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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Apologetics

"What is New Perspectivism?"
The hermeneutical Background of N.T. Wright

By Travis Allen

What is New Perspectivism

 

                “Justification … is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community, […] It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people […] In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”[1]  “Justification by faith is a second-order doctrine […] It doesn’t describe how people get into God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in.  That may seem like a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital.”[2]
 
Those are the words of the preeminent New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, and his articulation of the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP).  He also claims that by starting with the Reformed view of justification, one “may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel;” whereas if one starts with Wright’s formulation of the Pauline gospel, “[he] will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well.”[3]  His teaching is nothing less than a radical departure from the Reformed version of justification, a definition that explains precisely how someone is saved from God’s wrath.  Berkhof’s explanation makes that clear:
 
“To justify” in the Scriptural sense of the word, is to effect an objective relation, the state of righteousness, by a judicial sentence.  This can be done in a twofold way: (a) by bringing into account the actual subjective condition of a person (to justify the just or the righteous), Jas. 2:21; or (b) by imputing to a person the righteousness of another, that is, by accounting him righteous though he is inwardly unrighteous.  The latter is the usual sense of justification in the New Testament.[4]

 

More simply stated, “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belong to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”[5]  A perusal of any Reformed systematic theology will confess a similar statement on justification.[6]  Wright clearly stands outside the camp.

 

Introducing N. T. Wright[7] 

 

Of the leading proponents of the NPP today, why does this paper single out N. T. Wright?[8]  One major reason:  his influence on evangelicals.  Although he holds views about Jesus’ Messianic and divine self-consciousness that keep him from bearing the name “evangelical,” he has won the trust of the evangelical community by his critical response to the Jesus Seminar—he is considered an ally.[9]  “He is … an able scholar.  He is brilliant, winsome and prolific” and therefore extremely influential, even over those who have traditionally held to the Reformed articulation of justification by faith.[10]  But it is Wright’s reconstruction of that very doctrine—a doctrine that touches the most sensitive nerve of the Protestant tradition—that gives great cause for alarm.  Justification by faith is what distinguishes the true church, not only from Roman Catholicism, but also from every works-righteousness system, Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, or otherwise.

 

J. Ligon Duncan tells of his experience with students who have come under the influence of N. T. Wright:

 

I was reading Wright a decade before he became fashionable to read in the more “conservativish” evangelical community.  It was not until the second half of the decade of the 1990s, when back in the United States, after a few years teaching Systematic Theology to seminarians, that I found students reading Wright and then coming to question historic, evangelical, and Reformed formulations on the doctrine of justification.  In fact, some of the best, or at least some of the most intelligent students that I taught over that course of time, were deeply affected by Wright.[11]

 

As a movement, therefore, the NPP demands refutation—and N. T. Wright, because of his sway on evangelicals, should be first on the list.

               

Anyone who attempts to examine the New Perspective on Paul will quickly discover that the title is something of a misnomer.  There is really nothing new about the NPP and since there are almost as many perspectives as there are writers, it can hardly be considered a monolithic movement.  Though there are some common themes by which an advocate of the NPP may be identified, the recent proliferation of different views on Paul, justification, the works of the law, the people of God, and Palestinian Judaism make an accurate and thorough analysis of the movement very difficult.  The number of perspectives and the danger of misrepresenting a particular author are still more reasons to limit this treatment of the NPP to N. T. Wright.

 
A Brief Historical Introduction

 

Before looking specifically the hermeneutical approach that justifies N. T. Wright’s reconstruction, a brief historical survey will provide valuable information regarding the general background of the NPP.  The major players, from Schweitzer forward, are covered in Wright’s book, What Saint Paul Really Said.[12]

 

In the early nineteenth century, the reigning paradigm since the Protestant Reformation in scholarly circles presented first century Judaism as a religion of works.  The works of Ferdinand Weber, Emil Schürer, and Whilhelm Bousset continued to perpetuate the Reformation attitude toward Judaism.[13]  That began to change when Claude Montefiore (1858-1938), the founder of Anglo-Liberal Judaism, challenged the status quo by applying historical and literary analysis to the Old Testament.[14]  He contended that the “law in Judaism was not a burden which produced self-righteousness.  On the contrary, the law was itself a gift from a merciful and forgiving God.”[15]

 

Montefiore’s contemporary, George Foot Moore (1851-1931), contributed even more to an emerging scholarly understanding of first century Judaism by unraveling Weber’s Judaism-as-legalism model to reveal how he had “little firsthand knowledge of rabbinic literature and in fact took most of his quotations from earlier Christian works against Judaism.”[16]  Moore’s “monumental three-volume Judaism (1927-1930) was revolutionary in not attempting to modernize or theologize in a Christian sense Jewish sources.”[17]

 

The next important player, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), entered the theological scene posing two questions that have since come to dominate Pauline theology.  N. T. Wright elaborates:

 

First, is Paul really a Jewish thinker or a Greek thinker?  Second, what is the centre of Paul’s theology?  Is it (the two options Schweitzer considered as serious candidates) ‘justification by faith’, or ‘being in Christ’?  The two questions are interlocking: Schweitzer believed that ‘being in Christ’ was an essentially Jewish doctrine, while ‘justification by faith’ carried a strong implicit criticism of Judaism.

