NT Wright has taken on one of the most important topics in theology, that of the meaning of righteousness and justification in Paul. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision was necessitated by John Piper’s critic of Wright’s understanding of the topic, found in his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. The main argument concerns the concept of imputed righteous of Christ. Imputed righteousness “means that upon repentance and belief in Christ, individuals are forensically declared righteous. This righteousness is not the believer’s own, rather it is Christ’s own righteousness ‘imputed’ to the believer.” (1) This particular form of imputed righteousness insists that Jesus had to live a sinless life (in addition to dying a representative, substitutionary, atoning death for the sins of humanity, which having heard him in person I know he affirms) so that the ¢â‚¬Å“active¢â‚¬ obedience of his life and not just the ¢â‚¬Å“passive¢â‚¬ obedience of his death could replace our sinful status in Gods eyes.(2)
He is saying that if that is such an important focus in theology, why it not found explicitly in scripture even in Paul. For Wright, we have been reading into Paul a more contextual understanding of the concepts rather than letting the the first century context of the text teach us. In other words, is it the text or tradition?
On a side note, I have a friend who was able to talk to Wright about Piper’s book. According to my friend, Piper sent Wright the text, which generated a 40,000 word response from Wright on how he had failed to understand Wright’s position. Little, if any, of that was included in the published copy of Piper’s book. NT thus determined to explain his position clearly through the publication of this book.
The issues that need to be discussed when considering this vital theological topic, according to Wright, are: God’s righteous and its meaning, the focus of soteriology – an individual vs total creation focus – and what was the purpose of the Law.
The Law, according to Wright, was a covenantal law for God’s people. Now that they were God’s people through the covenant God established with Abraham, they received the Law as defined through the ten commandments and the Torah. This Law was not meant to be a means by which people, either individually or the nation as a whole, gained entrance into eternal life with God. The Law was set up to provide a guideline by which they would live now that they were covenant people. This redefines how so many of us were taught and now teach/preach the religion of Judaism. It was not a works-based salvation. It was a covenant lifestyle.
An interesting angle in this discussion is the difference, according to Wright, between how John Calvin and Martin Luther viewed the Law. Wright notes, “For Martin Luther, Moses was regularly cast as the bad guy, the one who gave the wicked law that did nothing but condemn. For John Calvin, the Mosaic law was given as the way of life for a people already redeemed.” (53) Wright notes that he has for some time thought that if the Calvinistic view of the law and Paul had dominated biblical scholarship rather than the Lutheran view, there would have not been the need for the “new perspective” on Paul nor the polarizing debates that have existed for the past several centuries.
Another issue is the focus of salvation. For Wright, God planned to save all creation through Israel, culminating in the “Faithful Israelite” who was Jesus the Messiah. Wright states it this way: “God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” (19) However, so many simply focus on the goal of salvation being individual. Salvation is only individualistic when placed in the sphere of the complete salvation of creation.
The big issue in all of this discussion, however, is the topic of righteousness. Wright states:
But if ¢â‚¬Ëœrighteousness’, within the lawcourt context refers to the status of the vindicated person after the court has announced its verdict, we have undercut in a singe stroke the age-old problem highlighted in Augustine’s interpretation of ¢â‚¬Ëœjustify’ as ¢â‚¬Ëœmake righteous’. That always meant, for Augustine and his followers, that God, in justification, was actually transforming the character of the person, albeit in small, preliminary ways (by, for instance, implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). The result was a subtle but crucial shifting of metaphors: the lawcourt scene is now replaced with a medical one, a kind of remedial spiritual surgery, involving a ¢â‚¬Ëœrighteous implant’ which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable the patient to do things previously impossible.
But part of the point of Paul’s own language, rightly stressed by those who have analyzed the verb dikaioo, ¢â‚¬Ëœto justify’, is that it does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ¢â‚¬Ëœjustification’, not the character. (70)
Thus for Wright, Paul’s view of justification is the action of pronouncing that a person is in right standing before God, not a transformation of the character of a person or imputation of Christ’s character onto a person. Righteousness, therefore, is the status a person has before God and justification is the pronouncement of that status.
The argument against this reasons that “God requires a moral righteousness of us, and that since we have none of our own God must reckon or impute such a moral righteousness from somewhere else” which, in Piper’s scheme is the righteousness of Christ. (71) While understanding this scheme, Wright argues that in the precise language of the lawcourt, righteousness is not ¢â‚¬Ëœmoral righteousness’ but the status of the person whom the court has vindicated.
I confess that I have not read Piper’s critic of Wright’s view of justification so I do not have first-hand knowledge of his research. With that said, if Wright has accurately expressed Piper’s research, Piper has left out important issues and exegesis that Wright has included that seems important to the discussion. That goes to the credibility and comprehension of the topic. Because of the exhaustive nature of his exegesis, in fact the majority of the book is his exegesis of important and relevant Pauline texts, Wright demonstrates a complete grasp of all the issues. While someone may disagree with his exegesis, one cannot discount his thoroughness.
Wright makes his case extremely well. He sometimes is known for painting with broad strokes and not going into the details. That is not the case here. From my perspective, he is clear and articulate on the topic. However, he is not burdensome in his presentation. His thoroughness should not be taken to mean boring or uninteresting. In fact, it is quite the opposite. He is quite passionate in his arguments, and having met him myself, I can hear him saying the words of the book in his own unique way.
As well, Wright does not argue against other important reformation topics such topics as substitutionary atonement.
While there may be minor disagreements on exegesis, one cannot dismiss the major and important contribution that Wright makes to biblical theology with his book. His research and writing clarify an important theological principle and understanding of what it means to be justified before God from a biblical, not a systematic theology perspective. While I have great respect for Piper, and others like him, I believe Wright makes his case in such a way that I would agree with his premise.
Tony Stiff at Sets ¢â‚¬ËœN’ Service has put together a list of reviews of both Piper and Wright in addition to writing his own 4 part review. In addition, IVP has put out a video of Wright summarizing his position.
1. http://www.theopedia.com/index.php?title=Imputed_righteousness&oldid=38179, accessed May 18, 2009
2. http://www.denverseminary.edu/news/justification-gods-plan-and-pauls-vision/, accessed May 18, 2009