Book Review – “Justification” by N. T. Wright

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I want to preface this review by saying that N. T. Wright’s work is very dense (in a good way).  I have only read the book one time, and I feel I would need to read through it a second time, at least, to really grasp everything he is saying, as his explanation of justification seems to be a major overhaul of what  we normally think when we hear that word.  While I will do my best to provide my thoughts, I know it will fall way short.

Having been raised in traditional evangelical churches that held to a “Reformation” view of justification, I wanted to try to understand Wright’s views, as he is often linked to the “New Perspective on Paul.”  I put the word Reformation in quotes because, as Wright argues, those who hold to the traditional perspective on Paul are, in his view, actually not holding up to the ideas of the Reformation; namely that we will constantly reevaluate our ideas and views in light of what Scripture actually says.

While N. T. Wright has bits and pieces of his view throughout essays, articles, and other books, his book Justification is his attempt to explain his views on this issue in one place.  It was primarily written as a response to John Piper’s critique of his stance, and it works to lay out all of the historical and primarily exegetical reasons that he holds to the views he does.  Since it is a response to Piper, Wright holds little back as he points out the weaknesses in Piper’s critique, as he sees them.  Yet he does so out of a concern that everyone interpret Scripture rightly.  For Wright, this means trying to do more than just read the words of Scripture; it also means we must understand the context from which Paul was writing those words.

The book is laid out in two parts.  In the first part, Wright explains why the discussion matters, how to approach the discussion, explains some background on first century Judaism, and then gives some helpful explanations regarding the term “justification.”  The second part applies what he has laid out in the first, as it works on exegesis with central parts of the New Testament dealing with justification: Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans.  In addition, the book includes a section with notes, a bibliography section for those who want to dig deeper, a name index, a subject index, and a Scripture index.  All told, the book comes in at 279 pages, but it is far from a quick read.

Wright sums up God’s purposes in justification as being God’s “single-purpose-through-Israel-for-the-world” (p. 243).  In other words, to really understand justification, we have to step back and follow the flow of the entire Scriptural narrative, understanding that Israel is the primary focus, rather than creating a division between Israel and the rest of the world.  This flows along with what I have been reading lately regarding our need to read Scripture with a large picture view as opposed to taking it apart at the expense of the whole.  Why did Jesus come?  Because Israel, being weakened by the flesh as all humanity is, failed to bring God’s restoring work to the entire world, as they were supposed to do.  Jesus, then, came as the Messiah, God incarnate, to do what Israel failed to do.  By dying on the cross forgiveness could be offered, by rising from the dead the resurrection was inaugurated, and by going back to be with God, the Spirit could come.  Together this allows us, through faith, to be forgiven, to begin the process of being made new, and to be enabled to live the way we should, something the Torah could never accomplish.

As Wright argues, a large part of Paul’s explanation of the “mystery” of God was that both Gentiles and Israel were brought back to God, together, in the same way, through faith in the Messiah.  Both Israel and the Gentiles had failed, and both needed to be restored to God.  Israel mistakenly thought this was accomplished through Gentiles being made to follow the Torah and the ways of Israel.  Paul points out that both Jews and Gentiles need to follow the ways of the Messiah and be restored through faith in Him, as the one who brought the promises to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations, to fruition.

Wright points out that the focus on justification as the aspect of receiving forgiveness of sins, while important, is not the whole point of what God is doing.  He likens it to taking the steering wheel of a car (which is vitally important) and mistaking it for the car itself.  I found this refreshing and eye opening.

This, of course, can have major implications for how we read certain passages.  For example, I found that reading Romans with this in mind made it seem quite different from the way I had read it with my prior understanding.  Romans 7, for example, seems very different when understood from Wright’s perspective.  The traditional argument over whether was talking pre-conversion or post-conversion disappears.  In reality, he is merely explaining his discovery that the Torah, which he had tried to follow as a faithful Jew, could not deal with his broken/fallen self.  All it could do was show him his weaknesses.  This, then, leads the way to understanding how life in the Messiah is the answer to this dilemma.  Read this way, Romans 7 has nothing to do with whether or not Christians still struggle with temptation to sin and whether or not they fall a lot.  While that may be an important discussion, Wright’s perspective would mean that Romans 7 is not relevant to that issue, as I understand it.

While there are some great insights through Wright’s book, interestingly, however, I seem to sense a lot of the same emphasis even coming from Piper and others.  I have seen a huge push for understanding the entire story of redemption (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) in many traditional works of evangelical scholars.  In other words, I wonder how much Piper (and other traditional Pauline scholars) and Wright (and others who focus on the New Perspective) are really saying the same thing in slightly different ways or with slightly different emphases?

