The New Perspective on Paul

The Contribution of N.T. Wright (2)

Cornelis P. Venema

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In order to understand the full meaning of this summary statement of the doctrine of justification, we need to consider briefly several distinct aspects of Wright's understanding. Chief among these are: 1) his interpretation of the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” as the basis for the justification of God's people; 2) the precise meaning of the language, “to justify”; 3) the role of faith as the “badge” of covenant membership or justification; 4) the past, present and future tenses of justification; and 5) the relation between Christ's resurrection and the church's justification.

The Righteousness of God

Students of the Reformation are well aware that one of the key Pauline phrases for a proper under- standing of justification is the phrase, “the righteousness of God” (compare Rom. 1:16-17; Rom. 3:21-26). Following Luther's “discovery” that the righteousness of God is not so much the demand of God's law as the gift of his grace in Christ, the Reformers taught that we are justified by the free gift of God's righteousness in Christ, which is granted 'and imputed to believers. In this understanding, the righteousness of God is revealed through Christ who, by his obedience to the law and substitutionary endurance of the law's penalty, is the believer's righteousness before God. Justification is a judicial idea, and describes the way all of the requirements of the law have been met for the believer through the work of Christ. Those who receive the free gift of God's righteousness in Christ by faith stand acquitted and accepted before God.

Following the lead of Sanders, Dunn and others, Wright insists that this Reformation view amounts to a profound misunderstanding of the language of the “righteousness of God.” Wright maintains that “[f]or a reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, “the righteousness of God” would have one obvious meaning: God's own faithfulness to his promises…. God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God's righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel's salvation on the other” (p. 96). Though the Reformation view rightly emphasized that the “righteousness of God” reflects a “legal metaphor” taken from the lawcourt, it misapplies this language by misunderstanding the way the Hebrews understood the functioning of righteousness in the judgment of the court.1   In the Hebrew law court, there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. When the Judge pronounces a verdict in the court in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant, we may say that he has been “vindicated against the accuser; in other words, acquitted” (p. 98). This is the only meaning that the term “righteous” has, when it is applied to the person in whose favor the Judge acts: that person is, so far as the court's action is concern, in the status of being acquitted or righteous.   So far as the court's judgment is concerned, the person who is righteous has the status of being vindicated or being in favor with the court.

Even though Wright acknowledges, as the Reformation view also insisted, that the language of the “righteousness of God” reflects a legal or forensic setting, he also insists that the vindication of someone in God's court does not involve God's granting or imputing anything whatever to the person whom He vindicates. “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom” (p. 98). When the “righteousness of God” is revealed, this means that God reveals his covenant faithfulness by keeping his promise to his people, vindicating them as “righteous.” Because this righteousness is God's own faithfulness to his covenant promise, it is not something that he could bestow upon or impart to his people.

What it is “to be justified”

Just as the Reformation misunderstood the language of the “righteousness of God,” so it also misunderstood, Wright maintains, the language of justification. In the popular mind, justification is taken to be the answer to the problem of sinners who try to find favor with God by doing good works. There is a sinful tendency in all of us to try to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, to seek to find favor with God on the basis of our achievements or efforts. Whether in the dress of Pelagianism, which teaches that sinners are saved on the basis of the performance of good works in obedience to the law, or semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that sinners are saved on the basis of God's grace, plus our good works—there is an inescapable tendency to base human salvation upon self-effort. The doctrine of justification is the only antidote to all such Pelagian or semi-Pelagian views of salvatioan, because it teaches that salvation is an unmerited gift of God's grace in Christ to sinners who receive the gospel promise by faith alone. In Wright's estimation, this popular opinion regarding justification, whatever its merits (and he acknowledges that it has some), “does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul's doctrine, and indeed distorts it at various points” (p. 113).2

