Monday, May 4, 2009

Justification and New Perspective

Scot McKnight posted a topic about some current theological debate regarding justification and atonement on his jesuscreed blog today. Some of it revolves around something called the “new perspective on Paul” and includes a debate between John Piper and Tom Wright.

My apologies to those of you that do not like substantial theological discussion but let’s talk about this. Brian and I have been chatting off and on about various perspectives of the atonement and this post by McKnight makes a good springboard into that discussion. For the more activist oriented, you can check out of this and go to and participate in some possibility thinking for mission.

I am pasting in some of McKnight post. To read the entire post or to participate in the discussion on jesuscreed click here. Even if you are not very familiar with 20th century theologians, if you click on the links below you can get a quick overview of the development of this area of Pauline studies.


…How do you understand the "new perspective on Paul"? What do you think is its primary contribution? Which of the new perspective writers do you read the most and why and what do you like about them? How significant do you think this debate is?

First, there is no such thing as the new perspective if one think it refers to some body of doctrine. The New Perspective, therefore, deserves a brief sketch as to how it arose and what it means.

….McKnight gives a brief historiography here of the development of the new perspective leading up to N.T. Wright….

Then along came, and only then did along he come, N.T. Wright. Wright built upon Sanders and Dunn, to be sure, but he paved his own ground -- building in important ways upon C.H. Dodd and GB Caird -- by pursuing the "end of exile" themes in his early Pauline studies and then his Jesus studies, and then returned to Paul when the New Perspective had taken hold -- and he added to it, supplemented it, and has taken much of the heat by the critics. Wright has refashioned justification less in terms of personal conversion and more in terms of "who is in the people of God." And he has now added to all of this a new dimension, an anti-imperial reading of Paul and earliest Christianity -- and that had little to do with either Sanders or Dunn.

But at the bottom of these folks is a belief that Christians have misunderstood Judaism as a works religion and at stake is a profound (changed) orientation to the human problem in much of Reformed and Lutheran thinking: namely, that humans want to earn their place before God, that their fundamental problem is the attempt to establish themselves before God. The New Perspective, in one way or another, does not see this as the problem Paul himself faced and therefore to read Paul in light of this problem misreads Paul in important ways. I call this traditional reading the Augustinian approach to Paul, and I wish more of the critics of the New Perspective would give this Augustinian basis, which most of them think is actually Pauline, more attention. The New Perspective says, "well, yes, perhaps" but that is not what Paul was going on about when he was engaged with his opponents. The issue was not anthropological but both salvation-historical (more Sanders) and ecclesial (both Dunn and Wright). That's how I see things.

The issue then is how to read Paul in his historical context. This is the Protestant approach and many of us think that far too many of the critics of the New Perspective, instead of re-examining the Bible in its historical context, have appealed instead to the Tradition as established by Luther and Calvin. This leads me to another point...

1976, Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentile.
1979, E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion.
1982, James Dun, Jesus, Paul and the Law.
.....................Paul Among Jews and Gentile.
Tom Wright, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision.
John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright.


just joe said...

here is another book by James Dunn that I missed above:

Dunn, (1998) The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Eerdmans (paperback 2006).

Brian is currently reading two books about the atonement; one by Mark Driscol from the neo-reformed camp, and another by Scot McKnight, probably more from the New Perspective.

Has anyone read any of the books listed in the biblio? Should we each take one and read it and report back to the group? It is a pretty important topic, especially in this time where everything is being questioned and re-examined.

Brian Emmet said...

I actually took a course with Krister Stendahl way back in 1973! But haven't read the listed book, or if I did, have no recollection... He had had some kind of neck injury, and the corrective surgery kind of fused his cervical vertebra, so he had to turn his whole body, not just his head.

Brian Emmet said...

I have read Piper's critique of Wright. Felt they were talking at cross purposes--my take is that Piper criticizes Wright for not upholding the Reformation synthesis of Paul, which is exactly the point Wright is critiquing. It seems to me that for Piper and similar thinkers, the Reformation = Biblical truth; in other words, to disagree with the Reformation is to disagree with Scripture and God.

just joe said...

cool Brian ... was that at Harvard?

It is interesting that there is so much energy and interest around this topic with you, Steve and Michael Tomko. Undoubtedly it is a central theological area that is being re-formed and re-thought in our generation.

Steve Humble wrote an EXCELLENT overview (and very concise) of the central tenants in the debate between Piper and Wright; I posted it as a google doc that you can view here: on Wright and Piper

let me know if you have trouble accessing it and either Steve or I will send it to you.

Where can we find a nice neo-reformed guy to debate with us? If we all agree with Wright, it is going to be hard to sustain a lively conversation.

