Friday, April 17, 2009

SBTS Wright Review Panel

I've finally had a chance to listen to the review of N.T. Wright's new book on justification by Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid, and Brian Vickers at SBTS/Boyce College. Congrats to Denny Burk (grand poohbah of Boyce College) for organizing a very good panel discussion. My name was mentioned at the beginning and ocassioned what sounded like some kind of nervous laughter by the panelists! While the discussion could have been alot more sympathetic to Wright (a couple of readings from his book would have helped, I thought Seifrid went a bit too far at some points esp. when he called Wright's view "horrid" and accused Wright of "moralism", and generally Wright has not for a long time reduced justification to ecclesiology) it was a relatively balanced affair and criticisms were articulated appropriately (note esp. Schreiner's appreciation for Wright). I wish I was there for it (audience or panelist), but as one who has endorsed books by Piper and Wright, here's my thoughts on the discussion, panel member by panel member:

1. Tom Schreiner. Tom was dissatisfied with Wright's new book. He felt that it lacked an actual response to the precise issues that Piper raises against vis-a-vis wright. What is more, Wright fails to emphasize the degree of discontinuity begtween the Old and New Covenant. Generally, I think this is correct. Wright has a tendency to paint with a thick brush on a big canvass, rather than get drawn into the nitty gritty specifics. While the big picture is often a master piece, and draws you in, you can be left wanting on some of the precise details.

2. Mark Seifrid. Mark is one of my favourite Pauline scholars and his book Christ, our righteousness has been one of the biggest influences on my own views of Paul. I must also recommend his forthcoming essay in a book I'm editing on the Pistis Christou debate. Mark Seifrid and Preston Sprinkle present what I think is the THE solution to the "faith of Jesus Christ" debate. Back to the panel discussion, I confess that I was pretty much gobsmacked by Mark's opening remark about Wright coming close to Roman Catholicism. I've had this same discussion with Dan Wallace in the past about whether Wright is "Catholic" and I'm not convinced that Wright is Tridentine (and I know Tim Chester will back me on that one). In fact, Wright is closer to Bucer and Zwingli than he is to Westminster and I think THAT is the real reason why he gets mistaken for being Catholic. But Mark was the most engaging and provocative speaker at the session and I enjoyed what he had to say. He regards Piper and Wright as being hyper-forensic and not giving due regard to the effective nature of justification. That is to say, justification is not about a "mere" declaration but concerned with the actual enactment of justice (see Ps. 82 and Luke 18.1-8). When it comes to works, Mark chides Wright for laying so much stress on the role of the Holy Spirit in producing good works in us as the basis of eschatological justification. For Mark (see his 2000 SBTS lecture on this availabe from SBTS in audio) good works are the works that Christ works in us. For Mark, faith is God's work in us , what Christ carried forward, and what God presents before himself on the final day is not our inspired works, but his own work of new creation. According to Mark, good works are necesssry in the same way that it is necessary for the sun to shine.

3. Brian Vickers (whom I count as a genuine friend) was the dark horse of the discussion and he had some short and thoughtful comments to add. Best of all was that he shows that, contra Wright, imputation does not rely on this notion of a "treasury of merit" that Jesus supposedly acquired (if you've read Bird's Eye-View of Paul/Introducing Paul, you'll know that I "amen" that one loudly). Also, Vickers drove home that union with Christ is the framework for understanding justification and imputation. While Wright says that "union with Christ gives you everything that imputation does" that is fine, but some where along the line you have to state how and by what mechanism does union create, cause, or make us "righteous"? As Leon Morris wrote: "imputation is a corollary of the identification of the believer with Christ".

Two final observations:

First, for me the best part was how all three guys articulted imputation. Vickers sees imputation as related to union with Christ and he believes that it emerges from a "synthesis" of the biblical materials. Similarly, Seifrid believes that imputation is doctrinally correct, but it does not appear directly in Scripture. Again he uses the word of "synthesis" to describe how we arrive at imputation theologically. That confirms my suspicions, contra both Piper and Wright, that imputation is theologically correct but not exegetically explicit in the texts itself.

