Monday, 12 October 2009

Help me get NT Wright

(This has got buried as a comment on this post, so I'm moving it to a post of its own in the hope that it might get a response.)

I wonder if anyone reading this bit of the blog can help me out? I haven't read a great deal of Wright first hand on this topic, but what I have read leaves me confused as to what he is saying that is genuinely new and what he is suggesting is wrong about the Reformation understanding of justification.

I have been going back over Alister McGrath's account in his Iustitia Dei - something made difficult by swathes of untranslated Latin - and the first thing I would say is that as far as I can see the mainstream Reformers conceived of the Christian's righteousness as 'declarative' in 'courtroom' terms.

Now my impression is that this is what Wright is saying - that the 'courtroom' is a key concept in Paul, and that God's 'righteousness' is the declaration that we are 'righteous' members of the covenant community. If that is the case, however, he and the Reformers are singing from very similar hymn sheets at this point. Am I right in this, or am I missing something?

Secondly, from McGrath, the mainstream Reformers distinguished between 'imputed' and 'imparted' righteousness. The righteousness of Christ, according to this view, remained an 'alien', 'external' righteousness, located in Christ, not the believer. This was contrary to Augustine, who looked for a righteousness in the believer.

Now it seems as if Wright is supposed to be saying that the mainstream Reformers believed in a kind of 'transferred' righteousness, from Christ to the believer, which according to McGrath they did not.

Yet at the same time, it seems as if Wright is saying that, according to his understanding of Paul, justification is based on something intrinsic to the believer - which looks, at first glance, like Bucer's system of 'double justification' (by Christ and by 'regeneration' - for want of a better word). In that case, it would seem Wright has, by whatever route, gone back to a 'mid-Reformation' view - rather than discovering something new.

Certainly what I'm hearing about Wright (and what I've read) doesn't look like Luther or Calvin's ordo salutis - but I'm also wondering if Wright's account of Luther and Calvin is accurate.

Can anyone enlighten?

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  1. I'm afraid I'm not offering an enlightening comment on the exegesis of any of these writers. Instead I was just wondering about the ecumenical consequences of this. Does Wright's position of 'transferred' righteousness take him nearer to Catholic teaching for example?

  2. Albert, my understanding via McGrath is that the short answer to your question is 'Yes'. See also here on my blog.

  3. Wow! If that's what Wright thinks then I suspect a case may be made for saying that not only is he nearer to the Catholic position, but that he's come out the other side!

  4. Well, I may be wrong ... Hence the ongoing request for help.

  5. John

    I think you shopuld read an article on line on Incorporated Righteousness by M Bird. Actually, his book 'The Saving Righteousness of God' is very good and seems to me to fairly represent Wright and the New Perspective, while appropriately criticising it.

    Another book I read recently on the New Perspective (though it doesn't deal with imputed righteousness) is by Stephen Westerholm, 'Justification: Perspectives Old and New'. It is a most informative and enjoyable read.

    If, I am right, and I may well be wrong for my memory is dodgy, the 39 Articles stop short of speaking of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ's life. It is this 'bookkeeping' aspect of righteousness that Wright objects to. He sees the idea of the reckoning of Christ's life to us in justification as a kind of 'treasury of merit'. A bit inflammatory but it does highlight the problem.

  6. John

    PS. A book which traces imputation in the reformers and beyond is Vickers Jesus Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation. He quotes extensively from various reformers especially Luther and Calvin. He examines the influence of imputation in the reformed confessions. He then goes on to consider the basic NT texts that support imputation as he sees it. Vickers is evenhanded though he supports a classic reformed view. He seems to agree with D A Carson that while imputation may be exegetically weak it is systematically justified. (See Carson's online article on imputation). He considers the various texts, agrees none demand imputation but considers the case for imputation more than the sum of its parts (the texts considered). Perhaps I am reading him here through jaundiced eyes, but I don't think so.

