I have been trying for some time now to understand the Bishop of Durham’s theology and its implications. It seems (from reading John Piper’s book), that I am not the only person who finds this difficult. I thought, therefore, I’d take the opportunity to sketch out what I think Tom Wright is saying about the gospel and then to make a couple of observations. This is not meant to be an analysis of his entire approach, but simply to clarify, and to seek clarification on, some issues.
As I understand it, there are two points at which Wright differs from classical Evangelicalism. The first is in saying that justification is not the means by which we are saved but is the result of our initial salvation. That salvation consists of our inclusion in the people of God and occurs when we acknowledge Jesus, as distinct from the worldly authorities, as Lord.
The second point is that the declarative judgement of our final justification is based on a ‘whole of life’ assessment which takes into account our works in the light of our response to Christ’s Lordship.
The ‘whole of life’ thing in Wright’s theology is something I am sure about, and here is where I have my biggest problem.
It seems to me that Tom Wright’s via salutis (path of salvation) takes us back to something very much like the pre-Reformation understanding, represented by the via moderna. I do not claim to be an expert in medieval theology, but I seem to detect distinct parallels, which is why I’m looking for help.
My understanding of the via moderna, the most respected view amongst theologians in Luther’s day, is that at the outset God’s grace for forgiveness is available to all who turn to him. God’s response to that is grace de congruo — grace given not because the action of turning to him is enough in itself to ‘deserve’ forgiveness but rather because God is ‘disproportionately’ gracious to all who do this.
Following this, however, the viator — the pilgrim Christian — is empowered, especially by the helps given through the mediation of the Church, to live a life worthy of grace de condigno: grace which is still grace, but which is merited by the pilgrim’s manner of life.
The end result is a pilgrim who is actually fit for heaven (I know Wright objects to the ‘heaven’ concept as represented here, and I share the objection, but I am referring to the older understanding, not his). The pilgrim is intrinsically ‘righteous’ — actually righteous in themselves, as a result of the transformation wrought by grace.
The final reward of heaven is therefore by grace ‘de condigno’: it is ‘of grace’, but it is in accordance with the state attained by the Christian pilgrim, rather like a child who receives a present from their parents after getting ‘straight A’s’ in their exams. The present is ‘of grace’ — there is nothing which says parents must buy a gift or what gift they should buy. Nevertheless, the present is a direct and appropriate response to what the child has achieved (appropriate in that the parents don’t give them ‘a snake or a scorpion’).
The medieval scheme against which Luther reacted was not, therefore, a scheme of works as opposed to grace. In fact, it is ‘grace all the way through’. But it is grace which depends on a ‘synergy’ between God and the individual pilgrim. Grace is given to live the Christian life and grace is given in response to the life so lived. But the pilgrim must actually live that life, beginning with the first turning towards God.
And at this point — the first turning — the medieval scheme relied on a well-established principle: “Facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam”, “To whoever does what lies in them, God will not deny grace.”
It was this whole scheme which Luther’s understanding overthrew, not by putting grace in the place of works, but by denying in the first instance that anyone could turn to God on the basis of ‘what lay in them’ and secondly that salvation was a reward for intrinsic righteousness. Instead of their own righteousness, achieved by grace effective through the pilgrim’s moral cooperation, Luther substituted the external righteousness of Christ, which becomes the sinner’s own through grace alone, to which the Christian responds with faith — faith alone.
Now, my question to Wright’s scheme is not whether he was right about Luther (or whether Luther was wrong about salvation — please don’t post long comments on either of these because I just won’t have time to reply). Rather my question is, what are we left with under the scheme Wright proposes: the ‘whole of life’-based judgement?
The question may be focussed, it seems to me, by asking, “What happens if someone, who has been a complete reprobate until that point, dies just after they become a Christian?” Supposing they are run over by a bus as they come away from the evangelistic meeting (or perhaps they are a thief on a cross). What is the ‘whole of life’ assessment?
The whole of their life until that point has been, we will say for the sake of argument, a series of acts worthy, by any reckoning, of judgement and condemnation (fill in the details as you will). Then they ‘got converted’. To take Wright’s position at face value, we will say that the Lordship of Christ was clearly presented to them, and they declared, “Jesus, and not Gordon Brown (presumably the modern equivalent of Caesar), is Lord. That is what I believe.”
My understanding of Wright is that they are from that point a member of the Covenant people of God. Then, wham! The bus arrives, the person dies, they enter the state between death and resurrection, and then, finally, they are raised from the dead and stand before Christ at the judgement. (All this is what I understand Wright holds.)
How is their ‘whole of life’ judgement arrived at?
If we take their life ‘on balance’, they must be judged guilty, since it consists almost entirely of sinfulness lived outside the Covenant.
But of course the death of Jesus atones for their sin. So we could say that their sin is not counted against them, and on that basis they are granted eternal life. But in that case, what has the ‘whole of life’ got to do with it?
We might say, “Yes, they only lived a short while after declaring Jesus to be Lord, but even in that short while they submitted their life to him, and God graciously takes that into account.” But aren’t we now back precisely in the old via moderna, with God granting grace de condigno to the sinner who ‘does his best with what lies in him’? Have we not only overturned the Reformation understanding, but returned to the medieval view, with its accompanying problems that the Reformation addressed (specifically, that God justifies the godly)?
And what if, to complicate the scenario, the cause for the person going under the bus was a child cycling on the pavement, and what if our convert, falling over the child, forgot for a moment — as we have all surely done — all their good intentions, and tried to clip the child round the ear, whilst swearing furiously at the same time? In other words, what if their brief Christian life had ended in an outburst of sin? What, now, is their ‘whole of life’ judgement?
We could say, once again, that God will remit their post-conversion sins on the basis of Christ’s death. But how is this, then, a ‘whole of life’ judgement? What has their life got to do with it? We could argue that it is a ‘whole of life’ judgement because God takes into account their intention, expressed in their conversion. But once again, isn’t this back to the old facere quod in se est — the pilgrim justified by moral cooperation with grace?
The weakness of Wright’s scheme, it seems to me, is that he separates initial from final justification on the assumption that there will always be ‘time in between’ to give significance to the concept of a ‘whole of life’ judgement. But if we eliminate the ‘time in between’, we find the scheme is either incoherent or, simply, pre-Reformed.
Comments and clarifications would be very welcome!
15 August 2008