NT Wright’s Justification, Pt. 4: Wright’s Big Picture

In the prior 3 posts in this series, I have pointed out a number of places where I am in disagreement with NT Wright’s most recent book, Justification.  Now, let me summarize some things I am in agreement with.

One of Wright’s goals, it appears, is to counter the standard Western Evangelical motif that salvation is about “going to Heaven when you die.”  This is the theme tackled in “Surprised by Hope,” and it is also taken up here in dealing with the title subject, justification.  Overall, I would tend to agree that justification goes beyond an individualized transaction where my decision to have faith is exchanged for Jesus’ death and resurrection, and therefore my eternal destiny is secured.  This does not mean that justification doesn’t have a personal, individual application.  Each one of the Israelites was personally saved when they crossed the Red Sea; that, however, doesn’t mean that God parted the Red Sea for any one person.

Wright sees justification and salvation as having a larger application, that of “setting the world to rights.”  This is not a foreign concept to Paul, who talks about the redemption of creation, which “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

Wright’s “big picture” goes like this: God’s one and only plan was to choose a people – Israel – in order to bless all of creation, and therefore established the Covenant with Abraham. While the Israelite people failed, God did not, and sent Jesus – the heir as identified by Paul in Galatians – to complete that goal.  Jesus’ resurrection began that “setting the world to rights” process.  The Church, now – consisting of both Jews and Gentiles – continues this mission.   Therefore, as Romans 8 says, all of creation waits for the “sons of God to be revealed.”   We are living out the Abrahamic Covenant as adopted descendants of Abraham (and God).

In this sense, justification is not about individual salvation, it is about the redemption of Creation.  Wright, in fact, writes that his understanding of Galatians is that it is a “theology of justification which includes all that the old perspective was really trying to say within a larger framework which, while owing quite a bit to aspects of the new perspective, goes considerably beyond it.” (p.140)

This was always my understanding of Wright’s views on justification: the so-called “old perspective” may have been wrong only in that it was somewhat short-sighted.  For justification to be properly understood, it needs to recognize the larger context of the redemption of all creation.  In this sense, I don’t find Wright’s theology to be dangerous in any way, as some would think.

But, I still have three chapters yet to go.

N.T. Wright’s Justification, Pt 2

As I wrote in my prior post, I am reading through NT Wright’s book Justification, which is a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright.  Piper is coming from the Reformed or Calvinist point of view.  It seems that Calvinists tend to be the most offended by Wright’s “New Perspective” ideas, although I’ve also read some criticisms from Lutherans.  From what I’ve seen, the Calvinist system – in my opinion, a rather tenuous house of cards – would crash and burn is Wright is right in that justification has implications beyond a forensic ruling that we are now perfected and therefore can go to Heaven when we die (assuming we Persevere, that is).

In the Introduction, Wright gives three issues that need to be addressed in discussing justification:

  1. The nature and scope of justification – Wright believes justification is not rescuing individuals from the world, but about rescuing the world itself.
  2. The means of salvation – While agreeing with what Piper would say, Wright argues that it doesn’t go far enough, in that it ignores the work of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The meaning of justification – Wright disagrees that justification is about the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to us; he believes the word is being improperly used and is being confused with salvation and other concepts.  It is not the fact of justification that Wright is disputing, it is that Piper’s version misses out on several aspects that Paul includes.

Wright sees Paul as addressing these 4 themes:

  1. The work of Jesus the Messiah (in the context of Israel)
  2. The Abrahamic Covenant – Piper diagrees with Wright’s understanding of Isreal still being in exile at the time of Jesus
  3. The divine lawcourt – Piper interprets this as a moral ruling, rather than the plain legal reading of the text.
  4. Eschatology – Piper only focuses on the present justification; Wright also sees Paul’s focus on the final act of justification, when the whole world is made right.

This outlines the issues – kind of – on which Piper and Wright disagree.

Moving into Chapter 2, Wright discusses, among other things, the meaning of God’s righteousness. Piper, taking a Reformed perspective as expected, says that God’s righteousness is God’s concern for His own glory.  Let me interject by saying that the Reformed obsession with God’s glory is one of their main problems, as it blinds them from the reality of God’s love. In Wright’s view, God’s righteousness is best seen as God’s faithfulness to His Covenant. Wright doesn’t deny that this results in God being glorified, but – and I agree with him – there is nothing in Scripture that would indicate that God’s Righteousness equals his glory. They are not interchangeable.

