Sunday, 8 November 2009

Tom Wright's theology 'leading Protestants to Rome'

A correspondent sent me a link to this article from Christianity Today, headlined 'Not all Evangelicals and Catholics Together'. Bishop Tom Wright is expressing surprise at the thought that his theological views are influencing people in this way. Later in the article he is quoted as saying, "I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community, or eschatology." Nevertheless, something big is possibly going on 'across the pond' - and we know how those things seem to travel. JPR

An InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter can look very different in the fall than it did the previous spring. But the chapter at George Washington University (GWU) in the nation's capital is dealing with change of a more uncomfortable kind than absent graduates and incoming freshmen.

Shortly before students left for summer vacation, the D.C. chapter split when all ten student leaders resigned to form a new campus ministry called University Christian Fellowship. More than half of the chapter's roughly 100 students joined them. At issue was student leaders' worry that the national ministry confuses the gospel by cooperating with Roman Catholics, and has a mission statement that Catholics could sign without violating church teaching on the doctrine of justification—how sinners are declared righteous before God.

Over the past decade, justification has become one of the most hotly debated doctrines at conservative Protestant theology conferences and in the catalogs of highbrow Christian publishers. But it has almost entirely stayed in the academy and a handful of churches and denominations. The GWU clash suggests the debate may divide parachurch ministries and reshape evangelicals' relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

Jolt of Intensity
The long debate over how Protestants should view the Roman Catholic Church has received several jolts of intensity in the past 15 years. The group Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) touted a 1994 statement, "The Gift of Salvation," in which several prominent Roman Catholics affirmed "justification by faith alone." The unofficial statement predated an official agreement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, called "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." The church allowed that anathemas the Council of Trent delivered in the mid-1500s do not apply to Protestants who agree with the joint declaration.

But Protestants' internal disagreement over justification has complicated matters. A Presbyterian Church in America committee reported in 2007 that reformulations of justification (especially two views known as the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul) fall outside the bounds of historic Presbyterian confessions.

The committee's study of the New Perspective focused largely on N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham and a prolific biblical scholar. This year Wright published Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. The book counters his critics, especially John Piper, who published The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright in 2007. (See "The Justification Debate: A Primer," CT, June 2009.)

Another bombshell hit in May 2007, when Francis Beckwith, then president of the Evangelical Theological Society, reverted to Catholicism. The Baylor University philosopher has since published an account of his journey, titled Return to Rome.

"I have no doubt that the New Perspective and Federal Vision have had an effect on the Protestant-Catholic debate," Beckwith told Christianity Today. "I have met several former evangelical Protestants who have told me that Wright's work in particular helped them to better appreciate the Catholic view of grace."

Taylor Marshall went even further. Now a Ph.D. philosophy student at the University of Dallas, he started reading Wright while attending Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He said Wright's work shifted his assumptions so he could understand the Council of Trent's position. Marshall does not believe Wright holds to the full Catholic view. But he said Wright's critique led him to conclude that the Reformers departed from Scripture by teaching "forensic justification through the imputed alien righteousness of Christ." Read more 

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  1. So, via NT Wright, Protestants and Catholics are finding they have more in common than they think, because Scripture read together yields a common understanding of justification? Could the cunningly clever work of the Holy Spirit, intent on uniting God's dispersed people, once again be confounding our disposition to divide? Thanks be to God, might be our grateful response for this news. After all, one day in heaven we are going to be confronted with the fact that there are not separate enclosures for Calvinists, Lutherans, Romans, Cranmer Anglicans, Laudian Anglicans, and so on. A good time to begin to get used to each other could be in the days of this life, perhaps?

  2. No, that isn't what the article is saying. It isn't about a 'common understanding of justification' but Wright's repudiation of imputed righteousness as the Reformers formulated it. The article is saying that Wright doean't understand the implications of his own (rather turgid) writings but some American students do - as do Paul Helm and John Piper.
    Mark B.

  3. The thing is, Peter, the 'move to Rome' implies that Rome is, finally, right in a way that the former position (whatever it is) is not. This is something which Wright apparently both recognizes and demurs from. The article quotes him as saying, "But let's not imagine that a renewed biblical theology will mean we find ourselves saying, 'you guys were right after all,' just at the point where, not explicitly but actually, they are saying that to us."

    Ie, he is saying that his work would show the non-Roman view is right and the Roman view wrong, so that if anything the movement should be the other way.

    Wright's understanding of the convergence would be that Rome ought to be coming round to the 'Protestant' way of seeing things, though not in the way in which Protestantism expressed things in theological language.

    That seems to be lost of a number of people, not least those making the journey the other way.

    This relates to why I think the Personal Ordinariate is so important. It necessarily requires some Anglicans to ask themselves whether Rome is still wrong enough, and Anglicanism now right enough, for them to stay away from Rome and stay in the Church of England.

    When people like Timothy George, quoted in the article, can say the gap is about authority and ecclesiology, not justification and salvation, you have to wonder if it will still be big enough to keep people out of Rome - because sure as eggs, not many 'Romans' will opt into the Personal Ordinariate so as to move closer to the Church of England.

  4. Hi John and Mark B
    Perhaps it is early days to understand the mystery of salvation with anything like the clarity we (Protestants) aspire to!

    My point, not well expressed with a phrase like 'common understanding', might be better put this way: the stubbornness with which classic Protestants and Catholics stick to their guns on justification, and the agility with which the NPP raises many sharp questions about the truth of the scriptures to which this diverse stubbornness attaches, provides for the possibility that (1) two or more different views are faithful to Scripture (as the four different gospels are faithful to Christ), and thus (2) a common understanding might be reached between these views by affirming them rather than trying to triumph one over the other.

    Wright, of course, tends himself to a certain triumphalism about the rightness of his own views, but in this case it is possible (in my view) that his work offers a way for Protestants and Catholics to better appreciate each other's commitments - a way which the ECT is also trying to chart, and which may be provided for in the IinterVarsity Doctrinal Basis of 2000 ("justification by God's grace to all who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.")

    I will stop there for now, and finish by noting the possibility which had completely escaped me, that the Personal Ordinariate could be more like a halfway house between Roman and Anglican churches with two way transitions, than a studio unit planted well within the walls of the large Petrine property :)

  5. Personally, I'd contend that our respective (1, 2) doctrines concerning whether concupiscence bears the nature of sin is logically antecedent to the divergence between Magisterial and Roman views on justification and soteriology.

  6. Along the lines of what I just wrote, Pusey's following footnote on page 8 of his Eirenicon [PDF] (while it strikes me as prima facie tendentious) may possess more significance than one might at first think:

    -- 11 The Council of Trent says: "This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls 'sin,' the sacred synod declares that the Catholic Church never understood to be so called sin, as though it were in the regenerate truly and properly sin, but because it is from sin and inclines to sin." conc. T. p. 29. The words of our Article, "that it hath the nature of sin," involve the statement that it is not "truly and properly sin," as the Roman denial, that it is not properly sin, implies that it hath something of the nature of sin about it.--

    On another note, I find it rather frustrating that one cannot copy/paste text or links into the comment-box.

  7. -- When people like Timothy George, quoted in the article, can say the gap is about authority and ecclesiology, not justification and salvation, you have to wonder if it will still be big enough to keep people out of Rome... --
    It (or at any rate the ultramontane views of such as H.E. Cardinal Manning) was big enough to keep E.B. Pusey from there.