Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Rising Prominence of John Owen

Review Article of The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology[i]

By Ryan M. McGraw

Scholars are only recently beginning to note the importance of John Owen as a seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox theologian. The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology is the first book of its kind. This fact should flag this work as an important benchmark in Owen studies. Kelly Kapic and Mark Jones have assembled a wide array of scholars to treat aspects of Owen’s theology from the standpoint of his relevance both to historical theology and to contemporary reflection. While all of the essays in this volume will attract those interested in Owen and in the theological topics treated, they are not all of equal quality. This work is not only important for historical theology. It has the potential to bring Owen’s theology to bear on many areas of contemporary theology. Because of the importance of this book, each chapter merits careful analysis.

General Overview and Bibliography

Following a preface by Carl Trueman, the book is divided into three sections: method (chapters 1-6), theology (chapters 7-12), and practice (chapters 13-17). Trueman’s preface provides a helpful overview of Owen’s life, context, and theological contributions. The book concludes with a nearly exhaustive bibliography of material related to Owen by John Tweeddale. This highly valuable resource includes all of Owen’s printed works in their first editions with full titles. One useful feature is that Tweeddale devotes an entire section to recording the numerous prefaces that Owen wrote to other works (309-312). This provides a widow into books that interested him and authors whom he was willing to endorse. The list of seventeenth-century sources that responded to or explicitly interacted with his theology in some manner is interesting as well (312-316). The rest of the bibliography divides secondary literature between pre and post 1900 publications, followed by doctoral dissertations. This bibliography will prove invaluable to serious students for years to come.

Analysis of Chapters

Chapter 1: Ryan Kelly, “Reformed or Reforming? John Owen and the Complexity of Theological Codification for Mid-Seventeenth-Century England,” 3-30.

The book gets off to a strong start with Ryan Kelly’s article on John Owen’s role in the complexity of theological codification in the seventeenth-century. This is one of the most fascinating chapters in this volume. It addresses Owen’s role in creed-making during Cromwellian England, which culminated in his central role in the Savoy declaration of faith and order. This new confession was a culmination of the creed making efforts of seventeenth-century England, even though it did not gain as much prominence as the Westminster Standards due to its late introduction. Savoy fulfilled the purpose of Cromwell’s Instrument of Government in desiring to make a new confession and it sought to vindicate Congregationalism as a branch of Reformed theology. The last section (27-29) adds that Owen and several of his contemporaries – Baxter being the notable exception – believed that new creeds and confessions with increasing precision in addressing the relevant issues of the time was a sign of the health of the church. This research breaks new ground and provides a needed window into the Reformed orthodox use of confessions.

Chapter 2: Sebastian Rehnman, “John Owen on Faith and Reason,” 31-48.

Sebastian Rehnman accurately portrays Owen’s view of the relationship between faith and reason. This is a difficult task for living after the Enlightenment, since post-Enlightenment views of reason have shifted radically. One way in which this is the case lies in detaching metaphysics from epistemology. By contrast, Reformed epistemology was based on Reformed metaphysics and ontology. This chapter shows that Owen believed that the will or heart determined the intellect in matters of faith (47). This distinguished faith from other areas of scientific knowledge, since faith rests on divine testimony rather than on historical proofs or evidences. He argues skillfully that Owen was neither a “fideist,” or one who embraced the Christian faith without reason, nor a “rationalist” who rooted faith in evidence or reason. However, Rehnman overstates his case when he argues that Owen believed that rational arguments disposed one to faith without producing faith (37) or that such arguments “count in favor of faith” (40). It is more accurate to say that he believed that faith rested on divine testimony alone and that rational arguments disposed one to faith only after the regenerating work of the Spirit. In light of his earlier work on Owen,[ii] it is surprising that Rehnman cites so little primary source literature from Owen’s contemporaries. Nevertheless, this is a reliable guide to Owen’s use of reason in relation to faith.

Chapter 3: John W. Tweeddale, “John Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews in Context,” 49-64.

John Tweeddale (chapter three) recognizes that Owen regarded his massive work on Hebrews as his magnum opus and the culmination of his life’s work. He notes the distinctively Christological focus of these volumes and how they tie together the entire corpus of his works. However, when the author cites Owen’s three stated themes that organized this work, he neglects to point out Owen’s explicit stress on public worship under the old and new covenants (58-59). This reviewer argues elsewhere that the central place of public worship in Owen’s theology has largely gone unnoticed.[iii] This is true even in this case where the author provides a block citation in which public worship is flagged as a central concern of the work on Hebrews. In addition, Tweeddale accounts for Owen’s interest in Hebraic studies by appealing exclusively to the fact that the Jews were recently readmitted to England (62). While this is observation it vital, it is important to remember that a seventeenth-century Bible commentator shared common concerns with modern commentators. The original context of Hebrews involved problems related to Jewish converts to Christianity. It is important to remember that while historical context is vital for understanding how and why Reformed authors thought, it is not the only contributing factor to their exegetical labors. However, these criticisms are minor. Tweeddale distills the essence of this great work and urges readers rightly to recognize its importance.

Chapter 4 – Willem J. van Asselt, “Covenant Theology as Relational Theology: The Contributions of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) and John Owen (1616-1683) to a Living Reformed Theology,” 65-84.

Willem van Asselt examines the similarities and differences between Owen and Johannes Cocceius on the relationship between the covenants of grace and redemption. He argues that this theological construction was the foundation for relational theology and that it held great potential for promoting “a living Reformed theology” (65). Van Asselt is a leading figure in studies of Reformed orthodoxy and his contributions are always exceptional and profound. He shows that while there is no evidence for Cocceius depending on Owen, there is some evidence for Owen depending on Cocceius (67). Van Asselt illustrates why many seventeenth-century authors regarded distinguishing an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son from the covenant of grace as integral to sound trinitarian theology and to the knowledge of God. He writes, “Underlying this argument is the fundamental assumption in Reformed theology that there must be a divine ad intra foundation for all divine works ad extra. It is a fundamental architectonic device in the doctrine of God indicated by the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology” (77).

This outstanding essay warrants one minor correction. Van Asselt asserts that Thomas Boston (1676-1732) and John Gill (1697-1771) developed the idea of collapsing the pactum salutis and the covenant of grace into eternal and temporal aspects of a single covenant (81). However, the idea goes back at least to Samuel Petto (1624-1711), who treated the concept without giving the impression that he originated it.[iv] Though this question requires further research, it is possible that collapsing the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace into one covenant was more in vogue in antinomian circles than among others. The reason is that while most Reformed authors regarded the covenant of redemption as providing the unconditional and gracious ground for the conditional covenant of grace, the antinomians regarded both covenants as unconditional and had less difficulty collapsing the two.[v] This does not imply that Boston and Gill were antinomians. Boston used the idea of an unconditional covenant of grace to combat the legalism in the Church of Scotland at the time. A single unconditional covenant also fit well with Gill’s hyper-calvinistic tendencies, which denigrated human responsibility to some extent. Van Asselt’s chapter should lead modern readers to reassess the reasons behind older constructions of covenant theology and the practical results of Reformed covenant theology.

