N.T. Wright, though he has brought very much excellent, historical, scholarly work to the table concerning the early church and Jesus, it is the redefinition of terms like justification, works of the law, righteousness, amongst others, that is of great concern to the modern church. For those of you who do not know, N.T. Wright, along with E.P. Sanders, and James Dunn, amongst others, purport a theory concerning the Apostle Paul called “The New Perspective on Paul.” The issues surrounding this controversy in the church have to do with Paul’s worldview perspective as a first century Jew, converted to Christ. N.T. Wright has gone back to original Jewish writings during the time of Paul to get an understanding of the true cultural context in which he lived. In doing so, he claims to have found that the terms Paul used were vastly different than they way the Reformers (like Martin Luther and John Calvin) and early church Christians (like Augustine) understood them. And so, because of this historical research, Wright, and these other scholars, have concluded we need to read those terms in Paul’s letters in light of the first century Jewish culture to get a better understanding of what he was actually saying.
Historically within the church, for the past 1500 years since Augustine (though it has gone through darkened periods as a result of Roman Catholicisms definition of the term) justification means that as a result of the work of Christ on behalf of the believing sinner, through faith, his sins are imputed to Christ (taken by Him on the cross), and in exchange, he is given an alien righteousness, imputed to us as a result of Christ’s perfect obedience before the Father. We are robed in the perfect righteousness of Christ, just as if we had never sinned and instead fulfilled all righteousness by God’s standards). We are made to stand in the right before God by the work of Christ alone through faith alone, though we are sinners. Wonderful doctrine that sustains my soul everyday!
However, from the “New Perspective” position, justification is about being included in the covenant community of believers, not relating so much directly with God Himself, but with the believing community. For the New Perspective, to be justified means you are included in the community of believers. In addition, according to this new interpretation, terms like “works of the law” are no longer talking about us attempting to “justify” (see above) ourselves outside of the work of Christ. But rather, this term is understood as meaning a badge of honor (and pride) within the Jewish community of believers that excludes those Gentile believers who do not adhere to them (which as he argues is what Paul’s point was in writing to the Galatians). One of the main things that alarms me is Wright claims the Reformers basically got it wrong and we need to go back to the original context, bypassing the Reformers, and even Augustinianism, to get a clearer understanding of what Paul meant in his letters. My questions are: Was not the Reformation a recovery of the eclipsed Gospel from Rome? Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? And yet we would revert back and change definitions of vastly important terms that define the very Gospel itself? What is the Gospel then in this system? What else is left in this system but an approach to God that is fundamentally works-based? Sounds dangerous to me.
John Piper has written a new book that I am excited to read at some point in the future concerning all of this (added to my list of other books I want to read). It is called The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Piper argues that we need to be very careful about bringing new interpretations of the Scripture into the thought of the church. This has happened in the history of the church before which resulted in heresy, though many heresies started out like a nice idea initially and gained popularity within the church itself. Here is the description of Piper’s book on Monergismbooks.com:
N. T. Wright, a world-renowned New Testament scholar and bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has spent years studying the apostle Paul’s writings and has offered a “fresh perspective” on Paul’s theology. Among his conclusions are that “the discussions of justification in much of the history of the church—certainly since Augustine—got off on the wrong foot, at least in terms of understanding Paul—and they have stayed there ever since.”
Wright’s confidence that the church has gotten it wrong for 1,500 years, given his enormous influence, has set off warning bells for Christian leaders such as John Piper, a pastor and New Testament scholar. If Wright’s framework for interpreting the New Testament text and his understanding of justification find a home in the church, not only could the doctrine of justification be distorted for generations to come, but the New Testament writers’ original intent could be silenced. So Piper is sounding a crucial warning in this book, reminding all Christians to exercise great caution regarding “fresh” interpretations of the Bible and to hold fast to the biblical view of justification.
As stated on the DesiringGod.org blog, not everyone should read this book, mainly because it is a theological and scholarly response to another theologian. But if you want to understand more of the issues concerning this newly introduced thought into the church, check it out!
– Justification and the Diminishing Work of Christ – John Piper (MP3) – 2007 Evangelical Theological Society
– Free copy of the book!!! (PDF)
– The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright BUY IT NOW!
– Review of the book over at The Shepard’s Scrapbook
– New Perspective Section on Monergism.com for those of you who want to dig deeper and see some great critiques.