Friday, 15 August 2008

Wright's 'whole of life' judgement - the old order revived?

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!

John Richardson
15 August 2008

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  1. Thanks for doing this, John, for those of us without the time, patience or brainpower to unravel all these threads. I hope Bp Wright may reply (without too much prolixity) to confirm whether this is what he's actually saying. as for 'the whole of life', it does seem from the parable of the talents that there are postmortem rewards of obedience. From your scenario, it would be ironic if Bp Wright ended up making a case for purgatory!

  2. Hi John,

    I've done some thinking on this. Collected a small amass of web resources. Do some of these links help?

    Doug Wilson on Piper on Wright
    Rich Lusk on Lessons to be learnt from Wright, and Wright's Roman's commentary
    Mark Horne on Wright on the atonement, and The NPP on Justification
    David Field on Garver summarising Wright on Justification for a PCA report, and a useful interview Wright did

    The interview is helpful, I think worth watching... and it's available here

  3. Without having read Wright on this subject my first reaction would be: this is in response to the "cheap grace" so commonly preached today in Evangelical circles, where the conversion experience has become all-important while the way a converted person lives is or very little significance.

    I would say that all of our theologizing does not oblige God to act in accordance with our schemes; since he is a gracious and loving God, and since salvation is never something we earn, the question of the person dying right after their conversion does not bother me in the slightest: the parents rewarding a straight-A-student with a present are entirely free to make a similar present to the students younger sibling who is not yet in school and thus has no opportunity to get straight A's.

    I have noticed that many criticisms of Wright include the assertion that he is not upholding the reformation; personally, I think that this claim would sound strange to the reformers, for their intent was not to uphold the reformation, or their own insight into Scripture as some absolute measure or standard, but to uphold the Scripture itself as the standard and measure.

    If Wright, in studying the Scriptures, reaches certain conclusions which he thinks are warranted by the text of Scripture, he can only be "faithful to the reformation" by upholding what he sincerely believes Scripture requires.

    Even the "solas" of the reformation can never take the place of the Bible.

  4. I haven't read anywhere near enough Wright to give a definitive judgement on "this is what he says".

    But my understanding of his conception of justification is roughly this:

    Justification is not anything to do with imputation of righteousness (which NTW rejects as a meaningless concept). It is a declaration that we are vindicated (or indeed righteous) because of God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, but a faith that is assessed by the way it has issued in works. So the declaration is in a sense on the basis of the observed works because they indicate the underlying faith.

    Which, apart from the imputation of righteousness thing, is pretty much classic Protestant theology. Your question about deathbed conversions would therefore presumably be answered in exactly the same way as for that - usually via a kind of "middle knowledge" - that God knows whether the faith would have issued in works given time.

    I could of course be wrong, but that interpretation seems to make sense of everything of Wright's I've read on the issue.

    John Allister, currently of Jaboatao, Brazil

  5. Further to my earlier comment, and on re-reading the piece, I think the key issue might well be what NTW means by "righteousness" and "justification" (same root word, of course), both of which are different to the classic Reformation understandings.

    As I understand it (and I think Wright is fairly clear on this - see e.g. What St Paul Really Said for a fairly clear and concise treatment), there are two types of dikaiosune at work here. The dikaiosune of the person who is judged is that they are declared to be in the right by the judge. The dikaiosune of the judge is that they make a good decision.

    This is why Jesus' death is needed (as per Romans 3:26) - it enables God to be dikaios himself and to declare that we are dikaios.

    John Allister, Jaboatao

  6. John, as with some other comments on this thread, I think NTW needs to be assessed alongside other 'Reformation-based' theologies of 'works' between conversion and death.

    No truely Scripture-based theology ends with the crude conclusion that 'once saved you can do what you like'. All stress the importance of growing into Christian maturity, co-operating with God in working out salvation (Philippians 2:12), and note the the mystery of Christian hope, which is paradoxically assured of salvation and yet able with Paul to express hope of obtaining to the resurrection of the dead as though it is a real possibility that he may not (Philippians 3:11).

    From this perspective NTW offers some fresh thinking into an overlooked area of evangelical theology. If, in the end, his theology be judged wrong, that does not imply that any Protestant is yet proven right on Christian works!

    Peter Carrell
    Nelson NZ

  7. Paul Helm does a detailed comparison of Wright's views with the gneral Reformation understanding of the ordo salutis:

    He concludes that Wright's views have surfaced before in the 17th century and are a 'moralistic declension of evangelicalism'.

    wnpaul: you (and all of us) do have to read Wright before coming to judgment. The Reformers *did believe in 'imputed righteousness', while the Papacy insisted that *it had the correct biblical understanding of justification (cf the Council of Trent).

  8. Mark B,

    Thanks for this link, which is enormously helpful.

    I'm a fan of 'Helm's Deep', but hadn't realized this article was there.

    Due to being very busy it may be a while before I can respond to it, but I suggest everyone who has posted here should be familiar with what it has to say, if they are not already.

  9. John - you're welcome. My mind is often a fog on these questions; I need to read through Helm's post very carefully a couple of times AND Wright in his own words to see if he's exegeting Paul correctly (as far as my brain can tell). As you said on Luther, we can esteem a teacher without endorsing everything he says.
    You're a married man now, but I hope you won't take Deut 24.5 too zealously - we need you at the front!

  10. John,

    I'm no expert on Wright (or pre-reformation theology or anything much else for that matter!) and I'm more concerned of course with what is right than what the bishop thinks.

    But is it not true to say (in one sense) that final justification is my works on the basis of the whole life lived? Our good works viewed from God’s standpoint on the great final day are evidence that we were in fact regenerate and were justified by faith.

    Of course the believer is always simultaneously righteous and a sinner as Luther would have it and Wright would agree.

    Commitment to Jesus as Lord is part of the whole life lived and it is the big determinative thing in it. Life subsequent to conversion will basically go in Jesus' direction since the faith that justifies is not alone but always issues in good works where possible and to a degree. Of course there will be many rebellions and failures along the way but those who are made righteous in Christ forensically will increasingly live righteously as they grow into the image of Christ.

    Of course our final justification is not meritorious but God's action is right and appropriate. He vindicates those who are really his true sons, who (in their right regenerate minds) are on his side, his people, not those who remain nothing but rebels and enemies of God in their hearts.

    This much is classic Reformation theology, is it not? And Wright is harmonizable with it, is he not?

    Marc Lloyd

  11. "But is it not true to say (in one sense) that final justification is my works on the basis of the whole life lived?"

    That's not how I've ever understood it. I read the parable of the talents as saying there are differing rewards for obedience in the afterlife, but eternal life itself is not a reward but a gift.

  12. Mark B,

    Certainly salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Tom Wright would agree with that. Salvation is a gift.

    And yes, there are "rewards" which are not strictly meritorious for good works done as a believer.

    But it is also true to say that there is a judgement according to works by which the righteous (God's people) will be vindicated. Our good works (done by the grace of God in the power of the Spirit) will show that Christ has worked in us, we are regenerate and whilst we deserve damnation for our sin, it is fitting that God should count us as on his side since that is what he has worked in us. Our works are evidence that we are justified.

    Marc Lloyd