N.T. Wright’s Treatment of the Theology of Justification

by Todd McClure

N.T. Wright is one of the prominent voices of what has been labeled the “New Perspective on Paul,” a currently debated subject in the Church today. The crux of the “New Perspective” is a redefining of Paul’s writings on justification/righteousness.

I want to start out by summarizing Wright’s view of Paul’s doctrine of justification which is broken into three main categories, and then unpack them by going into the background of Paul’s worldview and the context that brings to the language he uses in his letters, then we will look at a couple of the main references used in support of this view.

Wright’s Summarization of Paul’s Doctrine of Justification

  1. Covenant. Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong.
  2. Law court. Justification functions like the verdict in the law court: by acquitting someone, it confers on that person the status ‘righteous.’ This is the forensic dimension of the futurecovenantal vindication.
  3. Eschatology. This declaration, this verdict, is ultimately to be made at the end of history. Through Jesus, however, God has done in the middle of history what He had been expected to do – and, indeed, will still do – at the end; so that the declaration, the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation. The events of the last days were anticipatedwhen Jesus died on the cross, as the representative Messiah of Israel, and rose again. The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.
  4. Therefore – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven.1

The Jewish Context of Justification

For some time, specifically since the Reformation period, many parallels have been made between Paul’s argument against the ‘justification by works’ of Judaism and the reformers’ argument against the ‘justification by works’ of the Catholic Church. Wright argues that if by justification you mean salvation, you are making an argument that Paul did not make. Saul of Tarsus as a Pharisee and theologian was a revolutionary and understood the Torah as a story in search of an ending; and he saw his own task as bringing that ending about.

The story ran like this. Israel had been called by God to be His covenant people; they would be His means for providing light into a darkened world, undoing the sin of Adam and its effects. But Israelhad become sinful and therefore had been sent into exile away from the Promised Land. AlthoughIsrael had returned geographically from her exile, the real exile condition was not yet finished for the promises had not yet been fulfilled. The Temple had not yet been rebuilt, the Messiah had not yet come, the pagans had not yet been reduced to submission and Israel was still deeply compromised and sinful.  “There are three cardinal points of Jewish theology in this period: monotheism, election and eschatology. There is one God, the one true God of all the world; Israel is the people of this one true God; and there is one future for all the world, a future not very far away now, in which the true God will reveal himself, defeat evil, and rescue his people.”2

The keeping of the Torah was the means by which Saul and his contemporaries could hasten the time of the fulfillment of the prophecies. If fulfillment came and Israel was not following Torah, they would be condemned along with the pagans. In other words, the following of the law was not a means of earning salvation; it was a participation in covenant fulfillment. The purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was not ultimately to choose a people for Himself, but to undo the sin of Adam and through Israel address and save the entire world. Wright now asks, “What would ‘justification’ mean in this context?” Many agree that it is a ‘forensic’ or ‘judicial’ term; Wright calls it a ‘law-court’ term and places it in its Jewish context as the “greatest lawsuit of all”.

In the Jewish context, this courtroom scene is to take place on the great day when YHWH will judge all the nations and rescue His people Israel. “‘Justification’ thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant (Israel is God’s people) on the one hand and the law court on the other (God’s final judgment will be like a great law-court scene with Israel winning the case).”3 Wright’s third category of Paul’s doctrine, eschatology, also has roots in the context of 2nd Temple Judaism. Eschatology is the technical term used to denote in Judaism the expectation of a climatic conclusion to the story of which they were living. This is not ‘end-of-the-world’ language; it is the belief that the climatic moment in history was coming when everything would be sorted out and made right. So, by putting justification and eschatology together, “the Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last.”4 A major aspect of the Jewish eschatological hope is the resurrection of the saints, so when Saul of Tarsus met the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth on the road to Damascus his eschatological hopes and his current reality came face to face. “God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought He was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans.”5

It is very important to have this Jewish context of ‘justification’ and also to continue on with the realization that Paul did not move on to another, new and improved religion. He remained loyal to the God of Abraham; he did not abandon Judaism for something else, he had found the fulfillment of their hopes in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

What is the Gospel?