Schweitzer’s own solution was never in doubt.  He poured scorn on those who insisted on bringing pagan, Hellenistic categories to Paul as the best way of understanding him. […] Schweitzer argued that justification by faith, and the complex of issues that clusters around it, was not the heart and centre of Paul, but was rather a polemical thrust … relating to the very specific issue of the admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church.  Rather, the centre of Paul was what Schweitzer called ‘Christ-mysticism’.  By this, he referred to the famous Pauline doctrine of ‘being in Christ’, and understood that doctrine against the background of apocalyptic Judaism.  The God of Israel had acted in the world dramatically, apocalyptically, through Jesus the Messiah.  The true people of God were now somehow bound up with this Messiah, this Christ.  They were incorporated ‘into’ him.[18]

 

Wright counts those questions, and two others regarding exegesis and application as a benchmark that Schweitzer established for all subsequent Pauline study.[19]  In fact, he assumes them as the standard for his own investigation of Paul.[20]

               

The next important Pauline scholar, at least on Wright’s short-list, is Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).  According to Wright, Bultmann’s work is to blame for ensuring “that Schweitzer’s plea to read Paul within his Jewish context fell all too often on deaf ears.”[21]  Though he is counted a “great twentieth-century expositor of Paul”, Wright points out a significant blight on Bultmann’s perspective on Paul, a perspective deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger’s existentialism.[22]  “We must remember that Bultmann, like Barth and others, achieved his theological maturity at the same time as the Nazi party was coming to power.”[23]  Not only was Bultmann’s view of Judaism less than favorable, but his view of Paul tended to allow for too much existential introspection.

 

Wright appears to be more pleased by W. D. Davies who swung the pendulum back toward Schweitzer’s original emphasis—toward a more favorable view of Judaism.

 

Davies’ work signals a new attitude to Judaism on the part of post-war scholarship.  Until then, Judaism had been regarded by most Pauline expositors as the great exemplar of the wrong sort of religion.  It represented human self-effort, legalism, prejudice and pride. […] But with Davies the whole scene has changed, in line with the work of Karl Barth, with the so-called ‘biblical theology’ movement, and of course with the post-war reaction against the vile anti-Semitism which caused the Holocaust.  Judaism was suddenly in vogue; Jewish ideas were regarded as good, and Hellenistic ones were labeled ‘pagan’ and therefore (implicitly) bad.

 

Davies was not only significant in reestablishing ties with Albert Schweitzer, but also because of the impact he had on one of his now famous students, E. P. Sanders.

               

Sanders’ most significant contribution to Pauline scholarship is his book entitled, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977.[24]  He went beyond looking at Paul through the lens of rabbinic literature to include “the Dead Sea Scrolls (which of course were not available when Davies first wrote), the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the wisdom literature, and so on.”[25]

 

His major point, to which all else is subservient, can be quite simply stated.  Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness.  If we imagine that it was, and that Paul was attacking it as if it was, we will do great violence to it and to him.  Most Protestant exegetes had read Paul and Judaism as if Judaism was a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and thereby earn justification, righteousness, and salvation.  No, said Sanders.  Keeping the law within Judaism always functioned within a covenantal scheme.  God took the initiative, when he made a covenant with Judaism; God’s grace thus precedes everything that people (specifically, Jews) do in response.  The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace – not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in.  Being ‘in’ in the first place was God’s gift.[26]

 

Sanders’ scheme is called ‘covenantal nomism’; it forms both the background and the backbone of Wright’s version of the NPP.

               

Krister Stendahl is one last proponent of the NPP worth mentioning.  In his article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” he swept away the interpretive tradition of the western church, from Augustine to Luther and Calvin to present-day Protestant interpreters.[27]  “The Western tradition, and particularly its Protestant expression, has wrongly read the apostle Paul through the experience of those who are grappling with the problem of finding assurance of God’s favor in the face of the reality of human sin and brokenness.”[28]  In contrast to the tradition of the west, Stendahl sees Paul as one who has a “robust and confident conscience before God, and exhibits little or none of the anxiety about human salvation from sin that has characterized the western view of salvation.  When Paul spoke of justification, therefore, he is not attempting to solve the problem of an uneasy conscience, but to account for how Gentiles are included with Jews among the people of God.”[29]

               

“The current situation in Pauline studies is pleasantly confused.  I suspect, actually, that it always has been […].”[30]  So says N. T. Wright as he embarks on a journey through his system in What Saint Paul Really Said.  Sanders conclusions, with contributions from Krister Stendahl, James D. G. Dunn, and others then provide the foundation from which Wright begins his attempt to explain Paul.  It is probably no mere coincidence that in doing so he sounds very similar to the movement’s German forerunner—Albert Schweitzer.

 

N. T. Wright’s Hermeneutical Approach:  Three Fatal Flaws

 

The historical prelude to the NPP speaks volumes about its commitments and hermeneutical approach, and as one examines Wright and others, it becomes clear how much their own background has determined their conclusions.  When wading through Wright’s many pages, some patterns begin to emerge about his own hermeneutics, patterns that explain how he can look at the same Bible as a Protestant from the Reformed tradition and come to completely different conclusions.  In a nutshell, Wright constructs an elaborate grid through which he reads the New Testament.  His grid combines concerns of historical-criticism, modern philosophical theory, and historical reconstruction.

