Sunday 28 November 2010

A Clarification from Tom Wright

Tom Wright has sent the following, which he wanted to post as a comment, but which is too long. I commend it for people who have been following the debate here (Baffled by Wright - or maybe not!) and here (Clarifying Wright - maybe! - and can I just add I'm entirely with him on anonymous posting, please see the comments policy which appears at the bottom of every article here and still gets ignored!):

I'm glad to see that some clarification is coming. The confusion around the blessed word 'basis' is instructive. The word itself, of course, is not biblical. None the worse for that; as you say, the word 'Trinity' isn't, either, and I agree with those who say it's a fine and solid summary of things that are firmly there in scripture. That's not my problem. The problem is that words like 'basis' -- and other terms such as the 'heart' or 'centre' of Pauline theology, and so on -- can be far more slippery than they sound. I notice, John, that in your own original posting you say that I said something which meant that 'this transformation will be the basis of a 'final verdict' on their lives' -- whereas I had done my best to keep the word 'basis' out of it for the moment! It creeps back in. You likewise say in a later post something about present justification 'on the basis of faith' -- on which see below. Now I don't think that's a bad thing. The trouble is that clearly for some in the neo- or hyper-Reformed camp (I'm not sure how strictly Reformed they all are) the word carries far more freight than it has ever done, in my experience, for most English Reformed Christians. The strict (Piperesque?) interpretation seems to use it to mean 'the sole foundation upon which everything rests'. But that's tricky, isn't it? After all, even Paul could use 'foundation' in 1 Cor 3 to refer to Jesus Christ himself and in Eph 2 to refer to the apostles and prophets -- with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone holding them together. Why not shift metaphors if it helps? But there has crept in a kind of word-concept fallacy about slippery terms like 'basis' where it can only mean one thing. (One of your correspondents, trying to put me right, suggests that Piper and I are saying the same thing in different words. That is sometimes true -- and I have said so myself, quoting Newman about the difference between words and things-- and sometimes it is clearly, manifestly, not the case, for instance in the imputation question.)

When I used the word 'basis' (as I obviously did -- when I was preparing for the conference I was surrounded by unopened boxes and all the stuff of moving house, so couldn't check; and I knew I hadn't taken the theological position that the Piperites were accusing me of), I was not meaning it in that strict and narrow sense. I was using it in the way people speak of being justified in the present 'on the basis of faith'--which a lot of people do say without intending any heresy!, but which we know is shorthand for 'on the basis of God's action in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and by the work of the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel which leads to . . . faith'. Phew! In other words, I wasn't meaning 'this and only this, without reference to Jesus and the Spirit'. I was meaning -- as I make abundantly clear in several passages -- that Paul insists in Romans 2 and elsewhere that 'to those who by patience in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life'. Again and again over decades I have stressed to students, readers, and anyone else who will listen, that this isn't a proposal for a Pelagian-style self-effort moralistic auto-justification, such as everyone from Augustine to Luther and beyond declared to be off limits. It's a way of saying -- which Paul then elaborates as the letter goes on -- that when the Spirit works in someone's life the transformation which is effected will show up in a changed direction, a different tenor of life, which, even though not perfect (Philippians 3.12-16), nevertheless indicates the work of the Spirit.

Part of the problem is that the debate has regularly been conducted at one or two removes from exegesis, and people have a truncated view of what Paul said as a result. Paul's exposition of justification in Romans doesn't stop with chapter 4 (still less with 3.28 as you might think from some!). Romans 8.31-39 is all about justification -- but you only get that glorious conclusion as a result of working through 8.1-30, with the bracing imperatives of 8.12-16 in particular: if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live! Pretty clear stuff, that. And it doesn't mean a smuggling in of 'works' by the back door; nor does it mean a diminution of the solid assurance given in justification by faith, as some have absurdly charged me with implying.

One of the great problems is that many on both sides of the Atlantic who have been taught 'justification by faith' in a simple (simplistic?) format have never spotted that in the NT there are three tenses of justification. I have highlighted present and future, and there is a major difference between them (present, as in Romans 3.21-26; future, as in Romans 2.1-16). Part of Paul's whole argument in Rom 1-8 hinges on the apparent tension between these, and how Paul resolves it so splendidly in 8.1, running on to 8.31-39. That is the arena in which debate should be held -- discussion of what Paul really meant -- rather than discussing whether this or that view is 'more properly reformed'.(By the way, you seem at one point in your post to identify 'Reformed' with Luther, which is surely precisely the wrong point -- Luther had a negative view of the Law, Calvin a positive one.) If you want to know my position on the Reformed doctrine, I think I agree with most of it (though I try to put it in a more biblical and less mediaeval framework) except 'imputed righteousness', which as I've argued in great detail is trying to do an important job but is doing it in a strictly less-then-fully-biblical way. But, as I said in Atlanta in the meeting which started all this (well, it didn't exactly start it, but in that loose sense it was ... shall we say, the 'basis' for it ...), this is a debate about scripture and tradition. Evangelicals have always said we must assess all traditions, including our own, in the light of scripture. That was Luther's and Calvin's principle, and it has been mine ever since I was old enough to understand these things.

