“New Perspectives on Paul”

Justification in PerspectiveI just finished reading what is probably the best summary and most mature exposition of the contours of N. T. Wright’s theology of justification that I have read so far: “New Perspectives on Paul” by N. T. Wright, the final essay in the new volume Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (2006), edited by Bruce L. McCormack. Wright responds to the numerous critiques that have been leveled against him over the past several years. The result is a more carefully nuanced and cogently expressed discussion of the central issues.

One thing I found very interesting was Wright’s assertion that the essence of his views on Paul was pre-Sanders. In other words, Wright didn’t rely on Sanders for his ideas. Rather, Wright came to his convictions independently—many of Sanders’s central points merely confirming what Wright had already been thinking (245–46).

Unmistakable in Wright’s (mature) view of justification is that it’s not the either–or situation that some have thought (Wright himself?), i.e., that Paul is talking about either “declaring sinners to be in the right, with their sins forgiven,” or “declaring someone to be a member of the single multiethnic covenant family,” but not both. Wright insists that the two are nearly one in Paul’s mind (259). The result is that nothing is lost by following Wright’s reading of Paul; rather, much is gained. (I add mature because I think Wright was not so clear on this point earlier on. Though he doesn’t say so, I wonder if Wright hasn’t shifted his thinking in light of some of the more balanced critiques of men like Westerholm, who takes a both–and approach to some of the broader points of debate.)

Where some have been most concerned, i.e., that Wright’s view opens the door for acceptance before God on the basis of human works, Wright assures the concern is misplaced:

Paul’s doctrine of what is true of those who are in the Messiah does the job, within his scheme of thought, that the traditional Protestant emphasis on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness did within that scheme. In other words, that which imputed righteousness was trying to insist upon is, I think, fully taken care of in (for instance) Romans 6, where Paul declares that what is true of the Messiah is true of all his people. . . . He sees us within the vindication of Christ, that is, as having died with Christ and risen again with him. (261)

In other words, Wright is not giving up our acceptance in Christ, nor does he deny sola gratia or God’s sovereignty in salvation. In fact, Wright considers himself a Reformed theologian, “retaining . . . the substance of Reformed theology while moving some of the labels around in obedience to Scripture—itself . . . a good Reformed sort of thing to do” (263). At the close of the essay, Wright affirms all five of the Reformation solas and ends with Luther’s famous “Here I stand!”

As I see it, this essay was a step in the right direction from the NP side in this whole discussion. To be sure, there are still issues needing more careful analysis. For example, I’m not sure he really does a convincing job of tying together the soteriological and ecclesiological that he insists are so clearly one in Paul. What we find in this essay, however, is, in my view, a more balanced and satisfying reading of Paul than in Wright’s earlier works.

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