In the latest issue of Credo Magazine, Tom Schreiner has a 29-page review article of N. T. Wright’s massive two-volume tome on Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2014).
Schreiner offers a good framework by which we should approach Wright’s work:
It seems as if discussions on Wright easily become a matter of whether one is “for him” or “against him.”
But such an approach isn’t helpful and blunts the kind of discussion that is needed.
It is fitting to be grateful (see above) for his contributions to scholarship and for his service to the church. He is clearly not an enemy of evangelicalism but a friend.
At the same time, we serve scholarship and truth in raising questions and concerns as well.
If demonizing Wright is irrational, we must also beware of an uncritical adulation where any disagreement with him is viewed as an attack.
Mature discussion takes place when we honestly dialogue about places where we agree and differ with kindness and grace.
Schreiner first summarizes the book, then looks at areas of agreement and appreciation, followed by areas of disagreement. He closes the review essay in this way:
Discussing disagreements has a negative side effect, for we tend to focus on those and to forget where we agree. So too here, the concerns and disagreements may cause us to neglect the many places where there is agreement. So, let me say again how thankful I am for the scholarship and wisdom evident in Wright’s work. We all stand in his debt, for he has helped us to see in a new way the coherence, historical rootedness, and practical ramifications of Pauline theology. Wright’s work on Paul will be profited from and read for years to come. May the conversation continue with charity, grace, and forthright dialogue.
In terms of disagreement, Schreiner says that the areas of justification “continues to be the place where Wright is most controversial—at least for confessional and evangelical Protestants.” His engagement with Wright here offers a helpful summation and interaction, so I am reproducing it below (with some subheadings of my own for convenience).
[Justification Is Forensic, Not Transformative]
Wright’s view is both helpful and confusing. He rightly emphasizes that justification is a forensic reality, that it has to do with the law court. Hence, he rejects the notion that justification is transformative and life changing. It is a declaration by the judge that one stands in the right. All this seems exactly right.
[Justification, Covenant Faithfulness, and Covenant Membership]
On the other hand, he also defines justification in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness and our covenant membership. It seems, then, that justification doesn’t, according to Wright, primarily mean that we are right with God. It fundamentally means that we are members of the church, that we are covenant members.
I believe Wright here makes a category mistake. He rightly sees that righteousness relates both to creation and covenant. Righteousness and the covenant aren’t separated one from the other. But it doesn’t follow from this that righteousness means covenant faithfulness or covenant membership.
Instead, as Stephen Westerholm shows in his recent book, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Eerdmans), justification means that one is in the right, that one is declared to be in the right. This is not to say that righteousness has nothing to do with the covenant. Better to say that God’s saving righteousness fulfills his covenant promises instead of saying that righteousness means covenant membership or covenant faithfulness. Indeed, it seems as if the emphasis on covenant membership sits awkwardly with the notion that righteousness is declarative, for justification means that we stand in the right before God.
[Justification and Salvation, Sin and Wrath]
The matter of justification deserves further comment. Wright often criticizes those who identify justification with salvation, pointing out that the words justify and salvation mean different things. He is certainly right on this score, but he neglects an important point as well. Wright, as noted above, puts justification in the ecclesiological category. It doesn’t communicate, says Wright, that one has become a Christian; it tells us whether one is a covenant member, a member of the church of Jesus Christ. I continue to be unpersuaded. Yes, justification and salvation don’t mean the same thing, but they have the same referent. Salvation means that one is spared from the eschatological wrath to come, while justification means that one is declared to be right on the final day.
Wright himself says that this eschatological verdict has been declared in advance, the end time announcement has been declared in advance with reference to those who believe in Jesus Christ. When he talks like this, it seems that he is thinking mainly of soteriology, i.e., our relationship to God (hence the confusion mentioned above). Both salvation and justification, then, are soteriological realities. Justification most naturally refers to one who is declared to be in the right before God, and that fits better with soteriology rather than ecclesiology.
Wright often says that those who hold onto the so-called old perspective distort Paul, since they speak of putting one’s faith in Christ and then going to heaven. Wright says this is fundamentally flawed since the promise is not an ethereal heavenly existence but the new creation. We can grant this point as a good corrective, though most old perspective scholars I know already agree that our future destiny is a new creation. In other words, Wright’s proposal about the new creation isn’t as new and as radical as he thinks it is. Still, he rightly says that our future life will be in a transformed world, a new creation.
If our destiny is the new creation, the soteriological dimension of justification still remains, for only those who are justified will enter the new creation. Those who face God’s eschatological wrath will experience the final judgment instead of participating in the new creation. Wright doesn’t deny the wrath of God and the judgment to come, but in an exceedingly long book on Paul it doesn’t receive enough attention or comment. In other words, he waxes eloquently on the unity of the church (a horizontal reality), but by comparison his reflections on God’s wrath and the final judgment are relatively abbreviated. The brevity of his comments have consequences, for he doesn’t give the same weight to escaping God’s wrath and the final judgment that Paul does. Getting the story right doesn’t mean just including every bit of the story; it also means that each element in Paul’s theology is given proper weight.
