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Tuesday, April 18, 2006 

Leithart on N.T. Wright on Justification
Topic: Theology

N. T. Wright has recently published his new Paul: in Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2006), which is the collection of his 2004 Hulsean Lectures presented at Cambridge.

< link >Wright has been controversial in Pauline studies < /link >

(Where are you supposed to link to in something like this? It may take fifty hyperlinks to do justice to this claim! Or, maybe just one...) While the criticism and debate is far ranging, usually discussion boils down to his views in soteriology - his views on righteousness, justification, and salvation.

Dr. Peter Leithart notes that Wright offers a summary of his views on justification. (These are basely Leithart's reading, and not explicitly Wright's.) They are:
  1. Covenant and apocalyptic are two key lenses
  2. Eschatological Justification is necessary
  3. Pneumatological aspects dominate
  4. Effectual calling different from justification
  5. Ethnically Inclusive
  6. Missional
A full description of each of the six can be found here. Remember, these are not necessarily Wright's words, but rather Wright through Leithart. (I regret to admit that I have not yet read Paul, and thus fall prey to the most common criticism.)

Despite not having read the monograph yet, here is a blow-by-blow response to the above six points. Recognizing that Wright's book has not yet been read by this author, do not think of this as a response to Wright, but merely what it is: a response to Leithart's reading of Wright, with implications for what Wright actually thinks.

#1 is absolutely straightforward, and there is no qualms with it. Wright provides helpful lenses, and his work and understanding of Second Temple Judaism covenant and apocalyptic thought is, in this reader's mind, helpful and stimulating. No doubt better exegesis would occur if more readers of Paul would read with these two lenses over the text. Leithart notes, "Wright insists that covenant and apocalyptic are not opposed to one another... The trick is to keep these two aspects of Paul together: To affirm with Paul both that what God did in Christ is what He always intended to do, what Jews were hoping He would do and that the way God fulfilled this intention is so surprising that no Jew would have dreamed it."

#2 should be true, and all good Reformed Christians should be able to affirm. Alas, the exegetical trail that one must take to arrive at this conclusion is so riddled with improper exegesis and assumptions that we cannot make the journey. It is true that for all the elect there is an eschatological justification. However, by misreading Romans 2, and giving the eschatological an unwarranted weight, Wright makes future justification the basis for present "justification by faith" (for indeed, what else can you be justified with now if your justification is yet to occur?), the exact opposite of the Pauline system. For Paul, "having been justified" grants one all the spiritual benefits necessary to persevere and trust Christ to the bitter end, where we will be justified - by Christ's merits - in our works in the heavenly court. (One wonders that if Wright had taken his own advice in #1 more seriously, he would have seen a Covenant of Works in Romans 2, and thus avoided this stumbling block.)

Leithart writes, "Does this mean that we are back finally to a kind of semi-Pelagianism, a Christian life that begins in faith and ends in works? Wright denies that he's saying anything like this, and emphasizes the role of the Spirit." If I were Wright, I'd be emphasizing the Spirit right about now as well.

#3 - Justification emphasizes the Pneumatological. Again, here is another instance in which we should agree, yet are forced apart. Quoting Wright this time, "The Spirit's work is the 'route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future.'" So just to be clear, the Spirit, who is really Christ's Spirit, who has all along born witness to Him, and the Spirit's main role is to convict the world and testify to the Son, all of a sudden gets inside the (future) redeemed and helps them with their works? There is no doubt the Spirit is chief in sanctification, and no doubt an important part of sanctification is believer's fulfilling the law of love, walking in good works, and fulfilling the righteous requirement of the Law, but to speak as Wright does above seems to miss a wide swath of Protestant Reformed Christianity that began with Calvin and was continued in Owen.

In #4, there is supposed to be a distinction in Paul between the "call" which is soterical, and "justification" which is ecclesial. People hear the gospel call, and respond in faith, this faith being a work of the Spirit, while justification answers the questions "who belongs to the people of God?" and "how can we tell?" The same mistakes are used regarding dik- language, with Leithart noting that, "They are given the status DIKAIOS, 'righteous,' 'within the covenant.'" One wonders if Wright is footnoting this at all, since the Academy is near consensus of the impossibility for δίκαὶος being interpreted in covenantal terms. To be sure, righteousness may be conditioned and administered within covenants, but that does not make it tautologous in definition.

In talking about ethnic union between Jew and Gentile in #5, if all Wright means is, "one cannot 'separate the doctrine of justification by faith from that of the incorporation of Gentiles into the people of God,'" then he is of course correct and points out an important point in Pauline studies. " This helps explain why justification takes on a prominence in Paul that it does not have in the teaching of Jesus: Jesus was not facing the issue of Gentile inclusion during His ministry, and, Wright points out, he doesn't talk about circumcision any more than he does justification." This is a helpful statement, and due more careful reflection by all readers of Paul.

Finally, his last point:
6) Agents of restorative justice. Those who respond in faith to the gospel are rescued from sin and idolatry and death, but they are also formed into a new community through which God is advancing His "purposes to rescue the whole world." In short, "through this creation of a Jew-plus-Gentile family the living God [declares] to the principalities and powers that their time is up, and [launches] the whole project of new creation."
This is very good and helpful by the Bishop as well. No doubt more could be said, but this is a very strong note to end with Wright on.

In summary, our feeling was not so much that this was a "fresh perspective" (are they changing from NPP to FPP?), but rather a distillation or crystallization of Wright's thought. Many of the same things are here in clearer form. For those good aspects - the importance of covenant AND apocalyptic, the mission of the church, ethnic boundaries demolished, etc. - we give thanks, and are glad to see still there. However, some of the old errors persist. I look forward to reading this work. It will be curious to see to what extent this carries over into his fourth (and final?) work in his massive "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series.



Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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