The Bible and Culture


N.T. Wright,  Justification.
God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision
(Downers Grove:
Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 279 pages, $25.00 list price.


            It is never
an easy thing to write a rebuttal book if you are genuinely a Christian
person.  You keep hoping that people will
stop misunderstanding what you have said and written, will think better of ad
hominem attacks, and you keep trying the ‘turn the other cheek’ approach, at
least until people think you’re being cheeky by not responding to their criticisms.  But finally when there is persistent, and
seemingly willful, misinterpretation of what you have said, it becomes the
lesser of several undesirable things to respond and clarify your views, with
the hope that finally the light will dawn on those who have misread you.  To judge from some of the early reviews on
Amazon one would have to say “Abandon Hope”.


Of course the sad irony of this
situation is that the very people who ought to be most appreciating and
applauding the good bishop’s work, including on this very subject, are those
who are most strongly attacking it–conservative Evangelicals from the ?ber-Reformed
side of the ledger.  In particular he is
being attacked by folks like Don Carson, John Piper, and their disciples (e.g.
Simon Gathercole).  What makes this an
especially noxious and obnoxious situation is that in fact, at the end of the
day, Wright is taking a very traditional view of the doctrine of justification,
namely that Paul, when he uses the dikaios/dikaiosune
etc. word group is largely referring to forensic righteousness, right
standing with God established by grace and through faith in the dying and
rising Messiah Jesus.  Further, in very Reformed
fashion he wants to argue that in Romans and elsewhere what the phrase ‘the
righteousness of God’ refers to is God’s covenant faithfulness to promises he
made.  Sounds like a good traditional
Reformed reading of Paul to most of us. (I should add for those who do not know
my work that whilst I attended a Reformed Evangelical Seminary, Gordon-Conwell,
I am in fact a Wesleyan Evangelical, and so in the first place there are some
ways in which I disagree with Tom Wright’s perspective and in the second place
I find it bordering on bizarre that he is being attacked by his own close
theological kin.  This is truly an
‘in-house’ fight, and I don’t really have a dog in it, except Bishop Wright is
a long time Christian friend, and it is not right to stand idly by and watch a
brother being unnecessarily attacked. 
For what it is worth, I find Wright a far better and more Biblical
ambassador for his particular Reformed theological view point than those who
are attacking him).


Let us first start with the big
picture.  Wright is a global thinker, by
which I mean he is not into doing theology by sound-bytes, little snippets of
texts here there and yonder strung together because they share some common
vocabulary word.  He is also an exegete
as well as a theologian, and as an exegete he knows that a text without a
context is just a pre-text for whatever you want it to mean.  It has been, and remains one of the great
problems of systematic theology, especially as done in the West since the
Middle Ages, that it tends to mine the Biblical quarry for ideas and concepts
and then thrust them into some Procrustean bed, call it a pre-existing
theological schema, where they do not comfortably fit. Wright, quite properly,
insists on reading Paul in the context of early Judaism and early Christianity,
a necessary step for one who takes history seriously and does not think one can
do Pauline theology in isolation from Paul’s original contexts.  But herein, already, lies part of the problem
with the ?ber-Reformed.  This is
threatening because it means that various later Lutheran and Calvinist theological
perspectives on Paul turn out to be wrong, and not in accord with what Paul
actually said and meant.


Now you might expect that those who
wave the flag of sola Scriptura most fervently would agree that all
later systematic theologies ought to be regularly checked or critiqued by the
Biblical text, rightly understood in its proper original contexts.  But sadly it is not so.  Phrases like ‘imputed righteousness’ are assumed
to be so central to Paul’s soteriology, so non-negotiable (even though you will
look in vain for this phrase in any Pauline letter), that when Tom Wright
questions some of the aspects of such a view on the basis of a close exegesis
of Pauline texts, you would have thought he was guilty of being Uzzah, the man
with unclean hands who reached out to grab the ark of the covenant when it was
falling, and was zapped (1 Chron. 13.9-10). 
Only Bishop Wright has not been zapped, indeed his work has been blessed
and well received far and wide, to the dismay of the ?ber-Reformed.  They are worried about his growing influence.
One wonders if pure jealousy has entered into the picture here, because of the
enormous influence of Bishop Wright’s work, who is probably the most well
known, well reviewed Evangelical scholar in the world, whether we are referring
to exegesis or theology.


