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What Saint Paul Really Said:
Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?
N. T. Wright
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997)

Peter is reported to have said of Paul that some things in his letters are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). This may be the greatest understatement in the Bible. In this book N.T. Wright sets out to clarify “what Saint Paul really said.” And he takes us on quite a ride.

Wright summarizes previous scholarship on Paul, and places his own work within that context. This brings him to some interesting places: Paul seen as a “Shammaite Pharisee,” Paul as Jewish to his very core, Paul seeing Jesus as divine but within the Jewish monotheistic framework (and here I find Wright’s exegesis more than a little tendentious). But the major contribution of this book is its elaboration of Wright’s “New Perspective” on Paul, a term that causes him some consternation even though he coined it himself.

Wright’s views should cause many readers of the Bible some consternation, because he upends the most common way of understanding Paul’s theology, so common that many simply take it for granted as being “obviously” what Paul meant. Wright calls this way the “Old Perspective,” and it would be helpful to summarize it before trying to understand Wright’s revision of it.

“Justification” Before Wright: The “Old Perspective”

The “Old Perspective” began with Augustine, but Martin Luther was the one who elaborated it in greatest detail in his pivotal commentary on Romans. Luther shared with Augustine a tormented conscience and a deep fear of the consequences of his uncontrolled sinfulness; thus it is not surprising that Augustine should have proven such a profound influence on him. Basic to them both was the conviction that our good works count for nothing in the sight of God, that we are so inherently sinful that there is nothing we can do to contribute to our salvation. We thus find ourselves in a desperate situation, for without some miraculous intervention damnation would be a certainty.

That miraculous intervention came in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who took our sins upon himself and suffered the punishment we deserved. The miracle was the exchange that took place: Jesus bore our sins, and through his sacrifice his righteousness was imputed to us. Therefore even the most helpless sinner can have hope. But to become a recipient of this great gift we must be “in Christ”; that is, we must have faith in him as our resurrected Lord and divine Savior. Then, as Paul says of Abraham, this faith is “reckoned to us as righteousness” and we are saved. We might have been the worst of sinners, but through this faith we are considered by God as righteous and so “justified.” Justification by faith is perhaps the foundational doctrine within Reformed theology.

While this doctrine is held sacred by many, it has an underside. It clearly implies that only Christians can be saved, since the only agent of salvation is faith in Christ, and good works don’t count. Beyond this, the doctrine in its classic form comes with a demonization of Judaism. Judaism is held to be a religion of “works righteousness,” of trying to win salvation through our own efforts, and thus a devil’s temptation appealing to our pride and taking us away from God. It is therefore seen as a threat to the true Christian life. Unfortunately, this dispute with Judaism did not remain purely philosophical. In short order, anti-Judaism crossed a critical boundary and became anti-Semitism. Jewish people themselves, so it was believed, stubbornly refused to see that their own scriptures proclaim the lordship of Jesus Christ, and so, in a phrase taken from Paul, they are “enemies of God.” Luther himself became a virulent anti-Semite, expressed especially in his lengthy attack on Jews in his work entitled “On the Jews and their Lies,” which the Nazis exploited to great effect in their own anti-Jewish campaign.

Wright’s Theology: The “New Perspective”

To his credit, Wright follows the pioneering work of E.P. Sanders in pointing out that the Augustinian-Lutheran picture of Judaism, so long accepted without question, is wrong. Judaism is not just another form of Pelagianism, or a legalistic system of “works righteousness.” (In fact, the original Pelagianism wasn’t that either.) Jews do not keep the commandments to earn points toward salvation, but out of love for God. Paul had a problem with the Judaism of his day, but it was not legalism. It was Jews’ holding exclusive title to the covenant. “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (Romans 3:29). The covenant was too important to be limited to a single group. As Wright puts it:

Israel, says Paul, is ignorant of what God has righteously and faithfully been doing in her history. In seeking to establish a status of righteousness, of covenant membership, which will be for Jews and Jews only, she has not submitted to God’s righteousness. The covenant always envisaged a worldwide family; Israel, clinging to her own special status as the covenant-bearer, has betrayed the purpose for which that covenant was made. It is as though the postman were to imagine that all the letters in his bag were intended for him. (p. 108)

For Wright, the primary question that concerned Paul was not “How do I get saved?” but “Who are the members of the covenant community?” Wright criticizes the emphasis on personal salvation in the Old Perspective. The important thing is not the fate of the individual, but building God’s Kingdom on earth.

