Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision (a review)

I am now finished reading N. T. Wright's recent book entitled Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision. I'm sure all the buzz about this book has come and gone, but I had occasion to read it for two reasons. First, it's been a while since I read anything by Wright, and ever since I read Surprised by Hope I have been a huge fan of his views. Second, I have just come to the place in Calvin's Institutes in which justification by faith is addressed at length. I thought it was time to pick up Wright's book and consider its message for myself.

I am nowhere known as a book reviewer, so I don't suppose it matters how I present this review. For my own sake, let me spell out how I'm going to organize this post. First, I want to give my criticisms of the book, because I do have some pointed comments to make especially about its style and tone. Then I want to go into the theology presented in the book, and see if I can offer some helpful evaluation of the relevant issues for the ordinary Christian.

The bad news first. I find the tone of Justification a little pompous. For one thing, I think it's in slightly bad taste to begin Chapter One with a parable directed against one's opponents. The parable goes something like this: Imagine trying to explain to a rather unenlightened fellow that the sun doesn't go around the earth, but the earth around the sun. The fellow responds by showing you a beautiful sunrise, and telling you that if we just stick to what's right in front of us, the plain and simple truth will shine clearly--that the sun goes around the earth. You try to employ modern scientific knowledge, but to no avail; this man trusts his own two eyes more than your fancy science. This illustration, though clever and certainly quite useful throughout the book, puts Wright's opponents on the defensive right away. And even though Wright self-consciously writes that he is aware of this fact, I don't think this softens the blow.

The remainder of the book, as well, shows the most exasperated side of Wright I've ever seen. As I noted before, this is perhaps inevitable. Wright has been pummeled from all sides by pastors, bloggers (I know, the irony is not lost in me), hateful e-mailers, and so on. Eventually a person treated in this way is going to fire back, and all things considered Wright is extremely courteous in this book. Nevertheless, his tone goes a little over the top in defending his views as more enlightened than those of his opponents. Honestly, the ending might have done me in, if I hadn't been so fascinated by Wright's argument. Let me sum up the ending by saying that it recaps his defense of his position using the language of Romans 3. Do I need any more evidence that Wright is being overconfident?

Sensitivity is required, especially when speaking to evangelical Christians, who often feel belittled by the intelligentsia denouncing their views on science or politics as backward or even sinister. I would not be surprised to learn that the average evangelical reading this book starts to hear echoes of Richard Dawkins berating them for stupidly rejecting Darwinism.

I also have one serious complaint about the structure of the book. Instead of starting with a parable, Wright should have just started by spelling out his view on justification by faith. I really had to read all the way through the book to get to the ideas everyone cares about (although it was worth the read). Instead of laying it all out in the beginning, and then using the rest of the book to defend, Wright chooses to carefully reconstruct his views from the ground up. This might have worked if he had chosen a less polemical style, but as it is I can't imagine anyone who doesn't already appreciate Wright actually finishing this book. Besides, I think good writing in general, at least at the popular level, should lay out a compact thesis at the beginning. It lets the reader process the whole argument much better.

Now that I've gotten my complaints out of the way, let me get into the theological heart of the matter. I do so with some hesitation. I confess that I often despair at the very fact that there are arguments in the Church over core theological issues such as justification. The very fact seems to be an argument against religion, does it not? (If you don't believe me, I'm pretty sure you have never met any atheists.) So my inclination has been to simply try to understand both sides of the justification debate in an intelligent way, and then argue for tolerance of both sides, rather than insisting we vigorously defend one side or another.

However, Wright is saying some big things, which, I will argue, ought to be defended. Despite all my complaints about this book, I am persuaded by it that Christians need to fundamentally rethink our core message. Wright is appealing to that Reformation principle of semper reformanda, "always reforming," and he is asking us quite seriously to let go of the traditions that are holding us back from realizing God's will for us. This is a bold appeal, but Wright is just credible enough to be taken seriously.

