Tag Archives: justification

Book Review: Justification – Five views by Various Authors

This is the last book that I intend to look at (for now) in my continuing quest to understand the new perspective on Paul and the grounds for critiquing it. To date I have read 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. Wight
The Future of Justification by John Piper
Justification by Tom Wright

You may note that of the main proponents of the new perspective, I have thus far omitted James Dunn. Well, Dunn is the representative of the new perspective here. So what we have are five essays from six different writers:

Traditional Reformed – Michael Horton
Progressive Reformed – Michael Bird
New Perspective – James Dunn
Deification – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Catholic – Gerald O’Collins & Oliver Rafferty

The book is highly structured, with the editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, writing a lengthy introduction, giving the background against which the essays are set. There is a brief history of the doctrine of justification, including the broad sweep of theological thought of the Reformation. Helpfully, the editors have included a fair variety of denominations including Anabaptists and Pentecostals – strands of christianity which form part of the tapestry of my own faith.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the 5 essays and the reaction to each of them from the writers of the other 4.

Horton’s essay is very traditional and reminded me much of John Piper’s book on the same subject. Though he makes some good points, and presents his view very clearly and faithfully, I couldn’t help but think, having read some of the ‘new perspective’ writings already, that his essay just lacked some key aspects. It was like a landscape painting without the sky.

Michael Bird is not a theologian I had ever heard of before, though I liked his essay very much. This may be because of confirmation bias, I freely admit, as his view is very closely aligned with my own. While he recognises the value of traditional thought, this is not because tradition has intrinsic value; he recognises the fallibility of the likes of Luther and Calvin, who were merely doing their best to be faithful expositors and interpreters of the biblical authors. I will aim to read more of Bird’s writings in the future.

James Dunn was another that I liked. He is quick to point out that not all of the proponents of the ‘new perspective’ are univocal, and he does distance himself from one aspect of Wright’s writings that I found myself disagreeing with, namely the reinterpretation of “God’s righteousness” as “God’s covenantal faithfulness”. Indeed Dunn’s essay serves to highlight the fact that the real core of the arguments over justification are semantic. What do we mean when we speak of justification and righteousness and what did the biblical authors mean?

Karkkainen is an odd one. In his responses to the other essays, he rarely engages, but rather alludes to his own essay. His view itself is one that is completely new to me. To explain briefly, it is a sort of conflation of Lutheranism with Eastern Orthodoxy (the latter of which I confess near total ignorance, the former only slightly less so) whereby people are made to be ‘like God’ though Karkkainen is a little woolly in his definitions, a point picked up by one of the responses. I found myself interested, yet unconvinced by his essay. I know I will have to do more reading on this subject though to come to a more rounded, informed opinion.

The piece on catholicism is split into two parts. The first is a very straightforward statement of catholic doctrine written by Rafferty where his appeal is almost entirely to the Council of Trent. Some of the pronouncements of it are reproduced in Michael Horton’s earlier essay. Rafferty’s part does nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Reformation (and the council of Trent) marked the final separation between christianity and catholicism. Only a full renunciation could mark the beginnings of the restoration of Rome to the church of Christ. O’Collins’ section is a personal testimony. Here, he seems to take a very different line of thinking which is much more open to the possibility of the need of catholicism to change. His testimony culminates with his being part of a “joint declaration on the doctrine of justification” in 1999 between the catholic and Lutheran churches, though it is noted that this document is binding on neither church.

What I found most striking was that the deification and catholic pieces almost entirely discussed tradition. This was true to a fair extent of the Traditional Reformed piece, though not quite so much. It was really only the Progressive Reformed and the New Perspective views that gave any weight at all to scripture. Were these two omitted and one were to approach this without any prior knowledge, one could easily get the impression that the documents over which the debate occurs are the writings of Martin Luther and the decrees of the council of Trent. Jesus, Paul and James barely get a look-in.

Interestingly, I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was 90% of the way through the book, only to find a very similar critique in the last 10% made by Dunn in response to the essay on the catholic point of view. So while each essays, and the responses to them, are highly informative as to the stance of each of the writers, very little is given (with pun fully intended) by way of justification of their own view.

Overall, this is well worth a read and serves as a good summary of different points of view.


Book Review: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright

Continuing to look at the New Perspectives on Paul movement, having recently looked at John Piper’s response to Tom Wright, this is then Wright’s response to Piper. The book divides into 2 (almost equal) parts. The first part is Wright’s more direct response to Piper’s book, combined with a restatement and clarification of some points, though these will be familiar to readers who have followed the same route that I did (What Saint Paul Really Said -> Paul: Fresh Perspectives – > The Future of Justification). The second half is an exegesis on the key sections in Paul’s writing relating to the theme of justification.

