I have just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Paul. For those of you that do not know, N.T. Wright is “the Bishop of Durham [Anglican] and one of the most widely read biblical scholars of our day” according to the back cover of the book. Indeed, out of all the theologians that I disagree with, Wright is one of my favorites. He stands in good company with John Wesley.
The reason that I chose to read this book, one which would not have been on my normal “to read” list is that discussions of what is called “The New Perspective of Paul” have come up in recent conversations with people and I have to admit, although I had heard of it and knew of its controversial elements, I was not familiar with it enough to offer any sort of critique. For the theological novice, the “New Perspective” is hard to get your head around and the particular book that I read was one of his Wright’s shorter, but much more dense titles, originally put together to be presented at the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University. If you want a cursory look at the teaching of the “New Perspective,” I would not suggest reading this book. This book is primarily geared for those who have a background in theology and I chose to read it because I wanted a short, but detailed examination of the “New Perspective” in the author’s own words. It should be noted that by my critiquing of Wright’s work, I am not calling into question his salvation. However misguided I believe that his teachings are, I believe that he firmly stands in the evangelical model of Christianity. With that being said, if you have not already figured it out, I do disagree with his interpretation of the teaching of Paul. But I am getting ahead of myself.
What is the New Perspective? It is, indeed, hard to define and there seems to be no synopsis of it that will work for all occasions, but Wikipedia tried defining it this way: “The ‘new perspective’ is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of this framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first century Judaism, taken on its own terms.” From the starting block, I have problems with Wright’s premise. It is as if he is saying that we have got it wrong for the past 2000 years. He assumes that the version of Paul that was traditionally understood by the Reformers, particularly Luther, is inaccurate. Although in most of the critiques that I have read about this, this fact is glossed over, it is an important one for us to understand. My own personal opinion is that while not as developed, the main thrust of Luther’s argument, justification by faith alone, was the basic belief of first-century Christianity and was de-emphasized in the subsequent marriage of the Roman Empire and the Institutional Church resulting in the bastard child of Middle-Age Roman Catholicism. When I say that, I am not equating being Catholic to being unsaved, I am saying that the Catholic Church between the late fourth century to the sixteenth century had a serious identity issue equating salvation to church membership, most of the time, it seems, under duress. During this time, there were certainly elements of the church that maintained that we are saved apart from works, but because of the tyranny and demagoguery of the leaders of the church, these things were not taught en masse until they were finally freed and taught by the Reformers. For 2000 years, and most certainly in the last 500 years in Protestant Christianity, salvation by faith alone, in one form or another and in one place or another, has been taught primarily using the letters of Paul. And now, Wright is claiming that they all got it wrong.
Wright begins his work by reminding us that Paul lived in three worlds: the world of Judaism, the world of Hellenism, and the world of the Roman Empire. This is not being disputed, but his radical interpretation of what Paul was saying in light of this is the thrust of this book and of the New Perspective of Paul. I honestly do not feel qualified to offer a full response to this line of thinking (it requires a theologian much more astute and qualified than myself), but there is one thing that I want to address up front and clearly. In his redefinition of Paul’s thinking, he redefines one very important aspect of Christianity: the meaning of justification. Lifted from his very works, Wright says, “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.” John Piper, who wrote an entire book in response to Wright’s re-definition of justification, restates Wright’s position on justification, using his own words, like this: “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.’ ‘[Justification] was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church’ So the divine act of justification does not constitute us as Christians or establish our relationship with God. It informs or announces. ‘The word dikaioø [justify] is, after all, a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for making something happen or changing the way something is.”
I am not going to respond to this, other than to say that I agree with the traditional theological interpretation of justification. Rather than to offer a full response, I am going to stand behind someone who has done a much better job at responding to this and that person is John Piper. As I said before, John Piper has offered an extremely well-thought out response to Wright and has even been in dialogue with Wright, who according to Piper, submitted an 11,000 word response to Piper’s first draft of The Future of Justification. If you would like a greater understanding of the implications of the New Perspective of Paul, in particular, the implications of Wright’s “re-imagining” (Wright’s very own word) of the biblical meaning of justification, then I would highly recommend this book to you. For the record, I have not read it all, I have only skimmed the sections that I was interested in, but from what I saw, Piper’s response to Wright is academic, well-presented and represents a true biblical response to Wright’s heterodoxy. As a general rule, we must be very wary of any theologian that claims he has come up with a new meaning or understanding of traditional Christian teaching, particularly one that is as fundamental and foundational to the understanding of Christianity as the definition of justification.