Has NT Wright changed his Mind?

The blogosphere is alive and well, with more posts on NT Wright than any sane person could possibly want to keep track of. Probably the most interesting is the continued discussion of whether NT Wright has changed his mind on final justification. Denny Burk argues that Wright’s recent statements regarding final justification being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” final justification constitutes a fundamental shift in perspective. But, Wright himself has stated that this is not the case and that his he has always meant that final justification was “in accordance with” the whole life lived. And, Brian LePort agrees, arguing that although isolated statements could be taken otherwise, this has always been Wright’s basic position. For comparison. Blake White offers a roundup of different perspectives on Wright’s “change of mind” regarding Wright’s statements. Personally, I’m willing to take Wright at face value and see this as a clarification rather than a fundamental change, though it’s a clarification that it would have been nice to have a while ago given that this has been a clear bone of contention for many.

And, if you haven’t read enough about this discussion yet, Brian offers the best roundup of links that I’ve seen yet on ETS and the justification debate.

ETS roundup

Okay, I think I’ve said just about everything I’m going to say about the recently concluded ETS conference. I attended a couple of other papers that weren’t worth commenting on, but overall this was the best ETS I’ve attended in terms of the papers I attended. I either got lucky or I’m getting better at selecting papers, but there were only a couple that were real busts.

So, to wrap things up, here’s a roundup of my comments on ETS. If you’re looking for some more, Trevin Wax offers a nice roundup of his own.

Plenary Sessions

Papers

Other Random Thoughts

Calvin on the Church as the “Mother” of believers (ETS paper)

Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” And, Protestants have often been associated with a strong rejection of this claim. But, according to Sung Wook Chung, Calvin was perfectly willing to affirm that the Church is the Mother of all Christians. Indeed, he thought this was essential for a proper understanding of the Christian life.

At ETS last week, Chung presented a paper that dealt (in part) with John Calvin‘s use of the “mother” metaphor for understanding the relationship between the church and believers. And, according to Chung, this was fundamental for understanding Calvin’s ecclesiology. As Calvin said,

I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26). (Inst. 4.1.1).

So, Chung devoted a considerable portion of his paper to understanding Calvin’s use of the metaphor. He began by identifying three three theological reasons that Calvin found the metaphor important.

  1. The Church as necessary and essential for all believers. As Calvin says, “Let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’, how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her” (Inst. 4.1.4). For Calvin, then, the Church is necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of all believers.
  2. The Church as honorable and glorious. As Calvin argues in his Galatians commentary, “This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.” As the bride of Christ, the church has the highest possible honor and should be revered by all the people of God.
  3. The Church as the “true” Mother of all Christians. Chung argued that Calvin specifically applied the “mother” metaphor to the Church as a response to the Catholic use of this metaphor, and specifically its emphasis on Mary as the mother of Christians.

After laying out these three areas of theological significance, Chung moved on to address the functions of the Church as Mother.

  1. Conception: God’s people are conceived in the womb of the Church through the power of the Spirit and the Word.
  2. Birth: God’s people receive life (regeneration) by the Spirit within the context of the Church.
  3. Spiritual Nourishment: The Church “nourishes us at her breast” (Inst. 4.1.4).
  4. Care & Guidance: The Church takes care of us throughout our lives, offering direction and counsel.
  5. Forgiveness and Salvation: Calvin argues that we cannot hope for either forgiveness or salvation “away from her bosom” (Inst. 4.1.4). Of course, Calvin differs here from his Catholic opponents, arguing that it is the not the Roman Catholic Church that provides forgiveness and salvation. But, Calvin still wants to maintain that the evangelical Church, as the bearer of the Gospel and the Spirit, is the agent of forgiveness and salvation in the world.
  6. Cultivation of Godliness and Piety.

For all of these reasons, then, Calvin felt that seeing the Church as the Mother of all Christians was absolutely fundamental for a proper understanding of the Christian life and the role of the church in it. As Calvin said in his Galatians commentary,

The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven and dwells above by faith, is the mother of believers. For she has the incorruptible seed of life deposited in her by which she forms us, cherishes us in her womb and brings us to light. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, he who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father. For it is only through the ministry of the Church that God begets sons for Himself and brings them up until they pass through adolescence and reach manhood. This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians (Eerdmans, 1974), 87-8).

