Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Justification and New Perspective 13

NTWright.jpgIn a remarkable piece of insight, Tom Wright once asked what Pauline theology would look like if we began with Ephesians and Colossians instead of Romans, and in just a few pages (168-175) in Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, he discusses the vision of Ephesians. (By the way, it could make a huge difference.)

Notice these words: “And of course it is in Ephesians that the two ‘halves’ of the Pauline gospel emphasis are laid out side by side. Ephesians 2:1-10 is the old perspective: sinners saved by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:11-22 is the new perspective: Jews and Gentiles coming together in Christ.” And, he continues: “they belong intimately together” (168).

Here is the temptation: the old perspective can downplay the second as central; the new perspective can downplay the first as central. Is this the central theological difference: seeing Paul through the personal salvation mode or seeing Paul through the union of Jews and Gentiles mode?

This incipient (universal) ecclesiology, Wright observes, merely “a pleasing decoration, a side-comment on what a fine thing the gospel is” (168). This whole Jew-Gentile thing “is part of the reality of the gospel” (169).


Ecclesiology, so devalued into a voluntary society for low church evangelicals, is at the heart of the Pauline gospel.

From Eph 2:9-10 Wright distinguishes salvation from justification: “justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin” (170).

And saved not by works but for works, the standard Protestant approach, is not far from what the new perspective actually teaches (here, here). Wright thinks the point of “good works” is an ecclesial face of the presence of God’s redemptive work in the Messiah (171). So, he wants “good works” to be a little more robust, and not just individuals doing virtuous things.

And the destruction of the dividing wall, if anywhere, shows that Torah is understood very close the boundary markers that Jimmy Dunn has so emphasized: Christ destroyed what separated Jews from Gentiles. We are staring here then at Galatians 3:28-29: we are one in Christ — and that is what the gospel does! This is the mystery of the gospel (Eph 3:1-7). This union is the sign to the principalities and powers that the time is up (173).

He brings it back: low ecclesiology works against these texts in promoting too radical of an individualism.

Maybe more of us need to teach Paul’s theology through the lens of Ephesians. Any takers? 

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Scott Morizot

posted June 1, 2009 at 12:10 am

My observation about Orthodox theology is that, to the extent it can be said to have a single lens, it definitely interprets Romans (and the rest of Paul such as Galatians) through the lens of Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and the Gospels.

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posted June 1, 2009 at 1:15 am

Why do we have to choose? How about trying to understand Pauline theology through the entire Pauline corpus? I’m sick of these false dichotomies.

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John Stackhouse

posted June 1, 2009 at 1:36 am

This is helpful, Scot: And it makes me think that Tom has been banging the Jewish drum too much. I don’t think the final salvation objective is Jew + Gentile: that’s too ethnic/ethnocentric (as if it’s all about national differences) and too anthropocentric. Long before the Jew/Gentile distinction there were “just” human beings who were created in God’s image to care for the earth and then fell into sin, dragging creation down with them. THAT is the scope of God’s mission, and I think Tom & Co. have not yet gone FAR ENOUGH.
That’s what I’m getting at in “Making the Best of It,” although I didn’t see clearly until tonight, thanks to your discussion, what has niggled at me about Tom’s whole agenda here.
This is the first time I’ve typed this out quite this way: Am I wasting my time and everyone else’s, or do you think I should pursue this a bit more?

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Mike M

posted June 1, 2009 at 1:38 am

What does this mean: “Ecclesiology, so devalued into a voluntary society for low church evangelicals, is at the heart of the Pauline gospel?” Whom among “low church evangelicals” is that meant as a burn?

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Davina Stallworth

posted June 1, 2009 at 1:45 am

“seeing Paul through the personal salvation mode or seeing Paul through the union of Jews and Gentiles mode?”
Whatever teachings we follow as long as we believe that there is a GOOD SUPREME and find ourselves follow on HIS own teachings…. on HIS OWN COMMANDMENTS..
Things will be in the right place!
But I know both teachings may it be in Ephesians or in Jew-Gentiles are still for every GOD-mankind!

