Last week in Atlanta the Evangelical Theological Society held its annual meeting (if you are not familiar with the ETS it is a society of biblical scholars and students from a variety of backgrounds who hold to belief in the Trinity and the inerrancy of Scripture). The theme of this year's meeting was Justification, and apparently a record number of attendees were present. Undoubtedly, the primary reason for this uptick in attendance was the controversy over what is usually called "The New Perspective" and the presentation by one of its chief proponents, N.T. Wright.
If you are not aware of the debate regarding the New Perspective, check out the introduction to it I posted some time ago. But in a nutshell, the New Perspective (hereafter NP) says that the traditional reading of Paul made famous by Luther is incorrect. Paul was not writing about justification by faith only as opposed to works of human merit. Instead, he was writing about justification by faith in Christ as opposed to the works of the Law of Moses. Rather than reading Paul in light of the Reformation era controversy of Protestantism vs Catholicism, the NP interprets Paul through the prism of the first century controversy over the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God.
N.T. Wright has become the "face" of the NP for a lot of people due to his incredibly gifted speaking and writing abilities. This means he is also the primary target for those who see the NP as nothing less than a denial of the gospel itself. In particular, Wright has been attacked for claiming that while our initial justification is by faith, our final justification will take into account our works. Further, Wright argues that the classic dogma of the "imputed righteousness of Christ" is simply not taught in the text, a doctrine which his critics believe is the crucial mechanism of the believer's assurance.
I have been keenly interested in this debate, not only because of the material issues involved (the proper interpretation of biblical texts), but also because of the manner in which it has taken place. I get the sense that because Wright does not always cloak his conclusions in the garb of Reformed theology that his critics dismiss him as a heretic. Yet every Reformed theologian I am aware of would agree with Wright that a truly regenerate person will be transformed by God into Christlikeness, and that the final judgment will be on the basis of works in the sense that such works prove a person has truly been changed by Christ. "The reason why the Bible teaches that the final judgment will be according to works, event though salvation comes through faith in Christ and is never earned by works, is the intimate connection between faith and works. Faith must reveal itself in works, and works, in turn, are the evidence of true faith" (Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, p. 261).
Further, Wright is not the only scholar to reject the imputed righteousness of Christ as a construct foisted upon the text. Ben Witherington (who does not see himself as a proponent of the NP) takes the same view, as do a growing number of evangelical scholars (see Michael Bird's article on the issue in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society June 2004).
So why all the heated rhetoric? If Wright is not a crypto-Catholic, why is he under such scorn? I believe it is because he has challenged certain cherished interpretations of the Reformation, and because he refuses to squeeze the text into various theological grids. Even though he ends up at the same place as his critics, that is not enough. He doesn't say it just like they do.
This is a cautionary tale for all of us who seek to "speak as the utterances of God" (1 Peter 4:11). It is easy to confuse "the way we've always heard it" or said it with Scripture itself. What matters is not how closely my terminology squares with the traditional way a teaching has been handed down, but rather with how it conforms to the actual text of Scripture .