N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.195pp.Cloth.ISBN: 978-0-8006-3766-6. $25.00.
In this book, N. T. Wright seeks to interpret Paul in light of the narrative of creation and covenant. The particular approach he takes to each of these elements reveals his continued alliance with the New Perspective on Paul. But like any chef in the kitchen, Dr. Wright adds his own spice to the mix. First, he sees narrative through the eyes of his "critical realism," a view that looks upon narrative through the eyes of a myth. And second, he gives the New Perspective a political apocalyptic turn following the political apocalypticism of Ernst Kasemann. Each of these two elements are not entirely foreign to other advocates of the New Perspective, but are more developed in N.T. Wright.
Certainly, Dr. Wright is correct to recognize the importance of narrative covenant theology in Paul's letters, together with Paul's eschatological perspective. And as such he has brought these issues more fully to light. However, we believe that his approach to Paul's eschatology is skewed, and this leads to his unPauline and unorthodox formulations of justification.
While most of our readers are probably familiar with the New Perspective, Ernst Kasemann may be less familiar. Kasemann wrote after the Second World War and reacted to Bultmann's existentialist interpretation of Paul. He believed that too many German Christians had silently submitted to the Nazis (with notable exceptions), and Bultmann's crisis theology was not a sufficient deterrent. Thus, Kasemann developed a theology of political involvement. He believed that Paul's doctrine of the righteousness of God taught that God would bring political vindication on the earth. Kasemann's view was followed by Moltmann in his Theology of Hope and by the liberation theologians. The latter, of course, believed that God's liberating justice involved the political liberation of the oppressed in this life.
In the book under review, N. T. Wright, follows the Kasemann tradition of interpreting eschatology. And this remains the case even if he does not agree in all respects with the other children of the movement. He is promoting a political eschatology. In this eschatology, the church is called to participate in the present political transformation of earth by the gospel. Such transformation is the outworking of Paul's teaching on the righteousness of God. In this respect, justification may be described as a process. Just as political justice is always in process, so the righteousness of God advocated by Paul is always in process. And so it remains imperfect until it reaches its eschatological end.
This eschatological perspective explains why N. T. Wright is popular among social liberals, some evangelicals, and the Federal Vision. The this-worldly social agenda of classic liberalism is well known. And many evangelicals have joined the fray. As for the advocates of the Federal Vision, most of them have a background in Christian Reconstructionism and believe that the kingdom promises will be fulfilled in the present transformation of all public institutions.
It is our conviction that N. T. Wright's eschatology is the ground for his unPauline doctrine of justification. It is the source of his denial of the imputation of Christ's active righteousness. And his eschatology explains why he believes that the instrumental means of justification is faithfulness rather than faith alone. For faithfulness is a process just like Dr. Wright's view that God's righteousness entails the process of executing political transformation on the earth. A similar eschatological perspective has led those in the Federal Vision to similar errors. (This is not imply that all [or most] Christian Reconstructionists have followed this path. Joe Morecraft for example, has defended justification by the active imputation of Christ's righteousness.)
Ironically, Dr. Wright appeals to 1 Cor. 15 to support his Restitutional eschatology. However, we believe this chapter shows that Paul did not agree with Dr. Wright. For in verse 47, quoted by Wright, Paul says that "the first man is from the earth earthly, the second man is from heaven." In this context he claims that the present body is a seed of the future resurrection body (v. 37), which will surpass it in glory (v. 40, 41). The arena appropriate to the present body is the earthly arena from which it was created (v. 47). However, the arena appropriate to the heavenly body is the heavenly arena that transformed it, not the earthly arena. Thus, the future eschatological state cannot simply be the earthly arena, even if sin is removed from it. That would only take us back to the state associated with the first Adam (v. 47). At the very least, we must argue that the future eschatological state will surpass the present state to the degree that the future body surpasses the present body. And for Paul, it appears that the arena that transforms the future body is the arena for which it is suited just as Adam's body was suited to the earthly arena from which it was created.
If this is the case, how are we to interpret Romans 8? Does it teach a form of Restitutionalism? One possibility arises from the interpretation of Rom. 8 advocated by Meredith G. Kline. Admittedly, Dr. Kline did not recognize the fact that his interpretation takes Rom. 8 from the Restitutionalists. (He was himself a Restitutionalist of the non-Reconstructionist variety.) Nonetheless, we believe this would be its implication. According to Dr. Kline, Paul is reflecting on Isaiah 24-26 in Rom. 8. According to these chapters, the earth is a mass graveyard for the dead and so is cursed (Isa. 24:4-6). However, when the dead are raised (Isa. 26:19) the earth will "no longer cover her slain" (Isa. 26:21). Dr. Kline believes that this entails the reversal of the curse on the earth in Isa. 24. If this is the case and Paul is reflecting on this passage, then Paul is making a narrower point than either Dr. Kline or Dr. Wright believes. For this suggests that Paul is only reflecting on the bondage that the earth is presently under while the dead are buried in it. It does not necessarily entail the continuation of the present creation after its liberation from the dead. By being liberated from the dead bodies, the creation is thereby released into the freedom of the sons of God. If this interpretation is correct, we may not be able to draw from this passage that Paul believed in the future transformation of the created cosmos for an everlasting existence.
