Sunday, July 01, 2007

N.T. Wright, Paul Helm and the Ordo Salutis

Theologian Paul Helm has posted some thoughts on N.T. Wright's ordo salutis (the ordo salutis is the 'order of salvation' and it describes the chronological and logical order of the application of salvation to the believer). Here I have a few thoughts on the ordo salutis itself and Wright's understanding of it.

On the Ordo Salutis

1. As someone who comes from the Reformed tradition I am inclined to see regeneration as preceding faith. In fact, regeneration is the efficacious cause of faith in my thinking and God creates faith the same way that he made the universe: he found nothing and made something.

2. I find certain aspects of Wright's ordo salutis dissatisfying since Wright appears to make justification contingent upon regeneration which, in effect, reduces justification to an analytic judgment (it renders the verdict based on what is "there") based on spiritual vitality rather than making the verdict based on a synthetic addition (imputation or union with Christ). I think Wright is simply inconsistent with what he says elsewhere about union with Christ as the grounds of justification. Nonetheless, you cannot read Galatians 4 without realizing that reception of the Spirit and justification are part of the instantaneous experience of faith.

3. In Romans 8.29-30, Paul does give an ordo salutis of sorts (see also Eph. 1.4-5). However, what Paul is doing here is situating the story of the salvation of the believer amidst the larger story of God's cosmic plan for the restoration of creation and the vindication of the people of God at the eschaton. The key issue here is assurance that God's plan will prevail! Paul did not write Rom. 8.29-30 in order to create a neat little box that all conversions must conform to, nor did he think that an ordo salutis was the centre and goal of theology and the test for one's orthodoxy.

Limitations of the ordo salutis

1. As I've said elsewhere, Reformed Theology often reduces Theology itself to the construction of an ordo salutis. This I think was Karl Barth's criticism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Theology becomes reduced to anthropology or what God does for humanity rather than concerning itself with the sheer God-ness of God!

2. There are roughly 24 conversions in the Book of Acts and no two of them are the same (e.g. the timing of the reception of the Spirit etc) and it is nonsensical to try make any single conversion model universal and normative for all Christians, whether that is the conversion of Cornelius, the Samaritans, the Jews at Pentecost, or even Saul of Tarsus. No systematic ordo salutis will ever survive contact with the Book of Acts!

3. Reading Galatians and Romans via the grid of an ordo salutis has done the most heinous violence to the text of Paul's letters in the history of intepretation. Romans and Galatians are not answering the question, 'What must I do to be saved?' rather they are concerned with the question: 'Who are the people of God and in what economy will they be vindicated?' Paul is concerned in these letters with the unity of Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles around one gospel, under a common Lord, and living in worshipful harmony with each other. He is not trying to refute Pelagius and Erasmus.

4. More important than an ordo salutis is a historia salutis (i.e. history of salvation). Good narrative theology that plugs into the biblical storyline, along with an acute awareness of historical context, is the antidote to bad systematic theology.


Geoff Hudson said...

Ordo salutis or historia salutis, it make no difference. God is multifarious.

Jason Goroncy said...

Nice post Big Bird. BTW: What do you make of Wright's practical absence of discussion on sanctification, whether in the ordo or not?

Dan Chen said...

Dr. Bird,

Do you think there would be less confusion and more agreement if Wright and others would articulate their understanding of the "active and passive justifications" which McGarth comments as "The distinction refers to the act of God by which the sinner is justified (active justification), and the subjective feelings of grace subsequently evoked in the conscience of the justified sinner(passive). God acts to justify humanity is passive in receiving this justification. The importance of the distinction lies in the fact that God's act of justification, in which the sinner is declared righteous, is perfect, accomplished once and for all, whereas the realisation by humans of this state of justifcation is imperfect, in so far as it is based upon the feeling of grace evoked in this conscience" (pg. 271)

Therefore, it seems that Reformed theologians, according to McGrath, believed that regeneration came both prior and posterior to justification with the "divine/objective" justification coming before regeneration. McGrath states: "the Reformed theologians were able to state that faith was posterior to objective, and prior to subjective justification" )pg. 272)

Gordon Kennedy said...

Thanks for pointing us to Paul Helm's post.
Paul's point about the difference between what is logically distinct and what is temporally distinct is important. I haven't finished thinking this bit through but I know that John Murray and others have written of a definitive sanctification and a progressive sanctification and I wonder if the same distinction doesn't apply to justification: a definitive (one off) act of justification at conversation and a progressive (on going) work of justifying.
I'm sure that the way the ordo salutis is usually frame might struggle to take account of such distinctions.
I don't think consideration of the ordo salutis is without value but it is long overdue for reformed Christians to take account of your historia salutis. The great big God of the bible has a great big story of salvation that he has achieved/is achieving in Christ Jesus.

Daniel Kirk said...


I think that sanctification wasn't in Wright's discussion because Paul doesn't mention it in Rom 8. Wright is giving an exegesis of that passage it seems to me: foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, glorification.

Jason Goroncy said...

Daniel. Where then would I go to find out what Wright thinks about sanctification. It's not a subject that comes up much in relation to him.

Rabbi Saul said...

Jason, I think Wright talks about sanctification plenty. He just doesn't use the term much.

I suppose you could start with his Romans commentary and read his notes on chapter 13....

Jason Goroncy said...

Thanks Rabbi. Good suggestion.