Thursday, 8 October 2009

Paul Helm on Tom Wright's "Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision"

There are four articles providing an extensive review of Tom Wright's new book on justification (which is bound to be important to Evangelicals) at Helm's Deep, the blog written by Paul Helm, Professor of Theology, Highland Theological College.

This gives a flavour of Helm's approach to Wright:

[According to Wright] Are believers justified now? Or are they only justified at the last, on the basis of a whole life? In the new book he writes that the 'future judgment.... corresponds to the present verdict which... is issued simply and solely on the basis of faith’ (165) See also 179, 207-12, 223. But it has to be admitted that Wright wobbles on this, as in 166-7 ‘the verdict on the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done’. The vagueness of the language irritates: 'corresponds to', 'anticipate', 'reflect'. How corresponds to, anticipates, reflects?, one vainly asks.
Nevertheless, despite the wobbles in stating his position, wobbles that could be given a good and a bad sense, this is a change from his Edinburgh paper on justification in which he was clearly striking a different note. There justification was reserved for the final judgement, giving his account a moralistic flavour, which invited one to draw a comparison with Richard Baxter. (See here) [And see also my own post here and the internal links] But this has to be said: the relation of faith to actions badly needs a clarificatory word from the Bishop’s cathedra to settle this vital question: are Spirit-imbued virtues a sign of faith (à la Epistle of James)? Or do they complete faith, supplement it, fulfil it? These questions cry out for an answer, but answer is there none. A clear sentence of two would have done it. It is this sort of gap that holds up the discussion and the meeting of minds. So where, according to the Bishop, (one is left to wonder) does Paul stand on this issue? And where does the Bishop himself stand?
The four articles are at these links:

Wright in General
Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be)
Wright and Righteousness
Wright and the Reformation

Here is a quote from Helm's conclusion:

While holding to a law-court view of justification Wright has at the same time failed to recognize that the Reformed view of Christ’s alien righteousness is also a law-court view. Because of this his historical analysis, such as it is, is flawed, and his exegetical tour de force of Paul’s view of justification is largely beside the point, for the Reformed outlook expresses its main claims: the law-court point, the central position of the Abrahamic covenant, and the counting of the believer as righteous for Christ’s sake.

This is where Wright’s competitiveness, his insistence of always having the last word, and his failure to provide a clear theological framework, or even to write clearly, saying what he means and what he does not mean by certain terms such as ‘moral righteousness’, and ‘legalistic’ and ‘impart’ and ‘infuse’, prove to be so frustrating.

Ouch! But then his last words are these:

Were Wright to follow through the logic of his position then, I believe, it would approach even more closely to the classical Reformed view than it has already.

So there is hope of reconciliation! There's some heavy reading here, but (given the Evangelical divisions of the present) it is important to try to understand the issues involved.

John Richardson

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  1. Tom Wright seems to have similar reservations as you do ( see Irish lectures) about the state of modern evangelism. In particular making salvation personal only and ignoring incorporation into the historical people of God. Ne brings together an apocalyptic view of final judgement from the synoptic gospels, and understanding of righteousness from Romans and an understanding of being God's people from Galatians. If alien righteousness is the same thing as imputed righteousness, he says that this is not what Paul said in Romans (What St Paul Really Said). Luther was dealing with a different problem, righteousness by self application of the the churches disciplines or bought or secured by the prayers of others. Tom Wright rejects this as much as Luther did.

    You raise the question of when does God make or declare us righteous and on what basis. The problem is not of Tom Wright's making. The righteous are judged by their works in scripture. Some escape as through fire, others are rewarded for helping Jesus when they did not recognise him.

    Tom Wright is attempting to be faithful to the whole council of God. This is better than negating parts of it by spurious exegesis.


    West Yorkshire

  2. The issue Wright brings to the fore that I think deserves further consideration is in one sense a relatively minor one, certainly a more abstract one than say 'judged by works' (where I think ultimately the language of James remains the appropriate key, that is, works are the evidence of faith: Jas 2-14-26)namely imputation of Christ's righteousness in life.

    The move in reformed circles to make this dogma a central plank of gospel orthodoxy seems to me completely wrongheaded. Firstly, there simply isn't sufficient Scriptural foundation to (clearly)support a dogma of imputed active righteousness. Secondly, the wish to base justification on Christ's life shifts it from where it is consistently located in Scripture - the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Of course, I believe (and I'm sure Wright does) that Christ is our righteousness. The question is simply how he is our righteousness.

    I'd appreciate you reflecting on this topic JR, especially if your thoughts are anywhere akin to mine.

    John Thomson

  3. Thanks for putting these together, John. If Paul Helm discerns that Wright is coming round to a more traditional position, then that's a good thing, and it makes one wonder what all the fuss was about. Has he been misunderstanding the Reformers? Wright is a clever and very industrious (even prolix) writer; but in theology it's much better to write less and much more clearly - and more impersonally.
    Mark B.

  4. Tom Wright started from a classic reformed position as evidenced by his co-authorship of "The Grace of God in the Gospel" (Banner of Truth). His post graduate studies were very much to do with coming to terms with the work of E P Sanders. He may misunderstand the reformation from the viewpoint of some historians but he certainly understands the varieties of reformed exegesis represented by say Cranfield, Barrett and Lloyd Jones.


    West Yorkshire

  5. David, a relatively up-to-date comment by Wright on his own contribution to The Grace of God in the Gospel may be found here, as follows:

    QUESTION: How would you evaluate your 1970s contribution to the Banner of Truth book The Grace of God in the Gospel?

    NTW: Well, the main thing I was learning at the time was the way in which divine sovereignty and human responsibility don't actually cancel each other out. I can't now recall which bits I wrote and which bits the others wrote: Sadgrove and Gardner wrote most, I wrote maybe 1/4, and Cheeseman a short section. But we all commented on one another's bits of course. Amusingly, Michael Sadgrove is currently the Dean of Durham, where I am bishop. I haven't actually looked at the book for years and years but I guess I would feel about it like I feel about most things I was doing at the age of 21: fun at the time, but I wouldn't do it quite like that now.

    As you say, he clearly "started from". However, it seems equally clear he is saying he has not entirely "stayed with". That may or may not be a bad thing.

  6. 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 has not been covered before, 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?