 

Flaw #1:  The Historical-Critical Grid

 

The pervasive theme in Wright and fellow NPP proponents is an over-emphasis on the human element in the recording and transmission of Scripture.  One can find evidence of that in Wright’s contribution to Stephen Neill’s famous work, The Interpretation of the New Testament.  After Stephen Neill’s death in 1984, N. T. Wright updated his book by covering the period from 1961 to 1986 in a closing chapter.[31]  In his recap of Neill’s listing of the twelve most important positive achievements in New Testament studies since 1861, Wright reveals where his sympathies lie.

 

Number four on Neill’s list of positive achievements is the cautious, tentative approach scholars are forced to take because of John A. T. Robinson’s challenge on the dating of the New Testament.  In Redating the New Testament, Robinson dates the majority of the New Testament prior to A. D. 70.[32]  Why the conclusions of a liberal bishop who denied Christ’s resurrection and deity and challenged the reliability, authority, and factual basis of the Bible should give scholars pause is a question Wright never raises.  Further, as Wright discusses Source criticism and the so-called Synpotic Problem, he again shows an affinity for Robinson’s conclusion that “the Gospels drew on several overlapping sources as they grew side by side, with traditions perhaps moving in both directions, over a period of years.”[33]

 

Wright further reveals his approval of historical-criticism when he says, “No serious scholar now doubts that the materials in the Gospels have been shaped by the needs of the early Church.  To that extent, Form-criticism has been vindicated.  It has also been extended by the newer discipline of Redaction-criticism, which has, quite reasonably, argued that the Evangelists themselves had theological purposes in editing and arranging the material as they did.”[34]  One will search in vain in Wright’s chapter for any hint that divine intentionality was the most important factor, both in the material and in the theological purposes of the Gospels.  In that same vein of thinking, Wright is certain that Jesus’ proclamation about the kingdom of God “is to be understood against the background of the Jewish apocalyptic writings and thought-forms.”[35]

 

Another revealing factor is his choice of Paul’s autobiographical remarks as the starting point for historical investigation.[36]  “It is still universally agreed that our picture of the earliest Church must begin with the study of Paul, and in particular of the letters generally agreed to be authentic … [those], which almost certainly antedate the earliest written Gospel.”[37]  One might ask:  “Why not begin with Luke’s accurate historical account?”  Luke’s account in Acts is highly reliable, not only because of Luke’s care as a historian (cf. Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3), but also because of the guarantee provided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Does Wright agree in the reliability of Acts?  Did Paul’s earlier epistles shape the doctrine of the Gospels and Acts?  Is there some other explanation for his comments here?

 

With that background, it’s difficult to see how Wright can escape the influences of historical-critical approaches to the Bible.  But he may not want to.  He tips his hand even more when he outlines five areas of real progress in the twenty-five years since Neill’s first edition in 1961:  background history, the history of Jesus, the problem of Paul, Johannine studies, and the task of historical theology.[38]  What he counts as progress is the work of historians, theologians, and exegetes whose commitment to biblical-criticism, without regard for the Holy Spirit’s role, is already a foregone conclusion.  It must again be emphasized that any consideration of the NPP cannot ignore the virtual silence regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in revelation and inspiration.  He communicated what God intended to communicate.  Those who ignore or downplay that are of course from the beginning.

Wright’s attitude toward the theological leanings of his predecessors must be taken into account when determining the validity of his approach—it’s no minor matter.[39]  Intellectual abilities and educational attainments aside, to be a qualified interpreter of Scripture a person must meet spiritual qualifications as well.  Bernard Ramm says, “The first spiritual qualification is this:  a man must be born again.”[40]  1 Corinthians 2:14-15a explains why:  But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.  But he who is spiritual appraises all things.”  Without that initial spiritual qualification, a man, because of his intellectual abilities and theological attainments, may understand many things about the Bible, but he will never attain a knowledge of the truth that leads to life—his interpretations will inevitably err.  Those who follow such a man have committed themselves to following a blind guide.[41]

 

Flaw #2:  The Philosophical Grid

 

N. T. Wright’s background in and affinity for historical-criticism, together with his sharp intellect, sets him up for a philosophical approach.  He spells out his philosophical hermeneutic in the first section of his book, The New Testament and the People of God.[42]  His hermeneutics are the result of his attempt to avoid the philosophical problems associated with logical positivism on the one side and subjective phenomenalism on the other—he wants to navigate around the pitfalls of modernism and postmodernism.[43]  In fact, he not only wants to navigate around them, he wants to move beyond postmodernism to the newest proposal for a cultural paradigm called ‘Critical Realism.’[44]  Wright explains the dilemma facing the modern interpreter this way:

 

Modernity told an implicit narrative about the way the world was.  It was essentially an eschatological story.  World history had been steadily moving toward or at least eagerly awaiting the point where the industrial revolution and the philosophical Enlightenment would burst upon the world, bringing a new era of blessing for all.  This huge overarching story—overarching stories are known in this world as metanarratives—has now been conclusively shown to be an oppressive, imperialist and self-serving story; it has brought untold misery to millions in the industrialized West and to billions in the rest of the world, where cheap labor and raw materials have been ruthlessly exploited.  It is a story that serves the interests of the Western word.  Modernity stands condemned of building a new tower of Babel.  Postmodernity has claimed, primarily with this great metanarrative as the example, that all metanarratives are suspect; they are all power games.

