Why Wright is Right

Updated on Saturday September 18th.

For the past year I’ve been working through the New perspective on Paul, specifically the continuing debate between Tom Wright and John Piper. I’ve come out firmly on the side of Wright and have decided to post some of the reasons why I think Wright’s reading of Paul is superior. I will continue to update this post the more I read on the issue. Please forgive it for being rough.

To start, Wright provides a sensible test for doctrine/exegesis that applies to this debate:

“What I am offering, in other words, is a hypothesis: try this framework on Paul, and see whether it does make sense of the data we have, getting it all in with appropriate simplicity, and shedding light on other areas also – in other words, doing the things that all hypotheses have to do if they are to work.”

Here are what I believe to be Wright’s strongest points:

  • For Wright God’s righteousness = his faithfulness to the covenant. Romans 3 as a whole confirms this thesis. Romans 3:1-8 is about theodicy – God’s faithfulness in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  In 3:25-26 faithfulness and eschatology combine. Jesus as the mercy seat is the ultimate expression of God’s faithful promise to forgive sin (eschatology). Paul is saying that God has been faithful to his long term plan to forgive his people’s sins, and all this even while justifying Jew and Gentile the same way – by faith in Christ. Due to this, God has not forsaken Israel. Like Paul argues in Romans 9-11, God’s plan was to always save Israel through the proclamation of the gospel. (HT = Don Garlington)
  • Don Garlington said the following on the righteousness of God:
  • The phrase “righteousness of God” has undergone a great deal of scrutiny in recent years. The debate has revolved around whether righteousness is an attribute of God, a gift of God or an activity of God? (Doug) Moo helpfully clarifies these options as follows: (1) “God’s righteousness”—an attribute of God. “Righteousness” can refer to God’s justice, but as Luther discovered long ago, it is hardly good news to disobedient sinners to learn about God’s justice. Thus it is more likely, if an attribute of God is in view, that the reference is to God’s faithfulness. (2) “Righteousness from God”—a status given to people by God. This interpretation was championed by the Reformers and is the traditional view among Protestant theologians. When God “justifies” the sinner, he gives that person a new legal standing before him—his or her “righteousness.” (3) “Righteousness done by God”—an action of “putting in the right” being done by God. This view, held by a growing number of scholars, gives a dynamic sense to “righteousness.” It is God’s intervention to set right what has gone wrong with his creation.
  • In email correspondence, Don Garlington pointed out that it’s helpful to conceive of all these different aspects of righteousness as spokes on a wheel. If this is the case, the hub of the wheel is fidelity to the covenant. All the other actions (e.g. saving his people from exile, taking vengeance on his enemies) are rooted in God’s loyalty to the covenant.
    • Even John Calvin himself sees some validity to this in his comments on Psalm 5:8: “The righteousness of God ….. in this passage, as in many others, is to be understood of his faithfulness and mercy which he shows in defending and preserving his people.”
  • In Romans 3:29, Paul asks the question, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” Wright says the following: “In other words, if the statement of Romans 3:28 were to be challenged, it would look as though God were the God of Jews only.” The NIV omitted the “or” as the translators saw no organic connection between justification by faith and the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant. However, Paul’s use of e (‘or’) shows this to be misguided.
    • This also makes it likely that ‘works of law’ are Jewish works (circumcision, food laws and Sabbath). Paul clearly does not mean any and all good works by ‘works of law’ because if he did his question makes no sense.  Consider – “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from good works. Or is God the God of Jews only?” Once you include the e (‘or’), Wright’s reading is the most plausible. This is why the translators of the NIV removed it.
      • We see the same thing in Galatians 2:11-16. When Paul discusses “not being justified by works of law” he is confronting the problem of ethnic taboos about eating together across ethnic boundaries. Contextually then, works of law = the living like a Jew of 2:14. They are those things that divide Jew from Gentile, not ‘moral good works’.  Also, reading Paul strictly in his context, justification does not mean forgiveness or establishing a right relationship with God but very specifically, “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.” I believe this is a both/and, not an either/or.
