Wright’s New Perspective Approach to Romans 9:14-25

NT Wright

N. T. Wright believes that both Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminianism approaches misses the flow of Paul’s case in Romans 9 because they import Augustine-Pelagic controversy into the text. Wright’s New Perspective1 approaches Romans 9:14-252 as a demonstration of covenant faithfulness of God and the identity of the “member of his people”3.

Romans 9:14-25, according to Wright, displays God faithfully accomplishing His purposes “even within that human rebellion and arrogance to bring about an even more glorious work of rescue, revealing his power, and gaining a worldwide reputation for performing extraordinary acts of judgment and mercy.”(Wright 2004: 14-5). Wright argued,

It is this ongoing purpose, despite the fact of Israel’s rebellion, that causes God to declare to Moses that he will proceed with his plan for the Exodus even though the people have made the golden calf, amounting to a declaration of independence from the true God. That is the setting for the passage in Exodus 33 which Paul quotes in verse 15. It then appears (verse 17) that God is doing with Israel itself what he did with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt who withstood God’s purposes to bring Israel out of slavery.(ibid)

“[Romans 9] does not necessarily relate to salvation.” wrote Thomas R. Schreiner, “Rather, Paul is describing the historical destiny of nations.”(Schreiner 1993: 26). Agreeing with Schreiner, Wright maintained that Paul’s case “[i]n standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church”(Wright 1997: 119)4.

Paul invoking “the image of potter” in verses 20-21, was not designed to show a the final election5, contended Wright, but “was designed to speak very specifically about God’s purpose in choosing and calling Israel, and about what would happen if Israel, like a lump of clay, failed to respond to the gentle moulding of his hands.”(ibid 13) He added, “ ‘vessel of mercy’ doesn’t mean so much a vessel which receives mercy, but a vessel through which God brings mercy to others.”(ibid 16)

If Wright is right, then why would Paul’s anticipated “Why does God still find fault?” For who can resist his will?”(in verse 19b ESV) as a protest of his response toward an earlier objection, viz., “is God unjust”(verse 14)? I think Craig Keener’s observation, namely God’s purpose for forming vessels for glory is “conformity with his Son’s image (8:29) […] but endures those that are objects of his wrath for the sake of the others (9:22–23)”(Keener 2009: loc.4047), as more correct than Wright’s because from Keener’s reasoning, verse 19 objection logically follows.

Echoing Keener and contrary to Wright, David Brown argued that election, viz., God’s “right to choose whom He will [and in Rom. 9:17, He] punishes whom He will”(Brown 1997: n.p) is final. Brown contended,

If God chooses and rejects, pardons and punishes, whom He pleases, why are those blamed who, if rejected by Him, cannot help sinning and perishing? This objection shows quite as conclusively as the former the real nature of the doctrine objected to—that it is Election and Non-election to eternal salvation prior to any difference of personal character; this is the only doctrine that could suggest the objection here stated, and to this doctrine the objection is plausible.(ibid )

Representing one of Reformed commentators’ critic of Wright’s view of God’s election, Sam Storms believed that the objections in verses 14 and 19 would not have “been raised and dealt with by Paul at such great length had the issue in view been the historical or earthly status of individuals […]”. He wrote “[t]he objection, Paul’s vehement denial of unrighteousness in God, and his lengthy (vv. 14-23) explanation are intelligible only if eternal salvation and condemnation are at stake.”(Storms 2007: 126)

I am open for comments, positive critics and edification from my brothers and sisters holding New Perspective view because my reformed bias might have clouded my judgement of Wright’s approach.

What Say You: How right is Wright? Did Wright get Paul’s case in Romans 9 correct?


[1] There are many New Perspectives, but I focused solely on N. T. Wright’s
[2] Specifically Romans 9-11
[3] Which Paul  “now sees the torch being passed from a group consisting only of Jews (a selection from within Abraham’s physical family) to a group consisting of Jews and Gentiles together.”(ibid 15)
[4] Schreiner and Wright are correct in viewing Romans 9-11 as dealing with Israel as a nation but I think it’s both soteriological and ecclesiological.
[5]  Wright noted that in “the Old Testament, Israel goes into exile in order to be reshaped by God; where, in other words, the potter remoulds the clay.”(ibid 15)

Bibliography:

Brown, D. (1997) Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Ro 9:17-19). Ed. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Keener, Craig S. (2009) Romans. A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books – Eugene, Oregon. Amazon Kindle Edition.

Schreiner, Thomas R. (1993) “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 36.1: 25-40.

Storms, Sam (2007) Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election, revised ed. Grand Rapids: Baker.

