Tom Schreiner on NT Wright (ETS plenary)

Last night at the Evangelical Theological Society, Tom Schreiner presented the first plenary session address with a paper titled, “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” in which Schreiner critically interacted with the position of N. T. Wright.

Like most such papers, Schreiner began with a few words of appreciation for Wright’s work. (I call this the “I’m going to say mean things about you later, but I still think you’re a nice person” part of the paper.) Specifically Schreiner noted:

  • his creative work on the historical Jesus
  • his strong emphasis on the unity of Scripture
  • the “exile” theme in Wright’s work
  • and some aspects even of his NPP and justification work (e.g. the significance of the Jew/Gentile issue in the NT, the need to keep the “big story” in mind and how easy it is to lose the thread, the clear presentation of forensic justification, and the idea that good works are necessary for justification and salvation (though he’ll go on to emphasize differences here as well).

But, the bulk of Schreiner’s paper focused on areas of concern that he has with Wright’s work. And, he started things off by arguing that he thinks Wright has a marked tendency to focus on the wrong things.  He likes the fact that Wright often tries to operate with both/and categories rather than either/or, but he thinks that Wright regularly emphasizes the wrong aspect of the both/and, making primary what is only secondary (though still important) in the NT itself. He then goes on to offer three such problematic polarities.

  1. Wright wrongly claims that justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology and not soteriology.
  2. Wright often introduces false polarity when referring to mission of Israel when saying that Israel’s fundamental problem was failure to bless the nations and not Israel’s inherent need for salvation.
  3. Wright Insists justification is a declaration of righteousness, but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

Overall, Schreiner’s paper was well presented and charitable, while still clearly identifying several points of contention in Wright’s work. I particularly appreciated several of Schreiner’s arguments.

  1. The precise definitions of “faith of Christ” and “works of law” are secondary issues in this debate. They’re both important in that they express how justification does and does not work, but neither helps us understand the nature of justification itself.
  2. I liked his argument that Galatians 2 does deal with sociological and ecclesiological issues (in agreement with Wright), but that its location in Paul’s argument is primarily soteriological. (I think that’s because Paul would not exclude ecclesiology from soteriology.)
  3. Schreiner also did a good job responding to Wright’s contention that imputation is not a part of the law court background  of the justification language. Instead, he pointed out that the reality of God’s saving work transcends the law court analogy, as God transcends all analogies, and that the good news is precisely that God does more than our human experiences would lead us to expect.
  4. I thought Schreiner could have gone further here, but he also pointed out the importance of “union with Christ” for understanding justification properly. (Maybe someone who knows Wright better than I do can tell us what Wright does with the “in Christ” idea in the NT.)

There were several other things about Schreiner’s paper that I was less happy with.

  1. Unclear use of terms. This has driven me crazy through the entire debate. How hard can it be to define a term and then use it consistently with regard to that definition? Yet, most of the people involved in the debate seem to struggle with precisely this. The clearest example in Schreiner’s paper was with the term “salvation.” He made it very clear at the beginning of the paper that salvation was a broad term that encompassed more than just entering into salvation. But, when he used the term later in the paper to critique Wright, he consistently used it in this more limited sense. For example, he argued at one point that Paul routinely uses the term “justification” in close connection to the term “salvation” and other salvific ideas. Therefore, justification is about salvation. But, unless I’m missing something, no one disagrees with that. The question is which aspect of salvation does justification relate to?
  2. It sounded like Schreiner created his own false polarity in discussing Israel’s problem in the OT. He argued that idolatry/sinfulness was the real problem as opposed to Israel’s failure to bless the nations. But, I see those as nearly inseparable in the OT. The whole story begins with God creating human persons as his image bearers who would tend creation and manifest his glorious presence everywhere. Thus, the creational purpose was for the people to glorify God by being a blessing everywhere. They are inseparable. And, this inseparability is reinforced in the fall as human rebellion (idolatry) leads to curse for creation, in the Abrahamic promise (the reiteration of God’s plan to have  people who would be a blessing everywhere), and throughout the rest of the OT. These two themes simply cannot be separated if we’re going to understand the OT narrative adequately.
  3. Similarly, I think Schreiner missteps when he says that the main point of the Israel narrative is to convey the impossibility of law-keeping. While that is certainly part of the story, I see the main theme as God’s faithfulness to his plans, purposes, and people. This is probably a both/and, but one in which I think Schreiner has placed primary emphasis on the wrong aspect.

Overall, this was an interesting contribution to the NPP debate, but one that I think still demonstrated some of the unclarity and lack of precise definition that has haunted the debate from the beginning. And, although I appreciated a number of Schreiner’s arguments, there were a few that I thought could have been nuanced in importantly different ways. But, what do I know? I’m a theologian and everybody knows that we don’t really read our Bibles anyway.

 

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  1. says

    I like Tom Schreiner myself, his Pauline work, I think he has been under valued sometimes (my opinion). I had a friend who sent me his notes of the lecture. His were a bit more pro Schreiner however. His focus is more soteriological in general. I wish I could have heard that one!

    • Marc Cortez says

      Just to be clear, I think Tom did a fine job on the paper and does an excellent job in general. But I had to offer at least a few critical comments because…well…I’m mean.

  2. Antony Billington says

    Thanks for a wonderfully helpful summary (both here and of other papers too), and for you own reflections – much appreciated.
    Antony

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