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N. T. Wright's Justification

Nick the Nevermet

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There are two situations that consistently make me particularly humble on this board: when I'm presented with historical information about the early Christian church and Israel, and when I'm presented with linguistic information on Latin, ancient Greek, or Hebrew. It's not that I suddenly have a new realization of my shortcomings, or that I assume the other poster is correct about everything he or she says. They are, however, areas I am quite ignorant about, and as I result I become a bit more self-conscious. Sometimes that leads to more discretion and caution, other times to flailing about, but either way, the initial experience is quite similar.


And with that in mind, I just finished N.T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. Wright is an Anglican Bishop in the UK, a former New Testament professor, and a friend of Marcus Borg's despite being relatively conservative theologically. He's also been called a heretic by a certain flavor of Christians who see themselves as the rightful heirs of Calvin and the Puritans. The problem is that Wright supports the New Perspective on Paul, a philosophical/historical.theological move that, put simply, tries to understand Paul in a more historical, Jewish context. I highly recommend that wikipedia link, as it does a very good job of summarizing many of Wright's arguments. I'll get to the bits I'm most interested in further down in this post.


In either case Justification is Wright's rebuttal to these critics. As I am not a historian, a theologian, or a linguist, I'm not going to try and make a judgement about the merit of Wright's argument. I can say, however, that it's a well made argument, coming across both as scholarly and accessible. It's also a bit polemical, actively attacking his critics, and I cannot decide if focus and energy this brings helps the book more than the genuinely combative tone hurts it. I could go on a bit about Wright's strong rejection of imputed righteousness, but somehow I doubt it will have many defenders here ;) I can also say that the common panic attack I've seen various places of, “OMG! THAT'S CATHOLIC DOGMA” amounts to an ad hominem attack.


The first few chapters law out the basics, and then he goes into a (for me) very careful & systematic analysis of the Pauline letters, ending with Romans. Wright thinks that the way Calvinists use the term “justification” in a very different way than Paul. For Wright's Paul, “justification by faith” means that faith is the “membership badge,” a marker that indicates you are “within Christ.” Justification is part of a whole that includes salvation, but Wright argues that justification should not be equated to salvation, nor should salvation of the individual be thought of as the goal. To explain this, three points need to be summarized.


First, Wright subscribes to a covenant theology where God has had a single plan to redeem the world. “Phase 1” (my shorthand, not his term) of God's plan was the attempt to save it through Israel. Israel, however, was made up by human beings, and since human beings were flawed, it was doomed to fail. It became to a degree just another nation, and it could not perfectly live by the Law. This didn't really surprise God, apparently, though Wright never quite describes this as God setting Israel up to fail, but that's in essence his argument. “Phase 2” is Jesus Christ who is somehow succeeds where Israel failed.


“Phase 2.5” involves the church as the body of Christ, which moves us to the second point: Wright argues that ecclesiology is overlooked too much, and that for paul the discussions of soteriology & salvation should not be separated from discussions of ecclesiology & the church. Christians are within the body of Christ, and are therefore supposed to act to help redeem the world. As he puts it once, Christianity is less about slavation for us and more about salvation through us. Humanity has a responsibility to be good stewards of Creation, and Christianity is the rallying cry for that, according to Wright.


The third thing is a paradox of action, where Wright argues the whole faith/works debate is wrong headed. Faith starts a process where the Holy Ghost enters us, and we grow as people and as Christians. Works and actions matter, and we will be judged for what we do in this life according to Paul (according to Wright). I'll put this quote up to explain:

the Spirit is the one through whose agency God's people are renewed and reconstituted as God's people. And it is by the energy of the Spirit, working in those who belong to the Messiah, that the new paradox comes about in which the Christian really does exercise free moral will and effort but at the same time ascribes this free activity to the Spirit.


In the end analysis, I enjoyed this book, which I primarily read as a book by a New Testament scholar making an argument about Paul's theology. On that level, it's great. In terms of whether or not I agree with him, that is of course more messy. On the one hand, I'm amused that “what Paul really said” is a hybrid of Reformed and Catholic theology... which is exactly how Wright describes his own stance and what's best about the Anglican church. I'm not suggesting anything deceptive or done in bad faith, but as I said: this book is polemical. I'm also concerned about the exclusivity of the argument: Christians are the True Agents of God, no one else need apply.


But on the other hand, arguing that it's salvation of the world through us has an appealing ring to it, and some of the discussion of union in Christ and God's adoption of us as His (Wright's pronoun) Children. He also managed to avoid some of the more (for me) jaw clenchingly Puritan forms of penal/substitutionary atonement, and the idea that we become more human the more we act in accordance with the Holy Ghost is an argument I've been agreeing with for quite a while now.


Anyhow, that's my book review.

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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