Let me begin by doing what Wright should have done--laying out a compact thesis to summarize the core message of Justification. I'll try my best to summarize the traditional evangelical doctrine of justification by faith, and then put Wright's doctrine beside it, so that it will be easy to compare. The traditional doctrine goes like this:
  1. Our Problem: We are all sinners, justly deserving God's wrath, who can by no means justify ourselves in God's sight through our good works.
  2. God's Solution: To send His only Son into the world to live a perfect life and to suffer and die in our place, so as to cancel out the debt we owe and transfer the merits of Christ's righteousness to our account.
  3. How We Receive This: Faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Now, here's what Wright is saying:
  1. Our Problem: We have all sinned, and because of this we are estranged from God and the world has fallen into corruption; moreover, Israel, whom God called to be a light to the nations, has failed to live up to its part in God's plan to redeem the world.
  2. God's Solution: To raise up the Messiah, his only Son, that he might succeed where Israel failed by remaining faithful to God's covenant; that he might be the sacrifice of atonement for his people; that he might rise again to launch God's work of new creation; and that he might bring all nations into God's people, so that through God's redeemed people the world might be redeemed.
  3. How We Receive This: By faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Now of course I have merely tried my best to give an accurate and yet concise summary; if I am wrong in anything, I apologize. Assuming these summaries are more or less fair representations of the views I'm trying to compare, what can we say about them? First, notice that there is considerable overlap. Anyone who views the second summary as grossly heretical is, in my opinion, being absurd, even if you think the first summary is the complete truth. In both summaries, the major problem is sin. In both summaries, forgiveness of sins is accomplished through Christ's death. And in both summaries, justification is by faith alone, not by works.

What is missing from Wright's view that is present in the traditional view? In a word, imputation. Wright just doesn't see any need for imputed righteousness, nor does he find it in Paul. God is not keeping a balance sheet; we don't need Christ's extra merits to get us into the black. Rather, our justification is simply a matter of God saying "not guilty." And the reason he is able to say that is because we are found in Christ, that is, in his family. Therefore he is our representative before God, our atoning sacrifice, our priest. For this reason we have all the assurance we need that we are right with God.

But the relationship does not stop with God declaring us justified, i.e. "not guilty." We receive everything else through the Spirit. We are adopted as God's children. We are sanctified, and steadily progress in actual holiness. And on the last day, we will judged to be righteous--because of our works? Well, in the sense of Romans 2:6-8, yes. God will judge impartially; He will not lie at the final judgment. But that doesn't detract from our assurance of salvation. God has declared us justified, and that is no lie. "The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6) If we have faith, we will be saved, all by God's grace, and not because of our special merits. Justification is, among other things, a sure prediction of God's future judgment, which God is able to guarantee because He is the one who brings our salvation to completion. In the end, this is the same ordo salutis, i.e. the same process by which we are saved, that you would find in, say, the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Now let's notice what the traditional view lacks, which Wright stresses. The real difference between Wright's view and the traditional view is in the question, not the answer. Wright spends a considerable amount of time complaining about the traditional question of Western Christianity, "How do I get to heaven when I die?" One of Wright's key insights into Paul is that Paul was not trying to answer this question. This sounds so extraordinarily counter-intuitive for us because of all the theological baggage we've had passed down to us, but it's worth challenging our presuppositions on this point. Notice what I've put in bold under the summary of Wright's view. This is the key difference between the two views. In the traditional view (or at least the way it's been presented) personal salvation is the purpose of justification. In Wright's view, the point of justification is really what God is doing to redeem the whole creation.

I find this view not only exciting, but necessary. It makes sense of the whole Bible, from Adam and Eve to Abraham to the Gospels and to Revelation. It makes sense of the beautiful world in which we live, which surely has some greater purpose than to simply be wiped away so that God can start over (or to be left behind entirely). It even makes sense of our lives, if you think about it. Protestants have come up with some rather creative explanations for why we are supposed to do good works even though we are justified by faith, but Wright's answer (which, if he is correct, is also Paul's answer) is quite simple: the point of justifying us is so that we can be the people through whom God is redeeming all creation! That is quite a purpose for us to live by.

How does Wright defend this view? Three ways. One, by using historical evidence to demonstrate what Paul's words meant in context; two, by arguing from the Old Testament, and showing how Paul used passages in robust ways (rather than just "proof-texting"); and three, by arguing straight from Paul's words. The first of these is apparently the most controversial, which I admit confuses me as much as it does Wright. The argument he makes is that in order to understand what Paul is saying, we need to understand what kind of thought was present in first century Judaism. In other words, what ideas were present for Paul to interact with?