As the publishers chose to publish in the name of ‘Tom’ rather than ‘N.T.’ one might expect this to be at the more “everyday” level, more akin to Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope than his work on the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Don’t let this lull you into a sense that there isn’t much to think through. Wright’s argument needs a great deal of care and attention in order to follow it. Indeed, one of his criticisms of Piper and other critics is that they have cherry-picked their objections, failing to see the bigger picture. There are flashes in the first half of some of Wright’s exasperation which some have taken to be slightly less than gracious. I must admit that I have some sympathy with this view, as the introduction comes across as though this was a book that Wright was compelled to write, which interrupted his schedule.

I must confess that I found the 2nd half of the book much tougher than the first. This is where Wright goes into detail on the key passages relating to justification in Galatians and Romans, with an interlude looking at Philippians, Corinthians and Ephesians. The trouble stems from the fact that Wright doesn’t include any of the texts he is talking about. So one is compelled to read this book in one hand and a bible in the other. Even then, the large sweeps Wright takes encapsulates large chunks of text at a time. While Wright is keen to show the “big picture” I couldn’t help but get a little bit lost along the way. Speaking to others about the book, it appears several ‘gave up’ at this point though I would strongly encourage anyone who has done so to try again.

One of the great treats of the book is that at several places, Wright echoes Paul’s writing style (especially his rhetorical questions) with the likes of, “What shall we say to these things?” or, “Where then is boasting in human traditions (including those of the Reformation)?” before going on to answer these questions himself. Having followed, chronologically by publication, some of the New Perspective writings, I’m not sure how accessible this book might be to those who haven’t followed the same path. There are certainly a lot of riches to be discovered, though I would recommend tracing the journey that resulted in arriving here. But for anyone who wants to understand the background, the debate and the interpretations that are important to the New Perspective, then this would have to be core reading.

[As an endnote, I ought to state that the day before I finished reading this, a commenter on this blog pointed my attention to the fact that the release of Wright’s magnum opus on Paul has finally been announced. Though I write about it a little around 18 months ago, little has been made public knowledge since then. Though the date has not been made more specific than “the autumn” we do now know that there will be 3 volumes. There is the book Wright intended to write, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a review of recent Pauline scholarship, Paul and his Recent Interpreters, and a collection of Wright’s other writings on Paul (which may include extracts of the current book being reviewed). I look forward to it immensely.]

Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

I’m continuing my look at the New Perspectives on Paul, here looking at the first of the rejoinders. Piper angles his writing specifically as a response to N.T. (Tom) Wright. It was for that reason that I chose to read What St Paul Really Said and Paul: Fresh Perspectives before I read this. If you are considering picking up Piper’s book, I would heartily recommend that you read these first; otherwise you may get lost, although Piper does quote Wright quite extensively, but only on the points which Piper disagrees with.  

A word needs to be said about the book’s structure & style. The main book is a little under 200 pages long, but tagged onto the end are six appendices. Piper fully admits that these appendices don’t directly relate to the argument of the book, but are little essays that give some more detail to his views on the theme of justification. Most evident in these, but also present in the rest of the book, is Piper’s inferior communication skills. While he criticises Wright for not always being clear (and I agree that Wright isn’t always clear in communicating his views), Piper has a habit of peppering his writing with Greek. Only, he rarely includes a transliteration, making it difficult to read for anyone who can’t easily read Greek. One wonders if this was done not for the purposes of making himself clearer, but for the purpose of making him look clever. Likewise, Piper uses the word ‘impute’ and its cognates a lot, but at times he contradicts himself over what he understands this to mean.

As the title suggests, the aspect of the New Perspective which is in contention is that of ‘justification by faith’. Wright’s contention is that justification is not that which ensures salvation, but is the “badge” by which those who are saved are identified. Here, I do find Piper more convincing than Wright, particularly with respect to the interpretation of the phrase ‘dikaiosune theou’ which is usually translated as “God’s righteousness” but which Wright takes as “God’s covenant faithfulness”.

Piper drops a vital clue as to some of the differences between his & Wright’s point of view when he says, “This British phrase, “putting the world to rights” means…” (emphasis added). It seems that there may be something lost in translation inside a common language. Piper then goes on to question how good news for the world can be a gospel for an individual, betraying a very particular Americanised sort of individualism. Of course, such a viewpoint would have only faintly recognisable to Paul.

This is by no means a response to the whole “New Perspectives” idea as espoused by Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others. This focuses on just one aspect of it. As such, I couldn’t help but think that Piper seems to have disagreed with Wright’s conclusions without first walking out the path that Wright has done himself. Indeed, Wright has stated that he is attempting to “think Paul’s thoughts”; the image that comes to my mind is of a child walking across a muddy field trying to step in their parent’s footsteps. Here indeed, the field is very muddy.