What then is the meaning of “justification”? For Wright, the meaning is threefold:

  1. “Justification” is covenant language. It has to do with God’s promises to God’s people.

  2. “Justification” is law-court language. It has to do with God’s judgment and “putting the world to rights.”

  3. “Justification” is eschatological language. It has to do with the ultimate destiny of humanity and the world.

All of this does apply to the individual, but in a way different from the old paradigm:

  1. Covenant: To be “justified” does not mean “getting right with God,” but rather being identified as a member of the covenant community.

  2. Law-court: To be “justified” does not mean having God’s righteousness imputed to oneself, for such a thing is impossible. Rather, it means being found “in the right,” vindicated through faith in Christ, and one’s sins forgiven. It is “forensic” righteousness (i.e. acquittal) that one acquires, not God’s actual righteousness, which cannot be transferred.

  3. Eschatology: To be “justified” means that, as a member of the covenant community, one will participate in God’s new heaven and new earth and be resurrected on the last day.

This last point especially must be kept in mind, since it represents the true Christian picture of the fate of the world and of the individual, rather than the popular idea of a nonmaterial heaven that so many take for granted. Those who are saved do not end up in any nonphysical heaven - that idea comes from the Greeks, particularly Plato, and is an unwelcome intrusion into the Christian view of the end. We do not ascend to heaven. We are resurrected here on earth, in new “spiritual bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:44) that will be permanent and indestructible. The two points that set Wright most apart from traditional Protestant theology are 1) the insistence not on heaven but on resurrection, and 2) “justification” not as imputed righteousness but as a mark identifying members of the covenant community, those who will be allowed entrance into God’s kingdom. To be “justified by faith” means to be singled out as one who will participate in the final resurrection.

So here we have it: “One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus…. Believing in Jesus - believing that Jesus is Lord, and th[at] God raised him from the dead - is what counts” (p. 159). One is “justified” by this faith, meaning reckoned as innocent in the final judgment and identified as a member of the covenant community. The covenant community consists of all those who not only receive a verdict of acquittal, but who are resurrected on the last day. Wright puts it this way (p. 130): “All who believe this gospel are the true, sin-forgiven, people of God, who are thus assured of their future salvation, which will consist in their resurrection as one aspect of the renewal of all of God’s world.”

For Wright, this renewal has already begun. “In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God” (p. 60). “The cross was the moment when the one true God defeated the principalities and powers, in accordance with Jewish prophecy; it was therefore the moment when sin and death themselves were defeated” (p. 174). In scholarly parlance this is known as “inaugurated eschatology”: the end times, including especially God’s final victory over the forces of evil, have already begun.

This is central to Wright’s theology. Knowing that we already live in the eschaton, at least its beginning, incentivizes us to work to make life on earth conform to the Christly ideal. Precisely because the resurrection will take place on this earth, and not in some disembodied heaven, we are motivated to make this earth perfect. Thus we have the corporate aspect of salvation, which far transcends individual bliss. Salvation is not personal. It is joint participation in the new age by all of God’s people. The final judgment is yet to come, but those who place their faith in Christ have already been found innocent, anticipating their status in the new world. That new world is here, now, just beginning to be born. The powers of sin have already been conquered. We exist now in an interim stage, enjoying the “first fruits” “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23). So now let us roll up our sleeves and get to work.


There is no question that Wright’s contribution to Pauline studies is seminal. Romans in particular makes a lot more sense when seen against the background of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles rather than as a polemic against a form of Judaism that never existed. But once again, as noted in my review of Surprised by Hope, Wright’s scholarship outpaces his theology.

