N. T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul

N. T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul November 5, 2010

I’m long overdue to look into this new controversy raging among evangelicals.  I know Tom Wright and John Piper.  They are both fine scholars, but they approach doctrine quite differently.  (For those of you not familiar with what is going on…Piper has written against Wright’s views on Paul and justification.  Piper considers himself a serious scholar on Paul and especially Romans and without doubt he is that.  Wright has now written a response to Piper’s critique entitled simply Justification [IVP 2009]. There is quite a stir among evangelical scholars over this debate with charges of heresy sometimes being cast at Wright.)

I’ve been reading Wright’s book Justification and now the point of the debate is coming into clearer focus.  I’ll write about that more later.  Here I simply want to discuss the methodological difference underlying the debate.

On page 26 of Justification Wright mentions me and says he is one of my “postconservative evangelicals” (as delineated in Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology [BakerAcademic, 2007]).  On the next page he explains: “[s]ometimes worldviews have to be shaken.”  Clearly he means sometimes venerable doctrines have to be reconsidered and adjusted in light of fresh and faithful biblical research.  The doctrine under consideration here, of course, is justification by grace through faith alone.  Wright does not seem to be questioning that belief but only how it has been understood and sometimes enforced by conservative Protestants (especially Lutheran and Reformed).

Clearly Wright is NOT appealing to philosophy or culture; there is no hint of accommodation to modernity in Justification.  His challenges to traditional ways of understanding the doctrine of justification are based solely on historical-grammatical exegesis of Paul’s letters (especially Galatians, Ephesians and Romans).

Apparently some critics of Wright’s (and others’) “new perspective on Paul” have accused him of throwing tradition to the wind.  He defends himself against that while admitting that he regards tradition as only relatively authoritative and as not having a veto over biblical research such as his own which is respectful of the Bible’s inspiration and authority.

This is, in my opinion, a classical case of what I have been calling postconservative evangelical theology for the past decade and more.  My case study in the past has usually been the doctrine of God and especially the “relational revolution” in that area of theology among evangelicals (e.g., open theism). 

Wright’s argument against his critics is that they are spell bound by tradition and unwilling to open their minds to what Paul is really saying about justification and the righteousness of God, etc.  Also, he accuses them of distorting his views (e.g., as expressed in some of his commentaries and monographs).  Some have apparently accused him of smuggling “merit” back into the doctrine of salvation.  He adamantly rejects that. 

So what is really going on in this debate?  And what is Wright’s view of justification?  What is the “righteousness of God” referred to so often by Paul?  Do good works play a role in justification (as some of Wright’s critics have charged)?  I plan to take up some of these questions in future posts here.

In the meantime, I hope you who are interested in this controversy will buy or borrow Justification by N. T. Wright and read it.  It’s better than just reading secondary summaries such as have been published in some Christian magazines.

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  • I recommend reading Frank D. Macchia’s book next: Justified in the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2010). http://www.amazon.com/Justified-Spirit-Redemption-Pentecostal-Manifestos/dp/0802837492

  • I have this volume on my shelf now but have not started reading it. Judging several of his comments regarding this matter, I believe Wright has not received a fair assessment from his Reformed fellows. I am hoping this book sheds a greater light not only on Wrights perspective but on that of his detractors.

  • I’m excited about hearing what you have to say on this debate. I haven’t read Justification but I became a big fan of Wright’s in reading Surprised By Hope. I’ve also become ever more annoyed by pesky “Piper-Calvinists” (a term I’ve really come to enjoy!) as they are very prevalent in the DFW area where I now live. I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts!

  • Martin L. Knox

    Dr. Olson,

    Thank you for bringing attention to this debate. I’ve not known much about this, but I have picked up on it recently. However, I do not know the name of the book that Piper wrote against Wright. Would you give the name of it? It would be interesting to read those works in conjunction with one another. If you have other recommended reading along this line would you also list it.

    Thank you,

  • Carol

    Can I follow the arguments by reading Justification or is purchasing the prior book by Wright and the response book by Piper necessary?

