Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

By N.T. Wright

InterVarsity, 268 pages $25

NEARLY FIVE HUNDRED years after the Reformation, debate over the doctrine of justification continues to divide Christians. What is interesting about the current form of the debate, however, is that it has returned to scriptural foundations. The focus is no longer on Martin Luther’s condemnation of late-medieval works righteousness but on Paul’s epistles”and the decisive question is this: What does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”?

The debate took this new turn when historical research into first-century Palestinian Judaism generated what has (for a quarter century now) been called “the new perspective on Paul.” In this view, justification by faith alone is a distinctively Jewish doctrine that must be interpreted in the context of “covenantal nomism”: The Jewish understanding of law, according to this account, is a gift that maintains (but does not earn) the individual’s status as a chosen, covenanted member of Israel. If this view is correct, the Reformers were wrong. Paul’s teaching does not contrast unmerited salvation through the grace of Christ’s cross with a puffed-up attempt to earn salvation by obedience to the Law.

As a result, in our own time, the doctrines of justification, law, and grace have become enveloped in crisis, leaving doubt where interpretive assurance once stood. Enter N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, who has published numerous works on Jesus in historical context. In his introduction to Justification, Wright tells us that he interrupted his historical work on Paul to respond to John Piper, whose book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright , was published in 2007. Eschewing academic hair-splitting, Piper argues that what is at stake is a proper pastoral concern for the Church and the identity of Christian existence.

Wright agrees”but his own pastoral sense, he says, moved him to respond to Piper for two reasons: He wanted to address a rancorous debate that threatens to divide the evangelical Christian world, and he wanted to counteract the confessional narcissism he perceives in many defenders of the “old perspective” by situating Paul’s doctrine of justification in the larger political and cosmic setting of Paul’s teaching.

The first half of Wright’s book offers his general assessment of the situation. Wright’s frustration with his opponents is obvious. As he did in Surprised by Hope (2008), Wright heaps scorn on those Christians whose primary concern is “to go to heaven,” having found assurance that they are right with God and are “saved from their sin.” He declares himself near despair over the difficulties of scholarly dialogue with his opponents, and he diagnoses their failure to engage his arguments as a scotosis”a willful blind spot”that betrays his opponents’ cultural bias.

Such invective is unlikely to change any minds, and, thankfully, Wright soon recovers his academic self to suggest that the debate will advance only if Christians reflect more profoundly on the task of biblical hermeneutics. Priority, he says, must be given to the text of Scripture (he pointedly reminds “old-perspective” Lutherans of the sola scriptura principle), and the parts of Scripture must be interpreted in light of the whole. This means that Paul’s doctrine of justification cannot be grasped except in the context of all of his epistles (including Colossians and Ephesians) considered in their relation to the Christian Bible, or, better, in the context of the unified narrative and historical truth embedded in the Bible.

The method is simple to formulate, but Wright does not think that comprehensive context leaps with self-evident perspicacity off the sacred page. Rather, he thinks, his method sets a standard for interpretations of Paul. And, according to this standard, comprehensiveness of scope becomes the most reliable sign that an interpretation is adequate to the truth of the text.

In the second half of Justification , Wright puts his “symphonic” method into action. He mines Paul’s letters for insight into the meaning of “the righteousness of God,” beginning with Galatians as overture, followed by an interlude”Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians”and an allegro treatment of Romans that sounds the leitmotif of Wright’s theology: the covenant fidelity of the triune God of Israel to Abraham and the nations. Wright marshals the evidence for a Pauline doctrine of justification according to a fourfold hermeneutic developed in the all-important fourth chapter of the book. The four interwoven elements of the hermeneutic are forensic metaphor, Abrahamic covenant, eschatology, and Christology.

Historically, much of the debate on justification has been over whether the phrase righteousness of God should be understood forensically (as righteousness simply imputed to the Christian by God, without regard to conduct) or causally (as an infusion of actual moral righteousness in the believer’s soul). Wright believes this is a false dilemma. With Melanchthon he argues that Pauline usage encompasses both meanings, although Wright will beat his own exegetical path to this conclusion.

