Paul on His Own Terms? A Review of N. T. Wright on Justification: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

Ordained Servant: May 2010

The Pastor's Wife

Also in this issue

The Uniqueness and Challenges of the Minister's Wife

Facing the Idol Factory: A Review Article

Naming Rites

Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, by N. T. Wright. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009, 279 pages, $25.00.

Over fifteen years ago, I favorably reviewed Wright's The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), and expressed a desire that he would continue to publish more.[1] Little did I know at the time how abundantly that desire would be satisfied. Many books later, another has appeared. This book is primarily about justification; but there are other theological and exegetical matters in the book, so my review (after introductory comments) will be in two parts: general statements of a theological and exegetical nature, and specific comments about justification. Readers only interested in justification, and not interested in how Wright's other positions inform his views on justification, may skip to the second section.

Introductory Matters

The form/structure of the book

Many consider this book to be a reply to John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007). In a sense, this is true, because Piper's work is referred to in the first sentence of the book, and there is a brief portion of the book (64-71) in which Wright indicates five exceptions he takes to Piper. But Wright has chosen not to structure the book as a point-by-point rebuttal; but rather as what he calls an "outflanking exercise" (9, 31) in which he attempts to express himself again on his own terms, in hopes that his own view will be judged compelling on its own merits. One may reply to one's critics however one wishes. But some of John Piper's allies will wish that the book had not side-stepped some of the particulars of Piper's reasoning, but addressed them more explicitly and in greater detail.

The book falls into two parts, Introduction and Exegesis. In the first part, there are four chapters, one about the importance of the matter, another about "rules of engagement," a third about first century Judaism, and a fourth about justification. In the second part, there are major chapters on Galatians and Romans, an intervening chapter on Philippians, Corinthians, and Ephesians (yes, Wright considers Ephesians and Colossians to be "thoroughly and completely Pauline" [p. 43]), and a final, concluding chapter.

General (favorable)

There are a number of points Wright makes that are true and helpful, for which I am grateful; I will only mention briefly those I judge to be most important.

1. Wright's commitment to sola scriptura refers not only to results of exegesis, but also to the method of exegesis; a submission to the narrative form in which Scripture comes to us, a submission to the actual rhetoric or argumentation of a given Pauline epistle (49, 247), and even a submission to Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Pauline canon (43, 141-176).

2. Wright correctly pursues understanding the "underlying narrative" of Paul's gospel (34-35, 59, 82, 250). Wright appropriately works from a biblical-theological perspective, always looking for the underlying narrative behind Paul's thought.[2]

3. For Wright, Romans 2, 4, and 9-11 are essential to (not parenthetical to) Romans as a whole. Romans 1-11 is a unit, that flows out of Paul's repeated interest in what it means that the gospel comes "to the Jew first, also to the Greek" (1:16). Therefore, those chapters that address the relation of Jew and Gentile in the gospel moment are far from parenthetical in Romans; they are, in some senses, its central purpose. Wright's thoughts on Romans are rich with insight on this point, and they dovetail nicely with his similar comments about the centrality of Jew/Gentile issues in Galatians.[3]

4. Paul's theology is eschatological. Helpfully, Wright recognizes the eschatological nature of Paul's proclamation; that in Paul, aspects of the end-time have irrupted into the center of time.[4]

5. Faith, works, and the Spirit. Throughout, Wright states his desire to recognize a greater role for the Holy Spirit in Paul's thought (e.g., 10, 11). This is all well and good, but he often implies that the "tradition" has omitted this. Wright appears to be unfamiliar with the Westminster Standards, where the Spirit has a very prominent role, especially in those chapters that address the ordo salutis, such as chapters 13 and 14.

6. Wright recognizes the importance of the Jew/Gentile situation for Paul's "problem" with the Law; and also recognizes the importance of the visible people of God on earth; that soteriology and ecclesiology are intertwined in some way. But this is also old.[5]

General (less favorable)

1. Finally, and helpfully, Wright defines what he means by "the covenant."

Here we have it: God's single plan, through Abraham and his family, to bless the whole world. This is what I have meant by the word covenant when I have used it as shorthand in writing about Paul.... The "covenant," in my shorthand, is not something other than God's determination to deal with evil once and for all and so put the whole creation (and humankind with it) right at last. (67, 95, emphasis his)

This clarification regarding Wright's "shorthand" is much appreciated. In my judgment, Wright's "covenant" then is virtually identical with what the Reformed tradition has ordinarily called "the covenant of grace" (WCF 7.3), and is neither worse nor better than the common convention (except that, by employing a different convention, he misled some of us until this recent clarification was made).

