Saturday, 27 November 2010

Clarifying Wright - maybe!

Further to my blog post about understanding Tom Wright, someone sent me a link to this clarification by Justin Taylor of What N.T. Wright Really Said. I think this is worth reading in full for those who are trying to get a handle on Wright, and especially the last section which I reproduce below.

What I would note is that it is not just conservatives who seem to think that Wright has said what he roundly asserts he is not saying, ie that what we do contributes, per se, to whether we are saved 'on the basis of good works'. I have certainly got the impression from others who thought they were 'following Wright' that this is what they understood him to be saying.

Furthermore, Wright has indeed used the 'B' word ('basis') in reference to final judgement:
And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit — that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the “call” of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. (N. T. Wright, “New Perspective on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006): 260)
It is the use of basis which seems to be at the heart of the confusion, not only amongst Wright's critics at this point, but some of his supporters. Works are the 'basis' of final justification (the declaration that one is a member of God's people) in the same way, we might say, that having a passport is the 'basis' on which one is allowed into the country of one's birth. And this, I would suggest, is no different from the classical Reformed position expressed in Article XII: "[Good works] do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit."

Here, then, is the final paragraph of the article in full.
4. What is the meaning and significance of Wright’s assertion at ETS that final justification is “in accordance with” and not “on the basis of” works?

We return now to our original question: has Wright changed his view by denying that final justification is “on the basis of” works?  In short, the answer is no. Nothing that he said indicated that he has changed his understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language in Paul’s writings. Nothing that he said indicated that he has changed his understanding of the trial to which justification stands as a verdict. On the contrary, he reasserted his position on both of these points.

What then did the denial of “basis” as an appropriate way to talk about the relationship between final justification and Spirit-inspired works mean?  The most responsible reading of this statement is that Wright is denying the interpretation of his writings that insists that he equates the believer’s righteousness in final justification with Spirit-inspired works. I think that everyone in the room who has read his works carefully was probably stunned to hear him say that he did not remember using the language of “basis” in this way, but I think that his lapse in memory on this point demonstrates that the language of “basis” is so inessential to what Wright has always meant that he can dismiss it without realizing how frequently he has used it in the past. Basically, Wright’s shift in language simply means that he is using new wording to express what he has always been saying, but in a way that is less apt to be misunderstood than his previous statements. He still holds that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one is truly a member of God’s covenant people in final justification, and this corresponds to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification. He has not changed his view at all, but he has finally offered the clarification for which Piper hoped by denying that he understands works to be the “basis” of final justification in the way that Piper understands Christ’s righteousness to be the “basis” of final justification. One might wish that he had made this clarification clearer in his book-length reply to Piper (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision), but we may all be grateful that he is now speaking in a way that perhaps fewer people will misunderstand. Also, perhaps the debate can now shift from this red-herring to the real points of disagreement: Wright’s understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language and his construal of the question under consideration in the divine courtroom. On these points, Wright should be engaged and evaluated with an open mind, an open heart, and, not least, an open Bible. The discussion at ETS was a fine example of such engagement, and we should all be thankful to the panelists for modeling a charitable dialogue on this issue focused on the exegetical details from which the differences arise. May God give us wisdom as we continue to consider His Word together.

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  1. Those following this discussion might like to see an update on the overall topic here:

  2. I'm not sure which is now going to be the 'live' discussion - so I've posted the following on all three threads!

    Maybe if passports had been around, Paul would have found it easier to explain things? Or maybe people wouldn't have misunderstood him? Or maybe not? E.G.:

    As they become an 'alien in a foreign land' a Christian is, metaphorically speaking, given a passport to their homeland by God when they are brought to faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working within them. That doesn't mean that they will live by the laws of that land, although they will naturally want to do so. It doesn't even mean that if they don't then the passport will be taken away. It simply means they have the permanent right of entry to that new homeland (which has been freely given them).

    However, as citizens of that new homeland they will do their utmost to respect and love the Lord and ruler of that land, and to follow the laws of that land - on many occasions they will fail, but without penalty. The passport remains theirs despite such failings. But, again, because the ruler of that new land means so much to them, they will show their respect and love for the land and its ruler and so they will naturally express sorrow for their failure to live by its laws.

    In all this they remain citizens of this new land, under the leadership of its Lord and ruler. At no point does anything they do or do not do make any difference to their citizenship.

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