Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: "Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision" by N. T.Wright

The theological position of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other 16th Century Deformers has for almost 500 years been claimed to be the result of sound biblical interpretation of the writings of St. Paul. In particular, the Deformers and their descendants have emphasized St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans and in a lesser way his Epistle to the Galatians as providing proof that righteousness before God was a matter of faith alone in Christ and his promises without the necessity of good works. Over the centuries the strident anti-nominanism that the original Deformers advocated was often modified such as in the Arminian-Wesleyan Tradition. But mainstream Lutherianism insisted that the act of human faith alone was salvific while Calvinoids insisted that the irresistible grace of regeneration given only to God's elect must precede the act of faith for it to truly save. In virtually all Protestant systems the imputation of an alien righteousness -- that is, an external righteousness applied to the believer in some sort of forensic exchange -- was what made a person righteous before God. The process was seen as passive with any disposition to good works being seen as a mere by-product that had at best evidentiary value but did not contribute in any way towards ones standing with God. This process was known as Justification. In the more mechanistic versions of this doctrine, the sinfulness of humans was imputed to Christ while the perfect human goodness of Jesus was imputed to the believer. Thus God punished Jesus as a sin bearer for human offenses and there was no need of our suffering at all. This was the doctrine of penal substitution that has been most popular in Calvinism and the more Puritanical forms of Anglicanism.

Patristic and Medieval Catholicism as well as Eastern Orthodoxy insisted that the process of becoming righteous before God was not a merely forensic declaration or an imputational exchange but an a transformation of the person brought about by the active power of grace. Catholicism always saw the relationship between the believer and God primarily as one of "adoptive sonship" in which the believer is changed from a condition of wrathbefore God to that of a partaker of the Divine nature. Orthodoxy uses the term 'Divinization.' This transformation was initiated by an act of faith that lead to baptism which itself was seen as an instrumental means of one joining the household of God. (See Romans 6.) The exact details of this transformation were a matter of discussion among different schools.
The official Catholic doctrine itself was not as strictly defined as those of the various Protestant groups and would continue to develop over the centuries. It would not be until the Jansenist controversy in the 18th Century that some of the fine points would be hammered out. Even so, there is still much more diversity in Catholicism on this issue than there is in any individual Protestant sect.

The difference between Catholics/Orthodox and Protestants was between a divinized humanity and a re-humanized humanity. Between being children of God or servants of God.

The crucial distinction came down to what it meant when St. Paul said we were "justified by faith apart from works of the law." If he meant by this ANY works of ANY law, then no transformation is needed and righteousness could be imputed. Good works then MIGHT flow from gratitude but were not necessary for one to be considered in right relationship with God. If it was more narrowly construed to mean works of a particular law (e.g., the Mosaic law) then it was only one condition that did not necessarily exclude others and this opened up the possibility that being righteous before God could be construed as a new covenantal relationship. That is, a relationship of the reciprocal donation of God's life to us and our life to Him.

Since the early 1960s there has been a growing movement among PROTESTANT biblical scholars which began to recognize that the focus of St. Paul's letters was primarily on the place of the Gentiles within the Church and not on works righteousness. They all so emphasize that the anti-nomianism of Luther et al is notoriously absent from the Bible. Krister Stendahl from Harvard wrote the first major piece mentioning this and others have followed including W. D. Davies, E. P. Sanders, and James D. G. Dunn. Collectively the position of these men and others who have had this insight have been known as "The New Perspective on Paul." (As a Catholic, I insist on calling it "The New Perspective on St. Paul .")

The most recent contribution to the New Perspective is a book by the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright entitled "Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision." This represents the watershed of the New Perspective on the matter of Justification and is essential reading for any Catholic Apologist. With only minor quibbles, I believe that Wright has gotten it right! He shows the flaws in the Protestant position which are due to a systematic theological anti-Semitism which sees far too many discontinuities between St. Paul and pre-Christian Judaism.
Dr. Wright is the author of a three volume work called "Christian Origins and the Question of God." The three volumes are:
The New Testament and the People of God

Jesus and the Victory of God
The Resurrection of the Son of God
He also did a supplementary volume that dealt with his views on the law in St. Paul:

The Climax of the Covenant: Christ And The Law In Pauline Theology

The volume under review here distills Dr. Wright's views from these very technical books into a format accessible to a more popular audience. In it he also addresses numerous criticisms that have been made of his position by Protestant dogmatists like John Piper who want desperately to affirm Protestant systematic theology no matter what the Bible actually says.