Collapsing reality; deconstructing selfhood; the death of the metanarrative.  These are the keys to understanding postmodernity.  It is a ruthless application of the hermeneutic of suspicion to everything that the post-Enlightenment Western world has held dear. […] We live in a cultural, economic, moral and even religious hypermarket.  Scoop up what you like and mix it all together.

What does the church do when faced with this huge swirling set of cultural movements and tensions?[45]

 

Without trying to be facetious, Wright’s proposal is this:  tell a story.  That’s essentially his approach.  By communicating ‘storied knowledge’ he avoids the philosophical problems associated with propositional truth and is still able to confront the rabid subjectivity of the postmodern world.

 

It was Anthony Thiselton who rolled out the red carpet for Wright’s philosophical approach when he said, “The biblical scholar therefore needs the help of someone who has made it his life’s work to wrestle with the problem of how these two sides of the situation can be held together, without either being lost to view.”[46]  By applying critical-realism to hermeneutics, Wright has tried to do just that, and has been hailed as showing “a remarkable degree of epistemological and hermeneutical sophistication.”[47]  Mark Mattison provides an excellent overview of Wright’s critical realism.

 

Wright begins by grappling with the knotty issue of hermeneutics (broadly defined) and authority, arguing that theology must be worked out in conjunction with history and literary criticism.  He recognizes, however, that epistemology must be addressed first.  Epistemologically, Wright rejects not only the naïve positivism which imagines that texts and events can be interpreted “objectively,” but also the subjective phenomenalism which undermines public discourse.  The middle road taken by Wright is that of critical realism:  Whereas initial observation must be challenged by critical reflection, nevertheless it is possible to grasp something of reality.  Through not advocating postmodernism, Wright nevertheless, in good postmodern fashion, makes much of stories as windows into worldviews.[48]

 

And Thorsten Moritz’ explains Wright’s approach this way:

 

Critical realism is for Wright a way of acknowledging that the thing to be known is other than the knower (realism), but that knowledge occurs only along the spiraling path of dialogue (i.e. hypothesis – verification/falsification) between knower and the thing to be known.  There is something to be known, but the act of knowing or understanding is subjective.  Knowledge is subject to one’s location, community and especially to the grid of one’s worldview.  Worldview depends on location and community.  In short:  it is contingent on one’s narrative world.  This is why Wright focuses sharply on the role of stories, both in the lives of the interpreters, as well as in the historical world of the texts’ genesis.  Knowledge occurs when people find things that fit the grid of their worldview.  The telling of stories in the Bible has among its chief aims the subversion of the hearers’ and readers’ worldviews.[49]

 

                Wright has accepted wholesale the postmodernism critique of modernity.  He therefore feels compelled to speak, not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of stories that will confront and subvert the story of the postmodern mind.[50]  He wants to avoid making absolute, objective claims about truth to escape the modernist label, but he also wants to assert a valid story to the postmodernist to confront their radical subjectivity and rejection of absolute truth.  The way to avoid either problem is to communicate via ‘storied knowledge.’  By knowledge he means that which is derived from the hermeneutical spiral.  “Every time one goes around the spiral the lenses of the telescope have altered, but every time there are still lenses.”[51]  By story Wright means to engage in a historical reconstruction from the top down—that is, he makes “a larger hypothesis the grid through which the appropriateness or inappropriateness of interpretations ought to be judged.”[52]

               

N. T. Wright, with his bright mind and philosophical background, has been able to construct a system that, for the time being, appears to satisfy the demands of the postmodern critic while at the same time smoking him out of his cover of subjectivity.  That might seem appealing to some, but the Christian has never been called to submit his worldview, his metanarrative, and his Bible to the demands to philosophical skepticism.  It is precisely that kind of thing Paul warned about in Colossians 2:8:  See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”  Wright and other advocates of the NPP seem content to live within the cage erected by postmodern skeptics, but obedience to the Lord demands that philosophy bow the knee to the self-attesting authority of Scripture.  That isn’t to say there is no validity in mentally tracking with philosophical arguments; indeed, for some it can sharpen the mind.  But the fight between positivists and phenomenalists, between modernists and postmodernists, is not the Christian’s fight.  To enter their arena, to play by their rules is not only to run the risk of being taken captive, it is to disobey the apostolic command.

               

Still, the criticisms of postmodernism reach into the church and must be addressed.  But how?  The church must teach again, in light of modern criticisms, how the Holy Spirit is the Person who overcomes human limitation.  “According to the evangelical faith, maintained by the Christian Church in all ages, there exist in the sacred records two elements, a divine and a human.”[53]  The human element is evident in “the narration of facts, […] the style and diction, […] the subject matter, [… and] the varying forms of statement.”[54]  But the divine element, the inspiration spoken of in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21, ensures the human “messages had heavenly origin and authority.”[55]

 

“Divine revelation and inspiration lie behind the writing of Scripture, and divine illumination functions in connection with man’s ability to understand what is written.  If the divine factor in this communicative process prevails in the writing of Scripture, the Holy Spirit can prevail as a part of His illuminating ministry.  The Spirit can erase improper preunderstandings in the minds of persons possessing a new nature in Christ and enable exegetes to approach the text in an objective manner.”[56]  Hence, contra Wright, who is committed to the authority of philosophy, the Christian can insist on the validity of objective, propositional truth, as well as the availability of neutral objectivity “through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”[57]

 

