At Reformation 21, New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole has written a review of N.T. Wright’s massive new volume, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). Considering that the book itself is about 1,600 pages, Gathercole has done a remarkable job of distilling Wright’s main ideas in relatively little space. Gathercole says that the main thesis of PFG is:
Paul inherited from his pre-Christian Judaism the central foci of monotheism, election and eschatology, and he retained but fundamentally rethought all of these in the light of Christ and the Spirit.
Gathercole then proceeds to summarize and evaluate Wright’s presentation of Paul’s views on these three foci. On monotheism, Wright is quite convincing (and also uncontroversial, from an evangelical perspective), and is pretty much repeating what Richard Bauckham has already said about “christological monotheism” in Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008).
Election is where Wright becomes most polarizing, since this section includes his ideas on Paul’s doctrine of justification/righteousness. Gathercole points out some potential ambiguities and inadequacies in Wright’s definition of justification as—well, “definition.” That is, Wright sees justification as being defined as a covenant member. But this raises the question, does God’s justification of believers actually effect a change in their status, or is it merely a recognition of what their status already is? The word “definition” is vague and can imply either meaning. Gathercole also shares a reservation of my own regarding Wright’s view of justification: he seems to collapse it with the biblical doctrine of “adoption.” While it is true that justification is inextricably tied to membership in God’s covenant family, the two ideas are not identical.
At the same time, Gathercole’s alternative view of justification leaves me scratching my head at points. He describes it as “God reckoning to the believer the status of one who had fulfilled all the covenant stipulations of the divine will.” Similarly, he says, “Righteousness is something you do (as well as being about not doing certain things), and also the status you have when you have done it.” Now it is certainly true that Paul often speaks of “righteousness” as a certain way of life (1 Th. 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17). In this sense, it is basically synonymous with godliness and holiness. But this is not justifying righteousness. We need to be careful to distinguish between the righteousness of justification and the righteousness of sanctification. The former is received through faith alone, while the latter is cultivated through faith and obedience.
With respect to eschatology, I am in full agreement with Gathercole’s two critiques of Wright. First, when it comes to Wright’s frequent complaint that evangelicals too often reduce salvation to “going to heaven after you die”—the answer is yes, of course. But Wright’s beating a dead horse here. How many of his readers would disagree with him on that point (consider the sort of person who actually would take the time to read PFG)? And second, Wright does seem to be over-correcting when he casts salvation primarily in corporate/national terms. For Paul, the priority still seems to lie with the individual, and from there the corporate dimensions flow.
Overall, this is a good, constructively critical review. And I am thankful that Gathercole has taken the time to read an influential book that I will likely not be able to get to for quite a long time (1,600 words is just too intimidating!).