N.T. Wright vs. the Piano Man

Without a doubt, N.T. Wright is a rock star.

There’s no other way to describe an Anglican bishop who commands an interview from Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. Wright has written dozens of books, many of which resonate with Catholics on one hand and bearded, bespectacled bobos (and their ladies) on the other — especially where Wright appeals to sundry social justice issues. In the fall of 2013 he published his latest tome, the 1,600 page Paul and The Faithfulness of God, a work that sets forth a unified metanarrative of God’s covenant righteousness and the apostle’s place in bringing that narrative to Gentiles.  

Interesting, then, that at roughly the same time Wright’s magnum opus appears another, much slimmer volume arises to take him on godzillalike a diminutive fighter jet scrambled to buzz Godzilla. I’m referring to Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm, professor of biblical studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Westerholm, incidentally, earned an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) in piano performance. He apparently has some wicked keyboard chops to go along with his formidable scholarship in scripture.

Justification Reconsidered clocks in at a compendious 99 pages. Westerholm lines up the heavy hitters of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, aiming to throw nothing but K’s — retiring Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, Wright (batting clean-up), James D.G. Dunn, and Douglas Campbell in order. While his defense of a traditional, Augustinian-Lutheran view of justification is developed over the course of the book, our focus here is on his engagement with the household name, Wright, that spans 23 pages.

Westerholm’s tone is irenic. He lauds N.T. Wright for his great insights and recognizes common ground where it exists. He acknowledges, too, that Wright takes Paul seriously (rather than finding him incoherent, as some modern Pauline scholars are prone to do), and traces the cohesive thrust of Wright’s narrative:

In Wright’s version of the story, the covenant God made with Abraham assigned the people [Israel] itself, as a nation, with the task of undoing Adam’s sin. Israel was to play ‘the crucial, linchpin role’ in God’s plan to save the world…

But, of course, so understood, the divine plan was doomed from the start. Wright duly notes that Israel shared in the effects of Adam’s sin and was thus in no position to undo it by obeying God’s commands…

Wright is as insistent as any that the cross and resurrection of Christ represent the climax of God’s redemptive plan, but something of his distinctive account of Israel’s story is carried over into Christ’s redemptive work.  Whereas Christ is traditionally believed to be the representative human being in his sacrificial death (cf. 2 Cor 5:14-15), in Wright’s retelling he is, in the first place, the representative Israelite: as Israel’s representative, not only does he fulfill the task that the nation was unable to perform…but he also takes upon himself the curse of their failure to perform it.

So the key to Wright’s narrative is the idea of covenant — from Abraham through Israel to the true Israelite, Jesus — and the inclusion of all into that covenant who believe in Jesus. God’s covenant faithfulness (= righteousness) is borne out by his gracious reception of Gentiles who believe in Christ.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: justification. With N.T. Wright we might say that justification involves 1) law court, and 2) lunch counter (okay, I’m being cute with the latter). Legally speaking, those who believe in Jesus are declared righteous. This does not mean they are actually righteous, but reckoned so on account of their inclusion within the covenant people. Moreover, since they now participate in the covenant they cannot be excluded from the “lunch counter,” i.e. table fellowship. This is Wright’s understanding of justification in Galatians 2:11-16a (excluding, as Westerholm notes, 16b). It underpins views on social justice that enamor him to Millennials and others of like mind: at God’s lunch counter there is no discrimination. In his own words,

We are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted forgiveness of your sins’…but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’

Now, N.T. Wright isn’t saying that people do not have to be forgiven their sins, or don’t receive the same; scripture plainly declares this to be so (e.g. Eph 1:7). But for Wright, “justification” is a legal verdict that declares who can sit at God’s table.

So, what’s the big deal?


Few would argue with the implications of table fellowship. It is quite true that in the new dispensation God receives all, circumcised and uncircumcised, those who eat kosher and those that don’t, those that celebrate certain days and those that don’t. The basis of reception is faith in Christ. But are covenant inclusion and reception equivalent to justification?

Stephen Westerholm traces the word righteous (“just”) throughout the Hebrew scriptures and finds a different emphasis. People are righteous, not by declaration, but by what they do.

