Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Reinventing Paul

Traditionally, the doctrine of justification has been a lynchpin of Protestant theology. To paraphrase a classic formulation: "justification is an act of God's free grace to sinners by which he pardons all their sins, accepting and accounting them righteous in his sight, not for anything done in them or by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ (i.e., penal substitution), imputed by God to them, and received by faith alone" (WSC Q/A 70).

Put more simply, this is a way of saying that a Christian is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Recently, though, the traditional doctrine has come under attack by E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright. Wright redefines justification in terms of God's covenant fidelity to his people and their covenant fidelity to him.

Wright sets forth this case in his book What St. Paul Really Said (Eerdmans 1997). I'll be reviewing the arguments contained therein.

1. A couple of preliminary things stand out for me. First, Sanders, Dunn, Wright & Co. speak very confidently about how Jewish piety has been misunderstood in the past, and how they are offering a necessary corrective to that misconception.

One initial reservation I have about this is that it strikes me as a bit conceited. Since Sanders, Dunn, and Wright are not Jewish, how are they in a position to speak with such authority and self-assurance on the behalf of what Jews believe? How are these Gentile scholars positioned to assume the insider perspective, and contrast that with other Gentile scholars on the outside?

This is more than a hypothetical. One of Sanders' most relentless critics has been Jacob Neusner. Nowhere in this book, that I can see, does Wright lay out the textual evidence for his understanding of 1C covenantal nomism. He quotes one piece of evidence, as his paradigm-case, from the DDS (119). But the Qumran community was a breakaway sect. What reason does he have to suppose that this schismatic group was representative of mainstream Judaism? Indeed, Wright seems to operate with a monolithic view of 1C Judaism. Talk about imputation! Wright first of all pretends that classical Protestantism consigned the whole of 1C Judaism to legalism and merit-mongering, and then he opposes to this utter caricature a comparable caricature of 1C Judaism as devoid of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. This seems due, in part, to the fact that Wright can only frame the issue in collective terms.

And while we're on the subject, are modern-day Jews, say of the Ultra-Orthodox stripe, immune to legalism?

I'd add that Wright acts as though Christian scholars just discovered the Talmud in the mid-20C. It should be unnecessary to point out that scholars like John Lightfoot (17C), John Gill (18C) and John Duncan (19C) knew their way around the Talmud and were quite conversant with the Jewish side of the argument.

2. On a second point, Wright is continually shadowboxing with what he claims to be Reformation and post-Reformation theology. Yet he never, at least in the chapters I went over, cites any representative names, much less primary sources. And his summaries of the classic Protestant position are so simplistic that it causes me to wonder if he's actually read any of them firsthand.

This also makes me less than overly-trusting in his command of the Jewish sources. Anyone who took his word on the content of Protestant scholasticism would be very much misled. If he's so unreliable in an area that I happen to know something about, why should I give him the benefit of the doubt when he makes such sweeping claims in a field outside my ambit? Being able to accurately represent the opposing position is the acid test of honest scholarship.

3. On chap. 6, he has a useful chart of the interpretive options. But he also has an arbitrary way of matching up certain positions while forcing others out of alignment. More on this below.

4. He constantly speaks of the forensic or judicial concept of justification as a "metaphor." I wonder if he hasn't seen too many episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey! Sure, if you conjure up a mental image of powered wigs and the like, then you're off in the land of metaphor.

5. To begin with, he gets the cart before the horse. God is not just because he does justly; rather, God does justly because God is just. Justice is a divine attribute before it is a divine action.

6. Wright likes to bring up the covenant scheme all the time, but, of course, covenant theology is a form of contract law. If you're a covenant breaker, then that naturally casts God in the role of judge. God judges sinners. This is quite literal. It doesn't stand for something else. It is not a figure of speech. To say that God is a judge is not a figurative way of saying that God is the Great Pumpkin.

