This afternoon I settled into my chair and read N. T. Wright’s essay “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective. In light of this essay I had to go back and revise my article “Is Justification Forensic?” I hope this expanded piece is a bit clearer and more helpful.
It’s hard for me to pin down my disquiet about Wright’s construal of justification. I am simply not persuaded that justification is limited to God’s forensic declaration of who belongs to Israel. I think there are good reasons to believe that the Apostle was thinking of more than that when he spoke of justification by faith. But if Wright is right, then the preaching of the justification texts in the Pauline epistles becomes much more difficult for contemporary preachers–not difficult in the sense of “this is complex material that is hard to express” but difficult in the sense of “why would I want to preach on this given my limited opportunities to preach the gospel in my congregation.” After all, the question of Gentile inclusion in the Church was resolved two millennia ago. This simply isn’t a live issue for anyone. Of course, it is important to instruct the faithful in the story of salvation, beginning with Abraham; but the preacher does not need the language of justification to do so.
Nor do I really understand why Wright keeps saying that justification is not about “becoming a Christian.” Who ever thought that? Augustine? For him justification begins with baptism and continues throughout one’s Christian life. Luther? Only if one does not recognize the decisive importance of baptism for him: Christian existence is nothing but a daily return to baptism and thus to justification. Calvin? I’ll have to defer to those who are knowledgeable in the Reformed tradition. I suspect that Wright’s evangelical roots are betraying him at this point.
Let me also say that I find Wright absolutely energizing to read. Every preacher should read his stuff. One task of preaching is locating our people within the narrative of salvation. Wright teaches us how to do so. It’s just a shame that he is not more deeply informed by the catholic tradition.
Let me also say that Bishop Tom is an absolutely delightful dinner party conversationalist. Christine and I had the privilege of dining with him at our bishop’s home in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania ten years ago. It was a wonderful evening!