I would still argue that such a definition of "covenant" uses a biblical term unbiblically, something Wright warns against on pages 81-82 of the this volume. Biblically, a בְּרִית (berith) or a διαθήκη (diatheke) is always a historical treaty of some sort, enacted in space and time with particular parties; it is not an eternal purpose or decree. Both Paul (Gal. 3:17) and Stephen (Acts 7:6, 30) could cite the number of years that passed between the Abrahamic and the Sinai covenants, so for them, a "covenant" is not an eternal or prehistorical plan; it is an actual, ratified-in-space-and-time treaty.

2. Related, Wright somewhat more clearly grounds the Abrahamic covenant in its own underlying narrative, that of the spread of human sin narrated in Genesis 3-11.[6] Referring to Romans 5:12-21, Wright says, "The force of the Adam-Christ contrast grows directly out of the long argument concerning Abraham, since God's purpose in calling Abraham, as we have seen, was to deal with the problem created through Adam" (226). However, Wright still appears to be uncomfortable with discussing the work of Christ in Adamic terms (note he refers to the "Adam-Christ contrast," not the "Adam-Christ typology," despite Paul's use of τύπος [typos] in Rom. 5:14), a discomfort that was not apparent in 1992 when he wrote The Climax of the Covenant.[7] For Wright, Christ is the "representative Israelite," but not necessarily (and not explicitly) the representative human. It remains unclear to me whether or in what manner Wright understands Adam to be a type of Christ; we can surely hope that his forthcoming volume on Paul will relieve the unclearness.[8]

3. πίστεως Χριστοῦ (pistis christou), in Galatians 2:16 as "the faithfulness of Christ."

Wright depends here on the fuller argument of Richard B. Hays,[9] and I concede that their viewpoint seems to be the scholarly consensus today. Space does not permit a thorough examination of that viewpoint here,[10] but the view faces three considerable difficulties. First, it requires the admittedly-ambiguous genitival expression to be the only place where Paul says anything at all about Christ's faithfulness. That is, while Paul unambiguously has many statements about our faith in Christ, he nowhere unambiguously says anything about the faithfulness of Christ, unless in these ambiguous expressions. Second, the view depends heavily on the argument that if πίστεως Χριστοῦ (pistis christou) means "faith in Christ" in Galatians 2:16, Paul's statement there is redundant, because the purpose clause also speaks about being justified by faith in Christ. But redundancy, especially redundancy for emphasis, is a perfectly common semantic reality,[11] and one which Paul employs precisely when discussing faith, such as at Romans 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (panti tō pisteuonti παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι), to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (ek pisteōs eis pistin ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν), as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith (ek pisteōs ἐκ πίστεως)." Third, one can easily concur in the various arguments Hays makes about the narrative substructure of Galatians while reaching an entirely different conclusion. Hays argues that Christ is presented in Galatians as the "hero," to use the language of narrative analysis. Hays then argues that this means that πίστεως Χριστοῦ (pistis christou) must also be descriptive of some virtuous character or work of Christ, an entirely plausible theory. But another—equally plausible—theory exists. It is entirely plausible that the rhetorical reason for presenting Christ to the Galatians as a narrative hero is so that the Galatians will put their faith in him. That is, Hays may be entirely right that Paul presents Christ in heroic terms; but perhaps Paul does this so that his audience will put their faith in that redemptive hero. I can see no prima facie reason why Hays's conclusion is more plausible than this.

