“The Fixed Point
In Whose Orbit We Move”
A Review of
God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
by N.T. Wright.
Reviewed by Austen Sandifer-Williams.
God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
Hardback: IVP Academic, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
God is bigger than us. The statement may seem trite, but Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision explains that many pastors and biblical scholars have missed that point when they cherry-pick certain passages and interpret them according to a Reformed tradition that focuses on individuals rather than according to the rich tradition that unfolds in the Bible itself, from the story of Israel to the story of the restoration of creation. In this book, N.T. Wright, esteemed New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has done a remarkable job of condensing the weighty topic of justification into a single digestible volume.
Justification is the act by which God makes people (sinners) righteous to God. The details of justification (how, why, when, etc.) are the subject of significant debate, and Wright brings to life why this debate matters and what justification means to Christians as the inheritors of God’s promise for the world through Israel. He does this by delving into Paul’s writings in a way that connects them to an overarching biblical story, the story of God’s promise for the redemption of creation.
Wright’s book is superficially spurred by John Piper’s implicit challenge in his book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, a critique of Wright’s analysis of Paul. However, Wright is clear that his intent is not only to answer Piper, but also to clarify Paul’s whole theology on justification for the church today, in opposition to “the truncated and self-centered readings which have become endemic in Western thought (25).” In this context, the differences between Wright and Piper become representative of larger differences in Pauline scholarship between the “new” perspective (Wright) and “old,” traditional Reformed perspective (Piper).
Put quite simply, new perspective scholars argue that Paul’s writings must be taken in the context of the first century and as part of an unfolding story that begins in Genesis, while old perspective scholars build their interpretations of Paul from the interpretations of Reformed theologians Martin Luther and John Calvin. The variances between the two groups can be so profound as to paint different views of God’s character and humanity’s destiny. In brief, new perspective scholars perceive a consistent plan by God for the redemption of all of creation, whereas old perspective scholars perceive human failure at God’s repeated attempts to redeem humanity, culminating in a plan that focuses on personal salvation. The specific debate between Wright and Piper may someday be studied as the quintessential example of the doctrinal differences between the new and old perspectives on justification. But, in case you have so far missed the Piper-Wright debate, Christianity Today recently published a helpful overview of their theological differences.
In this context, Wright begins his book. And, for those who are not aware of or do not care about the scholarly debate that inspired this book, his beginning may be somewhat off-putting. Wright has evidently grown weary of engaging in repeated debate with the same pastor-theologians, whom he sees as representative of a worldview that entirely misses the point of Paul’s message. Wright’s condescension toward Piper from the outset is initially jaw dropping, even when written with an eloquent pen. He likens Piper to one who states with certainty that the sun revolves around the Earth. When confronted evidence of heliocentrism, this man points to a sunrise as “proof” that no other data matter in the face of the irrefutable human perception of the sun “rotating” in a sunrise. However, when considering the scope of differences in Wright’s and Piper’s perspectives, with God’s limited plan revolving around individuals versus God’s majestic plan for the entirety of creation, the analogy seems more appropriate. Two of the major differences between them have to do with Paul’s statements about the “works of the law” and the role of God’s promise (covenant) in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Piper perceives the law to be a way that God provided for Israel to work toward righteousness, attempting to maintain the law to be worthy of God’s promise. In this view, Christ is seen as the alternative to the law, fulfilling its intent so that people may be worthy of God’s promise through faith in Christ.
In contrast, Wright perceives the law to be the marker of God’s favored people. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising land and progeny in exchange for faithfulness (not in exchange for keeping the law). The law was given, in part, as a means for identifying the recipients of this covenant (Israel), not for achieving its promise. Christ is the way that God’s promise to Israel is extended to the world. Therefore, the law is no longer necessary to show distinction or favored status, because, through Christ, favored status is available to all. God’s covenant with Abraham s critical because it is central to God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (a phrase Wright uses so often in his book that it may have been a more appropriate subtitle than the one he used). Wright explains, “…for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family (116).”
The book is divided into two larger sections, each with four chapters. In the first section, Wright introduces concepts and terms related to justification and the current debate in interpretations of Paul. In the second section, Wright offers an exegesis of Paul’s letters to Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans.
Wright’s book is exhilarating in how it draws together concepts and illustrates specific ways in which God’s purpose is simply bigger than individuals. Indeed, particularly in the second part of Wright’s book, the beauty and complexity of Wright’s analysis (and Paul’s message!) had me excited about Paul in a way that I had never been before. In the past, I had seen Paul mostly as a messenger of how the early churches should act in the face of adversity…certainly some useful information for Christians, but not as relevant as the gospels themselves. Wright reveals a Paul whose impressive theology draws together God’s promise to Abraham and God’s promise through the resurrected Christ. Wright’s passion for Paul jumps of the pages with phrases such as “majestic” and “leaves us breathless,” as well as exclamation points of excitement when messages become clear. Wright describes Ephesians as “one of the most visionary texts ever written (168)” and Romans as “one of the greatest documents ever written by a human being (175).” I could not hold back from reaching for my own Bible multiple times, re-reading passages with new eyes for the lyricism and persuasive, cogent argument that Paul unfolds in his letters.
Although Wright states repeatedly that his book is too simple an overview of Pauline analysis, readers who have not dedicated themselves to exegetical pursuits may find this book to be dense indeed. Unlike many of his other works, this book is not intended for popular audiences, but for pastoral and scholarly ones. However, there is such a rich tapestry of potential discussion topics, particularly in the exegetical portion of the book, that this book lends itself well to small discussion groups of dedicated people who wish to explore the depth of the Bible, rather than the quickly digestible surface meanings.
With this work, Wright exposes the hypocrisy of people who claim to follow the letter of Scripture and pull passages out of context to backup their interpretations. By refusing to fragment Paul’s writings, thereby emphasizing the importance of the whole argument that Paul lays out, Wright out proof-texts the proof-texters. It will be difficult to counter Wright’s clear analysis of Paul’s message that “justification is more than simply the remitting and forgiving of sins, vital and wonderful though that is. It is the declaration that those who believe in Jesus are part of the resurrection-based single family of the Creator God (248).”
In his conclusion, Wright poetically comes full circle, showing readers again the reason behind his initial analogy about the sun’s rotation. “The Risen Son is the fixed point in whose orbit we move, the one who holds his people by his power and sustains them by his love, the one to whom, with Father and Spirit, be all love and all glory in this age and in the age to come (252).”
With this eloquent ending, Wright makes clear that a serious pitfall in misreading the biblical data that point to an overarching and consistent plan of God is that a person may come to believe that the Son revolves around him or her. In this me-centric Western age, such a message is comforting and resonates with the overall culture. But, Jesus’ (and Paul’s) message was always a radical one, which calls us out of the comfort of enslavement and into the freedom of recognizing and participating in the transformation of creation into the loving, just, and righteous world God always intended it to be.
Austen Sandifer-Williams is an associate pastor, writer, and creator of the forthcoming blog, “Basil and Butterflies” on faith, parenting, and engaging the sacred world. She holds a Master’s degree in Religion from the Graduate Theological Union.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com