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We are working our way through Tom Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. The book purports to be a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification, but it is far more than that: it is a brilliant sketch of Wright’s own views.
Chp 4 opens with a question that is second to none in this debate: “What is the question to which the ‘doctrine of justification’ is the answer?” He then moves to Alister McGrath’s famous study on the history of what justification means (Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification
), and makes three points:
1. McGrath distinguishes “concept” from “doctrine”: the former refers to the biblical ideas and the latter to how that idea has developed into a full-scale, centralized doctrine in the Church, esp after Luther. [It makes me think Wright should have had “concept” at the top of this chp.]
2. McGrath says the “doctrine” has gone well beyond what is found in the Bible, especially as taught by Paul.
3. McGrath says the “doctrine” still has much value.
Wright’s observations about this shift from the biblical “concept” to the Church’s “doctrine”: those who read the “concept” in light of the “doctrine” will misread Scripture’s concepts, will not see Scripture’s points, and will give biblical warrant to “doctrines” because of the above two. This is the problem of method, the problem of reading back into the NT what was framed much later by Luther (and less so by Calvin).
In the history of the Church, particularly the Lutheran and Reformed branches, justification covers it all — and McGrath’s books show just this: it has come to mean the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race.
Wright sets the tone: The dikaios root “does not denote that entire sequence of thought” but instead it denotes “one specific aspect of or moment within that sequence of thought” (87). Making it the whole and the center is like making a steering wheel the whole of a car.
Wright’s definition now: Righteousness “denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90). It does not denote the moral character they are then assumed to have or the moral behavior they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict. The whole world is in the dock and that means justification means acquittal and forgiveness. It does not mean “make righteous” as if it meant transformation of character. Therefore, it refers to a declaration that gives someone a status.
Wright argues that Piper sees justification in moral terms — that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to someone. But righteousness in Paul is not about morality but about status.