Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (eds) (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
This is the ninth part of a series Brian LePort and I are tackling out of this book, which is based off the most recent Wheaton Conference. Scroll to the bottom of this entry and you will be provided with links to previous posts that cover previous chapters and moreover a schedule for future entries. Lastly, thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology
Just as a precursor to this review, I want to note that I’m not very knowledgeable on the debate circling justification, the New Perspective, Old Perspective, and every other perspective in between. I say this because I might very well misrepresent Dr. Vanhoozer’s thought (though I hope I don’t). Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the debate on justification very well should know that a key characteristic of this debate is misrepresentation. So, if I’ve misrepresented N.T. Wright or Kevin J. Vanhoozer, please be kind enough to let me know in the comments section.
With that said, I think this chapter alone makes the book worth it. Dr. Vanhoozer is humble, brilliant, hilarious, and a phenomenal orator. There is a lot to this chapter, too much for me to review in detail. So, I will briefly cover his review of Wright’s work, where we are, and then move on to his proposition.
Dr. Vanhoozer discusses “three concrete issues” the work of N.T. Wright raises:
- Who does Paul belong to? As Dr. Vanhoozer has stated, “we more or less know what St. Paul really said; we want to know what he really meant.” So, in finding out what St. Paul really meant, who’s job is it to find out? The theologian, the philosopher, the historian, or the exegete? It is here that Dr. Vanhoozer places Wright in the role of exegete (and clearly historian too).
- Practicing Sola Scriptura. Wright states it explicitly: “The formal principle which underlies all my reading not only of Paul but of the whole of scripture [is]….a total commitment to scripture itself, over against all human traditions.” This, unfortunately has caused quite a stir in the emotions of theologians. Vanhoozer says “Conservative evangelicals are happy to profess the Protestant mantra always reforming, at least as a theoretical principle. Yet in practice they often behave like people who are all for building homes until having settled in a new neighborhood, they then want all further development to stop. So too with doctrinal development.” This is the “elephant in the room” that Vanhoozer, in his talk mentions. Theology has been set at arms with biblical studies. No longer is it the right of the systematic theologian to talk. Why? Well, because as Wright argues, the passages in which we interpret have not been properly interpreted within a Second Temple Judaic, Hellenistic, and Roman matrix.
- Preserving the Gospel’s Integrity. Vanhoozer, on Wright says: “the gospel in Paul’s context meant the proclamation that Yahweh was once again on the move, delivering Israel from the powers that oppressed it. The gospel is the good news of the covenant’s climax: the news that Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has on the cross defeated the evil powers of this age, inaugurated with his resurrection a new age, and is thus Lord, and the one true King of the world.” Thus, the gospel is the “announcement of the person of Jesus, God’s covenant faithfulness made flesh.” What Dr. Vanhoozer points out is is that what drops Wright in unfriendly territory with Reformed folk isn’t his affirmations, rather his denials. The statement “the gospel, is not, for Paul, a message about how one gets saved, in an an individual ahistorical sense.” is a bone of contention. This, Horton and Piper contend, makes no sense of stories such as the one found in Acts 16:30. Vanhoozer states when the jailer asks him “What must I do to be saved?” Paul doesn’t reply with “That’s not the right question.” So, apparently at some place there needs to be a convergence where what Wright has shown to be true, while affirming what Paul said in Acts 16:31.
From here, Vanhoozer discusses a few things. The first is how “Ecclesiology is the new soteriology.” For Wright “whenever Paul is talking about justification by faith he is also talking about the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the single people of God.” Another point of discussion is Wright’s view on covenant membership and faith not being the instrument in which individuals acquire Christ’s righteousness. Rather, for Wright, faith is a sign of being apart of covenant membership.
Where Must We BE To Be Saved?
It is here that Dr. Vanhoozer proposes a “safe ground” where New Perspective proponents and Old Perspective proponents can shake hands. He starts with the proposition that to be “declared righteous” is a declarative statement. It is a speech act. This is something in which Wright agrees with as well.
This leads to imputed righteousness. Now, the question is when is it ever right for a judge to give his righteousness to the one found guilty? Never. Unless the one found guilty is brought into Christ, and therefore, Christ’s righteousness is his as well. His proposal is that “To declare someone righteous is to declare that person incorporated into Christ’s righteousness.” It is here, Vanhoozer argues, ecclesiology and soteriology shake hands. He says “To incorporate means both to include as part of a whole (in this case, the body of Christ) and to constitute a legal corporation. Incorporated righteousness thus includes the forensic, covenental, and eschatological dimensions that Wright associates with justification, yet orders them in such a way as to make possible a reapproachement with Reformed theology.”
Since I didn’t cover every single thing Vanhoozer discussed (you’ll need to read the chapter for yourself) I will cover the points in which Wright’s response is relevant in light of what I highlighted by Vanhoozer.
Wright’s general tone throughout his response is a pleased one. A systematic theologian has dealt critically, yet creatively with his work! Wright, about Kevin’s proposal of a larger Reformed framework within his “newer perspective” is something he likes, and is “very grateful for Kevin’s help in articulating it.” Though Wright thinks “Incorporated righteousness” might not completely catch the Pauline meaning of dikaiosyne, it moves in the right direction. He states that “It has been my contention all along that the forensic and participationist elements in Paul’s thought are two aspects of his covenantal, that is, Israel-as-the-means-of-rescuing-Adam, theology. To speak of justification as ‘one metaphor for salvation among others’ misses this point and reduces the particularities of Paul’s argument and his larger theology!” Shortly before concluding, he points out what is so brilliant about Vanhoozer’s argument is that he draws on Romans 5-8. “Thus adoption-plus-incorporated-righteousness strikes me as a major step in the right direction.”
I thought this chapter was great! It definitely stretched me as one who hasn’t done much reading into the debate on Justification. I personally think that Vanhoozer’s argument makes a lot of sense, and looks like a serious point of progress amongst this conversation. I can’t wait for Wright’s fourth part on Christian Origins and the Question of God to see what has changed in his thought from Paul in Fresh Perspective, to Justification, to then.
It’s exciting to be present amongst this conversation!
Schedule for this series:
07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Daniel James Levy)
08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Daniel James Levy)