Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wright and Righteousness

In the third Analysis on Bishop Tom Wright’s new book on justification we shall be considering his ideas about the imputation of righteousness.

As we have seen, by now Wright’s account of justification commits him to the following: to substitution, and to imputation. (194, 196) Christ acts as our substitute, and justification involves imputation, but the idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness continues to be ruled out and even to be ridiculed by the Bishop.

The chief positive element in Wright’s account of justification, and the discussion that follows, turns upon his idea of justification as a law-court concept. He thinks that this has nothing to do with moral virtue, or ‘righteousness’ in the sense that mistakenly stems from Augustine, but it is simply that the court has found in an individual’s favour and thereby ‘justifies’ him. (180) He sharply discounts the classic Reformed view of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In justification a new relationship is reckoned – faithfulness to the covenant . But there’s a world of difference, Wright thinks, between a new relationship and the imputation of a new moral status. He thinks that the imputation of righteousness is a ‘blind alley’. (204)

Why is that?

Part of the answer is that Wright sees Pauline imputation in negative terms. It is the not reckoning of sin, it is pardon for sin, and acquittal, but not anything positive, such as the imputation of righteousness , because to speak in such positive terms moves us back into the medieval world from which the Reformation tried unsuccessfully to extricate itself. (187)

The rest of the answer is because the Reformed idea of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ suggests to Bishop Wright that in justification a person receives an ‘implant’ of Christ’s merit. (70) This is because righteousness is not , in the original Pauline context (as he sees it), a moral character trait, nor a virtue capable of being infused or imputed. So at the heart of the gospel there is no imputation of moral righteousness, but rather a ‘judicial sentence on sin’. (180-1) (It is at this point that the little word ‘moral’, mentioned in the first post, comes to take centre stage. Watch how it continually appears in Wright’s formulations against the Reformed view.)

According to him, what is allegedly imputed according to the Reformed view of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is his moral righteousness . Wright takes this to be a reference to a subjective moral state. Repeat, He takes this to be the reckoning to the believer of a new subjective state, Christ’s subjective state, which through imputation is now possessed by the believer. He thinks that the oddity of such a view is another reason why it must be rejected. Note, this rejection has little or nothing to do with the exegesis of Paul. It is not that Wright alone knows what St. Paul really said and everyone else in history has misheard. He is perfectly content to write (in purely conventional language) of the ‘grant of the status as righteous’. (70) But he thinks that ‘righteous’ here is a judicial state, whereas for the Reformers the righteousness imputed is an implanted – Wright havers on this - virtue.

For Wright, for some strange reason, a reason which he never overtly identifies, discusses or explains, the term ‘moral’ cannot imply merely a standard of righteousness (as in ‘the moral law’ or ‘a moral issue’), but the subjective, personal possession of a set of qualities or ‘virtues’. This is what he objects to what he takes to be the Reformed view, the counting or reckoning or imputing to a person of such a subjective moral state. He seems to think that the Reformed view is that the believer has Christ’s righteousness in the way in which it may be said that I have your toothache. And, Wright believes , such a thing involves a ‘category mistake’. You and I can have the same (sort of) toothache, but it is impossible for me to have the very toothache that is your tooth ache.

But this logical impossibility is not, and never was, the Reformed view. The imputation of righteousness never was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the sense that his very subjective righteousness is transferred to me. That is utter confusion! (How could there be such an imputation? How could a person have reckoned to her the very subjective state that is Christ’s righteousness or virtue? And who ever said such a thing?) Wright diligently uses Paul as a source, but where are his sources in the history of doctrine for making such an allegation? Has he researched the point? Could he provide us with chapter and verse?

Does not Bishop Wright not know this how off-centre (‘crazy’ would be a more accurate word) his views about the Reformed view are? Does he not know that as a matter of bare, clear fact, this is not the Reformed view? Does he not realise that he is, to put the matter colloquially, making it up, spinning it out of thin air?

To repeat. According to Wright the Reformed view is that a person is morally righteous to a degree only if he is subjectively righteous to that degree. Christ may give Peter his sandals, or some fish, but he cannot transfer to Peter the very character that he has, any more than he can give to Peter the pain that he suffered. Similarly a person’s act of sinning cannot become Christ’s act of sinning. Therefore, since (as is obvious) the moral character of one person can no more be imparted or transferred to another than can his feeling of pain, no one can come to possess the very moral condition that is Christ’s moral righteousness, nor can Christ come to possess the very condition that is a person’s act of sinning. It can’t be done. Such a state cannot be his very own moral state. To propose such a view is not simply as Wright puts it, a ‘category mistake’, it is utterly incoherent.

It is this piece of apparent confusion in Wright’s mind over what constitutes imputed righteousness in the classic Reformed view that is the reason why, (apparently), the ‘Augustinian tradition’ which famously included subjective renewal as part of justification, continued to dominate the Reformation despite its clear view of justification as a forensic act. That’s why (according to Wright) the Reformation has not in its doctrine of imputed righteousness thrown off Augustinianism, since it still thinks of justification in terms of receiving the merit of another, and receiving the merit of another must mean (Wright appears to think) receiving a moral state, a moral (in his sense) change, merit from the treasury of merit, the imparting of moral virtue, a change that is – impossibly – he thinks – imputed to the believer. But this is deeply and crucially factually inaccurate.

