N. T. Wright’s long-awaited Paul and the Faithfulness of God is out now. It is so big the publisher had to break it up into two volumes totaling 1,696 pages. I haven’t bought it yet, much less read it, but I plan to do both as soon as possible. I’m sure everyone will be talking about it at SBL in Baltimore in two weeks.
In this post, I’m focusing on Wright’s view of justification as expressed in his publications up to this point, obviously not taking his latest book into account. He may have modified or clarified some things there.
It’s important to keep in mind that justification is only one aspect of his thought. I’m sure he gets frustrated when people only nitpick at that one issue and ignore the rest of his “grand narrative” proposals regarding Jesus as the Messiah (= true Israel) who fulfills the Abrahamic covenant. That theme is obviously far more important to him than getting the technical details of justification right.
But the details of justification are important because they directly relate to assurance, the question of how I as a sinner can be accepted before a holy God. The Bible teaches that we must be righteous in order to stand accepted before a holy God (Rom 2:13), and lacking such righteousness (Rom 3:9-20), it is only to be found in Christ who is our righteousness (Rom 3:21-26; 10:3-4; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9).
But for Wright, the question of righteousness – how can a sinner be righteous before God? – is irrelevant. To use Stendahl’s phrase, it stems from the introspective conscience of the West and has little to do with Paul’s concerns. The search for assurance before a holy God is a subsidiary crater to the much more massive crater created by God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, and the resulting formation of the multiethnic people of the Messiah who embody and extend God’s faithfulness to the world.
I have a theory that I would like to throw out there, but I think the best way to understand Wright is to take the classic Reformed definition of justification and see what Wright does with it. My theory is that he affirms the first half of the definition, rejects the second half, and replaces the second half with the issue of covenant membership in order to tie it into his grand narrative of God’s covenant faithfulness.
The classic Reformed definition is summarized by Calvin: “Justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ” (Institutes 3.11.2). The same two-part definition is given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 33): “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
My theory is that Wright affirms the first half of justification – the forgiveness of sins. But he rejects the second half – the imputation of the righteousness of Christ – and in its place he puts the declaration of covenant membership.
Why does he reject the second half, the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness? First, he doesn’t accept the interpretation of the classic proof texts used in Reformed theology. But second, he just doesn’t believe that it is necessary. He doesn’t believe that we need a positive righteousness to be accepted before God. As long as we are forgiven, our acceptance is by his grace, without the need for the law to be fulfilled positively so that we might be reckoned as perfectly righteous in his sight.
Here are some quotes by Wright to provide evidence for my theory.
What Saint Paul Really Said (1997)
“If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom” (p. 98).
“If we leave the notion of ‘righteousness’ as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship” (p. 110).
“Justification in this setting, then, is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community … It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people” (p. 119).
1 Corinthians 1:30 “is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text. But if we are to claim it as such, we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom of Christ; the imputed sanctification of Christ; and the imputed redemption of Christ” (p. 123).
“New Perspectives on Paul” (2003)
This was Wright’s lecture at the 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference in 2003. It was published in Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Baker, 2006).
“What, then, about the ‘imputed righteousness’? This is fine as it stands; God does indeed ‘reckon righteousness’ to those who believe. But this is not, for Paul, the righteousness either of God or of Christ except in a very specialized sense … Only two passages can be invoked in favor of the imputed righteousness being that of God or Christ. The first [1 Cor 1:30] proves too much, and the second [2 Cor 5:21] not enough” (p. 252).
“Is there, then, no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in, for instance Romans 5:14-21? Yes, there is; but this is not God’s own righteousness or Christ’s own righteousness that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people but, rather, the fresh status of ‘covenant member,’ and/or ‘justified sinner’” (p. 253).
“When we talk of God’s vindication of someone, we are talking about God’s declaration, which appears as a double thing to us, but, I suspect, a single thing to Paul: the declaration (a) that someone is in the right (his or her sins having been forgiven through the death of Jesus) and (b) that this person is a member of the true covenant family” (p. 258).
