Justification - Tom Wright / A book review
I’ve just finished reading Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, Tom Wright’s latest book, which is a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T.Wright. Piper was criticising Wright, and the various exponents of the ‘New Perspective” generally, for abandoning or watering-down the great Reformation truths, of which he sets out to be the advocate-general. Wright produces, to my mind, a superb response, with an edge sharpened in the context of debate, which criticises the Reformers (and Luther) where he thinks they have gone wrong, but affirms the truths they sought to highlight in what he believes is their more biblical context, namely: the covenant God established with Abraham, which was the driving motor of His dealings with Israel, which found its climax in Jesus, and by means of whom Abraham’s descendants would bring blessing to the entire earth.
However, I have to bring a demurral. While I can listen (on Youtube) to, or read Piper and understand instantly what he is saying and relate it both to my own biblical understanding and current life experience, I really struggle to locate Wright’s thinking in categories which will lodge in both my biblical understanding and experience. It’s quite simply a struggle to wade through the arguments and exegesis with Wright – even though I think he is ‘right’, and Piper (often) wrong! Is this because, as I was suggesting to Andrew over a Cappuccino and scone at the Royal Festival Hall cafeteria yesterday, I have a huge ‘reformation theology’ paradigm in my head, which struggles to give way to a ‘New Perspective’ paradigm? That may be the case, but I still think that Wright’s ‘right’ view of things is a lot more difficult to get hold of than Piper’s ‘wrong’ view.
And it’s not that I think Piper is ‘wrong’ at all in all that he draws out of his neo-Calvinism. At the time I picked up Wright’s Justification from our local Christian bookshop last week, I noticed a new book (how many has he written?) by Piper – Alive at last! – which is an exposition of the ‘new birth’ in the life of the believer. Visiting the bookshop again today, I took a copy of this off the shelf, and was able to glide serenely through the arguments with a great sense of being inwardly up-built. After reading Wright (who I believe is ‘right’), I feel as if I’ve done my head in!
So what can I say about Justification? It’s quite simply a great account of the meaning of the word, set in the context of general issues and background (Part 1), and detailed (Oh so detailed!) exegesis (Part 2) of the relevant parts of Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians and Romans.
What are the major themes which come through? Wright’s trumpet-call is that Paul’s argument is not a theologically abstract account of how God makes bad people good and gets them to heaven – in which biblical characters (such as Abraham) are used as examples to illustrate the theme from the OT, and Israel’s history is a major cul-de-sac, to be discarded once we have got to the coming of Jesus. Rather, Wright’s burden is that Jesus came to fulfil the covenant made with Abraham, to bring blessing to the whole world, which was in itself a response to the disaster of Eden and its worldwide consequences, and the theology is through the whole narrative rather than abstract and universal.
Once we grasp this apparently obvious, but actually frequently forgotten perspective, we get the whole direction of flow concerning God’s dealings with Israel and the world into the right focus, and everything else begins to fall into place. Israel tried to obstruct the purpose by restricting the operation of the covenant exclusively to herself, to keep the Gentiles out. This, rather than attempts to ‘gain merit’ with God through moral effort or ‘works’, was God’s contention with Israel in Romans, according to Wright. The resurrection of Jesus was not only the affirmation of sins dealt with on the cross (and not the sins of Israel alone), but also the revitalisation of the original promise and covenant – directed to bring blessing back into creation – first, through God’s reconstituted people; second, through a future world populated by the reconstituted people with resurrected bodies. (Yes, I can hear the objections from one side to another already forming in the minds of devotees to this site!).
As a necessary part of this ‘paradigm’ for understanding Paul, ‘righteousness’ must be seen not as a moral commodity, and the gospel being an account of how this commodity is transferred from God via Jesus to sinful people. Rather it is to be defined, as Wright does insistently, as God’s commitment to his single plan to bring the blessing of Abraham into the world through Abraham’s descendants. The heart of this plan is Jesus the messiah, ‘the seed’, the focal point of the blessing itself.
