Justification: Paul’s Vision and God’s PlanWritten by N. T. Wright Reviewed By David Mathis
Tom Wright has done it again. He has produced yet another title in addition to his esteemed and still-in-progress series Christian Origins and the Question of God. Even the growing many who question whether Wright has ventured off course in his retelling of Paul’s doctrine of justification can appreciate his productivity. Put this reviewer in that category.
Wright tackles Justification in two parts. “Introduction” addresses perspective, rules of engagement, backgrounds, and definitions in a lengthy prolegomena; “Exegesis” then aims to show his vision of Paul’s vision from Paul’s texts—first Galatians; then Philippians, Corinthians, and Ephesians; and finally, Romans. Wright says, “I am writing this book to try, once more, to explain what I have been talking about—which is to explain what I think St. Paul was talking about” (p. 21). He finds that John Piper, author of The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), as well as Wright’s mounting list of critics, “hasn’t really listened to what I’m saying” (p. 21).
It is easy to pen a quick list of the good in this book. Wright constantly reminds us of Sola Scriptura, emphasizes the necessity of exegesis, underscores the corporate nature of Paul’s theology, highlights the role of Israel in redemptive history, wields a wonderful Christology (and registers his disagreement with the Christology of James D. G. Dunn, to whom he has strangely dedicated this book), acknowledges that Romans is primarily about God (p. 40) and that it is “one of the greatest documents ever written by a human being” (p. 175), and condemns the use of the “loose language” of salvation by faith. Wright even refreshingly admits that he, Dunn, and Richard Hays have “not always followed either history or exegesis perfectly” (p. 196), and that he is sorry for giving wrong impressions in the past (p. 180).
But despite the smattering of good, it is disheartening to find that Wright is not yet addressing the issues he must in order to move the discussion forward, thus leaving his inquisitors with the same unanswered questions. The places where Wright creates disappointment and leaves questions can be clustered into a sequence of five groupings.
Misunderstanding His Critics
First, it is disappointing that Wright is not engaging his critics as well as they are engaging him. He mentions Piper by name most frequently, but it is unclear whether it is Piper who remains his target throughout or whether many of his unlabeled criticisms are meant for others. Is Wright really lumping Piper with the anthropocentrists, or is someone else in mind? To accuse Piper of man-centeredness will make even Piper’s harshest detractors scratch their heads. This much is clear in Wright, that for all his complaints about others not understanding him, he does not appear to have given the needed effort to track with Piper, who we might add gives noticeably more energy to writing with clarity. It is also discouraging that Wright anticipates that he can run an “outflanking exercise” (p. 9) at this point in the debate. Has he misread the current list of questions that badly? His opponents have identified his location, marched toward him in full view, and are now only yards away. The time for outflanking has passed. In trying to maneuver at this stage, he only makes himself look unarmed.
We should say that Wright acknowledges that this volume is preliminary and, in many senses, incomplete, with his major work on Paul coming in due course. Additionally, he says he was rushed to press in the midst of ministerial duties. It is unfortunate that such important work needed to be hurried, and a bit unfair to the reader, as well as his detractors. How are we to discern between where he is wrong and where he was forced to be hasty?
Also, it is not clear that Wright understands what the so-called old perspective means by “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” Whoever said that divine righteousness could be passed across the courtroom? Has he confused the word impute with transfer? And has Wright overlooked the essential role of the incarnation in the Reformed conception—that it is not the divine attribute of righteousness that counts for the believer in union with Jesus, but the whole-life-lived righteousness of the God-man? Wright unavoidably acknowledges a kind of imputation (without using the word) at the corporate level (p. 76), but must he do so at the expense of applying it to individuals who make up that corporate?
Second, Wright is bogging down the discussion by continuing to take dikaiosunē theou as a technical term for God’s covenant faithfulness without providing a convincing rationale. His justification-revision project may be crumbling on simple linguistics. In taking dikaiosunē theou as a technical term, Wright seemingly grants himself the freedom to disregard context when it fits his designs. (The phrase “technical term” in Wright nearly functions as a kind of signal to the reader that he is importing concepts not natively found in the text at hand; the phrase “controlling narrative” appears to be another such marker.) He uses dikaiosunē and pistisinterchangeably when it fits his system and differently when it does not (p. 203). Wright cannot maintain “righteous” as “covenantally faithful” throughout his exegetical chapters, as his treatment of a key text like Romans 3:25–26 demonstrates (p. 206).
Along these lines, Wright’s explanation of 2 Cor 5:21 remains unpersuasive because he has not established that dikaiosunē theou means covenant faithfulness. Point after point, his exegesis is predicated on his understanding of dikaiosunē theou, but he provides no OT (or other) support for his view, merely assuming it as fact (p. 217). He then uses the phrase to draw in the “controlling narrative” of Israel and Abraham where it is not demonstrably in the apostle’s mind.
Here we locate a considerable difference between Piper and Wright. Piper may stand to reckon more with Abraham, but Wright has made too much of the patriarch. And in doing so, Wright is unwilling to work any further backward than Gen 12, saying that “Abraham is where it all starts” (p. 217). This gets at a sizeable shortcoming in Wright: He does not go back far enough and ask the ultimate questions. What is God’s purpose in creation before there ever was a covenant with Abraham—or ever was creation? Why most ultimately does God mean “to set the world to rights”? Was God righteous before he made a covenant with Abraham? Was he righteous before he created the world? Because Wright begins with Abraham and does not grapple with the ultimate questions, his base is shallow and the structure is unstable.
