Saturday, February 28, 2009

Guy Waters on N.T. Wright's new book

Over at the Reformed Forum is an interview with Guy Prentiss Waters about N.T. Wright's new book on Paul and justification. It was a good discussion and Waters' reference to Wright was not entirely negative. I'll offer a few comments:

When the panel began talking about Waters' essay as to how Rom. 10.5 proves the covenant of works, I made several painful facial expressions (much like those I made in relation to a sermon that intended to prove the pre-tribulation rapture from Psalm 110). But as I listened on, the discussion proved indeed worthwhile.

Waters makes a pertinent observation in that Wright is far more nuanced in his current work than he was in his 1997 volume What Saint Paul Really Said. Wright is genuinely attempting to bring the old and the new together (I'm reminded of Mt. 917). Still, Waters (who studied under E.P. Sanders at Duke) regards the Traditional Reformed view and the New Perspective view as thoroughly incompatibable. That is something that stands in diametrical opposition to my own approach to the matter which has sought to find the common ground between both perspectives. Waters compliments Wright for a covenantal approach and for also emphasizing the unity of the Bible's storyline. He suggest, however, that Wright makes far too much of "exile" rather than "being-in-Adam". I'll say several things here: (1) Certainly Wright does lean on exile very heavily, but for Wright "exile" is essentially a synedoche for a wider story that relates to Israel's role in creation, in appropriating the role of Adam for themselves, and their recapitulation of Adam's plight. What is more, Wright acknowledges that it was precisely the problem of sin that sent Israel into exile in the first place. I remember hearing D.A. Carson relay a conversation he had with Wright and he told Wright that he needs to push the problem back further than exile and back into eden. I think Wright did do that very much so in Resurrection of the Son of God which has a big focus on the creation narrative as providing the background to the resurrection theology of the NT. In other words, Wright's focus on exile is problematic in some respects esp. as a controlling meta-narrative (I have a forthcoming essay on this subject) but hardly at odds with a creation-Adam-sin-Abraham-Israel-Messiah narrative. (2) Waters counters that what Wright needs is a construal of the controlling story along the lines of Adam (covenant of works) and Christ (covenant of grace). If that is what the covenants mean for Waters, I could probably go for that depending on how it pans out in the details. At the Edinburgh dogmatics conference in 2005, Andrew McGowan argued for a basic structure of redemptive-history as comprising of an Adamic administration and a Messianic administration (a la John Murray rebooted). Wright was at the conference and in a conversation with McGowan (I am told) he found that kind of formulation essentially correct and in-line with his own thinking. And it gets better, I'll never forget attending a Bethlehem Institute discussion at ETS which touched on covenant theology and John Piper gave his own view as one is either in Adam or in Christ - those are the categories. Hence, I suspect that there is probably more in common between Wright and Piper on this Adam/Messiah element than is apparent (though I admit that my garnering of evidence on this is admittedly oral to date).

Waters argues that it is biblical to speak of justification according to works when properly understood, but not justification on the basis of works. I concur here. I find Wright often fuzzy and less exact than I'd like him to be on this matter. Even so, the impression that I get is that works are ultimately evidential for Wright rather than instrumental. What tips me off on that is that for Wright justification is forensic and he emphasizes the theme of assurance very strongly in his commentary on Romans 5-8. Assurance is exactly what you don't have in the Tridentine system (Sinclair Ferguson gave an excellent lecture on this topic at a John Murray lecture a few years ago).

On the "Righteousness of God" Waters is correct that it cannot be reduced to God's covenant faithfulness (Mark Seifrid's dictum is that all covenant keeping is righteous but not all righteousness is covenant keeping!). Even so, I do not understand why any Reformed proponent would take out a theological restraining order so as to keep God's righteousness and God's faithfulness to Israel's covenant apart from each other (that is Luther not Calvin!!!). I think Seifrid's point is well taken, but even his SBTS colleague Tom Schreiner thinks that he's gone too far and "separates righteousness too radically from covenant and wrongly traces it only back to creation" (Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 353 . 46). I would point out that relating God's righteousness to his faithfulness to the covenant goes back as far as Ambrosiaster and was also present among the English puritans like George Joye! In my view, the righteousness of God refers to his character and saving activity and it certainly covers God's faithfulness to Israel (hence for the "Jew first" in Rom. 1.16) even if it cannot be reduced to it. By the same taken (contra Tom Schreiner, New Testament Theology), I do not think the righteousness of God is the gift of righteousness from God as it is a far more comprehensive event than this.

For me the highlight came at the 50 minute mark with Waters giving a very good description of how Wright (and me) understand justification as participating in Christ's vindication in his resurrection (Seifrid and Gaffin agree with this for the most part). Believers are thus justified since they participate in Christ and share in his justification. But he proceeds to argue that Wright then telescopes transformation from Romans 6-8 into justification via union with Christ. Here I am not convinced that Wright does that. Wright does regard justification as forensic and even though he doesn't necessarily articulate the duplex gratia as Calvin does, I think he's in a similar ball-park as union with Christ provides the basis for our justification and is the source of our sanctification.

Overall, a very interesting discussion, there are several elements I'd certain demur from Waters on, but I think he makes some genuinely valid observations through out.


Andrew Cowan said...

