Reading N.T. Wright’s Justification

I am reading through N.T. Wright’s recent book, Justification, which is written as a response to John Piper’s criticism of Wright’s views as presented in other books. This comes at a very interesting time for me, as I have just finished writing my own book (with Ken Blue) which contains a chapter on justification. I have also just finished reading Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, which also addresses justification from both evangelical and Orthodox viewpoints.  I have not read Piper’s book, and probably won’t; I am neither a Calvinist nor a Piper fan.

Those of you who know me or have followed this blog for any length of time know that I often refer to NT Wright; he has influenced my thinking more than anyone with the exception of Martin Luther.  Now, anyone who has read Wright’s Justification will know that Luther is “old perspective” and Wright is “new perspective,” which means I am having to understand the differences and think a bit harder than I often like to.

So far, while I find myself agreeing with much – possibly most – of what Wright has to say, I am finding myself thinking that Wright must have misplaced a few of his exegetical marbles. I can find myself agreeing with him as he works through many arguments, only to have him suddenly take a shift to the left that leaves me thinking, “What??”

Wright’s viewpoint on the subject seems, in part, to be a reaction against a merely forensic, transactional, individualistic view of justification that seems to prevail in the West, in which justification is seen as a “ticket to Heaven.” He talks about viewing justification as giving us a new moral makeup, which is not a view I am familiar with. I have always understood justification to change our legal status, not change our moral reality.  However, I can see no justification (pun intended) for Wright going in the directions he is.

God’s Plan

In general, I tend to agree with Wright’s “big picture” that it was God’s plan to bless all of creation through Israel, and that this is an essential element of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Messiah, Jesus, fulfilled this purpose and has instituted the Church to both be blessed under the Covenant and to participate in Jesus’ mission to bless and ultimately redeem all of creation. I think this meta-narrative is in line with Paul’s writings in Galatians and Romans.

However, Wright, for whatever reason, does not want justification to be primarily about sin. He sees it rather as primarily about belonging to God’s family and, by the way, your sins are taken care of as well.

I will, over 2 or 3 subsequent posts, discuss some specific issues Wright raises as I attempt to work out my own thinking.

A great Advent sermon

This past Sunday I visited an Episcopal church, the first time for this particular church.  For those of you who aren’t of the liturgical persuasion, when you go to an Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox church, you go for the liturgy, not for the sermon.  The sermon – which is usually and refreshingly quite brief by Evangelical standards – is somewhat of a bonus, especially if it’s good, although it is still is important in the whole worship context.  I was very pleased on Sunday to leave the worship service impressed with not only the liturgy (standard Book of Common Prayer)  and the quality of the music (which was incredible), but also with the quality of the sermon. It was almost like listening to N.T. Wright, without the British accent.

In the sermon, we were reminded and encouraged that John the Baptist, whose assignment was to announce the advent, as it were, of the public ministry of the Messiah, operated in the wilderness.  He was neither a TV personality nor a street-corner prophet; he was, if you will, an oracle, and people had to go out to the wilderness to find him. In other words, he was inconvenient. And, if you believe at all that the medium is the message, and I think it does, it tells us that the Gospel is inconvenient. It’s not necessarily easy to find, and many of us have to walk a difficult road to access it. As is confirmed again and again in the Bible, God is revealed in the wilderness, in the desert, in exile, in prison; he is revealed in all kinds of very inconvenient places. The Good News is that in the midst of our trials – which I can relate to at the moment, as I’m currently out of a job and fairly stressed – God is revealed. The Advent season celebrates, among other things, the trials and tribulations of a pregnant woman forced to travel as her due date arrives. It’s all so inconvenient, but God will be revealed.

We were also reminded that Advent, the celebration of the incarnation and the revelation of the Christ, is also the advent of the New Creation. With the incarnation, God entering Creation in a new and very personal way, the New Creation was initiated. Advent is the celebration of creation and re-creation, it is the season of hope and new life. God has become incarnate, and is about to be revealed. Christmas is more than just a birthday, where we stand around the manger and think, “isn’t he cute?” Christmas is the acknowledgment that God has set the wheels in motion; the New Creation is underway, and we are a part of it.

These are some of my thoughts, loosely based on Sunday’s sermon. I know there were good points made that I’ve forgotten; this is one sermon where I wished I had taken notes. However, I’ve grasped the essence of the message, and I thnk it will have a lingering impact on my understanding and appreciation for Advent.

All this, and Heaven too

I am in the middle of reading Bishop N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, which deals with the doctrine of Heaven and what Wright calls “life after life after death.”  It’s blowing the minds of some evangelicals who don’t like being told that Heaven isn’t necessarily the goal.

I was quite surprised to hear that Bishop Wright was interviewed last week on The Colbert Report, a somewhat dangerous place for nearly anyone in which to find themselves.  In the interview, Wright dialogues with Colbert about Heaven, dogma and other fun stuff.  Check it out, Wright is on about the 13:30 mark. (And, Cookie Monster is a surprise guest earlier in the show!)

Resurrection epistemology

NT Wright, in his latest book, Surprised by Hope, discusses the ways in which scientists and
historians could view the Resurrection of Jesus, then offers a 3rd alternative, “a puzzling area beyond science … and the kind of history that claims to ‘know’…” He offers:

Sometimes human beings – individuals or communities – are confronted with something that they must reject outright or that, if they accept it, will demand the remaking of their worldview.

The challenge is in fact the challenge of new creation. To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new.

This goes hand in hand, by the way, with the point of Robert Webber’s in The Divine Embrace, that the work of God in the world can be summed up as creation, incarnation and re-creation. The incarnation of God in the man Jesus, his death and subsequent resurrection, opened the door for all of re-creation, not just the re-creation (i.e. the new-style resurrection body) of Jesus.

NT Wright goes on:

The claim advances in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.

The celebration of Easter is not simply recognizing the anniversary of some historical event, as important as that event was. In Easter, we celebrate the resurrection here and now, the new life and the re-creation happening all around us. It is perhaps fitting, then, that our Easter celebration “re-created” the primitive celebration of spring, new life, and of fertility. Easter is a fertility celebration, as the new world, the Kingdom of Heaven, is re-created in our lives.

The reality of Easter is upon us. Live the Resurrection! (and enjoy your Easter eggs!)