Chapter 5: Gert van den Brink, “Impetration and Application in John Owen’s Theology,” 85-96.

Gert van den Brink illustrates how Owen steered a course between Arminianism and Antinomianism in his views of impetration (redemption accomplished) and application (redemption applied). Arminians connected the impetration and application of redemption to different people. Antinomians subsumed the application of redemption into Christ’s work on the cross. This made the covenant of grace entirely unconditional and meant that people were justified prior to coming to faith in Christ. Owen argued that the death of Christ was the moral cause of justification, but not the physical cause of justification. Moral causes do not produce effects until a subject exists. Van den Brink argues that Owen used this distinction to steer clear of both Arminianism and Antinomianism. Failing to make distinctions in causation was why Richard Baxter mistakenly accused Owen of Antinomianism. The author concludes that this issue is important for three reasons (95). First, it clarifies the nature of the controversy between Owen and Baxter. Second, it helps us understand the debate over universal redemption in relation to harmonizing the impetration and application of redemption. Third, distinguishing physical and moral causes avoids neglecting contingency in favor of determinism. The reason is that moral causes assume that secondary and intermediate causes (such as faith and repentance) come between impetration and application in salvation. This chapter usefully establishes the lay of the land at the core of seventeenth-century debates over soteriology.

Chapter 6: Crawford Gribben, “John Owen, Renaissance Man? The Evidence of Edward Millington’s Bibliotheca Oweniana (1648),” 97-109.

Crawford Gribben brilliantly re-evaluates the usefulness of Edward Millington’s library catalog of Owen’s books as a source for understanding his interests and influences. He sets an important precedent for historical investigation regarding the use and misuse of similar book catalogs. He argues provocatively that Owen scholars such as Trueman, Kapic, and Rehnman have rested too heavily on this catalogue as an indicator of his theological influences. He argues that “it is impossible” to demonstrate that the Biblotheca Oweniana bore “a direct and uncomplicated relationship to the books in Owen’s possession at the moment of his death” (100). For instance, the catalog does not always reflect the importance that he explicitly assigned to certain authors. Gribben argues that Rehnman is mistaken in concluding that the number of references to a theologian and statements of appreciation are an accurate means of calculating theological influence (101). This reviewer has found this to be true in relation to Johannes Hoornbeeck. Even though Owen made few references to Hoornbeeck and he did not list him among “the principal authors,” his prolegomena bears remarkable similarities to Hoornbeeck’s.[vi] Gribben adds that the credibility of this catalog is questionable in light of its omissions. For example, it contains almost no Bibles or Bible commentaries, yet Owen certainly owned such works and used them continually in his preaching ministry (107). The most interesting aspect of Gribben’s research is that he has discovered a disproportionate number of books in the catalog that appeared within the last three years of Owen’s life. This includes books such as, The Young Man’s Guide to Preferment. Gribben adds, “It is seems uncertain why Owen was obtaining self-help career guides one year before his death at the tender age of 67” (107). The evidence possibly suggests that Millington “decided to pack the catalog with recently published material he hoped to sell on the back of Owen’s reputation” (108). He concludes that the Bibliotheca Oweniana may be a less reliable source regarding Owen’s reading and influences than scholars should expect (108). This chapter sets a model for research and scholarship that transcends Owen studies. This reviewer eagerly awaits Gribben’s projected intellectual biography of John Owen.

Chapter 7: Kelly M. Kapic, “The Spirit as Gift: Explorations in John Owen’s Pneumatology,” 113-140.

Kelly Kapic treats Owen’s teaching on what it means for the Holy Spirit to be the gift of God. He seeks to advance both historical and contemporary theology (114). He shows how Owen rejected Socinian claim that if the Spirit is the gift of God then he is not God. He answered this conundrum by pointing to the voluntary condescension of the Spirit as the gift of the Father through the Son to believers. Kapic argues that the primary value of Owen’s teaching on the Holy Spirit as God’s gift is that the personal presence and operation of the Spirit is the source of true spirituality. This provides an avenue through which to enjoy communion with God in three persons. This chapter accurately describes Owen’s position and sets the context in terms of Socinianism and Quakerism. However, the author does not engage much with other Reformed authors. Readers better understand the significance of Owen’s contributions when they know whether or not he is typical or atypical among his contemporaries.

Chapter 8: Suzanne McDonald, “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision,” 141-158.

Suzanne McDonald takes up the “theological direction” of Owen’s treatment of the beatific vision (142). This is one of the most fruitful contributions to this book. It provides an outstanding model for a Christ-centered view of the vision of God in heaven and lays the groundwork for the ethical implications of this doctrine for this life (147). She contends that this subject is important because it received so little attention by most Reformed orthodox authors. She argues that in contrast to earlier authors such as Aquinas and contemporary authors such as Turretin, Owen did not merely regard Christ as a means of obtaining the beatific vision, but as a central component of seeing God in heaven (146, 150, 154).

While her argument is profound and valuable both from a historical and a dogmatic standpoint, yet it suffers from the same limited use of contemporary sources as several other contributions to this volume. The only primary sources McDonald cites beyond Owen are Aquinas and Turretin. This raises several questions: Did other Reformed authors adapt Aquinas on the beatific vision in a similar way? Did Turretin represent one option among others? Did the beatific vision factor differently into practical works than dogmatic works? McDonald’s analysis of Owen and Aquinas is outstanding. This reviewer hopes that her work will spur others on to fill in the historical gaps surrounding this issue. In the meantime, it is difficult to substantiate her claim that “Owen initiated” this Christocentric trajectory on the beatific vision that involved the resurrected bodies of the saints (158). Discovering the precise origins of a viewpoint is a very difficult historical question. Thomas Manton referred to the beatific vision as “ocular” and made Jesus Christ the object of physical sight in heaven.[vii] This single example shows that it may be claiming too much to say that Owen reformed the beatific vision. It is possible that Owen influenced Manton, but it is also possible that both drew from a common unknown source. Both Owen and Manton treat the beatific vision in works directed towards a popular rather than an academic audience. By restrict our search for material on this subject to scholastic theological works we may unintentionally neglect primary source material that might make Owen appear less innovative than McDonald claims. Ironically, she includes Jonathan Edwards as building on the groundwork laid by Owen, but in a meditation on “The Pure in Heart Blessed,” Edwards argued that the beatific vision would not (and could not) be with bodily eyes.[viii] Edwards reflects a Christ-centered view of heaven while rejecting Owen and Manton’s teaching on the place of Christ’s physical body and ours.