I don't think, by the way, the parable of the sower is germane to this. It's about the way the Kingdom works... Nor is 1 Cor 3 strictly relevant, since it isn't about everybody's final judgment but about church leaders/teachers/apostles who are building on the foundation. Still, it could be thought to apply obliquely I suppose.

I was particularly struck (as in, surprised) by your formulation of 'salvation (how we are saved) and justification (that we are saved)'. At first I wondered whether you'd deliberately said that the wrong way round to see who was awake at the back of the class... Surely if we are to have a serious discussion one must be a bit more nuanced and sharp than that? Salvation means 'rescue', which in Paul means rescue from sin and death (as opposed to the Gnostics for whom it meant rescue from the material world/body). It therefore connotes resurrection, the new immortal body which will be incapable of both sin and death (and pain etc). Justification means 'the verdict "in the right" which is the precondition for that salvation. God utters that verdict "in the right" whenever someone believes that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 4.24f., 10.9-19). But that verdict, issued firmly and irrevocably in the present, will be reaffirmed in the future . . . when, however, the Spirit who (through the proclamation of the gospel) inspired that faith in the first place continues his work to produce the fruits of which Paul speaks again and again from Rom 2.25-9 through Rom 6 and 8 to Rom 12-15. And what will the Spirit actually do at that point? Why, raise us from the dead. So, in terms of final justification, the actual event in question will be the same event resurrection into the life of God's new world) as 'salvation', but the two will connote quite different thing. I agree with you, by the way, that baptism is the public event, corresponding to faith as the private event, which marks out God's people in the present. But, on final justification, as I said on someone else's blog, I wonder why nobody has mentioned Galatians 5.5f., where it's future justification on the basis of . . . whoops, I mean of course in accordance with ... 'faith working through love'. Has Paul thereby gone back on the great 'faith-alone' statements of Gal 2, 3 and 4? Of course not. They are about the present justification; this is about the future. The same Spirit who inspired faith will inspire such 'working through love' as will be the sign for the future.

I hope all this is reasonably clear. I didn't know whether to be amused or insulted by the chap on your blog who said I must be unclear because I'd never been a parish priest. (I suppose being Dean of a cathedral doesn't count either.) I would like to show him the files and files of letters, postcards, emails and so on from the Old Mrs Joneses of this world who have thanked me heartily for explaining things, in sermons and books, in a way they can understand and in a way that their own vicar had never made clear . . . But maybe he doesn't realise (some don't) that the NT Wright of the academic books is also the Tom Wright of the Everyone series...

I was also struck by the attempt by Ro Mody to systematize a Wright-says-this and Reformed-says-that view. It really doesn't work like that though I haven't got the time to explain why. But please be it noted: I have always, always, stressed penal substitution as being right at the heart of things, both for Jesus and for Paul. I do that in preaching and teaching as well as writing. It is one of the saddest slurs I encounter when people suggest I don't really believe or teach this. It's a way of saying 'we don't understand Tom Wright and he's saying things we didn't hear in Sunday School so he's probably a wicked liberal, and since wicked liberals don't believe in penal substitution he probably doesn't either.' In fact, chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God is, I think I'm right in saying, the longest ever modern justification of seeing Isaiah 53 at the very centre of Jesus' own self-understanding -- which is at the very heart of everything else about the meaning of the cross. That is not to say, of course, that I agree with every way in which penal substitution is expressed. Like all doctrines, it's possible to state it in less than fully biblical ways, which then introduce their own new distortions. Put it back in its biblical context -- which includes Jesus' message about the kingdom of God, though you'd never know it from some evangelical writing -- and it makes glorious sense. Gospel sense.

Enough for now. Perhaps it's no bad thing for casual bloggers, slagging someone off cheerfully as some of your folks do, to know that the person concerned may actually read what they say from time to time... but then if they hide behind anonymous alias identities I suppose that makes it all right ...?

Greetings and good wishes, not least for Advent Sunday which is almost upon us,
reminding us of the great future in which all our past and present is finally resolved.

Tom Wright

N T Wright, St Andrews

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  1. Thanks John (and Tom)

    I am greatly encouraged by the deconstruction of what we often encounter as 'soundness' in relation to how doctrines are expressed. The article is a reminder that this mode of doctrinal ratification is often caused by a laziness in grappling personally, devotionally with the Bible itself. I sometimes think there are just too many books competing with the Bible for our attentions...

    Very helpful, thank you.