I really appreciated the paper’s explanation of Calvin’s ecclesiology and the strong emphasis he placed on the Church in the life of the believer. We absolutely need to recognize that the Church is fundamental to the Gospel and the Christian life. Sadly, much of evangelicalism fails to make this connection and, consequently, fails to appreciate the Church as having anything other than a purely instrumental significance for believers. Maybe a return to the Church-as-Mother could provide an avenue for a deeper appreciation of the Church in evangelicalism.

At the same time, I would have liked to see more biblical support for the use of this particular metaphor. I probably just need to dig into Calvin’s writings myself to find his biblical warrant for this metaphor. But, Chung’s presentation made me wonder whether the metaphor really has that much biblical warrant, regardless of how much theological merit it might have. (By the way, I don’t have a problem with using a metaphor for theological rather than specifically biblical reasons. I just like to know when I’m doing so.)

Greg Boyd on Constantine’s influence on Christianity

Thanks to Richard Beck for directing my attention to Greg Boyd‘s 4th of July sermon, in which he decries the pagan influence that Constantine had on Christianity. Watch the video and then check out my comments below.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV64Mt7X2D4&feature=player_embedded

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Now, the main thing that you need to know about this video is that Boyd is wrong. Could I make that any more clear?

To develop that assertion a little more, let me offer  few additional comments:

  1. The church was not all pure and innocent before Constantine, and it wasn’t all corrupt and guilty after. Any time you hear somebody setting their narrative up with such clean distinctions, they are almost certainly wrong.
  2. Christians did not suddenly move from images of the crucified Jesus to the victorious Jesus at the time of Constantine. You can find both images before and after Constantine.
  3. Boyd’s claim that God would “rather be slain by his enemies than slay his enemies” is a great portrayal of God’s love and grace on the cross, but fails to take into account the rest of the biblical narrative in which God clearly demonstrates that he will not allow the rebellious to undermine his plans for the world (cf. Revelation).
  4. Boyd draws way too simplistic a distinction between the church before Constantine, which lived a beautiful, countercultural lifestyle of love, and the church after Constantine, which was all about power and coercion. Again, that simply is not historically accurate. At the very least, it fails to take into account the fact that the church was beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of the church/state relationship even before Constantine came along. And, more importantly, it fails to consider the ways in which the church continued to resist and reject a simplistic wedding of church and state even after Constantine. Boyd’s narrative simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.
  5. I’m not even going to comment on Boyd’s claim that the church “didn’t mind” being slaughtered because this life is “just a prelude to the real thing.”
  6. I could go on, but I won’t.

Now, to be fair (even though I don’t want to be), I should acknowledge that some of Boyd’s points are legitimate. I think the church absolutely should strive to imitate the love and grace of God as demonstrated on the cross. Although God will come and defeat his enemies in the end – ushering in his Kingdom and accomplishing his purposes – the Church is never called to accomplish any of these things for him. We are ambassadors of the Gospel, not “soldiers” of the Kingdom. And, the Church was unquestionably faced with temptations and challenges after Constantine that were new and that it was relatively unprepared to handle. But, it did not simply capitulate to the challenges nor did it surrender its distinct identity anywhere along the way. Did the Church make mistakes? Yes. And, it always will. But God remains faithful.

NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)

We’ve been taking a look at the paper that N.T. Wright presented at the recently concluded Evangelical Theological Society annual conference (see part 1 and part 2). Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for a few minutes of the discussion time that followed Wright’s paper and the three prepared responses. I will say that from what I saw, the interaction continued to be characterized by mutual respect and warm cordiality. Throughout, I thought this was a model for how Christians should interact with one another on areas of important theological difference.

I have to say that I learned a lot from these three papers and the ensuing discussion. But, let me see if I can narrow things down to my most important take-aways.

