Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars of today, did much to bring this “new perspective” to a popular audience. His volume What Saint Paul Really Said in 1997 was a compact treatment of Paul’s beliefs as influenced by expectations of the second temple period. Wright accepts Sanders’ idea of covenantal nomism as generally applicable to the theology of the second temple texts. He believes that as Protestants we have become too stuck in our Protestant traditions and must be open to a fresh look at the Pauline material.
For Wright, Paul is essentially working within a narrative structure. This narrative is the story of God’s dealings with man through Israel, now fulfilled through the coming of Christ. God created Adam as the first of all humanity to live in obedience to himself. Adam rebelled, as did all men after him. This is the beginning of the story. God called out Abraham so that he might be a light to the world and undo the problem that came through the sin in the garden. “The canonical Old Testament frames the entire story of God’s people as the divine answer to the problem of evil: somehow, through his people, God will deal with the problem that has effected his good creation in general and his image-bearing creatures in general.” (Paul in Fresh Perspective pg 109) Israel is chosen out of pure grace, and is given the Torah and temple as a means toward redemption. However, rather than fixing the problem of sin and evil in the world, Israel became a part of the problem.
Wright promotes the idea that when the exile in Babylon ended, and the Israelites were brought back into the land, the majority of Jews still believed themselves in exile. Wright particularly defends this thesis in his 1991 volume the Climax of the Covenant. Israel, after the exile, had not gained all of the land that was expected by the prophets. They were still under foreign oppressors. The real ending of the exile would occur when Israel once again became an autonomous nation, and God directly ruled over them through a Davidic king. This idea was in Paul’s mind when he wrote his epistle to the Galatians. Galatians 3:10 has historically been used to promote the doctrine of penal substitution. The curse Christ paid for was the penalty of breaking God’s perfect law. Wright takes this verse in a different direction by seeing the curse Christ paid for as the exile. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, Israel’s exile has finally come to an end. The kingdom has been inaugurated.
Perhaps Wright’s most controversial contribution to Pauline theology is his attack on the Protestant definition of justification as promoted by Martin Luther. He contends, along with Stendhal and Dunn, that Paul was not fighting against legalism in Galatians and Romans. The ‘justification by works’ Paul writes against is not “individual Jews attempting a kind of proto-Pelagian pulling themselves up by their moral bootstraps”. (What St. Paul Really Said pg 119) Rather it is that Jews excluded gentiles from fellowship within the kingdom. Justification for Paul is a legal term. However, it is not a term about ‘getting in’, but it is a term about ‘who is in’ the covenant. “Justification in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong to the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final creation.” (ibid pg 122) When God declares one to be justified, he is declaring them to be among his people. It does not involve the imputation of righteousness. “If we use the language of law court, it makes no sense whatever to say the judge imparts, imputes, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either plaintiff or the defendant.” (ibid pg 98)
For Wright, the righteousness of God is his covenant faithfulness. It is not an abstract attribute which all men are required to live up to. It is not something to be imputed to man. It is his faithfulness in dealing with and saving his people. This underlies Wright’s redefinition of justification. It is founded in the Jewish idea of covenant. This is why several Psalmists are able to ask God to deliver them in his righteousness. In this context it certainly means deliverance, not imputation.