Friday, October 30, 2009

Evangelicals and Catholics

Over at CT is a piece by Colin Hansen entitled, Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which points to a division among the IVCF chapter at George Washington University over whether Catholics can hold positions of leadership in an IVCF chapter.

Part of the article suggests that N.T. Wright is responsible for driving evangelicals to Rome. I had a big on-line exchange with Dan Wallace about his remark on a book blurb that "in some respects" there is "hardly" any difference between N.T. Wright's doctrines on justification and that of Rome [In fairness to Wallace this was a remark from a book blurb, for a fuller word from Wallace about N.T. Wright see here]. Now I confess that I don't want to get a reputation for being an apologist for N.T. Wright (though it might be too late for that). Although I greatly admire his work, I have some genuine criticisms that I have voiced in an excursus in SROG, and I gave John Piper some feedback on his manuscript The Future of Justification on what I think are the weaker nodes of Wright's arguments. But the attempt to make Wright look like John Henry Newman in an evangelical garb is a bit too much. Wright has criticized Anglo-Catholic views of the afterlife re: purgatory, he holds to a forensic justification as his critics even admit, and his view of grace is different from catholic sacramental theology. Contra Francis Beckwith who is cited in the article, I simply don't know how Wright can give someone an appreciation of a Catholic view of grace that is somehow different from a protestant view of grace. Part of the problem is that some folks want to reduce the debate to "Geneva" versus "Rome" as if they are the only two games in town: they are not! For a start, there is a lot of diversity among the residents of Geneva. The Westminster and Augsburg confessions disagree on what is imputed, Melanchthon and Luther disagreed on whether good works are necessary for salvation, John Calvin was also able to hold together justification and sanctification through union with Christ in a unique way, Martin Bucer held to a two-fold imputation for the impious and the pious, the Puritans weren't exactly monolithic on justification either as a comparison of Richard Baxter and John Owen shows, I think it was George Joye (like Ambrosiaster from the Church Fathers) who saw God's righteousness as his faithfulness rather than as a righteousness imputed from God, etc. Then look at Rome. Yes, we have Trent that was reactive and heavy-handed, and therefore, given to a theology born out of polemics. But read some modern Catholic commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and I remain confused as to how his Romans commentary which is sooo protestantesque in places was ever granted nihil obstat. D.A. Carson tells a story of how he asked Joseph Fitzmyer what did he believe: his Romans commentary or the 1993 catechism which is solidly tridentine when it came to justification? Then there's a guy like Scott Hahn who is a better and more consistent covenant theologian than some Presbyterians I know. Then what about the Barthians who have a more christocentric approach to the matter that is speaking a different language altogether? Hans Kung saw in Karl Barth a bridge between Protestants and Rome. Not forgetting the post-Bultmann Lutherans like Ernst Kasemann and Peter Stuhlmacher who don't fit neatly into any precise camp with their view of justification as transformative in the sense of God both declaring and making the sinners righteous. Then go east young man with the Orthodox theologians who can integrate justification closely to their leitmotif of theosis. Now suddenly the multiple-choice theology of Geneva or Rome seems highly simplistic doesn't it? Wright's critique of Reformed interpretation, overstated and full of generalization I often find it!, can only cause folk to go to Rome if they are caught in this Geneva or Rome dichotomy. In other words, if you ingrain into people that Geneva (or one suburb of Geneva) and Rome (= Trent) are the only two options, once they question some of their Reformed heritage, you haven't left them with any other option.

In my mind, the most analogous antecedent figure to N.T. Wright is Martin Bucer. Bucer regarded "works of the law" as Jewish ceremonies (which is kinda like boundary markers) and he wanted to integrate the Spirit into the process of the Christian life and saw a second justifying work in the life of the Christ. I think a good project for some brave soul would be to compare Bucer and Wright on Romans 2 and Galatians 4-5 to see where they agree and disagree. I would add that perhaps some affinities with Richard Baxter (see Paul Helm) can be made as well. If I had time to read-up further, I'd say a little bit of Ulrich Zwingli on regeneration and Richard Hooker on the sacraments might be a good comparison with N.T. Wright as well. In other words, Wright is clearly "in" the broad Reformed camp, even though he has some camping gear that I don't like.

