The New Perspective on Paul: Defining 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.

Piper JustificationFirst 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; Wright wants to define justification using a historical-grammatical method.

Wright Justification

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 process of salvation; it is only 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.

5 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: Defining Justification

  1. Phil:

    The link to the Trinity Review is no longer there. Do you have another link?

    Jim Stringham

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  2. Phil: Best line (ok … Catholic bias, I know) from Wright’s Justification is at page 193: “The danger with a doctrine which says, ‘You can’t do anything and you mustn’t try,’ is that it ends up with the servant who, knowing his master to be strict, hid his money in the ground.” p. 193 (discussion of the “place of the Spirit and the place of future judgment”).

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