Likewise, when Israel committed apostasy, God sent the prophets. They were, in effect, lawyers prosecuting a covenant lawsuit against Israel, as the defendant, for breach of contract. Again, this all holds true at a very literal level.

7. Wright says that "if we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes...or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom" (98).

Well, that may all be the case if you limit the principle of justification to this particular setting. But one of the crucial elements missing in his grasp of justification is that there's a very close connection, both in the OT and NT, between imputed righteousness and representation or penal substitution.

i) Frankly, it's passing strange that Wright can read the OT and the NT and miss these themes. Wright likes to talk all the time about covenant theology, but, in Scripture, you can't have a covenant without a federal head, be it Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, or Christ.

In this transaction, there is a vicarious imputation or moral transference. God makes a covenant with Abraham, and through Abraham, with his seed. The blessing is reckoned to Abraham's seed on account of the patriarch and chieftain with whom God cut a covenant.

And this works in relation to malediction as well as benediction. Esau is a reprobate (or at least a type thereof), and so, therefore, is his seed (the Edomites).

ii) And the principle of penal substitution is pictured in the sacrificial system. The life of the firstborn male is forfeit, but God accepts an animal sacrifice (e.g., Passover lamb, burnt offering, scapegoat, red heifer) in lieu of the sinner.

iii) In addition, the principle is pictured in the laws of slavery and redemption. A second party redeems the first party. The ransom price is credited to the account of the first party, even though the first party did nothing to earn it. Indeed, it's precisely because the first party was a debtor that he was personally unable to discharge his debt or bondage, which is why he needed the services of a kinsman redeemer to do it on his behalf and in his stead.

iv) We also have the great passage in Isa 53, which presages the atonement of Christ in terms of penal substitution.

v) Take a more mundane example: Prov 27:10. The principle here is simple: if you ought to honor your father, then you ought to honor your father's friends. You do them a favor out of respect for your father. He earned it, they didn't. Wright can call this a legal fiction if he likes, but friend-of-a-friend favoritism is a cultural universal, and part of the glue that cements the social bond. Without it, civilization would come apart at the seams.

Moreover, Wright is in no position to hurl charges of legal fiction, for he himself eliminates the individual in favor of the social unit (see below).

It's amazing that Wright can be blind to such an essential and emphatic constituent of OT ethics and soteriology. And, of course, all this typology prefigures the vicarious atonement of Christ. So he is equally blinkered when he comes to the NT.

8. Wright sets up a contrast between justification as a righteous status which sinners have before God, and a righteous quality which God first infuses in the sinner and then makes the basis of his approval (100,102). But this is by no means the only way of posing and disposing of the alternatives. Let us rather say that God reckons the elect to be righteous by virtue of their union with Christ, and then accepts them on account of the righteous standing which he conferred on them in Christ. He approves of his own handiwork.

9. Wright resorts to cheap rhetoric to prejudice the opposing position when he talks about legal fictions, a cold piece of business, a trick of thought, a blind or arbitrary thing, a cold system which God somehow operates, or a detached proof of an abstract doctrine.

To begin with, Wright has done nothing to lay a foundation for such a charge. He has done nothing to show that the traditional doctrine of sola fide is mechanical or sleight-of-hand.

10. To say that sola fide was colored by the conflict with Rome is, of course, a truism. But that observation does nothing to show that there was, in fact, no genuine parallel between 1C Judaism and Medieval Catholicism. Religiosity takes on rather stereotypical forms which reproduce themselves, with minute variations, in time and place. Or does Wright deny that the pattern repeats itself? Where is his supporting argument?

11. Whether we consider justification to be the center of Pauline theology is something of a side issue. That is more characteristic of Lutheran than Reformed theology. The question is not so much where we situate justification, even assuming that Paul prioritized his theology, but how we define the nature of justification.

12. Wright informs us that men like Saul were not primarily interested in the state of their soul after death (118). And how, exactly, is Wright privy to that piece of very personal piece of information? Is he channeling St. Paul?

