[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N. T. Wright’s Justification]
Justification and God’s Single Plan: Justification and God’s People
Wright properly emphasizes the integral relationship between justification (soteriology) and the uniting of Jew and Gentile into one family in Christ (ecclesiology):
In Galatians 3:29, after heaping up almost all his great theological themes into a single pile—law, faith, children of God, ‘in Christ,’ baptism, ‘putting on Christ,’ ‘neither Jew nor Greek,’ ‘all one in Christ’—the conclusion is not ‘You are therefore children of God’ or ‘You are therefore saved by grace through faith,’ but ‘You are Abraham’s offspring.’ Why does that matter to Paul, and at that point?
Good question. But it verges on bizarre that Wright could include Reformed theology in his sweeping indictment: “Most new perspective writers have no answer for that. Virtually no old perspective ones even see that there is a question to be asked” (36). Although he properly recognizes, “There is no such thing as a pure return to the Reformers,” Wright seems to think that he has attained a pure return to Paul, as if he did not bring his own questions and presuppositions to the text. In fact, he advises, “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions” (37).
Like many biblical theologians of late (even in Reformed circles), the question of how one is saved (the ordo salutis) is regarded as quite secondary to the main theme: the history of redemption (historia salutis). Keeping these two aspects together was the genius of biblical theologians like Geerhardus Vos, but Wright’s penchant for downplaying the former over the latter has become standard fare. For Wright especially, the proper concern for the history of redemption includes a strong sociological and political component: “Thus, for instance, the attempt to read a text like 1 Corinthians 1:30 (‘[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’) in terms of an ordo salutis,” says Wright, “…is not only unlikely to make much sense in itself, but is highly likely to miss the point that Paul is making, which is the way in which the status of the believer in Christ overturns all the social pride and convention of the surrounding culture” (42). The real problem with Paul’s opponents was not that they were trusting in their own obedience to the works of the law, he repeatedly insists, but that Jews and Gentiles alike were elitist.
Wright complains that the reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10), with the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) becoming one family in Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (43). If they had, then there would have been “no split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29. No marginalization of Romans 9-11” (44). Again, at this point one suspects that Wright has constructed a straw opponent. A cursory reading of Calvin’s Ephesians commentary tells a different story. Nevertheless, Wright states confidently, “And, as I have argued before and hope to show here once more, many of the supposedly ordinary readings within the Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote” (50). The Reformation tradition simply doesn’t see any “organic connection between justification by faith on the one hand and the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s people on the other…” (53).
Wright insists that the Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for God’s activity within history, for Israel and the world. “They were not, in other words, understanding themselves as living in a narrative which said, ‘All humans are sinful and will go to hell; maybe God will be gracious and let us go to heaven instead and dwell with him; how will that come about? Let’s look at our scriptures for advance clues’” (49). As typical throughout this volume, Wright both caricatures the opposing view and transforms an important insight into the main point. It is in the Gospels that we first encounter questions like, “What must I do to be saved?” and “Who then may be saved?” and “What is the work that I must do to be saved?” Indeed, the severity of the sanctions for violating the Sinai covenant provoked this concern, particularly in the wake of the prophets’ judgments that were fulfilled in Israel’s exile. But just as there is a greater exodus to come for all who believe, there is a greater exile. Wright assumes that we’ve never talked about the first-century expectations being that of a political messiah who would end the exile and drive out the Romans. Once again, his target is “a non-historical soteriology” (61). The same criticisms can be found in Vos, Ridderbos, Murray, Kline, and host of other Reformed exegetes. However, their target was not the Reformation but an individualistic and non-historical soteriology that is basically pietistic in origins.
Next week, we’ll look at Wright’s complaints about the importance we give to imputation.