Second, I thought it was amazing that each panelist gave us a very different take on the meaning of the "righteousness of God". Closest to my own view was Vickers who sees it is as attributive quality, refering to God's own character, displaying God's saving activity, and related to salvation through judgment. In line with Vickers I should mention that in the same ball park are his colleagues Jim Hamilton who is doing a biblical theological study of salvation through judgment and Denny Burk who also gave a very good presentation on dikaiosyne theou at ETS last year where he argued for a nominal rather than verbal sense for dikaiosyne. Seifrid sees the righteousness of God as related to God's intent to establish justice throughout all of creation; which is fine and quite valid (e.g. Ps. 98) as long as you don't cut the cords with the covenantal dimension to God's righteousness either. Finally, Schreiner sees the "righteousness of God" as an objective genitive, i.e. to the righteousness from God that we receive by faith. Schreiner alludes to my criticism of him in a forthcoming Themelios review of his (rather superb!) NT Theology. In my Pauline theology class my students read Tom Schreiner's Pauline Theology book, but when they get to the section on justification and righteousness I tell them that the best refutation to Schreiner on this topic is to be found in the OT - not in the Old Testament, but rather in Old Tom - in Tom Schreiner's Romans commentary which I think gives a very good exposition of the "righteousness of God" in Rom. 1.17. This is what Tom wrote back then:

"The term 'righteousness of God' in Rom 1:17 ... is clearly fundamental for all of Romans, and it is unlikely that it can be confined solely to forensic or transformative categories. Those whom God has vindicated he also changes. In my opinion, it is doubtful that the term Paul features in presenting his gospel would contain only a forensic dimension. This transformation does not involve eperfection, and it is also crucial to see that God's transforming righteousness is still an alien righteousness - given by God as a gift to sinners. Nor is there any suggest that sinners somehow prepare themselves by good deeds to receive this righteousness. The saving righteousness of God is a gift received by faith alone, and God declares sinners to be in the right before him on the basis of Christ's atoning death. Yet God's declaration of righteousness - which is a gift of the age to come invading the present evil age - is an effective declaration, so that those who are pronounced righteous are also transformed by God's grace. Such a transformation is due solely to God's grace and does not involve a perfect righteousness, nor is there any suggestion that the good works that follow this transformation merit eternal life. Nonetheless, as Rom. 6 shows, believers are changed by the grace of God, and this transformation is an essential ingredient in God's saving work. The use of the verb dikaioun in Rom. 6:7 demonstrates that God's declaration of righteousness really frees people from sin. Similarly, in Rom. 5:19 Paul teaches that those who are incorporated into Christ Jesus are actually made righteous, just as those in Adam are truly made sinners. The forensic is the basis for the transformative, but the one cannot be sundered from the other. Those who are the recipients of the ministry of the Spirit have also been transformed by the ministry of righteousness (2 Cor. 3:8-9). Just as those who are condemned are actually guilty, so too those who are vindicated on the basis of the cross of Christ and his atonement for sinners (Rom. 3:21-26) have also been made righteous by God's gracious work (cf. Rom. 14:17). God's forensic declaration is effective because the Lord who was crucified on behalf of sinners was also raised from the dead (Rom. 4:25), and thus sinners live in a new way (Rom. 6:4)."

So I think Tom Schreiner had it right the first time around! But that's another story. But the panel discussion was worth listening to and goes for about 60 minutes.

Update: See Cel Joseph's review as well.


Matthew D. Montonini said...


Great review. I listened to the audio myself today, and came away with many of the feelings that you articulated quite well.

Keep up the good work,


Erick White said...

Thank you for making this topic open.

I did like the way the panelists described imputation. However, I am having a hard time understanding what they mean by imputation of Christ's righteousness.

The Heidelberg Catechism says that in the act of imputation, God counts the church as if she had done everything that Christ did on earth.

So in practice, when Christ ate and drank to the glory of God, this is interpreted by God to be, not just Christ obeying, but also the church obeying.

When Christ obeyed His parents, this was not done for himself, but also the church is counted as having obeyed the parents that Jesus obeyed.

When Christ preached the gospel, the church is accounted (on the legal paper of God) as having preached His sermons.

etc, etc,

Is this the way they are interpreting the imputation of Christ's righteousnes?

Daniel and Brittny Owens said...


Really good post. I've become quite a loyal follower. Two quick questions about this post.

1.) You said that imputation does not require a "Treasury of merit" (as claimed by Wright), have you written that up in article form?

Or maybe I should just buy the book.

2.) You made a remark about a book you are editing that contains an article that 'settles' (or something) the Christis pistou debate. Have you thought about Watson's 'descriptive' genitive thesis. I just finished his JPG: Beyond the... its kind of interesting.

I understand if your to busy to answer.


Daniel Owens

Peter Gurry said...

Thanks, Mike. I'm going to listen to this at work today.

Joel Willitts said...


Thanks for this notice and your summary. What do you think about understanding the "righteousness that comes from God" as a speech act, using, Vanhoozer hermenuetical category; it is a declarative-creational act? To this weds the forensic-transformative aspects of justification together.

Greg Gibson said...


Thank you for an interesting report. Can you also tell us what the panelists said (if anything) about the imputation of Christ's active obedience? Thank you.