Monday, June 28, 2004

N.T. Wright on Justification and Imputation Part I 

Deep down I know that if I don't start posting something soon, I will never get around to finishing my treatment of N.T. Wright, which has been languishing on my harddrive for a few months now. So I have decided to post the introduction now, rather than waiting until the whole thing is entirely finished. This will, I hope, put enough pressure on me to finish it off. I will be posting the rest of this long article over the course of the next few months. (You will notice that there are a lot of very long endnotes in this article. I felt that these endnotes address important questions and are relevant, but did not feel that they belonged to the body of the text. I will be relegating all of my numerous excursuses to the endnotes.)
Nicholas Thomas Wright, the current Bishop of Durham and former Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, is seen by many to be the leading evangelical proponent of the New Perspective.1 A prolific author and one of the most influential New Testament scholars of our day,2 Wright is both an erudite scholar and a gifted communicator. He has written many books on a popular level, which have facilitated the wide circulation of his thought. Jesus and the Victory of GodHaving gained an appreciative audience in theologically conservative circles through his landmark work in Jesus studies,3 his work on Paul has received an extensive evangelical readership that has been enjoyed by few other proponents of the New Perspective. Wright’s work on Paul4 has provoked debate far beyond the rarified atmosphere of Pauline scholarship. There have been a bewildering variety of evangelical responses to Wright ranging from enthusiastic support to outright denunciation. Many evangelicals have lauded Wright’s work on Paul, seeing it as a welcome movement beyond the rather narrow debates of the Reformation. Others have expressed a more guarded appreciation for it, maintaining that it represents a largely positive development in Reformed circles.5 Such people often claim that Wright’s work can be understood as a furthering of the Reformed tradition of biblical theology, drawing attention to the points of contact between Wright’s work and the work of Reformed scholars like Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin Jr. and Geerhardus Vos.6 On the other hand there have been many negative reactions. Many believe that Wright’s work is catalyzing the ecumenical movement.7 Still others have expressed concern that Wright’s understanding of Paul is leading to a slurring of the shibboleths on the part of many Reformed Christians and to equivocal subscription to the confessional standards.8 In many circles this debate has generated more heat than light, with angry denunciations and charges of heresy. Even more unfortunate has been the manner in which many Reformed writers, like kittens worrying balls of wool, entangle the debate over the New Perspective with many of the intramural debates over the law, the covenant and justification that have been so vexed over the last hundred years in Presbyterian and Reformed circles.9 Within this article I hope to analyze Wright’s understanding of justification in general and his understanding of the imputation of righteousness to the believer in particular, to identify some of the other doctrines that frame these doctrines in his thought and to demonstrate the manner in which he arrives at his understanding. I will attempt to explore some of the charges that have been leveled against Wright’s doctrine. I will seek to identify possible weaknesses in Wright’s approach to the subject and offer some constructive criticism. I will begin by establishing the context for Wright’s understanding of imputation by giving a broad brushstroke picture of his reading of Paul’s doctrine of justification. Having done this, I will more closely examine his treatment of certain key texts that have traditionally been adduced as support for the Reformation doctrine of imputation. Once I have examined these texts I will endeavour to give a description of Wright’s alternative to the doctrine of imputation, drawing on some further data in his writings. I will then seek to explore Wright’s understanding of justification and imputation further, in dialogue with some of his Reformed critics. I will conclude with a brief critical evaluation of Wright on imputation and suggest some ways in which the current debate can be moved forward. Endnotes

1 The New Perspective is a movement that has been greatly misunderstood by many. At the outset it should be observed that New Perspective is far from monolithic; within the movement one will find scholars from across the whole theological spectrum. Furthermore, at its very heart the New Perspective is neither a new perspective on justification, nor even a new perspective on Paul; rather, it is a new perspective on Second Temple Judaism (as Tim Gallant and others have observed). As this essay is concerned with the theology of N.T. Wright, and given the numerous accounts of the nature of the New Perspective, it is probably helpful to paint a broad brushstroke picture of how Wright himself understands the New Perspective. Paul and Palestinian JudaismIt seems clear from Wright’s work that he sees the beginning of the New Perspective movement in the groundbreaking book of E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977 (although the phrase ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ was coined by James Dunn in his 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture). Wright writes concerning Sanders’ work:—