Didn't the rich young man take an individual interest in the state of his soul (Lk 18:18ff.)? And isn't it reasonable to take him as typical of many others? When Christ speaks about the afterlife of the patriarchs, doesn't this say something about the importance of their enduring relationship with God (Mt 22:23-33)? Is this not, indeed, very germane to Wright's stated concern about God's covenant fidelity?

13. Another strawman argument is when he says that "the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God...[but] should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not" (120).

Does he think that exhausts the alternatives? Is that the only possible contrast? Again, who, exactly, ever said that the question at issue in Galatians is how precisely someone becomes a Christian? Citations please!

Rather, the problem Paul is confronting in Galatians is a congregation on the brink of apostasy. Circumcision only becomes a central issue because the false teachers, the Judaizers, have made it a central issue. Does a pagan have to become a Jew before he can become a Christian? And the question is not so much one of becoming a Christian, since the Galatians were already converts to the faith, but of what it means to be a Christian—what is the basis of Christian identity?

14. He says that the Gospel is not an account of how folks get saved, but how they get into the family of Abraham (133). But what does it matter who does or does not belong to Abraham's family (123) unless such membership secures a favorable position in the eyes of God? Why is Paul in such anguish over the fate of Israel (Rom 9:1-3) unless the salvation or damnation of his compatriots is at stake? The character of justification cannot be reduced to badges of membership (122).

And if, for the sake of argument, we do reduce it to badges of membership, then there is a rather direct parallel between 1C covenantal nomism and Medieval Catholic sacramentalism.

16. Wright says that 1 Cor 1:30 is the only prooftext he knows of for imputed righteousness, which he then proceeds to belittle by applying that designation to other items on the list, viz., imputed wisdom, imputed, sanctification, &c.

i) However, the place to start would be a passage like Rom 5:12-21, Gal 3:13 or 2 Cor 5:21 where you have a vicarious one-to-many correspondence in which the action of one is applied to many.

ii) In addition, there is the Pauline contrast between justification by works and justification by faith. If the subject is a sinner, then he cannot be justified by works. So his acceptance with God cannot turn on personal virtue. Hence, he can only be justified before God if he is justified by God. And he is justified by God on account of Christ, as his federal head and vicarious redeemer.

At one level, the role of faith is negative; it illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the sinner; at another level, it is positive, for it points the way to a solution outside the sinner.

17. Wright's lopsidedly corporate and hypercovenantal perspective bears an ironic resemblance to the very presumption which John the Baptist was preaching against (Mt 3). Perhaps Wright cannot see the Pharisees for what they are because Wright is a modern-day Pharisee himself!

18. Wright says that Paul retains the shape of Jewish doctrine, but fills it with new content (132). Is he referring to the OT? If so, this is a very unsatisfactory grasp of the relation between promise and fulfillment. It makes the relation antithetical rather than complementary, as though the NT opposes and negates the OT—a la Marcion.

19. Another omission is that Wright only gives us the Paul of the Epistles, but not the Paul of Acts. But surely the bone of contention between Paul and the Jews in the Book of Acts goes beyond the messianic identity of Christ. One reason many of the Jews were opposed to the messianic claims of Christ and the Pauline Gospel was because they had a very different concept of salvation, of how to be right with God.

20. Wright erases the distinction between love and justice, collapsing the justice of God into his love. One wonders if Wright believes in the doctrine of hell.

To say that we cannot "play off justice and love against one another" (110) is another invidious straw man argument. The Protestant Reformers were not trying to play one off against another, as if they were indulging in a game of chess.

God's love and justice take different objects. God's love is visited upon the elect, while his justice is exacted against Christ crucified and the reprobate. Owing to his love of the elect, God shifts the burden and the blame onto broad shoulders of his very own Son, as the sin-bearer of the chosen people in Christ.

21. He says that if we take the traditional view, we've thereby bought into the tragic, would-be Gospel according to which one is justified or saved first and foremost as an individual (158).

