We’ve been taking a look at the paper that N.T. Wright presented at the recently concluded Evangelical Theological Society annual conference (see part 1 and part 2). Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for a few minutes of the discussion time that followed Wright’s paper and the three prepared responses. I will say that from what I saw, the interaction continued to be characterized by mutual respect and warm cordiality. Throughout, I thought this was a model for how Christians should interact with one another on areas of important theological difference.
I have to say that I learned a lot from these three papers and the ensuing discussion. But, let me see if I can narrow things down to my most important take-aways.
- Final justification. Unquestionably, the biggest take-away for me was Wright’s clarification that he sees final justification as being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” works. Although Wright has always been clear that the works of a Christian are produced by grace through the Spirit, I have always understood him to say that final justification was based on works in a way that made it sound like final justification was not ultimately grounded in the righteousness of Christ alone. By referring to final justification as “in accordance with” works, he makes it clearer that final justification will take our works into account and will be consistent with those works, but that the final justification will ultimately be grounded in God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That clears up what has been a major stumbling block for me in Wright’s system. (In comments on Denny Burk’s blog, Wright argues that this is not a shift on his part, but a clarification of what he has always thought. If so, it would have been nice had he moved earlier to clarify what people have long identified as a major concern in his work.)
- Soteriological common ground. The second biggest take-away for me was a clearer understanding that all of these guys are on the same basic page soteriologically. They all agree the you enter into salvation by grace through faith and that final justification is by grace through faith in accordance with the life lived. Although there are significant differences about the specific locus of justification within that soteriological narrative, this discussion helped me understand that the differences are not about salvation itself. That makes a rather significant difference in how one understands the nature of the debate.
- The importance of the big picture. Wright has a well-deserved reputation for crafting a compelling “big picture” – i.e. an understanding of the entire biblical narrative the explains each particular part. And, he’s been critiqued for forcing that narrative onto particular passages – massaging and reshaping them until they fit his overall story. But, as Wright rightfully pointed out, we all read Scripture through the lens of some big picture narrative. The only difference is that he is more intentional and explicit about doing so.
- The role of Israel in the big picture. I’ve also come to appreciate more why Wright argues so strongly against the role of Israel in traditional Protestant narratives. One of Schreiner’s critiques is that Wright makes too much of Israel’s failure to bless the nations and instead argued that the purpose of Israel was to demonstrate the impossibility of salvation-through-Law. But, in doing so, he basically turned Israel into a universal example – they have no fundamental role of their own in the story of salvation. That seems clearly inadequate to describe the purpose that Israel is actually given in the Bible – God’s people manifesting God’s glory in God’s land as a blessing to everyone everywhere. That they failed in this task must also be considered, but that doesn’t mean that failure was their divinely intended purpose.
- The continued exile. I’ve never been sure why so many people argued so vehemently against Wright’s idea that intertestamental and NT data portray Israel as still being in exile even after they’d returned to the land. I’ve always liked this aspect of Wright’s narrative and have long included it in my understanding of the big picture. So, it was very nice to see both Schreiner and Thielman indicate that they were comfortable with this as well. I’d have liked to hear an explanation for why others are critical and what exactly it is that makes them more comfortable with it than others are. But, even without this explanation, it was nice to see consensus on this point. (For more on this and link to a recent paper by Wright on the subject, see this post.)
I’ve learned more than just this from these debates, but those are the issues that have been on my mind the most as I’ve reflected back on the papers. At the same time, though, I still have a few unresolved issues/questions.
- Justification and ecclesiology. I’m still not convinced by Wright’s arguments that justification is ultimately about “covenantalness” and ecclesiology. I now have a much clearer understanding of what he means by this, and I’m less troubled by his position. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced. It could be that I’m just too deeply steeped in a traditional understanding, but I simply can’t read Romans 1-4 and come to the same conclusions that Wright does.
- Union with Christ. If there’s one theme that I have often felt was insufficiently developed in Wright’s work, it would have to be the idea of union with Christ. And, I can’t say that I heard much in this debate to rectify that problem. I was very pleased to hear Wright expressed exuberant support for Vanhoozer’s recent paper on the importance of incorporation and adoption for understanding justification. Now, I’d like to see Wright make this a more integral part of his overall system.
- Imputation. This one sits more as an unresolved question for me. Wright has convinced me that justification is not a part of the law court metaphor that serves as the primary background for understanding justification. But, that doesn’t mean that the idea might not be emphasized elsewhere. Wright had some interesting arguments for how we should understand the idea of righteousness as gift (it’s okay to say that the forensic declaration is a gift, but we shouldn’t picture righteousness as a thing that can be gifted from one person to the next) and what it means to say that “we become the righteousness of God” (we take on Christ’s mission of declaring reconciliation to the world). But, I need to reflect on these arguments a bit more.