Much of the first part of the book focuses on an analogy that Wright used in What Saint Paul Really Said about a lawcourt. Although Wright only spends 7 pages on this (one of which is a diagram) out of 183 (4%), Piper’s critique of it covers just over 40 pages out of 225 (18%). In this particular respect, I find Wright’s account more compelling, as Piper seems more keen to stick to his own traditional understanding, rather than accept the possibility that theologians of generations past may have slightly misunderstood.

No one can doubt Piper’s earnestness or that he has taken great care in researching this book. Where a perceived misinterpretation of the bible has taken place, I do think it’s important to try to set things right, so I wouldn’t join with those who say Piper was being ungracious in writing this. In some points, I think his criticisms are valid, but not in all. As this was the first book of his I have read, I think he’s relied a bit too much on his other writings, though I said something similar for Paul: Fresh Perspectives.

After reading this, the next step in my self-education in the new perspectives will be to read Wright’s response to Piper entitled ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’. If my current reading goes to plan, I would expect for that review to ready sometime around late January or early February.


Book Review: Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright

Carrying on my look at the New Perspectives in Paul, this was Wright’s follow up to What St Paul Really Said. While some of the topics covered broadly cover the same ground, this is a very different book which incorporates and references quite a bit of Wright’s other writings (excluding his New Testament For Everyone series). As such, if you are new to Wright, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point.

The first half of the book looks at the background setting into which Paul’s theology was born. These are outlined in some detail (but not exhaustively, as Wright is keen to emphasize) under the titles ‘Creation and Covenant’, ‘Messiah and Apocalyptic’ and ‘Gospel and Empire’. The first of these echoes What St Paul Really Said the most, with Wright’s view on the New Perspective movement being that when references are made to the history of Israel that Paul had the whole sweep of that history in mind. So a reference to the Exodus necessarily entails a knowledge and understanding of all the nuances and symbolism that entails.

This is a very interesting view which is fairly persuasive, yet not compelling. For example, the painting of the Forth Road Bridge was sometimes referred to as a Sisyphean task, yet I think this only refers to the part of the myth of Sisyphus which relates to his rolling the stone up the hill repeatedly, not necessarily the backstory as to how he ended up there. So it might be with Paul’s references to the Jewish theologies of monotheism, creation and covenant.

In ‘Messiah and Apocalyptic’ Wright redefines these terms of how he thinks Paul understood them, which may be quite different to modern usage. So one is referred strongly back to The New Testament and the People of God for detail on ‘Apocalyptic’ and to Jesus and the Victory of God for detail on ‘Messiah’.

In Gospel and Empire, Wright looks at the royal proclamation element of the gospel for which he has been noted, not least in Jesus and the Victory of God and, more recently, in How God Became King. So if you have read either of those, there will be little new here, but it’s needed for completeness.

The second half of the book gets into some of the real meat of the argument, although it is clear (and Wright acknowledges this) that this is a condensed line of reasoning, with much that either has been expanded upon elsewhere or will be expanded upon later. As such, I would warn potential readers of the book that even though it is less than 200 pages long, the content is very dense. If you gloss over a sentence, you will lose the thread. Also, Wright refers to some quite extensive passages of scripture without providing the reader much by way of including it. So have a bible to hand.

Much of the point of view that Wright expresses is dependent upon his translation. I’m no expert in Greek so I could not help but wonder if his translation was influenced by his theology and not the other way around. While I intend to read some of the detractors to the ‘new perspective’ movement, I would be surprised if a similar point is not raised.

The most contentious chapter, by some way, is ‘Reworking God’s People’ where Wright looks at the doctrines of election and ‘justification by faith’. He brings to the readers’ attention some of the passages of New Testament which many churches will tend to view only out of the corner of their eyes. While Romans 8 may be a favourite passage for many, chapters 9-11 of the same book may not be. He similarly notes that proponents of the New Perspective love the 2nd half of Ephesians 2, while its detractors like to focus more on the first half of the chapter.

Wright tries to steer round this debate by saying that the approach needed is one that is all-encompassing. There ought to not be an either/or discussion, but rather a both/and way of viewing these doctrines. After all, if Paul put these next to one another in his own writings, it’s unlikely he intended to be being self-contradictory.