  1. Final justification. Unquestionably, the biggest take-away for me was Wright’s clarification that he sees final justification as being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” works. Although Wright has always been clear that the works of a Christian are produced by grace through the Spirit, I have always understood him to say that final justification was based on works in a way that made it sound like final justification was not ultimately grounded in the righteousness of Christ alone. By referring to final justification as “in accordance with” works, he makes it clearer that final justification will take our works into account and will be consistent with those works, but that the final justification will ultimately be grounded in God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That clears up what has been a major stumbling block for me in Wright’s system. (In comments on Denny Burk’s blog, Wright argues that this is not a shift on his part, but a clarification of what he has always thought. If so, it would have been nice had he moved earlier to clarify what people have long identified as a major concern in his work.)
  2. Soteriological common ground. The second biggest take-away for me was a clearer understanding that all of these guys are on the same basic page soteriologically. They all agree the you enter into salvation by grace through faith and that final justification is by grace through faith in accordance with the life lived. Although there are significant differences about the specific locus of justification within that soteriological narrative, this discussion helped me understand that the differences are not about salvation itself. That makes a rather significant difference in how one understands the nature of the debate.
  3. The importance of the big picture. Wright has a well-deserved reputation for crafting a compelling “big picture” – i.e. an understanding of the entire biblical narrative the explains each particular part. And, he’s been critiqued for forcing that narrative onto particular passages – massaging and reshaping them until they fit his overall story. But, as Wright rightfully pointed out, we all read Scripture through the lens of some big picture narrative. The only difference is that he is more intentional and explicit about doing so.
  4. The role of Israel in the big picture. I’ve also come to appreciate more why Wright argues so strongly against the role of Israel in traditional Protestant narratives. One of Schreiner’s critiques is that Wright makes too much of Israel’s failure to bless the nations and instead argued that the purpose of Israel was to demonstrate the impossibility of salvation-through-Law. But, in doing so, he basically turned Israel into a universal example – they have no fundamental role of their own in the story of salvation. That seems clearly inadequate to describe the purpose that Israel is actually given in the Bible – God’s people manifesting God’s glory in God’s land as a blessing to everyone everywhere. That they failed in this task must also be considered, but that doesn’t mean that failure was their divinely intended purpose.
  5. The continued exile. I’ve never been sure why so many people argued so vehemently against Wright’s idea that intertestamental and NT data portray Israel as still being in exile even after they’d returned to the land. I’ve always liked this aspect of Wright’s narrative and have long included it in my understanding of the big picture. So, it was very nice to see both Schreiner and Thielman indicate that they were comfortable with this as well. I’d have liked to hear an explanation for why others are critical and what exactly it is that makes them more comfortable with it than others are. But, even without this explanation, it was nice to see consensus on this point. (For more on this and link to a recent paper by Wright on the subject, see this post.)

I’ve learned more than just this from these debates, but those are the issues that have been on my mind the most as I’ve reflected back on the papers. At the same time, though, I still have a few unresolved issues/questions.

  1. Justification and ecclesiology. I’m still not convinced by Wright’s arguments that justification is ultimately about “covenantalness” and ecclesiology. I now have a much clearer understanding of what he means by this, and I’m less troubled by his position. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced. It could be that I’m just too deeply steeped in a traditional understanding, but I simply can’t read Romans 1-4 and come to the same conclusions that Wright does.
  2. Union with Christ. If there’s one theme that I have often felt was insufficiently developed in Wright’s work, it would have to be the idea of union with Christ. And, I can’t say that I heard much in this debate to rectify that problem. I was very pleased to hear Wright expressed exuberant support for Vanhoozer’s recent paper on the importance of incorporation and adoption for understanding justification. Now, I’d like to see Wright make this a more integral part of his overall system.
  3. Imputation. This one sits more as an unresolved question for me. Wright has convinced me that justification is not a part of the law court metaphor that serves as the primary background for understanding justification. But, that doesn’t mean that the idea might not be emphasized elsewhere. Wright had some interesting arguments for how we should understand the idea of righteousness as gift (it’s okay to say that the forensic declaration is a gift, but we shouldn’t picture righteousness as a thing that can be gifted from one person to the next) and what it means to say that “we become the righteousness of God” (we take on Christ’s mission of declaring reconciliation to the world). But, I need to reflect on these arguments a bit more.
  4. Scripture and tradition. One of the bigger ironies in this whole discussion is that the Anglican is the one arguing for the primacy of Scripture against his largely free-church interlocutors. That’s just funny. But, at the same time, I would have liked to see a little more push back on this one. I am firmly committed to the primacy of Scripture in the church. But, I also think that Scripture is best interpreted in community, and this community must include all of those who have gone before. That doesn’t mean that new interpretations of scripture are necessarily excluded, but it does mean that we disagree with tradition carefully and with great trepidation. Although ultimately we’re all on the same page here – Scripture trumps tradition – I would have liked to see more careful, theological discussion of what a proper relationship between the two might be.