While some Christians may find assertions about divine inspiration and Holy Spirit illumination untenable, those are doctrines the Bible teaches.  They may not be fully comprehended, but they cannot be compromised or made to fit the demands of an unbelieving and skeptical world.  “That God has spoken in Holy Scripture is the very heart of our faith, and without that we would be cast upon the uncertain waters of the relativity of knowledge.”[58]

 

Flaw #3:  The Historical Grid

               

The combination of Wright’s historical-critical background and his philosophical concerns give birth to his emphasis on historical study and reconstruction.  Though disagreeing with Sanders at some points, Wright generally holds to Sanders conclusions.[59]  Until “a major refutation of [Sanders] central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him.  I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard his basic point as established.”[60]  That quote, from 1997, does indeed reflect Wright’s commitment to Sanders’ covenantal nomism scheme.  Here is Wright writing about Sanders’ conclusions again, but from 1988:

 

It is, therefore, no longer possible to speak as though Judaism were simply Pelagianism in ancient dress.  If we are to discuss the differences between Christianity, in any of its early forms, and its parent society and religion, we must do so with more historical awareness and sensitivity.  This forces us to rethink major theological formulations in light of what the New Testament actually says and means in its historical context, that should—particularly for those who claim to live by it!—be a cause not for gloom but for excitement.[61]

 

It is clearly the model he has chosen to follow.  Thus Wright continues Sanders’ historical reconstruction in order to build his grid for reinterpreting the New Testament.

               

The Historical Jesus.  With Sanders’ conclusions firmly in place, Wright proposes taking up Schweitzer’s earlier quest for the historical Jesus, in light of Second Temple Judaism texts.[62]  Overall, he sees Israel in Jesus’ day as convinced they were still living in the exile, a view that is questionable based on Second Temple Judaism texts.[63]  In agreement with Albert Schweitzer, he believes Jesus’ death should be understood as Jesus taking the messianic woes that Israel was due upon himself.[64]  Wright explains what he means more fully in this way:

 

I have argued that Jesus remained utterly anchored within first-century Judaism.  His place there, however, was the place of a prophet, warning that Israel’s present course was leading to disaster and urging a radical alternative upon her.  His aim was to reconstitute the people of God around himself, to accomplish the real return from exile, to inaugurate the kingdom of God.[65]

 

Wright also asserts an interesting view about Jesus’ messianic self-understanding, namely, that it

is purely vocational, one in which he “believed himself called to act as the new Temple”[66] and further, Jesus believed that Israel’s history had arrived at its focal point.  More specifically, he believed that the exile had reached its climax.  He believed that he was himself the bearer of Israel’s destiny at this critical time.  He was the Messiah who would take that destiny on himself and draw it to its focal point.  He had announced the judgment of YHWH on his recalcitrant people; now as with the prophets of former days they were planning to kill him. […] Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel’s representative, to lose the battle on Irsael’s behalf.  This would be the means of becoming the light, not just of herself—the Maccabean martyrs seemed only to think of Israel’s liberation—but of the world.[67]

 

Regarding Jesus’ sense of deity, Wright says,

 

Let me be clear, also, what I am not saying.  I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short.  It was not a mathematical knowledge … nor was it straightforwardly observational knowledge … It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; […] It was, in short, the knowledge that characterizes vocation.[68]

 

Suffice it to say that Wright’s picture of Jesus is quite different than the Jesus of the Protestant tradition who knowingly claimed to be none other than God Himself.

 

                The Historical Paul.  With regard to Paul, Wright makes the same kind of troubling comments.  Contrary to the biblical record, Wright says Paul was revealed “not just as a Pharisee, but as a Shammaite Pharisee.”[69]  And yet in Acts 22:3, Luke records Paul as saying, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today”; and he spoke to a crowd of angry Jews in a position to check his claims.[70]  How does Wright deal with the contradiction?  He simply dismisses it.

 

In one of the speeches in Acts (22:3) he claims that Gamaliel had been one of his teachers.  This, coupled with other evidence from the epistles, has led some scholars to suppose that he was a Hillelite before his conversion.  This simply cannot be the case – unless all the evidence of his persecuting activity is a later fabrication, which seems highly unlikely.[71]

 

                That is an important point to Wright, however, because he desires to see Saul as a “militant right-winger” Pharisee, fueled by theological zeal and full of “aims and agendas for Israel: for the people, the land, and the Temple.”[72]  It was only at the Damascus road confrontation with the resurrected Jesus that Saul came to understand God’s plan—it required a readjustment of his thinking.[73]  Before meeting Jesus, Saul thought God would vindicate Israel at the end of time; after meeting Jesus, he came to understand that God had vindicated Jesus in the middle of time—instead of vindicating Israel after her suffering at the hands of the pagans, God vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hands of the pagans.[74]  Saul was now armed with a new way of thinking, a “new perspective, though one which kept its roots firm and deep within his previous covenantal theology.  Israel’s destiny had been summed up and achieved in Jesus the Messiah.  The Age to Come had been inaugurated.  Saul himself was summoned to be its agent.”[75]

               