She concludes that Owen’s Christological reorientation of the beatific vision “is correct, and that the earlier tradition is deficient” (157). However, she criticizes him for his lack of material on the Holy Spirit in the beatific vision, thus mitigating a fully trinitarian position (158). This criticism is fair on some level, but in Communion with God, Owen treats communion with the Holy Spirit on earth as already enjoying heaven in measure.[ix] This parallels his assertion that communion with Christ by faith now and by sight in heaven share are of the same essence but not of the same degree. It is legitimate to say that Owen should have been more explicit regarding the Spirit’s role in the beatific vision in his Christological works, yet this criticism diminishes when we look at his theology as a whole. He taught explicitly that the communion that believers enjoy with the Father, through the Son in heaven is sill by the Spirit. However, the beatific vision involves sight. The Son is the only object of bodily sight in glory since he is the only person in the Godhead who assumed (and retains) human flesh. While his trinitarianism demands that the beatific vision involves communion with all three persons, his Christology explains the emphasis that he placed on seeing Christ. Vision and communion are closely related concepts, but they are not synonymous. This chapter opens useful avenues of research. McDonald raises questions that strike at the heart of the Christian life in Reformed orthodox and Puritan theology.

Chapter 9: Edwin Tay, “Christ’s Priestly Oblation and Intercession: Their Development and Significance in John Owen,” 159-169.

Chapter nine treats the oblation and intercession of Christ in his humiliation and exaltation (159). Edwin Tay illustrates the intimate connection between Owen’s teaching on the priesthood of Christ and his work of atonement. He unfolds his teaching on Christ’s oblation and his subsequent intercession and then treats the significance of Owen’s debate with Baxter over the nature and extent of the atonement. Christ’s oblation is equivalent to his entire state of humiliation and his intercession to his entire state of exaltation. Tay argues that the reason why Owen could distinguish between the elect possessing the right to justification and yet not hold it in possession until exercising faith was that the right corresponded to Christ’s oblation and the application or possession corresponded to his intercession. In so doing, he shows the consistency of Owen’s atonement theory with his Christology. The theme of this chapter overlaps significantly with chapter five, since Tay notes that oblation and intercession are “synonymous” with impetration and application (167, fn 48). The primary difference lies in Tay’s more explicit attention to the priesthood of Christ. This treatment usefully illustrates the close connection between Owen’s orthodox Christology and Soteriology.

Chapter 10: Alan Spence, “The Significance of John Owen for Modern Christology,” 171-184.

Chapter ten is a condensed version of Alan Spence’s previous book on John Owen’s Christology.[x] The essence of his argument is that Owen’s view of Christ’s human dependence on the Spirit provides a vital alternative to modern Christological models that mitigate claims to Christ’s deity in search of the true Jesus of history. While the author’s conclusions are sound, he draws from a limited range of Owen’s works and does not adequately set his teaching on the Spirit in historical context. For instance, this reviewer has found similar emphases on the relation of the Sprit to Christ’s humanity in contemporary authors such as Thomas Goodwin,[xi] and later authors such as Thomas Boston.[xii] Spence gives the impression that this is a distinctively, if not exclusively, Owenian contribution to theology. On page 178, he slightly misses the origin of Socinian influences in England by connecting it to John Biddle. However, Sarah Mortimer has recently demonstrated that Socinian influences came into England much earlier, but that Socinian influences in the English context were indirect and complex.[xiii]

Chapter 11: Robert Letham, “John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity in its Catholic Context,” 185-198.

Robert Letham’s chapter is thought provoking, but has some historical limitations. He asks whether Owen’s Trinitarian emphases have eastern or western tendencies. He argues that Owen’s views on matters such as the fililoque clause were western, but his stress on distinct communion with the divine persons was eastern in tone (186, 191). When we read Letham’s many helpful and profound works on the Trinity,[xiv] we always walk away with the impression that western Trinitarians are the “bad guys.” This essay is no exception (188, for example). Citing verbatim from an earlier publication, Letham notes, “Owen is not so much an innovator as a brilliant synthesizer” (190).[xv] The synthesis that he has in mind is between western emphases on the unity of God and eastern emphases on the divine persons. He adds, “[Owen’s] focus on the three persons was and is missing from the West in general” (196).

Letham does not give enough evidence either by comparing or contrasting Owen to his contemporaries to show that this was the case in seventeenth-century theology. Showing similarities between Owen and eastern authors on divine three persons means less if we find that other western authors held to similar emphases for different reasons. Owen is largely unique among English writers in terms of Trinitarian piety. However, he shows affinity with Dutch authors such as Voetius and Hoornbeeck, both of whom he cited periodically.[xvi] These and other Dutch authors developed a devotional emphasis on the divine persons in response to Arminianism. Arminians denied that the Trinity was a fundamental article of the faith because it had no practical value.[xvii] Owen was less directly concerned with Arminian views of the Trinity than these men, but it is more likely that his emphasis on the persons of the Godhead stems from a continental influence than from eastern theology. One historian has warned recently about relying too much on English books in studying English Reformed theology following the advent of Early English Books Online.[xviii] In this case, continental authors produced trinitarian emphases that were less common in an English context due to differing theological concerns. Moreover, Letham bypasses Richard Muller’s defense of the Reformed orthodox against the charge that they tended to abstract the divine essence and attributes from the Trinity.[xix]

Letham’s preoccupation with the question of East versus West spills over into his examination of Owen on the covenant of redemption. He criticizes Owen for his “binitarian construction” of the covenant of redemption (196). He regards this as reflecting the western tendency to subordinate and depersonalize the Holy Spirit. However, Jonathan Edwards later clarified the role of the Spirit in the covenant of redemption. He argued that the Spirit is active in the covenant of redemption, but he is not a party in that covenant because he is not humiliated. The Son’s humiliation is vital to his being a party in the covenant of redemption. On the other hand, the Spirit is actively involved in the covenant because he cannot be inactive without dividing the Godhead.[xx] Edwards did not invent this explanation, but he explained it more clearly than most Reformed authors.[xxi] Letham argues that Owen was allegedly aware of the danger that the covenant of redemption posed to the Trinity and that it implied that the persons of the Godhead needed a covenant to unite them in their purpose (196). He concluded that Owen’s difficulty with the persons betrays his western roots (197). He adds that the East stresses that we know the persons by our relation to them in redemption rather than by definition. However, this was precisely Horrnbeeck’s conclusion to his treatment of the Trinity[xxii] and it pervades Peter van Mastricht’s chapters on the three persons.[xxiii] Earlier in this volume, Willem van Asselt argued that the trinitarian structure of the covenant of redemption enabled Owen and Cocceius to emphasize communion with all three divine persons.

A broader context of seventeenth-century western trinitarianism might reveal that the question of eastern versus western trinitarianism was not on the Reformed horizon. Letham gives the impression that he is asking the wrong questions of the wrong century. His knowledge of eastern and western trinitarianism is impressive, but the context that he sets for Owen is too narrow in terms of primary sources and too broad in terms of historical setting.

Chapter 12: George Hunsinger, “Justification and Mystical Union with Christ: Where Does Owen Stand?” 199-211.