Part of the problem here is that,
as it turns out, the ?ber-Reformed too often want to do theology in isolation
from the first century Jewish and historical context of Paul.  And there is a reason for this. Listen to
what one ardent reviewer on Amazon, who shall remain anonymous, in critiquing
this new book by Wright, says—


“I sympathize with Bishop Tom as he
struggles to contradict Historic Evangelical theology as refined by the Protestant Church since Reformation. He simply is
too caught up in his contextualization bias that slants his take on reading
Paul. If only he could read Paul (and Jesus and John and Peter and Hebrews and
Gospels and Luke’s Acts and Old Testament) on a STAND ALONE basis without the
baggage of 2nd Temple
Judaism lenses coloring
everything Bishop Tom reads.”

“What is the main
problem with Bishop Tom and his fans who are fascinated with “New
Perspectives”?  A wholesale
abandonment of Sola Scriptura as the only necessary authoritative source for
theology and the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in Christ Alone. I
would add ‘Satis Scriptura Est’ has been jettisoned as well: the Bible by
itself is enough to rely on in determining meaning, interpretation, exegesis
and what justification really involves.”


Ah, there’s the rub! 
We should be able to read the Bible without the necessary extra heavy
lifting of studying it in its original historical, literary, rhetorical,
social, and linguistic contexts, because after all the Bible should only be
interpreted in the light of other verses in the Bible, or otherwise you have
denied the perspicuity, the clarity of Scripture.  In other words, the concept of the clarity of
Scripture is used to bolster: 1) obscurantism, and 2) a particular tradition of
Protestant interpretation of Scripture which is assumed to be the ‘plain sense
meaning of the Biblical text’ without all the excess baggage of historical and
contextual study.  Now of course,
Wright’s scholarly critics would deny this is their approach, but in fact it
seems to be their fall back position when they are shown that in fact Paul was
not an early advocate of their narrow view of either justification or of their
sort of ‘imputed righteousness’.  As Tom
Wright says, once you realize the forensic character of what Paul says when he
is talking about justification, it becomes plain that God/Christ who is the
judge is not imputing his personal righteousness to the man standing in the
courtroom who is guilty as sin.  No, he
is legally declaring the man in right-standing with God on the basis of the
death and resurrection of Christ, the benefits of which are appropriated
through faith in Christ.  Christ’s
personal righteousness does not enter into the bargain or transfer here.


            But the
problem is not just that Tom has skewered some sacred cows in his own tradition
when it comes to either Bibliolatry or the Reformed tradition of interpreting
Paul.  No, the problem is that Tom
refuses to take the traditional Reformation approach to Jews and Judaism and
Paul as a Jewish theologian, which quite frankly are at least anti-Judaistic
when they are not plainly just anti-Semitic (for example in the case of
Luther).  Bishop Wright believes that
Paul is not an early version of a supercessionist, one who believes that
Judaism has been replaced by Christianity as the true Biblical religion. He
believes that Paul sees those who are ‘in Christ’, both Jew and Gentile, as the
eschatological completion of the one people of God for whom God all along had a
plan.  One of the real strengths of
Wright’s view is that it accounts for the whole Biblical witness, both OT and
NT from a Jewish, and yet Christian, point of view.   What do I mean by this?  Let’s let the good Bishop speak for himself:


view of the cataclysmic irruption of God into the history of Israel and the
world in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah was that
this heart-stopping, show-stopping, chart-topping moment was, despite initial
appearances, and certainly despite Paul’s own earlier expectations and initial
understanding, the very thing for which the entire history of Israel from
Abraham onward, the entire history of Israel under Torah from Moses onward and
indeed the entire history of humanity from Adam onward had been waiting. It is
central to Paul, but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new, and
otherwise, that God had a single plan all
along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and
that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul
saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” (p. 35).


            Here then
is the big picture.  God had always
intended that through Abraham and his kin, indeed through Israel, a light would be sent forth
into the world.  Israel was not
chosen merely to be God’s chums, God’s favorites, they were chosen to be light
bearers in a dark world.  Election was
not merely all about the salvation of the elect, it had a larger purpose–not
merely bearing witness to the larger Gentile world but setting about to redeem
it, and not even just the human parts of it but in fact ‘all creation’.