Dr. Wright is a critical advocate of the New Perspective. He finds some of the material by Sanders and Dunn to be too theological and not well informed enough by an understanding of 1st Century Judaism. Nevertheless, he makes it clear that the theological and exegetical views of Luther and later scions of the Deformation with regard to St. Paul can no longer be maintained. He also makes it clear that he follows the New Perspective in seeing St. Paul's primary opponents within the nascent Church as the Judaizers who wanted to extend the need for circumcision and a full Torah lifestyle to Gentile Christian converts. The question of "works righteousness" from the later Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian controversies really has no place here.

As Dr. Wright sees it, St. Paul envisions the righteousness of God as covenant faithfulness. God had promised Abraham that he and his descendants would be a blessing to all the nations. In return, they would be God's own chosen people. While Israel had failed to keep up their end of the covenant with God, God did not falter on His end and He sent Jesus so that His promises could be fulfilled. Dr. Wright favors the general views of John Calvin with regard to Israel over that of Martin Luther. Luther generally found the law to be a negative standard that brought troubled consciences to despair. Calvin on the other hand understood that "the Mosaic law was given as a way of life for a people already redeemed." {Wright, Justification, pg 72} In other words, Israel was redeemed by God FOR the Law that they should walk in it afterwards. (This echoes St. Paul's teaching in Ephesians 2:8-10.)

But Calvin went too far making it seem that there was no need for the pursuit of a moral life. In his view, if one has been elected, then one was guaranteed to be saved and works performed after receiving the grace of justification played no part in one's righteous state before God. As Dr. Wright points out this viewpoint is inconsistent with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and for that matter with the moral exhortations in the rest of Scripture in both Testaments {Wright, Justification, pg 75}. Instead, St. Paul makes it clear in his letters that a New Covenant has come in Christ as prophesied to Abraham (Gen 18:18), Isaiah (Isa 49:6-7; 55:5, 60:3, 66:18-21), Zechariah (Zec 8), and Jeremiah (Jer 1:5, 3:17, 4:2, 31:31ff). This New Covenant will not be just with Israel but all of the nations.

Most importantly, Dr. Wright understands that the New Covenant will come with new responsibilities that we are expected to carry out as God's Holy People. He points out that there are 3 concepts used by St. Paul to described the work of Christ in His followers: justification, sanctification, and redemption. There has been a tendency to see these words as interchangeable but in fact they represent 3 different aspects of salvation.

Justification is the new standing that we have before God through our union with Christ. Dr. Wright spends quite a bit of time explaining this in the book. It is crucial to understanding his views. He sees justification as the declaration in the here and now that God has accepted the Christian as a member of His people in anticipation of the consummation of all things at the Eschaton. So it has both an already/not yet character. The inherent tentative state this places the believer in puts Wright at odds with dogmatic Calvinism. For him, justification looks to the future, not to some 'eternal decree' in the deep distant past. Dr. Wright also sees this condition in covenantal terms. The justified are related to God as covenant partners and so reciprocal obligations are placed on both God and the believer. These important distinction cause quite a bit of trouble for Wright among his Protestant confreres.

Sanctification in St. Paul is "the actual life of holiness through the power of God working in them by the power of the Holy Spirit." {Wright, Justification, pg 156}. Redemption is the accomplishment that God has made on our behalf. All three of these are necessary for salvation in Wright's interpretation.

This understanding is very important for it supports the Catholic view on Justification. The Council Trent teaches that Justification is best described as "the adoption of sons" {Trent, Session 6, Chapters 2 & 4}. This is in essence our new standing before God.