George Hunsinger’s chapter on Owen’s position regarding the relationship between justification and mystical union with Christ (chapter twelve) stands out to this reviewer as particularly valuable. This is true both for historical and contemporary theology. He notes that shortly after Luther’s death, a distinction arose between Lutheran and Reformed theologians over this question. Post-Reformation Lutherans regarded justification as the cause of union with Christ while the Reformed treated union with Christ as the ground of justification (199-200). Both sides agreed that justification was a forensic or judicial pronouncement that a sinner is righteous in God’s sight. The difference was that the Reformed distinguished between being constituted righteous and being counted righteous, while Lutherans treated these as synonymous terms. Hunsinger notes a similar distinction between Melanchthon’s teaching that justification is because of Christ (propter Christum) and the Reformed view (shared with Luther) that justification is in Christ (204).[xxiv]

The question regards the nature of imputed righteousness. Does God constitute sinners to be righteousness by imputation and then count them righteous on the grounds of union with Christ? Or does God justify sinners by declaration and count them as righteous because of this declaration? The author argues that the Reformed position was that God unites people to Christ and constitutes them righteous in Christ before he counts or declares them righteous. Thus union with Christ and imputed righteousness logically precede justification. Comparing justification to God speaking and brining the world into being, Lutherans often treated imputation and the declaration of justification as synonymous.

Basing his material largely on Owen’s treatise on justification by faith, he argues that Owen drew several consequences from the Reformed position. First, imputation as opposed to infusion is the formal cause of justification (209). Second, imputed righteousness involved “a real change in the believer’s condition, not just a new relationship with God” (210). Third, mystical union with Christ is more than a mere union of wills, yet without erasing the distinction between Christ and believers (210). The questions that Hunsinger addresses continue to be relevant in Reformed churches today. Though this is a historical treatment, the author approaches the topic with remarkable clarity that will serve both historians and theologians well.

Chapter 13: Tim Cooper, “Owen’s Personality: The Man Behind the Theology,” 215-226.

Tim Cooper’s chapter bears strong similarities to his outstanding work, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and the Formation of Non-Conformity.[xxv] This longer work asks why Owen and Baxter disliked each other and what effects this had on the formation of non-conformity after the Restoration of the monarchy. Owen wrote very little about himself, he did not allow personal records to survive, and he is hard to find as a historical subject. The value of this work and the chapter in this volume lies in piecing together Owen’s actions at Oxford, attacks against character, and his sharp disagreements with men such as Baxter to give a unique window into what he was possibly like. This is a difficult but brilliant approach to getting to know Owen. The liability is that this presents a slightly vilified Owen that may be more or less true to life. If we follow Cooper’s advice to use this evidence cautiously, then we can safely assume that he helps readers gain at least a glimpse of an otherwise elusive figure.

Chapter 14: John Coffey, “John Owen and the Puritan Toleration Controversy, 1646-59,” 227-248.

John Coffey has written extensively and authoritatively on toleration in Reformation and post-Reformation England. The application of his expertise to Owen is gripping and informative. He argues that Owen’s attitude towards tolerating those from other trinitarian Christian communions was more generous than most in his time period, but that he vacillated in his views when faced with the question of Congregationalism potentially becoming the established religion in the interregnum.

Chapter 15: Daniel R. Hyde, “‘The Fire the Kindleth all our Sacrifices to God:’ Owen and the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer,” 249-270.

Daniel Hyde usefully summarizes Owen’s view of the work of the Spirit in public worship through the media of prayer. In addition to showing that Owen both rejected mandating forms of prayer and permitted their use in a limited manner, Hyde shows how Owen developed his theology of worship from his exposition of Scripture. In particular, he shows the importance of Eph. 4:7-13 (254-255), Zech. 12:10 (259-261), Gal. 4:6 (261-262), Rom. 8:26 (262-267), and Eph. 6:18 for the exegetical foundation for Owen’s “liturgical theology.” The result is that this chapter not only redresses the absence of material on Owen’s theology of worship, but it fills some of the lacunae in the exegetical foundation of Reformed orthodox theology.

Chapter 16: Lee Gatiss, “From Life’s First Cry: John Owen on Infant Baptism and Infant Salvation,” 271-282.

Lee Gatiss briefly outlines Owen’s arguments in favor of infant baptism and infant salvation. He draws from a wide range of seventeenth century authors and establishes the context for his material more appropriately than several of the authors in this volume. He rightly recognizes the oft neglected fact that the Anabaptist rejection of paedobaptism “was a major catalyst” in developing covenant theology in Reformed orthodoxy (272). His chapter shows how closely intertwined the ideas of covenant and baptism were in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries. This chapter is interesting, well-written, and helps clarify the matters pertinent to this much debated question.

Chapter 17: Martin Foord, “John Owen’s Gospel Offfer: Well Meant or Not?” 283-295.

The final chapter, by Martin Foord, examines the question regarding the will of God towards all people in relation to the free offer of the gospel (283). He locates Owen in the broader Reformed tradition and draws from a wealth of primary sources. The question regards God’s will or desire towards the salvation of the unregenerate in relation to Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11 (284). Foord traces the theology and exegesis surrounding this question through Calvin, Vermigli, Musculus, Zanchius, Perkins, Piscator, Twisse, Manton, Bates, and Turretin in order to situate Owen’s view within Reformed options. In addition, he delves deeply into the medieval background of different senses of speaking of the will of God. This broad context makes his conclusions concrete and his observations helpful for contemporary questions. Some authors distinguished simply between God’s will of good pleasure (voluntas beneplaciti) and his significant will (volutas signi). The former refers to the divine decree and the latter corresponds to his precepts (285-286). Turretin later represented clearly what became the classic distinction between God decretive and his perceptive will (291). Others (Piscator and Twisse) argued that God wills the destruction of the wicked, but he does not take pleasure in it because they are his creatures (287-288). Manton argued that God delighted in the redemption of all people in some sense, but that he did not will it in another sense (290). Owen believed that the text referred to God’s commands and said nothing about divine affections (292). He ultimately limited the love of God to the elect (294). His doctrine of God did not allow him to say that God delights in or wills the salvation of all in some sense. Foord concludes that Owen’s views lean toward later eighteenth-century hyper-Calvinism and that his resolution of the Ezekiel text was only one among several Reformed explanations (295). This treatment gives a broad historical perspective on what continues to be a difficult question in Reformed theology.


The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology is an important benchmark in the study of Reformed orthodoxy. It is a monumental achievement that introduces readers to the general scope of Owen’s thought. Some of the research in this volume is groundbreaking. All of it provides a foundation on which to move forward in both in historical and contemporary theology. Historical theology is one of the most useful means of enabling contemporary theologians to engage in self-critical evaluation through the eyes of different people with different problems. However, this book is not perfect. Some of the authors do not rely on primary source evidence and context as much as others. There are many gaps in subject matter as well. In addition to the themes treated here, it would be helpful to have an introductory volume to John Owen that investigates topics such as his trinitarian piety, connecting trinitarian piety to public worship, his Thomistic and medieval influences, the influence that he had on later Reformed theologians, a detailed introduction to his life and career in relation to his theology, the influence of his tenure at Oxford on the university and its students, his covenant theology and ecclesiology, and others. This reviewer hopes that this book will be the first among other volumes to help revive the importance and relevance of Owen both to the church and to the university.

The preceding was first published in the 2013 issue of Mid-America Journal of Theology and is used here with permission.