According to Wright, Paul's doctrine of justification did not serve to answer the “timeless” problem of how sinners can find acceptance with God, but to explain how you can tell who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”   When the language of justification is interpreted in terms of its Old Testament and Jewish background, we will recognize that it is covenantal language.  Justification does not describe how someone gains entrance into the community of God's people but who is a member of the community now and in the future.  In Paul's Jewish context, Wright maintains,

“justification by works” has nothing to do with individual Jews attempting a kind of proto-Pelagian pulling themselves up by their moral bootstraps, and everything to do with definition of the true Israel in advance of the final eschatological showdown. Justification in this setting, then, is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community, not least in the period of time before the eschatological event itself, when the matter will become public knowledge. (P. 119, emphasis Wright's).

Because justification has to do with God's recognition of who belongs to the covenant community, it is not so much a matter of “soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church” (p. 119).

Faith, the badge of covenant membership

Because justification focuses upon God's declaration regarding membership in the covenant community, Wright interprets Paul's insistence that justification is by faith and not by works, in a manner that is quite similar to Dunn's approach. The “boasting” of the Judaizers was not a boasting born of self-righteousness, but a kind of misplaced nationalistic pride and exclusivism. The “works of the law” were those requirements of the law that served to distinguish Jews from Gentiles, and to exclude Gentiles thereby from membership in the covenant community.

However, now that Christ has come to realize the covenant promise of God to Abraham, faith in Christ is the only badge of membership in God's world-wide family, which is composed of Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul's insistence that justification is by faith expresses his conviction that with the coming of Christ God is “now extending his salvation to all, irrespective of race” (p. 122). “Justification... is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final creation” (p. 122).

One of the surprising and provocative implications of this understanding of justification, according to Wright, is that it radically undermines the usual polemics between Protestants and Catholics. Whereas many Protestants have historically argued that justification is a church-dividing doctrine, precisely the opposite is the case: Paul's doctrine of justification demands an inclusive view of membership in the one family of God. “Many Christians, both in the Reformation and in the counter-Reformation traditions, have themselves and the church a great disservice by treating the doctrine of 'justification' as central to their debates, and by supposing that it describes that system by which people attain salvation. They have turned the doctrine into its opposite. Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial differences” (pp. 158-9). Protestants who insist upon a certain formulation of the doctrine of justification as a precondition to church fellowship, accordingly, are guilty of turning the doctrine on its head. Rather than serving its proper purpose to join together as members of one family all who believe in Christ (faith being the only badge of covenant membership), the doctrine of justification is turned into the teaching of justification “by believing in justification by faith.”3

Justification: past, present and future

One feature of the doctrine of justification that receives special emphasis in Wright's understanding is its nature as an eschatological vindication of God's people. When God justifies or acknowledges those who are members of His covenant community, He does so in anticipation of their “final justification” or vindication at the last judgment. Justification occurs in three tenses or stages-past, present and future. The justification of God's covenant community in the present is founded upon “God's past accomplishment in Christ, and anticipates the future verdict.”4

In the past event of Christ's cross and resurrection, God has already accomplished in history what He will do at the end of history. Jesus, who died as the “representative Messiah of Israel,” was vindicated or justified by God in His resurrection from the dead. This event, Christ's resurrection, represents God's justification of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, through whom the covenant promise to Abraham (“in your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed”) is to be fulfilled. Because that promise comes through the crucified and risen Christ, it cannot come through the law (compare Rom. 8:3).

This past event of Christ's justification becomes a present reality through faith. All those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord are justified, that is, acknowledged by God to be members of the one great family of faith composed of Jew and Gentile alike. Because the present reality of justification focuses upon membership in the covenant community--justification being, as we noted earlier, a matter of ecclesiology and not of soteriology--baptism into Christ is the event that effects this justification. “The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus' death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ.”5

Though justification has a past and present dimension, its principal focus lies in the future. At the final judgment or “justification,” God will declare in favor of His people, the covenant community promised to Abraham. In this final justification, God's vindication of His people will even include a “justification by works.” Commenting on Romans 2: 13 (“It is not the hearers of the law who will be righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”), Wright insists that “those who will be vindicated on the last day are those in whose hearts and lives God will have written his law, his Torah” (p. 126-7). The “works of the law” that justification excludes are those badges of Jewish identity that served to exclude Gentiles. Justification does not exclude, however, those works of the law that are equivalent to the obedience of faith by the working of the Spirit.

