ETS Atlanta – N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright served up an amusing of a plenary address, beginning with at least three jokes delivered in his typical deadpan style. Mike Witmer has already said that he seemed “a bit snippy and defensive,” which was true, although I took it in good humor.  Of course I was not being called a Neo-Catholic, this is certainly strong invective, if the target is solidly in the Reformed tradition!

There were a number of things which need to be clarified, and I think that he was well within his rights to say that bloggers have gone a bit nuts over what me may or may not believe on any given topic.  This carried over to IBR, where he mentioned at least twice that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity and he managed to tweak Dispensationalism at least once.  I really think that he is weary of people assuming that he rejects a particular doctrine based on statements that are not really addressing that issue.  Wright has become a flashpoint for Reformation defenders, but he is not an easy target.  He is correct to call bloggers to personal responsibility, and I applaud his comments that the sorts of things that pass for scholarship on blogs ought to be held accountable.  I personally like the fact that he is aware of the sorts of things that are posted on blogs, even if he does not know what a Nintendo Wii is.

On to the substance of Wright’s talk.  Wright correctly said that the Justification debate is about “scripture and tradition.” Ever since the reformed community began to answer the New Perspective on Paul, the charge has been that people like Sanders are striking at the heart of the Reformation and destroying the doctrine of Justification by Faith.  Wright says that is simply not true.  From his perspective, he is continuing the reformation by going back to scripture for proper categories to describe theological concepts.  This of course is exactly what the reformation-stream critics of Wright claim to be doing as well, but to be honest, it is hard to say that they do in fact use scripture first and tradition second.  I went to many papers prior to Wright on the topic of justification which cited the Westminster Confession more than Paul, a serious problem if the goal is a biblical theology.

Wright attempted to deal with “justification in context,” repeating the sorts of things he said in Justification.  Justification is not about how you get saved, says Wright, but about membership in the people of God.  I really think he is correct, and probably standing on the shoulders of Albert Schweitzer again by emphasizing identification with Christ as the chief metaphor for salvation. The phrase “in Christ” is far more common in the New Testament that the metaphor of justification, and ought to be more emphasized than it is.  He stresses the context of justification as a Hebrew law court, not a modern one.

This leads to what is perhaps most controversial in Wright’s Pauline theology, a denial of the classic doctrine of imputation.  That language is simply not found in the Bible, says Wright.  Taken in context, justification is not about crediting Christ’s righteousness to the believer’s account as if Christ has a surplus of righteousness which can be doled out to whoever needs it.  Wright was adamant (even emotional) that this is a medieval construction which the Reformers did not quite get to.  If they had, they would have dispensed with it as a non-biblical way of describing salvation.

But this does not mean that the believer does not have Christ’s righteousness.  It is not imputed, but since the believer is “in Christ,” what is Christ’s is the present possession of the believer.  Our identification is so complete that we can be called righteous since at the final judgment, we will be “right with God” because we are totally “in Christ.”

This is not imputation – but not far off.  The gap between Wright and his critics is often not very great and comes down to Wright’s refusal to use categories drawn from systematic theology and confessions to interpret Paul.  Rather, he wants to use Paul to create a serious, exegetically grounded biblical theology.  This is why he faces such strong opposition, he challenges the secure doctrines of the Reformation!

7 thoughts on “ETS Atlanta – N. T. Wright

  1. For me one of the problems with Wright is while he laments all the “misunderstandings” of his postion, he still often refuses or is unable to make clear what exactly it is that he is saying and how exactly that works (I would even accept an I don’t know…but we won’t get one because as much as I like Wright he seems to have supreme confidence that he…and not Church history got it right, reveling I think a bit of arrogance…)

    I also think his distaste for Systematic theology is a weakness as he does not seem to be able to put together the whole picture.


    • I am not sure at all that Wright has “supreme confidence” in himself over the whole of Church history (and I am going to assume that you mean reformation there, since there is a great deal in Church History no one wants to defend!) His point is that you have to read the Scripture correctly in order to understand theology. Calvin and Luther would have welcomed a critique of their ideas and sought to engage Wright in understanding what the scriptures say. Wright’s modern critiques spend more time defending the Calvinist formulations of doctrine rather than continuing the reformation and focusing on the meaning of Scripture.

      Wright said a number of times that the Reformation was good but did not reform everything. I wholeheartedly agree. For example, the reformers more or less punted on eschatology, doing virtually nothing to “reform” theology of the future. Fear of Munster-like aberrations was an issue, but they really do not have a whole lot to say about eschatology. Why not “keep on reforming?”

      • To all of which I would reply “Semper Reformada”…but none the less I think Wright (whom I quite agree with on Eschatology, as Surprised by Hope was Brilliant) fails to clearly articulate how his version of Justification works, it is one thing to bring a critique (and I think the NPP critique fails) but I just don’t see a constructive and coherent position beyond his critique. I, and many others always walk away going: “so what does he believe here,” now it is possible we are all stupid, but I think it is equally possible that he is not so clear in his own mind about the positive construction of his theological position (a sometimes justified critique those of us who are amil. receive for instance…)

        At the end of the day while I see value in Wrights critiques I still thank Jesus for his alien righteousness!

  2. True that Reformers seem to project the Westminster Confession as if it were the “last word” concerning what one should believe, which could unfortunately result in dogma becoming a substitute for further analysis.

    On the other hand, pertaining to Wright’s reactionary denial of “imputation” as having a place in biblical theology, I wonder how he handles the reckoning of my sin (I avoid using the “I” word) to Christ, who knew no sin. (II Co 5:21)

    David said, “How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute (oops) iniquity.” Psalm 32:2

    Granted, despite all the semantics, my position “in Christ” certainly contemplates all that is related to Justification by virtue of His righteousness, and that God sees me through the shield of the Savior.

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