Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking A Pauline Theme

September 2, 2014 — 3 Comments


Stephen Westerholm opens Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking A Pauline Theme saying, “Those of us brought up, not simply on the letters of Paul, but on a distinctive way of reading those letters, do well to engage with those who read Paul differently (vii).” He then explains that his short work (which is under 100 pp.) will engage with scholars who are asking fresh questions when it come to Paul and justification.

When I think of people obsessed with “freshness” when it comes to Paul, I think immediately of N. T. Wright, who uses the word roughly once every 10 pp. in Paul and The Faithfulness of God. While Westerholm doesn’t confine himself to interacting with Wright, he is definitely a scholar on his radar.

While this book is new, much of the material is not. Westerholm aims to update and make more accessible earlier work he has done (viii). In particular, he is drawing on two key journal articles and a conference paper.

Chapter 1 explores the difficulties that come with bringing Paul into our modern context. Krister Stendahl is the scholar whose fresh questions have provoked controversy here. Chapter 2 turns to the “Jewishness” of Paul’s doctrine of justification and E. P. Sanders’ work figures prominently.  Chapter 3 turns to questions of how much Luther’s understanding of justification might be read back into Paul’s. Heikki Raisanen is the one asking questions here and the Finnish/Luthern school of theology is the result. Chapter 4 moves to the king of freshness himself, N. T. Wright. Specifically, Westerholm is probing Wright’s definition of righteousness as “covenant faithfulness.” This chapter alone is about a quarter of the book, and stands at the heart of Westerholm’s study.

After wrestling with Wright, Westerholm moves on to investigate the role of the works of the law and comes in contact with James Dunn’s work on the subject. Chapter 6 takes on Douglas Campbell’s massive work The Deliverance of God, which itself questions Western theology’s “obsession” with what Campbell calls “justification theory.” Westerholm offers brief pushback before wrapping up with a concluding chapter which summarizes his concerns and points “in a nutshell.”

Overall, this is a valuable little book. One weakness might be that I wish it were longer and containted more sustained interactions. However, that isn’t really Westerholm’s aim. If accessibility is the goal (and for Westerholm, it is), then this book hits the mark. For people who are not familiar with the major names asking significant questions about how we understand Paul, this is an excellent little primer. Even for people who are, this is a thought provoking read in which a scholar demonstrates the willingness and ability to listen to different scholarly accounts of Paul and then thoughtfully and gracefully interact with them. We would do well to have more works in the vein.

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking A Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, November, 2013. 112 pp. Paperback, $15.00.

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Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking A Pauline Theme

  1. There’s no insult like mild approval. So (you knew I HAD to jump in to ask something like this!) what did Westerholm say / or what would he say based on your reading of this / of Trent’s Canon 9 on Justification, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema”?

    • I’m not sure I can make sense of that, so I’m not sure what Westerholm might say. He doesn’t touch on it in this book, but I imagine he would have elsewhere. He’s more or less an Old Perspective guy, so imagine whatever you think D.A. Carson or Tom Schreiner (your favorite) would say.

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