The New Perspective on Paul The Contribution of N.T. Wright (1)

Of all the authors who are to some extent identified with the “new perspective on Paul,” perhaps none is as prolific or popularly known as Nicholas Thomas (“Tom”) Wright. Though Wright prefers not to be identified with some monochrome development known as “the new perspective,” he clearly writes as one convinced that a return to the older, Reformation view would be to turn back the clock.1 In the light of the writings of Sanders, Dunn, and others, Wright is convinced that we need to take a “fresh” look at the biblical, and especially Pauline, texts, without the encumbrance of the traditional formulations and confessional (especially polemical) positions of the sixteenth century.

Unlike some of the prominent authors associated with the new perspective, Wright regards himself as an evangelical whose commitment to the great tenets of Christian orthodoxy is unswerving. Though he acknowledges that he no longer sees things in black and white as he once did, Wright affirms that he remains a “deeply orthodox theologian” who wants to present a fresh reading and defense of the gospel to the (post-) modern world.

In 1999 Christianity Today featured Wright in an article by Tim Stafford, who described him as “a big-hearted, friendly bear of a man, who loves to talk, loves to debate on television, loves to preach, and thoroughly enjoys being dean of Lichfield Cathedral near Birmingham, England.”2 As this description suggests, Wright represents a rare combination of scholarship and churchmanship. Not only is he the author of a number of wide-ranging studies in the New Testament scholarship, but he is also an Anglican divine who is deeply committed to the ministry of the gospel within the church.3 In addition to his advocacy of a new reading of the apostle Paul, Wright is known for his contributions to New Testament studies generally, and to the contemporary “third quest” for the historical Jesus. One reason Wright is regarded highly by many evangelicals is his defense of such things as the physical resurrection of Christ, and the historical reliability of the main lines of the New Testament witness concerning Christ. Due to Wright’s scholarly reputation and success in advocating positions that are relatively conservative by the standards of critical scholarship, he enjoys considerable favor among evangelicals. Wright’s views regarding Paul’s gospel and the doctrine of justification, therefore, are especially appealing even within the evangelical and Reformed community.

Wright and the “New Perspective”

Despite Wright’s reluctance to identify himself with anything so monolithic as “the new perspective on Paul,” he is persuaded that the writings of Sanders and other advocates of a new perspective require a fresh reading of Paul. The contributions of Sanders and Dunn to a new view of Judaism and the historical context for reading the New Testament and the writings of the apostle Paul, have altered irrevocably the landscape of biblical studies. Consequently, any simple return to the past, particularly to the debates and positions of the sixteenth century Reformation, would be an irresponsible approach for contemporary New Testament studies. So far as Wright is concerned, the new approach to Pauline studies is here to stay. This is true in at least two crucial respects.

First, Wright fully agrees with the position of E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and other authors identified with the new perspective, that Judaism at the time of the writing of the New Testament was not a form of legalism. The idea, which played such an important, even decisive role in the Reformation understanding of the apostle Paul, that the Judaizers taught salvation on the basis of works righteousness, is largely a fiction. Sanders and others have conclusively demonstrated that Judaism emphasized the grace of God as the basis for his covenant with Israel. The role of works in Judaism was merely one of “maintaining” the covenant relationship, and not one of establishing the basis for “entrance into” fellowship with God. This means that, whatever the apostle Paul’s problems with Judaism were, they could not be directed to legalism, since we know that no such legalism was advocated by Judaism in Paul’s day.

Wright’s endorsement of Sanders’ new view of Judaism and its importance for understanding Paul’s gospel is unmistakable. As he puts it, “the tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”4 This tradition of Pauline interpretation, because it identifies Judaism as a form of legalism that anticipated the Medieval Roman Catholic teaching of salvation by faith plus works, fails to identify properly the true target of Paul’s polemic in his presentation of the doctrine of justification. Indeed, the Reformation’s understanding of the gospel of free justification amounts to what Wright terms “the retrojection of the Protestant Catholic debate into ancient history, with Judaism taking the role of Catholicism and Christianity the role of Lutheranism.”5 Because the Reformation misunderstood the problem to which Paul was actually responding, it failed to grasp the real meaning of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith.

Second, in addition to his agreement with Sanders’ general description of Judaism as a non-legalistic religion, Wright also makes considerable use of Dunn’s interpretation of Paul’s dispute with the Judaizers and their understanding of the “works of the law.” The problem with the Judaizer’s appeal to the “works of the law” was not its legalism, Wright insists, but its perverted nationalism. The Pauline expression, “the works of the law,” does not refer to a legalistic claim regarding how sinners can find favor with God by obeying the law, but to the nationalistic Jewish claim that God’s covenant promise only extends to the Jews. The “works of the law” are what Dunn calls “boundary markers,” those acts of conformity to the law that served to distinguish the Jewish community from the Gentiles.