I am not making any accusations here about Wright’s orthodoxy or evangelical credentials. It is a matter of emphasis instead of denial. Still, it seems that he emphasizes the horizontal much more than he stresses the vertical. Both themes are certainly present. Nevertheless, Wright doesn’t give us an in-depth and profound discussion on the nature of sin in Paul. He repeatedly says that the problem is sin. Yes and yes. But he doesn’t linger over what sin is or unpack its significance. He doesn’t focus on its refusal to honor and glorify God. Obviously, he believes these things, but the emphasis and the passion seem to be elsewhere. But if the fundamental and most horrendous issue in life is sin, i.e., rebellion against God, a proud and stubborn refusal to honor God as God, then one of the most important issues is whether one can be saved from God’s wrath; whether one will be saved (delivered) or justified (declared to be in the right) on the last day.
[Justification and Assurance]
Wright writes movingly on the assurance justification gives to believers, for those who are justified can be sure of final salvation. He helpfully reiterates that justification is forensic and not a process. It is a verdict, a declaration from God that gives believers’ confidence as they face the final day. I wondered again how such a statement fit with covenant membership or covenant faithfulness as the definition provided for justification, for the emphasis on assurance seems to put justification in the realm of soteriology, where there is confidence about individual final salvation.
[Final Justification and Works]
Wright’s statement about individual assurance raises another question. He insists rightly that justification isn’t a process. One doesn’t become more justified as time passes, and those who are justified are assured of final salvation. On the other hand, Wright also says that final justification is based on works.
If final justification is based on works, then how can believers have assurance that they will be justified on the final day? Wright never answers or attempts to answer that question. I would suggest along with many others that it is better to conceive of works as the fruit or evidence of justification. Wrights knows the distinction posited here but finds it to be unhelpful. Still, the language of basis should be rejected, for it suggests that works are the foundation of our right-standing with God, but how can that be the case if justification is by grace? And how can we truly have assurance if justification is based in part on our works? Paul grounds justification on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was declared to be in the right at his resurrection, so too all those who united with Christ by faith also stand in the right because they belong to the one who has been vindicated by God.
[Justification and Imputation]
Assurance and final justification are linked to imputation. In one sense Wright seems to
believe in imputation, for he says believers are in the right with God because they have died and risen with Christ (Rom. 6).
In any case, the issue shouldn’t be limited to whether it is legitimate to speak of active and passive righteousness. What is at stake is whether Christ is our righteousness, whether our righteousness finally lies outside of ourselves and is found in Jesus Christ. It seems that Romans 5:12-19 teaches that Christ’s righteousness is ours, for believers are united with Christ (and all that he is for us) instead of being united with Adam.
[2 Corinthians 5:21]
Another clear text on imputation is 2 Corinthians 5:21. The one who never sinned took our sin upon himself, so that we receive God’s righteousness as we are united with Jesus Christ.
Wright’s objections (stated above) to this reading of 2 Corinthians 5:21 aren’t compelling for three reasons.
1) We enjoy God’s righteousness because of what Christ has done, his sinless life and sacrificial death. He died as a substitute for us, and hence his death is our death. Because we
are united with Christ, God’s righteousness (right standing with God) is granted to us. This is a righteousness that is ours only through the work of Jesus Christ.
2) Wright thinks the verb “become” (genōmetha) can’t be equative, that the verb carries the notion of “becoming.” But the verb “become” (ginomai) is very flexible in Paul, and it can easily be taken as equative (cf. Rom. 11:6; 12:6; 1 Cor. 3:18; 4:16). But even if the verb means “become,” it doesn’t rule out imputation, for believers become something they weren’t before (“righteous!”) by virtue of union with Christ. They receive right standing with God as a gift.
3) The first person plural pronoun doesn’t indicate Paul is only thinking of his apostolic ministry. Paul’s use of pronouns is also flexible and shouldn’t be straitjacketed. Yes, the first person plural in the previous verse refers to Paul, but Paul shifts between the first person plural as a reference to himself and the first person plural as a reference to all Christians in this very paragraph, for when Paul says “God reconciled us” in 2 Corinthians 5:18, he isn’t limiting that action to himself but includes all believers. So too, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 the “we” most naturally refers to all believers.
[E. P. Sanders’s Vision of Judaism]
Since we are talking about new perspective matters, one other issue should be raised. Wright still writes as if E. P. Sanders’s vision of Judaism (his covenantal nomism) is completely convincing.
But there is now plenty of evidence out there about the diversity of Judaism. Some Jews were legalistic. That is plain from Luke 18:9-14 alone. Legalism isn’t a Jewish problem but a human problem.
I believe this is a more convincing reading of texts like Romans 4 than the one Wright posits. Yes, exclusivism and nationalism and boundary markers were a problem. The new perspective has helped us see that so clearly. We are grateful for a clear reminder on this matter.
But new perspectivists like Wright don’t seem open to any modification of Sanders’s construal of Judaism. They insist that there is no polemic against legalism in Paul. It seems that some new perspectivists aren’t as open as some old perspective adherents.
We see a both-and problem in Paul: both exclusivism and legalism. The new perspective has helped us see an emphasis that was too often neglected. But Wright insists that it is only one way; there is only one problem (nationalistic exclusivism), and he continues to advocate this line, even though there are good historical and exegetical reasons to see also a polemic against legalism in Paul’s letters. Here is another place where Wright focuses on the horizontal (boundary markers) and fails to see the vertical (one’s relationship to God).