A friend of mine who is a nice neo-reformed guy and who has the blog called Cigars, Rum and Grace sent me a link to an audio file by Dr. D.A. Carson on the New Perspective . I am listening to it now. About halfway through, it sounds like Carson does not like the New Perspective. This is probably worth checking out. He gives a good historiography, although more critical than Scot McKnight.

Theology is more complicated and less simple than I thought.

steve H said...

It's became a bit hard to debate the question once I believed I saw the core issues. Wright does not deny the Biblical truth of the facts about salvation that Piper and others affirm; in fact, Wright affirms their truth. He only says that the word "justification" in its historical meaning (as used by Paul in his historical context) does not convey that meaning.

Piper and others are still fighting for a false belief that the Reformers had to deal with -- that man can save himself by works. Aside from the debate over the word "justification," that false belief is not an issue among for most postmoderns.

Postmoderns are convinced already that they can't save themselves, mostly because there is nothing from which they are lost and nothing to which they can be saved. The materialist view of the universe does not provide for such loss or hope.

Our emphasis in presenting the gospel to postmoderns should usually be to offer them meaningful hope and belonging -- to demonstrate by love as well as words that they are more valuable than the chance product of impersonal chance processes.

just joe said...

Steve, I believe you are right on the money about postmodernism. What amazes me is that neo-reformed evangelicals like Piper, and possibly Driscoll and others are still fighting battles from 500 years ago -- battles that make sense in a "modern" context but are irrelevant in a postmodern context. We really need to do some sorting through our mental furniture and have a "rumage sale" as Phyllis Tickle would put it.

just joe said...

Here is a selection from today’s post about the New Perspective on
Second, Wright says this of Piper: salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone. Wright's response: "Absolutely. I agree a hundred percent. There is not one syllable of that summary that I would complain about." But, he asks, where is the Holy Spirit? Part of Wright's plea is to take the Spirit more seriously in redemption.

And, third, the meaning of justification. Justification, Wright has been saying all along, "is the act of God by which people are 'declared to in the right' before" God (11). Piper insists, according to Wright, that double imputation is the point. Wright: "Paul's way of doing it [comprehending justification] ... is not Piper's" (11). Why?

1. Justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel -- and the long story of Israel must be given its due weight. He thinks Piper doesn't do this enough.
2. Justification involves the covenant -- "the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God's saving purposes for the world were to be realized" (12). Wright observes: "For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien."
3. Justification is connected to the divine lawcourt -- and Wright sees the image to be God's finding in favor of those who believe in Jesus Christ. For Piper the issues becomes the transfering of Christ's righteousness to the sinner -- double imputation again.
4. Justification is connected to eschatology -- Wright and Piper have a both-and dimension, but Piper -- he observes -- focuses on the present justification. Wright, Piper thinks, has too much suspense here and thinks Wright gets entangled in moral effort -- and back to Wright: "I insist that I am simply trying to do justice to what Paul actually says" (13).

This is a purely Protestant debate. Ad fontes!
You can access Scot McKnight’s entire post

steve H said...

When will we Protestants quit protesting and get on with the job of proclaiming in word and deed?

When will we begin to announce the Gospel as we see and hear it announced in the GOSPELS, instead of piecing together a gospel (a different gospel?) -- pieces taken mostly from the epistles which were written to edify, exhort, correct, and teach those who have already believed the gospel.

Michael said...

I have been thinking lately about many aspects of the gospel message (thanks Steve for you stimulating review of Wright) such as justification, adoption, redemption, propitiation ect.. I have also struggled with the evangelical’s strong focus on justification with its emphasis on an angry God appeased by Christ's death.
Also the perceived differences in Paul's and Jesus message has left me a little bewildered.
I am convinced that Paul had to develop for the gentiles what the Jewish people already had as the basis for their thinking, that is, God's covenant with them.
For the Jews, their natural birth ushered them into this covenant relationship, they didn't chose it or earn it (grace), it was theirs by birth. This covenant was a given to them. Now, to allow the Gentiles to enter into this covenant, (if you read Hebrews the author makes it clear that Jesus ushered in a better covenant on better promises. His priest hood was under a new order, the order of Melchizedek, King of Salem.) to be declared righteous, to enjoy the same benefits as children of Abraham, without having to be birthed into it and not be circumcised, was more than the Jews could or would accept.
If you read John 3 and Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus I think you will understand why Jesus said to him, “you must be born again”.