4. Regarding his references to the Christian confessional tradition, regrettably Wright is nearly disastrous here and elsewhere. His comments in this area are unclear, unsubstantiated, erroneous, and therefore misleading. The unclearness appears in such expressions as "many Christians" (10), "some Christians" (11), "conservative churches" (44). Here as elsewhere he refers to the "tradition," and occasionally the "great tradition, from Augustine onward" (102, cf. also 24, 98, 213). This failure to identify in the confessional literature what specific error is being refuted, coupled with an unwillingness to substantiate the claims by such citations is regrettable if not inexcusable. It is fine for Wright to do exegesis and simply to overlook the tradition of confessional literature if he so chooses. But if he refers to it, it seems to me that he must do so with some attempt to substantiate his claims. As it actually turns out, he could not substantiate his claims, because his claims are mistaken.[12] My next point provides two examples:

5. Reducing soteriology to justification

That is the trouble with the great tradition, from Augustine onward: not that it has not said many true and useful things, but that by using the word "justification" as though it described the entire process from grace to glory it has given conscientious Pauline interpreters many sleepless nights trying to work out how what he actually says about justification can be made to cover this whole range without collapsing into nonsense or heresy or both. (102, emphasis his)

What confessional tradition has Wright read? The Westminster Confession, for instance, not only distinguishes various aspects of this "process from grace to glory," it has entirely separate chapters on Effectual Calling (X), Justification (XI), Adoption (XII), Sanctification (XIII), Saving Faith (XIV), Repentance Unto Life (XV), Good Works (XVI), and Perseverance of the Saints (XVII). That is, "justification" in the Westminster standards is, at a minimum, one of eight parts of that process. The Westminster standards are part of the "great tradition, from Augustine," and they simply have not done what Wright claims, but just the opposite. For them, justification is no more part of the ordo salutis than seven other specified aspects thereof.

6. Focusing more on individual salvation than on corporate salvation. Wright again and again states that Paul has been misunderstood by those who ask of his letters: What does this say about "me and my salvation?" (10, 13, 15, 76). Wright refers to this as the "geo-centric" reading of Scriptures, and consistently challenges it. But the Protestant confessional tradition can hardly be accused of such individualism. Note, e.g., WCF 8.1,

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man ...: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people, to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

7. Bishop Wright still seems bashful about substitutionary atonement. At the conclusion of his lengthy discussion of Romans 4, he refers to its concluding words: "who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification," and rightly observes that here "the echoes of Isaiah 53:5, 12 should be unmistakable" (223), leading us to think that Wright is very close to affirming substitutionary atonement here. Yet as he moves into chapter 5, he is hesitant to affirm substitution at the critical 5:12-21, instead speaking only negatively about perceived misunderstandings, and affirming only a likeness between Jesus and Israel, rather than between the two Adams:

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,[13] but is rather a way of saying what Paul says more fully in Philippians 2:8, that the Messiah was obedient all the way to death, even the death on the cross. Jesus Christ has been "obedient" to the saving plan which was marked out for Israel. He has been the faithful Israelite through whom God's single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world is now fulfilled. (228)

What "saving plan" could Israel have achieved, even if she had obeyed her covenant duties? Within the terms of the Sinai covenant-administration, would an obedient Israel have achieved anything other than temporal prosperity for herself in Canaan? In this context, why is "obedient" related to Israel, and not to Adam? And why is "obedient" or "obedience" in quotation marks? Note Wright:

The purpose of the Messiah ... was to offer to God the "obedience" which Israel should have offered but did not.... Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the "obedience" which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed. (105)

First, the "covenant plan" succeeded anyway, without her obedience, but that is beside the point. Would her obedience have atoned for human sin? Would she, as a nation, have been raised from the dead, guaranteeing the resurrection of others? Had she been entirely obedient, how would such obedience have overturned Adamic sin and death? What is not said here is almost astonishing. Why does Wright appear to resist saying what is so obvious in a passage like this: that the Messiah offered the obedience "which Adam should have offered but did not"? While he rightly concedes that there is human sin in Genesis 3-11 as the "backdrop" to Genesis 12, Wright seems almost steadfast in his refusal to relate "Abraham's seed" to the woman's "seed" in Genesis 3. Why could he not have said—indeed, why did he not say, this:

Jesus Christ has been "obedient" to the saving plan which was disclosed to Eve even in the midst of the curse, when God pledged to put enmity between her seed and the serpent's seed, and even solemnly warned that in their future warfare her seed would be "bruised" in his victory over the seed of the serpent. Christ's obedient death on the cross in Romans 5:12-21 is the "bruising" of Genesis 3; yet his resurrection is the crushing of the serpent's head.

