Monday, July 02, 2007

Analysis 4 - Bishop N.T. Wright's ordo salutis

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort....

Articles of Religion, Article XI

In systematic theology, as elsewhere, it is sometimes important to distinguish between what is logically distinct from what is temporally distinct, and temporal events from temporal states and processes. We can illustrate this from a brief consideration of aspects of a recent paper by Bishop N.T. Wright, 'New Perspectives on Paul', (in Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce McCormack, (Grand Rapids, Baker and Rutherford House, 2006). All page references are to this article.)

Here Wright places his own views on justification by faith within the framework of the Reformed ordo salutis. At several points he makes it clear that he is writing within a Reformed context, (256) and that his remarks are intended as a contribution to Reformed dogmatics. (257, 263) So the paper provides an opportunity, perhaps the first opportunity, to attempt to construct Bishop Wright's understanding of the ordo salutis, and so to make a straight comparison between it and the classic Reformed position. The paper raises several other important issues which we shall not consider here.

What Wright says

To provide the context for this attempt, here are some of the things he says:
I understand the ordo salutis to refer to the lining up, in chronological sequence, of the events that occur from the time when a human being is outside the community of God's people, stuck in idolatry and consequent sin, through to the time when this same erstwhile sinner is fully and finally saved. (255)
At this point I am implicitly in dialogue with a general trend, at least since the sixteenth century, to make "conversion" and "justification" more or less coterminous - a trend that has been sped on its way when "conversion" is understood as "the establishment of a personal relationship with God" and justification has been understood in a "relational' sense, with the meaning not of membership in the covenant, as in the Old Testament, but of this personal relationship between the believer and God. (256)
I have already described how Paul understands the moment when the gospel of Jesus as Lord is announced and people come to believe it and obey its summons. Paul has a regular technical term for this moment, and it is neither "justification" nor "conversion" (though he can employ the latter from time to time); the word in question is "call"....But if the call is the central event, the point at which the sinner turns to God, what comes before and after? (256)
But what matters for our purposes even more is the question of what comes after the call. "Those he called, he also justified" (Romans 8.30). In other words, Paul uses "justify" to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who has not before believed the gospel is gripped the by word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as Lord. Here is the central point in the controversy between what I say about Paul and what the tradition, not least the Protestant tradition, has said. The tradition has used "justify" and is cognates to denote conversion, or at least the initial moment of the Christian life, and has then debated broader and narrower definitions of what counts. My reading of Paul indicates that he does not use the word like this.....For Paul, justification is something that follows on from the call through which a sinner is summoned to turn from idols and serve the living God, to turn from sin and follow Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. (256-7, italics in the original. )
The ordo

The ordo salutis as understood in Reformed theology typically goes as follows:

a. Regeneration/effectual calling
b. Conversion, including repentance and faith
c. Justification
d. Sanctification
e. Glorification

Some of these steps are logical only, some are both logical and temporal. (See for example L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 418, as well as his general characterization of the ordo. (416))

For Bishop Wright the ordo salutis is a chronological sequence, and an important early occurrence in it is conversion or as Wright prefers, effectual calling. So taking his cue from Paul in Romans 8, effectual calling is followed by justification; the 'alsos' of Paul are understood temporally. Bishop Wright holds that justification comes after the call in time. It starts once conversion ends. So those who claim that justification is 'coterminous' with conversion or calling, the time when the sinner turns to God, represent Paul's position inaccurately. Wright stresses this by italicising that for Paul justification is something that follows on from the call (top 257), that it is after the call (256). Although he mentions that he thinks that for Paul ‘justify’ denotes something other than and logically subsequent to the event of conversion, he goes on to take logical consequence here at least to involve temporal consequence.

Justification is preceded by divine foreknowledge, (256) and is the consequence of the enlightening, illuminating work of the Spirit. Justification is, in a similar way, followed by glorification.

As noted, on the classic Reformed view, effectual calling is a comprehensive divine gift, encompassing, through the agency of the Word and Spirit, both the grace of faith and of other Christian benefits, notably 'justification, adoption and sanctification'. (Shorter Catechism 32) So that while justification is not 'coterminous' with calling, it is nevertheless an aspect of what God bestows as a result of the faith granted and exercised in effectual calling. What kind of aspect? Is it an event that follows calling, as Wright claims? No, it is not. Rather it is a logical consequence of faith, a consequence established by the divine promise. It is not that people believe, and then justification, the result, occurs. It is as people believe that they are justified. So justification is logically distinct from faith, (and from other aspects of effectual calling) and not temporally distinct. Another reason that justification is not coterminous with conversion is because through faith the state (not the process) of being justified is inaugurated, a state which persists after the period of conversion is over. On the Reformed view justification is not an event, as Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, or Augustine's conversion recounted in Book 8 of his Confessions, were events. 'Being justified' is different from 'having been justified'. Nor is it a process, something which develops and changes over time. Rather, if someone comes to be justified, he stays justified for all eternity. A person is never more justified than when he is first justified.