Before getting to the theology, a brief note on the scholarship. There are places where Wright’s exegesis seems weak. For example, it is by no means obvious that 1 Corinthians 8:6, where Paul makes a clear distinction between Jesus and God, is intended to designate Jesus as identical to God. The comparison to Deuteronomy 6:4 seems tenuous at best. Also, Paul reads the doctrine of the Trinity into 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and elsewhere, placing more weight on Paul’s words than they will reasonably bear. In a number of other places the text will support interpretations other than the ones Wright chooses, and so his choices are not inevitable.

The theological problems are more serious. Most problematic is Wright’s failure to address the implications of his central criticism of Israel, that Israel was exclusivist and wanted the covenant only for itself. He states:

God has called Israel to be the means of salvation for the world. His intention always was to narrow this vocation down to the Messiah, so that in his death all, Jew and Gentile alike, would find salvation. If, however, Israel insists on keeping her status for herself, she will find she is clinging to her own death-warrant. (p. 130, emphasis added)

Wright is quite emphatic:

The point is this: the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God’s means of saving the whole world. It was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell (whatever you might mean by that). Thus, when God is faithful to the covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Spirit, it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another, merely different, private little group of people who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket. (p. 165, emphasis added)

Yet defining “another, merely different, private little group of people who are saved” is precisely what Wright has done. In the name of Paul he has taken the covenant away from exclusive ownership by one group and transferred it to exclusive ownership by another group. Here is how he defines the new group:

All who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven. They are demarcated by their faith - specifically, by their believing of the “gospel” message of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the crucial term, “justification apart from works of the law.” (pp. 131-132, emphasis added)

The “true family of Abraham” no longer consists of Jews, but exclusively of members of the Christian faith. This is critical, because it is only the members of the true covenant family who will be saved. (It should be noted that such belief in exclusive “salvation” was never a part of Judaism.) So Wright’s “New Perspective” shares an important point in common with the “Old Perspective,” namely, that only Christians will be saved. Wright makes this quite clear in several places:

“But when that confession is made, God declares that this person, who (perhaps to their own surprise) believes the gospel, is thereby marked out as being within the true covenant family.” (p. 125)

“Within this context, ’justification’, as seen in 3:24-26, means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family; which of course means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant.” (p. 129)

“[A]ll who believe this gospel are the true, sin-forgiven, people of God, who are thus assured of their future salvation, which will consist in their resurrection as one aspect of the renewal of all of God’s world.” (p. 130)

“Christ is the end or goal of the law, so that all who believe may receive covenant membership.” (p. 130)

“The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.” (p. 131)

“[A]ll who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven.” (p. 131)

“They are demarcated by their faith - specifically, by their believing of the ’gospel’ message of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the crucial term, ’justification apart from works of the law.’” (p. 132)

“One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus…. Believing in Jesus - believing that Jesus is Lord, and th[at] God raised him from the dead - is what counts.” (p. 159, Wright’s emphasis)

So here we have it: justification by belief. For Wright, the criterion of salvation is a specific belief. Those, and only those, who share this belief will be saved. Of what does salvation consist? For Wright, it is not about spending eternity in heaven. As noted, a nonphysical heaven populated by purely spiritual beings is a Greek idea, and foreign to the Jewish traditions from which Christianity drew its eschatology. Salvation means participation in the general resurrection on earth. Only members of the covenant community - in other words, Christians - will be resurrected when that day arrives. The final justification “will consist in the resurrection of all Christ’s people” (p. 130); they “will be vindicated, resurrected, shown to be the covenant people, on the last day” (p. 126). Only Christians will be saved. What of the rest? Wright is too reticent to speak much of hell. All we really know is that they will not be resurrected, and will not participate in God’s kingdom in the new earth. That is the only venue where salvation takes place, and its membership is restricted. We have here a macabre version of the “Left Behind” saga: the Christian will be taken up at the final resurrection, and the non-Christian left lying in the dust. And so those not of the faith and who are not raised will be “consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket.“

According to Wright, one does not actually have to be righteous to be reckoned among the righteous - righteousness is not “imputed” or transferred from God to the person; rather, the person is declared by God to be “in the right” solely on account of one’s faith in Christ. So, presumably, many unrighteous will be saved. What about righteous non-Christians? Would Wright deny that they exist? Should they not be saved as well? This kind of question leads to discomfort in Protestant circles, because it customarily draws a charge of Pelagianism. To ask such a question suggests that people should be saved by their works, a heresy in Reformed tradition. Salvation is supposed to be by grace alone, with the implication that the kind of life you have led means absolutely nothing as long as you maintain the proper faith.