Wright does indeed affirm that the Messiah "represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves" (105). But in the next sentence he says, "This is most clearly expressed, to my mind, in two passages," and he cites Romans 8:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 (which he earlier denied to be germane to God's people in general, but only to the apostles, cf. WSPRS, pp. 104-05), and in a footnote refers to Galatians 3:13. But why not Romans 5:12-21? If one is looking for a Pauline text that "clearly" expresses representation or substitution, Romans 5 would surely be it.

8. Wright takes σπέρμα (sperma) in Galatians 3:16 to mean "family." While this would suit his purposes (to speak, ecumenically, of one happy family), it misses Paul's argument (who sides with the LXX translation for using the dative singular rather than the dative plural, and then says, "who is Christ"). Paul argues that God's plan to rescue the world through Abraham's "seed" is not through his "seeds" collectively considered, but through the one particular seed, Christ.[14]

9. The Bible on its own terms: This is certainly an admirable goal, but two points need to be made. First, there is utterly nothing new about this. When Calvin spoke of "natural sense" interpretation, he was insisting on what later came to be called "Grammatico-Historical exegesis," an attempt to understand biblical texts within their cultural, historical, and linguistic contexts. While all attempt to do this, one must be naive to think he achieves it. To understand N. T. Wright, or the New Perspective on Paul in general, one must understand the post-holocaust exigencies that drive it. As Peter Stuhlmacher (approvingly) said: "We must also keep in mind the apparent goal of these authors to make a new beginning in Pauline interpretation, so as to free Jewish-Christian dialogue from improper accusations against the Jewish conversation partners."[15] Indeed, as Wright himself has said, "It follows at once that justification is the original ecumenical doctrine."[16] Since faith in Christ distinguishes Christians from Jews, and since sola fidei distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, the New Perspectives on Paul, and Wright as a participant therein, betray an unmistakable agenda to interpret Paul in such a manner as to reduce the prominence of these doctrines. Yet is one really hearing Paul in his own terms if one describes justification as an "ecumenical doctrine," fourteen centuries before the Western church divided between Catholic and Protestant, ten centuries before the Great Schism separated the Eastern church from the Western church, and even a half-century before Christianity was separated from Judaism by the synagogue-ban of A.D. 94? The church of Paul's day had not yet experienced any formal divisions, so how can we be "hearing Paul on his own terms" by calling justification an "ecumenical doctrine"?


Since the book is primarily about justification, a few more-detailed comments are in order here.

1. Romans 2:13. Wright insists that Romans 2:13b is a statement about reality: "the doers of the law shall be justified."[17] This view, however, faces two substantial (in my opinion, insurmountable) exegetical difficulties. First, it requires us to understand Paul here as saying the opposite of what he says in the very next chapter of Romans: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight" (Rom. 3:20). Second, it requires us to divorce 2:13b from 2:13a: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified." Paul's reasoning here is "not A but B." Such reasoning only makes sense if the two sides of the contrast are logically similar. Here are two examples:

I am not ordering a turkey sandwich, but (am ordering) a ham sandwich.

I am not flying to Denver, but (am flying) to Dallas.

What would not make sense is this: "I am not ordering a turkey sandwich, but am flying to Dallas." Therefore, either both 2:13a and 2:13b are referring to actual reality, the actual reality that will occur at the judgment; or, alternatively, both 2:13a and 2:13b are referring to hypothetical reality, the hypothetical question of the condition on which the Law justifies (if any). The latter interpretation makes perfect sense, especially contextually. Paul simply reminds here that the judgment of God, about which he has been speaking, will come upon the Jews no less than the Gentiles ("For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law," 2:12), because, after all, the Law requires doing-not-merely-hearing. The Jews at Sinai were different from the Gentiles only by hearing the Law; not by doing, and are therefore no more immune from God's judgment than Gentiles, even by the Law's own standard. But the alternative view would be catastrophic for Wright: "The hearers of Law (the Jews) are not justified." If this were a statement about reality, we would surely shut down all synagogues and require Christian churches to remove Torah from their lectio continuo also. If "those who hear the law are not justified," then the last thing anyone would want to do is hear the Law. And, in our post-holocaust setting, I am confident this is the last thing Bishop Wright would want to suggest that Paul was saying. But the Bishop cannot have it both ways. 2:13a cannot be hypothetical and 2:13b actual; either both are hypothetical or both are actual, otherwise we have the turkey sandwich/flying to Dallas problem (and the straightforward contradiction with Rom. 3:20).

