Justification and the New Perspective

For theologians around the world, or at least the western world, most will be aware of the recent debate that has arisen between John Piper (pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, USA) and N.T. Wright (bishop of Durham, Church of England).

What is this debate?

It all has to do with the discussion surrounding the word justification from a Pauline perspective.

Unfortunately, to this point, I have not yet been able to do a great amount of study in regards to this theological discussion on justification. I desire to do so in the very near future. But for now, I believe I have begun to understand the general debate that has arisen in recent days. Therefore, I thought I might summarise some things as I even prepare to look more into the discussion myself.

The historic evangelical (and especially more reformed) view of justification is that it is mainly a legal term used to describe the act in which God imputes the righteousness of Christ to all believers through faith, this being made available through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead. And this would be Piper’s viewpoint on justification.

Yet, many are becoming more and more aware of N.T. Wright’s challenges to such a view. Now, it is my understanding that Wright does believe that we, as God’s people, have been given a righteous standing in Christ. So please don’t think he has gone off on some works-oriented righteousness. But, Scot McKnight, author and religious studies professor, who has gone into great detail in regards to Wright’s distinctive teaching on Pauline justification, says:

Wright has refashioned justification less in terms of personal conversion and more in terms of “who is in the people of God.”

Therefore, it seems that N.T. Wright is trying to consider the proverbial ‘bigger picture’, or even a ‘holistic view’, in regards to justification. And he has looked to found such a view from a historical understanding of first-century Judaism and what Paul would have been combating in those early days of Christianity.

Scot McKnight has pointed out on his blog that this discussion did not actually start with in the past few years. Rather, it has only become popularised in the last few years. N.T. Wright has been discussing such a ‘new’, or ‘fresh’, perspective on justification for some 30 years now, but such a debate has only come about recently through the publication of John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response To N.T. Wright, published in late 2007.

Here is a summary of the book’s contents found in the product description on Amazon.com:

Wright’s confidence that the church has gotten it wrong for 1,500 years, given his enormous influence, has set off warning bells for Christian leaders such as John Piper, a pastor and New Testament scholar. If Wright’s framework for interpreting the New Testament text and his understanding of justification find a home in the church, not only could the doctrine of justification be distorted for generations to come, but the New Testament writers’ original intent could be silenced. So Piper is sounding a crucial warning in this book, reminding all Christians to exercise great caution regarding “fresh” interpretations of the Bible and to hold fast to the biblical view of justification.

With the publishing of Piper’s book, Wright felt it necessary to pen a response to Piper. His work, entitled Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, was only recently released in 2009. And, just as a side note, it seems that neither Piper or Wright are being childish in their responses to one another, but they have rather looked to theologically debate the topic with integrity. This is a breath of fresh air to say the least.

Richard B. Hays, of Duke University, gave this review of Wright’s recently published work:

For some time now, I have watched in puzzlement as some critics, imagining themselves as defenders of Paul’s gospel, have derided Tom Wright as a dangerous betrayer of the Christian faith. In fact, Paul’s gospel of God’s reconciling, world-transforming grace has no more ardent and eloquent exponent in our time than Tom Wright. If his detractors read this book carefully, they will find themselves engaged in close exegesis of Paul’s letters, and they will be challenged to join Wright in grappling with the deepest logic of Paul’s message. Beyond slogans and caricatures of ‘Lutheran readings’ and ‘the New Perspective,’ the task we all face is to interpret these difficult, theologically generative letters afresh for our time. Wright’s sweeping, incisive sketch of Paul’s thought, set forward in this book, will help us all in that task.

But, interestingly enough, as I mentioned earlier, this debate on justification did not begin in recent years. It has actually been going on, at least in this form, for some 30 years. Scot McKnight details how the dispute has unraveled over the past three decades. He notes that there were mainly three theologians that preceded the current discussions, and McKnight lists the works of these three as worth reading in regards to the justification discussion.

First off, back in 1976, there was Krister Stendahl, who supposedly written only one chapter on the topic in his book, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. McKnight summarises the intriguing chapter with these words:

Stendahl argued that the post-Reformation doctrine of justification was rooted, not so much in 1st Century Judaism or the apostle Paul, but the “introspective conscience of the West.”