Apparently there are those who just don't trust this method, or are convinced they've already got Judaism pegged. Among Protestants it is often taken as axiomatic that Judaism is a "works based" religion. Therefore it is assumed that what Paul was saying is that Judaism is the wrong kind of religion, and what we need is a religion based on grace through the saving work of the Messiah. This, Wright argues, is historical revisionism. Works for the Jews were not a way to earn God's favor; that had already been established by God's making His covenant with Abraham. Rather, works were a way for the Jew to prove that he was being a faithful member of God's covenant community, a true descendant of Abraham. The real question on the first century Jewish mind was not, "How can we earn favor with God?" but rather, "How is God going to fulfill His covenant promises?"

Wright argues beautifully that it is exactly this question that Paul is addressing in Romans. The Jews have failed to uphold their end of God's covenant because of their basic human sinfulness. Therefore the redemption of the world can't come through the law! How, then, can God fulfill His promise to bring about the redemption of the world through Israel, through the descendants of Abraham? God does this through Jesus the Messiah, the Israelite who is faithful to the covenant. Through Jesus, God makes Abraham the father of many nations, because now all who believe in Jesus are counted Abraham's true descendants--they are justified by faith, just as Abraham was--and moreover they are counted dead to sin and alive to God, so that they may live in the new creation begun in Christ. And thus the promise to Abraham can be fulfilled, that through him all the nations will be blessed.

What implications does this have for us? One topic that Wright harps on a lot toward the end of the book is ecclesiology, i.e. what it means to be the Church. Part of the result of Wright's view is that the Church is central to God's plan. The Church is God's new creation, through which the redemption of the world will be revealed. Evangelicals tend to get uncomfortable with this suggestion. Perhaps that is because its implications are not altogether clear--but what is clear is that the "me and my Jesus" approach just won't cut it. The Church is the whole point of justification; ecclesiology is not a separate issue.

I can hardly begin to hash out all the relevant theological issues in one blog post, so let me end on a note that I think will be far more significant to evangelicals. The proof that Wright's view deserves to be taken seriously is that it makes sense of Scripture. The first thing I did after I finished reading Wright's book was to read Romans. It was truly astonishing how much more sense it made as a single letter. Specifically, Chapters 2, 4, 9, 10, and 11 all made so much more sense in the whole flow of the letter, just as Wright said they would. Chapter 2 isn't just some false hypothetical that Paul uses to set up a "gotcha" moment in Chapter 3; Paul means what he says (but that doesn't contradict anything Paul says later). And Abraham in Chapter 4 isn't just an example to illustrate Paul's point about justification by faith. Abraham is central to the whole purpose of justification. It's through justification by faith that the family of Abraham is made complete! And chapters 9-11 aren't just weird chapters which say troubling things about God's right to predestine whomever He will; they fit perfectly within the flow of the whole argument starting from the beginning of the letter, because Paul has been talking precisely about how it is that God will fulfill His covenant promises to Israel.

Here's my challenge: try it yourself. Read Wright's book on justification, and then read Paul. See if it doesn't suddenly click. See if it isn't much easier to read straight through a whole letter and actually get the main point. In my own experience, it made reading Romans much faster, because I wasn't bogged down in details that seemed totally disconnected from one another. I was reading Paul the Apostle, not Paul the doctrine machine, who randomly spits out words that we then have to fit into our systematic theology.

So there you have it. I don't say Wright has all the answers, but I do think he has a better answer to what justification by faith is than I've ever heard before. It makes sense out of Paul, it makes sense out of the overall narrative of Scripture, and it makes sense out of real questions that we face today. What does the Church really have to offer the world? A way of relieving our guilty consciences? A way of getting to heaven? A way to make God no longer angry with us? Perhaps all these things are part of it, but what surpasses them all is this: we offer a way for the world to be healed. What is justification? Is it our entire salvation? No; it is a sign, a guarantee of our salvation--and not just our salvation, but the redemption of the whole world.

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