This short paper is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis and defense of N. T. Wright, much less the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” as a whole. Indeed, Wright’s theological project has some failings and the New Perspective as a movement must be considered a mixed bag of thinkers with widely varying degrees of orthodoxy. Rather, my much more modest goal is to offer a plea for Reformed theologians and pastors to give Wright a sustained and sympathetic reading. Several Reformed theologians have recently gone on record critiquing Wright (e.g., Richard Gaffin, Charles Hill, Bob Cara) , particularly on the issue of justification. My hope is to clear the ground, and show why I think these critics have, in several key ways, misread and mischaracterized Wright’s theology. In fact, if we ignore Wright or fail to do the careful study needed to understand his work, we will be missing out on tremendous blessing.
I first stumbled across Wright in the mid-90s when I was doing research on NT eschatology and the historical Jesus. But it was not long before I discovered Wright had a profound grasp of Pauline theology as well. Because Reformed theology has been dominated by Paul, it is not surprising that Wright’s fresh reading of the apostle has attracted a great deal of attention from Reformed thinkers. Thus far, no one from within the Reformed world has stepped up to provide an overarching defense of Wright, and certainly this paper is far too brief to fill that void. But in the meantime, I feel the need to say something to the Reformed community on Wright’s behalf. I will not take the time to summarize the now-standard criticisms of Wright, which are available elsewhere. Besides, many, even if true, are of no great significance. Rather, I will focus primarily on the overall shape of his doctrine of justification, showing it basically harmonizes with, complements, and yes, even improves, more traditional Reformed formulations. Wright’s teaching on justification has six basic features.
First, Wright uses the standard Reformed lawcourt metaphor for justification . Clearly Wright believes, with the Reformers and against Rome, that justification has a forensic dimension and is not simply a matter of moral transformation. In fact, he explicitly rejects the Roman Catholic view and insists justification is the eschatological verdict of God brought into the present time. He finds the basis of this verdict in the representative death and resurrection of Christ. Christ took the curse of the law upon himself in order to bring the promised covenant blessing to us. While Wright shies away from the term “imputation,” virtually synonymous terms such as “reckon” are used . Moreover, in his lecture comments  on Romans 3:25 he made it very plain he believes the cross did indeed propitiate God’s wrath. He criticized the NIV (which has ‘sacrifice of atonement’ instead of ‘propitiation’) and clearly distinguished propitiation from expiation. Wright cannot be accused of soft-pedaling God’s wrath or the cross’s quenching of that wrath.
Second, Wright’s doctrine of justification is inseparable from his corporate Christology. This is where many of his Reformed detractors have failed to deal with the real Wright. Instead of looking at justification in its proper place in his system, they decontextualize it, abstracting it from his corporate Christology . Essentially, however, there is nothing unreformed about the structure of Wright’s theology here. He simply uses union with Christ to do in his theology what imputation does for traditional Reformed systematics. Of course, the net result is the same: sinners are right with God because of what Christ did in their stead. Wright makes union with Christ more foundational than imputation/reckoning, but this move was already anticipated in Calvin and has been reiterated even more strongly by Gaffin . Because we are in Christ, all that Christ has is now ours — including his righteous standing before the Father as the New Adam. The forensic, imputational aspect of salvation is included as one dimension of our union with the risen and vindicated Christ. As Gaffin says, justification has no discrete structure of its own; it is a function of our oneness with Christ.
But, third, Wright’s view of justification is further misunderstood because his corporate Christology feeds into a narrative reading of Scripture that many Reformed theologians, steeped in systematics but unfamiliar with typology, struggle to comprehend. Here, a careful study of several of Wright’s works is needed . Wright situates justification within the broader framework of the biblical story, or metanarrative. In other words, he reads the Pauline doctrine of justification in terms of redemptive history. Thus, Christ is understood to be the New Adam and New Israel, living out the life of faithfulness which they failed to offer to God. Justification and the forgiveness of sins, therefore, are coordinated with the removal of the curse and the return from exile, which are clearly redemptive historical events. While Wright’s exile/exodus theology should be nuanced a bit more (to take into account the fact that Israel did, in some sense, return from exile in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah), there is no question he is on the right track here. The prophets themselves repeatedly link the return from exile with forgiveness (e.g., Isa. 40ff), and the NT clearly interprets Christ’s death and resurrection in exile/exodus categories (e.g., Luke 9:31). In other words, justification has at least as much to do with the history of salvation as it does with some sort of individualistic ordo salutis. Of course, given Wright’s corporate Christology, if you have the historia salutis, the ordo salutis is thrown in as well.
This brings us to the fourth feature of Wright’s doctrine, its corporate nature. Luther and Calvin were deeply concerned with matters of individual standing before God. Think of Luther’s driving question, “How can I, a sinner, find favor with God?” No doubt, this question must be asked and answered, and on that score the Reformers were right. But such concerns are not always at the forefront of Paul’s mind and reading them into Paul can be disastrous for exegesis. It is now becoming clear (and here is another place Reformed theologians must be very patient in working towards a proper understanding of Wright) that our interpretation of Paul has often been governed more by existential sixteenth century questions, than by the questions that led Paul to pen the epistles in the first place. For example, if Galatians gives us Paul’s earliest discussion of justification, it is striking that it comes up not in the context of Luther’s individual soteriological question, but rather a debate over proper table fellowship (2:11ff)! For Paul, justification was not merely a soteriological doctrine, but a sociological and ecclesiological one as well. Indeed, for Paul, soteriology and ecclesiology were inseparable since the church is the body and bride of Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation. Wright has recovered this basic Pauline insight, and for that we should thank him. But note this does not leave him unconcerned with questions of individual salvation and assurance; indeed, Wright, rightly, reminds us that if you have the corporate, you get the individual thrown in as well.
