Thursday, October 01, 2009

Wright and the Reformation

In the last post I attempted to show that while Wright thinks of justification using the concepts of substitution and imputation, one reason why he cannot commit himself to the Reformed doctrine of justification as the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is that he grossly misunderstands it. He ridicules the view, but in fact he ridicules a caricature of the view. He thinks that the Reformed view is that in imputation Christ’s righteousness literally becomes mine, my moral condition, that I have Christ’s moral righteousness (in this sense) as mine. I offered a good bit of textual evidence to show that this is indeed Wright’s view. He may be making things up, but I want it to be clear that I am not.

It follows from the evidence provided in the book that according to the Bishop the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Piper’s view (if you like), because it is an imputation of moral righteousness, must be the imparting of a new character, and because it is Christ’s righteousness, an immaculate, perfect moral character.

But Piper makes it abundantly clear why he uses the phrase ‘moral righteousness’.

Now why have I brought in moral righteousness? Doesn’t that muddy the water? Isn’t justification the bestowing of a status of ‘righteousness’ not the declaration that one is morally righteous? I bring it in for two reasons. One reason is that in the context of Romans, the charge that has brought us into court is ‘None is righteous, no, not one’. (Rom.3.10) Which means: ‘No one does good , no even one’ (Rom.3.12) This is a statement about our moral condition.

The other reason is that God is omniscient, and so his findings always accord with reality. The status bestowed will always accord with whether the charge sticks. When the charge itself is ‘You have no moral righteousness before God’ (cf. Rom. 3:10-18), the finding of an omniscient judge in our favor must be: ‘You do indeed have a moral righteousness before God and therefore a status of acquittal in this court’. (The Future of Justification, 77)

But for some reason Wright cannot see it this way.

He cannot see that the righteousness in question is an alien righteousness which, when imputed, changes the person’s moral status., and that the righteousness required for justification is always alien. But it never ceases to be alien. And he cannot see that understood in this way the view is Pauline, in his understanding of Paul. (‘The thing that is created is not a moral character, nor an infusion of virtue, but a status’ (180)). It is the language of the law court; on that he and Piper are agreed. What is more, those who are imputed with Christ’s righteousness never leave the law-court! The verdict of the Lord , pronounced through the interposition of the Mediator, is eternally efficacious, its sound for ever rings in their ears! Like Paul, they seek to gain Christ, to be found in him, not having their own righteousness which comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil. 3 8,9.) But for some reason, whenever the term ‘moral’ occurs Wright regards this as denoting the subjective possession of a state, a virtue, not an imputed moral status. Otherwise why is it a ‘category mistake’?

So if the Reformers, to a man, rejected the Roman infusion view of righteousness, and to a man upheld the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, what was it that they were upholding but a change of status, the moral status that the vindicated Suffering Servant possesses?

For Wright it appears that, thinking of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ in the most generous terms, there have been three concepts of imputation, and consequently n three concepts of justification.

1. The view of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ which comes in two versions:
(a) The full-bloodied ‘infusion’ Roman Catholic view, (making righteous by impartation) (and
(b) The Reformation view if justification through the righteousness of Christ (receiving Christ’s own righteous character by imputation).
Both 1(a) and 1(b) are ‘legalistic’.
2. The Pauline view, recently discovered by himself and the other adherents to the ‘new perspective’ outlook, that righteousness is a ‘law court’ term according to which (because of Christ) a person is declared to be in the right, to be acquitted, to have a new status, and so to be vindicated. This is not ‘legalistic’. (I place inverted commas around the word as Wright does , though I’ve no idea what their significance is.)

But as far as the history of the concept of justification is concerned, this is a complete and utter dog’s breakfast. I believe that it is impossible, for Wright or for anyone else, to state 1(b) in a way that distinguishes it both from 1(a) and from 2.

I used to think that everyone knew that a part of the Reformation break with medieval Augustinianism was a decisive distinction between imputing and imparting, between justification and sanctification, between the change of status of a person and that person’s change of character. By faith only, a person has Christ’s righteousness reckoned to him. That is Reformation (and Pauline) justification. By faith in the promises of God, the justified believer is set on the path of inward renewal. That is sanctification. But for some reason, Wright completely misses this. The nearest he comes to it is in this passage, some of which was quoted in an earlier post:

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 lawkeeping’, or something like that. We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have some one 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 use and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole. (187)

This is the closest Wright gets to stating the Reformed view. (See also the reference to ‘extraneous righteousness’. (141))

Further, as we noted in the last Analysis, Wright believes that this view leads us back into the world of ‘legalism’; it does not sufficiently extricate us from mediaeval Augustinianism. With or without the inverted commas, the term ‘legalism’ is unclear in this connection. But in any case this won’t stand up as a criticism that Wright can sustain, because his own view of negative imputation, consisting of the pardon of sin on the basis of the work of the true Israelite, being ‘acquitted’, ‘forgiven’, ‘cleared’, (187) is already in that ‘legal’ world. If ‘legalism’ is a criticism of positive justification by the imputation of alien righteousness , then it is already a criticism of the negative imputation, justification by the non-imputation of sin, that Wright espouses. After all, the Bishop can hardly press for justification being a law-court term and then deny that it has anything to do with legality and illegality.