The argument begins with Paul’s forensic meaning of justification . As Wright sees it, Paul’s concept of justification as forensic justification has nothing to do with God either imputing or infusing the virtue of justice; it refers to God’s providential declaration of one’s status as a member of the covenant.

Wright’s opponents strongly resist this move, which they understandably worry prepares the way for a reciprocal, synergistic account of a divine“human process of justification. But Wright is confident that careful exegesis of such key texts as Romans 4 and Galatians 3:15“18 undermines his opponents’ severely truncated and “de-Judaized” readings of Paul. These texts make it clear that the concept of justification functions as metonymy in Paul’s theological vision: it is related conceptually to the Abrahamic covenant as a steering wheel is related to the complex whole that is the automobile. And so, in this initial sense, justification means gracious inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant. The righteousness of God denotes God’s enduring fidelity to that covenant.

Wright elucidates the meaning of this conceptual pair”forensic meta­phor and Abrahamic covenant”by means of a second pair: eschatology and Christology. For Wright, the Resurrection then becomes a unique historical event that embodies the tension between present fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and its eschatological manifestation.

Wright, distinguishing himself from other “new-perspective” historians such as J.D.G. Dunn, claims that both Jesus and Paul can be understood only against the background of apocalyptic eschatology, the Second-Temple Jewish hope for a definitive “return from exile to a land governed by” God. Jesus is the faithful Israelite, whose death and resurrection is the definitive means by which God fulfills the promises made to Abraham.

Paul’s distinctive contribution is to highlight the significance of the notions of the justification and righteousness of God for understanding the relations between Israel and the gentiles. Paul articulates this most clearly in Romans 9“11, which, Wright argues, is the true center of his work. There, justification refers both to God’s declaration that Jews and Gentiles alike are members of the covenant and to the divine act of making the Jew and Gentile into one family (overcoming ethnocentric hostility) through shared conformity to the “new Law,” who is Christ.

And so we arrive at the neuralgic point of the debate. Wright claims that when Paul says God’s righteousness is manifested “apart from the Law,” he refers to only one part of the Law: the part that advanced God’s plan for the messiah (pedagogically preparing the way by setting Israel apart in holiness) and at the same time impeded God’s plan to create unity between Jew and Gentile (by inspiring ethnocentric pride).

The old perspective, especially in its Lutheran form, regarded justification as happening apart from performance of the works of the whole of the Law, moral and ceremonial alike. Sinners are declared morally righteous through faith in Christ, in opposition to their performance of the works of the Law.

Thus Luther, for example, taught that good works will flow from the justified Christian, but he distinguished sharply such “sanctification” from justification.

Wright insists that, for Paul, such a distinction is impossible. He believes that his interpretation of Paul can break down the wall of enmity between adherents of the old and the new perspectives, uniting “forgiveness of sin” and “creation of a new multiethnic political and cosmic order” under the single heading of “justification by faith in the messiah.”

Wright’s enthusiasm will, on his own admission, need to be tempered to avoid giving the impression that Paul’s gospel can be reduced to a merely political message of transethnic harmony. His desire to overcome the narcissism of privatized religion, commendable in itself, sometimes fails to acknowledge the unimaginable otherness of existence in the risen Christ. Furthermore, his refusal to grant any priority to divine ­forgiveness of sin (soteriology) over reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (ecclesiology) arguably places him on the margins of both Reformation and Catholic tradition.

Still, Wright’s vision has considerable promise. The debate can advance only by common acceptance of what may be called his “Pauline trinitarian synergism”: Justification by faith is a fully trinitarian reality. The Father works through the Son to declare all human beings members of the covenant and, through the Son’s Holy Spirit, to perfect them in membership by “working through love.” In this connection, Wright argues that Eastern Orthodoxy’s attention to the working of the Holy Spirit in creation and history can provide insights obscured by the constricted Christomonism of the West.

Whatever else we decide about Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision , no reader of N.T. Wright can accuse him of narrowness of scope. Each of us, however, will have to judge the adequacy of the work he undertakes beneath his broad banner.

Gary Culpepper is an associate professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.