Saturday, September 1, 2007

NT Wright: A Prolegomena

This is a blog, not an academic journal. That's purposeful; I am not an NT Wright expert, and expect that some of what I have to say about or in response to him will be off-center, poorly worded, or even plain wrong. Thus, I reserve the right to edit. Also, I invite comments from others who have read or who have an interest in NTW or the New Perspective on Paul. The only boundary I ask is that the comments be constructive and not personal.

Anyone who has read some of Wright (and it seems impossible to read all of his prodigious output) is struck by the breadth and depth of his arguments. Succinctly, Wright is writing to scholars in the fields of 2nd Temple Judaism and early Christianity. His programme appears to be a scholarly road back into orthodox Christianity. That is, rather than simply refute arguments against orthodox Christianity, Wright wishes to walk us back into it using fresh, reasoned, critical arguments based on recent research. The broad themes of his work are as follows.

First, Wright argues that 1st century Judaism was extraordinarily complex, so much so that the popular picture of Jews as thoroughgoing legalists is simply wrong. Instead, we must understand that Judaism had substantially different branches with different emphases: the Pharisees (of the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Sadducees, the Essenes, the scribes all had different answers to the questions "What is our problem?" and "What is the solution to our problem?" (NTPG 167ff.)

Second, Wright argues that Paul's theology is a natural outgrowth of his Judaic upbringing. Wright locates Saul within the Shammaite school of the Pharisees on the basis of his persecuting activity (WSPRS 29-32). As such, Saul had an eschatological hope that God would vindicate ("justify") Israel over against her enemies – Rome – and solve the problems of sin and death. His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus causes him to realize that "The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time" (WSPRS 36). NTW then goes on to argue that the converted Paul genuinely sees Jesus as (a) the Lord over against false lords such as Caesar, (b) God's anointed Messiah, and (c) God himself, without ever abandoning his monotheism (WSPRS 65ff).

Third now, Wright argues that Paul's theology of righteousness and justification is bound up in his understanding of Jesus as above. According to NTW, the center of Paul's thought about justification is the covenantal understanding of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The famous "righteousness of God" (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) phrase refers to God's "covenant faithfulness" – the righteousness quality of faithfulness that God has and displays through the Gospel (WSPRS 100 – 110). Justification is therefore a participation in the victory of the Messiah by being included "in Christ." The gospel message, far from being an explanation of the mechanism of salvation, is instead a proclamation of Jesus as king and Messiah, who has broken the power of sin and death and in whom we can participate (WSPRS 60).

It is this last point that has caused consternation amongst evangelicals, or at least Presbyterians. Wright forcefully declares that Luther and Augustine have gotten us on the wrong track in our understanding of the righteousness of God and especially justification. According to Wright, Luther misunderstood "justification by faith" by decontextualizing justification from its Jewish context and turning it into a timeless system of salvation, which he opposed to a second timeless system of "legalism" that Luther identified with both Paul's Judaizing opponents and also the Roman church (WSPRS 115). Wright believes that Luther was mistaken to identify the theology of Rome with the theology of 1st century Judaism; hence, Luther was also mistaken to believe that Paul's theology addressed those concerns.

Wright's challenge of Luther is the core problem for evangelicals. The history of the evangelical movement shows an obvious concern for guarding the gospel message of justification by faith as a message of forgiveness of sins, acquired through faith apart from works. Luther's theology of justification is seen by most evangelicals as sound doctrine that has stood the test of time; indeed, justification by faith is probably one of the few unifying doctrines amongst evangelicals. Thus, Wright is pushing a red-hot button that sends evangelicals into full alert. He surely must have known this would be so, but expresses puzzlement nonetheless.

Oddly, Wright does not entirely dismiss the evangelical account of justification. Rather, he repackages it in different terms. He affirms that we receive forgiveness of sins through faith and apart from works. He denies, however, that this process is called "justification" (WSPRS 116 – 117). For Wright, justification is covenantal, forensic, and eschatological: "Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong…The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus." (WSPRS 131) Wright ultimately wants to argue that Paul's discussion of justification should be viewed through the lenses of eschatology and covenant, rather than through the lens of individuals getting saved.

So where are we? My own assessment is that there is much good in what Wright is trying to accomplish. The rediscovery of 'covenant' as one of the core motifs of Paul's thought makes my Presbyterian heart go pitter-pat. Wright is further correct to challenge what might be called "thin" presentations of the gospel that present salvation as mere forgiveness of sins, without any hint of the adoption, sanctification, or glorification we have in Christ nor any mention of our attachment to Christ's body, the church. As far as that goes, I consider Wright to be one of "the good guys." Certainly, even those positively opposed to his theology of justification give him full marks for his work in defending orthodoxy against the skeptical scholarship of Crossan, Borg, and the Jesus Seminar.

Despite the praise, I have concerns about his doctrine of justification. At some points, I think his framework is backwards; at others, I think he is simply incorrect. The concerns are great enough for me to invest time in thinking through my objections.

But all of this is subject to two qualifications:

(1) I believe the errors of Wright, if indeed they are his mistakes rather than mine, are non-heretical. Some have gone so far as to accuse him of heresy, or leading us back to Rome. This is probably wrong. For one thing, Wright's theology has much more akin to Eastern Orthodox thought than Catholic thought. For another, Wright appears to hold to the same package of thought about "salvation" that standard evangelicals do. He simply arranges the package in a different order, and insists (loudly!) on using words in non-familiar ways. To put it in Presbyterian terms, Wright would probably answer the "Kennedy questions" satisfactorily.
(2) However, his package appears to me to be sufficiently misleading that certain of his followers express Christianity in ways that I simply can't recognize. Some readers of Wright go so far as to say that "the gospel has nothing to do with individual salvation", a claim that Wright himself would seemingly reject or qualify.

Given the concerns and misunderstandings, it is worth some effort to challenge his package. Even so, the challenge presented here is a friendly challenge. Wright labors mightily to coordinate exegesis and scholarship in the service of God's kingdom. If anyone is ransacking these pages to find ammunition to attack Wright as a pernicious heretic, let me kindly request that he seek elsewhere.

With that, let us begin.


NTPG -- The New Testament and the People of God
WSPRS -- What Saint Paul Really Said

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