    • Ockham’s razor applies to exegesis and here Wright’s reading offers the simplest and best explanation (see Wright’s test, mentioned above). 
  • Michael Bird points out that when most students are asked the question, “why did Messiah become a curse for us?” the typical response is to save us from our sins and share fellowship with God. In Galatians, contextually, this is not a Pauline answer (3:10-14). The Pauline answer is so that the blessing of Abraham might go out to the Gentiles and so that the people of God might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Wright’s explanation of this is that the problem is that the law looked as if it would prevent the Abrahamic promise from getting out to the nations, thus preventing God’s single plan through Israel from coming to pass. Wright believes first century Israel to be in a continuing state of exile. If Israel were to continue under that curse forever then the promises would never go into the wider world and Israel would never be renewed. This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus bears the Deuteronomic curse himself and in so doing, makes a way through the curse out to the other side. Now is the time of renewal where Gentiles may become members of Abe’s family and Jews can renew the covenant. This makes better sense of not only Galatians 3:10-14 but also Romans 10:6-13.
  • Wright makes better sense of Romans 4 than his detractors. The typical old perspective reading has Paul use Abraham as a subtopic in proving his thesis that humanity can only be made right with God by faith in Christ. Wright sees Romans 4 as an explanation of the Abrahamic covenant which is essential to God’s one plan to deal with sin through Israel. Wright’s reading is superior to the OPP because the OPP reading sees Abraham’s ungodliness relating to an ethical deficiency. However, Paul quotes Psalm 32, where David asks for forgiveness and yet identifies himself as godly. It is more likely that ungodly = being a Gentile. This makes sense of verse 10 and also the way that Abraham is described in the book of Hebrews and Genesis. It is interesting to note that the phrase “counted it to him as righteousness” is not only mentioned in Genesis 15:6 but also in Psalm 106:30-31 in reference to Phinehas. Phinehas was a circumcised believer who in his zeal for the covenant, slew a Gentile and a compromised Jew for unlawful intercourse. He was a Jewish covenantal hero. Paul is saying that Abraham has the same status as Phinehas – they are both faithful covenant members. Paul also mentions the justification of David. In order to understand this we need to see what Paul has said in Romans 2:25 that for the disobedient, circumcision becomes uncircumcision. David has put himself outside the covenant through his seduction of Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. But God can bring him back in through faith. Mark Horne says it best: “And Paul’s whole argument has been that Israel is corporately apostate and thus no different than the nations. Rather, Israel with the whole world is weak and ungodly (in the full sense of that word), and it was precisely at that moment that Christ died for us (“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”) (HT = Mark Horne.)
  • It is true that Wright denies the active obedience of Christ but by Piper’s own admission, Wright’s remark(s) on Galatians 2:19-20 places him in virtual agreement with the sum and substance of imputed righteousness. “All the benefits of Christ’s work are to be had by Wright’s understanding of union with Christ without the mechanics of imputation.” I don’t understand that part of the debate. As Joel Garver pointed out in an essay I read a long time ago, it seems that the real issue with the NPP/OPP debate is that exponents of the NPP have “robbed us of our Bibles.” 
  • On a side note it’s interesting to consider whether the Westminster Confession requires one to believe in the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (Christ’s whole life obedience of obeying the law). Wright’s failure to assent to this doctrine is what is upsetting to his “Truly Reformed” critics. Consider this side by side comparison of the Westminster Confession (1646) and the London Baptist Confession (1689).  XI.1 of the WCF reads “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them” whereas XI.1 of the LBC reads “imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith.” From my understanding of the WCF, believing in the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was contested by many delegates, hence the more ambiguous language used in the WCF versus the LBC. For more on this, see Peter Leithart’s “On Not Blackballing.