Basics of the New Perspective: Justification

Justification is one issue which has invigorated critics of the New Perspective, sometimes to new heights of rhetorical which would make Luther himself proud.  (For example, The Trinity Review opines:  “Are Evangelicals so enthralled by Bishops and Brits that they are blind to the realities of the situation?” “Wright fabricates his theology.”) N. T. Wright has been at the forefront of this discussion with is Justification, answering John Piper’s pre-emptive strike on Wright’s views.

First some perspective.  When Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of his major burdens was to show that the traditional (Lutheran) view of Paul was a distortion.  Luther read Paul and the Pharisees in the light of his own struggle against Rome.  Sanders amassed the evidence which showed that Judaism was a religion of grace and was not proto-Pelegian.  Jews in the first century did not think that they earned their salvation, rather they were “right with God” because they were the elect of God.

The problem with Sanders is that he destroyed the assumptions of a stream of theology without providing any real replacement for it.  His goal was not to create a new “theology of Paul” but to correct a misunderstanding of Paul.   It was James Dunn and N. T. Wright who have built on the foundation of Sanders and attempted to describe a Pauline Theology which attempts to read Paul in the world of Second Temple period Judaism.  I personally think that Dunn’s chapter on Justification in his Pauline Theology (334-389) should be required reading for anyone who wants to study Paul. However, Wright’s Justification takes priority because it has brought the discussion of the New Perspective’s view of justification to the general public.

Wright is clear about his method.   In Justification he proposes to study the vocabulary of justification in the context of the first century (90).  This is more difficult that it appears because of the massive theological weight various streams of Reformation systematic theology has placed on the word.  He does not want to create a new term, rather, he wants to define justification using a historical-grammatical method.

Briefly put, for Wright, justification is a statement about the status of the believer.  When one is “justified” in a legal sense (with a Second Temple Period context) they are given the status of “in the right” on that particular legal situation.  It does not matter if they are really “in the right.” the judge has found in their favor and they obtain that status before the court.

Wright states that the word does not mean “declare righteous” nor does the term mean that the person is righteous with respect to their character (91).  The real problem for Wright is the “imputation of righteousness” as  theological extension of justification.  Reformed streams of theology says that God “imputes Christ’s righteous” to the believer.  In the same way that Adam’s sin is counted against all those “in Adam,” all those “in Christ” have Christ’s righteousness counted for them.   Wright finds no evidence for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.  It is a theological construct built on the foundation of Reformation theology, not the Bible and ought to be abandoned.

In summary, Wright believes that Justification is a statement about the status of the person who has been vindicated in the court (92).  The term cannot be used to describe the whole of the salvation process, it is but one metaphor of many which Paul uses to describe salvation.  James Dunn makes this point as well in his Pauline Theology (328-33).  Dunn observes that there are many metaphors for salvation in Paul, although he highlights justification by faith, participation in Christ, and the gift of the Spirit as the primary statements of Paul’s view of salvation.

The Protestant Reformation elevated the legal metaphor found in some of Paul’s writings to the status of primary metaphor and loaded onto that metaphor the whole of Paul’s salvation theology.  The New Perspective attempts to temper this by using the language of justification more biblically.

6 thoughts on “Basics of the New Perspective: Justification

  1. Having read Wright’s book, Justification, I confes I have a hard time seeing Justification any other way now. It resonated strongly and was such an accessible book that I think it should be required reading by all the new reformed/new Calvinist crowd…though I’m sure they don’t like it much.

    Additionally I liked Wright’s point in one of his lectures in his “Romans in a Week” series: “Justification is Paul’s key controlling metaphor, Salvation by grace is his literal truth.”

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  2. Thanks for this helpful series, Philip. Just one clarification. The journal you quote near the beginning of your post should be The Trinity Review. The real Trinity Journal would not stoop so low.

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  3. I read Dunn’s chapter on Justification by faith. I was a bit dismayed he dismissed Eph 2:8-9 as not only a different context from Galatians and Romans but as “un-Pauline” and from a different writer after Paul’s death (pg 371).
    More to the issue: Is justification a metaphor or a reality? Are salvation, reconciliation, adoption, or being “in Christ” metaphors or reality? Is any use of language a reality, or is it all metaphor when delivered from a transcendent God to a Greek audience through a Hebrew theologian and read by a 21st century American?
    Is justification/righteousness a benefit/result of “salvation” or the very mechanics by which “salvation” happens? Dunn says that “justification is not a once-for-all act of God” (pg 386) but an ongoing necessity to deal with our continuing to sin.
    Dunn’s main argument seems to be that “works of the law” are not to be understood as an attempt at salvation but Jewish covenant keeping involving circumcision, food laws and separation from Gentiles (I would add baptism). He contends it is these “works of the law” and not the whole law that are at odds with justification. In this view justification no longer means made righteous when an individual is compared to the law, but should mean put in a righteous relationship with God apart from the external Jewish markers above.
    Does Paul preach against these things as unnecessary for salvation or as unnecessary to become Jewish or as unnecessary for covenant obedience?
    My suspicion is that Dunn is seeking to soften the anti-Jewish view of Paul (especially by Luther). He seems to be defining a path by which God expands the Jewish covenant to all people through Paul rather than seeing Paul’s dispensational calling that set the covenant aside and dealt with Gentiles outside the Jewish covenants. Paul no longer required circumcision, food laws, separatism and baptism because God was no longer requiring covenant obedience.

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  4. Dave….nice critique. Your final paragraph is gold. First, Dunn does dismiss Ephesians as post-Pauline, which I think is unfortunate. That is a common thing in scholarship, although the tide may be turning there.

    As for this: “More to the issue: Is justification a metaphor or a reality? Are salvation, reconciliation, adoption, or being “in Christ” metaphors or reality?” My answer would be, “Yes, and yes.” Metaphors express something about reality. Justification is a legal metaphor to describe something about salvation, adoption is a family metaphor which describes another aspect of salvation. What I am trying to say is that no one word can full exhaust what salvation is, so we are forced to use metaphors to describe aspects of the full reality of what God has done.

    In another post I say this,so pardon the repeat. The dik- word group in Paul can be used to refer to both the instant “declaration” of salvation (justification) as well as our daily “becoming righteous” (sanctification). This is the old “positional” vs. “practical” which we are pretty familiar with. Paul uses the words for both, I would not want to say that the dik- word group has to mean justification, since sometimes it is referring to sanctification.

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  5. Philip, you said: “Paul uses the words for both, I would not want to say that the dik- word group has to mean justification, since sometimes it is referring to sanctification.”

    Might this simply mean that a distinction between justification and sanctification is unhelpful, and foreign to Paul’s thought?

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