In discussing how we appropriate the righteousness of God, Wright points out that in a lawcourt scenario, the defendant never receives the Judge’s righteousness; it is a righteousness in relationship to the law and the court. Now, while I understand and would agree with this point, there is an issue that Wright doesn’t mention, and that is where Jesus takes our place; Jesus here is not the judge, he is our stand-in, and his righteousness is indeed transferred to us, the defendants.

That being said, I agree with Wright in that this is not God needing someone to punish in order to protect his glory (the Calvinist approach); he says it well (page 71): “It isn’t that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless, to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy – and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people.”

Throughout the book (I am half-way through) Wright emphasizes his big picture, that God’s one and only plan is to “put the world to rights” through Israel.

Next, I’ll get into the issue of the Covenant.

Augustine was a trouble-maker

Augustine ultimately attempted to weld together philosophical motions of the divine essence to the tenets of the Christian faith and, in so doing, allowed the content of Christian faith to be determined by the logic of philosphical rationalism.  The rationalization of theology by Augustine would be a fateful move that would determine western thinking about God, through Descartes and, ultimately, ending in the atheistic nihilism of Nietzeche. – from Orthodox Readings of Augustine By George Demacopoulos, Aristotle Papanikolaou

It’s true that Augustine was the Church’s great champion of grace, defeating the Pelagian heresy (of course, never mind that evangelicalism has to a large part reverted to Pelagianism).  However, I’m not sure that what he gave the west was much better. If anything, Augustine’s heresy is more insidious.  It certainly sounds Pauline, talking about grace and all.  However, in his attempt to shut down Pelagius, Augustine develops the concept of inherited guilt; that is, we are not just born with a defective, fallen nature because of Adam, we are held guilty because Adam sinned.

Now, Augustine has put himself in a position where he is forced to toss the baby out with the bath: his concept of inherited guilt means that infants are born guilty. If a baby dies without being baptized, they are condemned to hell, because that’s the rule. Baptism is the only “cure” for original sin, you see.  It would seem that Augustine’s view of grace runs into a bit of a problem here: If we must act to initiate baptism in order to be saved, then we are relying on some human effort (even though it is God who does the baptizing).

Augustine’s complex view of grace also includes the concepts of double predestination and perseverance, concepts which Calvin popularized some years later.  Double predestination is the logical conclusion that if God predestines some to be saved, then logically he must predestine some to be damned.  The doctrine of perseverance says basically that we cannot know the future; we may become apostate and fall away from grace (which essentially must mean that we were not predestined to be saved in the first place).

The effect of Augustine’s teaching on Total Depravity (the inherited sin/guilt thing) resulted in a theology where a chasm exists between man and God.  The Eastern church, on the other hand, held that while man inherited a fallen nature, our guilt is purely our own. Furthermore, man’s destiny is to become Christ-like, or “partakers of the divine nature.”  This concept, known as theosis or deification, was closer to where Luther ended up after he moved away from Augustine’s position.  Deification doesn’t mean that we are becoming God, but it does mean that we are being united with God, and being conformed to His image.

As with Descartes, Augustine’s thinking has predominated the west – especially the reformed traditions – to the extent that we don’t even realize that while we read Paul, for example, we think Augustine.  While Augustine said many good things, much of what he said was quite wrong, and we do the Bible a disservice to not work to set Augustine aside as we read it.  As NT Wright points out in his recent book on Justification, evangelicals claim to believe in sola scriptura (Bible only) and to reject tradition; however, they will default to Augustinian thinking rather than taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says.

Augustine may have been a wonderful philosopher and theologian, but it seems to me that he also caused a great many issues that have plagued the church ever since.

And the Word became flesh …

The Incarnation – the Word become flesh, God become man, the Heavenly become Earthly – is without a doubt the one theological aspect which has gripped me over the years.  Just think, the Creator of Heaven and Earth entering Creation, entering created Time itself, without causing the nuclear meltdown of the whole universe, it really incomprehensible.  And not only that;  that God throughout history has chosen to reveal Himself through the more common elements of his creation.  God born in a stable (imagine the smell… and it wasn’t cinnamon or incense); baptism in dirty rivers; God nailed naked to a tree; partaking of the divine through wine and broken bread.  That nothing in Creation, no matter how lowly or crude, is unfit for the presence of God to fill, convert and use – this is amazing. This is the Incarnation. This is why I love Advent – the prime time of the Christian calendar in which to focus on this inexplicable reality.

For more thoughts on the Incarnation, I will direct you to an article by NT Wright in Christianity Today, What is this word?