“These two things – declaring sinners to be in the right, with their sins forgiven, and declaring someone to be a member of the single multiethnic family – go very closely together in Paul’s mind … Thus God’s declaration of forgiveness and declaration of covenant membership are not ultimately two different things” (p. 259).
“Paul does not say that God sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ. This would be the wrong meaning of ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness.’ … I suspect that it was the medieval overconcentration on righteousness, on justitia, that caused the Protestant Reformers to push for imputed righteousness” (p. 261).
Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009)
“It is God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham that, as in many passages of the Old Testament, is the key central meaning of ‘God’s righteousness.’ The section which began at Romans 3:21 did not finish at Romans 3:31; it merely sets up the fuller exposition of the same point, the dikaiosynē theou. The tragedy of much Reformation reading of Paul is that, by using the language of ‘God’s righteousness’ on the unnecessary project of ‘finding someone’s righteousness to impute to the believer’ as though ‘righteousness’ was that sort of thing in the first place, and as though the theological point were not already taken care of ‘in Christ,’ this entire point was not just sidelined but binned” (p. 217).
“Forgiveness – the non-reckoning of sin – is thus right at the heart of the larger picture which Paul is sketching, but we must not for that reason ignore that larger picture” (p. 221).
“We note in particular that the ‘obedience’ of Christ is not designed to amass a treasury of merit which can then be ‘reckoned’ to the believer, as in some Reformed schemes of thought” (p. 228). “This is, theologically and exegetically, a blind alley” (p. 231).
His interpretation of Romans 10:4: “The Messiah is the culmination of the Torah, so that there may be dikaiosynē, covenant membership, for all who believe.” This verse “gives off its full resonances not within the Lutheran scheme whereby the law is a bad thing abolished in Christ, nor within the Calvinist scheme whereby the law is a good thing which Christ obeyed and thus procured ‘righteousness’ (works-righteousness, we note) to be then ‘imputed’ to those who believe, but within Paul’s own Jewish framework of thought, the narrative of God and his faithfulness to Israel which has reached its destination in the Messiah” (p. 244).
“Justification is more than simply the remitting and forgiving of sins, vital and wonderful though that is. It is the declaration that those who believe in Jesus are part of the resurrection-based single family of the one Creator God” (p. 248).
“Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever” (2010)
I was at the ETS Annual Meeting in Atlanta in 2010 and I heard Wright’s address to the society in which he defended his view of justification. He dismissed as “medieval” the view that humans lack righteousness, but, oh, Jesus has a bunch of extra righteousness lying around, so, here, take some of his and get the righteousness you need to go to heaven. This misunderstanding, he argued, is derived from the medieval mistranslation of “the righteousness of God” as iustitia Dei.
Here is how it came out in the published version: “As applied to humans the best rendering [of dikaiosynē] is ‘covenant membership.’ … What then does it mean, within the lawcourt setting, for someone to be ‘righteous’? Simply this: that the court has found in their favor. It means that they have been declared to be ‘in the right.’ They have not been granted or imputed a ‘righteousness’ which belongs to someone else … God as the God who made the covenant with Abraham declares that someone is a member of that covenant … To think otherwise—to insist that one needs ‘righteousness,’ in the sense of ‘moral character or repute’ or whatever, in order to stand unashamed before God, and that, lacking any of one’s own, one must find some from somewhere or someone else—shows that one is still thinking in medieval categories of iustitia rather than in biblical categories of lawcourt and covenant” (JETS 54.1 , pp. 56-7 emphasis mine).
In conclusion, it seems to me that Wright wants to affirm the first half of the classic Reformed definition of justification, the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus (although even here, his position on how the death of Jesus brings about forgiveness is unclear). But the second half of justification, the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness, he flatly rejects as a “blind alley.” He thinks this whole project of looking for righteousness is an “unnecessary project,” a medieval error that has been “binned” by his covenantal “grand narrative” paradigm shift. He grants the forgiveness of sins, but the real weight of his understanding of justification shifts to being declared to be a member of the covenant people of God.