His major point, to which all else is subservient, can be quite simply stated. Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness. If we imagine that it was, and that Paul was attacking it as if it was, we will do great violence to it and to him. Most Protestant exegetes had read Paul and Judaism as if Judaism was a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and thereby earn justification, righteousness and salvation. No, said Sanders. Keeping the law within Judaism always functioned within a covenantal scheme. God took the initiative, when he made a covenant with Judaism; God’s grace thus precedes everything that people (specifically, Jews) do in response. The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace — not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in. Being ‘in’ in the first place was God’s gift. This scheme Sanders famously labelled as ‘covenantal nomism’ (from the Greek nomos, law). Keeping the Jewish law was the human response to God’s covenantal initiative. [What St Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion, 1997), pp.18-19]
When Wright first came into contact with the work of E.P. Sanders, he had limited knowledge of first-century Judaism [New Perspectives on Paul — 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference 2003, p.2] but had been studying Paul for some time. Wright describes the development of his convictions about Paul and his first encounter with the work of Sanders in the following manner in his interview with Travis Tamerius:—

The way that I came into this is a bit interesting. I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, “Whew...the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ.” All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin. I think a lot of evangelical debates in North America, at the moment, are still right around that axis although they don’t come right out and actually say so. What I then found, and believe me I tried very hard to do this, was that I couldn’t make the Calvinist reading of Galatians actually work. I was reading C.E.B. Cranfield on Romans and trying to see how it would work with Galatians, and it simply doesn’t work. Interestingly, Cranfield hasn’t done a commentary on Galatians. It’s very difficult. But I found then, and this was the mid-seventies before E.P. Sanders was published, before there was such a thing as a “new perspective,” that I came out with this reading of Romans 10:3 which is really the fulcrum for me around which everything else moved: “Being ignorant of the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own.”

In other words, what we have here is a covenant status which is for Jews and Jews only. I have a vivid memory of going home that night, sitting up in bed, reading Galatians through in Greek and thinking, “It works. It really works. This whole thing is going to fly.” And then all sorts of things just followed on from that. I mean Sanders was a great boost but he didn’t start this for me and he hasn’t given direction to what I did or was doing. It was more like Sanders was saying, “Actually first-century Judaism never was like what Luther said it was.”

Wright claims to have arrived at his present position ‘not because [he] learned it from Sanders or Dunn, but because of the struggle to think Paul’s thoughts after him as a matter of obedience to scripture [New Perspectives on Paul, p.2].’ The work of Sanders served to reinforce conclusions that Wright had already arrived at concerning Paul; however, it was exegesis and not a study of first-century religious patterns that first led him to his present reading of Paul. Whilst there has certainly been development in Wright’s doctrine of justification and in his reading of Paul over the years, we must appreciate the fact that Wright’s position on these issues is essentially the same as that which he had just prior to the release of Sanders’ book. Even in the area where Wright most closely follows Sanders, in his treatment of Palestinian Judaism, Wright is quite prepared to speak in a critical fashion about Sanders’ work. Whilst Wright believes that Sanders’ central thesis should be regarded as established, he believes that ‘Sanders’s account of Judaism needs a lot more nuancing [Ibid., p.3].’ He points out that Sanders has a ‘very thin view of religion’ and clearly believes that Sanders’ question ‘How does religion work in terms of getting in and staying?’ is quite an unhelpful way to approach the subject [‘An Interview with N.T. Wright’]. When it comes to Sanders’ reading of Paul, however, Wright is even more critical.
…when he came to Paul Sanders seemed muddled and imprecise. This is partly, I now realise, because he was not dealing with theology (and so seemed confused about basic things like justification and salvation), but rather with religion, and patterns of religion in particular. His agenda, there and elsewhere, included a desire to make Christianity and Judaism less antithetical; in other words, to take a large step away from the anti-Judaism of much Pauline scholarship. I need hardly say that I never embraced either Sanders’s picture of Paul or the relativistic agendas which seemed to be driving it. Indeed, for the next decade much of what I wrote on Paul was in debate and disagreement with Sanders, not least because his proposals lacked the exegetical clarity and rootedness which I regarded and regard as indispensible. For me, the question has always been ‘But does this make sense of the text?’, not ‘But will this fit into some abstract scheme somewhere?’ [New Perspectives on Paul, p.3]
In his 2000 lecture, ‘Coming Home to St Paul? Reading Romans a Hundred Years after Charles Gore’, Wright claimed:—
…neither Davies, nor Sanders, nor their followers, have advanced a satisfactory new picture of Paul as a whole — religion, theology, exegesis, and contemporary application.
Within the New Perspective movement numerous different readings of Paul and approaches to the question of justification exist. Wright frequently speaks of the disagreements that exist between his reading of Paul and that of other leading New Perspective authors such as James Dunn. Whilst it would be a mistake to speak of some monolithic ‘New Perspective on Paul’, it is important that we appreciate the scale of the seachange has taken place in Pauline scholarship over the last thirty years as a result of Sanders’ book. Seyoon Kim writes:—
Since the Reformation, I think no school of thought, not even the Bultmannian School, has exerted a greater influence upon Pauline scholarship than the school of the New Perspective. [Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p.xiv]
Paul and the New PerspectiveKim sees the New Perspective as ‘in many respects overturning the Reformation interpretation of Paul’s gospel’ [Ibid.] due to its radical reassessment of the origin of Paul’s doctrine of justification. As the Reformers and their heirs generally understood first-century Judaism to be a strong form of Pelagianism, they tended to read Paul and his doctrine of justification against this background. If the New Perspective’s reassessment of the character of first-century Judaism is correct, many of the traditional readings of Paul must be discarded and the origins and nature of Paul’s doctrine of justification must be reassessed. This has led to the development of many new perspectives on Paul, not just one. However, whilst many common Reformation readings of Paul have been rejected by the New Perspective, we should be aware of the fact that there are conservative advocates of the New Perspective who argue that they stand in continuity with the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. We should also be careful to maintain a degree of distance between the position of the New Perspective and the issue of justification. There is a constant danger of confusing distinct questions. Wright claims that he doesn’t see the meaning of such words as ‘justification’ to be
…a matter of the so-called “new perspective” on Paul, though insights from Sanders, Dunn and others, critically sifted and factored in where appropriated, must make their contribution. [The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X: Acts — 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), p.481]
Having some appreciation of Wright’s complicated relationship with and interpretation of the New Perspective will help us as we seek to evaluate his doctrine of justification. Wright’s doctrine of justification is not the New Perspective ‘party line’ (although it is held by many within the movement), nor were its principal elements arrived at following the advent of the New Perspective (although Wright believes that the New Perspective reinforces his position). (return)

