Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Wright in General

Wright's Approach

Tom Wright’s new book on justification (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London SPCK)) is a good read, and with much of it I found myself nodding in agreement . He writes in a ‘jolly hockeysticks’ way, with great verve, enthusiasm and self-confidence. But he is not so good at running towards the goal. He is not as clear as he ought to be about identifying the matters at issue; what is common ground, and what is, or are, the remaining problems. In this first post on his book I shall try to show some of why this is.

Those expecting a blow by blow engagement with John Piper’s book on Wright (The Future of Justification) will be disappointed. The strategy is to outflank Piper exegetically - to say: ’If your aim is to see what Paul teaches about justification in its original context, then this is the way to do it, and what he teaches is substantially different from the Reformed view of Paul’s account of justification’. In my view, he does not succeed in showing this. It’s a pity, though, that the author did not have time to extend the same courtesy to John Piper as Piper extended to him, to invite him to read the MS in draft. Had he done so he might have saved himself some trouble. One has the feeling, occasionally, that Bishop Wright is not content unless he has the last word. One reason for the failure of the outflanking strategy is a straightforward but irritating misunderstanding, which a dose of Piper would have cured, as we shall see in due course.

The theocentricity of his approach, and the material on covenant history are excellent. – Of many statements, there is this:

God’s single plan always was to put the world to rights, to set it right, to undo Genesis 3 and Genesis 11, sin and the fracturing of human society which results from that sin and shows it up in its full colours…:to bring about new creation, through Abraham/Israel and, as the fulfilment of the Abraham/Israel shaped plan, through the Messiah, Jesus. (78. See also, for example 26, 73f, 83, 155, 174).

At this point he could have been reading John Calvin. Wright seems never to have heard of covenant theology, writing as if the phrase is his, (222) and as if the idea of a single history, a single covenant of grace, is a fresh exegetical insight. He’s also good on grace and faith.(184)

On tradition, the bishop has curious views. He routinely thinks of tradition as constraining what is thought in the present, and so anything ‘traditional’ must be rejected or at least viewed with suspicion. (eg 135, 223, and many other places.) But a rejection of all tradition seems unbiblical and in any case tends to lead to the reinvention of the wheel. Why does a traditional view, if it is a correct view, not inform and liberate? Belief in the resurrection of Jesus, is that not 'traditional'? He writes of ‘refreshing’ the tradition, and this could mean merely smartening it up, or replacing it with a fresh view. He does not say which. It is as if semper reformanda, together with the mantra that the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word, are phrases which warrant a never-ending research project. The idea that we need a continuous stream of fresh readings of Paul, newer and newer new perspectives, is both wearying and scary. (13)

One has also to get over Wright’s understanding of Romans 2. 1 – 16 as being a description of Jew and Gentile believers. But though disagreeing with this view, one can live with it. It was after all Augustine’s view, and so part of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ which Wright elsewhere dismisses. (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, Ch.44)

Faith and Works

I gained three general impressions of a theological nature. One is that the gap between Wright and the classic Reformation view of justification (as expressed by John Piper, for example) seems to be not as great as before. If one presses the logic of Wright’s present position, then the gap is even less. Where the gap has already narrowed is over the question, Are believers justified now? Or are they only justified at the last, on the basis of a whole life? In the new book he writes that the 'future judgment.... corresponds to the present verdict which... is issued simply and solely on the basis of faith’ (165) See also 179, 207-12, 223. But it has to be admitted that Wright wobbles on this, as in 166-7 ‘the verdict on the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done’. The vagueness of the language irritates: 'corresponds to', 'anticipate', 'reflect'. How corresponds to, anticipates, reflects?, one vainly asks.

Nevertheless, despite the wobbles in stating his position, wobbles that could be given a good and a bad sense, this is a change from his Edinburgh paper on justification in which he was clearly striking a different note. There justification was reserved for the final judgement, giving his account a moralistic flavour, which invited one to draw a comparison with Richard Baxter. (See here) But this has to be said: the relation of faith to actions badly needs a clarificatory word from the Bishop’s cathedra to settle this vital question: are Spirit-imbued virtues a sign of faith (à la Epistle of James)? Or do they complete faith, supplement it, fulfil it? These questions cry out for an answer, but answer is there none. A clear sentence of two would have done it. It is this sort of gap that holds up the discussion and the meeting of minds. So where, according to the Bishop, (one is left to wonder) does Paul stand on this issue? And where does the Bishop himself stand? (More on the difficulty in handling the Wright output in the fourth post.)


To get to the heart of the second matter, imputation, one first has to negotiate one’s way through a whole tangle of issues. It is clear throughout the book that Wright has a forensic, law-court approach to justification, seeing this clearly in Paul. The second half of the book works this out in great and repetitive detail. The difficulty that arises is over what exactly is imputed and how it is imputed. As we shall see later on Wright has a clumsy and unsympathetic understanding of the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It’s hard to say, even at the end, whether Wright has got the picture.

Part of the reason for this failure may be the Bishop's strong belief that God’s righteousness (in Paul) is his covenant faithfulness, that such faithfulness is identical with the character of God’s righteousness, and is not simply an expression of it, or the chief expression of it. And so he repeatedly claims that what God reckons, in law-court fashion, to his people, is what Jesus, the faithful Israelite, achieved for his people in his death and resurrection. Because of what he did they are ‘in the right’. But (for Wright) being in the right cannot be having Christ’s righteousness imputed, since (in that sense) Christ has no righteousness to impute and to suppose otherwise is to be guilty of a ‘category mistake’.