The ‘righteous’ are thus those who do what they ought to do (i.e. righteousness). One is reminded of the words of 1 John: ‘Don’t let anyone fool you: It is the one who does righteousness who is righteous’ (1 John 3:7; cf. Rev 22:11). The truth of this seemingly self-evident observation is confirmed by Ezekiel 3:20 as well: ‘When a righteous person turns away from their righteousness and commits iniquity…that person shall die for their sin; the righteous deeds that they have done [on the basis of which, they were once ‘righteous’] shall not be remembered.’ Interestingly enough, even things — scales (when accurate), a (figurative) ‘path’ or commands (when morally appropriate) — can be said to be ‘righteous’: when, that is, they are what they ought (or purport) to be.

He goes on to quote Leviticus 19:35-36 (and others passages) to illustrate the point about righteous “things” — and here I fight the urge to go on a tangent about free vs. rigged markets, monetary inflation and related topics that, as a student of economics, I find important in regard to social justice. But the point is well-taken: you can’t simply say a set of scales is “just” when it is in fact unbalanced (and no set of scales can “sign up” for the covenant). We cannot say a wicked person is justified when her conduct is manifestly wicked; in fact, Deuteronomy 25:1 requires judges to judge on the basis of the person’s character — the covenant notwithstanding.

The Ezekiel passage cited above ought to give us pause. It’s pretty self-evident that we have good days and bad, times when we do the right thing and times we don’t. If unrighteous deeds negate righteous ones, we have a problem — one that Paul sums up when he writes, “As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10, cf. Psalm 14:1; 143:2). But if scripture admonishes a judge to judge on the basis of a person’s deeds, how can God himself be just and allow imperfect people into his kingdom?

“Paul delights in the paradoxes of the gospel,” writes Westerholm, who takes Paul as seriously as Wright. God can regard an unrighteous person as just — not on the basis of covenant inclusion (and certainly not because of what she has done, or failed to do) — but because of a divine transaction on the cross:

The compact language of 2 Corinthians 5:21 seems to mean that, on the cross, God worked a dramatic exchange: the sinfulness of human beings was made Christ’s, so that his righteousness might be made theirs.

Righteousness, the state of being “justified,” is a gift given by God in exchange for our sinfulness, which was borne on the cross by Jesus. We are righteous (justified), not because we belong to the right people, but because we’ve been made right with God through the death of his Son.

“I get that,” you may reply; “but how is this distinguishable from Wright, who says that those who believe in Jesus get the benefits of justification?”  It’s important to underscore, again and again, the personal and existential nature of faith meeting the faith. In dialogue with Krister Stendahl (chapter 1), Westerholm points out that Greco-Roman pagans were neither 1) acutely exercised about specific sins, nor 2) beating the doors down to enter God’s covenant through the Jews (i.e. Abraham). But Paul’s preaching to both Jew and Gentile followed the imperative nature of passages like 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and Ephesians 5:3-6. God’s wrath is coming upon the whole world for its unrighteousness; the only escape is through Christ. The Jews had a long-standing apocalyptic tradition; the Greeks, anxiety over how the gods might reckon with their lapses in virtue. A gospel that proclaims the end of the old, unrighteous order, the inauguration of a new, righteous one, and safe transfer for the believer from the former to the latter found resonance in many (though not all, or even most) of Paul’s hearers.

The goal, according to Paul, is to be “found” on the day of God’s visitation, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [which amounts to no righteousness, but that’s a topic for another day], but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).

“What is your name?” was not only the first question Monty Python’s King Arthur had to answer before crossing the bridge of death; it’s the first question in the Anglican catechism. The gospel calls for a response from each of us individually. The faith community, which expresses itself at God’s lunch counter, is composed of such creatures. While covenant faithfulness is certainly an important aspect of God’s righteousness — and we can thank Wright for highlighting it — Westerholm shows us that God’s faithfulness is more cosmic in scope: faithfulness to creation, which means expelling unrighteousness while saving those who obey the gospel. The center-right scholar Westerholm succeeds in reiterating justification in terms that are recognizable in a traditional, Augustinian-reformed-evangelical framework.

N.T. Wright may be the rock star. But on this score Stephen Westerholm plays a better tune.


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