Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision

By N. T. Wright
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2009). 279 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 287-290

The issue of what is now popularly called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) has been a leading (if not the leading) theological issue for the last decade within evangelicalism. The Master’s Seminary addressed the issue in its Faculty Lecture Series in 2005. Those five lectures were published in the Seminary Journal (TMSJ 16/2 [Fall 2005]).

The literature on the New Perspective is enormous, largely because it is a somewhat amorphous movement. The three main proponents of NPP, E. P. Sanders (largely credited with creating the issue), James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright, often do not agree with one another. In the introduction of Justification and Variegated Nomism (Baker, 2001), D. A. Carson noted,

The “new perspective” on Paul is in some respects not new, and in any case cannot be reduced to a single perspective. Rather, it is a bundle of interpretative approaches to Paul, some of which are merely differences in emphasis, and other of which compete rather antagonistically. Taken together, however, they belong to the “new perspective” in that they share certain things in common, not least a more-or-less common reading of the documents of Second Temple Judaism, and a conviction that earlier readings of Paul, not least from the Protestant camp, and especially from the German Lutheran camp, with lines going back to the Reformation, are at least partially mistaken and perhaps profoundly mistaken (ibid, 1).

As new literature on this subject was beginning to wane, John Piper, the well-know pastor and conference speaker, added to the bibliography with The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007). In this work, while affirming that in his view NPP , at least as Wright delineates it, is not “another gospel” (ibid, 15); he nonetheless states that Wright’s “portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular— is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful” (ibid).

Piper’s work was thorough and detailed as an interaction with not only Wright’s concepts, but his actual written material, and as the above quote demonstrates, it was pointed and critical. The book under review here is W right’s response to Piper and to his (Wright’s) larger number of critics.

Wright, who serves as Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church, is obviously a man of significant ability and responsibilities. He notes in the preface that this book was rushed, and due “to the pressure of other duties, and the urgency of the publisher’s deadlines” (13), he did not get any editorial assistance or input or even share the draft with Piper (although he acknowledges that Piper had shared his draft with him before publication). Wright notes that he is hopeful of completing a larger work on Paul in the near future that he hopes “will help clarify things further” (ibid).

Wright divides the work into two parts. In Part One he deals with introductory issues, methodology, and historical and theological overviews. In Part Two, “turning now to exegesis” (111), he presents his position on Galatians and Romans.

In Part One the reader is quickly aware of the tone of the book, which this reviewer characterizes as snippy and angry. Wright wanders from illustration to illustration, and often displays little coherence or indication of where he is going. He does have an occasional excellent turn of phrase, for which he is noted, such as, “History is where we have to go if, as we say, we want to listen to Scripture itself rather than either the venerable traditions of later church leaders or the less venerable footnotes of more recent scholars. For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions” (37). But he also takes a significant and oddly placed swipe at the New International Version of the Bible (NIV), stating, “I do not know what version of Scriptures they use at Dr. Piper’s church. But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about” (54).

In the section on “exegesis” there is actually nothing in the chapters that a student of the Bible might call exegesis. No real in-depth or detailed examination of the text takes place. The chapters in this part are just thematic summaries. After criticizing scholars who “try to demonstrate their knowledge of the field with the massive annotation” (111), he states, “Because I have proved elsewhere that I can play that game to a reasonable standard, my regret at not being able to write this book in the same style is not at all that it may look naked and unadorned (that is a risk I have run before and will no doubt run again), but that some works which really helped my case will be ignored, and others which make good points diametrically opposed to my own could and should have been answered and will not be” (ibid).

This quote and another in the introduction in which he states, “I do not suppose I am actually saying very much that I have not already said elsewhere” (13), sum up this work. It reads like something “written off the top of one’s head.” The expectation of a work by Wright, who is normally a clear and powerful writer, is high, and this book is sorely disappointing.

Wright does occasionally interact with Piper’s points, but he rarely quotes him at length and displays little effort to systematically deal with his points in detail. This contrasts with Piper’s work in which W right is quoted, often at length, nearly 150 times.

Wright often abandons interaction with Piper entirely, arguing against the unnamed “scholars” who oppose his views. In his section on First Century Judaism (55-77), he notes the existence of the two volumes edited by Carson (Justification and Variegated Nomism, which in this reviewer’s opinion has remained unanswered by NPP proponents and has intellectually defeated NPP on all the fronts of historical, theological, and exegetical inquiry), and dismisses the work, calling Carson’s conclusion “tendentious” (74). He does not cite any part of Carson’s work, but cites Carson’s brief promotional blurb on the back cover of Piper’s book.

This is a book that those who are interested in the ongoing discussion of this topic need to read; however, it is really a book that is analogous to the letter you write to someone with whom you are angry. It is fine to write the letter and get the angst out of your system, but you should throw that letter away as soon as you finish it and never let it see the light of day. That’s what Wright should have done with this book when he finished it. And then he should have concentrated on his promised and yet-future reflective presentation of his views.