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

justification

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 – “A Peculiar Glory” by John Piper

peculiar

After reading several books by John Piper (as well as reading articles by him and hearing him talk about a few things), I have discovered that Piper seems to be hit or miss.  Some of his books I really love, while others I truly find myself struggling through.  A Peculiar Glory falls into the latter category, and it is primarily the writing style that got me this time.

This book is Piper’s defense and explanation of the way we know the Bible is the word of God.  It takes a very Reformed stance, arguing primarily from an internal witness perspective rather than from an evidential perspective.  For some this is a great thing, and I definitely think that the Spirit must help us believe, as do most evidentialists.  I cannot put my finger on it, but I just felt something was missing in Piper’s working it out.

Piper starts by explaining how he feels the Bible held on to him, rather than the other way around.  I love reading biographical information about people, so this was a great part. He then moves on in Part 2 to explaining how we know what books and words make up the Bible.  This was a pretty common explanation.  Part 3 examines what the Bible claims about itself.  To some, this will seem circular; but I think we have to take into account what a book says about itself.  This may not be the only thing we rely on, but it must be considered.

Parts 4 and 5 are where the book takes a turn, in my opinion.  These parts deal with how we can know the Bible is true and how they are confirmed to be true.  The basic argument, as I understand it, is that we primarily know the Bible is true by the confirmation of the glory of the gospel of Christ throughout the text and as it comes alive in our lives.  That is, we mainly know that it is true by the revelation of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we read and are transformed by the word.  Ultimately, then, it is not about the proofs (although they may come, and Piper does not totally discount evidentialist proofs), but it is about the Spirit of God causing people dead in sin to come alive to the truth of the gospel in the word.  If anyone is convinced of the veracity of the Scriptures, it is because God caused them to believe it through exposure to it.

While I believe there is some truth here, it seems to me that it doesn’t put enough weight on evidence.  True, we don’t want to elevate evidence above the Scriptures themselves, but neither do we want to border on ignoring it.  Again, Piper does not argue for ignoring evidence; throughout he talks about using it.  It’s just that external evidences (history, archaeology, etc.) seem very minimally considered.

Piper’s goal is noble.  He wants to know how someone in a culture very distanced from all the information we have access to could come to know the Scriptures are God’s revelation.  If they don’t know about the textual evidences in manuscripts, the historical reliability of the text, etc., how could those people know that the Bible is God’s word?  Piper writes:

“What turned my focus (not my approval or my interest) away from historical reasoning as a support for faith was the realization that most people in the world–especially in the less-educated, developing world–have neither the training nor the time to pursue such detailed arguments in support of their faith. And yet the Bible assumes that those who hear the gospel may know the truth of it and may stake their lives on it–indeed must stake their lives on it.” (Kindle location 2196)

Piper’s answer certainly alleviates that problem.  I credit him greatly for showing us that we do not have to have knowledge of those other areas to know the Bible is God’s word.  But as a lay apologist, I struggle with minimizing so much great knowledge that we have.

Let me state clearly that I read this book a little along, as the style just seemed harder for me to get into this time, and I struggled reading it for long stretches at once.  So I may have spaced it out too far and missed something that would make it all click better.  I may have to read it again sometime and see if it flows better the second time around.  So if I have misrepresented Piper above, it is unintentional.

It is a good book, and I would recommend it to others, with the head’s up that if they are not Reformed/Calvinist, there may be things here they disagree with.  If you are an apologist looking for detailed arguments in favor of the word of God along the lines of McDowell, Craig, Koukl, or others, this book is not that kind of apologetic.  If you are looking for a way to see how to defend the word of God using the Scripture itself, I think you will find this a valuable book.

*I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book from Crossway in exchange for my honest review.  

Book Review – “Four Views on Hell”

Hell

Zondervan’s “Counterpoints” series is a great series.  It allows readers to learn about multiple views on an issue with each presented by a proponent of that view followed by responses from the other authors in the book who hold to different views on the same topic.  This give and take allows strong representatives of the various views to have a small discussion for us to read and consider.  Recently, Zondervan released an updated version of a previous book, Four Views on Hell, and I requested a copy from BookLook Bloggers to read and review.

The four views presented (with the author who presents it) are eternal conscious torment by Denny Burk (the traditional view), terminal punishment/annihilationism by John G. Stackhouse Jr., [Christian] universalism by Robin A. Parry, and a protestant understanding of purgatory by Jerry L. Walls.  Preston M. Sprinkle provides an introduction and conclusion to the book.

I certainly feel I have a better understanding of the various views after reading the book.  Each viewpoint is well presented, and the responses are very well done.

I do feel that Denny Burk’s responses were the least kind.  It’s not that he was outright rude, but whereas the other authors seemed to try to find as much good as they could in the other contributors’ essays, Burk did so almost dismissively before jumping into his refutation of their views.  Stackhouse, Parry, and Walls seemed much more generous in their responses to each other.

I also have to admit that the essay on purgatory seemed out of place in this volume.  As Walls explains it, purgatory, from a protestant perspective, is strictly sanctifying, and is only for believers who are already destined for Heaven.  Walls admits that his view on Hell is essentially a view of eternal conscious torment, if I understood him correctly, as it has the clearest Scriptural support and the longest tradition in the history of the Church.  In his explanation, the other views on Hell would bear the burden of proof to overturn such a longstanding view.  Perhaps purgatory was included in the book because some mistakenly associate it with Hell and punishment, but once it is explained, it seemed very out of place.

What I liked is that all the authors are clear that they believe that some aspect of Scripture supports their view.  They are all Christians, all believe Jesus is the only way to God, and all turn to Scripture for support.  None of the views are entirely devoid of Scriptural support, although some rely on Scripture more than others.

If you are looking for a balanced book to help you understand the various Christian viewpoints on Hell, this book, though far from exhaustive, is a great place to start.

*Note: I was provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.