- Scripture and tradition. One of the bigger ironies in this whole discussion is that the Anglican is the one arguing for the primacy of Scripture against his largely free-church interlocutors. That’s just funny. But, at the same time, I would have liked to see a little more push back on this one. I am firmly committed to the primacy of Scripture in the church. But, I also think that Scripture is best interpreted in community, and this community must include all of those who have gone before. That doesn’t mean that new interpretations of scripture are necessarily excluded, but it does mean that we disagree with tradition carefully and with great trepidation. Although ultimately we’re all on the same page here – Scripture trumps tradition – I would have liked to see more careful, theological discussion of what a proper relationship between the two might be.
The best I can offer as a final conclusion at this point, then, is that Wright has sharpened my thinking in a number of important areas, and I’m far more comfortable with his overall way of thinking than I was before the debates. But, I remain unconvinced on a couple of critical points. However, now that I have come to see that most of the differences are intramural and do not seem to touch on what I would consider to be the core aspects of the Gospel, I’m far more comfortable with his ideas and their overall fit within evangelical Christianity.
If you’re looking for more information, here are a few other good posts on the justification debate.
- Collin Hansen (this is the best one out there that I’ve seen – other than mine, of course)
- Denny Burk (mostly just a comment on Wright’s “in accordance with” comment; notable for two comments from Wright on the issue)
- Justin Taylor (outline of Schreiner’s paper)
- Dane Ortlund (general reflections on ETS, with several comments on Wright)
- Mike Wittmer (general reflections)
If you know of any other posts that would be good to include in this roundup, please let me know.
N.T. Wright presented the third plenary paper at the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” And, he started things off by commenting on the title of the paper. He noted that some might assume this was a reference to the fact that the debate seems to be going on and on. But, the real purpose of the title was to say two things about justification. First, as an allusion to Hebrews 13:8, it points to the fact that justification is rooted in Jesus Christ, who is himself the same yesterday, today, and forever. Everything that we can say about God’s people, we say in virtue of who we are in relationship to him. And, second, the title refers to the “triple tense” of justification: we have been justified, we are currently being assured of our justification, and we will be justified in the eschaton. Wright argued that although we often speak of the three tenses of salvation, we rarely apply that same thinking to justification where it is equally important.
Wright moved from there into what he called his “preliminary remarks.” But, for preliminary remarks, they were pretty substantive.
- We badly need a new ethic of blogging. Wright expressed dismay over the state of Christian blogging and the lack of charity commonly exhibited in the blogosphere. (I think we can all attest to that unfortunate truth.) And, he called on people to blog on what he actually says and not on what they’ve decided in advance that he must actually think. Seems fair.
- Wright thinks some of his Protestant critics sound rather Catholic in their appeal to tradition. He expressed surprise that some people from Southern Seminary and Tyndale College have accused him of “biblicism” for his rejection of various traditional theological formulations. (Indeed, he commented that he’s not even sure what the term could possibly mean coming as a criticism from such quarters.) And, he pointed out that many of his critics sound like the Catholic theologians of Luther’s day—criticizing him for rejecting long-held teachings of the Church and questioning his appeal to the Bible as having authority over all traditions.
- Wright argued that the doctrine of Scripture is grounded in the unrepeatable nature of the revelatory events. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not simply illustrations of universal truths, but are unrepeatable historical events. Thus, the text has to be understood in that unrepeatable context. We can’t simply take our own questions and situations as normative, forcing the text to speak to them on our terms. Unless we are willing to understand the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of these writings, we will inevitably “demythologize” them.
- Finally, he responded to accusations that he focuses too much on minute word studies or on big-picture narratives. He commented that it’s rather ironic, then, that he’s critiqued both for focusing too much on details and too much on the big picture. But, he argued that both are clearly needed. We can’t neglect the details of the text if we are to take the text seriously. And, we all bring a big-picture narrative to the text. It’s not a question of whether you do so, but whether your narrative matches the one given in the text itself. (As a side note, he made it very clear in this section that he sees his position as related to but decidedly different from that of E.P. Sanders and is obviously tired of being lumped in one pot with him.)
With these “preliminaries” out of the way, Wright launched into the issue of justification.
- The relationship of justification and soteriology. I’m going to try and say this more clearly than I think Wright did. In a number of places, Wright suggests that justification is not about soteriology. That is actually an overstatement of his own position. As he made clear in the course of his presentation and subsequent discussion, justification does occur within a broader soteriological framework. So, justification does have to do with salvation. But, Wright’s concern is to emphasize that justification has nothing to do with entering into salvation. And, he wants to make clear that, according to him, when Paul is talking about justification, salvific issues are background rather than foreground issues.
- The nature of justification. With this in mind, Wright goes on to state clearly his own position that justification is about declaring who is and who isn’t a member of God’s covenant people. Wright spent considerable time on the law court background of justification language, arguing again that this metaphor is central to Paul’s theology of justification and refers to a forensic declaration that a person has a given status (i.e. member of the covenant community). And, he points specifically to Philippians 3 as a clear example where Paul rejects works of the Law as markers of covenantal identity, affirming instead the sufficiency of faith and grace for determining who is one of God’s people.
- The Reformed background of NPP. Wright reiterated the claim that his view of justification and the Law stands in direct continuity with that of Calvin. I forget where he first made this claim, but he again stated that if Calvin’s view of the had become dominant in Protestantism rather than the Lutheran view, a new perspective on Paul would not have been necessary.
