N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 192 pages.
Reviewed by Brian G. Hedges
This was one of the most compelling and frightening books I have read in a long time. Compelling, because N. T. Wright winsomely presents the gospel in cosmic proportions, freshly fleshing out the implications of Jesus’ lordship over all things and all men. Frightening, because in his discussion of justification he empties “the righteousness of God” of its historic meaning and completely recasts the doctrine of justification in light of Second Temple Judaism.
Very helpful is Wright’s devastating criticism of A. N. Wilson’s accusation that Paul, rather than Jesus, was the founder of Christianity. Wright beautifully demonstrates that Paul spoke from the theological platform of Judaism, a world-view that he never cast off, but rather recast with Jesus Christ in the center. It was from this platform that Paul confronted the pagan world of his day. What God has done through Jesus Christ is both the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Israel and the great Apocalyptic event, the inauguration of the Age to Come, where God through Christ will take His rightful place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Surely Wright is correct in his critique that the gospel itself is not a system of how to gain personal salvation but rather the announcement that God has invested Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, with all authority in heaven and earth and men should therefore give total allegiance to King Jesus. I agree with Wright that while personal and individual salvation is important and one of the effects of the gospel proclamation, it should not be lifted out of the context of community and privatized as a spiritual commodity. Too often Evangelicals treat the part (justification) as if it were the whole (salvation in all its cosmic fullness) and end up missing the forest for the tree. I am comfortable with moving the exclamation point away from one part of the ordo salutis back to the good news itself with all of its radical implications for life in the here and now. If only he would have only moved the exclamation point and not changed part of the sentence!
What bothers me about this book is Wright’s scoffing (maybe too strong a word?) at imputation and his recasting of historic Reformed theology. The most distressing few sentences in the book to me are these:
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom … To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works (98).
Yet, Romans 3:22 speaks of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for [the preposition is either eis (unto) or epi (upon) or both, depending on the manuscript—each of the terms convey the idea of righteousness being presented to or provided for or laid upon] all who believe” and Romans 4:6 describes “the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness [note: righteousness itself, not just faith as righteousness] apart from works.” (For an excellent exegetical defense of the doctrine of imputation, see John Piper’s book Counted Righteous in Christ, Crossway Books, 2002.) In Wright’s theology, God’s saving righteousness is simply his faithfulness to the covenant promises made to Abraham, not a divine provision of the righteousness of Jesus Christ given to believers by imputation. While covenant faithfulness is surely inherent within God’s righteousness (when seen as an attribute), “the righteousness of God” is more than that. It is also the gift of a righteous status before God resulting from the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. If he had only affirmed this, Wright would not be so wrong.