Ok, here's part one of my review of Wright's Justification, and Wilson's interaction with it. Note that I am simultaneously posting piece-by-piece thorough reviews of two different books, Wright's and O'Donovan's, in both of which I will be using Doug Wilson's critiques as something of a foil (though much more in the Wright reviews). So don't get confused. :-)
In the Preface, Wright points out what he sees as three major pressure points in the debate over his view of Paul. First, he says, is the issue of the nature and scope of salvation—since the Reformation, Protestants have had a tendency to focus on individual salvation, rather than corporate and cosmic salvation. Second is the issue of the means of salvation—here Wright thinks that the Protestant tradition has often given insufficient attention to the work of the Spirit, and this is why it has been so paranoid of attributing significance to works flowing out of faith. Third is the question of the meaning of the word justification. Here, Wright thinks that there are four major themes key to justification that Piper and others in his tradition have tended to sideline: 1) Jesus’ Jewish Messiahship, 2) the covenant with Israel, 3) the divine lawcourt setting of justification, and 4) eschatology, which gives attention to final justification.
So far, I am altogether with him.
In reviewing Wright’s preface, Wilson only has a couple of concerns. One that he raises is “But I (and Piper, and many other opponents of the NPP) agree with these things.” That is to say, when Wright says that one disagreement is over the nature and scope of salvation (cosmic, or basically individual), Wilson insists that postmillennialists are going to agree with Wright entirely on this, but that doesn’t mean that they will agree with him on justification. Therefore, Wright is wrong to act as if this is a crucial hinge. Wilson raises this sort of objection repeatedly, and while I think it has some force at times, I think Wright might well reply, “Well then, my point is that you’re being inconsistent—you haven’t allowed this postmillennial, cosmic thinking to properly penetrate your soteriology.”
The real test isn’t whether you can say, “Oh, I’m postmil too!” but whether that postmillennialism has actually worked its way consistently through your system. If both Wright and Wilson agree on the scope of salvation, but disagree over the nature of justification, then likely this means that there is an inconsistency in one or the other’s system. And in the course of this review, I shall try and see if it is in Wright’s (I’ve certainly never been able to find it there before).
Then Wilson concludes by saying, “So the hinge that I mentioned earlier is not really "why do Reformed types not see this"? The hinge is "why did Saul of Tarsus not see it?" In order for us moderns to understand the story of Israel rightly, we must understand the biography of Saul rightly. This is what Piper sees, and what Wright does not. This is the hinge upon which everything turns. And so we will return to this theme again and again.”
At this point, I am not at all sure what he is getting at with this remark. But since he plans to return to it again and again, hopefully I will figure it out.
Chapter One, “What’s All This About, and Why Does it Matter?”
Wright begins by telling a parable, in which he likens the present dispute to that of a heliocentrist who cannot seem to convince his friend that the Earth goes around the Sun, instead of vice versa. The stubborn friend takes him out to see the sunrise, thinking that this proves his point. Wright’s point in this parable goes beyond mocking the seeming inability of the two paradigms in the Pauline dispute to come to grips with one another at all; the point he is making is that, in his understanding of justification, we are revolving around God; in many Protestant versions, God seems to be revolving around us—our individual salvation is the focus. Wilson called this parable “egregious,” though I couldn’t really see why.
Wright then goes on to make a number of key preliminary points. First is to insist, once again, that he is not part of “the New Perspective”—it doesn’t exist. There are radical differences among the key figures, and accusations that ignore that are rendered ineffectual from the start. Then, he says that a major problem with the Old Perspective, it seems to him, is that it’s simply trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle of Paul’s thought with half the important parts missing. Wright wants to try to supply some of those missing or ignored pieces. Here he reemphasizes in particular the Old Testament covenant background which is so crucial to Paul’s thinking, and which, especially in Lutheran thinking, but to a surprising degree also in Reformed, has been largely ignored.
In Wilson’s review of chapter one, we find more of the same concerns as he voiced in the preface. Wilson repeatedly objects, “But why are you criticizing the opposition for these errors (individualistic, pietistic soteriology, etc.) Plenty of folks on the opposition repudiate those errors just as much as you do!” Again, it is possible that Wright is making unfair generalizations, but, we should note that he does have an awful lot of opponents he is responding to, and he has to make some generalizations. More importantly, though, the question is whether the folks he’s opposing, even if they have repudiated in theory pietistic soteriology, have nevertheless unconsciously aided and abetted it, or remained closer to it than they realized. This, I think, is Wright’s point. It’s as if an American were to say to an Englishman, “Oh, well you’re over there in Europe, aren’t you?” The Englishman might remonstrate that there was a big channel of water separating England from the rest of Europe, and England made a big point of distinguishing themselves from the “Continentals.” The Englishman would have a point…there is a difference. But the main point of the American—that geographically and culturally, England was much closer to Europe than it was to America—would remain valid.
Wilson then takes Wright to task for suggesting that the large-scope, redemptive-historical perspective was some grand new thing, when it was rather a standard Reformed emphasis. This is something of a fair complaint, though again, I think Wright would say that, standard emphasis or not, it was always incompletely applied. Wilson does offer a bit of an excuse for Wright--that in the Anglican setting, and in academia, where Wright is writing, these things have been quite ignored—and I think that’s an important point in Wright’s defense. Wright is writing very much against a particular backdrop he is familiar with, and is too unaware of other potential backdrops, but the same criticism applies to any writer, certainly including Wilson himself.
