N.T. Wright’s views about the doctrine of justification have continued to be quite controversial, and his book Justification is a brief summary of his entire project. Essentially, Wright is attempting to go back to the Pauline corpus to see exactly what Paul means by the doctrine of justification. Part of this project, for Wright, is to become aware of the idea that we may be asking the texts the wrong questions from the get-go. We need to understand the context to which Paul was writing before we can even properly formulate questions.
Wright begins with a number of preliminary comments. He first outlines the difficulties faced by biblical interpreters when they do start with the wrong questions. He argues that a number of our interpretations are based less on the text than an interpretation of the text itself. He argues that the Reformation tradition ought to continue to lead us to question even Reformation conclusions about texts like Galatians–and Luther’s “mistaken” reading (according to Wright) thereof. In other words, we need to acknowledge that we could be deeply mistaken, and have been deeply mistaken, about the meaning of these texts for hundreds of years. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but one that ought to be taken seriously. Acknowledging the possibility that an interpretation is based less on the text than on tradition or modern assumptions is one of the first steps to understanding the text.
Then, Wright proceeds to show the context to which Paul was writing. Specifically, much of the context he was writing to makes certain parts of the text make a lot more sense than they may otherwise. When you realize what was happening in the early church it becomes easier to understand some of the basic questions Paul was asking and answering. Next, Wright outlines his view of justification, which is admittedly never distilled (so far as I can tell) down to a single sentence. It is thus difficult to say exactly what his view is without an extended excursus longer than a book review, but the bare-bones basics, at risk of being overly simplistic, is that justification is God’s work through Israel of bringing the whole world to himself, declaring it righteous not through imputed righteousness, but through a law court declaration of righteousness. Yes, before those who understand Wright’s position better than I do, this is very simplistic and misses some key points of his doctrine. Yet, I have to make the attempt to summarize as best I can what he was arguing.
Finally, Wright concludes with lengthy exegesis of a number of Pauline passages. Though he himself says these are but the first steps along the lines of understanding Paul, it ought to be noted that it is in this section of the book that Wright engages most thoroughly with critics of his position as well as providing a positive statement of his view. This new edition that I’m reviewing adds an additional introduction from Wright, which outlines the continuing debates over Pauline theology.
One difficulty with Wright’s approach that many may object to is the notion that it undermines the perspicuity of Scripture. Now, I’m one who hates throwing that term around, because perspicuity is used as a kind of battering ram doctrine to try to silence critics on all sorts of topics. However, the real doctrine of perspicuity of Scripture, yes, inherited from the Reformation, is that the Bible is clear in that which is necessary to understand for salvation. If, however, Wright is correct in saying that must understand a great deal of historical context before we can even get to the right questions for the doctrine of justification, this seems to make it quite complex indeed to get to the knowledge that people need for salvation. Of course, Wright would–and did–argue that this is already starting off on the wrong track, because Paul was not so much interested in individual salvation as he was interested in the plan of Salvation through Israel of the whole world. And that is a fair answer, though it does seem to–in some sense–undermine the clarity of Scripture as has been taught. Once again, Wright would probably accept this and argue that that idea is itself an inherited tradition that the Reformers themselves would call us to examine and test by Scripture.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the book to me was the continued targeting of Luther and Lutheran theology by Wright. I know of some Lutheran pastors who have argued Wright’s position is not far at all from the Lutheran one, and others who believe he is as far from Lutheranism on justification as possible. Though this may simply show confusion within Lutheran theology, it may also show–and I think does–that Wright’s position (and probably Luther’s) is not so clearly stated as he thinks. Moreover, I am curious about the continued calling out of Lutherans (and, yes, Reformed thinkers) by Wright, considering that his position seems, on the face of it, so utterly close to what Lutherans do believe about justification, and much farther from some other denominational perspectives.
Justification is required reading for those interested in Pauline theology, whether one agrees with Wright or not. That said, it is unfortunate that a decent amount of the work seems to be polemical against perceived enemies rather than embracing potential allies.
+Leads readers to a deeper look at biblical texts
+Provides solid background to understanding Pauline corpus
+Outlines Wright’s ways in a concise fashion
-Strangely focused on the Lutheran position
-Not always very clear
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
N.T. Wright, Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).
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