Next came E.P. Sanders with his instrumental volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Scot McKnight goes so far as to call it the most influential book of the second half of the 20th century in regards to 1) understanding Judaism and 2) how to understand Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in light of the first point. McKnight summarises E.P. Sanders work with these words:

Sanders argued that Luther imposed his complaints with Roman Catholicism upon Paul’s complaints with Judaism. Sanders argued that Luther got it wrong and that Judaism was not a works-righteousness religion. It was instead a religion of what he called “covenantal nomism.” The covenant got you into relationship with God and the law was given to maintain that relationship. Therefore, much of our reading of Paul since the Reformation has been wrong.

Next came the well-know theologian, James Dunn, who began using the now notorious phrase, ‘the new perspective’, though, still, McKnight reports that the phrase would have first been used by N.T. Wright in one of his lectures in 1978. Dunn’s first work on the topic was Jesus, Paul and the Law, but he recently published a work in 2007, oddly enough, called The New Perspective on Paul.

Scot McKnight sums up Dunn’s purpose in writing:

Paul was against the boundary-marking characteristic of Judaism that kept Gentiles out, and that Paul’s mission was to get Gentiles into the one covenant God had made with Israel.

Then, and only then, did N.T. Wright really come into play as the major modern-day proponent for the ‘new perspective on Paul’. But seeing the brief history above, we see that this is not all that new. The discussion is not old, but it isn’t new either. But, as I pointed out, it is through Wright and Piper’s more recent writings that the discussion has become popularised within Christianity.

Interestingly enough, Christianity Today has recently published an article summarising the debate between Piper and Wright. It is quite a helpful summary in regards to the debate, breaking it down into seven main focal points:

  • The Problem (pointing to sin/the Fall)
  • The Law
  • God’s Righteousness
  • First-Century Judaism
  • The Gospel
  • How This Happens (how justification happens)
  • Future Justification

The article, originally compiled by Trevin Wax, looks to faithfully summarise both Piper’s and Wright’s views in regards to these seven points. Wax even notes on his blog:

Please note that both John Piper and N.T. Wright looked over my work and made some slight revisions regarding their respective summaries.

Therefore, we can be assured this is a very helpful summary of each view. In the article, you will notice that both Piper and Wright have similar views in regards to some of these areas, for example, their views on Future Justification seemed quite comparable. But you will notice distinct differences in the debate in such areas as The Law, God’s Righteousness, First Century Judaism and The Gospel.

The above article posted at Christianity Today is somewhat brief, but if you are interested in a more in depth analysis of the discussion, then I would encourage you to check out Scot McKnight’s articles, as he has now posted 20 articles over the past two months. Here is the link to the first article and here is a link to the rest of the series.

As I said above, I have yet to personally undertake an in depth study of this debate on the new perspective of Paul, though I have briefly tried to keep up on some the more recent thoughts on the topic. But it is my desire to take up such a study in the near future. And, thanks to McKnight, the reading list for the discussion has just expanded by three authors. (I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing!)

So, if you have been interested in undertaking such a study on the ‘new perspective’, I hope you have found this summary post and subsequent links helpful. If you are aware of other important works for the discussion, please feel free to leave comments and/or links.

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3 thoughts on “Justification and the New Perspective

  1. There is a NT scholar named "Michael Bird" in the UK (Australian dude, I believe). He actually has done a lot of work and published to synthesize the NPP and Reformed positions. He critiques both sides, but points out to the NPP that there are still traces of traditional justification in Paul. His work is being praised in this area, though.

  2. Scott,

    Your "profile" triggered my Google reader. I'm glad to connect with a Covenant Seminary alumn. I'm the director of Alumni Relations and would love to get an update on you. Can you email me at "alumni" AT "CovenantSeminary" DOT "EDU" when you get a moment?

  3. Pingback: N.T. Wright on the Main Theological Discussions of First Century Jews « The Prodigal Thought

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