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Breathtaking, Insightful, Necessary
on 16 March 2009
This is one of the most extraordinary books to come out of the theologically conservative camp in the past fifty years. Wright both cogently and devastatingly shows how conventional evangelical notions of "justification by faith" are construed out of garbled, cliched, and ultimately shallow readings of the New Testament. Or to put it another way: they are gleaned from the teachings of the Reformers (Luther in particular) rather than the Bible. The problem with Luther, Wright opines, is that he assumes that Paul was addressing the Roman Catholic Church in his epistles to the Romans and Galatians. This exegetical stance has wrongfooted generations of Protestant Christians.The Mosaic Law, Wright contends, was not given to the Jews so that they might keep it and thus be assured of heaven when they die, for the Law had already been given to Israel "after" God had redeemed the nation. Rather by keeping the Law Jews signified their status as God's chosen people and their calling to bring light to the Gentiles. Their failure to fulfil this mission meant that in his own life and sacrificial death Jesus the Messiah lived out Israel's original calling. Salvation, then, is about incorporation into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ - such that his life, death, and resurrection become in turn the believers' new mode of existence. For Wright "justification by faith", as traditionally understood in Protestant circles, is too "man centred". It's typically about "my" faith, my "personal" salvation, etc., which stands over against Paul's (more communal) notion of salvation because of Christ's faith and faithfulness.
However Wright's exclusive focus on Paul raises questions about other parts of Scripture, and whether, in the case of the synoptic gospels, for instance, we can so readily assume that first century Jews believed they were saved simply because they were the chosen people. Matt 19:16-30 (cf. Lk 18:18-30, Mk 10:17-22) records an incident where a Jew approached Jesus and asked what he must do to "inherit eternal life". Jesus answered: "keep the commandments". At a superficial level this doesn't fit easily with the scenario which Wright presupposes above - and at least opens up other avenues of interpretation. Even so,this is no mean book. Every conservative evangelical Christian should read it at least five times. It is spiritually demanding, challenging, and rewarding.