    John, Manchester

  2. It occurs to me that, although I do strongly believe the New Testament offers an unequivocal message that faith and not works is the basis of salvation, there is scope for different emphases within this. For example, the Galatian's mention of "faith working through love" suggests,to me in any case, that the working out of our salvation is not a simple Calvinistic matter of pure justification through faith with no reference to how that faith, as Wright says, transforms us and our actions.
    As with so many doctrinal issues, those espousing them choose to emphasise the aspects of scripture which support their view. So, I hear little mention from Calvinists of James 2: 14-26 which reminds us that faith without works is dead.

    I have to say I did not find the sentence you had problems with, John, even remotely confusing or problematic in terms of its meaning or scriptural validity.

  3. "...a simple Calvinistic matter of pure justification through faith with no reference to how that faith, as Wright says, transforms us and our actions."

    I don't know any Calvinists (and I think I am one myself) who believes that. Do you actually know any Calvinists, Suem, or have you ever read the Institutes?

    Mark B.

  4. John, could you repost this, omitting all of Tom's unnecessary parenthetical asides and apologias of his preaching ministry, so that it consists simply and clearly of what Tom DOES say positively about the meaning and means of "justification" (and not what he thinks of the "Piperites" etc).
    A stripped- down 8-10 line paragraph free of polemics and apologia would really help understanding.
    Mark B.

  5. That was very helpful. Thank you.

  6. Anonymous and all others interested,

    I have written a post attempting to summarize what Wright said at ETS concerning the word "basis" and how it relates to what he has previously said about justification. The title is "What N. T. Wright Really Said," although my suggested title added "(According to Andrew Cowan)." You can find it at

    I think that my description of Wright helps to make sense of what he has said, but uses the particular language of the Reformed folk who have been so confused about what he means. If you still find what he said here confusing, you might want to take a look at that article and then return here to re-read his comments in the light of that explanation. Of course, if I am incorrect in my reading of Wright, I'd be happy for him to explain where I have missed it, but I think that my explanation faithfully reflects what he has written on this topic.

    Andrew Cowan

  7. Sorry,

    I failed to look at your previous posts and see that you had already made reference to my article! I also forgot my location. Thanks.

    Andrew Cowan
    Murphy, NC

  8. I have read the Institutes, Mark B, and I have met some people who describe themselves as Calvinists. These have been mainly online, although I have a very dim memory of a rather peculiar man who believed himself one of the elect, no matter what he did, at a bible study group that I attended in my early teens.
    I believe the institutes describe the doctrine of predestination in which some are elected to salvation others to eternal damnation?
    How do you define "a calvinist" - I think people who claim this term for themselves might come in different shades and colours and are more than likely prepared to fight to the death to claim their doctrines are truly Calvinist!

    I have noticed that a lot people who believe they are among the elect are incredibly uptight, touchy people though. Which is weird, because you'd think that believing you were eternally predestined to salvation would give you a relaxed vibe on life?

    Present company excepted, of course.

  9. Suem, as you say, "you'd think that believing you were eternally predestined to salvation would give you a relaxed vibe on life".

    So I can't help thinking of Article XVII:

    "the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God".

    I think this does actually 'work' in practice, when we appreciate that our salvation depends on God, not ourselves.

  10. John, it should work that way and maybe it does for the vast majority. I'm just saying that I've met a few calvinists that were so uptight you couldn't get a hairpin out of their proverbial with a tractor winch, so to speak.
    Of course, this is true of some other denominations as well, but I have noticed the more people tend to the strictly "logical" extremes of believing in election and predestination the more they are like this.

    Just a personal and subjective observation, can't be proved!

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

  12. Well done if you have read the 'Institutes' - I have met relatively few who have heard of it, let alone read it (and I haven't read it all), although it is really quite lucid. Most Protestants have little taste or aptitude for systematic theology. I doubt Calvin would have thought that 'very peculiar man' you refer to had understood him at all but more likely would have quoted: "Not everyone who calls me "Lord, Lord" etc'." After all, don't liberals castigate Calvinists for being legalists?!! Predestination and human responsibility and how they relate are mysterious things, and I don't understand them but only hold them in tension; Warfield talked about these things being 'concursive', which doesn't solve but only draws a boundary around a mystery. I know I cannot save myself but depend wholly on Christ's grace, which is a gift not a debt to me. Why I should receive it (through faith) and another doesn't, is something I don't claim to understand. It is certainly no ground for boasting - or antinomianism! Predestination to life and God's perfect justice toward all his creatures are certainly taught by Scripture, and Augustine wrestled with these things centuries before Calvin. The heart of Calvinist faith is solo Christo, sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura - and solo Deo gloria.
    As for certain people's uptight and touchy characters: personally I put it down to a lot of 'cultural Calvinists' coming from Ulster or Scotland. The absence of sunshine, the abundance of rain, the poor food, poverty and historical animosities of those places can dampen the sunniest of dispositions and denominations, like my Scottish Catholic mother's.
    Mark B.

