A new perspective on justification?

Regular readers will be aware that I regard myself as an “amateur theologian” and that I advocate that all christians ought to be, to some extent. I have no formal training in this area, all my education was science-based and my post-education career has been finance-based.

Because of this, I am often some way behind the times in terms of major debates. One debate that has come to my attention is that of the “new perspective on Paul.” At present, I will confess that I don’t really know too much about it. I’ve bought a small raft of books on the subject (both for and against) wanting to try to get to grips on the topic.

Part of my motivation is one of a little “fan-dom” of Tom (N.T.) Wright, who is expecting to publish volume 4 of his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series in the summer of 2013. I started with volume 3 (not realising beforehand that it was part of a series) before doing volume 1, and I am presently about half way through reading volume 2. Volume 4 is expected to be something of a magnum opus on the topic, so I thought I ought to get acquainted with the issues beforehand.

There were a couple of books that I wanted to get my hands on but couldn’t do so at a reasonable price, but I did get the following:

  • Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
  • What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
  • Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright
  • The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright
  • Justification: Five Views by various authors

The two I missed out on were Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders and Justification and Variegated Nomism by D.A. Carson. For that last one, when I tried searching for it on the website of my local christian bookshop, the only results it came up with were Veggietales DVDs!

So over the next few months, you can expect to see each of these books reviewed, at the end of which I intend to write up a conclusion on my own thoughts based on what I’ve read.

At the outset, I must confess I don’t really get what the major fuss is about. From having read through some of the introductions, it seems that the issue is roughly as follows:

One of the lynchpins of the theological side of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by faith. That is to say, through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, the door was opened by we could attain salvation, but that invitation had to be accepted. This acceptance was through faith in Jesus.

The new perspective says that this picture is not wholly incorrect, but that it is incomplete. The reformation theologians did not integrate into their thinking the cultural and historical context into which Paul was writing. Once this line of thought is taken into consideration, an alternative emphasis comes out particularly in relation to how Paul saw the Jewish law and its relation to both Jewish and Gentile converts to christianity.

The most important practical aspect for believers is that it affects how those who roughly subscribe to reformed theology view the importance of works in personal salvation, thus undermining somewhat the notion of sola fide as most famously espoused by John Calvin.

Of course, my understanding of the issue may be completely erroneous. I freely confess, as always, that I may be (and indeed, may well be) wrong, but that is why I’m undertaking these readings. I always am interested in getting to the heart of a matter, of understanding what’s going on and why this has caused such heated discussions amongst some believers.


10 responses to “A new perspective on justification?

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Paul: A very short introduction – by E.P. Sanders | The Alethiophile

  2. Pingback: Inviting Jesus into your heart? | The Alethiophile

  3. I was drawn in at the same point. Then suddenly from within those questions emerged BioLogos. N. T. Wright and Francis Collins write songs together and ‘unwrite’ bigger piecies of Reformational polemics than justification by faith. Adam is Israel. Paul communicates the universal sinfulness of men through ancient cosmologies that ‘unfortunately’ are not supported by science. Our race did not begin with a specially created pair six or ten thousand hers ago. Billions of years from now space will be expanding faster than the speed of light; our galaxy will appear to itself as alone. That’s a nice picture of where I feel right now. http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_greene_on_string_theory.html

    • I came across Collins’ work a few years ago, though it was before I started this blog, which is why there isn’t a book review of The Language of God. I can’t remember if I’ve emphasised on this blog elsewhere, but I am a scientist by training, so am very interested in how scientific discoveries alter (or even falsify) our understanding of the world from the viewpoint of metaphysics, morality, theology, etc.

      Like Collins, I don’t subscribe to a creationist point of view (much in the news today!). I’ve written about this once, though for the most part I choose to stay away from particularly controversial or antagonistic subjects, as they tend to be full of heat and little light already. That said, I am composing a post (or possibly a mini-series) on life in a christian school.

      It’s certainly interesting where we draw the line between metaphor (such as Adam & Eve) and what is most likely history (e.g. the resurrection). Whether literalist or rationalist, both have work to do to reconcile the theological use of story and metaphor to the scientific paradigm.

  4. Pingback: Book Review: What St Paul Really Said by Tom Wright | The Alethiophile

  5. FYI In the Catholic Church justification is granted by God from baptism firstly, (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1992 “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.”) instead of plainly by faith, and from the Sacrament of Reconciliation after if a mortal sin is committed.(Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1446 “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” ” A mortal sin makes justification lost even if faith is still present. Before baptism faith is required of adults. The baptism of babies requires the parents’ promise to pass on the faith to the child. Baptism is called the sacrament of faith.

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  7. Pingback: Book Review: Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright | The Alethiophile

  8. Pingback: Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper | The Alethiophile

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