The best I can offer as a final conclusion at this point, then, is that Wright has sharpened my thinking in a number of important areas, and I’m far more comfortable with his overall way of thinking than I was before the debates. But, I remain unconvinced on a couple of critical points. However, now that I have come to see that most of the differences are intramural and do not seem to touch on what I would consider to be the core aspects of the Gospel, I’m far more comfortable with his ideas and their overall fit within evangelical Christianity.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a few other good posts on the justification debate.

  • Collin Hansen (this is the best one out there that I’ve seen – other than mine, of course)
  • Denny Burk (mostly just a comment on Wright’s “in accordance with” comment; notable for two comments from Wright on the issue)
  • Justin Taylor (outline of Schreiner’s paper)
  • Dane Ortlund (general reflections on ETS, with several comments on Wright)
  • Mike Wittmer (general reflections)

If you know of any other posts that would be good to include in this roundup, please let me know.

A prayer for Sunday….Clement of Rome

Since tomorrow is the day that we traditionally commemorate Clement of Rome (c. 96), today’s prayer comes from his letter to the Corinthians.

 

Give us the grace, Lord, to hope in Thy Name, to which all creatures owe their being. Open the eyes of our hearts to know Thee alone, the Most High in the highest heavens, whose dwelling is in the holy of holies. Thou abasest the arrogance of the proud, frustrate the designs of the godless, humble the lofty and exalt the lowly, makest wealthy and poor, Thou slayest, Thou savest and Thou bringest to life. Alone the Benefactor of spirits and God of all flesh, Thy gaze penetrates the depths, Thou observest the doings of men. Helper of those in peril, Savior of those in despair, Creator of all that draws breath, Thou causest the peoples on the earth to multiply and from them all choose those who love Thee through Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son. Through Him Thou hast instructed us, sanctified us, honored us.
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We ask Thee, O Lord, to be our supporter and our helper. To those of us who are afflicted, free us, pity the lowly, raise the fallen, show thyself to the needy, heal the sick, convert Thy wayward people, feed the hungry, deliver our captives, support the weak, encourage the faint-hearted. Let all nations know that Thou alone art God and Jesus Christ is Thy Son, and we are Thy people, the sheep of Thy flock.
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Truly Thou hast established the world and revealed Thy decrees. Thou art faithful through all generations, just in judgment, admirable in strength and majesty, wise in building, prudent in establishment, goodness in everything seen, faithful to those who put their trust in Thee, and kind and merciful. Dismiss from us our iniquities, our injustices, our sins and our failings.
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Do not hold the sins of Thy servants against them, but purify us by Thy truth, and direct our steps that in holiness and justice and simplicity of heart we may walk and so do what is good and pleasing in Thy sight and in the sight of our leaders.
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O Lord, let the light of your face shine upon us, so that we may enjoy Thy blessings in peace, protected by Thy strong hand, and freed from all sin by Thy outstretched arm; and deliver us from those who hate us unjustly.
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Grant peace and concord to us and to all mankind, even as Thou gavest it to our forefathers when they devoutly called upon Thee in faith and in truth. Thou alone art able to bestow these and even greater benefits upon us. We praise Thee through our high priest and the patron of our souls, Jesus Christ. Through Him be glory and majesty to Thee now and throughout all generations, for ever and ever.

 

 

Aquinas on the victory view of the atonement (ETS paper)

Jonathan Morgan, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented a paper titled, “Christus Victor Motifs in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas.” The paper argued that people have wrongly associated Aquinas almost exclusively with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, neglecting the many ways in which he affirmed victory as an important aspect of the atonement. Rather than neglecting this motif entirely as many do or seeing it as merely tangential to his true understanding of the atonement as Gustav Aulen does, Morgan argues that it is fundamental for understanding Aquinas’ soteriology.

