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Wright Wednesdays: Part 10

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[This is the final installment of Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification. The previous installments can be found here.]

Conclusion

Reared in a pietistic evangelical environment, I recall the revolution in my own faith when the eschatology of the prophets and apostles challenged the narrow concept of salvation that I had been taught.  However, Wright had not yet written his first controversial tome.  In fact, as a teenager, I had read with enthusiasm the little book that he wrote with two other Oxford undergraduates, The Grace of God in the Gospel (Banner of Truth, 1972).  (On our first introduction, I told Tom that this was among the books instrumental in my “inviting Calvin into my heart” and he offered an equally tongue-in-cheek reply: “Now let me help you invite Paul into your heart.”)

It was the writings of Reformed theologians and biblical scholars like John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Anthony Hoekema who introduced me to the sweeping vistas of a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture.  Of course, my own dispensationalist upbringing was dismantled in the process. Then, as a student of M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, Robert Strimple, and others at Westminster Seminary California, I came more fully to see how God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 generated an unfolding drama that led to God’s single plan to bring salvation to the nations through Israel, concentrated on Jesus Christ.

Especially during my doctoral studies, I began reading some of the formative writers of post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy more intently and discovered that they had pioneered this biblical-theological interpretation of Scripture.  At its heart was a theology of the covenant, with the promise in Genesis 15 as a lodestar.  So it was from the most “traditional” of Reformed theologians that I learned that justification was a forensic concept drawn from the lawcourt rather than a transfer or infusion of virtues; that the covenant of grace marches from the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15 to the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15; that this promises gestates in the womb of Israel and is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus the Messiah; that this gospel is not simply going-to-heaven-when-I-die, but a renewed cosmos.

In one conversation in Oxford, Tom Wright concurred that although he had not read the older covenant theologians closely, he too was deeply influenced by Vos and Ridderbos.  Hence, my surprise when there are no footnotes to these writers, even when he is making their points, and most of the time Wright presents his views over against the whole Reformation (including Reformed) tradition.  In my view, Wright is at his best when he elaborates and extends arguments that, however controversial in the field of New Testament studies or in popular evangelicalism, are familiar territory for Reformed exegetes.

Where I think he is wrong is on his failure to see how the two promises made to Abraham in Genesis 15 (earthly land and the inheritance of the nations) lead to two distinct covenants: the conditional covenant of law at Sinai, where the people swear, “All this we will do,” and the covenant of grace that is based on the fulfillment of the law by the True Israel, Jesus the Messiah.  As a result, his sweeping biblical-theological vision misses crucial exegetical nuances, which Paul especially highlights in Galatians 4, with the contrast between law and promise, the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, Hagar and Sarah, Sinai and Zion.  The further implication of this confusion of law and gospel is the false dilemma he often posits (in spite of his criticism of false dilemmas) between God’s righteousness as his own covenant faithfulness versus the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

First, he routinely misinterprets the Reformation doctrine as teaching that God’s personal attribute of righteousness is transferred to believers.  No reformer advocated such a thing.  In fact, Calvin added a whole section to his final edition of the Institutes to rebut the teaching of Osiander that we are righteous because Christ’s divine nature is imparted to us through mystical union.  Rather, Melanchthon, Calvin, and other reformers understood “Christ’s righteousness” as Christ’s fulfillment of the law as the representative head of his people.  Wright believes that our sins are imputed to Jesus Christ, so why not his righteousness?  Lacking engagement with any primary text from the Reformation for his assertions, he relies entirely it seems on Alister McGrath’s impressive though controversial study of the history of the doctrine of justification.  The choice is understandable.  Assuming discontinuity more than refinement, McGrath argues (as approvingly cited by Wright), “The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.” Wright repeatedly asserts, following McGrath, that justification “has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination” (86).  This does not even fit Lutheranism, but less the Reformed tradition.  If anything, these traditions carefully distinguish justification from sanctification.  One of the reasons for the much-maligned ordo salutis is to speak about the many and varied gifts that come to us in Christ.  Wright’s criticisms are often sweeping and dismissive and this leads inevitably to the second concern.