A third disappointment is Wright’s lack of clarity. He says that he has been misunderstood, but is the list of readers who are misunderstanding him, in addition to Piper, really this impressive: Don Carson, Stephen Westerholm, Doug Moo, Mark Seifrid, and Simon Gathercole? (And should we assume that the list now includes Doug Wilson, Gerald Bray, Paul Helm, Dan Wallace, and Michael Horton, who all have registered weighty concerns with this new title?) Perhaps it is Wright who is creating the fog and not producing clarity.
There is a distressing lack of frankness in Wright, and part of it is his frequent reference to old-perspective opinions without providing names (however much he has been rushed to press). Who is saying that justification is all of salvation (p. 87) and spans from “grace to glory” (p. 102)? It is not Piper or the others listed above. Whoever it is, Wright needs to give names and page numbers so we can all together correct them in love. Let’s hope that what lies behind Wright’s nameless interlocutors is not a field of straw men. One way or the other, what is needed in this discussion is not the manner in which Wright engages here, but clear words and straightforward affirmations.
The Final Judgment
Fourth, Wright’s fog may prove most disappointing when he turns to the final judgment. Will he really be able to move the discussion forward by dismissing the difference between “on the basis of” and “according to” in a footnote (p. 121n7)? Is he not then embracing the “loose language” he elsewhere chastises, going soft on his own Sola Scriptura refrain, and refusing to answer the very issue that is at stake?
It is legitimate for Wright to ask whether some have left the Holy Spirit out of the discussion, and likely his reason for asking it is that he wants to draw in the Spirit for the production of the believer’s divinely empowered (necessary) obedience for the final judgment. In what way, then, is this Spirit-wrought obedience necessary at the final judgment? This is the question Wright must answer, but he continues to be ambiguous and inconsistent at best, if not badly mistaken. On the one hand, he says, “the verdict of the last day … has already been announced” (p. 214), but elsewhere he claims that the Christian’s whole life lived “leads to the final verdict” (p. 193). Is he creating space for basing the final judgment on Spirit-wrought works by setting up two justifications and divorcing obedience from the phrase “works of the law”? Is it telling that he leaves out the word “now” in his own translation of Rom 8:1 (pp. 250–51)?
In the end, Wright seems to say it is both: “[T]his lawcourt verdict … is announced both in the present, with the verdict issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit” (p. 251). Maybe his reference to Spirit-indwelling is not meant to contradict what Paul says elsewhere—“not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Tit 3:5)—but it is difficult to get around seeing that this is what Wright is implying. He is at least unclear here.
Fifth and finally, Wright’s exegesis in the book’s second half is disappointing for a scholar of his standing. After his lengthy prolegomena, the hope is that now, at last, we will see Wright’s exegetical foundations with new depth and candor. Frequently in the first half, he has pointed ahead, noting that exegesis is coming; but then, unfortunately, the second part proves to be a substantial letdown. We may note that elsewhere Wright has written a commentary on Romans, as well as many technical articles, monographs, and popular-level books. That he has given the exegesis better attention there may serve in Wright’s mind to excuse his lack of detail here. But it is unfortunate that under the banner of exegesis he mainly attempts to answer his critics (who have challenged him point-for-point exegetically) by restating his big picture—the big picture that depends on the very exegesis he is not adequately providing.
The question remains as to whether Wright is overplaying the role of extrabiblical texts in reading the biblical documents. It is true that “we are bound to read the NT in its own first-century context” (pp. 46–47), but the issue Wright seems to have ignored is what is the Christian’s most reliable window into the first century? The answer is the NT itself. But are the extrabiblical texts functioning as the reliable sources for Wright, while understanding the NT has become contingent? Wright expressly looks for “firm ground in anchoring exegesis” (p. 47) by turning to first-century sources other than the NT. Despite how much Wright gives nod to the authority of Scripture and returns to his much-appreciated Sola Scriptura refrain, is his model of exegesis not demonstrating that his doctrine of Scripture is weak in practice?
Exegesis has two different flavors for Wright and Piper. Piper wrestles word by word, proposition by proposition, and then paragraph by paragraph. Wright moves much quicker through large chunks of Paul’s thought, refers frequently to whole chapters and paragraphs, and quotes phrases (often as technical terms) seemingly removed from their immediate context. It is surprising that Wright would remind us that “the text is the text” (p. 249) when he has dealt so little with the actual biblical text in its context. For this reason, Wright’s exegetical chapters are a serious disappointment as his exegesis proves to be a kind of hovering above the text—rarely, if ever, landing, while supplying his own meaning for a phrase here and there that contributes to a coherent whole but neglects to explain the connections between Paul’s propositions and paragraphs. Does Wright not see that the discussion cannot go forward if he will not convincingly engage Paul on Paul’s own terms but instead keeps the text at arm’s length?
The student who takes the time to work through Wright’s exegesis, with both a good English translation and the Greek text nearby, will see that Wright’s claims do not follow Paul’s text proposition by proposition. Wright has selected a few words, phrases, and so-called technical terms, accounted well for them in his system, and then made sweeping claims about whole chapters and paragraphs, relating one to another without pausing sufficiently to mind the conjunctions and show that Paul is thinking the same way. Reading Wright with Paul’s texts open reveals that Wright is not yet demonstrating that he can explain Paul as well as his most careful critics.
Despite the impressive fact that he has published yet again, it does not seem that Justification will advance the discussion or benefit Wright’s esteem at present or long term. Wright has done much outstanding work in the past, and it is a shame that he may have sullied his name with this disappointing volume.
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