[i] Kelly M Kapic and Mark Jones, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. xi-xviii + 334pp. This review article appeared in Mid-America Journal of Theology. Vol. 24, December 2014.
[ii] Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002).
[iii] Ryan M. McGraw, A Heavenly Directory: Trinitarian Piety, Public Worship, and a Reassessment of John Owen’s Theology (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, forthcoming). Daniel Hyde makes the same point in this present volume, but he does not connect Owen’s views of public worship to his practical trinitarianism.
[iv] Samuel Petto, The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant Stated and Explained with an Exposition of the Covenant of Grace in the Principal Concernments of It (London: Printed for Eliz. Calvert, 1674), 5-7, 13, 16, 19.
[v] Mark Jones’s forthcoming book on antinomianism expounds this trend clearly. See also, Robert McKelvey, “‘That Error and Pillar of Antinomianism:’ Eternal Justification,” Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within  Seventeenth Century British Puritanism (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 223-262.
[vi] See McGraw, A Heavenly Directory, chapter 2.
[vii] Thomas Manton, The Complete Works (London: Nisbet, 1870), 20:460.
[viii] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sereno E Dwight and Edward Hickman, eds. (Edinburgh: Banner of Thrust, 1997), 2:905-912.
[ix] John Owen and William H Goold, The Works of John Owen, D.d. (London; Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850), 2:246.
[x] Alan Spence, Incarnation and Inspiration John Owen and the Coherence of Christology (London; New York: T & T Clark, 2007).
[xi] Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.d. ... the First Volume. Containing, an Exposition on the First, and Part of the Second Chapter, of the Epistle to the Ephesians. and Sermons Preached on Several Occasions. (London: Printed by J.D. and S.R. for T.G., 1681).
[xii] Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of Thomas Boston (orig. pub., William Tegg & Co., 1852; reprint, Stoke on Trent, UK: Tentmaker Publications, 2002), 2:5-14.
[xiii] Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).
[xiv] Such as, Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2004).
[xv] Robert Letham, “‘Where Reason Fails-’: Papers Read at the 2006 Westminster Conference.” (Westminster Conference, 2006), 11.
[xvi] For example, John Owen, Theologoumena Pantodapa, Sive, De Natura, Ortu Progressu, Et Studio Veræ Theologiæ, Libri Sex Quibus Etiam Origines & Processus Veri & Falsi Cultus Religiosi, Casus & Instaurationes Ecclesiæ Illustiores Ab Ipsis Rerum Primordiis, Enarrantur ... (Oxoniæ: Excudebat Hen. Hall ... impensis Tho. Robinson ..., 1661), 522 (Voetius) and 519 (Hoornbeeck).
[xvii] See Gisperti Voetii, Selectarum Disputationum Theologicarum, Pars Prima (Utrecht, 1648), 1:472, who called the Trinity the fundamentum fundamenti. He added that the doctrine of the Trinity was fundamental because it was the foundation of so many practical uses, personal holiness, and divine worship (473). For Hoornbeeck, see Johannes Hoornbeeck, Theologiae Practicae (Utrecht, 1663), 1:136.
[xviii] Polly Ha, Patrick Collinson, eds., The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain (Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2010), 235-236.
[xix] Richard A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academics, 2003), 4:144-149. Muller makes the important observation that the table of contents of dogmatic works are not a reliable guide regarding how Reformed authors related the divine attributes to the persons of the Godhead in terms of their relative importance. Letham makes this mistake on pg. 189 and in other books where he treats Reformed orthodox views of the Trinity.
[xx] Jonathan Edwards, “Economy of the Trinity in the Covenant of Redemption,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, 20:441-442.
[xxi] Van Asselt makes a similar observations about Cocceius’s position. W. J. van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2001), 235..
[xxii] Hoornbeeck, Theologiae Practicae, 1:139-141.
[xxiii] Peter van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia. Qua, Per Singula Capita Theologica, Pars Exegetica, Dogmatica, Elenchtica & Practica, Perpetua Successione Conjugantur. (Trajecti ad Rhenum, & Amstelodami: Sumptibus Societatis, 1724), 235-270.
[xxiv] John Fesko acknowledges this charge against Melanchthon and rejects it. J. V Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Göttingen; Bristol, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), 140-143. He treats propter Christum and in Christ as synonyms.
                [xxv] Tim Cooper, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and the Formation of Nonconformity (Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Critical Review of N.T. Wright’s Theology and Perspective on Justification

By Brewer Ames

Every generation produces a small number of gifted scholars, a select few men who gain widespread popularity and exert their influence in Biblical studies. Nicholas Thomas (N.T.) Wright is one of those men.  Over the last few decades Wright has garnered widespread acclaim and acceptance for his work in New Testament Biblical theology, especially for his work on the Apostle Paul. His influence, in Pauline studies and Biblical studies as whole, stretches across Christendom, traversing denominational divides and attracting Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Evangelicals alike. Wright’s lucid, lively writing style no doubt contributes to his popularity, but the content of his writings[1] also appeals to many people.  As a self-admitted proponent of several aspects from the New Perspective(s) on Paul, Wright shares many commonalities with fellow New Perspective advocates E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, but to be fair, Wright’s theology carries its own distinct tone and flavor.  Recently Professor Wright has received a great deal of criticism for his theology, particularly with regard to the doctrine of justification. That is the issue at hand in this discussion, and it will be addressed in three ways: (1) What men have influenced Wright’s theology?  (2) What are the primary elements of Wright’s theology, and how do those things affect Wright’s perspective on justification? And (3) what implications do Wright’s views have for other Biblical doctrines and for the Church?  By the end of this discussion, the reader will see that Wright’s revolutionary influence in Biblical theology is, at the very least, dangerous, and, at the very worst, heretical.

Justification Defined

Before elaborating on Wright’s view, a clear definition of justification is necessary.  The Oxford English Dictionary provides four English usages, all of which will prove useful for the current discussion:

  1. Administration of justice or the law; execution of the sentence; capital punishment…
  2. The action of justifying or showing something to be just, right, or proper; vindication of oneself or another; exculpation; verification proof…
  3. The action whereby man is justified, or freed from the penalty of sin, and accounted or made righteous by God; the fact or condition of being so justified…
  4. Law…The showing or maintaining in court that one had sufficient reason for doing that which he is called to answer; a circumstance affording grounds for such a plea;[2]
In Christian theology and dogmatics, the historical usage has been restricted to the OED’s third and fourth definitions,[3]  and Christians have held one of two primary views regarding justification.  Protestants (Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed) have held to justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.  “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”[4]  The early church fathers, including Athanasius and Augustine, also held this view, as did the Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years.

During the High Middle Ages, Scholastic philosophy and theology challenged the traditional view that in justification the righteousness of Christ is imputed to sinners.  Rather than an imputed righteousness received by grace through faith, the Scholastics proposed that man cooperates with God in justification, receiving an infused or inherent righteousness.  Furthermore, the Scholastics defined justification as a continual process of being made righteous (sanctification), not as a once-and-for-all act of God’s free grace.  The Roman Catholic Church officially adopted this position at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century.[5]

The doctrine of justification was, and continues to be, a primary source of disagreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  “It was, according to Martin Luther, ‘the article by which the church stands or falls’; to Calvin, it was ‘the hinge of the Reformation,’ ‘the principal article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’”[6]  Within the last two to three centuries, however, Lutheran and Anglican leaders have allied themselves more closely with the Roman Catholic Church and have compromised on (accepted) this doctrine.  Wright and other proponents of the New Perspective have also challenged the Reformers’ understanding of justification and represent another serious threat to the doctrine. Consequently justification by grace through faith, in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, is being threatened in ways not seen since the times of Luther and Calvin.