This is a very orthodox position - for all his innovations, Wright is still a very orthodox Christian. But he does modify this position just a bit. For Wright, the initial justification is by grace alone. But there will be a final justification at the general resurrection, in which one is judged on the totally of the life one has lived (i.e., by one’s “works“). Traditional reformed theologians like John Piper have criticized Wright harshly for this. but Wright does not really fall into the heresy of “works righteousness.” To the contrary, he renders the final justification by works meaningless, because he says that the initial justification is the marker revealing those who will be justified in the end as well. “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life” (p. 129). So if present justification is dependent on faith alone, and if final justification is already determined in that present moment, then any future judgment that final justification may bring is vacuous.

This leaves us with all those of the Christian faith being saved regardless of the lives they’ve led, over against non-Christians who have led good lives and will nevertheless not survive to see the kingdom. Not just followers of N.T. Wright but of traditional Reformed theology as well - anyone holding by the doctrine of justification by faith as taught by the Reformers - must recognize that this is the conclusion to which their theology leads. Some may feel comfortable with it. I would not. (My own reading of Romans preserves a non-exclusivist theology and may be found here or go to www.judeochristianity.org and search for “Commentary on Romans.”)

We might mention another similarity between the new perspective and the old: both embrace a form of atonement theology. We are justified by our faith only because Jesus atoned for our sins by taking our punishment onto himself. It is rare to face the horrendous implications of this theology. It portrays a God so savage that “his” justice can only be satisfied by the bloody mutilation and murder of an innocent human being. The Jewish objection to this position - that God’s stopping Abraham’s hand as he held the knife over his son Isaac demonstrated that the sacrifice of an innocent son can never be God’s will - needs to be taken more seriously.

(Just briefly, because this really belongs to another discussion, it is possible to affirm that Christ died for us without inviting questionable notions of the nature of God: Jesus Christ died for us by showing us that God is present with us even in our own suffering and death. In this sense it is fair to consider Jesus’s death a sacrifice - see my article “Did Christ Die for Our Sins” on this web site.)

Another seriously problematic aspect of Wright’s theology is his “inaugurated eschatology.” According to Wright, the new age of redemption has already begun; it began with the “first fruits” of Christ’s resurrection and will continue through the final resurrection of the saved, when it reaches its completion. “In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God” (p. 60).

The obvious problem with this is that the world is not manifestly less brutal now than it was before Christ. In fact, many times during the Christian era we have witnessed savagery on an unprecedented scale, and much of it perpetrated by Christians. If the New Age really has dawned, its advent has not been very convincing.

Wright states (p. 174): “The cross was the moment when the one true God defeated the principalities and powers, in accordance with Jewish prophecy; it was therefore the moment when sin and death themselves were defeated.” This is bitterly ironic when one considers the various forms Christian violence has taken during the two millennia since the resurrection, from violence towards indigenous populations who were targets for conversion, to violence against Jews and heretics, and even to violence from Christians against other Christians. How would the victims of such violence be likely to feel if told that God in Christ has defeated the principalities and powers and even sin and death?

Of course, one would be right to say these events do not reflect Christianity as it can be and should be, but that is not the point. One cannot simply say with a straight face that Christ has defeated the forces of darkness without taking into account the precisely opposite message that Christianity has conveyed to millions during its history. If the New Age really has dawned, with Christ reigning victorious over the forces of evil and death, then how could so many in the name of Christ still have acted as agents of those forces?