Now I need to take a breath here
and say that this breath-taking vision does not include the idea that everyone
and everything gets saved, redeemed, etc. from Wright’s point of view.  Wright is not a universalist in that sense.
Nevertheless, Wright believes that salvation has both cosmic scope and personal
benefit.  He believes that the
resurrection of Jesus is not just about creating a born again set of
individuals receiving eternal security and winding up in heaven.  No he believes that Christ’s history is the
believer’s eschatological destiny (see his other recent book, Surprised by
, reviewed on this blog some weeks ago).  He believes that the finish line for the
Christian is not heaven but the new creation on earth.  He believes that salvation in Christ is not a
reaction to the failure of Israel
to save the world, but rather the completion of her task by means of the true
Israelite, Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and world Savior.  And there is something more here.  Wright believes that his critics are guilty
of having a truly deficient ecclesiology. 
How so?


God’s redemption plan ever since
the Fall was not merely to create a bunch of saved individuals, but to deal
with the problem of sin both individually and corporately. The effect of the
Fall was not merely to alienate human individuals from their God, but to
alienate them from each other.  Salvation
is not just about saving this or that person. It is about re-creating
community.  It has both a vertical and a
horizontal dimension. Listen for example to what Paul says in 1 Cor. 12–“by one
Spirit we were all baptized into the one body, Jews or Greeks, slave or free,
and we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.” (verse 13).   Reconciliation is not just between us and
God, but also between us, for we have all fallen and can’t get up except by
grace and through faith.  It was always
about creating a people, the heirs of Abraham, Jew and Gentile united in Christ
and heading for the true promised land, not merely the Holy
Land, but the new creation of the whole earth, which Jesus said
the meek would one day inherit.


I think by now you can see what I
mean by saying that Wright is a global thinker. He has tied together all the
threads of the Biblical story into one grand narrative of creation, fall and
redemption for the whole human race and made clear that late Western,
non-Jewish, individualistic readings of Paul do not work.  Of course ‘the Devil’s in the details’ as
some would say, so before we bring this little essay to a close lets consider a
few of the particulars of Wright’s case. 
First let’s consider the matter of the definition of justification.


Wright correctly protests that the
whole doctrine of salvation should not be subsumed under the heading of
justification. Wright believes there is initial right-standing with God granted
when one believes in Christ, and that this is a bringing forward into the present
of final right-standing with God in advance.  Initial right-standing is by grace and through
faith alone (as all the Reformers would agree), but final right-standing,
whilst it is also by grace and through faith involves an evaluation of works
(see Rom. 2, 2 Cor. 5 etc.). 

Wright is careful to make clear he
is not an advocate of 
‘works-righteousness’ that bugaboo particularly of Lutheran theology,
but he refuses to ignore those texts which state that Christian’s, including
minister’s (see 2 Cor. 3), deeds will be put under God’s searchlight at the
final assize and will either be commended or condemned (and I would add that
this is connected with rewards or the lack there of in the Kingdom, though
salvation in itself is not a reward). 
Wright is concerned that the part (justification) has been mistaken for
the whole doctrine of salvation, which among other things includes the work of
the Spirit in the believer, sanctification and glorification, not just
right-standing with God.


If I may be permitted a personal
word here, I find it completely odd that those who most frequently use the
phrase ‘sovereign grace’ in fact do not seem to think that that grace is a very
potent transformer of human nature, because they are the same persons who most
fervently deny the dramatic sanctifying work of the Spirit subsequent to
justification which increasingly frees us from the effects of sin, and indeed
if we are filled with God’s perfect love, at least at times frees us even from
fear and the inclination to commit willful acts of sin (see 1 John 4-5).  This is not about a naïve or Pelagian optimism
about human potential or human nature.  It
is about a belief that God’s grace is more powerful than the sin in our
lives.  But I digress.


As I have said, Bishop Wright
thinks Paul’s notion of dikaios/dikaiosune
is forensic or legal.  Listen to what
he says— “Righteousness within the lawcourt setting…denotes the status that
someone has when the court has found in their favor. Notice, it does not
denote, within that all-important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they
are assumed to have’ or ‘the moral behavior they have demonstrated which has
earned them the verdict.” (p. 90).  


He goes on to add, rightly, that
legal righteousness is not the same thing as moral righteousness. Justification
is not about the judge imputing his moral righteousness to the actually guilty
sinner. It is about the legal definition of not-guilty or pardon, and in either
case it establishes right-standing with the judge and before the Law.  It is about the position and not the
condition of the sinner, but it is not about the legal fiction of Christ’s
righteousness being imputed to us.            