The New Perspective and its Influence on N.T. Wright

The New Perspective on Paul is a relatively new development in the history of Biblical theology, originating in the mid-20th century.  German liberalism of the 19th century certainly set the stage for a radical shift in Pauline theology, but the foundation for the New Perspective was most directly established through the works Albert Schweizter, Rudolf Bultmann, William David Davies, and Ernst Käsemann.[7]  Despite the varied theologies and conclusions of these men, each significantly contributed to what would become the New Perspective, and their ideas culminated in the New Perspective’s first true disciple, Krister Stendahl.  Stendahl’s six fundamental assumptions about Paul may be summarized as follows:

  1. Paul opposed Judaism because of its ethno-centricity, not because of its soteriology.Paul never endured the “crisis of conscience” described by Augustine and Luther but had a healthy, “robust conscience, even to the point of believing that his apostolic labors made up for his persecutions in Judaism.”
  2. Paul was more concerned with the “Jew/Gentile question” than he was with individual salvation.  (Stendahl bases this argument on the structure of Rom. 1-8 and 9-11, stating that Paul “does not deal with the question of how man is to be saved – be it by works or law or by something else.”)
  3. Paul used justification by faith alone for polemical purposes; it was not central to his thought or theology.
  4. For Paul, justification was an ecclesiastical doctrine, not a soteriological doctrine.  Justification did not have moral implications for sin but was concerned with the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people.  “The doctrine also is tied to a unique system of ethics focused on the cohesion of the community (not transcendent and objective moral standards).
  5. The moral language used by Paul in Rom. 1-3 argues “from solution to plight” and is “a consequence of his Jewish heritage”; the Messiah has come because the world is sinful.[8]

For anyone who has read and digested Wright’s work, Stendahl’s influence should be glaringly obvious.  Admittedly, Wright’s views are not exactly the same as Stendahl’s, but the similarities are striking.[9]

The other two key figures who advocate the New Perspective and who have influenced Wright are E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn.  Both men have employed most, if not all, of Stendahl’s assertions about Paul, but each has also made unique contributions to the New Perspective.  Sanders generated a groundswell of enthusiasm and support for the movement with his publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he introduced the idea of covenantal nomism.[10]  Simply stated, covenantal nomism presents Second Temple Judaism as a religion of grace, not a legalistic religion of works-righteousness (contra the classic Protestant position).[11]  Based on this assumption, Sanders argues that Paul’s true problem was not with Judaism in and of itself, but that Paul’s problem with Judaism was its rejection of Jesus as the Christ.  “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.”[12]  Although Wright clearly disagrees with Sanders in other areas, he wholeheartedly embraces covenantal nomism:

[Sanders]…dominates the landscape, and, until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him.  I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard his basic point as established.[13]

The final major contributor to the New Perspective is James D.G. Dunn.[14]  Building upon the earlier premises of Stendahl and Sanders, Dunn takes covenantal nomism a step further than his predecessors by defining Judaism’s “works of the law” (to which Paul refers frequently) as ethnic boundary markers.  Venema clarifies:

Paul was objecting to Jewish exclusivism and not legalism.  The problem with the use of the law among the Judaizers…was not their attempt to find favor with God on the basis of their obedience to the law, but their use of the works of the law [e.g. circumcision] to exclude Gentiles from membership in the covenant community.  The Judaizers were insisting upon certain works of the law that served as boundary markers for inclusion or exclusion from the number of God’s people.[15]

Again, Wright disagrees with a number of Dunn’s other conclusions, but there is unquestionable solidarity between the two men on this issue.

The exact degree to which these men, including Wright, disagree is a moot point.  All of them have loosely allied themselves under the banner of the New Perspective.  As a result, the New Perspective extends its influence and gains new ground with each passing year.  These new disciples of the New Perspective, like their mentors, continue to add their nuanced variations to the New Perspective, and what at one time may have been an opportunity to formulate a true systematic treatment of the issues has since devolved into an amorphous revolt against established Protestant doctrine.  Still, the ever-changing nature of this amorphous revolt remains a threat and cannot be ignored.

N.T. Wright’s Theology

Many scholars have attempted to wrap their minds around Wright’s theology, but few, if any, have succeeded.  There are several reasons for this.  First, Wright tampers with the proper order of interpreting Scripture: he utilizes Biblical theology in order to develop a systematic understanding of Paul.  Thus he over-emphasizes the value of literary themes, authorial intent, theological development, historical setting, psychology, sociology, rhetorical style, etc., while largely de-emphasizing a holistic approach to Scripture and a systematic arrangement of its principle doctrines.[16]  The most common results of Wright’s hermeneutic are vague and elusive systematic formulations and supercilious criticisms.  In other words, Wright may not have worked the kinks out of his ever-developing Pauline theology, but he derisively shows his opponents their mistakes.[17]  The second difficulty in understanding Wright’s theology results from his use of familiar theological terminology in unfamiliar ways (e.g. Messiah, Torah, election, idolatry, pagan nations, and true humanity, among others).  This difficulty further exacerbates the reader’s attempt to understand the larger doctrinal matter that Wright redefines (e.g. faith, justification, righteousness, Gospel, and works of the law).  With reckless abandon he jettisons well-established theological language, replacing it with his own inventive phraseology.

The third and final difficulty in understanding Wright’s theology is his adoption of a narrative-based hermeneutic, a tactic which explains the previous difficulties.  Few authors emphasize this point,[18] but Wright’s hermeneutic is the key to unlocking his enigmatic theology.  Ironically he denounces this approach at certain times[19] and adopts it at others.  According to Wright’s comments, he rejects the use of a story-based hermeneutic in the immediate context of Pauline literature but applies that same hermeneutic to the history of redemption.  Waters’ comments on this topic, though lengthy, are the most insightful:

Wright begins with an interest in blazing past the impasse caused by “post-Enlightenment rationalism” and anti-Enlightenment supernaturalism,” that is by reading the New Testament as “story” and not as “declaring unstoried ideas.”  Epistemologically, he advances a “critical-realist theory of knowledge and verification,” one that “acknowledges the essentially ‘storied’ nature of human knowing, thinking and living, within the larger model of worldviews and their component parts.”  Such an approach, Wright is confident, will bypass both naïve objectivism and skeptical phenomenalism…
[At this point, Waters inserts a lengthy quote from Wright’s work, The New Testament and the People of God, which offers the philosophical basis for a story-based hermeneutic.[20]]…

For Wright, then, “story” lies back of theological propositions, which are the expression of that particular narrative.  Consequently, when, for example, we speak of monotheism and election, we “summon into the mind’s eye and entire worldview,” which is fundamentally storied…“[Paul’s] statements and arguments are in fact expressions of the essentially Jewish story now redrawn around Jesus.”  We have, then, in Wright’s thought, an inherent bias against doctrinal formulation and linear, logical reasoning, a predisposition against conceiving of the relationship of God and man in vertical terms.  Rather, Wright is inclined to understand that relationship in essentially horizontal categories.[21]

Wrapping one’s head around Wright’s theology will be nearly impossible without first grasping his hermeneutical method.  Note especially the last two sentences of the previous citation, which strike at the crux of the matter. 