Summing Up

Earlier in this series of posts on Wright’s book I claimed that by its publication the ground between himself and those who, like John Piper, uphold the classic Reformed view had been narrowed. Here is the present position, as I see it.

There is common ground on the following three or four points: that Paul’s teaching on justification is God-centred, and that its axis is the Abrahamic covenant; that ‘justify’ ad ‘justification’ is law-court language, declaring a person to have the status of having been vindicated; that Christ is our substitute, and that in the act of substitution God fails to impute our own sins to us, pardoning them instead. Wright thinks of imputation in negative terms, the not-imputing of sin, rather than in positive terms, the imputation of righteousness. We shall return to this difference in a moment.

But then there are the differences, but (as I have said) narrowable differences. They are narrowable because they all involve only points of logic. These are (as I would put it):

1. Wright has an imperfect appreciation of God’s righteous character. This goes back to what Piper says about the meaning of ‘righteousness’, but it also embodies a logical point, that God’s righteousness must be a feature or property or attribute of who he is, rather that (solely) a feature of what he does. He is righteous, and so acts righteously.
2. Wright’s argument that the doctrine of imputation of righteousness as usually understood is ‘legalistic’ fails to convince. If the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness is ‘legalistic’, then so is his own view that imputation is negative, that it covers the non-imputation of the sins and trespasses of the believer. This also is a point of logic, that is, a question of the consistency or otherwise of Wright’s views. (This point might be pressed: How does the faithfulness of the faithful Israelite, Jesus Christ, become ours, negating our sins and trespasses, except through ‘positive’ imputation?)
3. There is misunderstanding (or at least a great deal of unclarity) on Wright’s part regarding the ‘category mistake’ of thinking of the imputation of righteousness as the imputation of moral character. To my knowledge no Reformed theologian has claimed what Wright appears to believe that at least some of them think. To suppose that such imputation ‘imparts’ a righteous character is to be guilty not so much of a category mistake as a straight logical incoherence. This is a final logical point.

On the Reformed view, Christ’s imputed righteousness is ‘alien’, external, the righteousness of another, and even when imputed, it will always remain alien. God justifies the ungodly as ungodly. The widely-used illustration, that Christ’s righteousness is credited to my account, is misleading. (If I’m credited, mustn’t Christ be debited?) To repeat, in the imputation of righteousness, nothing moves. Imputation is not an electronic moral transfer. Righteousness is not transmitted, transfused, or relocated in any way. (Any more than
if I receive free insurance cover I receive a transfusion of some mysterious substance called ‘insurance’.) The believer’s imputed righteousness remains inalienably Christ’s perfect righteousness. What is true is that by an act of the unspeakable mercy of God the believer is shielded by, or seen through, or covered by, the righteousness of another.

It this always-remaining-alien righteousness that is reckoned to the believer, and it is inseparably linked with the distinct blessing of subjective renewal, sanctification. Justification and sanctification - distinct and yet inseparable, as Calvin routinely says. So the Reformed view of imputation is that justification is a wholly extrinsic change, a change of status, that is, a change of relation, by itself no inward change, but carrying with it the sure prospect of such a change. Hence the language of Reformed popular piety: we are ‘clothed with’ Christ’s righteousness, it is ‘put on’, we are ‘sheltered’ by it. ‘Clothed with his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne’. Does Bishop Wright not know this?

So we have this bizarre outcome. While holding to a law-court view of justification Wright has at the same time failed to recognize that the Reformed view of Christ’s alien righteousness is also a law-court view. Because of this his historical analysis, such as it is, is flawed, and his exegetical tour de force of Paul’s view of justification is largely beside the point, for the Reformed outlook expresses its main claims: the law-court point, the central position of the Abrahamic covenant, and the counting of the believer as righteous for Christ’s sake.

This is where Wright’s competitiveness, his insistence of always having the last word, and his failure to provide a clear theological framework, or even to write clearly, saying what he means and what he does not mean by certain terms such as ‘moral righteousness’, and ‘legalistic’ and ‘impart’ and ‘infuse’, prove to be so frustrating. Had he been clearer and more focussed he could have said this:

‘Piper (and the entire Reformed tradition) and I agree on the meaning of reckon, count as, impute, the place of Abraham and Israel in the covenant, and the way that, according to Paul, to be a believer is to be a ‘real’ Jew, to be circumcised in the heart, to be Abraham’s seed. We agree that a person is justified now, and also at the Last Judgment, though we might differ over how these are related. We also agree on some other vital questions - on Christ as our substitute, and the removal of the guilt of through imputation, and why what is imputed justifies. I don’t like the idea of justification having a foundation, though I agree that it has a basis. But I utterly concur with the Reformed tradition that what is imputed cannot be moral righteousness, because one person’s moral state cannot literally become someone else’s. To suppose that it could be is a category mistake. We certainly differ over the content of such imputation, for whereas I think it involves only not reckoning sin, John Piper thinks that it also includes the reckoning of righteousness. We also differ, perhaps, over what counts as ‘legalistic’. It would certainly be good to think further about the remaining matters we differ on.’

And John Piper would agree!

As I have been stressing, all these matters of difference rest on points of logic. Little turns on the nuances of Pauline exegesis, but much turns on its good and necessary consequences. Were Wright to follow through the logic of his position then, I believe, it would approach even more closely to the classical Reformed view than it has already.