… 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.” “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
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.” 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.
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.” A perusal of any Reformed systematic
theology will confess a similar statement on justification. Wright clearly stands outside the camp.
Introducing N. T. Wright
Of the leading proponents of the NPP today, why does
this paper single out N. T. Wright? 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. “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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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
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.” Moore’s “monumental three-volume Judaism
(1927-1930) was revolutionary in not attempting to modernize or theologize in a
Christian sense Jewish sources.”
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.
counts those questions, and two others regarding exegesis and application as a
benchmark that Schweitzer established for all subsequent Pauline study. In fact, he assumes them as the standard for
his own investigation of Paul.
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.” 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. “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.” Not only was Bultmann’s view of Judaism less
than favorable, but his view of Paul tended to allow for too much existential
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.
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’ most significant contribution to Pauline
scholarship is his book entitled, Paul and Palestinian Judaism,
published in 1977. 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.”
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
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. “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.” 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.”
“The current situation in Pauline studies is
pleasantly confused. I suspect, actually,
that it always has been […].” 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
Flaw #1: The
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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
Another revealing factor is his choice of Paul’s
autobiographical remarks as the starting point for historical investigation. “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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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.
Flaw #2: The
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. 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. 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.’ 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
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
What does the church do when faced with this huge
swirling set of cultural movements and tensions?
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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. 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.” 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.”
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.” The human element is evident in “the
narration of facts, […] the style and diction, […] the subject matter, [… and]
the varying forms of statement.” 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.”
“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.” 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.”
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.”
Flaw #3: The
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. 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.” 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.
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. 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. In agreement with Albert Schweitzer, he
believes Jesus’ death should be understood as Jesus taking the messianic woes
that Israel was due upon himself. Wright explains what he means more fully in
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.
Wright also asserts an interesting view about Jesus’
messianic self-understanding, namely, that it
purely vocational, one in which he “believed himself called to act as the new
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.
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.
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
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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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. The third category is eschatological,
meaning justification (a.k.a. vindication) is made at the end of history. “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
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 and … Gentiles
can share in the blessings of that return.” 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.
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
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!” 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.” Wright, from Westminster Abbey, should know
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
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. 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.” 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
Therefore, it should come as no
surprise when Wright knowingly and happily violates mainstays of Protestant
biblical interpretation. 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”—a
possessive genitive—and does not address how a subjective or objective genitive
is preferred since the head noun has a verbal cognate.);
when Wright ignores blatant contextual factors (Wright makes Romans 1:3-4 the
theme of the book rather than Romans 1:16-17
and ignores the problem of the wrath of God in 1:18 that sets the tone for
chapters 1-3.); and when
he violates the principle of single meaning. He clearly doesn’t interpret Scripture by
traditional, grammatical-historical hermeneutics at all.
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
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
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
N. T. Wright, What Saint
Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1997), 119.
N. T. Wright, “The Shape of
Justification,” Bible Review 17/2 (Apr. 2001): 50.
Wright, What Saint Paul,
Louis Berkhof, Systematic
Theology (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000): 511.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic
Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 723.
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.
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.
Others advocating the NPP,
albeit with some differences, are E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and Krister
J. Ligon Duncan, “The
Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Alliance of
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.
Wright, What Saint Paul,
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).
“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.
Wright, What Saint Paul,
E. P. Sanders, Paul and
Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1977).
Wright, What Saint Paul,
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.
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
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).
Wright, What Saint Paul,
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).
Ibid., 363. Wright himself is pleased to question the
certainty of firm source conclusions citing the work of Morna Hooker—see
Wright, What Saint Paul,
Neill and Wright, The
Interpretation of the New Testament, 362.
“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.
Bernard Ramm, Protestant
Biblical Interpretation (Boston, Mass.: W. A. Wilde Company, 1950), 1.
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.
N. T. Wright, The New
Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1992).
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.
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.”
N. T. Wright, The
Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove,
Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 152.
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.
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.
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).
Moritz, “Critical but Real,”
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
Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical
Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel
Publications, 2002), 52.
Ramm, Protestant Biblical
Wright, What Saint Paul,
Neill and Wright, The
Interpretation of the New Testament, 375.
See N. T. Wright, The
Contemporary Quest for Jesus (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996),
32-34. Cf. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 16-33.
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.
Wright, The Challenge of
Wright, What Saint Paul,
Gamaliel was the grandson of
the rabbi Hillel.
Wright, What Saint Paul,
Robert Smith, “Justification
in ‘the New Perspective on Paul’,” The Reformed Theological Review 58/1
(Apr 1999): 27.
Paul F. M. Zahl, “Mistakes of
the New Perspective on Paul.” Themelios 27/1 (2001): 7.
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,
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.
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).
Wright, What Saint Paul,
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.
Wright, What Saint Paul,