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

_________ (2004). Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. Both volumes include glossaries. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “Wright’s New Perspective Approach to Romans 9:14-25

  1. Where Wright stands (indeed the entire NPP) can be maddening at times. A friend took a ThM seminar in Wright and came out unsure exactly where he stood at times. Two places that can help one get a handle on Wright are (1) D.A. Carson’s lectures on the NPP. The lectures at RTS are probably the best overview of the whole the NPP I have ever come across. Carson personally knows the main participants which puts the theological discussion into an interesting context. Wright’s statement of wanting to get to OxBridge was telling. Here is a link http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/carsonnewperspective.html
    John Piper wrote a response in which he tried to come to grips with Wright’s position.
    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/books/the-future-of-justification
    Btw, Wright’s book on the Resurrection is very, very good; and just about anything he says is worth considering.

  2. This is my first visit to With All I Am. I’m happy to see what’s happening here.

    I’m a big fan of Wright and I’ve done a little bit of reading of other New Perspective authors, though I admit I’m still learning its nuances. I’ve never considered myself Reformed, so I come at this with some different lenses.

    The overarching benefit of the New Perspective, as I see it, is that it makes a serious attempt to place Paul’s writings in an appropriate historical and cultural context. That is, NP scholars are trying to read Paul in light of his 1C Jewish culture and the milieu of the 1C Roman world. The majority approach to Paul, on the other hand, has essentially stood on the shoulders of Luther, who simply didn’t know 500 years ago what we now know about Paul’s world. (As I see, it much of the Reformed approach to Romans, for example, is to take it as a treatise on eternal salvation that can be applied regardless of culture or time. Ignoring Paul’s setting is a mistake, in my opinion.)

    All this to say that I believe Wright is on to something in his analysis of Romans. Paul is dealing with a major problem, more personal to him than how one goes about getting saved. Paul is faced with the rather sudden reality that God is embracing Gentiles as His people, while Jews, those who had a covenant agreement with the Creator from Abraham, are rejecting their Messiah. For a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” this is a major problem. How can God be said to be just and righteous if He does not appear in the present to be holding up His end of the covenant, rejecting Israel now that their Messiah had come?

    That probably doesn’t clarify Wright’s stance or the specific passage in question, but it should help place Paul in context and help place us in a better position to understand Paul’s world. Anyway, I’d keep an eye out for Wright’s forthcoming book on Paul, part of a long series on Christian Origins and the Question of God. I think it’s due out this year.

  3. Couple things:

    1. While Wright DOES write frequently from an NP view, he himself really isn’t in this camp, nor is he a member of the old perspective. He’s best viewed as a synthesizer, someone who sees the point of the NP, while still holding to (some) OP views. All the same, he’s a great resource in this matter (Paul In Fresh Perspective updates these views a little better, and his book Justification responds to Piper’s objections pretty well).

    I think it needs to be understood that Wright isn’t completely hostile to OP views, but does wish to keep Paul and the NT in their proper context. Luther and Calvin (understandably) reacted pretty heavily to the Catholic understandings of Scripture and theology in their day, but what this did cause was Paul’s displacement in history and theology. The Catholics wanted Paul to reflect their views, and so did the Reformers, though the Reformers themselves even disagreed on how Paul understood election.

    2. I see your objection, and it is indeed plausible, but even Paul seems to contradict himself if he is viewed from a Reformed perspective here. Keeping in the context of the chapter, verses 30-33 seem more to imply Israel’s own failure to be the vessels of mercy God made them to be, thus relying more on human action to, at the very least, to determine non-election. When Paul references Isaiah speaking of the offspring of Israel as what kept Israel from being wiped off the map “like Sodom and Gomorrah.” Considering the biblical theme of the hope of redemption prevalent throughout the prophets of the OT, Paul no doubt would have viewed Isaiah in this same light. With hope, however, still comes the possibility of that failure, as it was in the case of the Golden Calf (which is why God didn’t kill everyone in that rebellion; His covenant faithfulness to Israel still withstood even their rebellion, which Wright properly points out). Viewing it from Wright’s (and, seemingly, Schreiner’s perspective) seems to remove the contradiction of God’s sovereignty over against the actions of Israel while still keeping in place a higher understanding of God’s election.

    3. You are without a doubt one of the most respectful Reformed individuals I have ever met (virtually, anyways). I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Here in the States, the Reformed get a bad rep for being close-minded and condemning of anyone who isn’t 100% Calvinist. Seeing someone be open-minded in the way you are here is very relieving, and it makes me hopeful for the Reformed community.

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