[Over the next several weeks we’ll be posting Mike Horton’s unpublished review/critique of N. T. Wright’s new book, Justification. Today, part 1, is an introduction.]
For nearly three decades now, N. T. Wright has been stirring things up in New Testament studies. Despite the persona of the champion of the New Perspective on Paul, Wright is often as critical of (and criticized by) colleagues in this loosely affiliated circle as by advocates of the “old perspective.” His wide-ranging scholarship has been put to remarkable use in his New Testament studies for Fortress Press (Christian Origins and the Question of God, three volumes published from 1992 to 2003). I recall his lectures at Yale Divinity School’s homecoming: the basic stuff of his forthcoming resurrection book. Going about the task in his characteristically business-like yet occasionally humorous manner, Wright’s case for the bodily resurrection of Christ aroused two standing ovations. Did I mention it was Yale?
As a covenant theologian, I have been following Tom Wright’s explorations in a covenantal approach to justification (and much else) with great interest since my time in Oxford when I had the privilege of interacting with him as I was reading his first salvo, Climax of the Covenant (1993). There were concerns raised among evangelicals, especially as Tom regularly lectured on the relationship between justification and covenant in Paul. On one hand, I had growing concerns about the New Perspective in general and Wright’s version of it in particular. On the other hand, I often cringed at the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union (OICU) events—especially the missions (a week of evangelistic talks)—when the gospel was sometimes reduced to “inviting-Jesus-into-your-heart-so-you-can-go-to-heaven-when-you-die.” The popularity of the tract, “Two Ways to Live” (similar to “The Four Spiritual Laws”), buttressed this way of presenting the gospel.
So along came Tom Wright, saying that the gospel is the Jesus Christ is Lord, proved and in fact achieved by his resurrection from the dead, as the first-fruits of the age to come right in the middle of our history. While the Greeks (and many other religions) treat salvation as the escape of the soul from its prison-house of flesh, the world, and history, biblical faith anticipates the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in a new heavens and earth. Much of this has been put together for a wider audience in his book, Surprised by Hope (2007). Amazingly, the secular media treated this book as a radical departure: the sort of thing one expects from an English bishop.
Part of this reaction is no doubt due a shallow form of popular Christianity that is insufficiently grounded in its own biblical story. Part of it can be explained also by the enthusiasm with which Bishop Wright presents his views, sometimes conveying the impression that he is introducing a completely new understanding of the Christian faith.
Justification is no different. After writing several scholarly monographs on the subject (as well as a couple of brief popular treatments), the latest was provoked by the critique, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (2007), written by John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I won’t be interacting with the specific charges and counter-charges between these esteemed pastors, but will focus on Wright’s book. In many respects, this is the best of Wright’s treatments of this subject. Besides its accessibility to a wide audience, its polemic is sharp and to-the-point, clustering his arguments into a narrative of Paul’s gospel as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 with sweeping exegetical vistas.
Since this book is a rejoinder, Wright’s polemics are at times rather sharp, comparing critics like Piper to flat-earthers (19), even Pharisees (20). Though critical of the reformers for having cast themselves as “Paul” and the medieval church as “Pharisees,” Wright has no trouble playing Paul’s part against his “old perspective” agitators: “Someone in my position, in fact, is bound to have a certain fellow-feeling with Paul in Galatia. He is, after all, under attack from his own right wing” (112). But let’s focus on substance. Over the coming weeks, I’ll summarize his argument under my own subheadings and at the end of each will offer an evaluation.