To show that I am not making this up, it might be helpful at this point for the reader to have a short index of phrases that Wright uses of Reformed theology and the ‘Augustinian tradition’. As I stated in the first post, he fails to make a clear distinction between these two versions of Augustinianism in the book:

47. ‘Here we meet, not for the last time, the confusion that arises inevitably when we try to think of the judge transferring, by imputation or any other way, his own attributes to the defender’.
60, ‘Ever since the time of Augustine, the discussions about what has been called ‘justification’ have borne a tangled, but only tangential relation to what Paul was talking about’.
65, ‘Justification.…has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action towards the human race….everything from God’s free love….through final judgement….’
70, ‘That 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 example implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). (See also 71, 81)
153-4 ‘There has grown up ‘in the Western church a long tradition of (a) reading God’s righteousness’ as justitia Dei, then (b) trying to interpret that phrase with the various meanings of justitia available at the time, and (c) interpreting that in turn within the categories of theological investigation of the time (especially to make ‘justification’ cover the entire sweep of soteriology from grace to glory).
167, ‘A doctrine that has attempted to construct the entire soteriological jigsaw on the basis of a medieval view of ”justice”’.
170 ‘The problem with the “old perspective” on Paul is that it has followed the medieval tradition (to which it was never more thoroughly indebted than when reacting to some of its particulars)….it has de-Judaized Paul’.
205 ‘It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus ‘obeyed the law’ and so obtained ‘righteousness which could be reckoned to those who believe in him. To think that way is to concede, after all, that ‘legalism’ was true after all – with Jesus as the ultimate legalist. At this point, Reformed theology lost its nerve…’legalism’ itself was never the point, not for us, not for Israel, not for Jesus’. ((204) Emphases are Wright’s)


The existence on the planet of such sentences may be hard to credit. Here’s another modest index of the evidence that Wright takes ‘moral’ or ‘virtuous’ to mean a subjective state:

50 The declaration of the court does not mean (primarily) that the defendant is virtuous, but that he is vindicated by the court. (cf. 113)
51 ‘Piper suggests that “it may be that when the defendant lacks moral righteousness’ (where did moral righteousness come from all of a sudden?), “the Judge, who is also Creator and Redeemer, may find a way for his righteousness to count for the defendant”’. (also 69)
71 ‘But “righteousness”, within the very precise language of the courtroom which Paul is clearly evoking, most obviously in Romans 3, is not “moral righteousness’’’.
81 This is the trouble with the great tradition, from Augustine onwards, not that it has not said many true and useful things, but that by using the word ‘justification’ as though it described the entire process from grace to glory….’ (Wright’s emphasis)
114 ‘But this does not mean that he 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. This scheme, for 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 accomplishments’.
187 ‘The idea that what sinners need is for someone else’s ‘righteousness’ to be credited to their account simply muddles up the categories, importing with huge irony into the equation the idea that the same tradition worked so hard to eliminate, namely the suggestion that, after all ‘righteousness’ here means ‘moral virtue’, ‘the merit acquired from law keeping’, or something like that. We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have someone else’s credited to us, and ‘justification’ can’t mean ‘being made righteous’, as though God first pumps a little bit of moral virtue into us, and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole’……..’Imputed righteousness’ is a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the medieval terms that were themselves part of the problem.
204 ‘But, in line with some (though by no means all) of the Protestant Reformers he [John Piper] insists on arriving at this conclusion by the route of supposing that the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ…is the ground of this security. Jesus has ‘fulfilled the law’, and thus amassed a treasury of law-based ‘righteousness’, which we sinners, having no ’righteousness’ of our own, no store of legal merit, no treasury of good works, can shelter within. I want to say, as clearly as I can, to Piper and those who have followed him: this is, theologically and exegetically, a blind alley…’

(I know that some of this is scarcely intelligible, or credible, but this is what Wright has written. Check it out for yourself.)

To emphasise –

Wright believes that in the matter of justification there is one dominant Augustinian tradition much of which the Reformers uncritically assumed. In particular, they assumed that what is imputed is moral virtue, God’s own attributes, and that such imputation is received by faith.

So when he considers the Reformed view, he thinks of it in a distinctly medieval way, as involving both (what was later called) justification and sanctification, but principally involving the idea that sanctification is justification, because justification involves acquiring righteousness, moral virtue, the judge’s attributes.

Wright thinks that all this Augustinian, medieval, Reformation nonsense, (as he judges it), this ‘legalism’, can be avoided by thinking of Pauline justification in negative terms.

Next time, in the last post, we’ll show two things. First, that whatever the history of the matter, Wright’s own view of ‘reckoning’ as not imputing sin, also commits him to ‘legalism’. If what we all have to do is to escape the baleful influence of Augustinian medievalism, then Tom Wright himself has still to break free. And second, that he has utterly misunderstood what ‘the imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ means. Were he to come to understand it as it is, then his fears about it would be at an end.

And then I shall try to sum up.