  • Vance

    I think the concepts E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright–considered the chief proponents of the New Perspective–have brought to the table are especially important for what they say about exclusivism and how we define the boundaries of the Body of Christ.

    The Judaizers Paul contended with were not merely putting forth their opinions on which commandments were still in force for Christians, and Paul wasn’t taking issue with people who merely wanted others to obey the Law. He was taking issue with Jewish converts who believed Gentiles had to first become Jews (through the rite of circumcision, among other things) before they could be saved. The problem was not which commandments to keep; the problem was exclusivism: “This is the sphere of God’s salvific work, and He doesn’t work outside this sphere. So if you want to be saved, you’d better get in here.” Apparently, some of the particulars of the Mosaic law were “badges” representing the relatively small sphere of God’s saving activity.

  • Having done a longish review of this book recently, I look forward to your thoughts on Wright’s proposal.

  • Dr. Olson, does Wright really say that he is one of your postconservative evangelicals? Right after mentioning your book, he says, “It’s always intriguing to discover that you belong to a group you didn’t know existed. That particular cultural divide is a fairly solidly American one, and as they say there, I don’t think I have a dog in that fight” (p. 26). So maybe he fits your description of a postconservative, but he doesn’t seem to like you saying so! 😉

    In any case, I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts on this topic.

    • He e-mailed me confirming that he does regard himself as a post-conservative evangelical with the one proviso that he stands more in the Puritan tradition than the Pietist one. I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. (He e-mailed this to me right after he read Reformed and Always Reforming and before he wrote Justification.)

  • I think Wright’s work is incredibly helpful. However, after reading Justification, if given the chance, I would ask him about one comment. On page 252, the second to last page, Wright writes,

    “Finally, as is already clear from above, this lawcourt verdict, implementing God’s covenant plan, and all based on Jesus Christ himself, is announced both in the present, with the verdict issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.”

    As I made my way through the book it struck me that this is primarily a debate about the rejection of imputed righteousness. Chasing the trajectory of imputed righteousness, Wright examines (among others) Augustine and argues that his appropriation of imputed righteousness shifted the lawcourt metaphor to a medical one … “a kind of remedial spiritual surgery, involving a “righteousness implant” which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable the patient to do things previously impossible.” (p. 91).

    This is why it makes sense for Wright to write a book called After You Believe, which is essentially an overlay of Nichomachean Ethics on Paul while redefining Aristotle’s telos from Aristotelian happiness to something like life in Christ. Participationist soteriology is deeply concerned with conformity to Christ through the habituated practiced of the will. Said differently … discipleship. Since righteousness is not imputed it must be developed through practice.

    This is why it is meaningful for Wright to insert that, “And at that judgment seat the verdict will be in accordance with one’s ‘works.’” (p. 108) The judgment seat will be a scene the character is squeezed and we get to see who we are. We will have worked to become something. And also why it is meaningful for Wright to point out “ ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’ have been tossed around as mere synonyms, both being thereby denied their proper force.” (p. 170) For Wright they are not the same. But if all that is true the initial statement strikes me as inconsistent.

    If justification is about entrance into the community of God (assuming the ecclesiological badge) and not a “medical metaphor” then it would follow that there is plenty of room to fail once inside of the community. Why would that pronouncement necessarily be the same?

    Given Wrights theological genius and exegetical ability I assume I’ve misunderstood him on the point raised in the initial quote. Any thoughts would be welcomed.

    • I noticed that apparent inconsistency as well. I hope what Wright means is that the future verdict and the present verdict are both about groups and not individuals–viz., all who are in Christ by faith–both Jews and Gentiles.

  • I love a lot of the things Wright is bringing out in his book, but I think this short quote from p37 sums up some of the challenges to the reformed tradition:

    For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions.

    One newly released book that takes the book of Romans even further than the ‘new Pauline perspective’ is Andrew Perriman’s The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

    Whereas the new Pauline perspective is a challenge to much of western, reformed understandings of certain theological terminology in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Perriman takes the challenge even further, looking to firmly situate the book in its historical-narrative context. I look forward to sharing some thoughts……and questions…….in a post next week.