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NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.