Second, alongside wonderful insights, Wright’s exegesis and theological conclusions are often reductionistic.  He says that justification is a forensic term from the lawcourt that declares God’s people “in the right,” and Christ as the True Israel fulfills the Abrahamic pledge in a way that could never have happened through the law, so what is wrong with saying that we are justified by God’s crediting Christ’s lifelong obedience, satisfaction, and resurrection-vindication to believers as if they had fulfilled all obedience in their own person?  As I have hinted at in various places along the way, Wright seems to have modified his views to some extent.  Yet it would be helpful to have a summary of exactly where he thinks he had it wrong.  He does write,
Of course—and my critics will no doubt have fun pointing this out—those of us, like Jimmy Dunn, Richard Hays, Douglas Campbell, Terry Donaldson and myself, who have tried to listen to the force of this point [a de-Judaizing of Paul], have not always followed either history or exegesis perfectly.  We have been so eager to think through the implications of the alternative (and deeply Jewish) readings of Paul that we in our turn may well have ignored elements (not non-Jewish elements, of course, but elements of Paul’s inner dialectic) that the old perspective was right to highlight and which it has been right stubbornly to insist on, even if sometimes feeling like Canute with the waves of the sea washing around his throne.  But if we are to listen to what Paul says, in a vital and overlooked passage like 2:17-20, we may yet achieve the proper balance…There was nothing wrong with the plan, or with the Torah on which it was based.  The problem was in Israel itself.  And as we shall see later, the problem was that Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (196).

However, Reformed exegetes have labored the point that the problem was never the Torah itself, but the fact that Israel too was “in Adam.”

In my view, Wright is not as radical in this book as he is in some of his earlier works.  He seems to have softened his emphasis on a future justification by works that might be quite different from the present verdict.  There seems to be a wider recognition of Christ’s representative work, not only in his death but in his life.  More than in his earlier works, he seems in this volume to speak less one-sidedly of justification merely as a verdict concerning membership in God’s people and (although this is still emphasized), and he refers to justification also in several places as a verdict that declares sinners righteous in Christ through faith.  In fact, his apparent moderation on this point makes for some confusion when he repeats his usual sharp contrasts between his own view and the Reformation perspective.  Despite these modifications, his polemical tone and sweeping strikes against the Reformation remains as firmly entrenched as ever.

A concluding evaluation of this book would be incomplete if I did not register my genuine appreciation for some of his points.  In spite of exaggerations and false dilemmas, Wright reminds us that justification is inextricably tied to God’s covenantal, historical, cosmic, and eschatological purposes for “summing up all things in Christ.”  Even if it is in some ways an over-correction, he does remind us that justification does not emerge simply out of need for personal or pastoral needs, but out of an unfolding plan that revolves around God’s faithfulness to his own righteousness and results not only in saved individuals but in a church and a kingdom.  Even if he tends sometimes to confuse this kingdom with his own political agenda, Wright properly reminds us that even in its seminal and liminal existence in this time between Christ’s advents, it is already true that Jesus is Lord.

God promised the holy land and a worldwide family in Gen 15 (222).  “And once again the point about the Torah is twofold: (a) to cling to it would be to embrace the wrath which results from having broken it; (b) to highlight it would be to restrict the covenantal promises to Jews only.  Both perspectives matter, and the two fit snugly together within Paul’s overall view of God’s call and promise to Abraham” (222).
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  • I certainly concur with your criticisms. However, I think you are still being too nice. Wright's "good points" in this work are simply reiterations of things which have been said for years, yet he says them as if he is the first to think of them.

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  • Guest - Phil A Buster

    Jordan, forgive me for being confused: What's wrong with being "nice"? And why should we be "mean" to Wright because he (mistakenly) thinks he's the first to think of these views? We don't get angry with R. C. Sproul everytime he writes a book just repeating what people have said since Reformed Orthodoxy, nor even repeating what he's said? So why should we be mad at Wright? It seems to me like you just need him to be a bad guy so you don't have to read what he says...

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  • I have read what he says. I am a fan of several of his works, including the Resurrection of the Son of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God. It is only this work that has got me very disappointed in his scholarship. It is not bad that he says things that have been said before him. What the problem is, is that he says them as if they are his original ideas. I did not get as frustrated with "What St. Paul Really Said" or "Paul in Fresh Perspective." What bothers me is that though he has been corrected since this time he still repeats the same things. He has completely ignored historical Reformed Covenantal theology and uses some of their ideas as if they are something new.

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  • I too was inspired by reformed scholars that stressed kingdom vision as a lens for better understanding scripture, and view Justification as something of the other booked to Meredith Kline's "Structure of Biblical Authority."

    Despite the critiques and shortcomings, and as someone who always thought, "Great..Then What?", Wright is a thrill to read especially as he re-establishes the scope of salvation in a fresh way, even if he wasn't there first.

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  • ..other bookend

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