I genuinely believe that good progress has been made in Catholic-Protestant relations since the Reformation. This is evidenced by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together as well as the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification which were positive moves forward (see Richard Mouw's quotation from Charles Spurgeon on Spurgeon's trip to a Catholic Church). I can honestly say that I'd rather worship and pray with an Orthodox Catholic than with a Liberal Protestant. I believe in the Reformation and yet recognize that the definition of a Christian in Rom 10:9-10 is broader than my own doctrinal statement. Still, at the end of the day there remains several incommensurable and irreconcilable differences between evangelicals and Catholics over the distinction between justification and sanctification, the nature of Christian assurance, the eucharist, the papacy, doctrines of Mary, and priestly celibacy. In the end, rediscovering covenant as a unifying theological category, experiencing the blessings of liturgy, digesting the church fathers in a serious way, and seeking transformation rather than transcendence, should be a means of enriching our own theological tradition rather than a reason for running to Rome. What is more, resources to do these things actually are available in the Reformed tradition if you look far and deep enough.

Update: Note the response from Wright via Trevin Wax.


Joel Willitts said...

Strong words Mike. Thanks for the reflection.

Scot McKnight said...

Thanks for your reflection. I wrote to Collin privately about my concerns...

I read Collin's piece, and I like that he keeps his finger on the Reformation issues alive today, but the piece is a subtle critique of Tom Wright without enough attention to the biblical debates that are involved. I agree that he suggests Wright is leading folks into RCism and this is not by way of compliment.

The statement by Timothy George in the article is telling: he shows that real divide is ecclesiogy and authority, and clearly Wright is not on the RCC side on those issues.

gjware said...

The places where high theology meets popular expression creates fertile ground for mass confusion.
The desire to include varying definitions of justification, some of which stand on the periphery of evangelical thought, let alone reformed theology, and others which are, at the very least, departure points from reformed theology, has an impact on the evangelical world.
In this case, it has led an evangelical group such as IVCF to formulate a doctrinal statement that someone who hears the words 'God's grace through faith in Christ alone' can processes it as 'God's church and sacraments' and as something to which they can give assent.
This is not so much about evangelicals going to Rome, but about them not being able to tell the difference anymore.
Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. Start dropping any of those alones and things go awry.

Jonathon said...

Thank you.

Blake White said...

Seems to me that one of the fundamental issues that needs to be fleshed out by Wright is his view of the role of good works in the believer's acceptance before God.

TK of RC said...

It seems to me that "Wright['s]... view of the role of good works in the believer's acceptance before God" is that good works are the fruit of God's acceptance and the markers that will be used as evidence (as in... "What 'evidence' is there of this one possessing 'saving faith alone in Jesus' that I may see to make this determination?") for the final, consuming judgement of the believer.

Don said...

Thanks for broadening the discussion. With all the boxing in, I am trying to catch my breath. You opened some windows to remaining Protestant while not having to choose between Rome and Geneva.

Red Barron said...

One of the most interesting things about the book "Paul in Fresh Perspective," is how Wright liked to redefine traditional soteriological terms. He redefines the phrase “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17) as God’s covenant faithfulness to restore harmony back to creation by ridding the world of sin and evil (p.25). He rejects the reformed understanding of this phrase to mean a righteous status conferred to the believer through the gospel. Wright says that justification refers to the way in which God’s people have been redefined (p.111) and on page 122 he says justification means to be declared by God to his people. He seems to deny any aspect of forensic justification or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Wright makes three important points in regard to the issue of justification. 1) We are justified not by our faith in Jesus but by Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant plan. 2) The word justification does not mean how one becomes a Christian but it is a statement about how one belongs to the people of God and how you can tell that in the present. 3) Works of the law are not works that one has to perform in order to be saved, but they are works that you have to perform to demonstrate that you are a member of God’s people (p. 112). Lastly, Wright argues that justification must also be seen within its eschatological framework. He says on p. 57, “The whole point about justification by faith is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3:26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2:1-16). Until justification is set firmly within this eschatological, as well as covenantal and apocalyptic framework, we shall never be able to understand what Paul is talking about.” This hardly sounds like N.T. Wright holds to a forensic view of Justification.

andrewbourne said...

I think that the points you make are valuable as a practising Catholic who at time would prefer to be in some Protestant camps than some of the weird Catholics sects such as the Neo-Catechumenate. I am interested in your mention of Bucer. Do you also know in relation to this Oberman`s work on the Augustinian revival pre Luther that set in motion really the Reformation.