God’s plans are therefore for this earth, both as it is now, and as it will be in the renewed future. God’s people are to bring anticipations of that future in their lives and actions, and offering the central good of that future, the life of the Spirit in the community of the people of God, as a reality to be obtained and lived now.
This, it seems to me, is the great central thrust of Wright’s version of the New Perspective. (There are various versions, just as there are various conflicting emphases of theology amongst Reformers and Lutherans). But just to pick out some gems – paradigm busters, if you like – attaching no priority of importance to one over the other, or even commenting thereby on gems I have not highlighted:
2 Corinthians 5:21 – where Paul speaks of Jesus becoming sin who knew no sin, that we might become in him the righteousness of God. Wright detaches this verse from its use in the reformed traditions as one of the proof-texts of the great exchange which took place on the cross – Jesus taking my unrighteousness and giving me his righteousness etc. Wright shows, in painstaking attention to the flow of the passage in context, that Paul is actually talking of the apostolic ministry, not the cross in relation to believers in general (at least, at this point he is!). So he is saying that Jesus did indeed die a unique sin-bearing death (for everyone!) on the cross, so that in the lives of the true apostles, the covenant faithfulness of God (His righteousness) might be demonstrated, reflected and lived out. Part of that ‘living out’ was that new life found its expression in the midst of the suffering and hardship which the apostles themselves experienced – as a reflection of the dying and living of Jesus himself.
Judgment of works for believer and unbeliever – Wright demonstrates and affirms this to be Paul’s message concerning final judgment. The believer’s assurance, however, is in the ‘declaration of righteousness’ (justification) brought forward from the future by Jesus’s death on the cross (for the believer), and the confident anticipation of that same declaration in the future – not as an automatic right, but through the operation of the Spirit in the life of the believer, producing the fruit which the Torah had always required but could not produce, and in which personal response and divine initiative work co-operatively together (as Paul so often demonstrates in his language on the subject).
A wonderful insight into the meaning of Romans 2:13-16, that passage about Gentiles obeying the law even though they do not have the Torah. Wright suggests, correctly in my view, that Paul is here talking about Gentile Christian believers who have the Spirit – in anticipation of his argument of the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, and the gospel he preaches, which includes Jew and Gentile. In other words, Paul is not (at least not primarily) talking about Gentile non-believers who, by obeying their consciences, do what the law required Israel to do, but without the benefit of having the law. This interpretation also makes sense of Romans 2:13, which talks of ‘doers of the law’ being ‘justified’. How can this be when he talks elsewhere of the law justifying nobody? Because he is anticipating the law being fulfilled in the lives and actions of those who do so by the Spirit. I got so excited when I saw this, that I reached for the keyboard and put it on Facebook!
Romans 3:21-26 - the NIV totally mangles the language here to shoe-horn it into a particular theological slant. Wright has pointed this out before.
Finally Wright’s exegesis of the Romans passages demonstrates a coherence of argument and flow which just does not exist if you are trying to fit Romans into a personal account of how the gospel transforms people from being sinners to saints and thereby fits them for heaven. The major paradigm shift here is seeing the covenant with Abraham as being foundational for the history of Israel, and that covenant not to get Israel ‘saved’ (primarily), but to release blessing and restoration back into creation. Israel’s history was, in this sense, crucial to the climax which came about in Jesus, the messiah, doing for her what she could not do for herself, and effecting the paradigm shift from that which placed her at the centre of the universe to that in which God was at the centre, and the whole world was the true outward focus and beneficiary.
So yes, I do appreciate much of John Piper (though not what he says, for instance, about Jesus’s obedience to the Torah storing up ‘merit’ which is transferred to us when we believe in him. Jesus’s obedience was to the cross, and thence his resurrection, which is actually what is transferred to us through faith, and acted out in baptism. Wright again makes this point for us). But integrity compels me to the view that the more difficult interpretation offered by Wright comes closer to a coherent view of how Paul actually saw things, and that it is out of this that a better theology underpinning our lives and actions as the people of God in the 21st century needs to be hammered out.