Overall, I found Wright’s book refreshing and challenging.  I do want to read it again, as well as reading more works by Wright.  I also want to read Piper’s book that Wright is responding to, although I probably should have read it first, to see what the primary issue seems to be in Piper’s perspective.

I would highly recommend Wright’s book to anyone wanting to understand his perspective on justification as it is presented in Paul’s writings.

*Note: I was provided a complimentary copy of the book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review – “Searching for Jesus” by Robert J. Hutchinson

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As a lay apologist, I am always interested in reading on various aspects related to Christian evidence.  The various “quests” for the historical Jesus are just one aspect that I enjoy reading about.  I saw a new book on the issue, and immediately requested one from Thomas Nelson publishers (through Book Look Bloggers) to read and review.

Searching for Jesus by Robert J. Hutchinson is a very detailed read.  The text is 275 pages, not including the acknowledgements, selected bibliography, notes, index, or “About the Author” page.  The notes are extensive, adding up to 41 pages. The total page count is 350 pages.

The book is interesting.  The main thrust of the book is to show how (to borrow some phrases from the subtitle) “new discoveries in the quest for Jesus of Nazereth” mainly “confirm the gospel accounts.”  The book takes as its main task to argue that “many of the ‘scientific’ or scholarly ideas about Jesus paraded in the media every Christmas and Easter are increasingly obsolete, based on assumptions, theories, and unproven hypotheses that are, in some cases, more than a century old and which have been superseded by more recent research” (p. xvi, emphasis in original).  Rather, Hutchinson argues, “new discoveries are causing some experts to wonder if the basic portraits of Jesus in the Gospels is far more plausible than the elaborate reconstructions created by academic skeptics over the past 150 years” (p. xvii, emphasis in original).

Throughout the book, the author tackles the most prominent issues surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, examining the evidence to try to see what it shows us and what the best view of Jesus is based on that evidence.  Chapter 1 tackles the question on whether or not the gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  Chapter 2 looks at the arguments that the Jesus we have come to know is primarily based on legendary material and developments rather than historical facts.  Chapter 3 asks whether the gospels are forgeries that have a late date or whether they actually date earlier than previously thought.  Chapter 4 looks at archaeological finds relating to Jesus and the New Testament.  Chapter 5 asks whether the idea of the Messiah as someone who would suffer was invented by the Church, or whether it dates back to Judaism itself.  Chapter 6 examines the Jewishness of Jesus.  Chapter 7 looks into whether or not the gnostic views of Jesus are accurate.  Chapter 8 asks if Jesus was a revolutionary in line with the Zealots, or whether His revolution was something entirely different.  Chapter 9 examines ideas from the Gospel of Judas, specifically whether the view that Jesus planned His own death is accurate or not.  Chapter 10 examines what proof we have of the resurrection, and what it meant for Jesus to be resurrected.  Chapter 11 looks at how early in the history of Christianity the idea developed that Jesus was divine.  Because he covers so many topics, he cannot dig as deep as could be done into any of them, but he does a great job of giving a broad overview of the issues from multiple perspectives, ultimately arguing in favor of what the gospels seem to say.

Throughout the book, Hutchinson lays out all the various perspectives related to the issues above.  He doesn’t merely argue for the conservative, orthodox views.  He also clearly (and fairly) explains multiple views that would traditionally be considered liberal and skeptical.

Which leads me to the concern I have with the book.  As it is published by Thomas Nelson, I honestly think I went into the book expecting something more traditional and conservative.  In reality, the book, while mainly conservative, tends to be more open to liberal arguments than what I am used to reading.  From what I can tell, nothing on the back of the book or inside flap led me to believe that the book would be written that way.  An endorsement from N. T. Wright on the back says that “[q]uestions remain,” but it never mentions what kinds of questions or how many we should expect.  The inside flap does say the book is “Written for skeptics and believers alike,” but many conservative apologetic works make that claim. Once I started reading the book, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a standard apologetic work.