Morgan offers three lines of evidence to support this conclusion:

  1. Aquinas’ interpretation of Scripture. The first part of the paper offered several examples of Aquinas interaction with Scripture, noting that he regularly identifies Christ’s victory over death and the demonic as fundamental for understanding the atonement.
  2. Aquinas’ dependence on the patristics. Morgan rightly points out that Aquinas interacts extensively with patristic writers. And, he also points out how odd it is that people routinely see the patristic thinkers as affirming a “classical” understanding of the atonement (victory), but seldom see the influence that this had on medieval thinkers like Aquinas who were so keen on interacting with and remaining faithful to earlier thinkers.
  3. The theological necessity of the victory motif. Finally, Morgan points out that Aquinas’ understanding of sin requires more than the satisfaction theory alone suggests. Aquinas sees sin as a condition of bondage that has enslaved all human persons to the demonic, and Morgan argues that the satisfaction theory really does not address this aspect of the sin problem. So, the victory motif is soteriologically necessary given the nature of Aquinas’ view of sin.

The paper was somewhat interesting in helping me recognize the importance of the victory motif in the medieval period as a whole. Many have critiqued Aulen over the years for an overly schematized understanding of the atonement through history, one that regularly forces people into simplistic categories that are simply inadequate for the complexity of their theology as a whole. Aquinas is definitely the kind of person who cannot be simply categorized as “classical”. And, this is true of most great thinkers.

Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism

I often hear people suggest that any theology suggesting that humans “cooperate” with God’s grace in the process of salvation (synergism) is essentially the same as the heresy of semi-Pelagianism–i.e. the idea that human effort plays at least some role in initiating salvation. Implicit behind the claim  seems to be the  idea that anything other than pure monergism is borderline heresy. It’s not quite rampant heresy (Pelagianism), but it’s really close (semi-Pelagianism).

synergy with white paper tears

There are both historical and theological reasons for rejecting this claim. Historically, we should at least recognize that semi-Pelagianism was a movement that arose after the time of Pelagius, was primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange  (529). So, historically speaking, if you call someone a semi-Pelagian, you actually are calling him/her a heretic – not just a near-heretic.

Theologically, it is not true that synergists are necessarily semi-Pelagian. And here it’s important that we define our terms.

Pelagian: any system in which the human person is capable of achieving salvation entirely on his/her own with no divine assistance other than common grace (i.e. the grace necessary for any being to exist).

Semi-Pelagian: any system in which the process of salvation is initiated by the human person apart from any grace other than common grace, but in which the process of salvation is synergistically completed by the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.

Synergism: any system that affirms some kind of cooperative interaction between the divine and the human in the process of salvation

Based on these definitions, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Pelagians are not synergists:  On their view, salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
  1. Semi-Pelagians are synergists: For them, the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
  1. But synergists are not Pelagians and they are not necessarily semi-Pelagian: It is entirely possible for one to affirm the cooperative interaction of both divine and human while still affirming that the process of salvation begins entirely with God’s salvific (not common) grace. For example, the idea of “prevenient” grace holds that no human is capable of initiating salvation, but that God’s grace “goes before” and enables humans to respond rightly. Regardless of what you think about this approach, it affirms both that God’s grace initiates salvation (it “goes before”) and that the human person must cooperate by responding. Thus it is synergistic but neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian.

Using these (admittedly cursory) definitions, we can say that a number of very prominent soteriologies are synergistic but not semi-Pelagian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Wesleyan, etc.). When theologians make blanket statements to the effect that all synergists are semi-Pelagian, they (hopefully unwittingly) question the orthodoxy of vast swaths of Christianity, including nearly all of the Church Fathers.

So take this as a plea to all monergists. Please stop claiming that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.

NT Wright at ETS (part 2)

N.T. Wright presented the third plenary paper at the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” And, he started things off by commenting on the title of the paper. He noted that some might assume this was a reference to the fact that the debate seems to be going on and on. But, the real purpose of the title was to say two things about justification. First, as an allusion to Hebrews 13:8, it points to the fact that justification is rooted in Jesus Christ, who is himself the same yesterday, today, and forever. Everything that we can say about God’s people, we say in virtue of who we are in relationship to him. And, second, the title refers to the “triple tense” of justification: we have been justified, we are currently being assured of our justification, and we will be justified in the eschaton. Wright argued that although we often speak of the three tenses of salvation, we rarely apply that same thinking to justification where it is equally important.

Wright moved from there into what he called his “preliminary remarks.” But, for preliminary remarks, they were pretty substantive.