However, even if this interpretation is not deemed acceptable, 1 Corinthians 15 gives us a minimal principle of interpreting Romans 8. At the very least, Paul must be asserting that the new creation will surpass the first creation to the degree that the resurrection body surpasses our present body. This is because Romans 8 states, "the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God." At the very least, Paul is implying that the transformation of the creation will be of the same magnitude as that of our resurrection bodies (v. 23). Our resurrection bodies will be transformed unto conformity to the heavenly state (1 Cor. 15: 47, 49). So also, the creation will be conformed unto that same state (Rom. 8: 21, 23). Whatever this means, it is not the return of the pre-fallen earthy state, now extended to the whole cosmos (ala Dr. Wright). This opens us up to a further thoughtthat the future age takes on the character of the Spirit. Just as the Spirit transcends the world, so does the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). If this heavenly Jerusalem is a foretaste of the eschatological, then it does not seem feasible that it will be stripped of its transcendent character in the final eschaton.
Further, Romans 8 does not imply that present political justice is the onward march of God's justice in the world, leading to his final eschatological justice. In order for this to be the case, Romans 8 would have to leave open a door that it closes. It would have to leave open the possibility that political justice can liberate the creation before the resurrection, at least to some degree. Instead, this chapter teaches that the creation remains in "slavery to corruption" until the resurrection of the saints. Paul does not teach that justification entails the transformation of our visible environment even now. In fact he opposes this in Galatians as Judaizing heresy. Thus, we believe that Dr. Wright's view is essentially Jewish political eschatology.
In opposition to his former student John Barclay, Dr. Wright argues that the eschatology of the New Testament has an eye on criticizing the Roman Empire. Therefore, he lays out the historical background of the Roman Empire, noting the ruthless rule of the Romans. Then he lays out a series of parallels to the biblical story of Christ, noting that each Caesar would seek to prove that his predecessor was divine. Proof of this was found in the dead emperor's resurrection from the dead. And so he was declared a son of the gods. Dr. Wright draws from these conclusions that Paul believed that his gospel presented a direct antithesis to the Roman Empire. John Barclay has argued that Paul is only presenting his gospel against evil in general. We believe that Dr. Wright is formally correct at several points. Paul did see his gospel in antithesis to the expression of the powers of evil at that time, insofar as they were embodied in the Roman Empire. God gives forth his revelation in history and has providentially directed the kingdoms of men to prepare the way for this.
However, it seems that Dr. Wright presses this in a direction that we cannot accept. Dr. Wright appears to believe that this is another argument for his political theology. If Paul was opposing the Roman Empire specifically, then Paul had a political agenda to subvert its political power and bring in the political justice of Christ. On this view, it seems that Paul is intentionally setting the stage for Constantine (or if you do not like his politics, for some better form of Christian political justice in the future). However, we do not believe that Wright can justifiably draw this conclusion. Only if there are other grounds for believing that the kingdom is earthly and political can this antithesis be seen in this way.
If on the other hand, the nature of the kingdom is transcendent (as we believe it is in Paul), then his antithesis with Rome must be seen in this light. That is, Paul is opposing Rome and any this-worldly political system that believes that it can impose a perfect form of peace, security and justice in this fallen world. These things are only found in Christ and his transcendent kingdom above. All earthly claims to eschatological finality are ruthless, this-worldly and enslaving. And the tyranny Rome embodied to maintain her esteemed peace and security are well documented. Paul, on the contrary, preaches a kingdom that delivers one from this present evil age by delivering people into the transcendent kingdom of Christ. Only such a transcendent kingdom can give them liberty while they presently live in this world. If the kingdom is not transcendent (but instead this-worldly), freedom in it must await a day when political justice has been accomplished on the earth. Such lack of present freedom entails bondage and a return to the law.
Finally, Dr. Wright believes, following the New Perspective, that the works of the law are simply the works one needed to follow in Israel to show that one was truly part of God's people. We agree that the saints in Israel kept the law out of grace. They did not pursue it for meritorious purposes. However, sinful Israel as a whole believed that their obedience to the law would bring in the kingdom of God. This we find in Rom. 9: 32-33. What did they pursue by works? The kingdom of Rom. 9:33, which God brought by grace instead. This is the kingdom in which there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (Rom. 10:11-12). Thus, the Jews thought they could bring in a kingdom of political justice by their obedience to the law.
As noted, Dr. Wright is defending the New Perspective view that Paul was not opposing works righteousness. Now we may ask, is he doing this because he himself is advocating works righteousness? For he is advocating a political kingdom in which the church brings political justice to the earth. And on this view, God uses the church's obedience to bring in this eschatological justice. Sounds very close to the Jewish view of eschatology. And since eschatology is the mother of all theology, it is no wonder that Dr. Wright also rejects the Protestant doctrine of justification. For in so doing, he is implicitly adopting a view of works righteousness with respect to individual salvation. For Paul, the Judaizers did the same. What they believed about eschatology went hand in hand with what they believed about personal salvation. For personal salvation is simply personal identification with that eschatology.
Paul leads us to a better way, one in which the kingdom of God has arrived, one in which God has justified his name among the nations. And he has done this in such a way that his kingdom has come in perfection in the heavenly places, now semi-realized in the church. No kingdom of this world can give true peace in the midst of suffering. And no such kingdom provides the anchor for faith in the things that are not seen. But Paul lived by faith, not by sight. It was only the transcendent kingdom of Christ that allowed him to bear up under persecution as he proclaimed an empire of grace antithetical to the Roman world.
Scott F. Sanborn