Dr. Bird,

Thanks for posting these comments. I feel like you do much more justice to people on both sides of this debate than the great majority of people who comment on it. I also feel like your own formulations (esp. incorporated righteousness) are very helpful for understanding the NT data. I do wonder, however, if Wright is as close to Piper as you present him here. I strongly agree that there is much more concord between the two of them than they sometimes seem to realize (at least at the ultimate theological level, once one gets past the semantic and exegetical distinctions), but the Adam-Israel-Christ relationship appears to be parsed out a little differently in Wright than Piper. Perhaps he has subtly shifted on this (my copy of the new book is still in the mail from the UK), but in Climax of the Covenant, Wright seems to reduce the Adam-Christ relationship in Romans 5 to the Israel-Christ relationship. In his exposition of this passage, he seems to posit a contrast between doing what Adam should have done and undoing the wrong that Adam did, and seems to locate the purpose of Jesus' obedience exclusively in the latter (which he parallels with the purpose of Israel). He appears to place the "Adamic" role proper of Christ as a function of his resurrection existence (see esp. the paragraph that runs from 38-39 in Climax of the Covenant). This move seems to preclude viewing Christ's obedience as fulfilling an Adamic administration/covenant of works/or whatever you want to call it. There, I think, is the real theological difference between Piper and Wright in how they want to relate Adam and Christ and obedience. There are many other incidental exegetical and lexical disagreements, but here I think they are actually affirming something different about the way the world is. Wright thinks Christ's obedience undoes the wrong Adam did, Piper thinks it dually functions as the undoing of Adam's wrong and the doing of what Adam should have done. At least that's how it seems to me.


Nicholas T. Batzig said...

Dr. Bird,

Thank you for listening to this part of the interview. I found your critique to be charitable and well thought out.

I am wondering if the bi-covenantal structure that Guy Waters mentioned in this interview is the problem for so many who like Wright. Would you see any kind of republication of what historic Reformed theology calls the "covenant of works" in the Mosaic Covenant? Would you at least be willing to use the language of "form" in regard to the Covenant of Works and the Sinaitic legislation?

I am also eager to read your thoughts on the second part of the interview that comes out this upcoming Friday.

Thank you again for your thoughts. They are greatly appreciated.

BTW, I, with Guy, have no problem with Dr. McGowen's (i.e. John Murray's) formulation of the Adamic-Christ structure, in so far as it contains the essential elements of what the authors of the confession called "the Covenant of Works/Life" and "Covenant of Grace."

Skjou said...

I enjoyed the interview (both are online now). My only quam is that they are entirely negative, not mentioning one good thing about Wright and the new book (except Waters does mention that Wright is more nuanced). I understand where they disagree (these are the same disagreements from the beginning)--and who doesn't disagree with Wright on a number of issues--but they didn't really react to the content and arguments of the book! These interviews, sadly, are more about grinding axes than they are about fruitful dialogue.

However, there is a slightly positive new blog post on the the Reformed site that does talk about incorporating the structuralism of the NPP (Corporate/New Creation).

Nicholas T. Batzig said...

It is very difficult to respond to bloggers who do not leave their name or any identifying url link, but here we go.

We did try to deal fairly with Wright's argument in this book, but to be honest, there was not much to commend. I say this, while, at the same time, acknowledging that Wright has written things I agree with in other books. I like much of his Israel/Christ typology--though I do not accept his understanding of "Israel in exile at the time of Christ." I think he gets quite a bit right about the Abrahamic covenant being the basis for almost everything in the New Testament--though he goes off course when it comes to what the blessings of Abraham were (i.e. table fellowship rather than imputed righteousness).

I was actually very mild in my criticism this time around. Wright says, in the new book, that the word "imputed" is not in scripture in regard to righteousness. Well, that's not the position of the translators of the NKJV. They have "logizomai" explicitly translated "imputed" in Romans 4. It is simply sloppy scholarship to make a claim like that when the contrary evidence is in your face.

So, I want to clear the air on why we were critical. Wright was not commendatory toward Piper in the book. Do you have a problem with that? Contrary to your statements above, we did the best we could in 2 hours to cover the arguments found in Wright's work, but there was not much to agree with at all in this new book. Being critical of something, without commendation, does not mean that the critique is inaccurate. It may simply mean that the said work is full of mistakes. I know its not trendy to be critical without commending, but I don't think that God views critiques and reviews the way men do.

P.S. If you want to post your name and/or website it would be greatly appreciated.

JohnGreenview said...

Hi Michael

Firstly let me say, I have enjoyed reading your own recent books (Saving righteousness... and Bird's Eye view.... ). On the whole they do seem to me to represent a biblical perspective on the present debate.

My heart lies instinctively with Piper etc. Yet I struggle with reformed dogmatism particularly with imputed righteousness. Here I may be less generous than you. I do not think that systematics should be allowed greater latitude than biblical theology. If imputation of active obedience is so important then why does Paul not say so on the many occasions when it would have been simple and appropriate to do so. He firmly roots justification in death and resurrection. So too must we. We have not the liberty to go beyond what is written however apparently coherent.

Where I find NPP, especially Wright dubious is on the implications rather than the emphasis of cosmic implications of justification. I am not at all clear that a reading of the NT epistles leads to a socio-political agenda for the church. The agenda of Paul was to preach the gospel and to advocate that christian leaders do so. His main social concern seems best expressed in 'Do good to all men especially those of the household of faith'. The emphasis lies clearly on caring for the church.

Clearly I am talking about emphasis. Of course the gospel implies love for all and compassion for all. Yet, I repeat, the emphasis in the NT is not socio-political.

I am looking forward to reading Wright's Justification God's Plan.

Thankyou for your blog and books.

I may say my roots are Brethren (Glasgow) and over the years I have read a fair bit of J N Darby and W Kelly, early Brethren writers. Apart from their dispensationalism you may be interested to know that they both shared similiar concerns to the NPP on imputed righteousness of Christ. It is through them many years ago I first came across this issue.

They both have a fair number of articles on this number, particularly Darby. On this topic and Law/gospel dynamics they are both well worth mining. They can be found online at stem publishing.