in accordance with the plan of the universal God. Hence there must be in this world universals as well as particulars. Moreover they can never exist in independence of one another. They must be equally ultimate which means in this case they are both derivative.”3
(As pointed out by Kreitzer, this insight “…was not unique in church history. The Cappadocian Father, Gregory Nazianzem (Gregory the Theologian)—a scholar John Calvin often quoted as well—used a similar insight.”4)
1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p42.
2 Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953), p8.
3 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1947), p7-8.
4 Mark R. Kreitzer, Review of Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, (2008), accessed 2019/05/19
- Now, a consequence of this, it seems to me, is that humanity, created in God’s image, must also reflect this truth. If we ever set up or postulate a system that subordinates individual humans (the “many”) to a societal or ecclesiological “One”, or vice versa, we have gone wrong somewhere. Certainly, God would never establish such a system. However we define “justification”, it must be seen as applying to the individual, and in such a way that it does not suppress his or her individuality, or value as an individual to God. Any subordination of the individual to the collective must be entirely voluntary, as modeled by the relationships of the economic Trinity and impelled by the work of the Holy Spirit in those justified.
- But Wright’s conflations seem to me to push the individual out of sight so that he or she just becomes a cog in God’s great plan, and the overall way he presents his doctrine of justification seems to likely to dampen that, “Wow, God did this for me!” feeling that has previously often accompanied effectual gospel presentations. (I know that Wright does not see individuals as cogs; I’m just saying that I think his unfortunate phrasing lends to that impression).
- And, I suspect that the seeming elimination of the personal “wow” factor is part of what has made so many critics think that Wright is badly wrong, quite apart from their loyalties to the historic standards of the Church. Somehow, what he wrote did not resonate with their own experience of the gospel (nor mine!), so they decided that the whole scheme must be faulty. Yes, Wright brings to the forefront other things for us to gasp at, other doxologies, but that should not have been at the expense of the “Amazing Grace”, “And Can it Be”, “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” sense of wonder at Christian conversion. But, whether he intended that result or not, that is what he has done. Perhaps adding yet another aspect of Trinitarian understanding into his exposition of “the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world… to rid the world of sin and establish his new creation” (2009, loc 1546) might solve the problem. For my part, I think it is an additional perspective that is crucially missing from his work so far.
7. Paul’s letter to the Romans (in particular) still provides an effective rebuttal to anyone who happens to teach that justification depends on keeping the moral law, even if 1st Century Judaism was not as guilty of that error as it has been portrayed in standard expositions of Romans.
8. However, I think Wright is mistaken when he presents the Jewish error regarding the law as one of seeing justification (however defined) just as depending on observance of the cultic/ceremonial aspects of the law. To my mind, some of the texts in Romans where Paul refers to “works of law” clearly have in view the moral law, not the ceremonial, and Wright’s arguments have not convinced me otherwise. Therefore, Paul (who was in a position to know) did not find his fellow 1st Century Jews as guiltless as their 21st Century apologists do of belief that their own keeping of the moral law contributed to their justification by God.
And, we might add, many of the interactions of Jesus (who also was in a position to know) with the Pharisees suggest to me that he didn’t see them in that light, either.
9. I read Wright’s 2005 work first, and the 2009 work second, and only in the second book understood (I think) what he meant about justification, and the grounds for his new perspective on it. I found Wright’s treatment of it in the first book quite unclear. I would urge anyone whose only knowledge of Wright’s perspective on justification is from sources earlier than 2009 (Wright himself, or third parties, including John Piper), please now read (2009) and critiques that are aware of it.
One such critique that I found particularly helpful is by Richard Phillips, Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works, in which he argues against an aspect of Wright’s thought that I, too, found especially problematic.
10. Despite the caveats in some of my previous paragraphs, I think that Wright’s perspective on justification is indeed worth further examination, namely, that justification is first and foremost and simply that act of God by which he declares us to be in right standing in his covenant, the covenant of grace that had its beginning in the covenant with Abraham, and that classical Protestant handling of the term has rolled too much else of the ordo salutis into it, and that we can do our theological studies with much clearer heads if we separate out the overload—not denying or erasing the truths that were contained in the overload, but dealing with them in a different place.
I hope now to further the discussion by publishing a reworking and augmentation of relevant statements in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to show how I think they might look if Wright’s perspectives were taken into account. My own expectation, which may be proved wrong, is that the result will show that all the substance of the Confession is still there—i.e. that there is no change to the saving faith that is being confessed, just to the framing of some of its details. One of the patterns I have noticed in the interchanges between Wright and his critics is this: the critic finds fault with some statement in Wright, then Wright replies and says, “Your criticism shows that you didn’t understand my statement—here’s a different way of putting it,” and the critic or some other spokesman finds fault with the revised statement, and so round and round the fruitless circle goes. I hope that by using the device of pinning what I take to be Wright’s meaning to a reshaped “WCF”, I can create something that can be objectively discussed by both sides.