From that point on, Saul/Paul set out to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles.  But here again Wright reconstructs what is meant by ‘the gospel.’  The gospel is not, “a system of how people get saved … ‘the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus.”[76]  Rather, it is a royal proclamation, an announcement that Jesus, the crucified Lord, is Lord over all pagan deities and every power.  When “Paul went out in to the Gentile world with his ‘gospel’, he went as a Jew to Gentiles, to tell the Gentile world what the Jews had always believed: that ‘the gods of the nations are idols, but our God made the heavens’ (Psalm 96:5).  But he had now been grasped by a new vision of God, which meant that the traditional statement could never be made casually or dismissively, with a sense of effortless racial superiority.”[77]

               

It is into that context that Wright fits his reconstruction of justification according to three categories, the covenant, the law court, and eschatology.  The covenant category of justification refers to a covenant declaration, on the last day, in which the true people of God will be shown to be in the right (vindicated) and idol worshippers will be shown to be in the wrong.[78]  The second category of the law court is the forensic dimension of a future covenantal vindication whereby the status ‘righteous’ is conferred upon a person.[79]  The third category is eschatological, meaning justification (a.k.a. vindication) is made at the end of history.[80]  “Therefore – and this is the vital thrust of the argument of Galatians in particular, but it plays a central role in Philippians and Romans as well – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven.”[81]

 

                The Historical Controversy.  Wright’s Historical Paul, having been confronted with the Historical Jesus, came into conflict with his fellow Jews.  But since they were already members of the covenant and possessors of salvation, the debated issue was one of racial superiority.  “Since Israel, in her Messiah, has returned from exile, […] both Jews andGentiles can share in the blessings of that return.”[82]  So justification (the affirmation of covenant membership) has to be ‘by faith’, rather than ‘by the works of the law’ (i.e. those works that highlight Old Testament, Jewish distinctiveness), because the covenant is forever open to both Jews and Gentiles.[83]

 

While there is more that can be said to demonstrate Wright’s historical reconstruction, the preceding should suffice to show that he paints a very different picture than that which Protestant interpreters have discovered through the faithful and tedious application of historical-grammatical principles.  Is Wright’s reconstruction valid?  Is it correct?  To the contrary, some have noted some major problems with Wright’s use of history.  The first of these begins in his own backyard.

 

By interpreting Second Temple Judaism through Sanders’ lenses, Wright has committed the same error Sanders did—both of them mistake one heresy for another.  Paul Zahl explains in his Themelios article how “E. P. Sanders mistakes the ‘semi-Pelagianism’ of Second Temple Judaism for ‘Pelagianism’ and thus misunderstands Luther’s critique of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Luther’s grasp of Paul.  Sanders is in reaction to something that doesn’t exist.  He has therefore founded a movement with an illusory raison d’etre![84]  Zahl ends that part of his critique saying, “Sanders and his partners in the New Perspective have missed completely the distinction between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.  Therefore they understand neither Luther nor Paul, nor are they aware of the vital difference in anthropology that distinguishes Judaism from Pauline Christianity.”[85]  Wright, from Westminster Abbey, should know better.

 

A second historical error is to think of the Mosaic Covenant as a salvific covenant.  To grant that it was a gracious covenant is one thing; to say that each individual Israelite was saved when God elected their nation and making them members of a covenant community is quite another.  No Reformed theologian would make such a claim, and yet, here is another example where Wright makes a necessary assumption to maintain Sanders’ covenantal nomism view.  Salvation in the Old Testament was according to the pattern of faith demonstrated by Abraham (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3), prior to and apart from works (Gen. 22:9, 12; Jam. 2:21-23), and prior to and apart from the Mosaic covenant, the covenant community, and the sign of circumcision (Rom. 4:9-12).  It is according to that same pattern of faith that those living after the cross are saved.

 

A final historical issue presents more of a question mark than an error, at least at this point.  D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid have recently published volume one of Justification and Variegated Nomism.[86]  Their intent is to question “whether or not ‘covenantal nomism’ serves us well as a label for an overarching pattern of religion. […] the literature of Second Temple Judaism reflects patterns of belief and religion too diverse to subsume under one label.”[87]  The record of the New Testament, however, appears to agree more with Carson than Sanders, Dunn, and Wright.  The Bible records Pharisees and Sadducees, uncompromising zealots and compromising tax collectors, Shammaites and Hillelites, rich young moralists and worn-out prostitutes, theological experts who talk about the issues and ignorant peasants who seem altogether indifferent. The scene appears more variegated than not, at least to this observer.Summary of the Three Fatal Flaws

               
Quite clearly, Wright’s background, commitment to philosophy, and use of history as an interpretive lens prevent him from making use of traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  He seems never to have had a commitment to that set of rules.  He comes from a different tradition of scholarship, holds to a different view of language and philosophy, and takes a decidedly different approach to interpretation.
 
Therefore, it should come as no surprise when Wright knowingly and happily violates mainstays of Protestant biblical interpretation.[88]  One should also not find it surprising when Wright’s view of the gospel contradicts Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; when his redefinition of justification does not account for uses that contradict his view (cf. Rom. 4:2-3; 5:1; 1 Cor. 6:11); when he ignores important grammatical considerations (i.e. Wright interprets dikaiosu,nh qeou/, as in Rom. 3:21, 22, as “God’s covenant faithfulness”[89]—a possessive genitive—and does not address how a subjective or objective genitive is preferred since the head noun has a verbal cognate.);[90] when Wright ignores blatant contextual factors (Wright makes Romans 1:3-4 the theme of the book rather than Romans 1:16-17[91] and ignores the problem of the wrath of God in 1:18 that sets the tone for chapters 1-3.[92]); and when he violates the principle of single meaning.[93]  He clearly doesn’t interpret Scripture by traditional, grammatical-historical hermeneutics at all.