Sanctification is the process by which we are inwardly renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit {Trent, Session 6, Chapters 7, 10, & 11}. St. Paul clearly teaches that it is through that we gain eternal life (Rom 6:22).

Redemption is the work done by God that enables us to be justified and sanctified. Apart from this redemptive work, we remain sinners before God and nothing we can do will please Him. {Trent, Session 6, Chapters 2, 3, & 6}.
Dr. Wright's exposition of St. Paul clearly rejects the main themes from Deformation theology while giving ample Biblical support for the Catholic Church's own views on salvation.

Dr. Wright makes some brief comments on the Catholic view showing very sadly that he does not understand it. Following the misinterpretations of the Caroline Divines of his own Anglicanism, he assumes that the Catholic understanding of redemption "goes too far" expecting us to made virtually impeccable by sanctifying grace. This error led many Anglicans in the past to seek a 'via media' (middle way) for their theology between the 'extremes' of Protestantism on the one hand and Catholicism on the other.

To the contrary, the Catholic view is that we are enabled by grace to grow in the knowledge and wisdom of God and to conform ourselves to the image of His Son. The grace of initial conversion is not the end for us but the first steps as children in God's own family. Growing grace is the Catholic way of understanding anticipation of the Eschaton. It is why - following Judaism - we Catholics believe there is purgation after death to prepare the soul for the resurrection.

Dr. Wright's book is absolutely indispensable for any Catholic who wants to understand what St. Paul actually taught and how to understand the Pauline corpus in the New Testament. Reading it you will see the biblical foundations of Catholic theology made plain and you will better understand why the Church rejected Luther, Calvin, et al for their errors.



Lucien said...

Checked out the book from the library, per your recommendation, and I am making my way through it now.

Would you be able to assist with a more specific defense of the Catholic teaching on justification?

Mr. Wright's main target is the over-simplified version professed by many evangelicals; but his attacks on Catholicism's understanding/teaching are raising questions in my mind (which I have no answer for). Would you be able to assist on a limited basis for any of these questions?

Art Sippo: said...

You bet. Shoot.

Lucien said...

Starting with a simple clarification request on page 46, the author states the following:

...while avoiding the all too obvious mistakes of large parts of medieval Catholicism (equally obvious, it should be said, to many Roman Catholics then and now).

I am a new Roman Catholic (3+ years) so maybe I am just too ignorant, but what was the author referring to? Where did medieval Catholicism go so obviously wrong?

Art Sippo: said...

In short, it didn't. Dr. Wright is parroting back the usual Protestant argument he was taught that CAtholicism was Semi-Pelagian. If he would bother to read the book Iustitia Dei by his co-religionist Dr. Alister McGrath he would see that that never happened and that even the most poorly formed theologies ofhte Medieval period were staunchly anti-Pelagian.

It is a incorrect assumption by Protestants that the concept of 'merit' undermiens the idea of grace. I find it disapointing that Wright would make such a amteurish mistake since he himself in this very book talks about grace empowering people to do good and that such good works are essential to justification.

The NT says this several times,most notably in Romans 6:22 but also in Matt 7:21; Rom 2:5-7, 13; Gal 5:6; and Jam 1:22, 2:24 among others.

So at this point he is talking like an Anglican who cannot "connect the dots" and rise above he erroneous apologetic claims of his religion.

Lucien said...

Hi Dr. Sippo,

Thank you for your reply to my first question; the second question is covering the supposed incorrect usage of the Pauline/biblical term “justification” (pages 80-81). At first he is critiquing where the Protestants such as J. Piper have gone astray, but then critiques St. Augustine:

“…so threatening to writers like John Piper, that the church has indeed taken off at an oblique angle from what Paul had said, so that, yes, ever since the time of Augustine, the discussions about what has been called “justification” have borne a tangled, but ultimately only tangential, relation to what Paul was talking about.”

I am under the impression that St. Augustine’s thought, on the topic of justification, is the basis of the dogmatic definitions the Church declared at the Council of Trent. Was Mr. Wright making the particular assertion that St. Augustine was incorrect thus, by extension; the Catholic Church is incorrect in its understanding of justification?

