Friday, October 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on N.T. Wright's Justification

I’d like to offer a few random and disordered thoughts on N.T. Wright’s latest book, Justification. I may go back next week and fill in some details in order to offer a more cogent critique, or I may just let the messiness stand (depends on how emergent I’m feeling). So here goes….

First, some positives. Whether it is in response to his critics, or whether he’s been saying this all along, I’m not sure, but Wright does have a lot more to say about human sin and the need for rescue than I was expecting. One of the most common complaints from confessional Reformed theologians about the New Perspective on Paul is its failure to do justice to the serious nature of man’s plight before God (focusing instead on man’s estrangement from his fellow man, especially that of the Jew from the Gentile). This failure is seen most glaringly in E.P. Sanders’s somewhat lame claim that when all was said and done, the real problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. Perhaps Wright has been paying attention to the NPP’s critics at this point (or maybe he has been saying this all along, I am not sure), because in Justification he makes it clear time and time again that the whole point of Yahweh raising up a worldwide family by means of the Abrahamic covenant is to rescue man from the curses of both Genesis 11 and Genesis 3. Ecclesiology does not eclipse soteriology, but is the context in which salvation takes place.

One complaint that the confessional Reformed reader will still have, however, is with regard to Wright’s all-too-casual dismissal of the desire for personal salvation on the part of the person living in the second-temple period. Drawing from extra-canonical literature, Wright insists that the whole “What will happen when I die? Will my soul go to heaven?” mentality was just utterly foreign to the minds of people during Jesus’ and Paul’s day. What Wright seems all too eager to forget is the fact that New Testament characters asked these questions all the time. While we certainly don’t want to minimize the issue of table fellowship and Jew/Gentile relations, we must also remember that the rich young ruler had a heavy heart when considering the state of his own soul’s salvation, that the multitudes in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were “cut to the heart” after hearing Peter’s accusations about their sin, and the Philippian jailor’s first question to Paul and Silas was “What must I do to be saved?” If Wright is going to claim to be doing justice both to ecclesiology and soteriology, he will need to do a better job integrating passages like these into his system if he wants his claim to be taken seriously. If, as he admits, every Jew has an Adam living inside him, then we need a little more Eden and a little less Babel in his formulations.

Finally—and here I will echo Horton’s complaints—I wish Wright demonstrated a greater familiarity with traditional Reformed covenant theology. Often his foil is the Dispensationalist who insists that when God’s “Plan A” didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, he then put “Plan B” into effect, according to which man would be saved by the grace of Jesus instead of the demands of the law. I often find myself scratching my head in bewilderment at Wright’s approach, as if he believes either that contemporary Dispensationalism (1) is a worthy enough adversary to be taken seriously, (2) is the only alternative to the New Perspective’s brand of covenant theology, or (3) that the Reformers were proto-Dispensationalists. If Wright were to show a proficiency of understanding with respect to how the Reformers read Paul (and Moses), and if he incorporated the views of men like Vos, Ridderbos, and Kline into his critique of the Old Perspective, his arrows may land more successfully than they do when he shoots them at strawmen.

More next week, perhaps.