Thursday, November 26, 2009

Justification and Righteousness

I had the pleasure of leading a seminar on 'Justification' and 'Righteousness' in Paul for the first years at college as part of their 'Introduction to the New Testament' course. We had 50 minutes to discuss what is one of the most hotly debated and complex topics in New Testament studies. I enjoyed the opportunity to get my head back into the debate but it made me realise just how nuanced and complicated the subject has become. The seminar also made me away just how far removed this complex debate is from the average Christian, and even the average ordinand. However, being a self-confessed theology geek of the highest order, I do enjoy trying to get my head round the subject.

The debate over the meaning of justification and righteousness, particularly what is meant by 'the righteousness of God', was at the heart of Luther's reformation. In recent times it has been central to the discussions of what gets called 'the New Perspective on Paul' (NPP). A would-be student of Paul could literally spend all their time following developments on this topic. For a taster see the excellent Paul Page. On a popular level, the most recent manifestation of these discussions has been the debate, in print, between John Piper and Tom Wright. Tom Wright has long been one of the names associated with the NPP, although he would be the first to point out that there is no one monolithic view which may be labelled the NPP and that he is himself critical of many of the views lumped under this label. Tom's views have filtered down onto the popular level enough to cause concern amongst some (mainly) Reformed/neo-Reformed theologians and pastors who think he is dangerously distorting an important doctrine. John Piper wrote a book responding to Tom Wright, which may be found online here Tom Wright responded to Piper in his book 'Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision'. See an interview with Tom Wright about the whole thing here.

One of the things I have found interesting is that whilst the debate has become unfortunately characterised and polarised as Piper vs Wright, there are plenty of Pauline scholars who have taken on board at least some aspects of the NPP and Wright's views. One example would be Michael Bird, who whilst being fairly conservative, and Reformed, seems to have drunk fairly deeply at the Wrightian well. Here is a summary statement of his of what justification is:

'Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age.'
(from A Bird's Eye View of Paul, p96)

At the risk of boring any readers who are not particularly theologically inclined I thought I might spend a couple of posts looking at Justification and the Righteousness of God, more for my own benefit than anyone else's

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