2. Oddly, Wright appears to think he may have been the first to have attempted to affirm both justification by faith and judgment by works. Indeed, he says that the idea of judgment by works would be "anathema" to many:

The idea that Paul would insist on such a judgment at which the criterion will be, in some sense, "works," "deeds" or even "works of the law," has naturally been anathema to those who have taught that his sole word about judgment and justification is that, since justification is by faith, there simply cannot be a final "judgment according to works." (184)

But Westminster affirmed both that justification is by faith and that judgment is according to works. All of chapter 11 of WCF addresses justification by faith, and then WCF 33.1 says:

God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, ... all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

What is new is not the doctrine of judgment by works, but Wright's conflation of justification by faith into judgment by works ("his sole word about judgment and justification"), so that, effectively, we get justification/judgment by faith/works. It was not self-evident to the Westminster divines that "judgment by works" necessitated believing in "justification by works." For them, one might very well be judged and condemned on the basis of the works one had done, while also being acquitted by the works of another, in whom one's faith is placed.

3. Justification and the "law court." I have criticized Wright's view of "righteousness of God" elsewhere[18] because his idea that "righteousness" means God's covenant faithfulness does not, in my opinion, do justice to the deeply forensic nature of the δικ-language in the Bible. Happily, in this volume, he frequently refers to the "law court" as an essential semantic domain for the "righteousness" and "justification" language in Paul (12, 68, 90, 100, 134, 183, 251, et al.). Regrettably, he still believes that "righteousness" also means God's fidelity to the covenant; and worse, thinks this is somehow obvious:

And unless the scholars of any time had lost their moorings completely, drifting away from the secure harbor of ancient Jewish thought ... nobody would have supposed that "God's righteousness" was anything other than his faithfulness to the covenant. (178)

But the Psalms frequently declare "God's righteousness" to be his judicial uprightness whereby he will judge the world rightly one day:

Psalm 9:8 and he judges κρινεῖ (krinei) the world with righteousness (ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ); he judges κρινεῖ (krinei) the peoples with uprightness.

Psalm 50:6 The heavens declare his righteousness τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ (tēn dikaiosunēn autou), for God himself is judge κριτής (kritēs)!

Psalm 58:1 Do you indeed decree what is right δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosunēn), you gods? Do you judge κρίνετε (krinete) the children of man uprightly?

Psalm 72:1-2 Give the king your justice τὸ κρίμα σου (to krima sou), O God, and your righteousness τὴν δικαιοσύνην σου (tēn dikaiosunēn sou) to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ (en dikaiosunē), and your poor with justice κρίσει (krinei)![19]

Each of these texts, and more like them, reside in "the secure harbor of ancient Jewish thought." Scholars did not and had not "lost their moorings," then, when they interpreted "God's righteousness" as something other than "covenant faithfulness." They were well-moored in the ancient Jewish thought when they thought it was his judicial righteousness, by which he held his creation accountable to him. Those moored there might have thought just the opposite of Wright, that "nobody would have supposed" that "God's righteousness" was anything other than his judicial uprightness.

4. Wright reiterates here his view that "justification" in some sense means to be the covenant people of God (12, 116, 121, 122, 134). The later Protestant confessions employed the doctrine of "adoption" to discuss being part of "God's family" (WCF 12.1). Wright wants to affirm "family" language, but not by employing "adoption" language. Much more fatal to his view is his common suggestion that to be justified means to be part of the covenant community. Israel was plainly God's covenant community under the Sinai covenant. Yet this did not prevent her from being judged to be unrighteous, nor did it prevent her from being severely judged, at times capitally, whether by snakes, Assyrians, or Babylonians. Israel plainly enough was not justified, but was the visible covenant people. Not a single Gentile died when the fiery serpents were the agents of God's judgment in Numbers 21; every individual who perished under God's judgment there was a member of the covenant community. Indeed, only they who were members of that community were subject to such acts of temporal judgment.[20] The "worthless men" who were parties to the Phinehas covenant were hardly justified; David, the violent "man of blood," was surely party to the covenant God made with him, yet was not permitted to build God's house. Wright's virtual equation of justification and membership in a covenant community is a severe liability in his thought, here and elsewhere.