Ask someone in the church today what the gospel is, and you are likely to get an answer straight off an evangelistic tract that would be handed out on a street corner; a step-by-step recipe of what one must do to gain salvation. Realize that you are a sinner, recognize that you cannot reach God by your own power, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus as your savior by praying this and that prayer. Wright does not want to argue against this use of the word ‘gospel,’ he just wants us to realize that Paul’s use of the word euangelion (‘gospel’ or ‘good news’) did not have this meaning. Some argue whether Paul’s meaning comes from the Hebrew context or the Hellenistic context, but the meanings are not so much different that a distinction really needs to be argued about. The Greek meaning refers to the announcement of a great victory, or a royal birth, or a ruler taking the throne. The Hebrew understanding comes from a series of passages in the book of Isaiah such as:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7)!6

The gospel for Paul is the proclamation of Jesus, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his kingship and his lordship; these in direct opposition to the authority of the pagan rulers of Rome. Paul sees his new vocation as a herald of the king to the pagan world!

The Righteousness of God

The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, seven of which are in the letter to the Romans. Wright feels that the meaning of this phrase has been greatly obscured in various translations. Wright states that it is pretty obvious to readers of the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures that ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one meaning: God’s own faithfulness to His promises, to the covenant (Isaiah 40-55; Daniel 9).7 “God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate to his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. And at the heart of that picture in Isaiah there stands, of course, the strange figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished.”8

Earlier the forensic, law-court language of ‘justification’ was discussed and it applies to ‘righteousness’ as well, for the terms are somewhat interchangeable. They come from the same Greek root diakou.

  1. In the Jewish law court there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. All cases take the form of one party versus the other party, with the judge deciding the issue.
  2. ‘Righteousness’ in this context means something different when applied to the judge from what it means when applied to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Applied to the judge, it means that the judge must try the case according to the law; that he must be impartial; that he must punish sin as it deserves; and that he must support and uphold those who are defenseless and who have no one but him to plead their cause. For the judge to be ‘righteous,’ to have and practice ‘righteousness’ in this forensic setting, is therefore a complex matter to do with the way he handles the case.
  3. For the plaintiff and the defendant, however, to be ‘righteous’ has none of these connotations. They, after all, are not trying the case. For the plaintiff or the defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.9

God, the judge, is ‘righteous’ by judging faithfully and justly, and the defendant is given the status of ‘righteous’ by the judge’s decision. They are not the same ‘righteousness,’ so though righteousness is given it is not imputed.

Justification/Righteousness in Paul’s Letters

Having established the context and language that Paul would be using in his writings, now we can take a look at a few of the pivotal passages in which the righteousness/justification of God is written about by Paul. Because of the parameters of this article, we can by no means go into every reference in Paul’s letters, so we will only look at two of the more pivotal sections.

Philippians 3:2-11

“…and count them rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 8b-9).

The context of the letter is Paul addressing a congregation in the pagan Roman colony of Philippi. Paul is encouraging his readers to follow him in finding joy in Jesus Christ, to follow his example; for as he was prepared to abandon all his privileges to gain Christ, they should be prepared to do the same. Wright restates the passage this way: “He is saying, in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ.”10

Romans 3:21-26

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 21-24).

The church in Rome was both Jewish and Gentile, and in the section leading up to this passage Paul has made it plain that not only is the Gentile world out of touch with its creator and therefore under God’s judgment, but also the Jews, and despite having been given the covenant through which God had intended to redeem the world, they remained in exile, living in sin. So Israel had joined the Gentile world in the defendant’s chair in the law-court of God. Through the faithfulness of Jesus, God is Himself righteous, for He has fulfilled His covenant; He has dealt with sin and vindicated the helpless: “He is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’”

My Critique of the ‘New Perspective’

For quite awhile now, especially as I have wrestled with the passages in Romans concerning election and predestination, I have struggled with the way those passages didn’t fit into the context of the letter. The passages were about the unity of the body, so why was Paul giving the breakdown of how salvation works for individuals when he was writing to an audience of believers? So, I must admit that as I have read Wright’s and others’ material on Pauline theology I see this interpretation as fitting contextually where the traditional interpretations haven’t.

