Monday, October 13, 2008

N.T. Wright at the White Horse Inn

The Theology of N.T. Wright is discussed at the White Horse Inn led by Michael Horton (with some interesting sound bites from J.I. Packer). While it is very critical of Wright, it is appreciative of Wright too esp. on the resurrection, his emphasis on redemptive-history, and showing the value of NT background. I would agree with some of the criticisms in the sense that Luther and Calvin were a bit more nuanced than is often recognized in the New Perspective on Paul, I think Wright did (esp. in earlier works like WSPRS) over emphasize the ecclesiological content of justification, and I do find some of Wright's statements on future justification to be potentially alarming if they are not seriously nuanced. I also concur with the panelists that the NPP is stalling because of works like (in my listing) John Barclay, Francis Watson, Andrew Das, Robert Jewett, and Simon Gathercole - but the aftermath should not be a return to traditional Reformation doctrine; in my opinion, we need a more socially framed and ecclesially aware depiction of Paul's soteriology. I see no reason to abandon the essential architecture bequeathed to us by the Reformation, but it needs a serious make over at points!

The major criticisms I have with the discussion are that the allegations of Wright as a pelagian, an anabaptist, and that he does not know what to do with the cross are not just slightly off target but are totally inaccurate (for the love of Martha, Wright believes in propitiation). But at the start of the discussion Michael Horton raises a number of more appropriate criticisms which are worth discussing in relation to the NPP:

1. Wright sets being right with God over and against the membership of Gentiles in the people of God as the content of justification. I think Wright has over emphasized the ecclesial side at times, but he has never repudiated the notion that justification refers to the 'sinner being right with God' . He has tried to maintain a bit of both and as proof of this I recommend his BAR response to Paul Barnett and his book Paul: Fresh Perspectives. But if Wright has over emphasized the ecclesial aspect of justification, then the Reformed tradition has also been guilty of basically ignoring the ecclesial or social (i.e. horizontal) implications of justification.

2. Wright often equates 'faith' with 'faithfulness'. Perhaps so, but this is perhaps not such a bad thing in specific passages (I've recently studied a number of texts in Colossians that seem to fit better with 'faithfulness' rather than with 'faith' as the proper translation of pistis). Even John Macarthur and Rudolf Bultmann agree that pistis implies obedience!

3. Wright fails to distinguish the covenant of grace and the Sinai covenant leading to a confusion of law and gospel. I did a quick browse of my concordance and could not find "covenant of grace". Obviously my TNIV concordance has been corrupted by the translation committee which consists of a bunch of Arminian, Pelagian, Wright-loving, democrat voting, universal health care believing, feminist liberals. Most concerning! I'll have to check the ESV concordance which I'm sure has it in there somewhere. Doh! I just checked and it's not in the ESV either. Well dang, stuffed if I know where they got it from then. But in all seriousness, I think one area where Wright and Piper would agree is that an Adam/Christ framework supersedes the traditional categories of Reformed Covenant Theology! If you drop the Covenant of Grace you do not necessarily subsume gospel benneath law (if you don't believe me then ask John Piper as I've heard him say as much in person with Michael Horton in the same room!). [Disclaimer: imagine me saying this paragraph with a smile on my face, it's meant to be humourous not flippant!].

4. Justification based on our "total life lived" and no "imputation". Genuinely valid points! I often grimace when I read some of Wright's one-liners on the future element of justification and I don't like what he does with the Holy Spirit here as the energizer of works. But I've found that if you read him widely and closely enough, he seems to come down on the view that works are finally instrumental rather than evidential and you certainly don't lose assurance on his take (see his commentary on Rom. 8.1). For Wright everything that the imputation of Jesus' active obedience gives you, he would say you get from Jesus's faithfulness and union with Christ. Like others in the Reformed tradition I think union with Christ is the key matrix for justification and imputation is a necessary corollary from that relationship.

5. On Wright's definition of Gospel as "Jesus is Lord" (and he is thus against American military actions and American multi-national corporations) Horton contests this. Yet it works well in Rom. 1.3-4 and 2 Tim. 2.8, but I stress in critique of Wright that it doesn't work in 1 Cor. 15.3-8. I think the gospel is the person of Christ (Messiah and Lord) and work of Christ (death and resurrection). It is both/and! Yet, notice this Wrightesque definition of gospel from Martin Luther: “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.” (Martin Luther, “A brief instruction on what to look for and expect in the Gospels,” in Luther’s Works [ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; 55 vols.; Fortress: Philadelphia, 1960] 35.118.). I don't think that Jesus is Lord is bad news at all, since he expresses his lordship by submitting himself to death on a cross (Phil. 2.6-8) and he is the judge of the enemies of the people of God (Rom. 2.16)! I think the language of gospel has definite theopolitical implications even if it is not the primary content. Those implications would be clear to any Greco-Roman audience who heard the words "Lord, Gospel, Saviour, Parousia" in the same sentence.

I found the discussion to be a bit hit and miss. All the same, Michael Horton is a sharp guy and a good speaker who successfully raises many of the contested issues.


Jon Swales said...

Thanks for the link.

Shane Becker said...

That's a helpful post Mike - thanks.

Andrew Cowan said...

“But I've found that if you read him widely and closely enough, he seems to come down on the view that works are finally instrumental rather than evidential…”

Overall, I think your comments are helpful, but this statement might be slightly misleading. I say that because the way Wright has redefined justification, to say that works are instrumental rather than evidential is to make a category mistake. For Wright, the charge before the divine courtroom is not “Do you possess a record of obedience that makes you right with God?” Instead, the charge is “Are you a member of God’s people?” Thus, the function of works in the final judgment is to demonstrate (give evidence) of one’s membership in the people of God. Since the first thing that God does is grant believers the Spirit, and the Spirit works obedience into people’s lives, obedience is the proper litmus test for God to use in judging who belongs to his flock.

It works the same way for faith in present justification for Wright. Since faith is the first thing that the Spirit produces, justification (being declared a member of God’s people) can be declared on the basis of faith alone. It is the immediate evidence that one has experienced God’s effectual call. Wright’s conception of justification makes both faith in present justification and works in future justification the evidence that one belongs to God’s people. Thus, in the end, works function very similarly for Wright as for the ordinary Reformed folk. For the latter, they are the evidence of faith; for Wright, they are the evidence of the Spirit, whom one receives upon being brought into God’s family.