The image that was cast in my head was that of a die. You cannot see all of its faces at once. Traditional theology has been entranced by looking at the six and catching an askew glance at some of the other faces, while others remain out of side, either on the opposite side, or face down on the table. Wright wants us to pick up the die and turn it over in our hands, looking at every side. For some, this may mean losing sight temporarily of the view they have grown up with and loved for many years. But Wright is not advocating throwing away any aspects of traditional theology. Instead, he wishes to cast a new light on it. But, to mix my metaphors, adding light can also cast a shadow elsewhere. So while the idea of justification by faith has been core to much reformed theology, the point put forward is that it is has been partially misunderstood and is also part of a bigger picture.

In writing this, Wright did not set out to answer all questions about Paul and give an holistic account of his theology. Instead, this book should be taken as a thought-provoker, inviting the reader to re-examine Paul for themselves and to go further down the pathways which Wright has sketched out. It’s not an easy read, but it’s not impenetrable either. So, with due caution, proceed, learn and think.


Book Review: What St Paul Really Said by Tom Wright

Continuing my look at the New Perspective on Paul, I move onto one of the earlier books by Wright on the topic of Paul. Earlier this summer, I read & reviewed E.P. Sanders’ short introduction to Paul.

From the outset, Wright states that this is only a short introduction, something of a ‘taster’ for his forthcoming much larger work on Paul, which, at the time of writing this review, is due out in the summer of 2013.

Wright begins his discussion by asking what world Paul inhabited, as this seems foundational to discussions on the nature of the origins of christianity. Wright refers to David Wenham (one of his books on this topic is reviewed here) and stresses Paul’s Jewishness. It seems, though I will confess to some ignorance on this, that at the heart of many accusations over the falsity of the early church is the notion that Paul abandoned his Jewishness and instead brought to the primitive community a quasi-Hellenistic religion, distorting the message and legacy of Jesus. Of course, if one subscribed to this view, then the grounds of christianity (or at least the whole history of what has become christianity) would be severely undermined. Consequently, it is a view that needs to be looked at carefully, with all due consideration and seriousness.

Wright then goes on to give an account of why he believes Paul never abandoned Judaism, but rather, his understanding of it was radically reformed. As a persecutor of the early church, Saul of Tarsus had great energy and enthusiasm for his work. As an apostle, Paul of Tarsus was no less “zealous” in his aims.

So far, so uncontroversial.

Out of this, though, Wright comes to the question of “what did Paul mean when he talked of ‘gospel’?” Here, Wright veers away from the traditional reformed answer which focuses on how one is “saved” (technical term: soteriology) and instead states that the gospel is an announcement about Jesus and how God is made known through Jesus.

Though evidence is presented above on how thoroughly Paul stays faithful to Jewish monotheism, one does then face some thorny problems with certain statements he makes about the Jewish law, particularly in Galatians and Romans. Wright tackles these in much the same way as Sanders does, by arguing that statements about the law and about circumcision are not about moralism or legalism, but rather that they were statements about Jewish identity. i.e. if christians find their identity in Christ, then there is no longer a need to adopt the identity markers of Judaism now that in Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled.

An important figure in Wright’s arguments is that of Pelagius, a figure I doubt the majority of christians will be familiar with. In short, he was a late 4th/early 5th century theologian who believed that people could be saved by living to strict moral guidelines. You can read more about him in Alister McGrath’s Heresy. Wright’s use of this figure is to demonstrate what many modern christians think Paul meant when he spoke of salvation through the law, but which Paul did not mean at all. There is no historical evidence which supports the idea that Judaism was prevalent with those who sought to save themselves by their own efforts. Rather, they were the chosen people of God and their observance of the Torah was what distinguished them from other people.

The second half of the book is then almost entirely devoted to the question of what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’. With the background given earlier, Wright’s view was that ‘faith’ is the identifying mark by which christians are identified rather than the means by which they become christians. In other words, he swaps round the traditionalist viewpoint of which is the cart and which is the horse.  There’s a very helpful diagram which outlines various different interpretations of the word “righteousness” – though Wright chooses to focus on just a couple of these, rather than going into much depth on each of them.

The apparent conclusion of the book then asks how Paul’s teaching, understood in this new light, ought to affect the church. At this juncture, as in Surprised by Hope, Wright seems to leave his world of ancient academia and applies his sharp judgement to the modern church – or at least, to some aspects of the church. He gives a powerful and thought-provoking challenge which should be of interest to all christians.

However, the book doesn’t quite end there. The final chapter seems somewhat tacked onto the end. Here, Wright effectively gives a critique of a book by A.N. Wilson called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. I might, at some point, pick this up and have a read myself. The main content of the book is said to be greatly opposed to the view put forth by Wright, and the key arguments are countered by reference to Wright’s own analysis as laid out in earlier chapters. This final chapter does come across as a little ungracious, and its tone jars slightly from that of the previous chapter.

That aside, it is a very good read and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else wanting to gain an understanding of the new perspective on Paul.