As I have read others’ critiques of the “New Perspective,’ I haven’t been impressed because most of them have obviously approached the subject with the predisposed idea of defending their previous beliefs or the Reformed tradition in which they grew up in or under which they studied. As I read these critiques, they make statements that are misinformed, criticizing incorrectly what Wright has written, arguing against a piece of the theology and not looking at the whole.

Thomas Schreiner narrows Wright’s view down to defining God’s righteousness as purely ‘his faithfulness to his covenant,’ and proceeds to argue from the Isaiah passages that God’s righteousness must involve God’s salvation on behalf of His people.11 Wright has clearly stated that salvation is what the covenant was about from the start.

I wish that I had time to dig into the background material that Wright has published establishing the Jewish context in the 2nd Temple period. Though it sounds solid, right now I just have to take his word for it. I have not come close to reading everything that Wright has published on this subject, but I am interested in how his interpretation of the meaning of justification/righteousness in the Pauline letters affects his theology of election which Paul references in the same letters, therefore having the same context of kingdom membership. The context of these letters in dealing with justification is not individualistic, though they come down to the individual, for individuals, not ethnic groups, place their faith in Jesus.

If the doctrine of election and predestination is to be seen in the context of covenant, then this leads to a nationalistic view of predestination rather than an individualistic view. Galatians 3:8 (“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham”), along with Romans chapter nine, do lead us in the direction that Paul is using the election of God as part of his argument for the righteousness of God in His faithfulness to His covenant to redeem all of creation to Himself through His Son. If the context of covenant moves one’s theology in this direction, I could see this being an argument for Barth’s Christocentric and Unlimited Atonement; that Christ died for all people and the effects of Christ’s death is universal to all people.

I think it is important in the current debate concerning the ‘New Perspective’ that we not throw the baby out with the bathwater while trying to protect certain elements of our theology; the position needs to be looked at as a whole body of work and not an attack on the Reformed tradition.

Notes

1 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 131

2 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 31

3 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 33

4 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 34

5 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 36

6 Holy Bible, New American Standard Version

7 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

8 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

9 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 97-98

10 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 124

11 Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory In Christ, p.198

Bibliography

Barnett, Paul, Bishop of North Sydney. “Tom Wright and The New Perspective,” AnglicanMedia.com, December 2000

Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids,Michigan 1998

Hamilton, Edward L. “The Righteousness” of Romans and Galatians, and the Gospel of Christ,” The Paul Page, October 2002

Hamilton, Edward L. “What Is the New Perspective on Paul?” The Paul Page, March 2002

Lusk, Rich. “The PCA and the New Perspective on Paul,” Theologia, 2003

Mattison, Mark M. “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul,” The Paul Page, January 2004

McNeill, John T. ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Battles, Lewis, trans.Westminster John Knox Press, London MCMLX

Piper, John. The Justification of God, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1993

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Intervarsity Press, Downer Grove, Illinois 2001

Seifrid, Mark A. Christ, our Righteousness, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois 2000

Tanner, Kathryn. “Justification and Justice in a Theology of Grace,” Theology Today, Vol. 55, No. 4 January 1999

Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1991

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and The People of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992

Wright, N.T. “The Shape of Justification,” The Paul Page, April 2001

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 1997

2 Comments

  1. […] of God. By contrast? That seems unlikely. Rather, God shows his righteousness by being righteous. Todd McClure explains – The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, seven of […]

  2. […] of God. By contrast? That seems unlikely. Rather, God shows his righteousness by being righteous. Todd McClure explains – The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, seven of […]

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