[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N. T. Wright’s Justification.]

Justification and God’s Single Plan: The Covenant and History

According to Wright, “Paul’s doctrine of justification is the place where four themes meet, which Piper, and others like him, have managed to ignore or sideline.”  “First, Paul’s doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel.”  The story of Israel too often functions “merely as a backdrop, a source of prooftexts and types, rather than as itself the story of God’s saving purposes” (11).

Second, Paul’s doctrine of justification is therefore about what we may call the covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized…For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien…Despite the strong covenantal theology of John Calvin himself, and his positive reading of the story of Israel as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, many who claim Calvinist or Reformed heritage today resist applying it in the way that, as I argue in this book, Paul himself does, in line with the solid biblical foundation for the ‘continuing exile’ theme.  Third, Paul’s doctrine of justification is focused on the divine law-court…For John Piper and others who share his perspective, the lawcourt imagery is read differently, with attention shifting rather to the supposed moral achievement of Jesus to gaining, through his perfect obedience, a righteousness which can then be passed on to his faithful people…Fourth, Paul’s doctrine of justification is bound up with eschatology, that is, his vision of God’s future for the whole world and for his people.

This eschatological perspective not only brings into view the wider purposes of God for creation but also highlights “…two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated” (12).

Wright argues that the “old perspective” obsesses over personal salvation to the exclusion of that wider horizon of history and eschatological redemption: “the theological equivalent” of a heliocentric universe.  “But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us.  We are circling around him” (23).  “If the Reformation had treated the Gospels as equally important as the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened,” he suggests (24).  Aside from the apparent concession (viz., that the Epistles are concerned with the question, “How can I be saved?”), it is difficult to square his interpretation of Reformation theology as human-centered rather than God-centered.  After all, there is a wide consensus among historians as well as theologians that the Reformation was obsessed with shifting the focus from us back to God.  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” according to the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Furthermore, all of the major Reformers wrote volumes on the Gospels (as well as the Old Testament) and it is clear from these commentaries and sermons that they read Scripture as an unfolding plot with Christ as the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.  They wrote at great length on the kingdom of God, the reversals in the plot as it thickens around Jesus, his signs, and his teachings.  I will refrain from repeating myself throughout this review and leave the point at this: Wright has clearly not read widely in the sources that he criticizes and this creates a straw opponent against which his views may be easily contrasted.

As Wright scanned the biblical and theological dictionaries on justification, he said, “Again and again, even where the authors appeared to be paying close attention to the biblical texts, several of the key elements in Paul’s doctrine were simply missing: Abraham and the promises God made to him, incorporation into Christ, resurrection and new creation, the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, eschatology in the sense of God’s purpose-driven plan through history, and, not least, the Holy Spirit and the formation of Christian character” (32).  This may well be the case especially among those New Testament scholars who regard the covenant as a Reformed concept.  It is no wonder, then, that he singles out Reformed theologian J. I. Packer as an exception in his entry on justification for the New Bible Dictionary (32).

Surprising to anyone who has read the Reformers and especially the covenant theologians in the Reformed tradition who followed in their wake, Wright seems to paint the “old perspective” as if it were a dispensationalist scheme.  “It is central to Paul,” he says, “but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (35).  After all, the Westminster Larger Catechism (#191) encourages us to pray (with the Lord’s Prayer), “that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in…that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.”

Next week, we’ll look a how Wright pairs soteriology with ecclesiology.