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Jeremy Berg

posted June 1, 2009 at 2:13 am

John (#3) –
I’m wrestling right with you.
“I don’t think the final salvation objective is Jew + Gentile: that’s too ethnic/ethnocentric (as if it’s all about national differences) and too anthropocentric.
Yes, Jew + Gentile is not salvation “objective” or goal. But isn’t Wright banging this drum to remind us that, on the other hand, God’s MEANS of salvation is very much bound up in His covenant with an ethnic people, Israel, through whom blessings would then extend to all nations? I think we must wrestle with your very good question: To what extend is God’s rescue plan for humanity actually “about national differences”? God elects a people to be “holy, set apart” (i.e, different) from other nations, IN ORDER to bring salvation to all peoples through Israel –> fulfilled in Christ, the faithful Israel.
“Long before the Jew/Gentile distinction there were “just” human beings who were created in God’s image to care for the earth and then fell into sin, dragging creation down with them.”
Precisely, but… After falling into sin, God then chose an ethnic group from out of the rest of humanity to become his chosen instrument through whom he would right the wrongs of the world…who failed in this task, but then Christ, the “faithful Israelite”, succeeded.
Again, I think the Wright forces us to read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and the rest through COVENANTAL lenses — which then often exposes the overly individualistic gospel of the Old Perspective.
What do you think? I appreciate your challenge and questions.

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posted June 1, 2009 at 2:18 am

I understand the sentiment, but I feel like Wright is making a good point. We have to figure out what Paul is saying from place to place. Inevitably one book or the other may help us iron out what it is that Paul means when he says certain things. That’s what Wright is saying, I think.
What does this do for those of us interested in NPP who are not convinced of Pauline authorship of Ephesians?

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Jeremy Berg

posted June 1, 2009 at 3:11 am

“Is this the central theological difference: seeing Paul through the personal salvation mode or seeing Paul through the union of Jews and Gentiles mode?”
Yes, I believe this central difference. And so we must ask the reason ‘Why’? Why do they view salvation differently?
I believe Wright would point to the downplaying of the Abrahamic covenant in. So, my questions to you all are:
What is the purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant to NPP and OPP? Do they answer this the same or differently? More to the point, how are ecclesiology and soteriology related?
My hunch is OPP wants salvation to, like John (#3), go “far enough”, which most likely means dealing with the sin problem within the human individual. And, Wright and NPP would agree with OPP on this point, but would gently remind them that in order to deal with individual sin, God chose the messier way of covenant with Abraham’s “called out” descendants (ecclesiology?), and therefore the rest of the salvation story is very much bound up in the centrality of God’s saved people group (ecclesiology), the true, multi-ethnic Israel now in Christ, inviting others “into Christ” (ecclesiology). And the question of individual salvation from sin (soteriology) is more in the background of Paul’s thought (it is actually dealt with by virtue of becoming part of the redeemed Israel of God (again, ecclesiology) (cf.Gal 6)).
In other words, is soteriology subservient to ecclesiology in Paul, because one’s individual sin is taken care of by way of being found engrafted into the Body of Christ, who is the True Israelite, and representative of the new humanity? Just as the first Adam was our federal head bringing us under sin and condemnation, so the second Adam Christ is our representative head of the redeemed, new humanity (cf. Rom 5; 1 Cor 15). Those who are “in Christ” (ecclesiology?) are therefore forgiven of individual sin (soteriology) because they are no longer “in Adam” but “in Christ”.
How are soteriology and ecclesiology related in Paul’s thought according to Wright/NPP and OPP? Is one secondary, or subservient, to the other? It seems that the OPP has often emphasized (an overly individualistic) soteriology at the expense of a more Pauline emphasis on a corporate, ecclesiological soteriology which comes out esp, in Eph. 2 as Wright has shown us.
I’m anxious to hear your thoughts. Just thinking out loud again…

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Jeremy Berg

posted June 1, 2009 at 3:16 am

Or, maybe the following question gets to the heart of it all:
For Paul, is being found “in Christ” a SOTERIOLOGICAL reality or ECCLESIOLOGICAL statement? Or is this a false either-or?

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posted June 1, 2009 at 5:12 am

How does Jews+Gentiles fit with Romans 11, where Jews seem to be shut out for a season and gentiles have the inside running.
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written”.
Was Jews+Geentiles still in the future when Paul wrote Romans? When was it fulfilled?

