When I first began reading this book I thought it might well be a good primer to read and recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) movement. One of its leading proponents, N. T. Wright, has become quite well known in our circles in recent times. As I continued to read, I stood by my original thought but had to modify it the further I read. It is far more than a primer.
Not only do the authors do an outstanding job of explaining the weaknesses and errors of Wright’s thinking on Paul, known as the new perspectives, the doctrine of justification by faith is presented in a clear and challenging manner. Both authors demonstrate not only a good grasp of what Wright and the New Perspectives are saying, but they use the biblical historical explanation of justification by faith to counteract the New Perspectives which they agree is not really new after all.
As we stated when we reviewed Wright’s book on justification last year, you have to read carefully because it is a bit tricky. For example: Wright says much about things we believe and he does so in a manner that without discern and caution, one might think, that is what we believe. For example: Wright talks about the righteousness of God. We all believe God is righteous; however, his reference is not to God’s moral righteousness but to his covenantal faithfulness. His reference regarding justification comes from more of an ecclesiological position than a soteriological one.
Wright says things we readily appreciate and agree with until we see how they work themselves out in the NPP, and then we realize that we are not on the same page. Even the definition of faith differs from our biblically reformed perspective. How does this come about? Barcley and Duncan are helpful in demonstrating how Wright and the other proponents of NPP operate on a totally different framework in explaining the Bible. One of the simplest things one picks up on in the NPP is that Paul is not writing Romans or Galatians to combat legalism but rather as the authors of this book explain re: NPP, “Paul is simply arguing that one does not have to be a Jew to be righteous…Paul’s problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity.” NPP maintains that the first century Jews’ religion was about grace and about legalism nor works. To read Galatians or Romans from the traditional position that it was, misses the point of the books. The focus is on God’s faithfulness in keeping his covenant. Therefore, the evangelicals, since the Reformation, have misread Paul.
As for the book’s structure, chapter one contains a helpful overview of the NPP. Further chapters discuss things such as: was Paul battling against Jewish legalism? Covenant, law and ‘works of the law’ in Paul’s theology. Another chapter deals with Wright’s approach to interpreting the Bible using a narrative approach. The book at this point explains how Wright, though using the covenant motif to talk about Paul’s meaning, he misses the essence of the covenant of grace and the authors suggest one of the ways this happens is because he leaves out the original covenant of works, which definitely impacts the understanding of the covenant of grace.
The last chapter in the book is an extremely helpful precise on the doctrine of justification. Because Wright believes that the New Testament adapts a first century Jewish worldview, he misses the whole story by focusing only on a part of the story. Justification has far more meaning than simply God keeping his covenant promise to Abraham.
The authors remind us that while Wright claims to be an evangelical and writing within the Reformed tradition, he says some good things, but in the final analysis he falls short of that tradition. They wrote, “Paul did not simply pick up and adapt the first-century Jewish world-view, as Wright claims. He radically rethought his own Jewish training and hopes in the light of the total biblical story! Or, perhaps better, divine revelation is and through him proved a better option than human stories. It was God’s revelation, not Paul’s own meditation, which led him to rewrite the basic storyline and world-view of his upbringing.” Translating this; justification is not a story or narrative, it is an act of God’s free grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has it right, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
Read this book! Study this book! Discuss in your church and small groups.