 

Concluding Comments

 

The major concern facing the evangelical community today is not how to win over men like N. T. Wright—they are already committed in another direction.  The main concern, rather, is to mitigate his influence (and others like him) by readdressing how evangelicals are to interpret the Bible.  Postmodernism has introduced significant challenges, but not insurmountable ones.  Students of the Bible must be equipped with an apologetic that is under girded by grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  Perhaps a more preliminary step should be to reassert inerrancy and its implications for biblical interpretation, for that is the foundation and reason for maintaining a commitment to grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  But if a consensus is not reached, there will be no end to the number of perspectives on Paul, or Jesus, or justification, or any other subject in the Bible.

 

The grave concern about the NPP is not merely in the unfortunate popularity of Wright’s philosophy (a.k.a. empty deception, Col. 2:8), but rather in what his redefinition of justification will eventually lead to.

 

The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor.  It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in one family. […] Many Christians, both in the Reformation and in the counter-Reformation traditions, have done themselves and the church a great disservice by treating the doctrine of ‘justification’ as central to their debates, and by supposing that it described the system by which people attained salvation.  They have turned the doctrine into its opposite.  Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial differences […] Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself, properly conceived, isn’t the thing which should determine eucharistic fellowship.[94]

 

He’s right.  If Wright’s articulation of justification by faith is correct, then evangelical Protestants should quit protesting and return to mother Rome—other than preference, there’s nothing more that essentially divides them.  May the Lord raise up men in the evangelical church, or at least a remnant of men, who will overturn this new challenge.

 

End Notes:



[1]N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1997), 119.

 

[2]N. T. Wright, “The Shape of Justification,” Bible Review 17/2 (Apr. 2001): 50.

 

[3]Wright, What Saint Paul, 113.

 

[4]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000): 511.

 

[5]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 723.

 

[6]Cf. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. by George Musgrave Giger, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1997): 2:633-665; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols (U.S.A.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999): 3:114-212.

 

[7]The following bio of N. T. Wright is found on the Diocese of Durham website, http://www.durham.anglican.org/news/newbishop.htm (11 Feb. 2003).  N. T. Wright (Nicholas Thomas Wright) was born in 1948 in Northumberland, England.  He studied at Sedbergh, Exeter College, Oxford, and studied for ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.  After his ordination in the Anglican Church, he served from 1978 to 1981 as Fellow and Chaplain at Downing College, Cambridge and then took a professorship in New Testament studies at McGill University, Montreal.  He returned to Oxford in 1986 as a University Lecturer, Fellow, and Chaplain.  He became the Dean of Lichfield in 1994, the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in 2000, and most recently has been appointed Bishop of Durham.

 

[8]Others advocating the NPP, albeit with some differences, are E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and Krister Stendahl.

 

[9]J. Ligon Duncan, “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Alliance of

Confessing Evangelicals, Inc., http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086|CHID560462|CIID1660662,00.html (10 Nov. 2003).  With regard to Wright’s view on Jesus’ self-consciousness, see chapters 4 and 5 in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 74-125.

 

[10]Ibid.

 

[11]Ibid.

 

[12]Wright, What Saint Paul, 12-20.

 

[13]Mark M. Mattison, “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul,” The Paul Page, http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/Summary.html (27 Dec. 2002).

 

[14]Ibid.

 

[15]Ibid.

 

[16]Ibid.

 

[17]“Harvard Divinity School at the Turn of the Last Century,” Adover-Harvard Theological Library, http://www.hds.harvard.edu/library/exhibitd/mooregf.html (28 Feb. 2001). The full title of Moore’s three volume work is Judaism in the First Century of the Christian Era.

 

[18]Wright, What Saint Paul, 13.

 

[19]Ibid., 14.

 

[20]Ibid., 20-22.

 

[21]Ibid., 15-16.

 

[22]Ibid., 14, 15.

 

[23]Ibid., 15.

 

[24]E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1977).

 

[25]Wright, What Saint Paul, 18.

 

[26]Ibid., 18-19.

 

[27]Cf. Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1976), 78-96.

 

[28]Cornelis P. Venema, “The ‘New Perspective on Paul’: The Contribution of E. P. Sanders (Part One),” World Reformed Fellowship, http://www.wrfnet.org/articles/printarticle.asp?ID=602 (Oct. 2002).

 

[29]Ibid. In a book review by Bill DeJong, he notes a problem with Stendahl’s associating an uneasy conscience with western tradition.  “Stendahl’s contention that consciences troubled by sin have their origin in Augustine and the subsequent Western mind is untenable.  King David, hardly a Westerner, enjoyed a robust conscience for the most part (cf. 2 Sam. 22:22; Pss. 7, 17, 18, 26), but also repeatedly sought forgiveness to ease his plagued conscience.” Bill DeJong, Review of “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” by Krister Stendahl in Paul Among Jews and Gentles (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress, 1976), The Paul Page, http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/Stendahl.html, (22 July 2002).

 

[30]Wright, What Saint Paul, 20.

 

[31]Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, Neill, Stephen and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). v-vii.

 

[32]Ibid., 361.

