Introduction - N. T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification

[T]he arguments I have been mounting . . . [are genuinely] fresh readings of Scripture. They are not the superimposition upon Scripture of theories culled from elsewhere.
—N. T. Wright, Justification (22)

My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful.
—John Piper, The Future of Justification (15)

Since the time of the reformation, the doctrine of justification has enjoyed a sort of controversial pride of place within widest circles of confessional Christianity. From Martin Luther’s quintessentially polemic statement on the foundational nature of sola fide—“if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls”—to the Council of Trent’s “anathema” reply,[1] few doctrines have garnered such extended scrutiny and fierce debate. In recent years, however, a new voice has entered the fray. Led initially by the scholarly work of Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 1976) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977) and now carried on by the writings (both popular and scholarly) of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, the so-called “new perspective on Paul” has launched a fresh round of debate and (perhaps most interestingly) drawn fresh lines in this once firmly established dispute.

As the already immense bibliographies attest, this new exchange has not lacked for ink (whether digital or print).[2] In light, therefore, of such a sizeable pool of resources, rather than engaging the new perspective head-on in an attempt (at the very least) to summarize the various positions and counter-positions, the purpose of this series will be to examine the doctrine of justification as it appears in the work of N. T. Wright. As such, this analysis will draw primarily upon John Piper’s initial “response” to Wright’s earlier formulations in The Future of Justification[3] as well as Wright’s own most recent reaffirmation of his position in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.[4]

However, before delving into the specific (and far more contentious) issue of justification, it would be best to begin by briefly sketching Wright’s understanding of the gospel itself. We will explore this foundational topic in the next post.


[1] “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” The Council of Trent: Canons on Justification (Canon 9).

[2] See especially Michael F. Bird’s nearly eighteen page un-annotated “Biography on the New Perspective on Paul” from The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 194-211.

[3] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).

[4] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009).

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