On page 81, he goes further criticizing theologians who would take biblical words and attribute meanings to them other than what was intended, but has no problem with St. Athanasius coming up with the term homoousion (which I imagine is derived from philosophical language) to describe the divinity of Christ; here again I am assuming he is criticizing both Catholic and Protestant theologians and just wanted to emphasize his earlier train of thought regarding the above questions.

Thanks for your help and so far I only have two more questions, but will post them in the coming weeks.

Best regards,

Art Sippo: said...

St. Augustine judged the meaning of justification based on the Latin verb justificare. The Greek verb dikaioo means primarily to be declared righteous whereas the Latin justificare means primarily to make righteous.

This distinction has been used by Protestants for centuries to claim that the Catholic Church did not understand St. Paul.

The problem is that there is no simple word to word translation from the Greek Dikaioo into Latin.

And modern scholarship has also finally admitted that the "-oo" Greek verbs do have a trans-formative quality. You can even see this in the NT: Rom 5:19, 2Cor 5:21. Fr. Fitzmeier in his chapter on Pauline Theology in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Later published as a book by the same name.) and in his Romans commentary for the Anchor Bible documented this in detail.

In any case Luther's views were also dependant on St. Augustine so the point is probably moot.

I must agree with Dr. Wright about theologians who attribute non-biblical meaning to words in the Bible. Dikaioo does not mean " to impute righteousness" no matter what many of the Prot pundits want to believe.

Dikaioo and its cognates have a wider semantic range than traditional Protestants want to admit. One part of that includes transformation to becoming a righteous person.

Dr. Wright opines that St.Paul's primary meaning of the dikaioo family of words is that the person who has faith in Jesus is acepted by God in the here and now with the anticipation that they will be vindicated at the Last Judgment. In other words, there is an "already" and a "not yet" to justification with expectation of an active growth from who we are to who we will be in Christ. This accords well with Catholic theology.

I admit that Wright is a doctrinaire Anglican who is reluctant to say anything good about Catholicism. But to the cognoscenti he is giving support to our traditional objections to Protestant theology from the perspective of biblical exegesis alone.

Tom said...


Just stumbles upon your blog and am keen to read more. To be honest, I may have not stopped for long except that I am a fan of NT Wright, and was curious to know your thoughts on this book as I have not read it yet.

I was expecting to see his work talked down, as it so often is by so many sections both of the theological and historical community. What a pleasent surprise to see that I was not correct in my expectation. I have barely even skimmed your comments, but will be back for a detailed read.

I am not Catholic, so I am doubly keen to read your views. In my experience, Protestants can be so annoying to read - I am hoping that I find a breath of fresh air here!

Art Sippo: said...

Hi Tom!

Thank you for your interest. Dr. Wright has IMHO made a major advance on our understanding of St. Paul. He has reintroduced covenant theology into Justification and shown the important continuities between Biblical Judaism and Christianity.

Furthermore he has also shown how using the Bible ALONE there can be a rapprochement among Catholics and Protestants on these critical issues.

I look forward to any comments you may have on my posting.

David said...

I have given up on my second attempt at reading John Salza's The Mystery of Predestination. Not because I found it in any way boring - on the contrary. But because I felt my faith suffering in the sense that the vision of a God who arbitrarily chooses one person for salvation and another for damnation oppresses my heart and make me almost wish Christianity was not true.

I realise that there is a distinction between the Thomist position (which John Salza represents) and the Calvinist position. However, regardless of the distinction between negative reprobation (Thomism) and positive reprobation (Calvinism), the 'end result' appears to me the same: a person is damned as a result of God's choosing to give grace to one and not to another.

Mr Salza returns repeatedly to the point that God's election of the saved is due to Him loving them more than He loves others. Divine predilection. I find it difficult to imagine how a person could sincerely love such a God, who seems more akin to a cosmic bully than the God who "wishes all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth". But perhaps this is due to a fault in me.

I guess this is a lengthy way of saying that I would be very interested in your review of The Mystery of Predestination!