  1. We badly need a new ethic of blogging. Wright expressed dismay over the state of Christian blogging and the lack of charity commonly exhibited in the blogosphere. (I think we can all attest to that unfortunate truth.) And, he called on people to blog on what he actually says and not on what they’ve decided in advance that he must actually think. Seems fair.
  2. Wright thinks some of his Protestant critics sound rather Catholic in their appeal to tradition. He expressed surprise that some people from Southern Seminary and Tyndale College have accused him of “biblicism” for his rejection of various traditional theological formulations. (Indeed, he commented that he’s not even sure what the term could possibly mean coming as a criticism from such quarters.) And, he pointed out that many of his critics sound like the Catholic theologians of Luther’s day—criticizing him for rejecting long-held teachings of the Church and questioning his appeal to the Bible as having authority over all traditions.
  3. Wright argued that the doctrine of Scripture is grounded in the unrepeatable nature of the revelatory events. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not simply illustrations of universal truths, but are unrepeatable historical events. Thus, the text has to be understood in that unrepeatable context. We can’t simply take our own questions and situations as normative, forcing the text to speak to them on our terms. Unless we are willing to understand the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of these writings, we will inevitably “demythologize” them.
  4. Finally, he responded to accusations that he focuses too much on minute word studies or on big-picture narratives. He commented that it’s rather ironic, then, that he’s critiqued both for focusing too much on details and too much on the big picture. But, he argued that both are clearly needed. We can’t neglect the details of the text if we are to take the text seriously. And, we all bring a big-picture narrative to the text. It’s not a question of whether you do so, but whether your narrative matches the one given in the text itself.  (As a side note, he made it very clear in this section that he sees his position as related to but decidedly different from that of E.P. Sanders and is obviously tired of being lumped in one pot with him.)

With these “preliminaries” out of the way, Wright launched into the issue of justification.

  1. The relationship of justification and soteriology. I’m going to try and say this more clearly than I think Wright did. In a number of places, Wright suggests that justification is not about soteriology. That is actually an overstatement of his own position. As he made clear in the course of his presentation and subsequent discussion, justification does occur within a broader soteriological framework. So, justification does have to do with salvation. But, Wright’s concern is to emphasize that justification has nothing to do with entering into salvation. And, he wants to make clear that, according to him, when Paul is talking about justification, salvific issues are background rather than foreground issues.
  2. The nature of justification. With this in mind, Wright goes on to state clearly his own position that justification is about declaring who is and who isn’t a member of God’s covenant people.  Wright spent considerable time on the law court background of justification language, arguing again that this metaphor is central to Paul’s theology of justification and refers to a forensic declaration that a person has a given status (i.e. member of the covenant community). And, he points specifically to Philippians 3 as a clear example where Paul rejects works of the Law as markers of covenantal identity, affirming instead the sufficiency of faith and grace for determining who is one of God’s people.
  3. The Reformed background of NPP. Wright reiterated the claim that his view of justification and the Law stands in direct continuity with that of Calvin. I forget where he first made this claim, but he again stated that if Calvin’s view of the had become dominant in Protestantism rather than the Lutheran view, a new perspective on Paul would not have been necessary.
  4. The importance of not “demythologizing” the text. Wright referred to this idea several times. By this he means that the traditional Protestant reading of certain texts tends to downplay the historical particulars of the situation, focusing instead on their transcendent, universally applicable, and often abstract truths. Wright certainly favors considering how these texts apply to us. But he wants to make sure that we’ve taken the historical realities of the text seriously first. So, he rejects any attempt to turn Abraham in Romans 4 or Galatians 3  into a mere example of faith. Instead, he contends that we need to see Abraham himself as central to Paul’s argument. Similarly, he thinks that we too quickly move past the sociological implications of Galatians 2 to what we think are the universal soteriological principles. Such moves are what Wright calls “demythologization” – ignoring the historical particularities in favor of abstract universalizations.
  5. The main point of justification. Wright concluded this section with a brief comment on the idea that justification language is always bound up with Israel and Messiah. There simply is no way to understand what Paul means by justification without this context.

Wright’s second main section dealt with the language of justification. Or, more specifically, with the question of what “reckoned as righteous” meant for Paul.