 

[33]Ibid., 363.  Wright himself is pleased to question the certainty of firm source conclusions citing the work of Morna Hooker—see footnote 2.

 

[34]Ibid.

 

[35]Ibid.

 

[36]Wright, What Saint Paul, 25.

 

[37]Neill and Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 362.

 

[38]Ibid., 367-446.

 

[39]“It remains true that the liberty of the so-called scientific and critical approach has established itself almost beyond the possibility of cavil … [even among those] with very different views of the Bible, its inspiration and authority.” Ibid., 360.

 

[40]Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston, Mass.: W. A. Wilde Company, 1950), 1.

 

[41]Milton Terry lists other spiritual qualifications that should not pass by unnoticed:  (1) a desire to know the truth, (2) a tender affection toward that which is morally ennobling, (3) a fervent love of the truth, (4) a reverence for God, since, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and (5) communion with the Holy Spirit, a.k.a. walking in the Spirit, not in the flesh.  Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), 156-58.

 

[42]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1992).

 

[43]Postivism asserts there are only two sources of knowledge: logical reasoning (analytic and a priori) and empirical experience (synthetic and a posteriori).  Phenomenalism reduces all things physical (objects, properties, events, etc.) to mental objects, properties, events, etc.  Physical bodies are therefore merely bundles of sense data.  The former is characteristic of modernism, the latter of postmodernism.

 

[44]Roger Caldwell, “How to Get Real,” Philosophy Now, http://www.philosophynow.org/issue42/42caldwell1.htm (2003). The teaser for the article reads, “Is Postmodernism finally on its deathbed?  Roger Caldwell examines the evidence and takes a look at its would-be successor:  Critical Realism.”

 

[45]N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 152.

 

[46]Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 27.

 

[47]Thorsten Moritz, “Critical but Real: Reflecting on N. T. Wright’s Tools for the Task,” in Renewing Biblical Interpretation in The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000), 172.

 

[48]Mark M. Mattison, Review of The New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright, The Paul Page, http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/People.html (5 Oct. 2001).

 

[49]Moritz, “Critical but Real,” 179.

 

[50]Ibid., 184-5.

 

[51]Ibid., 193.

 

[52]Ibid., 192, fn 119.  To see an example of Wright’s story, see the summary provided by Travis Tamerius, “Sounding the Alarm: N. T. Wright and Evangelical Theology,” The Reformation & Revival Journal, vol. 11.2 (Spring 2002).

 

[53]Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 138.

 

[54]Ibid., 138-40.

 

[55]Ibid., 141.

 

[56]Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2002), 52.

 

[57]Ibid., 53.

 

[58]Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 1.

 

[59]Wright, What Saint Paul, 19.

 

[60]Ibid., 20.

 

[61]Neill and Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 375.

 

[62]See N. T. Wright, The Contemporary Quest for Jesus (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996), 32-34. Cf. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 16-33.

[63]D. A. Carson, “Summaries and Conclusions,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 546-47, fn 158.

 

[64]Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 91.

 

[65]Ibid., 73.

 

[66]Ibid., 111, 113.

 

[67]Ibid., 89.

 

[68]Ibid., 121-2.

 

[69]Wright, What Saint Paul, 26.

 

[70]Gamaliel was the grandson of the rabbi Hillel.

 

[71]Ibid., 29.

 

[72]Wright, What Saint Paul, 26-27.

 

[73]Ibid., 36-37.

 

[74]Ibid., 36.

 

[75]Ibid., 37.

 

[76]Ibid., 45.

 

[77]Ibid., 75.

 

[78]Ibid., 131.

 

[79]Ibid.

 

[80]Ibid.

 

[81]Ibid.

 

[82]Robert Smith, “Justification in ‘the New Perspective on Paul’,” The Reformed Theological Review 58/1 (Apr 1999): 27.

 

[83]Ibid.

 

[84]Paul F. M. Zahl, “Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul.” Themelios 27/1 (2001): 7.

 

[85]Ibid., 8.

 

[86]Both Craig L. Blomberg and Don Garlington write reviews on Justification and Variegated Nomism that point out how Carson’s agenda overlooks some diversity among the contributing authors.  “Undoubtedly many readers will scrutinize only Carson in detail and then skim or dip into the other parts of the book that prove most relevant or interesting for them.  In doing so, however, they will miss some of the diversity of perspectives in the volume, for Carson’s overriding agenda in his summaries is to show how at each stage ‘covenantal nomism’ is not fully adequate to describe Second Temple Judaism.” Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, Review of Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, Denver Journal 5 (2002), http://www.denverseminary.edu/dj/articles2002/0200/0203.php, (8 Oct. 2002); Don Garlington, Review of Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid,

 

http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/Variegated_Nomism.pdf, (12 Nov.

2003).

 

[87]D. A. Carson, “Introduction,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 5.

 

[88]Seyoon Kim does a thorough job at taking the NPP proponents to task exegetically in his book, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2002). Cf. William W. Klein’s positive review of Seyoon Kim, Review of Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel, by Seyoon Kim. Denver Journal 5 (2002), http://www.denverseminary.edu/dj/articles2002/0200/0205.php, (8 Oct. 2002).

 

[89]Wright, What Saint Paul, 110.

 

[90]Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 81-82, 112-119.

 

[91]Wright, What Saint Paul, 126.

 

[92]Ibid., 126-31.

 

[93]Ibid., 71.

 

[94]Ibid., 158-59.


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