2 A list of his publications to November 2003 can be found online. (return)

3 Most especially Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) (return)

4 Wright’s key works on Paul are The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (London: T&T Clark, 1991), What St Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion, 1997) and, most recently, his Romans Commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X: Acts — 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) (return)

5 An example of such a response can be found in Dr. Douglas J. Green’s N.T. Wright — A Westminster Seminary Perspective (return)

6 For example, Daniel Kirk, ‘New Perspective on Reformed Tradition: A Response to Kelly’. Wright himself has spoken of his high regard for this tradition and of his appreciation of the work of Ridderbos and others:—

I suspect that had the views of Cranfield or Ridderbos or other Reformed writers dominated exegesis, with their positive view of the law of Moses, rather than the negative Lutheran one, there might have been no need for the correction—or perhaps over-correction—offered in the New Perspective offered by Ed Sanders and others. [From Wright’s January Series lecture at Calvin College, ‘St. Paul in the Big Picture: The Apostle and the Gospel in the 1st and 21st Century’]

7 This accusation has come from both Protestants (e.g. Dr. Sidney D. Dyer, ‘Tom Wright’s Ecumenical Teaching’) and Catholics (e.g. ‘Art Sippo and the Demise of Catholic Apologetics’). [Ironically, in the second article, R. Sungenis describes Wright as being ‘the very scholar who is still fostering the Reformation concept of forensic imputation as the means of justification’!] (return)

8 An example of questions that have been drawn up in order to address the perceived threat that New Perspective theology poses to Reformed confessionalism can be found following Douglas Kelly’s article ‘New Approaches of Biblical Theology to Justification’. (return)

9 The Call of GraceThere are a couple of points of contact between N.T. Wright’s work and the position of Norman Shepherd [The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2000)]. Nevertheless, these are far outweighed by the significant differences that exist between the two positions, not least the fact that Shepherd does not hold to the New Perspective’s interpretation of the Judaism of Paul’s day. Shepherd also works within the framework established by the Reformation debate to a degree that Wright does not. A closer connection can be observed between the work of Wright and the position advocated by the speakers at the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conferences of 2002 and 2003. Whilst Wright was not mentioned in the first conference, Wright’s reading of Paul does lend itself in many respects to the form of covenant theology propounded by the conference speakers. Both Wright and the Auburn Avenue speakers wish to move away from the merit-orientated manner of constructing soteriology and the individualism that is pervasive in much modern evangelicalism. They also share a common emphasis on the Church’s place at the centre of salvation. After the first conference the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States delivered a call to repentance to the speakers and directly connected their teaching with that of the New Perspective on Paul. Since then the two movements have often been confused. However, whilst most of the Auburn Avenue speakers would be open in their appreciation for the work of Wright, it should be recognized that their agenda is clearly distinct from that of Wright in a number of respects, although there has been some convergence between the two movements. The following are some of the key sources for those who wish to explore the relationship between the two movements:— Douglas Wilson, "Reformed" is Not Enough (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2002) Douglas Wilson, ‘N.T. Wright and All That’ (Credenda Agenda 13:3, p.10) Douglas Wilson, ‘A Pauline Take on the New Perspective’ (Credenda Agenda 15:5, pp.5f.) E. Calvin Beisner (Ed.), The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Knox Theological Seminary, 2003) Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, The Federal Vision (Athanasius Press, 2004) (return)

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