What I did not notice when I first reviewed The Climax of the Covenant, but have come to notice since then, is that what distinguishes Wright's supporters from his detractors is how they fill in his blanks. Wright somewhat frequently makes statements that could be understood in more than one way, by not expressing explicitly the inferences to be drawn from what he says. His supporters assume the best, and "fill in" these blanks in an orthodox manner, whereas his detractors "fill in" these blanks differently.

An example here is Wright's frequent statements about the law court background to the "righteousness/justification" language in Paul, statements that please me greatly, because they are not present in all of his works. However, often these very statements actually refer to "the law court metaphor," not the law court (e.g. 12, 68, 251). Now, what does he mean by "the law court metaphor?" Is this a throw-away term, from which we should derive no conclusion? Or, does he mean by this to suggest that we only figuratively/metaphorically appear before God as judge; does he mean to deny that humans actually appear before God as their judge one day? Note the ambiguities in this kind of language:

It is the utterly appropriate metaphor through which Paul can express and develop the biblical understanding that God, the Creator, must "judge" the world in the sense of putting it right at the last—and that God has brought this judgment into the middle of history, precisely in the covenant-fulfilling work of Jesus Christ, dealing with sin through his death, launching the new world in his resurrection, and sending his Spirit to enable human beings, through repentance and faith, to become little walking and breathing advance parts of that eventual new creation. (251)

Everything here depends upon what "judge" means (and Wright puts it in quotation marks, as though "judge" itself were figurative for "putting it right at last," an equally-inscrutable term), and what "utterly appropriate metaphor" means, etc. His supporters assume that he means nothing heterodox by such statements; his detractors express concern about them. I am neither a supporter nor a detractor; my published material on Wright has been both favorable (my review of Climax of the Covenant) and unfavorable (my thoughts about his understanding of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ [dikaiosune theou] in What Saint Paul Really Said). But I think the distance between his supporters and detractors is due not to what he says but to what he does not say, and how different parties fill in those blanks.

Perhaps such misunderstanding is the price paid for those who begin with the assumption that the traditional categories are all wrong. Once such an assumption is made, one is compelled, effectively, to invent new nomenclature with new definitions, definitions that have not been worked out carefully over time. In such a circumstance it is inevitable that misunderstanding will take place—not only between author and reader, but between one reader and another reader. As I mentioned earlier, as an example, it appears in this volume that Wright defines "the covenant" in a manner that is similar (identical?) to the traditional expression "the covenant of grace." But if he means the same thing, why use a different (albeit similar) term? Does the choice of a different term imply a difference in substance or not? Readers do not (and ordinarily cannot) know. Several times in this volume Wright indicates that he is frequently misunderstood, and he wonders, candidly, whether this is because he is unclear or whether his detractors are unsympathetic. I suspect the answer is both. His detractors fill in his blanks unfavorably; his supporters fill them in favorably; but he is responsible for the blanks. When he employs terms as no one has employed them before, and yet without indicating necessarily whether this is intended or not, substantial misunderstanding will take place.

N. T. Wright, like the rest of us, is a work in progress. For example, he resisted understanding the δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne) language as forensic in What Saint Paul Really Said, and yet affirms the law court background here. I have tended, therefore, to give him the benefit of the doubt before, assuming that he couldn't say or clarify every point in every essay or book. I take the same approach here, but he will not get the same free pass in his next book, the major book on Paul that he mentions several times here. Especially, in that volume, he will be expected to deal with Romans 5:12-21 in some constructive manner, and/or to argue for why he rejects as foundational the Adamic Christology affirmed by such Pauline interpreters as Herman N. Ridderbos. Similarly, he will be expected either to omit negative references to "the tradition," or, as Carl Trueman has suggested, to substantiate those claims with actual citations from the confessional tradition. He will be expected in that volume to reconcile his understanding of Romans 2:13 to Romans 3:20, or, failing that, to completely redo his understanding of judgment/justification by works. If he can do these things (and several others), I will be the first to say so, but I doubt he will be able to accomplish it. His own agenda, his post-English-civil-wars and post-holocaust ecumenical setting, drives his thought so profoundly that he has difficulty hearing Paul on his own terms, despite his effort to do so. Paul's church was not yet riven by what has separated the church in subsequent centuries; and to hear him on his own terms we must not construe him as though our circumstance were his.


