Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Very Brief Perspectives on the “New Perspectives”

By John Jefferson Davis
Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (InterVarsity, 2009) is Wright’s latest and most definitive reply to his critics – including John Piper, The Future of Justification (Crossway, 2007) – in the ongoing debate on the “New Perspectives” on Paul. My general sense is that Wright is basically “right” in what he affirms – placing justification in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, and integrating it with the other crucial biblical themes of resurrection, adoption, the Spirit, and eschatology – but less than “right” in what he denies or appears to downplay: imputed righteousness, penal substitution, the active obedience of Christ, and righteousness as a moral quality (vs. “covenant faithfulness”) for both God and man.
Wright’s reading of Romans and Galatians and the other Pauline epistles is certainly correct in calling fresh attention to Paul’s situating of justification squarely in the context of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen.15), and seeing this covenant as fulfilled in Christ, the true “seed” of Abraham, who fulfills the covenant through his atoning death and resurrection from the dead. Justification is not only a “courtroom” or forensic reality, but also dynamically and integrally connected with the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom.4:25) and the reception of the Holy Spirit through faith in the crucified and risen Messiah (Gal.3:2). The justified ones, who receive the Spirit, are indeed seen to be the true sons of Abraham, and heirs of the promise (Gal.3:26), full members of the one people of God. Systematic theologians need to give fresh attention to these important biblical-theological connections being highlighted by Wright and other “New Perspective” exegetes.
On the other hand, Wright seems to over-react to the “merit-theology” of late medieval Catholicism that constituted the historical context in which the Protestant reformers formulated their understanding of justification. The context in which Luther and Calvin read and applied the book of Romans was not a first-century context in which the main issues were the observance of circumcision and dietary laws as conditions of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; their context was one in which categories of merit, indulgences, purgatory, the sacrifice of the mass, and the grounds and nature of forgiveness of sins framed the burning soteriological issues of the day. As an exegete Wright is “right” to focus on the biblical texts in their first-century contexts; Luther and Calvin, as historical and systematic theologians, were right in applying the texts to the issues and categories of their own sixteenth-century time and culture. (At the very end, though, Wright does say that “Everything that Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought” [as Wright understands it], p.252.)
The concept of imputation is well grounded in Paul (e.g., 9 occurrences of logizomai, “credit” in Rom.4). The “righteousness of God” indeed includes “covenant faithfulness”, but this expression of God’s righteousness is more fundamentally and essentially grounded in the eternal character and nature of God himself as a just and morally perfect being. This “righteousness of God” is expressed in scripture in many texts (e.g., Ps.9:8; 98:9; 99:4; 103:6) that portray God as the righteous judge who condemns the guilty and vindicates the innocent. The concept of righteousness is in fact connected with obedience in the Law of Moses (Deut.6:25: “If we are careful to obey all this law … as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness”). At the human level righteousness can indeed describe a person’s moral and ethical character (e.g., Cornelius as a righteous Gentile, Acts 10:22). Christ did in fact obey all the divine requirements of the law of Moses, and our mystical union with him (“in Christ”) is the theological reality on the basis of which both the active and passive obedience of Christ can be credited to the believer.
Some of Wright’s critics have suggested that his highly nuanced reading of Paul’s doctrine of justification is so complicated that it is too difficult to preach and teach in the church. There may be some truth in this criticism. We could do well to follow the apostle’s own example of how to preach justification, as depicted by Luke in Acts 13:37,38, during the first missionary journey in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: “… through Jesus the forgiveness of sins in proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.” Indeed, the “cash value” of justification is that through faith in Jesus Christ, as God’s crucified and risen Messiah, our sins are forgiven, and God the righteous judge declares us “not guilty” in the sight of the law. This is indeed good news for those who are welcomed back to the family of God as his forgiven sons and daughters, given the gift of the Spirit, and made heirs of all the promises given to Abraham, the father of us all.
[For occasional notes on recent books and articles on theology, ethics, and current affairs, see my page at twitter.com/drjackdavis]

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