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Scott Morizot

posted June 1, 2009 at 5:45 am

RonMcK (#10), If you want to understand how N.T. Wright sees Romans 9-11 (the rhetorical point to which the letter builds), the quickest way would be to listen to his “Romans in a Day” series of lectures. Scroll down on this page:
I started to try to summarize my understanding in a reply and realized I couldn’t meaningfully do so in a comment.

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david yates

posted June 1, 2009 at 6:01 am

John (#3): Please carry on!
Jeremy (#6, #8): I think we need to keep wrestling like this.
I see problems where Wright says Jews were “at dire risk through sin” (p.147) and “Jews (were) already within the covenant but needing to be renewed” (p.147). It seems to me that Jews were not at dire risk but on the contrary were condemned through sin, and were not within the covenant except that they needed a bit of a renewal. Wright doesn’t adequately distinguish between saved OT Jews who were saved by faith, not law, and unsaved OT Jews who, not having faith, were condemned by law. Further, Wright says (p.148) works of law are not moral good deeds but things keeping Jews and Gentiles apart. I think works of law include moral good deeds, which, done by the unsaved under law, were not at all the same as good works done by the saved, and the major act of Jesus was to abolish the condemnation of sin, whether under law or otherwise, and as a minor consequence enable Jews to partake of salvation by faith equally with Gentiles. Gentiles had even in OT times been able to be saved by faith in God, just as Jews. Before Abraham, promise of salvation was given in Gen 3.15.
Wright uses (to me) opaque metaphors in saying that Israel presented a ‘roadblock’ to the promises and so they couldn’t ‘flow out’ to the Gentiles until the Messiah came. I’ve not come across anywhere where he explains what these metaphors are supposed to signify.
(pp.168-175 USA are pp.144-151 GB)

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Scot McKnight

posted June 1, 2009 at 8:07 am

A few comments:
1. Wright is not an either/or here — he’s a both/and. And I believe the old perspective is both/and, too — the issue here is whether or not the personal or the ecclesial will be totally eclipsed.
2. The goal is not the union of Jews and Gentiles but the blessing of the whole world to the glory of God and a demonstration of God’s own faithfulness.
3. MikeM — the point is that many low church evangelicals don’t see the emphasis on the “church as church” in the NT. Their emphasis is too much on the individual’s salvation and blessing.
4. David Yates … your definitions of those terms, of course, need support but your view is not unlike that of many.
5. David Yates — an issue is how emphatic one can find this “blessing to the Gentiles” theme in the Bible. Chris Wright has helped. Clearly Paul sees this as a point and the roadblock NT Wright is appealing to is that Israel did not take that mission seriously enough. Something along this line.

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posted June 1, 2009 at 9:32 am

I am a taker. As long as there are human divisions, we need this perspective. Individual salvation alone has not brought about reconciliation with one another effectively. (it should have but perhaps because in the interest of such salvation, we neglected the new community in Christ). Any contact in cross-cultural situations or gender wars and even denominational divisions… there are still those who are “in” and those who are “out” based on human viewpoints.
The new perspective helps us remember that united in Christ means something about how we respond to one another in the family. Because we are all sons of God through faith in Christ and there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female for we are all one in Christ.
That individual salvation should produce something… a new community that is unlike anything we know.

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posted June 1, 2009 at 9:38 am

John (3),
Your comment reminded me of the critics of Wimber & the Vineyard regarding the use of healings, signs & wonders in evangelism. It’s tough to argue for something that the traditions of the day (or centuries) have largely ignored or dismissed in their theology and practice without sounding like one is “beating the drum too hard,” even if one takes a both/and approach, like Wright and Wimber have done, even explicitly stating as much.
Can one be a reformer and not come off as ‘beating the drum too hard?’ I can’t think of any historically.

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John W Frye

posted June 1, 2009 at 11:03 am

I think the reason that NT Wright seems to beat the Jewish drum so much is that the Jews (in his day and Paul’s) had turned their purpose and place in redemption history into an hyper-ethnocentric religion. This was their “sin.” Paul was countering the hyper-ethnicity of aberrant Judaism. Jesus had come as the true obedient Israelite and fulfilled Israel’s purpose so that the greater purpose (that John in #3 addresses) of a “new humanity” envisioned in God’s covenant with Abraham can come about.
The only way to balance the scales is to stress ecclesiology as the mother of soteriology until the cancerous erosion caused by Western individualism is obliterated from the gospel…”He [Jesus] took the fall and thought OF ME above all…” is very popular.