Justification and the work of Christ

One final feature of Wright's new view of justification that remains rather undeveloped and unclear is its basis in the work of Christ. As we noted above, Wright does speak of Christ's cross as a representative death and of His resurrection as His vindication by God. But it remains rather unclear what Wright understands by Christ's work of atonement, and how he relates the believer's justification to Christ's work.

One thing that clearly emerges in Wright's limited treatment of this subject is that he has little sympathy for the historic view that Christ's cross involved His suffering the penalty and curse of the law on behalf of His people. In an extended treatment of Galatians 3: 10-14, for example, Wright insists that its language “is designed for a particular task within a particular argument, not for an abstract systematized statement.”6  Galatians 3 is not about Christ suffering the curse of the law in the place of His people, all of whom have violated the law and are therefore liable to its curse. Paul is not talking about a general work of Christ that benefits sinful Jews and Gentiles alike. The traditional reading of this passage, which takes it to refer to Christ's substitutionary atonement, is, in Wright's view, “nonsense.”7 If this passage is read in its first century Jewish context and within the setting of God's covenant promise to Israel, it will become evident that Paul is talking about the curse of the exile that Israel is experiencing as a people. Wright maintains that “in the cross of Jesus, the Messiah, the curse of exile itself reached its height and was dealt with once and for all, so that the blessing of covenant renewal might flow out the side, as God always intended.”8

Wright's reading of Galatians 3 is rather characteristic of his treatment of the subject of Christ's atoning work generally. Though it is clear that he has little sympathy for the older, Reformation understanding of Christ's saving work, what he is prepared to offer as an alternative remains rather obscure. Christ's death and resurrection are representative of Israel's exile and restoration. They are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is now extended to the whole world-wide family of God. How- ever, because Wright's understanding of Paul's gospel and the doctrine of justification has little, if anything, to do with the problem of human sinfulness and guilt, his understanding of the work of Christ likewise puts little emphasis upon the kinds of emphases that historically formed an essential part of the doctrine of Christ's atoning work.

Endnotes

1.Wright does not believe, however, that the idea of righteousness and the “legal metaphor” it reflects is the most important theme of the book of Romans or Paul's other epistles. In a very telling observation at the close of his discussion of justification in What Saint Paul Really Said, he remarks that “Romans is often regarded as an exposition of judicial, or law-court, theology. But that is a mistake. The law court forms a vital metaphor at a key stage of the argument. But at the heart of Romans we find a theology of love…. If we leave the notion of 'righteousness' as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship” (p. 110) This language seems to be little more than a thinly-guised piece of innuendo against the Reformation's understanding of justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.

2 Cf. What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 115: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot--at least in terms of understanding Paul-and they have stayed there ever since.”

3 “The Shape of Justification,” hll12JL www.angelfire.com/mi2/12auloage/ Sha12e.html, p. 3. This article is Wright's response to Paul Barnett's critical evaluation of his understanding of justification. Barnett is an Anglican bishop from the diocese of Sydney in Australia. Cf. “Tom Wright and The New Perspective,” http://www.anglicanmediasydney.asn.au/pwb/ntwright_perspective.htm. 

4 “The Shape of Justification,” p. 2.

5 “The Shape of Justification,” p. 2.

6 The Climax of the Covenant, p. 138.

7 The Climax of the Covenant, p. 150.

8 The Climax of the Covenant, p. 141.

Text Box: Return to Home Page for Basket of Figs. Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies.  Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.