July 15, 2009

N. T. Wright, Justification

Justification is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith, and in both evangelical and more mainline circles, it has been contested territory for a generation or more. N. T. Wright is one of the giants of biblical studies today, with broad recognition in both academic and in more popular circles, with an important multi-volume series from Fortress Press, Christian Origins and the Question of God, and with a string of popular presentations of important facets of the Christian faith, Simply Christian, Suprised by Hope, and After You Believe, all from HarperOne. He is also important because of his rather unique ability to attract admirers and detractors from across the theological spectrum. With his keen insight into Paul, both building on his past work and in anticipation of his forthcoming academic work on the Apostle, this important work zeroing in on the doctrine of justification is one for which I eagerly awaited. And Justification is truly a book to be reckoned with. It is a comprehensive (though, as the author admits, not exhaustive) statement of the place of justification in Paul's thought, and I find myself far more appreciative than anything for this carefully reasoned book.

Wright begins by laying out some important groundwork for the present book by locating it especially within the evangelical conversation concerning the classical "Reformed" view of justification, especially as espoused by John Piper (whose recent book, The Future of Justification, was a sustained critique of Wright's perspective particularly on this issue), and locating his views with reference to the new perspective on Paul, of which Wright could be considered one of the primary contemporary proponents, though he seeks to provide "fresh" perspectives that move beyond what is often termed the "new" perspective. I'd like to proceed in a thematic way by extending some words of appreciation and interest toward a couple of Wright's major themes.

Clearly, the largest idea that Wright advocates is locating of the doctrine of justification, and the understanding of the "righteousness of God," firmly within the context of covenant. He describes God's righteousness as God's covenant faithfulness, and, more specifically, God's faithfulness to the one-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world. The problem that God addresses in the Messiah is that Israel has failed in its part of the plan, to be God's instrument in and to the world, so the plan becomes one-plan-through-the-faithful-Israelite-to-the-world, as Jesus the Messiah becomes the instrument of God's work in and to the world, fulfilling God's covenant plans, demonstrating God's faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham even though it seemed to be foiled by sin.

Wright seeks not to upend the traditional Reformation emphases of justification by faith, God's grace, forgiveness of sins, but instead to locate them in the broader, deeper, and what he asserts to be more truly Pauline story of God's covenant and God's covenant people. He writes,

"Justification by faith—God's declaration in the present time that all those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, all those who confess him as Lord, are true members in the renewed covenant, and are assured thereby of final salvation—belongs inextricably . . . within the framework of Paul's vision of God's single plan of salvation, through Israel and hence through Israel's Messiah, for the sake of all the nations and ultimately for the whole cosmos." (247)

I think there can be no doubt that Wright has illumined some of the questions that were clearly on Paul's mind, and has demonstrated a certain logic, especially about Israel, that helps to fill out much that is right but incomplete in traditional thinking. He also stresses repeatedly that much of the "old perspective" is right and true, just as he often distances himself from or modifies the "new perspective" take, seeking to move beyond both to a more complete theology of Paul that incorporates both the sin-salvation and one-people-of-God facets into a more robust way of thinking.

Another interesting facet to Wright's argument concerns present justification and future judgment. He asserts, very clearly, that justification entails a present verdict that someone (or, maybe more properly, some people) are in the right with God, have achieved the status of righteous/righteousness. The second thing he discusses, at some length, is how this relates to the final judgment. Wright proposes that present justification corresponds to the future verdict of righteousness, but that the two aren't the same. The final verdict, as Romans 2 makes clear, is based on being "doers" of the law. But, and here is the pivotal move for Wright, this doesn't mean a return to the merit theology of the Medieval era, or a works righteousness, but it does mean living a new life enslaved not to the law and sin but to righteousness. This obviously raises some important questions, both about how we in fact live a life that attains this final verdict and how we know it—in short, the question of assurance. This is the topic Paul takes up in Romans 5 to 8, in explaining how the "verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced" (225). The answer for Paul, according to Wright, is the Spirit. It is the Spirit "who makes that victory [of Jesus Christ and of the Father's love triumphing in his Son's death] operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return" (239).

So much more could be said about this insightful and wide-ranging book. It is highlighted not only by his insightful restatement of the doctrine of justification but also by two chapters that provide a sustained and systematic reading of Romans and Galatians, to see how Paul's logic in those two central letters, as interpreted by Wright, informs the doctrine.

Wright has clearly taken the arguments back to Paul and sought to show how fresh readings of the original texts of Scripture can bring fresh light. His writing is always well-crafted and clear, and he does an admirable job of presenting his arguments at a level that appeal to an interested general reader in addition to those more thoroughly versed in the current debates within biblical studies. It certainly remains to be seen which of his readings will win the day, but there is without doubt much of value in the overall framework he proposes, especially of setting the gospel in the larger framework of God's work in the world. I look forward to seeing where this conversation goes in the future.

1 comment:

Lance Green said...

sir, This actually has nothing to do with this book review (although I've been wanting to read it)...
I need help with Tuomo Mannermaa and Luther.
There is little reading to be done on critiquing Mannermaa and I'm not sure what I should be reading.

if you can get at spoken_deity@yahoo.com , I'd appriciate it.