  13. 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.

  14. I think it is worth giving Wright's theology a charitable reading, rather than people assuming he is a "liberal" because he is cleverer than most of us.

    I think there are many instances where - just because we don't understand what he is saying - we can cede to Wright's credentials rather than casting doubt on them. However I have found Wright's theological explanations, in general, to be wonderfully clear.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wright's book on justification, particularly his section on Jesus' Torah-observance, and how he points out that we are justified by the death and resurrection, not via Jesus' vicarious faithfulness to the Law. I think this was one of the clearest explanations of this tricky topic I have ever read, and answered many questions that I had in my own head.

    That said, I hugely enjoy John Piper's writings too.

    Perhaps we can celebrate the apparent Piper-Wright tensions as two people looking at the same truth from different viewpoints, just as we can celebrate Paul and James (although clearly Piper & Wright do not produce holy writ!)

  15. Hi Mark B, I studied the Reformation as part of Tudor history A level at school and then did a subsid course focusing on theological perspectives before, during and after the Reformation as part of my degree,(a long, long time ago.)
    We read the Institutes, or extracts from the Institutes as part of this. We looked at lots of figures from Wycliffe to Erasmus, at Arminianism, Lutherism and Calvinism. We looked at some of Calvin's disciplines, such as Melanchthon and at Basel as a Calvinist " city state".
    I was also brought up in a family that ensured I knew my bible reasonably well and that does help you to make some of the "links". I'm not in any way a theologian, nor a historian, but I think I have a reasonable lay person's grasp.

  16. Melanchthon was Luther's 'disciple' and successor, rather than Calvin's. I don't know whether Basel was particularly 'Calvinist', unlike Geneva (whcih Calvin didn't 'rule').
    Calvin understood himself to be reasserting Augustine's doctrine of Predestination, as did the Dutch Catholic bishop Jansen, who influences Pascal.
    Any which way one looks at the doctrine of divine grace is problematic, but that does show the limits of human reason and judgment - and the flaw in theological liberalism.
    Mark B.

  17. Basel was certainly not "Calvinist" in the 16th Century, nor even consistently "Reformed." Simon Sulzer, "Antistes" of Basel from 1553 to his death in 1585, was one of those rare Swiss Reformed clergy who preferred the theological views of Luther and his followers to those of Zwingli, Bullinger and Calvin -- for which he had to leave Bern after it adhered to the Consensus Tigurinus on the Eucharist between Bullinger and Calvin in 1549. As Chief Pastor in Basel he worked long and hard to swing the city over to the Lutheran side (like neighbouring Strassburgh), and he was instrumental in the Margravate of Baden-Durlach deciding to embrace Lutheranism in 1556. After his death, Basel swung back, permanently, to the Reformed side.

    The interior arrangement of the Cathedral at Basel, with an (unused?) stone altar in the midst of its chancel towards the East end, erected in Sulzer's time, and a long wooden communion table directly in front of the pulpit, is a kind of historical relic of those days.

    Of course, Bern, which never deviated from Reformed orthodoxy (in the style of Zwingli and Bullinger, rather than of Calvin) has an unusual stone communion table in the middle of its Grossmuenster, erected in 1602 as a gesture of rejection of the idea that "the customs of Geneva" should be taken as the touchstone of Reformed orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

  18. I may be getting Bern and Basel mixed - as I say it was a while back. Yes, Calvin did see himself as going right back to Augustine. I do agree that the doctrine of divine grace is problematic. I agree that this makes us aware the human "reason" has its limits in our understanding of theology. I don't see why that show the flaws in theological liberalism, as surely liberalism does accept that reason can have limits (eg William Blake) , and advocates an understanding of paradox and a "holding in tension " of seemingly irreconcilable ideas rather than a narrow and legalistic approach?

  19. The strange genius of William Blake was hardly a theological liberal. The roots of Christian theological liberalism are found in Socinus, Grotius and the English Deists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as well as in Spinoza, in his impact on both Judaism and Biblical interpretation. The flaw in theological liberalism comes in privileging some kind of (historically and culturally situated) human reason (usually of the old Enlightenment variety) as the arbiter of religious truth. Schleiermacher modifies this in a psychological way, but the results are broadly the same. On that basis, Trinity, Incarnation, miracles and the physical resurrection of Christ are rejected; while in our day, biblical teachings on sexual behavior and gender relationships are put through a cultural critique, like any writings from the ancient world (and not as God's Word Written). This use of 'reason' is very different from the way in which Aquinas (and Calvin, I think, but maybe less hopefully - he knew about the noetic effects of sin) would have understood it: as the God-given power to think correctly and to understand the Bible (divine revelation).
    Mark B.

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