    On Wright and 'justified by works' it is worth noting that Wright, provocatively and one suspects deliberately uses language loosely or at least without systematic nuances. This adds to the difficulty of understanding him.

    What, I think, must be held in mind when reading Wright on justification is that he works with a different definition of justification. Justification, for him, is not how we get right with God but, the verdict at the trial that asks, 'who are the people of God'. In this sense, as someone pointed out to me, his definition is not so different from reformed views (and that of James) that works are evidence of faith.

    On a related matter he stresses with the NPP that what is wrong with Judaism is its nationalism not legalism. Here, as is sometimes said, Wright and the NPP seem to be right on what they affirm while wrong on what they deny. Nationalism does seem to be a problem (we have Abraham for our father), however, so too is legalism (the parable of the publican and pharisee). His covenant nomism does not allow him to see The Law as a covenant of works, that Law, as a covenant, is legalistic.

  7. John,

    I doubt I've read any more Wright than you have, but here goes my understanding in brief:

    1. As JohnGreenview, Wright means a different thing (he thinks a more Biblical usage) by the word "justification" from the way it's used in Reformed systematics. That doesn't mean he dissents from the Reformed view, just that he uses different words.

    2. He doesn't like the language (again) of imputed/alien, as you say because he thinks it suggests some sort of transfer. He prefers to describe it in terms of union with Christ. As we come into Christ so we share his righteousness. Again, I think he does believe in classic Reformed imputed righteousness, but just thinks that's unhelpful/confusing language.

    3. He certainly thinks the Reformers, esp. Luther, misunderstood what Paul's critique of 1st C Judaism was, and that they read into Paul the RC church of their day.

    From my limited understanding, I think if you asked NTW the question "how is the individual believer saved for the new heavenes and the new earth" he would give an entirely satisfactory answer. That's if he was willing to answer it. The problem is, he wants to use different language in so many ways, and his impatient critics will only be satisfied by answers on their terms. Perhaps some compromise needed on both sides?

  8. John,

    I've just finished reading Piper on Wright, having read a little bit of Wright during my time at theological college. I plan to read the book he wrote in response, as it represents his most recent articulation of his thought on justification in Paul.

    Piper's major point is that he wants Wright to be clearer about what he means with regard to final justification (i.e. judgment day verdict) being based on works. This could be not so careful language for something reformed (works as evidence) or an indication of something more dangerous (works as ground).

    I have to say I've always been inclined to understand Wright as meaning the first of those two options, based on one or two statements where he seems to be saying as much, and also on his general rejection of the concept of meritorious anything, including the believer's life of works. I understand the confusion people have felt over this though, especially after reading Piper.

    Wright himself has suggested that on plenty of justification-related issues (especially imputation) he is retaining the substance of reformation thought whilst moving some of the labels around. I certainly think that, when married to the questions and perspectives of systematics, his exegesis and his concept of the Messiah's incorporative role, actually support the doctrine of imputed righteousness (active and passive), though Wright doesn't like putting things that way.

    Some time ago, Doug Wilson reviewed both the Piper book and then Wright's response, and I found his thoughts very helpful in this regard. He's not a fan of many of the 'new' aspects of the new perspective, but he also understands some of Wright's concerns for a big picture understanding of Paul and justification. You can find it all on his blog if you search for 'NT Wrights and wrongs' or something like that.

  9. Also, I don't think Wright always represents the reformed position in the most accurate of ways. In that sense, perhaps he doesn't read Calvin and Luther correctly. Though I'm not totally aware of him saying anywhere that he definitely disagrees with Calvin, whose emphasis on union with Christ would fit with some of what Wright says.

    It is always possible that what he rejects/ disagrees with in the 'traditional' view is either a distortion (but one based in the popular language employed in many pulpits) or a bit of a straw man.

    However, I think Neil makes an excellent point about much of this being about language and terminology. It could be the case that Wright merely denies some of the classic interpretations of texts without actually dissenting from the reformed doctrines themselves.