  1. The covenantal background of the reckoning. Probably the most interesting move in this section was Wright’s argument that “reckoned as righteous” refers to the gift of covenant community. Wright argued that both Psalm 106:31 and Genesis 15:6 connect the reckoning to reward of covenant community. Thus, Paul’s reference to Abraham being reckoned righteous apart from works does not refer to an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (more on this later), but to the fact that Abraham was blessed with covenant community because of his faith-response to God’s covenantal faithfulness (i.e. God’s “righteousness”).
  2. The definition of “righteousness”. Wright also made clear that he understands “righteousnesss” to refer to “covenantalness.” That is, whenever righteousness is used, it refers to the covenantal relations in some way. When used of God, it refers to his covenantal faithfulness; when used of humans it refers to status within the covenant.
  3. The law court analogy. Wright returned to the law court analogy here to explain that the ancient law courts always involve one person against another person (as opposed to modern law courts which are often state vs. person) in front of a judge who makes the final declaration. So, when God declares a person “righteous,” he is simply declaring a verdict in their favor. There is no “transfer” of righteousness (i.e. imputation) as though righteousness were a thing that could be passed from one person to another. So, the idea is that all humans are in the dock before God, but God has made covenantal promises to his people. So, the question is, how is God to work this out without abandoning his covenantal promises or declaring an unjust verdict? And, of course, the answer is given in the Messiah as the one who fulfills the purpose of humanity and renews the covenant people.

Wright then moved to an exegesis of particular passages. Unfortunately, by this point in the paper, he was running pretty short on time. So, he could only offer a few cursory comments.

  1. The exegetical basis of the argument. Wright started by arguing strongly that the debate should be driven by exegesis rather than tradition. And, he suggested that his critics need to spend more time on exegetical arguments, explaining how they read key passages and why his own readings are inadequate.
  2. 2. Romans 4:4-8. Wright started to get into this passage, but ended up cutting himself off short. Basically he argued that the “reward” needs to be understood in the context of Genesis 15:1, where the reward is covenant family. And, the “ungodly” (as in Galatians 3) are the people who have not yet been included in the covenantal family. So, Romans 4 is essentially the same as Genesis 15—God promises that he will create a covenantal family that will encompass all the nations of the earth through grace and faith.

Finally, Wright moved to a section on theological synthesis.

  1. Final justification. In one of the more helpful parts of the paper, Wright made it clear that he does not think final justification comes “on the basis of” works, but “in accordance with” works. This is the first time that I’ve heard Wright clearly articulate that final justification is not grounded in works. He does think that the final declaration of “justified” will be given with reference to works (cf. Rom. 2; 2 Cor 5; Rom. 14), but clearly states that Christ alone is the ground of final justification and that we will not earn or merit it.
  2. Assurance of justification. Wright was also very clear that his position should not cause anxiety about current justification. Justification is grounded in the work of Christ and applied through the work of the Spirit. So, I trust in both Jesus and the Spirit for the assurance of my own justification. As Wright states, you only get to Romans 8:39 by working through 8:1-30. God’s people have assurance now through the Spirit. Thus, future justification does not endanger present justification by faith in any way. According to Wright, “The verdict of the present is firm and secure….The pardon is free and firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it….Following that final verdict we will be more happy but not more secure.”
  3. Incorporation in Christ. I wish he had discussed this more, but he concluded this section by saying that he was fully in agreement with Kevin Vanhoozer that incorporation into Christ and adoption into God’s family are critical motifs with the potential for drawing together the various proposals. (The paper that he’s referring to is the one that Vanhoozer presented at the Wheaton conference. You can listen to it here.)

Wright concluded the paper with a powerful proclamation of the Gospel. He is obviously frustrated that people think that his approach undermines the Gospel. To the contrary, he contends that his approach fully affirms the Gospel of Jesus and the necessity of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption for salvation.

This post is already way too long as it is. So, I’ll wait until after I’ve summarized the responses before offering some evaluative comments of my own.

A great way to end another ETS conference

I got upgraded to first class on my way home from Atlanta. Sadly, I’m not home quite yet. But, I did get to fly in comfort all the way to Salt Lake City. What could be better than a comfortable place to sit, good music, good food, and uninterrupted time to reflect on lessons learned from ETS. Could there be a better way to end an conference?

Yes. First class from Salt Lake to Portland as well.