convenant, God, grace, Jesus, Justification, N.T. Wright, Pauline theology, theology
I am indebted to Inter-Varsity Press for supplying me with a copy of N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision for review.
I approached this work with no little trepidation, since Bishop Wright is well recognized as an expert in the field of Pauline exegesis. I admit from the start that I share no such expertise.
Yet I found the book quite compelling, although I have issues with Wright’s analysis or should I say conclusions. Mostly they stem from fundamental differences I have with his premises in certain respects.
Most especially Wright starts from the premise that scripture is the “word of God.” He, I believe, concludes that all scripture forms a “inner logic” and contains God’s information for humanity. I believe on the other hand that the writers were “inspired” in a very different way. I believe that they were spirit filled and talked about God and their experience of God from that spirit.
Whereas I believe Wright would insist that each writer received from God the ideas, they were free to write them through their own live experiences and perspective. I on the other hand, see them as attempting to convey conclusions they had arrived at and creating stories to serve as vehicle for their theology. I don’t assume God gave the ideas, instead he gave the inspiration to speak with honesty and belief.
Wright also by and large believes that the Pauline corpus is not divided into the common, “surely” Pauline, “surely not” Pauline, and “still in debate” Pauline. Since I do believe that some things attributed to Paul are not in fact Paul, we have a difference here. Wright, I think would argue and does, that regardless, his conclusions are correct.
Justification is a doctrine of intense debate, and of course Wright is at the center of controversy with a few others who disagree on some major points. This book is really an answer to the theology of John Piper who is his major opponent.
As such, the book is a fascinating read in itself as we get a insider’s view of how this material is argued out on the high scholarly plain. There is a whole lot of sniping and “correcting” of misunderstandings between the players. Wright chooses to bring this from the footnote where it is usually held, out into the open text. Again and again, he takes his various detractors to task in a gentle yet strict manner, questioning their inability to grasp his concepts. Again and again he repeats himself, until even I, the novice have a fairly firm grasp of what he is contending.
Wright basically claims that Pauline doctrine on justification, relates to God’s covenant relationship with humanity. God entered into covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations. Wright contends that to Paul this meant Israel and everyone else. Israel was the conduit through which this saving grace was to be extended. When Israel failed through the Torah to bring the nations together, God proceeded to do so himself through his Son, Jesus.
It was always God’s plan to do so. Thus, by believing in Jesus, we are justified through faith, not to a transformation but given a status as “righteous.” By the Holy Spirit, we are given the means by which we can live out the justification given to us by grace. This is freely open to Jew and Gentile alike.
Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, in that he in perfect faith did what Israel could not. He is the atonement for the sins of Adam. This death and resurrection of the Messiah thus is a conclusion to the ongoing “exile” which has now come to an end and the beginning of new creation. We are simultaneously freed from sin and “saved” yet not saved. It is a now yet not now thing.
Our freedom from sin is suffused by the Holy Spirit which gives us the power to avoid sin and do the work of the Kingdom, which is how we are known in the world. We are “in Christ.”
My issues with this are a couple. First, I have difficulty with the concept that it was always God’s plan to offer his son as sacrifice. I find such a concept in some way unworthy of God. That Jesus was determined to preach God’s Kingdom regardless of the cost, and that God saw this sacrifice on his part as so great and perfect that he allowed it as atonement for all who believed in Jesus’ way, I am prepared to accept. But not the former.
The other area I’m not clear on is that I believe that Wright believes that Paul’s letters were written to Gentiles. This is different than the Borg/Crossan’s argument that the listeners were Gentiles but Gentiles who were following Judaism in most respects and thus attending synagogue.
The problem becomes that Wright, I think correctly, claims that Paul’s references to Torah cannot be taken in a limited way, but must sometimes include an entire chapter to get the full meaning of what Paul was claiming. How do true pagan Gentiles, unschooled in Torah, possibly understand this stuff then? Wright’s analysis, and indeed his ongoing differences with other scholars belies an uncomplicated and simple reading of the text. How could any of this be understood by these mostly illiterate pagans?
Again, Borg/Crossan suggest that we have made entirely too much of justification, grace and so on. They would argue that these concepts were simple, and easily explained. Thus if I am correct that Wright seems Paul’s audience as truly pagan Gentiles, I’m hard pressed to understand the how these ideas can be so difficult of understanding, that they have been misunderstood for millennia.
As I said, I may be entirely wrong in my concerns. I am not an expert. I must say, that I learned an enormous amount from Wright, and I deeply agree with a good many of his claims about how to do exegesis.
If you want to get a basic understanding of the various views of Paul’s theology of justification, this would be the place to go. The writing is excellent, and he restates his conclusions enough to let them sink in. Each is supported by innumerable references to scripture and other experts.
It is indeed a book well worth investing in.