- The importance of not “demythologizing” the text. Wright referred to this idea several times. By this he means that the traditional Protestant reading of certain texts tends to downplay the historical particulars of the situation, focusing instead on their transcendent, universally applicable, and often abstract truths. Wright certainly favors considering how these texts apply to us. But he wants to make sure that we’ve taken the historical realities of the text seriously first. So, he rejects any attempt to turn Abraham in Romans 4 or Galatians 3 into a mere example of faith. Instead, he contends that we need to see Abraham himself as central to Paul’s argument. Similarly, he thinks that we too quickly move past the sociological implications of Galatians 2 to what we think are the universal soteriological principles. Such moves are what Wright calls “demythologization” – ignoring the historical particularities in favor of abstract universalizations.
- The main point of justification. Wright concluded this section with a brief comment on the idea that justification language is always bound up with Israel and Messiah. There simply is no way to understand what Paul means by justification without this context.
Wright’s second main section dealt with the language of justification. Or, more specifically, with the question of what “reckoned as righteous” meant for Paul.
- The covenantal background of the reckoning. Probably the most interesting move in this section was Wright’s argument that “reckoned as righteous” refers to the gift of covenant community. Wright argued that both Psalm 106:31 and Genesis 15:6 connect the reckoning to reward of covenant community. Thus, Paul’s reference to Abraham being reckoned righteous apart from works does not refer to an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (more on this later), but to the fact that Abraham was blessed with covenant community because of his faith-response to God’s covenantal faithfulness (i.e. God’s “righteousness”).
- The definition of “righteousness”. Wright also made clear that he understands “righteousnesss” to refer to “covenantalness.” That is, whenever righteousness is used, it refers to the covenantal relations in some way. When used of God, it refers to his covenantal faithfulness; when used of humans it refers to status within the covenant.
- The law court analogy. Wright returned to the law court analogy here to explain that the ancient law courts always involve one person against another person (as opposed to modern law courts which are often state vs. person) in front of a judge who makes the final declaration. So, when God declares a person “righteous,” he is simply declaring a verdict in their favor. There is no “transfer” of righteousness (i.e. imputation) as though righteousness were a thing that could be passed from one person to another. So, the idea is that all humans are in the dock before God, but God has made covenantal promises to his people. So, the question is, how is God to work this out without abandoning his covenantal promises or declaring an unjust verdict? And, of course, the answer is given in the Messiah as the one who fulfills the purpose of humanity and renews the covenant people.
Wright then moved to an exegesis of particular passages. Unfortunately, by this point in the paper, he was running pretty short on time. So, he could only offer a few cursory comments.
- The exegetical basis of the argument. Wright started by arguing strongly that the debate should be driven by exegesis rather than tradition. And, he suggested that his critics need to spend more time on exegetical arguments, explaining how they read key passages and why his own readings are inadequate.
- 2. Romans 4:4-8. Wright started to get into this passage, but ended up cutting himself off short. Basically he argued that the “reward” needs to be understood in the context of Genesis 15:1, where the reward is covenant family. And, the “ungodly” (as in Galatians 3) are the people who have not yet been included in the covenantal family. So, Romans 4 is essentially the same as Genesis 15—God promises that he will create a covenantal family that will encompass all the nations of the earth through grace and faith.
Finally, Wright moved to a section on theological synthesis.
- Final justification. In one of the more helpful parts of the paper, Wright made it clear that he does not think final justification comes “on the basis of” works, but “in accordance with” works. This is the first time that I’ve heard Wright clearly articulate that final justification is not grounded in works. He does think that the final declaration of “justified” will be given with reference to works (cf. Rom. 2; 2 Cor 5; Rom. 14), but clearly states that Christ alone is the ground of final justification and that we will not earn or merit it.
- Assurance of justification. Wright was also very clear that his position should not cause anxiety about current justification. Justification is grounded in the work of Christ and applied through the work of the Spirit. So, I trust in both Jesus and the Spirit for the assurance of my own justification. As Wright states, you only get to Romans 8:39 by working through 8:1-30. God’s people have assurance now through the Spirit. Thus, future justification does not endanger present justification by faith in any way. According to Wright, “The verdict of the present is firm and secure….The pardon is free and firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it….Following that final verdict we will be more happy but not more secure.”
- Incorporation in Christ. I wish he had discussed this more, but he concluded this section by saying that he was fully in agreement with Kevin Vanhoozer that incorporation into Christ and adoption into God’s family are critical motifs with the potential for drawing together the various proposals. (The paper that he’s referring to is the one that Vanhoozer presented at the Wheaton conference. You can listen to it here.)
Wright concluded the paper with a powerful proclamation of the Gospel. He is obviously frustrated that people think that his approach undermines the Gospel. To the contrary, he contends that his approach fully affirms the Gospel of Jesus and the necessity of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption for salvation.
This post is already way too long as it is. So, I’ll wait until after I’ve summarized the responses before offering some evaluative comments of my own.