Fifth, Wright stresses the “already” as well as the “not yet” of justification. Here both Rome and the Reformers must be found wanting. For the Reformers, justification was conceived almost entirely in terms of the “already”. What wounded consciences needed to hear was that God had already accepted them in Christ. Rome, of course, held the verdict of justification in suspense until the last day, making assurance impossible. For Wright (and not a few top notch Reformed theologians) justification is present and future. Initial justification is received by faith alone. But “future justification, acquittal at the last great Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived” . Indeed, this point seems obvious, even if it has been largely missed because of our polemic against Rome. Scripture repeatedly points ahead to a final judgment in which works will play a vital role in our acquittal (though not in abstraction from faith, of course) ” .
Finally, we must consider Wright’s Hebraic understanding “righteousness.” For Wright, righteousness is not strictly legal but relational. It is not so much distributive justice as promise/covenant keeping. The Reformers, for the most part, ignored the OT background to Paul’s use of “righteousness.” But Ps 143:3, to cite one of many examples, parallels God’s righteousness with his covenant faithfulness. The Psalmist can appeal to God’s righteousness for salvation! On many Lutheran/Reformed grids, appealing to God’s righteousness is suicidal, not salvific. But if righteousness is God’s loyalty to the covenant, then the appeal of the psalmist makes sense. (It also explains why the psalmist could appeal to his own righteousness at times — he wasn’t claiming merit or moral perfection, only covenant faithfulness). In Rom. 1, Paul says the gospel reveals the righteousness of God because the gospel announces that God has kept all his covenant promises — appearances to the contrary — through the death and resurrection of Christ. I think this also explains why at times Wright seems to equate justification with covenant membership. To be a covenant keeper — to be loyal to the terms of the covenant — is to have righteousness, because, after all, righteousness is covenant keeping by definition. This doesn’t do away with the need for reckoning/imputation or representation/substitution, but it does help bring us to a better understanding of the biblical foundations of Wright’s language. It is ironic that sola Scriptura Protestants can so easily dismiss as “dangerous” or “heretical” theologians who do not employ their extra-biblical (!) formulations.
No doubt, much more needs to be said, but hopefully this essay will at least temper some criticism of Wright and encourage many within the Reformed camp to take another look at his valuable work. It is all too easy to dismiss Wright without a hearing when a theologian of Gaffin’s stature is critical of him. But we must not shy away from semper Reformanda, from continually reforming our theology and confessions according to the Scriptures. The sixteenth century reformers made great headway in understanding Paul. But we have several more centuries of preaching, exegesis, and scholarship behind us and should not be afraid to move forward, albeit with due caution. Plus, we should recognize the questions facing us are quite different today and cannot but force us to look at Paul from different angles. I am confident that in the long run, Wright’s work on the NT will come be treasured by the Reformed tradition as the “next step” in our growing understanding of God’s revelation in Christ. Accepting Wright need not mean rejecting the Reformation.
1. Gaffin’s critique of Wright appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal. Sadly, and inexplicably, he also surveyed Dunn in the same article. Dunn’s orthodoxy is far more questionable than Wright’s so Gaffin has made some measure of guilt by association unavoidable. Hill’s critique is available online at thirdmill.org. I received Cara’s critique via private correspondence with some people who sat in on a seminar he taught.
2.See, e.g., his article on justification in the New Dictionary of Theology.
3. For example, in Climax of the Covenant (39), he speaks of the Torah’s function of “drawing sin” onto Israel, and therefore onto Israel’s representative, the Messiah, so it can be dealt with at the cross. This seems isomorphic with the Reformed doctrine of imputation, albeit in different language. If sin was “drawn onto the Mesiah,” it seems it was “imputed” to him as well. Or, to take another example, on 202, he says the Messiah “represents his people so that what is true of him is reckoned as true of them.” But how is this reckoning different than imputation? I have not seen Wright discuss his misgivings with the term “imputation.”
4. Numerous taped lecture courses by Wright are available from Regent Bookstore.
5. See in particular his book Climax to get a sense of his corporate Christology.
6. This makes Gaffin’s often superficial criticisms of Wright even more frustrating!
7. Especially helpful is his treatment of narrative in relation to worldview in The New Testament and the People of God. His Adam/Israel/Christ typology pervades most everything he has written.
8. P. 144 in Paul and the Mosaic Law, edited by J. D. G. Dunn.
9. Cf. Mt. 25:31ff, Rom. 2, etc. The Westminster divines implicitly acknowledge a future dimension to justification in WSC 38, since they spoke of “acquittal” occurring at the final judgment. Among more contemporary Reformed theologians, Gaffin and Norm Shepherd have spoken freely of the future aspect of justification.