Sunday, May 31, 2009
N.T. Wright (2009), Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
N.T. Wright is Bishop of Durham and was formerly Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and dean of Lichfield Cathedral. He taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities. Wright's full-scale works The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God are part of a projected six-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Among his many other published works are The Original Jesus, What Saint Paul Really Said and The Climax of the Covenant. He is also coauthor with Marcus Borg of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions and the volume on Colossians and Philemon in The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series.
This is an interesting book because it is mainly written in response to John Piper (2007)'s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright which was in turn written in response to N.T. Wright's perspective or the so called "new" or "fresh" perspectives on Paul. So when two theological giants goes into the ring with each other, the rest of us mortals should sit back and enjoy the show. Unfortunately, many have decided to get into the ring with them thus making what should be a theological dialogue into a free-for-all melee.
In this latest round, Wright was forthcoming in saying that he wrote this book in response to Piper and that he needed to defend himself to avoid being branded a 'villain' in this dialogue.
In the preface itself, Wright lays down his thoughts about Paul. He seek to frames the argument by structuring it as,
(1) the nature and scope of salvation (which he has dealt within his Surprised by Hope , 2008 , San Francisco: HarperOne).
(2) the means of salvation
(3) the meaning of salvation
It is mainly in the meaning of salvation that the main focus of this book is about or rather what the Pauline understanding of salvation is. Wrights identifies these themes,
(1) Paul's doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel
(2) Paul's doctrine of salvation is about covenant (God's covenant with Abraham)
(3) Paul's doctrine of salvation is focused on divine law court terms
(4) Paul's doctrine of salvation is bound up with eschatology i.e. Paul's understanding of God's future for the whole world and God's people. Or more specifically present justification and final justification.
The issue lies in the exegesis and hermeneutics of key texts and Wright went into a few of the key ones in this book. I believe he has dealt with the key texts fairly and accurately. It is not so much in the exegesis itself but in the nuances in the hermeneutics. In the Reformed tradition, theology is always forming and reforming. This means that there is always room for dialogue and it is the height of arrogance for anyone to think that they have the full understanding of all theological truths. Also it is folly for anyone to think that all Christians have misunderstood Paul for the last two thousand years. I prefer to see it as expanding our understanding of Paul's writings in light of our latest scholarship. Personally I do not think that Reformed theology is being threatened by this argument that has been going on for the last two decades. If it is so easily toppled, this means there is something wrong with it. I believe that Reformed theology is big enough for such dialogue to take place without too much emotionalism and mud-slinging.
This is a good book to read in the series of books that Wright is writing in defending his thinking about Paul. As he takes pain to point out it is a work in progress. I am looking forward to his coming fourth book (about Paul) in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series.