Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright— Part Five


Chapter Five, which is entitled ‘The Old is Better?’ which runs from about p. 113 to p. 130 is a chapter responding to critiques of the New Perspective, and in particular to his own take on the New Perspective. This brings the first major section of this book to a close. Tom has written a whole book about his response to uber-Reformed critiques of his view of justification, and here he will renew that response briefly. For example he says….

“The problem is that for a large swathe of would-be post-Reformation Christianity,
particularly in North America, the word ‘justification’, or at least the
term ‘justification by grace through faith’, has come to denote everything
one really wants to say about the point of being a Christian, from initial
conversion to final salvation. So strong has this slippage become
that one often hears in popular discourse, and one sometimes even reads in
supposedly scholarly work, the phrase ‘salvation by faith’. The closest thing
to that in the Pauline corpus is Ephesians 2.8, ‘you have been saved by grace,
through faith’, which is not quite the same. Moreover, because of a particular
reading of Romans 1.16–17, and of various passages in Galatians, it has
been assumed that ‘justification’ simply is ‘the Pauline gospel’: that ‘the
good news’ is, in effect, ‘you don’t have to do good works; all you have to do
is to believe’…. It has been assumed that when Sanders, Dunn and others speak of ‘justification’ as playing a subordinate role in Paul’s thought they mean that conversion,
salvation and ‘the gospel’ are of less relevance than was once supposed.” (p. 116).

He goes on to add…..”What the new perspective interpretation does say, however, but which so
many of its critics have failed to hear, is this: salvation remains enormously
important; conversion remains enormously important; ‘the gospel’ remains
central, powerful, vital; but the language of ‘justification’ is not after all the
portmanteau term used by Paul to convey all this. It isn’t that the new perspective
has downgraded conversion, salvation, and the gospel. Nor has it
actually downgraded ‘justification’ itself. It has simply explored, in one
exegetical context after another, the job which ‘justification’ language in fact
performs in Paul’s writings. What the new perspective has said, though you might never know this from reading many books on the subject, is that the triple reality of conversion,
salvation and ‘the gospel’ is conveyed by Paul not primarily through
the language of justification, though that is indeed closely aligned with this
reality, but through the language about Jesus Christ; more exactly, about
Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah, and about what is true of humans
who come to be ‘in him’.” (p. 117).

On the dodgy issue of imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Tom adds… “there should no longer be any problem about ‘imputation’. The idea of ‘imputed righteousness’, whether of God himself or, as in some constructs, of Christ himself, is not the only way of addressing the question.
The idea of ‘imputed righteousness’ was in any case a latecomer to Reformation
theology. Plenty of the anti-new-perspective writers themselves make nothing of it. Some who do discuss it declare that it is not a Pauline idea at all.50 But its place is taken by something even better, and far more explicitly Pauline: the imputed death and resurrection of the Messiah, as in
Romans 6 and Philippians 3. That does all the theological work that the Reformed doctrine of ‘imputation’ was trying to do, and more besides. It has the merit of being firmly present, and load-bearing, in Paul’s own text.” (pp. 120-21).

I myself would say there is nothing imputed about the death and res. of Jesus when it comes to the believer. On the contrary, it is part of what is imparted— the old me is dead and buried like Jesus through the divine action in my life, and the new me, the new creature in Christ has in fact been raised to newness of life. This is not imputed or reckoned, this is real and imparted by the Spirit. Wright goes on to say that the new perspective makes clear that the denial of works righteousness in the justification language (justification is by faith rather than by works of the Law) has to do with the present, whereas judgment of works has to do with the future. On that point he is correct, but it involves admitting that there is such a thing as final justification, final right-standing in Paul and it does involve an evaluation of works. It is not sufficient to suggest that the final judgment is retrojected back into the initial one. The initial one is by grace through faith that one obtains right-standing with God, but final justification does involve evaluating grace enabled works, and Paul emphatically says so (see 2 Cor. 5.10).

There is an attempt by Tom (and others), to closely link justification with the issue of the basis on which Gentiles are admitted to fellowship in Christ, with the negative distaff being since they are not required to do the boundary rituals this is what justification must mean. While justification is certainly part of the conversation when it comes to the basis for Gentile admission, the problem with Tom’s view is that Paul is going to turn around and say in Rom. 11 that the Jews who are now temporarily broken off from the people of God will regain right-standing with God, not on the basis of God’s previous faithfulness to the now defunct Mosaic covenant, but rather by grace through faith in Jesus, just as the Gentiles have been grafted in. That is the basis of the Jews being re-grafted in. In other words, justification has to do with both Jews and Gentiles being joined to the body of Christ. It is about entrance and right standing, it is not a minor theme under the heading of participation. It is also not a theme simply brought up in regard to Gentiles.

On p. 128, Tom corrects one final time some of the misperceptions about the new perspective implications. “To say that ‘justification was a polemical doctrine
designed to make it clear that believing Gentiles have equal rights with Jews,
and that both are full members of Abraham’s family, the Messiah’s family,
through faith alone’ is not saying ‘therefore Luther and his friends were
wrong, and salvation is a cooperative enterprise’. He [S. Westerholm] is tilting at windmills.
So far as I know, neither Sanders nor Dunn nor any other main new perspective
interpreters have said that Paul, going to Corinth, was going ‘to invite the local gentiles to share in a salvation already enjoyed by their Jewish neighbours under the Jewish covenant’.”

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