Of course we need to be actually
righteous if we are to be the holy people of God, but that is a matter of the
internal working of the Spirit, a matter of sanctification, not a matter of a
righteousness exchange (Christ’s for our’s).  
In fact, what Romans 4 says when talking about our forefather Abraham is
that Abraham’s faith was reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness (or
right-standing).  If we must talk about
exchange then it is faith reckoned as righteousness in Romans, not Christ’s
righteousness reckoned as ours. According to Romans 4 both sides of the ledger,
credit and debit, involve something Abraham has–faith and
right-standing/righteousness, the former being credited as the latter.  The importance of Abraham is that he is being
depicted by Paul as the prototype of the Christian who is in a like situation.
The word justification, as Wright stresses, does not describe the whole of
salvation from grace to glory it has to do with the legal verdict present and
future passed on the sinner who is saved by grace through faith in the death
and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.


Where does the new Perspective on
Paul fit into this discussion?  Well, you
may remember the work of E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn and others who argued against
a caricature of Judaism as if it were a religion of ‘works’righteousness’ or
‘legalism’.  Wright is in considerable
agreement with this group in saying that painting early Judaism, and for that
matter OT religion with that broad brush is not merely unfair, it is
inaccurate.  The redemption of Israel by
God’s grace and power in the Exodus-Sinai events preceded the law covenant
known as the Mosaic covenant, and the Mosaic covenant was intended to deal with
the matter of ‘how then shall we live, since we have been saved by God’s

It is true of course that there
were some in early Judaism that saw law-keeping as proof or evidence of their
election, and it could become a means of self-justification and
self-congratulation in some cases. In the striving to obey one could sometimes
forget God’s grace is what established the covenant in the first place. 


But Paul’s critique of the Mosaic
covenant and its law was not a critique of mere legalism or works
righteousness.  His critique was as
follows: 1) the Torah is holy, righteous and good, however 2) its effect on
fallen persons, rather than its intent was condemnation rather than
commendation because the Law was not the Spirit, it could not enable a person
to obey it, and anyway 3) the Mosaic covenant was temporary, set up to keep
God’s people in line until the coming of Messiah (so Gal. 3-4).


The Mosaic covenant is likened in
Galatians to a nanny, the paidagogos not
being the teacher but rather the household servant who looked over a child
until he grew up, walking him back and forth to school, keeping him safe, and
helping him with his homework.  The
function was to keep little Publius in bounds. Paul says that this covenant has
been fulfilled, and so rendered obsolete by the death of Jesus (see Rom. 10.4).
 The new covenant then is seen as the
fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in both Galatians and Romans (on which
see my Grace in Galatia, and my Letter to the Romans,).


Part of the problem between Wright
and the ?ber-Reformed is that they have  different views of covenant theology.  Wright is a good enough exegete to allow
Paul’s words in Galatians 4 or in Romans to have their full weight, which means
one cannot say that the new covenant is simply the renewal of the Mosaic one,
only with better Energizer batteries included in the form of the Spirit, who
enables us to keep it. 


No, for Paul the new covenant is
the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one, which in turn means that the Mosaic
covenant had a temporal and temporary function. 
This becomes especially clear in 2 Cor. 3 in Paul’s contrast between the
ministry of the covenant of law which is death-dealing rather than life-giving,
and the ministry of the new covenant which involves the Holy Spirit which gives
life.  Paul says the former covenant has
a fading splendor whereas the latter covenant has an enduring one, not least
because it involves all of us being transformed into the glorious image of
Christ.  One covenant is completed and
fulfilled in the new covenant, the other covenant is made obsolete, through the
death of Christ absorbing the curse sanctions of that Mosaic covenant, the
penalty for its violation.


In a further post on this new blog
site, you will hear from the Bishop himself in response to some questions I
have posed to him.  Here I will say that
there was justification for Bishop Wright writing Justification, and it
is by no means simply a polemic. Rather, especially when he gets down to the
task of exegesis in Part Two of the book there is an exegetical and theological
feast to be had.  I fear however, that it
will mostly give his critics indigestion, as they seem to have a limited
palette and become dyspeptic when they are forced to consume something out of
the ordinary that is not on their pre-ordained menu.  Let me add in conclusion as well that lest
you think there are not matters of consequence involved in this discussion, and
would be prone to see it as “full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing” or
even ‘Christians behaving badly towards each other’, I would urge you to read
this book and see that much is at stake, namely whether we have a fully
Biblical and Pauline view of justification and salvation or not.


Dr. Ben Witherington, III
Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary
Wilmore Ky.
Doctoral Faculty St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews University, Scotland             


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