I am going to an evangelical church that believes at all costs it must preserve and preach the gospel. We have been having a long discussion about how to minister to the poor. There first position was to determine how to respond to the poor. Meaning what if they abuse what we give them? And how can we ensure that we share with them the gospel while meeting their needs. When I challenged them that from what I read in scripture there seemed to be no preconditions for helping the poor other than that they were poor, it was difficult for them to accept. From my perspective they seemed more interested in defending and preserving their understanding of the gospel message instead of helping those in need. I certainly pressed the point hoping to make that point.

I would love to have others comment or challenge some of my meandering thoughts.

John M. said...

Steve, you've nailed a lot of stuff in your posts here and in the summary Joseph posted on Google docs. I can only say, "Thaks" and "Amen". Thanks Joseph for getting and keep this going. I resonate with Wright when I read him, although I'm about 10 or so books behind.

Michael, I really like your "meandering thoughts" as you describe them. I think you're nailing some stuff too. You could point your church leaders to Jesus and James and remind them that caring for the poor is the Gospel. Not belief but action!

Brian Emmet said...

I agree that Steve is playing the hot theological hand these days... must be the blood thinners! Or no beer? Michael, it sounds like your church is wrestling with doing the right things (i.e., helping the poor) even if/when people reach the wrong conclusions from what we're doing. Maybe Matthew 25 is helpful? "I was hungry and you fed me," not you fed me AND were careful to present the gospel with each and every meal. OF COURSE, this does not mean that we don't care if people ever hear the good news or not, just that their hearing and receiving does not constrain our loving of them by offering them food.

John M. said...

Once a new thread is posted everyone seems to jump to it and abandon the other threads, so, don't know if anyone will read this or not.

About three years ago, some of my friends and I decided to do a study of Romans and meet once a week to discuss it. We really never got past introductory ideas and the group context ceased because of various personal reasons.

I was not able to sustain much personal momentum in my study other than a couple straight through readings of Romans, but I did read most of a book by N.T. Wright published in 2005, and titled simply, "Paul".

Because of this thread and Scott McKnight's current book review, I picked it up and decided to re-read it. I resonate deeply with what he is saying. He uses the phrase "new perspective on Paul" (always in quotes) several times in the first forty pages, so the book is very much part of the current conversation. It is even more clear and more rich on the second reading.

I like this book, perhaps because it's the one and only Wright book I have read so far :), but also because he is, here, declaring his actual position in a comprehensive, yet brief, (175 pp.)manner, instead of simply responding to specific issues raised by critiques.

Scot McKnight is encouraging everyone on his blog to read the newest book where Wright responds to Piper, but I wonder if he would recommend it for someone just begining their journey with Wright or for those who are already conversant with his earlier writings?

My other point is that it is very difficult to summarize Wright because most of his books are comprised of lectures that he has given and are already cut down to the bone. That's partly what makes his writing so dense, and slow to read -- you kind of want to stop and think about every other paragraph, and underline most of it.

Wright's books are kind of like the Bible (wait until that one get's taken out of context and put through the on-line sausage grinder!), you can discuss them, but you don't get the full impact until you read the words for yourself. Summaries and reviews are definitely helpful, but can't be substitued for actually reading Wright. That's always true, of course, but I think more so for him than many authors.

just joe said...

I wish I had more time to read some of Wright's books. Maybe one of these days after I get through reading for the Ph.D.

John M. said...

I don't have earning a Ph.D as an excuse, how about everyday life and work? I wish I could read more of him also. Steve you're our best resource. You not only read a lot, but you seem, better than most, to be able to articulate and summarize what you read -- even Wright. So, any help will be appreciated!

I'll reveal a little secret. Over the years, if there was a book I wanted to read, but could never seem to get to, I would loan my copy to Steve. I knew he would read it, and tell me about it!

With Wright, I guess first hand is best, but Steve is a good second best!

just joe said...

hey guys, there is a good follow-up post on Jesuscreed by McKnight on the debate between Piper and Write and chapter 2 of T. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.

Here is the link to the post on Jesuscreed:

Justification and New Perspective 4John, I have learned to cheat on my theological reading by following Jesuscreed and copying and pasting the summaries and overviews into WORD documents. Only if a book seems like a compelling MUST READ do I buy it and read it myself. I recently did that with Robert's recommendation of Phyllis Tickle's book the Great Emergence, which certainly was worth reading.

John M. said...

Yes, I follow Scot's book reviews too. I like the way he gives an opening overiew, and then proceeds over several weeks to work his way through the book a topic or chapter at a time.

I just ordered Phyllis Tickle's book.

Robert said...

Jose and all

Thanks for doing the heavy lifting on this subject. I am in the middle of a church merge to free my time. As that great theologian Frasier Crane says..."I'm listening"

Congrats to Brian and Kathy for their wedding anniversay this past Thursday!