Typically when you encounter discussions concerning the ongoing debate between John Piper and NT Wright (and others) on the topic of justification and the New Perspective on Paul, bloggers and commentators are using “insider” language that might leave the curious reader more confused than enlightened. The purpose of this article is to present the issue in a simplistic manner, to define key terms, and to make a brief comment concerning the importance of the discussion. I hope this helps.
A good starting point is to mention the two men most recognizable in the debate, John Piper and NT Wright. John Piper is a pastor/author/theologian who serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Piper is best known for his presentation of the “Christian Hedonist” concept as partly presented in his book “Desiring God.” The thrust of the Christian Hedonist argument is that Christians best glorify God by enjoying Him forever. NT Wright is the current Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and is a popular New Testament theologian. Wright is an interesting blend of commitment to historical biblical foundations while also publishing non-traditional positions on some key evangelical concepts, the most contentious issue being justification by faith alone. For this reason, he has been both welcomed and refuted by a wide range of evangelicals. Throughout the debate, both scholars have engaged the other in an irenic manner and have been thankful for their helpful contributions.
Part of what serves as the backdrop for the debate is an ongoing change in how some scholars and evangelicals interpret the epistles of Paul. These series of changes is sometimes referred to as the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). Like many other “schools” of theological thought, it is too simplistic to describe the NPP with any one definitive set of beliefs. For this reason, some have preferred to call the movement the New Perspective(s) on Paul. I say that only to qualify the brief description below as a very general exposition on the most agreed on concepts of the movement.
The basic hermeneutic for the NPP is to evaluate the writings of Paul based on a 1st century understanding of Judaism. NPP proponents argue that the interpretation of Paul’s writings since the time of the Reformation have been largely colored by a 16th century understanding of Judaism, most of which is negative. In order to properly interpret Paul, the exegete must understand Judaism as Paul understood it during the time of his writing. Where the debate ensues is in the way this alters the interpretation of some common Pauline words and phrases. The most notable perhaps being “works of the law.”
The “old perspective” commonly interprets “works of the law” as a means for humans to achieve the righteousness of God through the avenue of good works. This is referred to as “Works Righteousness.” It is an essential element of the old perspective’s understanding of the Gospel and is clearly seen through the Reformation battle cry of “Sola Fide.” In other words, justification is by faith alone, not a result of “good works.” The NPP holds to a different understanding of “works of the law” based on their interpretation of 1st century Judaism. For them, the works of the law is a phrase used by Paul to describe the tendency of some Jews to think that an adherence to the Israelite customs would allow a person to be in a more favorable position before God. Gentiles who were being saved were then presented with the dilemma of relying on these Judaic customs. Rather than works of law referring to a broad range of actions that are demanded by the entirety of the law, it instead refers primarily to circumcision, dietary laws, and the Sabbath. The issue at stake was not so much legalism as it was ethnocentrism. So, NPP scholars have no problem with a person’s good works being an factor in salvation and points to statements in Paul that show them as the criteria of the final judgment. To that end, NT Wright says that “Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works.”
For those of you who have purchased the ESV Study Bible (if you haven’t, you should), you can see how the study notes in the book of Romans addresses this debate without coming right out and saying, “and for you NPP guys, take this. . .” Tom Schreiner (who I have studied under) was the contributor for Romans in the ESV Study Bible. Here is what he says about Romans 3:20: “Works of the law is understood by some to refer only to the ceremonial law, i.e., those laws that separate Jews from Gentiles (such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath). But the context gives no indication of such a restriction, and therefore the phrase should be taken to refer to all the works or deeds required by the law.”
Hopefully the dots are pretty simple to connect. The understanding that most of us have about justification has the potential to be radically altered based on the teaching of the NPP. Was Martin Luther partly wrong? Although this has been primarily a protestant evangelical debate, you can see how the Roman Catholic Church is sympathetic toward the findings of the NPP.
Although scholars have blazed this trail before NT Wright, no other has the influence and accessibility to the evangelical world and the people in the pews as does Wright. For that reason, John Piper wrote “The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright.” In February of this year, Wright’s new book, “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” will be released and is a response to Piper’s response. So, thing are interesting. I am finishing Piper’s book now and will be reading Wright’s book in February. I will follow up with another post concerning the condition of the debate.
Let me conclude this brief synopsis with a quote from Piper in the introduction of his book. It serves as a great reminder to all of us who do theology.
“My temptation is to defend a view because it has been believed for centuries. His temptation is to defend a view because it fits so well into his new way of seeing the world. . .We are agreed, however, that neither conformity to an old tradition nor conformity to a new system is the final arbiter of truth. Scripture is. And we both take courage from the fact that Scripture has the power to force its own color through any human lens.“