Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision by N. T. Wright (Book Review)

N. T. Wright's response to John Piper's critique (The Future of Justification) is his most thorough book on Paul yet. It is, in many ways, a masterful unpacking of Paul's thought. Wright shows how Paul's theology of justification is grounded in God's covenant with Abraham and plan to bring redemption to the world through Israel, and ultimately through Jesus. He explores how justification is informed by Jewish law-court imagery, eschatology, and Christology. Wright's unpacking of the narrative substructure to Paul's thought is, at times, brilliant. And after reading this book, I think that Wright and Piper are actually much closer in their thinking than either one of them may think.

However, confusion and misunderstanding continues, and this due not least of all, to Wright himself. It's unfortunate that he sometimes caricatures positions that he rejects out of hand and misconstrues the thought and theology of his opponents. (Can anyone who knows John Piper seriously believe that there is no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology?!) Wright's reasons for rejecting imputation are not fully convincing. I still suspect that he takes some wrong steps in his exegesis at some crucial points. And his articulation of how justification by faith in the present relates to future judgment according to works is still a little fuzzy and subject to misunderstanding.

With that said, I think Wright's unpacking of the believer's union with Christ comes fairly close to achieving what imputation achieves for Piper and traditional Reformed theology. Not all his critics agree, but Wright should at least be carefully read and listened to before stones are cast.

I've heard Don Carson say before that Wright's problem is in backgrounding what should be in the foreground and foregrounding what should be in the background. I think I understand that critique. But after reading both Wright and Piper (and Waters, and Westerholm, and Carson, and Moo!) I am wanting to see a synthesis of the different insights and strengths these pastors and scholars bring to the table.

I recommend this book to those who are following the conversation on the New Perspective on Paul. If you've read Piper, definitely read Wright. But in my opinion, it would be better to read neither than to read only one side of the argument. 3 1/2 stars.


mwh said...

Do you know if Wright has major critics who are not Reformed? A quick survey of "Justification and Variegated Nomism" shows that many of the authors are self-identifying Reformed Theologians (eg., Peter Enns, Carson, Peter O'Brien, Moo, Moises Silva, etc...).

Brian G. Hedges said...

I'm not sure if there are strong critics on this issue that are not Reformed, though even other NPP scholars (such as James Dunn) don't agree with Wright on nearly everything. So others engage his work and critique, but sometimes focusing on different points than the Reformed crowd - where the heart of the debate seems to be imputation.

Of course, Wright has critics on other issues on the left, right, and in the middle! For example, on his Jesus scholarship, he crosses swords with the Jesus Seminar guys. And his seminal work on Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God) was answered with a friendly dialogue-critique edited by Carey Newman, called Jesus and the Restoration of Israel. That book featured essays from NT scholars such as Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, Darrell Bock. Richard Hayes, and Paul Eddy.

mwh said...

Thanks for the response.

I was strictly asking about the NPP issue. I'm not surprised if other NPP-adopters want to tweak or mildly modify Wright's position--it doesn't seem to be quite the same as the backlash that has come from the (perceivably) Reformed crowd.

I've not followed the NPP conversation. All my information has come through your various comments along the way, save one audio lecture by Carson that I listened to a while back. But if all the major opponents are Reformed, then it seems like it's essentially an issue of whether or not the Reformed interpretation is correct, and not generically over orthodoxy and imputation. Maybe that's already acknowledged?

I read your review. Your comments were ecumenically charitable. Thanks.

Brian G. Hedges said...

The tone of responses from the Reformed side vary quite a lot. Some have, unfortunately, demonized Wright and written him off as a heretic. But that comes from the blogosphere more than from scholars and leaders. Piper made it clear that he did not consider this a matter of heresy vs. orthodoxy and was very charitable in his tone. He even sent Wright his manuscript in advance (a favor that Wright didn't return, presumably because of publisher's deadlines). And, yes, the biggest bone to pick seems to be over the imputation of Christ's active obedience to the law. Piper acknowledges (p. 125) that the big difference between Wright's scheme and "Traditional Reformed Exegesis" (Piper's words) boils down this this. Piper admits this is an oversimplification, but it is the bone of contention.

What makes this complex is that Wright's approach to exegesis is very, very different than Piper's, and indeed, most systematic theologians. I think this is part of the problem. There seems to be some talking past each other to me. I think the Reformed crowd would do well to pay more attention to history, extrabiblical literature, and the disciplines of so-called biblical theology (although some in Reformed circles seem do this fairly well, e.g. Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin, Sinclair Ferguson). On the other hand, Wright - because he is such a prolific and provocative writer, and frankly, also because he seems to like stirring the waters - is sometimes frustratingly ambiguous. If he could learn from Piper and others to be more clear and consistent in what he says, it would help his case. That's my perspective, anyway. After reading this stuff for several years, I'm convinced that its just not as simple as I first thought it was. I still think the main pieces of the "old" perspective are important and basically correct. But I also think the NPP should add some important nuances to how and what we say.