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The Wright Approach to Justification in Paul by Craig L. Blomberg

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I have often said it takes a generation for important scholarly developments to permeate the grass-roots levels of Christianity. Thirty-two years after Ed Sanders penned his blockbuster, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, the "new perspective on Paul," as it tends to be called is finally well known among many pastors and well-read laypeople. Or perhaps I should say the label is well known. Unfortunately, much like the expressions, "the new age movement" or "the emerging church," the label covers a number of different and sometimes contradictory perspectives and topics, so it is still not clear to me how much people actually know about the details of what should better be called the "new perspectives" on Paul.

Recent publications of N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, have tended to crystallize the debate, however, around the key emphases of these two scholars.

In the past, Wright has often made sweeping pronouncements about how the Reformation was wrong on some key point, but if one keeps patiently reading one later discovers him saying instead that it’s merely a case of putting Reformation concerns into a larger perspective. Piper, on the other hand, has not always represented Wright well, I suspect in large part because he has not always understood him well.

Justification: God's Plan & Paul's VisionWright’s new Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK; Downers Grove: IVP, 2009) is an outstanding book. Written in lively, if somewhat polemical style, not encumbered with many footnotes, Wright has here laid out his views with exemplary clarity. In fact, he is affirming all the major Reformation perspectives on justification. The only one he denies is one that was unique to one wing of Calvinism and not even to the entire Calvinist movement. While warmly embracing the representative, substitutionary atonement of Christ through his crucifixion and emphasizing the legal, courtroom context of justification as a metaphor for the declaration of right standing before God not based on anything of our meriting, Wright does deny that Paul, or any other Scriptural author, teaches that the righteousness God imputes to us on the basis of Christ’s cross-work has anything necessarily to do with combining what has been called Jesus’ active obedience (his sinless life) with his passive obedience (his atoning death). And when one looks at the texts often cited in support of such a doctrine (most notably 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21), one does indeed look in vain for such a distinction.

The burden of Wright’s work, however, is to highlight how dwelling exclusively on the Reformers’ emphases in Pauline soteriology can easily cause us to miss the bigger picture and the grander narrative in which those emphases are set. Paul’s concern is not first of all the anthropocentric one of how is a person justified, especially when that is interpreted solely as "how do I go to heaven when I die?" but rather the sweeping drama of salvation history. After creation and sin, God called Abram and promised to bless the nations through his seed. The problem for Wright with much of the Reformation and especially with John Piper’s version of Calvinism is that it can quickly lose sight of the plan of God to redeem the entire cosmos through the people of Israel, culminating in the Messiah, as a blessing for the whole world. The Christian’s hope is not just dying and going to heaven—that is what theologians have called the intermediate state. It is rather the resurrection of the body and life in the new heavens and the new earth. It is not merely reconciliation with God, as crucial as that is, but it is reconciliation with fellow believers across those racial and ethnic lines that continue to so deeply divide us, epitomized in Paul’s writings by the Jew-Gentile divide. God’s righteousness is not only his legal declaration of our acquittal, imputed to us, but also it is his covenant faithfulness to all of his promises.

I have a fuller review of this new book in the current issue of the Denver Journal, accessible through Denver Seminary’s website (www.denverseminary.edu). Let me just conclude here by saying that while one may still disagree with Wright’s take on this or that passage or on one specific exegetical conundrum in a given passage (and I do disagree here and there), the only way I can see how one can deny that his major emphases are both correct and profoundly important, is to ignore large swaths of Paul’s writing and especially Ephesians. Perhaps Wright’s critics who are indeed serious about the authority of Scripture trumping tradition, even certain forms of Calvinist tradition (!), will finally recognize Wright as a crucial ally and not an opponent. Surely in this century of so many non-Christian forces waging war against God’s people, Bible-believing Christians need to come together to create a much more united front.

Blomberg Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including James, a commentary he co-authored with Mariam Kamell.

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