For Wright, every part of reality, particularly redemptive history, is part of a great story, an unfolding drama on a cosmic scale.  He “outlined in [The New Testament and the People of God] a hermeneutical model, a way of understanding how the Bible is authoritative.  It involves understanding the great story, the metanarrative, of the Bible itself, as a five-act play, still unfinished.”[22]  The five acts of the play are as follows: (1) “God’s good and unspoiled creation”; (2) “the Fall”; (3) “the story of Israel bc”; (4) the days of Jesus…“we are not walking around Palestine in the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth as he tells subversive stories, heals cripples, feasts with outcasts, and plans a last dangerous trip to Jerusalem”; and (5) “[the act in which we live] begins at Easter; its opening scenes include Pentecost; [its task is] to tell and write the story of Jesus, [guiding the church] by the written as well as the spoken word, as to form basic and non-negotiable parameters for how we today…are to improvise our way from where this act began to where it is supposed to end.”[23]  Once an act concludes, it is finished.  A previous act (e.g. Creation or the Fall) is not significant because it still affects people today, but because it was a necessary part of the larger drama and provided a historical stepping-stone to the current act.

If redemption is a play that has unfolded through many acts, it must necessarily have actors.  This is the final aspect of understanding Wright’s theology.  Recall the earlier quote from Waters: Wright views the relationship between God and man in horizontal, not vertical, terms.  By means of comparison, this, in principle, is no different than Plato’s “Chain of Being.”  All actors in Wright’s drama of redemption are subjected to the overarching storyline.  Men, angels, powers, principalities, and even God Himself are held captive by the narrative.  The results of this hermeneutic are catastrophic.  For Wright, God may be Creator and may be transcendent from His creation, but He is not transcendent from the redemptive drama; thus the Creator-creature distinction is ultimately erased.  Likewise, the actors in the drama have been cast; the “chess pieces” of the game are already in play, so no new elements may be introduced without the intervening or creative activity of an external, transcendent power.  Wright, however, has already divested God of His transcendence by casting Him as an actor in the drama.  In the end, the story is what it is; the actors are who they are; and the show must go on.

N.T. Wright’s Perspective on Justification

Finally, then, one has the necessary foundation for understanding Wright’s perspective on justification.  Wright, like Stendahl, asserts that justification is a matter of ecclesiology, not soteriology, (i.e. about the church, not about salvation) and attacks the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith.[24]  Justification is about the church, not about salvation.  According to Wright’s most well-known statement on this issue: “Justification in this setting,[25] then, is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community”.[26]  Furthermore, justification, at least in Paul’s theology, “is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God.”[27]  Wright offers many other “one-liners” such as these, but in the end it is clear that he makes a radical break from all accepted theological understandings of justification (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike).

Wright derives his new understanding of justification from three fundamental assumptions: (1) Paul uses covenant language; (2) Paul uses law-court language; and (3) Paul has an eschatological understanding of justification.  First, Paul uses covenant language because he is a Jew living during Second Temple Judaism.  The Jews of Paul’s day were anxiously awaiting God’s fulfillment of His promises to Abraham[28], so Paul used terms that were familiar to them.  Second, Paul uses law-court language because he wants his readers and hearers to understand justification in terms of a Jewish courtroom.[29]

First, within the law-court setting, the “righteousness” which someone has when court has found in their favour is not a moral quality which they bring into court with them; it is the legal status which they carry out of court with them.  Second, we saw that this legal status, the “righteousness” of the person who has won the case, is not to be confused with the judge’s “righteousness”. [30]

Wright, who has already rejected the soteriological meaning of justification, now completes his attack upon the doctrine: the righteousness of God, Christ’s righteousness, is not imputed to believers saved by faith.  “Is there, then, no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in…Romans 5:14-21?  Yes, there is; but this is not God’s own righteousness or Christ’s own righteousness…but, rather, the fresh status of ‘covenant member’ and/or ‘justified sinner,’ which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith.’”[31]  Likewise, Christ does not offer Himself up to God as a penal substitutionary atonement for sin.

Third, Paul uses the “language” of justification in terms of future vindication (eschatology), not present salvation (soteriology).  “The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist.  Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary markers…They are, rather, the things that show that one is in Christ…produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation.”[32]  Those things a believer “does in the present by moral and physical effort will count to his credit on the last day” as signs of Christ’s work in him, ultimately providing the basis on which God will justify him and offering assurance that God, in the end, will vindicate His people.[33]

What, then, is to be said about faith?  For Wright, faith is not the means by which one receives salvation; faith is the “badge of membership” for God’s people. 

The place of faith in this picture has long been problematic within post-Reformation dogmatics.  Is faith something I “do” to earn God’s favour, and, if not, what role does it play?  Once we release Paul’s justification-language from the burden of having to describe “how someone becomes a Christian”, however, this is simply no longer a problem.  There is no danger of imagining that Christian faith is after all a surrogate “work”, let alone a substitute form of moral righteousness.  Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something someone “performs” as a kind of initiation test.[34]
Wright’s seismic shift in his understanding of justification has generated a seismic shift in another doctrine, namely that of faith.  The looseness of his language, however, leaves one somewhat befuddled with regard to what Wright actually means.  Is faith a one-time gift that a believer receives and bears, and no longer a continual practice (i.e. strengthening one’s faith)?  And if salvation is not received through faith, how exactly does one receive it?  In response to these questions, Wright shifts three more doctrines: the Gospel, calling, and regeneration.  For Wright, the pronouncement that “Jesus is Lord” is the central message of the Gospel, and the pronouncement of this message is the primary means by which men are converted (i.e. called and regenerated).
Implications of Wright’s Theology

As already seen, one cannot simply adjust a single doctrine without affecting other doctrine, and the doctrine of justification cannot be isolated from all other areas of theology.  A shift in soteriology inevitably triggers a shift in eschatology; a shift in Christology triggers a shift in ecclesiology; and so on.  For this reason, Wright’s new perspective on justification produces shockwaves that reverberate throughout all areas of his theology, and in order to make his scheme work, Wright redefines not only one, but several, well-established doctrines. 

Thus the dangers of Wright’s theology are blatantly obvious.  Justification becomes a semi-Pelagian, works-based righteousness.  The Gospel becomes the generic statement, “Jesus is Lord.”  Faith becomes an ambiguous “badge of membership.”  Story-based theology erases the Creator-creature distinction.  And there are countless other problems that result from the New Perspective on Paul.  This theology is dangerous, if not outright heretical, and should be avoided at all costs.

                [1] See “N.T. Wright: Publications and Broadcasts,” N.T. Wright Page - An Unofficial Website Dedicated to Professor N.T. Wright, accessed December 2, 2012,, for a lengthy list of these publications.  The homepage,, also contains many helpful links.