If we ask how it is that Israel has missed her vocation, Paul’s answer is that she is guilty not of ‘legalism’ or ‘works-righteousness’ but of what I call ‘national righteousness’, the belief that fleshly Jewish descent guarantees membership of God’s true covenant people. … Within this ‘national righteousness’, the law functions not as a legalist’s ladder but as a charter of national privilege, so that, for the Jew, possession of the law is three parts of salvation: and circumcision functions not as a ritualist’s outward show but as a badge of national privilege.6

The problem Paul confronted in his dispute with the Judaizers was a “boasting” in national privilege, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that the covenant promise extends to Gentile as well as Jew.7 The Reformation claim, therefore, that Paul was opposing legalism when he articulated his doctrine of justification misses the mark rather widely. Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism. Consequently, the Reformation’s reading of Paul transposes his understanding into a radically different key, when it treats the Judaizers as prototypes of a Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by (grace plus) works.

Wright’s View of Justification by Faith

Wright’s understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith assumes these two pillars of the new perspective. Whatever the apostle Paul might mean by his insistence that justification is by faith and not by works of the law, it cannot be that sinners (whether Jew or Gentile) are unable to obtain favor with God on the basis of their obedience to the law. Though this may well be true, no one in Paul’s day would have thought otherwise. Paul’s doctrine of justification must be read in the historical context of the first century, and in the light of the Old Testament’s teaching regarding the promise of the covenant. When Paul’s gospel is read in this way, which requires that we set aside the mistaken approach of the Reformation, we will find that “what Saint Paul really said” was rather different than what many have historically claimed.

The “gospel” according to Wright

Before taking up directly Wright’s view of justification, it is important to note that he regards the doctrine of justification to be a subordinate theme in Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Though it is often assumed that the gospel is a “system of how people get saved,” Wright insists that this seriously misrepresents the real meaning of the gospel (p. 45). The gospel does not answer the question of the guilty sinner, “how can I find favor with God?” (compare, e.g., Luther), but rather it answers the question, “who is Lord?” One of the unfortunate features of the Reformation and much evangelical thinking is that it reduces the gospel to “a message about ‘how one gets saved,’ in an individual and ahistorical sense” (p. 60). In this kind of thinking, the focus of attention, so far as the gospel is concerned, is upon “something that in older theology would be called an ordo salutis, an order of salvation” (pp. 40-1). According to Wright, this kind of an approach can only distort Paul’s gospel and fails to do justice to the broader historical background and significance of Christ’s saving work. All of the focus in this approach to the gospel is narrowly fixed upon the issue of the individual’s relationship with God, and not upon the reach of God’s world-transforming power proclaimed in the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. Because of this inappropriate focus upon the salvation of individual sinners, the older Reformation tradition was bound to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of justification. Even were its understanding of justification correct (which it is not), it tends to focus upon what is only a subordinate theme in Paul’s proclamation of the gospel.

If the gospel according to Wright is not primarily about how people get saved, then what is its primary focus? Wright answers this question by insisting that the basic message of the gospel focuses upon the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s new vocation involved him not so much in the enjoyment and propagation of a new religious experience, as in the announcement of what he saw as a public fact: that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by Israel’s God; that he had thereby been vindicated as Israel’s Messiah; that, surprising though it might seem, he was therefore the Lord of the whole world. (P. 40)

We will have occasion to return to the question of what Wright means by the cross of Christ, especially in terms of its importance for justification. Here it only needs to be noted that Wright insists that the principal message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and king. Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one true God, who is the creator of the world, has won a “liberating victory … over all the enslaving powers that have usurped his authority” (p. 47). Though Wright does not often clearly define what he means by the lordship of Jesus Christ, he does offer the following summary description:

Paul discovered, at the heart of his missionary practice, that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, the very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them into a community of love across traditional barriers, liberating them from paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human beings they were meant to be.” (P. 61).

The great theme of the gospel is this message of Jesus’ lordship and its life- and world-transforming significance. This, rather than the salvation of individual sinners, is the real interest of Paul’s preaching.

Justification is about who belongs to God’s family

If the gospel, according to Wright, is not about how people get saved, but the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, this has implications for our understanding of what Paul means by justification. This doctrine, though an essential, albeit subordinate theme in Paul’s preaching, does not address the issue of how guilty sinners can find favor or standing with God. This would be to assume that Paul’s gospel focuses upon the salvation of the individual rather than upon the lordship of Jesus Christ and the consequences of that lordship for the realization of God’s covenant promises. However, when we view the gospel in terms of the lordship of Jesus Christ, the proper meaning and place of the doctrine of justification becomes apparent. “Let us,” says Wright, “be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other” (p. 133). As this statement suggests, justification has to do with the question, how does the work of Christ confirm that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, belong to the one family of God?


1 “A Reformation & Revival Journal Interview with N. T. Wright: Part One,” Reformation & Revival Journal 11/1 (Winter, 2002): 117–39. The language, “turning back the clock,” is Wright’s (p. 128).

2 Christianity Today (Feb. 8, 1999), p. 43.

3 Among Wright’s substantial volumes in New Testament studies and in the contemporary “third quest” for the historical Jesus, are the following: Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996); The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); and Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

4 “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin (1978): p. 78.

5 “The Paul of History, p. 80.

6 “The Paul of History,” p. 65.

7 What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 128–9. Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Law in Romans 2,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law, ed. James

D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 139–43. In the following, references to What Saint Paul Really Said will normally be cited in parentheses in the text of my article.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.