Of course, we could simply flip this around and say that if we embrace the new perspective, we've thereby bought into the tragic, would-be Gospel according to which one is "not" justified or saved first and foremost as an individual.

Certainly salvation has a social dimension. Election has a corporate aspect. Nonetheless, God elects individuals. Election is not the null-set. It is set of individuals, named and numbered from all eternity.

God justifies elect individuals. God regenerates elect individuals. Election is both collective and distributive.

Of course, Wright is not a Calvinist, so he'd deny all this, but that's a separate objection demanding a separate argument.

The element of personal appropriation can never be eliminated from the Gospel. God must regenerate, and we must believe; God must sanctify, and we must obey. The human response is subordinate to the divine initiative, but divine causality has human effects.

22. He then says that justification implies and demands ecumenism (158). To this assertion a number of comments are in order:

i) He invokes Gal 2 to prove open communion. This is perfectly ridiculous.

a) To begin with, it isn't clear that 2:12 even has reference to communion. The verb is not a technical term for communion. Perhaps the verse does have reference to communion, but the usage is too general and commonplace to prove the point. At the very least, Wright needs to offer a supporting argument.

b) Even if it did refer to communion, it hardly follows that bare belief in Jesus is a sufficient basis of Christian fellowship. There's no evidence that the Judaizers held a defective Christology. If they had, we'd expect Paul to work that into his argument against them. They believed in Jesus. Yet, for Paul, that's not nearly enough. It isn't enough to affirm the person of Christ while you deny the work of Christ.

Again, if I believe in everything true about Jesus, but believe in nothing else, that would scarcely qualify as a credible profession of faith. Marcion believed in Jesus, but nothing more. Many heresies consist less in what they affirm than in what they deny.

And, of course, there's more to Christian identity than sheer belief. John talks about doing the truth. So there are two elements: truth, and the doing of it.

23. Wright says that the Galatians were justified by faith without knowing it, and even while believing that they had to be circumcised as well (159).

But Paul is much more antithetical than that. He doesn't argue for both/and, but either/or. What does it mean to believe in Jesus if not to trust in his merit for your salvation?

At a practical level there may be borderline cases of Christians with a muddled theology. But there is nothing muddled about Pauline theology. This is what we must be preaching and teaching. We can leave the borderline cases to God, but there are no gray areas in the doctrine itself.

24. Wright sets up an imagined tension between justification and sanctification. I've never known why intelligent men have difficulty with this relation.

Sin has two sides to it: (i) outward guilt and (ii) inward corruption. Justification addresses the objective side of the equation while regeneration and sanctification address the subjective side of the equation. There's nothing complicated or paradoxical about this relation.

If there's a further distinction to be drawn, it's between direct and indirect action. In election, redemption, justification, and regeneration, God's acts directly. In sanctification, God acts indirectly by having renewed in us a motive to love and obey him. We obey, but God supplies the disposition and incentive to obey.

25. Wright goes on to make the stunning statement that "very often the word 'faith' itself could property be translated as 'faithfulness'; which makes the point just as well. Nor, of course, does this then compromise the gospel or justification, smuggling in works by the back door" (160).

This is a classic debater's device. You anticipate an objection, you state it yourself, in your own words, and then you deny it.

But there's a difference between denying a charge and disproving a charge. Notice that he doesn't rebut the accusation. He merely denies it, throwing in a question-begging exclamation ("of course!") as if that disposed of the objection.

But there's all the difference in the world between justification by faith and justification by faithfulness. At one level, he's right. He's not smuggling works in by the back door. No, he's bringing them in by the front door!

Again, the contrast could not be simpler. Either I'm justified by the sole and sufficient merit of Christ, or else the merit of Christ is, at most a necessarily, but insufficient ground of justification.

In Catholicism, for example, it's a combination of the merit of Christ plus the merit of Mary and the saints plus my personal merit.

The fact that an isolated word has more than one meaning, such that it can be rendered in more than one way, is irrelevant. The question is what meaning is in play in a given sentence, and how a word is used in conjunction with the overall flow of the argument.