When we go beyond specific violence in the name of Christianity, the notion of inaugurated eschatology becomes even more clearly untenable. In an age that has seen many genocides, including one right now aided and abetted by the President of the United States, in what meaningful way can one say that the messianic era has dawned, or that the forces of sin and death have been defeated? Wright gives the impression of writing from a position of privilege. He seems not to recognize that there is another side to the Christian experience than the one he knows and lives with and in which he finds comfort. Perhaps he could learn from the many non-Christian saints he has excluded from the kingdom.

This brings us to another very critical point, bearing on Jewish-Christian relations. Wright appropriates the history of the Jewish people and the scriptures and rich symbology of the Jewish religion - including “Israel’s exile,” “family of Abraham,” “covenant” - and takes it away from the Jews. Essentially, he writes Jews out of their own covenant: Jews who remain Jews cannot enter the kingdom because they are not “justified by faith” in Christ. So instead of expressing gratitude to his Jewish source, he cuts Jews off from their own prophetic tradition. Since Jews, as well as other non-Christians, will be excluded from the kingdom, God’s covenant with the Jewish people has been nullified, and replaced by one with “justified” Christians only. The term for this is supersessionism, and it has a very troubled history in Christian theology. It leads both to the notion that God breaks promises, and to anti-Semitism. This is dangerous territory for any Christian theologian, especially since no group has suffered more from Christian violence than have the Jews.

Wright actually puts Christianity in a precarious position, because by relegating Jesus’s teachings to secondary importance and emphasizing only the resurrection and supposed inauguration of the messianic age, he would have Christianity stand or fall by the credibility of his claim that we now live in this new era. And the claim is not credible. The world is no more messianic in character now than it was before Jesus’s ministry. By his tenuous affirmation of inaugurated eschatology Wright leaves himself vulnerable to the classic Jewish objection to the Christian claim, that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he did not really transform the world, did not bring in all the exiles and did not establish universal peace. That is what was always expected of the Messiah. I would not approach this the way Wright does. I would rather say that Jesus transformed the meaning of messianic expectation. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, but not the kind that does everything for us while we sit back and marvel. Jesus inspires us to build the kingdom, not through any premature “justification” but through his example and his modeling of non-self-interested love. And through his transmission of this special kind of love, Jesus gave us an entrance to the kingdom that we didn’t have before.

Like Wright I believe it is up to us to build the kingdom, but we don’t do that simply by believing in Jesus and expecting him to complete the process at the final resurrection. If we are to speak of the covenant community at all, it cannot consist merely of people who adhere to certain creeds, but must include all those, whoever they may be and from wherever they may come, who are transformed inwardly by self-transcending love. They are the ones Jesus will recognize when they come into the kingdom.

Wright is correct in maintaining that the covenant cannot be the exclusive property of Jews. But neither can it be the exclusive property of Christians. Christianity tried that, and history has proven it a complete failure. While the resurrection of Christ is significant, it is not more significant than his teaching, something Wright fails to recognize. For Wright (and C.S. Lewis made the same mistake), as moral teachings go, Christ’s teaching was nothing out of the ordinary. This error is serious. No one either before or after Christ has articulated as he did the specific teaching of non-self-interested love. It is this that defines the covenant community. All those who completely, even if imperfectly, devote themselves to non-self-interested love belong to the covenant community. And no one group can claim the covenant as its exclusive property. This, ultimately, is the Jews’ great gift to the world. Awareness of the covenant began with the Jewish people, and Jesus, through his ministry, made it available to all. So there is no “Old Testament” and no “New Testament.” There is Original Covenant and Extended Covenant. God does not break promises, or cancel one to start another. It is all one covenant.

A faith that truly “justifies” us does not simply mark our identity or forgive our sins. Nor does it simply impute righteousness to us. It makes us righteous, by transforming us inwardly through the power of non-self-interested love. The greatest example of this love was Jesus Christ. And the changes that this love makes in us fulfill the requirements of the law. We should therefore not use Jesus as a criterion of judgment, an identity marker telling us who is “in” or who is “out.” We should come to him as our guide, showing us who we are meant to be, and even revealing to us our undiscovered brothers and sisters, who may speak a different faith language (or possibly none at all) but whose hearts have been transformed just as our own.

October 2019