Kevin said...

Wright has affirmed that Justification is forensic in numerous places. He consistently explains the word in its 'law-court' setting as well as its covenantal and eschatological setting. See his articles on Redemption from the New Perspective, New Perspectives on Paul, etc.

DeeCee said...

Thanks much for your excellent analysis.

I'm on staff with InterVarsity and have been extremely frustrated by the poor job of journalism Hansen did that completely misconstrued theological directions within InterVarsity (e.g., we've actually tightened our official stance on justification while welcoming Roman Catholics who are interested in making an evangelical faith journey without demanding denominational proselytization).

And yes absolutely -- from on the ground on our college campuses an orthodox Roman Catholic is a better friend and partner any day than a liberal Protestant.

Dan Wallace said...

Mike, you said, "I had a big on-line exchange with Dan Wallace about this in his criticism that there is no difference between N.T. Wright's doctrines on justification and that of Rome."

This is not true. You were referring to my blurb for John Piper's Future of Justification. What I said there, however, does not place Wright entirely in Rome. Here's the relevant portions of the blurb:

"This book…shows that Wright’s version of the New Perspective is, in some respects, hardly different from the Old Perspective of Rome. Not everyone will agree with all that Piper says…."

What I said about Wright was that his views were, "IN SOME RESPECTS, hardly different from the Old Perspective of Rome." You said that I saw no difference at all. I think we all need to be careful with how we recall conversations, especially over such an important matter.

I also noted that "not everyone will agree with all that Piper says." I meant myself, among others. Remarkably, when I got Piper's manuscript from the publisher, I had just put up a blog post at Parchment & Pen called, "51% Protestant." In it, I argued that there is much we can learn from Rome and that for someone to be considered Protestant he had to agree with 51% of Protestant teaching. The publisher thought that I would not endorse Piper's book, largely because of this blog post and because of other statements I had made about justification by faith not needing to be something that a person consciously embraced to be saved.

The irony here is that you have painted me with a black brush, when the reality is that there are various shades of gray to my theological viewpoint. So much so that one apologist did an hour-long program on his website taking me to task for my Catholic leanings!

Now, fast forward to Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. I wrote an essay on it called "δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and N. T. Wright." It's posted at There, I examined Wright's treatment of this important expression in Romans and found his exegesis wanting.

So, on the one hand, Crossway wasn't sure if I could endorse Piper's book because I'm not fully in his camp. On the other hand, I have written a strong critique of Wright's view of justification. Although I see some good things in Roman Catholicism, I am at least 51% Protestant. I am open to wrestling with the faith, thinking through how we have drawn battle lines, and reorienting our views at all times to scripture. I am grieved over the lack of Protestant ecclesiology. Further, the Protestant hermeneutic, with its disparaging of tradition and elevation of reason for grasping the meaning of scripture, created the seed-plot for both theological liberalism and radical fundamentalism. We have put ourselves in a cul-de-sac in which we have to appeal to our mental processes for understanding ancient texts, when we simultaneously affirm the noetic effects of sin and that revelation is our final authority. The question this raises is, How do you access that revelation? And can it be construed without resorting to partial knowledge of finite, sinful creatures whose outlook is shaped by their own cultures, personalities, experiences?

You are quite right that Geneva and Rome are not the only games in town. Please extend me the courtesy of recognizing that I am not a neo-Reformed thinker who elevates tradition above the text, for my own views are not entirely in one or the other camp. It should be added that Wright's view is not the only alternative to Geneva and Rome, either. I simply think that he's missed it on Paul's view of justification, but that shouldn't turn me into a hard-core reformed thinker just because I think he's wrong.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.

Michael F. Bird said...

I regret that I should have written "hardly" instead of "no" and I will modify the post accordingly. Thanks for your clarification.

Dan Wallace said...

Thanks, Mike. I so appreciate your spirit!

BTW, I regret that I didn't contact you when I was down under. My first visit there. I must say that Sydney felt like home like no other place. By 'home' I mean where I grew up--Newport Beach, CA. Sydney was NB with skyscrapers. I'd love to come back and, if the opportunity arose, speak at some schools. I did have the opportunity to do a seminar on textual criticism at Trinity College in Perth. Great time!