                [2] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: A-O, vol. 1, 2 vols., 8th Printing (Oxford University Press, 1974), s.v. “Justification.”

                [3] For a helpful overview of the historical-theological use of “justification,” see F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, "Justification," in Dictionary of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA; Edinburgh: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 914-15.

                [4] Westminster Shorter Catechism, #33. See also the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI, “Of Justification”; the Belgic Confession, Article XXIII, “The Justification of Sinners”; and  the Canons of Dordt, the “First Main Point of Doctrine,” Article 7 and Rejection of Errors, and the “Second Main Point of Doctrine,” Article 8 and Rejection of Errors.”  For historic Lutheranism, Article IV of the Augsburg Confession of Faith: “(1) Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for (2) Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. (3) This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.[Romans 3-4].”

                [5] See the Council of Trent, Ch. IV-VIII, X-XI, and XIV-XVI, for the Roman Catholic Church’s declarations regarding justification.

                [6] Crampton, W. Gary, What Calvin Says : An Introduction to the Theology of John Calvin (Jefferson, Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1992), 76.

                [7] See Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 1-13, for an overview of German theology “From Luther to Schweitzer,” and pp. 15-22 for the influences of Bultmann, Davies, and Käsemann.

                [8] These points are a brief summary from Ibid, 32-33, with reference to Krister Stendahl, “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 29.

                [9] Wright highly praises the contributions of all these men in his introduction, and despite his propensity to adopt the views of Stendahl, he offers the highest praise to Käsemann. See N. T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI; Cincinnati, OH: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Forward Movement Publications, 1997), 11-20.

                [10] “The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved.  An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God mercy rather than human achievement.” E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 422. 

                [11] Sanders oversimplifies the theological climate of Second Temple Judaism, presenting covenantal nomism as its dominant, if not exclusive, theological perspective, and fails to account for the theological diversity of Judaism at the time of Christ and the Apostles.

                [12] Emphasis in original; Ibid, 552.

                [13] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 20.

                [14] Dunn has numerous well-known and influential works, but his main ideas are adequately treated in James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008).

                [15] Emphasis in original; Cornelis P. Venema, “What Did Saint Paul Really Say?  N.T. Wright and the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” in By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, ed. Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy Prentiss Waters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 39.
                [16] This is not to say that Biblical theology and systematic theology are incompatible, or even at odds with each other.  Both disciplines complement each other but must be kept in proper balance.  However Wright, despite his self-asserted high view of Scripture, frequently undermines Scripture’s authoritative nature either by ignoring the doctrine of inspiration or by placing inspiration on equal footing with the aforementioned items (literary themes, authorial intent, etc.).  In doing so, he squarely situates himself in the tradition of his liberal predecessors.

                [17] Instances of this appear throughout Wright’s works.  For example: “The current situation in Pauline studies is pleasantly confused.  I suspect, actually, that it always has been; it is only with hindsight that one can observe major trends and significant shifts of opinion.  Now, as probably in most periods, there are large numbers of people doing bewilderingly different things with Paul.” Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 20.
               [18] The noticeable exceptions are Cornelis P. Venema, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), and Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul.

                [19] “The currently fashionable category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ has been employed as a way into [Paul’s] theology, though there is currently no agreement on how to use the category, or what might happen if we did.” Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 21.

                [20] “Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview…All worldviews contain an irreducible element, which stands alongside the other worldview elements (symbol, praxis, and basic questions and answers), none of which can be simply “reduced” to terms of the others…   Worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews.  The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.”  Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul., 121, with reference to N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996), 38.

                [21] All emphases in original; Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, 121-22, with reference to Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 5, 6, 45, 77-78, 79.

                [22] N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 170-71.

                [23] Ibid, 171-72.  Hoping to justify his words (“to improvise our way from where this act began to where it is supposed to end”), Wright presents the analogy of a musician: “[N]o musician would ever suppose that improvising means playing out of tune or time.  On the contrary, it means knowing extremely well where one is in the implicit structure, and listening intently to the other players so that what we all do together, however spontaneously, makes sense as a whole.”  This analogy not only begs the question; it begs many questions.  How does one know what instrument to play?  How does one learn how to play that instrument?  To tune that instrument?  To read music?  To determine what notes harmonize with each other?  And so on… The major point here is that Wright continues to make sweeping theological assertions without offering any logical foundation upon which they may rest.  This will be seen even more vividly in the discussion regarding justification.

                [24] Interestingly, Wright’s attacks are upon the Roman Catholic doctrine are not severe, a position which, ironically (or perhaps even appropriately), has several similarities to his own doctrine.  His attacks upon established Protestant doctrine vary significantly, sometimes vehement and sometimes moderate.

                [25] Wright refers to the historical setting of the 1st century A.D., including the circumstances of both Paul and Second Temple Judaism.

                [26] Emphasis in original; Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 119.

                [27] Wright, Paul, 121.

                [28] This topic will be addressed later, but at this point, note that Wright equates God’s righteousness with God’s faithfulness (to fulfill His covenant with Abraham). 

                [29] “[I]t is law-court language, functioning within the covenantal setting as a strong explanatory metaphor.  Two things must be said about this.  First, this metaphor is necessary for understanding what the covenant was all about.  The covenant was there to put the world to rights, to deal with evil and to restore God’s justice and order to the cosmos.  Second, it is never independent of the covenant setting.  It cannot be made into an absolute and free-standing concept without doing violence both to itself and to the fundamental meaning of the covenant.” Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 117.

                [30] Ibid, 119.

                [31] N. T. Wright and Bruce L. McCormack, “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Grand Rapids, MI; Edinburgh: Baker Academic; Rutherford House, 2006), 253.

                [32] Ibid, 254.

                [33] Ibid, 254-55.

                [34] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 125.

Selected Bibliography

Crampton, W. Gary. What Calvin Says : An Introduction to the Theology of John Calvin. Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1992.

Cross, F. L, and Elizabeth A Livingstone. Dictionary of the Christian Church. Peabody, MA; Edinburgh: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

Dunn, James D. G. The New Perspective on Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Johnson, Gary L. W., and Guy Prentiss Waters, eds. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.

“N.T. Wright: Publications and Broadcasts.” N.T. Wright Page - An Unofficial Website Dedicated to Professor N.T. Wright. Accessed December 2, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Stendahl, Krister. “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.” In Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: A-O. Vol. 1. 2 vols. 8th Printing. Oxford University Press, 1974.

Venema, Cornelis P. Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul. Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.

———. “What Did Saint Paul Really Say?  N.T. Wright and the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” In By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, edited by Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy Prentiss Waters. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.

Waters, Guy Prentiss. Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

———. The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Vol. vol. 1. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

———. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, MI; Cincinnati, OH: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Forward Movement Publications, 1997.

Wright, N. T., and Bruce L. McCormack. “New Perspectives on Paul.” In Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges. Grand Rapids, MI; Edinburgh: Baker Academic; Rutherford House, 2006.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The preceding paper was submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the course Systematic Theology 41: Christ & Salvation.