[1] Review of N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant in Westminster Theological Journal 56, no. 1 (1994): 197-201.

[2] Such an approach is commendable, but not new. Biblical theologies were written by John Owen (1661), Jonathan Edwards ("A History of the Work of Redemption," 1773), Stuart Robinson (Discourses of Redemption, 1866), and, especially in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 1948) (not to mention Meredith G. Kline). Cf. especially John V. Fesko, "On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology," in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church, Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin Jr., ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2008), 443-477.

[3] For which I argued in "The Problem at Galatia." Interpretation 41 (January, 1987): 32-43.

[4] This is surely right, and surely helpful, though again, not at all new. It reflects the emphases consistently encountered in the writings of Geerhardus Vos and Herman N. Ridderbos.

[5] Stuart Robinson wrote a book just before the American War between the States entitled The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, and the Idea, Structure, and Functions Thereof (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1858).

[6] And Wright acknowledges that there are numerous biblical "covenants," in the plural (99, 133, 216-17 et al.).

[7] Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, esp. chapter 2, "Adam, Israel, and the Messiah."

[8] In Herman Ridderbos's study of Paul, the second chapter was entitled "Fundamental Structures." In these, Ridderbos outlined eight such structures, structures that deeply informed all that Paul said. Four of these eight were directly related to Adamic Christology. Bishop Wright is not at all required to concur with Ridderbos; but it is odd that he does not recognize and refute his claim, if he disagrees with it.

[9] The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), itself a re-working of his dissertation, originally published in the Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series in 1983.

[10] I address the matter somewhat more fully in the forthcoming festschrift for David F. Wells.

[11] Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and their Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 154.

[12] This is the substance of Carl Trueman's critique. Cf. "A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian." Unpublished paper presented at Tyndale Fellowship in Cambridge in 2000. http://www.crcchico.com/covenant/trueman.html.

[13] The word "treasury" or the expression "treasury of merit" does not appear either in Bishop Wright's Thirty-Nine Articles or in my Westminster standards, so again, I don't know which "Reformed schemes of thought" he is referring to.

[14] Lexically, the much-more-common Greek word for "family" or "clan" in the LXX is πατριαὶ (patriai). While comparatively rare in the NT, it appears 172 times in the LXX, so it is a well-known word, and is ordinarily translated "clan" or "family." (In the NT it is used only 3 times—Luke 2:4, Acts 3:25, and Eph. 3:15). Similarly, one could employ φυλή (phylē) if one desired; since this term is common in the LXX (410 times; it is less common in the NT, appearing 31 times, twice in Paul, at Rom. 11:1 and Phil. 3:5). Note that in the very-germane LXX of Gen. 28:14, both terms appear, σπέρμα (sperma) for Abraham's "descendant/seed," and φυλή (phylē) for the "families of the earth": "And in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed καὶ ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου (kai eneulogēthēsontai en soi pasai ai phulai tēs gēs kai en tō spermatic sou). Similarly, in the earlier pledge to Abraham in chapter 12, God had pledged that: "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς (eneulogēthēsontai en soi pasai ai phulai tēs gēs)." Thus, Paul had ground to realize that at least the LXX translators of Moses made an effort to distinguish σπέρμα (sperma) from φυλή (phylē), whereas Wright's translation makes them equivalent. Paul painstakingly (some even argue artificially, since the Hebrew זֶרַע [zera] is a collective noun) makes the point that God would bless the world not through Abraham's corporate/collective descendants or family, but through his single seed: "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ" (Gal. 3:16).

[15] Peter Stuhlmacher, Donald A. Hagner, Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective, with an Essay by Donald A. Hagner (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 34.

[16] "New Perspectives on Paul" (10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25-28 August 2003), 12, emphasis his.

[17] An insistence shared by many of the so-called Auburn theologians.

[18] "Observations on N. T. Wright's Biblical Theology with Special Consideration of 'Righteousness of God," in By Faith Alone, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 61-73.

[19] Cf. also Ps. 96:12-13; 97:9.

[20] The nations around Israel were only judged when/because they attacked Israel; otherwise, Yahweh left them alone.

T. David Gordon is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, May 2010.

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