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Jeremy Berg

posted June 1, 2009 at 11:34 am

John (16 says: “The only way to balance the scales is to stress ecclesiology as the mother of soteriology until the cancerous erosion caused by Western individualism is obliterated from the gospel…”
Bold claim, but I think you are right on. (That sounds heavily influenced by Dunn, by the way.) Again, Is ecclesiology indeed the mother of soteriology? And I don’t mean this in the same sense as the Roman Catholic church might.

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posted June 1, 2009 at 11:57 am

John at 16
I really like your first paragraph. Your ending seems too strong for me; perhaps in the empasis of the words “of me”. I immediately think of the second part of the twentieth verse of Galations: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” How about emphasizing the words “above all” in the last sentence?

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Jeremy Berg

posted June 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Everyone should check out Ben Witherington III’s insightful, witty review of Wright’s book posted today at His review goes with this conversation like milk goes with cookies. Delicious!

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Travis Greene

posted June 1, 2009 at 1:37 pm

SamB @ 18,
He’s quoting a song, the popularity of which is a sign of how individualistic theology has crept into the church.

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D C Cramer

posted June 1, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Not sure if “low church” ecclesiology is to blame here, as Anabaptists seem to have both a low church and yet a quite profound ecclesiology. And my guess would be they would side with Wright in this particular discussion. (Cf. John Howard Yoder’s work on the Jew/Gentile relationship in the early church, which anticipates the New Perspective.)

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posted June 1, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Appreciate Cramer #21, as the issue doesn’t seem to be low or high church. I think historically those terms refer more to worship practices, view of sacraments, priesthood, etc. American primitivism or restoration movements like Churches of Christ (Campbellites) and Missionary Baptists have a low church practice, but a high, almost Roman Catholic view of themselves as the true Bride of Christ.
I think there is a huge HERMENEUTICAL issue here. What are Paul’s letters? What is Romans? We evangelicals have tended to read them as if they were abstract theological documents, from which we could mine our doctrinal ore, and then put the ore into piles called soteriology or ecclesiology or . . . Or we read them as if they were written to provide individual devotional fodder.
I’m learning to read them as church-strengthening, community-establishing documents from perhaps the greatest church planter in our history. Which means that by their very nature they are ecclesial, while their content addresses the gamut of individual and corporate issues related to Paul’s gospel. At least that’s how I’m seeing it nowadays.

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Travis Greene

posted June 1, 2009 at 4:53 pm

DC Cramer @ 21 and Dru @ 22,
Ok, maybe it’s not low church theology in the historical sense, and I agree about the Anabaptists, but in my experience most evangelicals have almost no ecclesiology at all. The church is just what we call the aggregate mass of saved individual Christians. Or maybe the local body, but even then the individual is primary, the church body tertiary at best.

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John Stackhouse

posted June 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Just to be clear, I believe that the recovery of a Jewish Jesus as Messiah, the new perspective on (Jewish) Paul’s conversion, and all that follows are great gifts to our reading of the Bible and receipt of the Gospel. We have needed these correctives.
I fear, however, that Tom is so concerned still to push against the alternatives that he sometimes pushes too hard–whether in stridency or in metaphor or in other problems as noted here (and in classes of mine at Regent in which his books have been discussed).
So I’m grateful, as I say, for the Sanders-Dunn-Hurtado-Wright work–of course I am! I want to build on it–and, lest I be accused of false modesty–correcting it to some extent by reframing the issues (again) in the full context of the Bible’s story that does not start with Abraham and does not end with Israel or the Church or both. It starts with God, humanity, and the rest of creation, and that’s how it ends, too. And I think that distinction is a fruitful one some of us, at least (including me), have not yet fully internalized

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Jim Martin

posted June 2, 2009 at 5:18 am

I find it very helpful to ask what Pauline theology might be like if we were to begin with Col/Eph. No, it is not an either/or as has been stressed in several comments. At the same time, the temptation (that you express so well) is a reality. That temptation, because of our history of individualism is probably going to be strong in one direction (at least right now).
So–I do find this helpful. Each post has been helpful in not only grasping Wright but in reflecting on how I read the NT.

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