It is relatively easy to see why Bishop Wright sees the need to insist on justification as a temporal occurrence after effectual calling, calling it a central point of controversy (256) since he proceeds to insist that justification/vindication is God's declaration on account of what has happened in effectual calling - forgiveness of sins, and covenant membership. Such justification is a foretaste of the vindication proper which will occur at the last day on the basis of a life lived as a faithful covenant member. It is important to note the emphasis that Wright places upon this eschatological vindication.

So we might summarise Wright's ordo as follows:

(1) Divine foreknowledge (256)
(2) Divine 'marking out ahead of time' (256)
(3) Calling - summoning to turn from idols and serve the living God (257) through the word and Spirit (257), bringing about believing submission to Jesus as the risen Lord (257), dying with him and rising to new life in him through baptism. (260) Faith is the first fruit of the Spirit's call. (257)
(4) Justification/Vindication. God's verdict – his authoritative declaration of what is in fact the case (260) - consequent upon the event(s) that constitute the calling, a declaration that the one called is in the right (forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus) and a member of the true covenant family of believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (258)
(5) Sanctification?
(6) Glorification - the final declaration, foreshadowed in the earlier justification, sharing the glorious rule of Jesus as Lord. (257)

What is the nature of justification? Wright devotes a great deal of attention to this in the paper, naturally enough, given that it originated as a contribution to a conference on that topic. Here some of what he takes the tradition to task about surfaces. As noted, he prefers the term 'vindicate' rather than 'justify', but as far as I can see there's no issue here. The substantive issue is what justification/vindication is grounded in. For Wright in his vindication of the sinner the righteous God declares the person to be in the right in view of his faith in Jesus and his covenant membership, these being not two things but two aspects of the same thing, or two way of describing the same thing. (Wright does not make this clear). 'It is God's declaration about the person who has just become a Christian'. (260) Vindication 'is God's declaration that a person is in the right - that is, (a) that the person's sins have been forgiven and (b) that he or she is part of the single covenant family promised to Abraham'. (260) It is fair to say, I think, that for Wright this first vindication is more event-like than state-like. At the same time Wright emphatically denies that justification is on the basis of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. (252, 256) 'It is not God's own righteousness or Christ's own righteousness that is reckoned to God's redeemed people but, rather, the fresh status of "covenant member" and/or "justified sinner", which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with "the obedience of faith"'. (253)

The basis or ground, then, of vindication insofar as it immediately follows effectual calling, is the presence of faith and of covenant membership. Vindication is on account of these things. Two further matters to note. Vindication here and now is to be understood as anticipatory of the future (a final vindication ‘on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit - that is, it occurs on the basis of "works" in Paul's redefined sense'. (260)) It is fair to say, I think, that for Wright this eschatological vindication is its chief sense. For he says vindication 'occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict', (260), it is God's present assurance that a person is in the covenant. And he makes a point of emphasizing justification by workis and of chiding some for being embarrased by the idea. It is not clear, on the evidence of this paper, whether or not anticipatory justification guarantees future and final justification or not.

In the above sketch of the ordo, sanctification is followed by a question-mark because Wright says little or nothing about it in the paper, except that it is a once for all happening initiated in baptism. (257)

With the help of the distinctions between temporal and logical order, and events and states, we are able to see that Wright's view of the ordo salutis follows a recurring pattern in Protestantism: the rejection of the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and justification on the basis of some change or achievement in the person concerned. That justification is temporally after the beginning of these changes is vital to this view of the ordo. Different versions of this pattern can be found in Arminianism, and other movements affected by Arminianism, such as Baxterian neonomianism and Cambridge Platonism. The pattern is: justification is grounded (partly at least) in subjective states. In Wright's case, in faith and covenant membership, unmerited gifts of God, (257) and all that they imply. Justification/vindication is temporally subsequent to being in the covenant, it is an assurance of it. (261) If, as Bishop Wright says, his account of justification 'does the job' of the Reformers' imputation of an alien righteousness, (260-1) then it does that job very differently.

If Bishop Wright has a controversy with the Protestant tradition, as he says that he has, then there is little that is new about his own proposal, even though it may be founded upon a novel account of what St. Paul really said. It’s the old, old story; a moralistic declension from true evangelicalism.

Thanks to Guy Waters for his helpful suggestions.