In the book’s introduction, Hutchinson states:

Finally, a quick note on the Bible in general: In my own mind, I am writing for two groups of people: committed Christians of many denominations who have a wide variety of beliefs about how and to what degree the Bible is inspired or even inerrant; and, secondly, general readers who are interested in Jesus of Nazareth and early Christianity but who are not wedded to any previous notion that the Bible is based on real events.  Writing for these two groups presents many challenges, of course, but I tried to steer a middle course and remain respectful both of Christian orthodoxy and secular skepticism. What’s more, most of this book is about what secular, Jewish, and not necessarily Christian scholars and archaeologists are discovering and concluding–and how their recent research is, to a surprising degree, supporting much of what the Gospels say about Jesus of Nazareth.  Thus, this book is not primarily a work of Christian apologetics as such but rather a brief overview of the changing world of New Testament scholarship. (p. xxvii)

To me, something this clear should have been included on the dust flap or the back of the book rather than tucked away inside the introduction, especially since this book is published by a company that, to the best of my knowledge, is usually known for quite conservative and orthodox books.  People just getting into apologetics could pick up the book thinking they are getting something along the lines of Strobel or Geisler, when in reality, this book is far different.

The author goes on to explain how he struggles with the same skepticism as non-Christians, but that he is willing to dig into the evidence of contemporary scholarship to follow the evidence where it leads.  I admire this honesty, of course; I just wish it would have been clearer somehow on the outside of the book, which is traditionally the promotional part.

The last paragraph of the introduction begins:

I approach the effort to understand Jesus with what I hope is an open mind.  Although I am a believing Christian, I have no trouble questioning many of the central assertions of historic Christianity, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  At the same time, however, I feel equally free to question the assumptions and unproven theories of contemporary New Testament scholarship, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  I view them with the same skepticism and weary familiarity with which other people view the doctrines of Christianity. (p.xxviii)

Again, no fault to the author for his forthrightness.  I just wonder how many people will pick up the book based on reviews or the cover without realizing this is the mindset the author is coming from?

So, what is the end result of the author’s writing?  What does he leave the reader with in the last part of the Epilogue?

Whatever Jesus “really” was–and as we’ve seen in this book, after two hundred years of relentless scholarly digging, no one can agree what this is–whether Jesus was God incarnate or three quarters God or just a little God–it is literally true that he is and has been a “light of revelation” for untold billions of people throughout history.  For those who believe in him, skeptic or not, Jesus is nothing less than the human face of God. (p. 274)

This is far from a traditional conclusion to an apologetic book.  We have already established, however, that this is not a strictly apologetic book in the usual sense of the word.  For conservative Christians, however, who take in hand to read through this book, the ending may come as a shock. While the author doesn’t outright deny the traditional claims for Christ’s life, his desire to take a “middle course” keeps him from ultimately landing on either side, leaving it up to the reader to decide on his or her own.

So is this a book I would recommend?  Yes . . . and no.

Yes, I would recommend the book to skeptics who are open to historical evidence.  I would recommend the book to apologists who are interested in keeping up with recent findings in New Testament scholarship regarding the life of Jesus.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has already read and is familiar with the liberal and conservative arguments regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

But no, I would not recommend the book to new believers.  I would not recommend the book to someone interested in only a conservative, orthodox defense of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are other books that are better for that.

So how do I rate the book?  In terms of what it is intending to do, to clearly lay out multiple explanations for who Christ is based on current New Testament understanding and scholarship, it does a great job.  In terms of showing how recent evidence is pointing us closer to what the New Testament gospels have said all along, it succeeds.

Unfortunately, the “packaging” of the book from Thomas Nelson seems to leave something to be desired.  The outside of the book can easily lead someone to believe the book is something that it isn’t.  It seems like a traditional apologetic book on the defense of Jesus of Nazareth against liberal and skeptical views.  While there is some of that in the book, there are also more times the author concedes liberal views than what many Christians are used to reading about.  Again, I don’t fault the author of the book for being forthright in his views.  I just think it should have been clearer on the outside of the book.

Ultimately, this book is good for those I mentioned above, those who are familiar with the discussion and want to read more recent information on it.  But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more successful if published by another company or if the outside was clearer?  I fear that skeptics will avoid the book because it is published by Thomas Nelson, a known Christian publisher, and because the outside of the book seems to describe it almost as a traditional apologetic book, or at least it doesn’t clearly explain that it is not.  Since the author’s stated purpose is to reach skeptics, I wonder if he will succeed this way.  On the other hand, I fear some Christians who have never been exposed to liberal or skeptical arguments may have their faith shaken up, if this is the way those arguments are introduced.  There are other books that do a better job of refuting those arguments and introducing them in ways that don’t sound as if they carry more weight than they sometimes do.  So there is the potential for confusion to be brought in to some people who the author ultimately wants to strengthen.

In short, the book is one I would recommend, with certain reservations, to certain people. But I could not necessarily recommend this book to just any Christian reader without making sure they have resources or people to help them wade through the contents.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.