The attendance at last night’s first Plenary session was amazing. Rarely have I seen a nearly-full room for a Plenary session. When the conference was originally announced, John Piper was scheduled to defend the traditional view based on his book contesting N. T. Wight. When Piper stepped down, Thomas Schreiner was asked to fill the role of critiquing Wright’s view of Justification. Schreiner is more than capable of this, although I must say that his approach is seems almost entirely from the perspective of systematic theology rather than biblical theology. I am fully aware that he wrote a biblical theology of Paul, but his talk last night was extremely traditional and used language from systematic theology (imputation). In addition, he really did little work on the text of Paul itself, much of his use of scripture was classic prooftexting. I am not sure that I would have heard anything different from Piper, except that his delivery would have been more pastoral.
Schreiner had three main points of contention with Wright. First, Wright sees justification as a part of Ecclesiological, how you can tell who is part of the people of God, rather than primarily Soteriological (how one gets right with God). For Schreiner, Wright has it backwards. Justification has to be about salvation first, even if it has dimensions which might be considered social. I think that Schreiner is correct here, but I also think he overplays Wright by claiming he has created a false dichotomy. If this is a false dichotomy, then it seems to me all Schreiner has done is flip it and emphasized the other side. I think a better way to get at this is to realize that justification is about salvation, community and eschatology – salvation us ultimately future. The terminology of justification appears in at least those three categories.
Second, Schreiner thinks Wright errs when he describes the failure of Israel as a failure to bless the world (Gen 12:1-3). Schreiner dismissed this because, in his view, Israel was never supposed to bless the whole world, that was the role of the ultimate seed of Abraham, Jesus. I thought this dismissal was odd, given the fact that Genesis has numerous instances where the Abrahamic blessing is extended to “the nations” because of their association with Abraham. For example, Lot is blessed and rescued from danger twice because he is part of the family of Abraham. Hagar is rescued by God and Ishmael is blessed and becomes a great nation because he is a son of Abraham. Laban’s association with Jacob can be considered a blessing, even though in the end there is a loss. Ultimately in Genesis, Joseph is a blessing to the nations (Egypt and Canaan) as God uses him in Egypt.
Third, Schreiner faults Wright for not thinking that justification includes imputation of righteousness as well as a declaration of right standing before God. Here is where I think that Schreiner and Wright are probably talking about the same sorts of things, but with different language, giving the illusion of a huge difference. Schreiner is looking for the reformation categories from systematic theology, Wright is working with terms drawn from the Bible as a good biblical theologian. What is the difference between “you are righteous because god has imputed Christ’s righteousness to you” (Schreiner) and “you are righteous because your status is now ‘in Christ’” (Wright). Either way, you have Christ’s righteousness and you can be described as “saved.” One is working with Reformation terminology, the other is consciously avoiding it.
In the end, Schreiner seems to agree with Wright more than I expected. His critique was friendly and appreciative of the work Wright has done. I was disappointed with the lack of exegetical nuance and complete rejection of Second Temple Period sources which make Wright’s case so compelling. A discussion of Wright and the New Perspective which fails to take account of 4QMMT, for example, seems to be ignoring evidence which is difficult to ignore. I would much rather read Paul in the context of the Second Temple Period than the Reformation, even if Luther and Calvin did get most this right on Soteriology. Given my denominational affiliation, my commitment is to the Bible, not to traditional reformed formulations of doctrine.