N.T. Wright IVP Academic 2009-04-16

In John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007), he worries that N. T. Wright’s understanding of justification diverges from the Reformation tradition. He especially fears that Wright’s teaching on justification minimizes individual salvation, rejects the imputation of righteousness to the believer, and redefines God’s righteousness as God’s “covenant faithfulness.” Piper also expresses concern over using extrabiblical first-century sources to help construct biblical theology because those sources may be misunderstood or may disagree with one another. Instead, Piper would prefer to remain loyal to the conclusions of Luther and Calvin. N. T. Wright believes that John Piper and others have misunderstood him. Justification is his response to Piper. Although Wright concedes that his conclusions may differ in some respects from those of Luther and Calvin, he contends that his method of studying the text in its original context follows the methods of the reformers. Wright sees himself as continuing in the tradition of Luther and Calvin, even if he might disagree with them on certain theological points, such as imputed righteousness. He seeks to clarify his method with this book.

In the first part of the book, Wright frames the debate over his understanding of justification while responding directly to his critics, especially Piper. Wright maintains that most understandings of justification in Paul ignore thematic elements such as Israel’s covenants, law-court imagery, eschatology, exile, Messiah, and the role of the Holy Spirit. Without these elements, the doctrine of justification has become too individualistic and divorced from its first-century context. Wright argues for an understanding of justification as a legal acquittal of the believer by God, a view compatible with that of many evangelicals. This acquittal demonstrates God’s faithfulness to His promises to Abraham and his descendants. It is through the covenants to Israel, and specifically their fulfillment in the Jewish Messiah, that God puts the universe right, which is Pauline justification, according to Wright. Wright believes that this definition fits within the full scope of its literary context in Paul’s letters and its historical context in first-century Judaism.

In the second part of the book, Wright articulates his views on several relevant passages throughout Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans. He builds here on his observation from the previous section that a coherent understanding of Pauline justification must incorporate the full depth of the Pauline corpus. He attempts to show how his understanding of justification fits not only with Galatians and Romans but also with other Pauline letters often neglected by the discussion. Moreover, he treats the passages within their full context rather than focusing on a handful of verses. He also comments on Old Testament passages alluded to by Paul, including Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27–30, and Daniel 9. This section provides a synthetic overview of Wright’s understanding of the Pauline concept of justification.

Justification succeeds as a response to Piper, whether or not one agrees with Wright’s ultimate position on justification. It also provides a general framework for discussing issues surrounding Wright’s version of the New Perspective, although Wright does not intend the book to be a defense of the New Perspective. Rather, the first section reinforces the value of interpreting Paul within his full literary, historical context. Some will disagree with Wright’s conclusions about the meaning of “righteousness of God” and justification, but his methodological suggestions provide much needed clarity to the debate over New Perspectives.

A thorough application of his method, however, cannot occur in such a short volume, despite his attempt in the second part of the book. Wright covers so many key passages in so little space (under 150 pages) that he accomplishes little more than to articulate his own views. His interaction with other views and, consequently, validation of his own views is sparse and shallow. His most thorough exegetical discussion involves Romans, as expected, but even here, he cannot possibly interact fully on all the issues at hand in such a brief treatment. As a result, other volumes remain necessary to answer all the questions surrounding his exegesis. He will hopefully address many of these issues further in his upcoming book, due in November, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press). In the meantime, Justification acts as a supplementary and clarifying voice for his previous work.