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Once we relocate justification, moving it from the discussion of how people become Christians to the discussion of how we know that someone is a Christian, we have a powerful incentive to work together across denominational barriers. —N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 261

One of the great connections that N.T. Wright emphasizes in his work is the one between soteriology (how we are saved) and ecclesiology (the church: who are the true people of God?). He properly (and repeatedly) reminds us that Paul saw these questions as inseparable. Interestingly, so did the Protestant Reformers, as historians have often obser ved. As on so many points, however, Wright distorts the Reformation positions and almost never footnotes his sweeping allegations. For example, in his latest book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009), Wright once more complains that the Reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to unite 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 (p. 43).

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” (p. 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” (p. 53).

In this, as in his earlier works, Wright practically never offers a single footnote for his manifold assertions concerning Reformation exegesis. However, he hangs much on the slender thread of several quotes from Alister McGrath’s expansive yet controversial study of the history of the doctrine of justification, Iustitia Dei. Assuming discontinuity more than refinement, McGrath argues (as approvingly cited by Wright, p. 80), “The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theolog y which is quite independent of its Pauline origins” (Iustitia Dei, pp.2–3).

According to Wright (and McGrath), justification “has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 86).

This is simply not true. The main point of the Reformation was to stress the distinction between justification and the other gifts of salvation. It was Rome’s confusion of justification and sanctification that the Reformers challenged.

For all of his concern about ecclesiology in Paul, Wright does not seem as concerned about the actual positions that Protestant churches have held. In this murkiness, he is able to put forward his own view as a “third way” beyond the impasse of Rome and the Reformation. As it turns out, his alternative surrenders the doctrine of justification as the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience in favor of a concept of justification as the anticipation of a final justification based on “an entire life lived” — ours, that is.

At the heart of historical criticisms of the Reformation view has been the charge that it does not have any place for human activity. New Perspective trailblazers E .P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn approach Paul from an Arminian perspective (the latter having once been a Calvinist). N.T. Wright claims to avoid such debates (as do Sanders and Dunn), but everyone interprets Scripture from a particular theological perspective. Wright also has a clear agenda to get Christians to transform the world by “living the gospel” (complete with a very specific political prescription). He writes concerning justification: “If Christians could only get this right,” says Wright, “they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 159). Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to make them the same thing. “Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness,’ which makes the point just as well” (p. 160).

Far from being suspicious, we should welcome any ecumenical consensus that emerges out of the clear biblical testimony to God’s justification of the ungodly by imputing their sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to them through faith alone. However, the consensus that seems to be emerging in our day, as in other eras, seems to find its core sympathy in a more synergistic (Arminian and Roman Catholic) framework.


Tilting at Scarecrows

Rethinking the Gospel?

Keep Reading What N.T. Wright Really Said

From the February 2010 Issue
Feb 2010 Issue