26. What Wright says in 161-64 sounds a lot like universalism to me. Is he a closet universalist? If so, he should be plain about it.

27. He also indulges in a fallacious comparison: those who uphold the traditional view are not saying that God replaces one "little" group with another "little" group (163). To begin with, God continues to save a Jewish remnant (Messianic Jews) throughout church history. In addition, by extending redemption and revelation to the Gentiles, God is expanding the Gospel to encompass a very large group indeed.

I also don't know what Wright means by a "private" group. Christians have a public identity, as did the Jews. Wright appears to be indulging in prejudicial rhetoric rather than offering an honest statement of the opposing position.

So often, Wright seems to be shadowing boxing with a straw man. He either seems to have only a 2nd or 3rd hand knowledge of the opposing side, or else he's so blinded by personal bias that he's incapable of fairly and accurately representing the opposing side.

28. I also don't know what he means by saying that the church cannot rest content while injustice, oppression and violence stalk God's world (164). Once again, he says less than he means. Is this the political equivalent of his ecumenism? What kind of intervention does he have in mind? Military force? Economic sanctions? Diplomacy? Sounds to me like he's trying to turn Paul into a Eurocrat. How anachronistic!

I'm all for us helping out the underground church whenever and wherever we can. But I don't see that the church has a global mandate to defend Hindus against Muslims or Buddhists against Maoists or Sunnis against Shiites. Our commission is not to takes sides between one unbeliever and another, but to present the Gospel to both.

There is nothing wrong with reopening old debates and revising old dogmas in light of new evidence and better exegesis. But judging by this book, Wright has failed to make his case on any relevant level.


  1. I suggest that you have very little understanding of N. T. Wright if you make claims that (a) he dismisses the individual in favour of the social; (b) he denies the judicial aspect of the covenant, (c) doesn't have a robust view of federal headship; (d) much more. Instead of reading the shortest, least-technical book he is written on Paul (and even then claiming things for the writer which he does not say) and then acting like you're some sort of expert, I suggest you do a bit more homework.

    Were you aware that Wright has consistently championed propitiation, rather than mere expiation, even when many conservative evangelicals have stopped defending that fort? Were you aware that he has been one of the most eloquent defenders of Jesus' role in fulfillment of Isaiah 53? Probably not.

    I suggest you read The Climax of the Covenant and Wright's commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter's Bible, vol X) to get your feet wet.

  2. "And the principle of penal substitution is pictured in the sacrificial system. The life of the firstborn male is forfeit, but God accepts an animal sacrifice (e.g., Passover lamb, burnt offering, scapegoat, red heifer) in lieu of the sinner."

    How excatly does that picture PENAL substitution? What is the firstborn stated to be guilty of? In context, God is claiming to posess all the firstborn, and claiming their lives by taking them through death. And what of the second-born? Are they faultless?

    If there is any idea of penal substitution here, its far from explicit and needs to be argued.

    Intriguing thougts about Wright. I've come to the conclusion that WSPRS is just not his best book. Too many people have been confused by it.

    Also, even Jews today don't know what the Jews of 2nd temple Judaism thought directly. The talmud was not written until long after this period and it reflects a temple-less theology. Talmudic judaism has historical and theological discontinuties with 2nd temple judaism. That's just historical fact.

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  7. Have you ever met a legalist who says "I'm a legalist who believes in crass works-righteousness."

    Roman Catholcism, even of the time of Luther, wasn't crass works system.

    They confuse Judaism with the Judaizing heresy sect.

    Being in the covenant and justification aren't the same thing but are linked. NPP doesn't understand that. If you aren't in the covenant, you are not justified. But justification and covenant membership aren't the same thing. That's why Paul gets his dander up.

  8. I have not had much interaction with the works of Wright, but I believe that you assesment is correct.

    Of your assesment of whether or not he believes in hell, see this interesting interaction that a friend of mine had with Wright.