John Piper insists that God requires a moral righteousness of us, and that since we have none of our own God must reckon or impute such a moral righteousness from somewhere else – obviously within this scheme, from the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ . I can see how that works. But ‘righteousness’, within the very precise language of the courtroom which Paul is most clearly evoking, most obviously in Romans 3, is not ‘moral righteousness’. It is the status of the person whom the court has vindicated.’ (71)

I suspect that this failure to appreciate a deeper sense of God’ s righteousness (which is both a logical and a theological failure) lies at the heart of Wright’s present view of what it is that the judge in court declares the offender to be. But it is not so easy to tell because he has such a weird understanding of what the Reformed view is. (By the way, note the little word ‘moral’, ‘moral righteousness’. It seems no bigger than a man’s hand, but it will turn out to be much larger).

Imputation and fudge

The third matter is Wright’s fudging of the Reformed view. He writes blithely of it involving the transfer of merit from a ‘treasury’. So imputation is the granting of some of Christ’s merit. He says, writing of Paul’s teaching in Galatians, that God’s purposes have been accomplished through the single person of Israel’s faithful representative.

But this does not mean that he [Jesus] has ‘fulfilled the law’ in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a ‘treasury of merit’ which can then be ‘reckoned’ to his people. That scheme, with all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments’(114, also 201, 134-5 the ‘amassing of a treasury of law-based ‘righteousness’, which a ‘blind alley’ (204, also 205, ‘a category mistake’, ‘legalism’)

If the imputation of righteousness is the treasury view, what is the imputation of sin? Does Christ get our sin? Is being made sin his being made sinful? (Did the Reformers never think about such points?) The language of the treasury, which I have never met in Reformed theologians, seems more reminiscent of Tetzel than of Luther and Calvin. It must at best be thought of as figurative or analogical language for imputation, and misleading at that.

Such language arises, I believe, because of a generally slap-happy approach to doctrine and its history, resulting in utter unclarity as to just who those Wright refers to as the followers of Augustine, those in his tradition, are intended to be, and especially what the history of Reformed theology in its relation to Augustine looks like. This failure is odd in view of the claim, at the end of he book, that the author is the one who has finally established Reformed theology. (224) One wonders, is he well-informed? Can he be serious?

This lack of seriousness is seen, for example, in comments on Gal. 3.29. He claims that for the ‘old perspective’ no one has even asked the question of why Paul concludes his argument, ‘you are therefore Abraham’s seed’ and not merely ‘you are therefore children of God’. (19) But glancing at John Calvin, we find

The conclusion rests on this argument, that Christ is the blessed seed, in whom, as we have said, all the children of Abraham are united. He proves this by the universal offer of the inheritance to them all, from which it follows, that the promise includes them among the children. It deserves notice, that, wherever faith is mentioned, it is always a relation to the promise.

Calvin does not ask the question, but he does give an answer that is strongly in accord with Wright’s own answer.

Here’s another sweeping claim - that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the central failure of Reformed people. (e.g. 71f.)

we have undercut in a single stroke the age-old problem highlighted in Augustine; interpretation of ‘justify’ as ‘make righteous’. This has always meant, for Augustine and his followers, that God, in justification, was actually transforming the character of the person, albeit in small, preliminary ways (by, for instance, implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). The result was a subtle but crucial shifting of metaphors: the lawcourt scene is now replaced with a medical one, a kind of remedial spiritual surgery involving a ‘righteousness implant’ which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable to patient to do thing previously impossible.

‘Much of the post-Augustinian tradition has used ‘justification’ to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last…’ linking with this, in the next paragraph, to John Piper! (71) This tradition is clearly intended to include the Reformers. Or this

There is indeed a sense in which ‘justification’ really does make someone ‘righteous’ – it really does create the righteousness, the status-of-being-in-the right, of which it speaks – but ‘righteousness’ in that law court sense does not mean either ‘morally good character’ or ‘performance of moral good deeds’, but ‘the status you have when the court has found in your favour’. (71)

There is absolutely no awareness that this is precisely the standard Reformed meaning of ‘imputation’, ‘reckoning’ and ‘count as’; and no recognition that what he then goes on to say about that view is filled with serious misconceptions.

The terms of debate

If a person is participating in a discussion and separating his own view from others' views then two things are needed: he needs to convey a clear sense of what his own view implies and does not imply, and he needs to show that he understands the view or views from which he dissents, representing them with the greatest sympathy and clarity that he can muster. On the matter of justification it is not sufficient to provide the reader with acres and acres of what St. Paul really said. The writer has also to say how this differs from standard Reformed views (if those are the issue) and to do this one needs to set out those views with clarity and sympathy. I don't find this in this book, and the failure lowers visibility. In the course of the next posts we shall from time to time find ourselves surrounded by this swirling mist.

So, beta minus for presentation.

In the next post I shall argue that there are good theological reasons why God’s righteousness cannot mean ‘covenant faithfulness’, (Piper 45, 71) and then, in the post after that I try to show that Wright’s root and branch opposition to the very idea of the imputation of righteousness also lands him in a certain amount of inconsistency. Finally, in the fourth post, I shall re-present the standard Reformed view of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, showing that it is a clear alternative both to Rome and to Wright's view as presented in his book. I do this in the hope that the differences between his view and the ‘traditional’ Reformed position, which may have already narrowed, may be narrowed further.