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What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright

In his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright offers a challenging summary of current ways of understanding Paul in the New Testament. Although he talks about more than the debate on the New Perspective on Paul in this little book, Wright’s understanding of justification is the focus of this review.

In his book Wright takes the standard understanding of the New Perspective regarding justification. He says, “’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 wining the case)” (p. 33). If this is what Paul means by justification, clearly his phrase, “the righteousness of God” has been misunderstood by orthodox, protestant theology.

Wright offers a summary of the different positions Christians take to understanding “the righteousness of God” (p. 101):

  1. God’s own “righteousness”
    1. Righteousness as a moral quality (‘of God’ as a possessive genitive)
      1. A distributive justice
      1. covenant faithfulness
  2. Righteousness as God’s salvation-creating power (‘of God’ as a subjective genitive)
    1. acts of covenant faithfulness
    1. non-covenental world-defeating actions
  3. A “righteousness” given to humans.
    1. Righteousness as a righteous standing ‘from God’ (‘of God’ as a genitive of origin).
      1. ‘imputed righteousness’
      1. ‘imparted righteousness’
  4. Righteousness as a quality ‘which comes before God’ or ‘avails with God’ (‘of God’ as an objective genitive)
    1. A natural quality recognized by God
    1. A special gift from God, then recognized as such

According to Wright, Luther grew up believing A.1.a, meaning that the righteousness of God is his “moral activity of punishing evil and rewarding virtue” (p, 102). The traditional protestant understanding of “righteousness of God” is the “B” option- a righteousness given to humans. Specifically, after Luther started to read Paul he took the B.1.a position. Wright is not clear if any of the other “B” positions are actually held by anyone specifically or are merely possible interpretations of the phrase. It doesn’t really matter, however, because Wright believes all these views are incorrect.

Wright sees the righteousness of God as his faithfulness to his promises (A.1.b). God is faithful to the covenant he made with Israel to preserve a people and the promises of the Old Testament to include the Gentiles in the last days. Since Christ’s death and resurrections proves that the last days have come, Paul spends most of his letters arguing that the Gentiles will be included with the Jews in those who are justified by God in the final judgment.

By his own admission, Wright is more radical than Sanders, the founder of the New Perspective on Paul. Sanders keeps the door open for Paul to talk about justification in the more traditional understanding by saying this is not the focus of Paul’s thought but still present. Wright accuses Sanders of not taking his research far enough and would like to see the old understanding of justification and the righteousness of God completely removed from Paul.

I’m not quite ready to line up with Wright and throw the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers away. Although Wright argues very clearly for the New Perspective, he fails to mention one major question: why there is a doubt of who should be included in God’s people in the first place?

This question comes from Wright’s (and Sanders’) initial assumptions. They argue that Paul is a product of his first-century Jewish training as a Pharisee. While few would argue that Paul was trained as a Pharisee, they are neglecting the more fundamental foundation behind that- the Old Testament.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is creating and preserving a people for himself. These people are different than the people around them (although many from the surrounding nations sometimes join them). Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t he just accept all people from all over the world? Because of the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God.

This is one of the clearest themes in the Old Testament- it’s why people (incorrectly) think that the God of the Old Testament is angry and wrathful and the God of the New Testament is one of love and forgiveness. You can see it from the first couple of chapters to the last prophecy of Malachi. It is clear in the way people, when the meet God, duck and cover. It is why there is an Exodus and an exile. You can’t read the Old Testament without noticing that God is holy and we are not.

If we are dirt compared to a perfect God, why would God want a people for himself? Grace. He didn’t choose Israel because they were the best or the most faithful people. He chose them because he didn’t want all mankind to perish.

But how could a holy God do this? How can he put up with sin in order to accept a people? Someone had to pay for their wrongs if he wants to remain perfect- otherwise he would be flawed because he wasn’t perfectly fair to punish everyone’s sins. That’s why he promised the Messiah would come. This Messiah would pay for their sins so God could accept them as his own people.

You see, justification by faith is not a doctrine of the New Testament or Paul alone. It is inherit in the Old Testament, a fact that Paul bases all his arguments upon. Because Wright (and Sanders) interprets Paul solely in terms of his Pharisee education, they miss this point and consequently redefine justification.

However, Wright does bring out a good point: we are not merely saved from our sins as individuals by the work of Christ. We are saved into a people. Our Enlightenment-influenced Western culture has made us forget our connection to others with whom we share our faith.

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