Wilson then returns to the enigmatic point he raised in reviewing the Preface:
“Why did Abraham get it, and Saul did not get it? It was because Saul, even though he was up to his neck in covenant boundary markers, did not have faith…Wright is very clear that personal faith and piety are good things, and are most necessary. He says, "Salvation is hugely important" (p. 7). But what he does not seem to see is that personal faith and piety are a hermeneutical necessity also.”
I confess that I am as bamboozled here as I was the first time Wilson raised this point. I was not aware that Wright had ever denied that Saul was unconverted before…well, his conversion…or that he had denied that personal faith and piety are necessary. I shall certainly read on to see what Wilson is getting at here.
Chapter Two, “Rules of Engagement”
In chapter two, Wright sets out the method he intends to use throughout his study of Paul. First, he says, exegesis, not systematic theology, has to be the engine driving the whole thing. “Scripture does not exist,” he says, “to give authoritative answers to questions other than those it addresses.” We must look not merely for answers in Scripture, but first seek to discern what questions the text itself is trying to ask and answer.
Likewise, it is important to let the whole Pauline corpus be equally authoritative, rather than privileging certain portions, like Romans and Galatians, and using them as a grid through which the other epistles must be forced.
Second, Wright notes that it is crucial to establish the historical context in which Paul would have been writing, and the backdrop against which his writings must be understood. This would seem to be a “No, duh” point, but many NPP critics have complained that it depends too much on extra-Biblical sources to determine the thought-world of the Biblical writers. If we do not investigate the 1st-century context, it is not as if we will simply interpret the text purely on its own terms—as if that were possible, but rather, we will import another context within which to try to make sense of the letter—that of the 16th-century, for many Protestants.
Again, hardly anything revolutionary here. From where I’m sitting, so far, so good. What about Wilson, though?
Wilson’s chief objection in this chapter is to Wright’s omission of the Pastoral Epistles in his listing of the Pauline corpus. Here, I think, Wilson makes something of a mountain out of a molehill. First of all, Wright does not list the epistles with the announcement “Here is the Pauline corpus”; rather, he simply says, “We must listen not only to Romans and Galatians, but also to the two Corinthian and Thessalonian letters, and also to Philippians, and not least to Ephesians and Colossians.” This clearly does not say that Paul did not write the Pastorals, only that they aren’t particularly relevant to Wright’s purposes for this discussion. Now, if Wright does not accept the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, that is scarcely surprising, because hardly anyone in New Testament studies these days does; which also means that Wright may well accept these as Pauline, but recognizes that he has to pick his battles, so he doesn’t make a point of it.
Wilson, though, thinks this issue quite important, because it is one of Scriptural authority, and also (here it comes again) because the Pastoral epistles have a fair bit to say about “Paul’s unconverted state prior to the road to Damascus.” I’m still waiting to get the importance of this.
At one point in the chapter, Wright makes the point that we need to avoid reading our theological categories into Paul, when they’re simply not there in the text. For example, he quotes J.I. Packer to the effect that while “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is not discussed by Paul, the concept is there, and we can read it back into the text. Wright is (in my mind, rightly) skeptical of this as an imposition of extra-Pauline categories. Wilson has this to say: “ I am with Packer on this, but with this proviso. This meaning is not something that has to be teased out of what Paul actually does say, but is rather a meaning that is capering all over the text of Romans, waving its arms and beckoning to sinners. In this way it is like the phrase faith alone. The meaning is flagrantly there, while the actual phrase is not (except in James, to be in that sense denied). God's covenant righteousness is seen in His provision of an Adam who did it right, an Adam who obeyed on our behalf the way the first Adam did not. That obedience is mine because God considered or reckoned it to be mine. Take this away and the architectural structure of Romans collapses in a heap. Much more on this later.”
Here, I suspect there may be some talking past one another. I do not think that Wright would necessarily disagree with Wilson’s last sentences—but Wright would insist that the proper category for understanding this is union with Christ, not imputation. I’m sure we will come across more to illuminate the contours of this dispute in later chapters.
Wilson then points to a “contrast in paradigms.” He quotes Wright saying that exegesis must be first and foremost in debating about Paul, and then says, “No, it is not exegesis first, but Christ first. Christ is preached and proclaimed from the Scriptures first. Then comes faith and baptism. Then after that comes the exegesis.” Now, this seemed to me almost like a joke at first, like when someone asks you what you favorite book is, and then, hearing your answer, reply, “What? It’s not the Bible?” Wilson goes on to elucidate this remark a bit when he says that exegesis must be done from a standpoint of faith, not Enlightenment ideals of rationalism. “In other words, is true faith necessary to true exegesis?” he rhetorically asks. But here, I can’t help but feel sure that Wright would agree, and am somewhat baffled as to why Wilson chooses to belabor this particular point.
Finally, Wilson makes a good point when he notes that Paul tends to use the same word in multiple senses in the same passage, and so we should not put too much stock in exegetical arguments that depend on consistency of meaning. However, Wright is also right to have pointed out that we should beware introducing equivocation in the use of a term in a tightly-reasoned line of argument. Deciding which principle to follow in a specific case of exegesis is where the rubber meets the road, and it will be interesting to see how this disagreement of emphasis works out in the exegetical section of the book.