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!