N. T. Wright’s “New Perspectives”

Introduction

Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) hosted its thirtieth “January Series” in January 2017. Appearing, he informed his audience, for the fifth time, N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in England, and current research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, gave a speech in connection with the (Henry J.) Stob lecture series with the title, “The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross,” on Tuesday, January 24.

Wright is the most popular contemporary proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), so it is not surprising that he is now offering a fresh (or new) perspective on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Wright’s “New Perspective” on Paul

I report on his latest speech in the “All Around Us” rubric of the Standard Bearer (possibly the March 1, 2017 issue). In this blog, I will briefly review the main tenets of Wright’s NPP.

First, Wright redefines the concepts of “justification” and “righteousness.” The Reformed, biblical, and creedal explanation is that righteousness is a legal status in which one is in harmony with, or in conformity to, the standard of God, which is summarized in God’s law. To be justified is to be declared righteous, that is, to be declared, on the basis of the perfect work of Jesus Christ, to be in harmony with God’s standard. The righteousness of Jesus Christ, his lifelong obedience and his atoning sufferings and death, is imputed, or reckoned to the account of, the sinner, and that righteousness is received by faith alone without works.

Wright denies the possibility or the necessity of the imputation of God’s righteousness. For Wright righteousness is simply God’s covenant faithfulness by which he puts right what evil has done in the creation and keeps his promises to his people. Justification for Wright is not so much a matter of personal salvation, but it is to be declared, on the basis of faith, to be part of the covenant community—the New Israel—which God vindicates now and on the last day.

Moreover, Wright understands Paul’s fierce polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians and elsewhere not as a battle between justification by faith alone versus the notion of justification by the works of the law (because, argues Wright, Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never believed in salvation by works in the sense that the Reformers understood), but as a controversy over how one is declared to be part of the vindicated (or justified) community. Therefore, according to Wright’s reading of Paul, the apostle argued that one is declared a member of the church on the basis of faith, while the Judaizers insisted that one cannot be declared a member of the church—that is, justified—without circumcision and obedience to the (ceremonial) laws of Moses. Therefore, argues Wright, when Paul disputed about circumcision—even to the point of anathemas—he was not disputing about salvation, but about who was a member of the church.[1]

How, then, is one personally justified according to Wright’s NPP? By believing that Jesus is Lord, one is brought into, and declared to be a member of, the new covenant community, the church. At that point, on the basis of faith, one is “justified.” However, to remain one of God’s people, a believer must continue to believe and to be faithful, that is, continued justification and salvation and final justification and salvation depend on good works. On this point, Wright writes:

This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.[2]

Thus Wright’s position, which includes a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner, is simply a scholarly version of the old heresy of justification by faith and works.

Wright is an eloquent and engaging speaker, and undoubtedly many at the Calvin series hung spellbound on his every word, but for all his rhetorical flourishes Wright leaves us with no real atonement, no gospel, and, consequently, nowhere to hide on the day of judgment.

In view of the popularity of Wright, even in Calvin College, where he is hailed as a hero of the faith, those who love the biblical and Reformed truth of justification by faith alone will welcome the imminent publication of a new book by Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Gospel Truth of Justification.

Expect to hear more about Engelsma’s book soon (DV).

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[1] Notice Wright’s avoidance of the phrase “by faith alone,” a fatal omission, and his use of prepositions—justified on the basis of faith. The Reformers, following scripture, teach that justification is by or through faith alone. Faith is not the basis. Faith is the means or instrument of justification.

[2] N. T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 258; cited in John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham, IVP, 2008), 100. Notice the basis of justification is “the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit”—Believing reader, the life that you lead in the power of the Spirit is the imperfect obedience which you, out of sincere love, but in much weakness, have rendered to God in gratitude for your salvation. Will you dare appear before God on that basis, instead of on the basis of the perfect obedience and atoning sufferings and death of Jesus Christ? That is where Wright’s theology would lead you, which will issue in damnation on the day of judgment.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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