Light in a Dark Tunnel: Developments in the Justificaiton Debate?

This year, the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theology Society focused on the issue of justification.  Naturally, N.T. Wright was one of the speakers.  Sadly, I couldn't go to this particular event.  Instead, I have been devouring blog posts, clips, and whatever I can find about the conference.  Mostly, I had been very disappointed.  It seemed like no progress was made as I read again and again the same tired complaints based on misunderstandings.  Then I read THIS POST.  I don't know who Andrew Cowan is, but in my opinion he has a very clear grasp of what has been going on. 

So, let me share some of my thoughts.  For those of you who aren't into this debate I will try to make this somewhat readable. 

Me and N.T. Wright

I read N.T. Wright for the first time ten years ago.  A friend in university read What St. Paul Really Said and passed it on to me to read. Despite the book being a garbled mess which I would never recommend to anyone, both my friend and I understood enough to see that if what Wright was saying was correct then it was a big deal.  Afterwards I read and enjoyed Wright's books on the early church, the bible, Jesus, Christian living, and eschatology.  However, while enjoying these and learning a lot from them, my expectant waiting for some clarification on the whole Paul set of issues went unanswered.  Not that Wright didn't publish anything; just that none of it was much better than that first book.  

Meanwhile, as Wright became a more popular author in the evangelical community he also became a more scrutinized author.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere (why do things have to work this way in the evangelical theological community? It was the same with Waltke, except worse.  His views had been published for over a decade, but as soon as they went up on youtube he gets kicked out of institutions? Idiotic...) there was a large and loud opposition to N.T. Wright.  

Why? What was at issue? Supposedly the very core of reformation theology: Justification by Faith.  

The Issues

At this point I became disappointed in all sides of this debate.  Wright continued to seem unable to make his position clear.  His opponents, partly due to their own zeal and eisegesis and partly due to Wright's opaqueness, started focusing on issues which are both not central and not accurate.  

One fear has been that Wright's theology leads to pelagianism or semi-pelagianism.  A second fear is that Wright is denying the imputed righteousness of Christ.  In the first case, what we have is sheer nonsense.  In the second, Wright's critics are somewhat right, if still misunderstanding the point.  He does deny the imputed righteousness of Christ in the traditional moral sense of the word (that we are judged morally right because of Christ's blood).  However, imputed righteousness still has a place in Wright's theology (as it does in Paul's writing). 

If you want a more detailed exploration of these issues, that is what the article I linked at the top is for.  Here is the link again.

According to Andrew Cowan, N.T. Wright's remarks last week do clear up the first fear, that he is smuggling in some kind of pelagianism.  Though Wright's recent book, Justification, does not completely clear this up, it is Wright's clearest position on Paul yet.  Worth reading if you are in this debate.  

What Wright is actually saying does not destroy the core of reformation theology, it does alter and rename it.  So, there is still reason for debate.  Wright has a lot to say, far more than I can summarize here, but in terms of the issues at stake, here is my summary.  

The problem has been that after the reformation the term "justification by faith" came to refer to all of salvation.  This, says Wright, is a distortion of Pauline language.  When Paul uses the word 'justification' he is not referring to all that fits within soteriology, but one specific idea which straddles ecclesiology and soteriology without encompassing either.  To be justified by faith is to be declared a member of the people of God; it is a term of covenant membership.  It is also a lawcourt term which means to be declared 'in the right'.  Not morally perfect, but just that the court has sided in your favor in terms of covenant membership.  

With this basis in mind, as well as the redefinition of righteousness which Cowan explains in the article I have linked twice already, Wright sets about reinterpreting such great letters as Romans.  Along the way, he runs into this persistently biblical notion that somehow the life we have lived will matter in the end.  Therefore, Wright concludes, that we do need to live a good life.  Not perfect, but one filled with Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered, obedience to the word of Jesus.  These will be the sign of our faith (echoes of James much?). 

Some Light? Forward Motion?

 I hope Cowan is correct in his hope that the debate can now move forward. In that spirit, let me make a few comments. 

In the hubbub around the non-issue of works righteousness, and misunderstandings around imputed righteousness (though there is much to actually discuss here), I think that much has been left untouched in Wright's ideas. 

1. Wright's biblical theology is remarkably coincident with some very important developments by other scholars.  Such authors as Christopher Wright (especially in The Mission of God) and John Walton (The Lost World of Genesis One and Ancient Near-Eastern Thought and the Old Testament) among others. 

2. Wright's interpretation of righteousness, justification, and Paul in general, allows for a reading of such letters as Romans, as well as Paul's letters in general, which are far more coherent and consistent than is normal.  This is a point Wright makes in Justification, especially in regards to Romans. 

3. What Wright is actually saying about good works is nothing more than what John Stott said long, long ago (in 1970; ok, not that long ago :) "Although we cannot be saved by good works, we also cannot be saved without them.  Good works are not the way of salvation, but its proper and necessary evidence.  A faith which does not express itself in works is dead." (John Stott, Christ the Controversialist. Tyndale, 1970. pg. 127). 

4.  While Wright is not saying anything new in regards to works, he has provided a biblical theology for reading Paul which actually makes sense of how this works.  It also meshes very well with such gospel passages as Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 7:21-23 (this is, perhaps, unsurprising when one remembers just how much work and writing Wright has done in the gospels before moving on to Paul).  One could add many more scriptures to this list (Romans 2:7 and James 2:14-26 come to mind first of all).  This is not to say that other interpretations of Paul, and the gospel, have had no way of dealing with such texts.  Of course they have had to.  However, it is to say that Wright does a far better job of it. 

5. I am not a Calvinist, but I am not an Arminian either.  Thankfully, you don't have to be on or the other.  Wright's theology is an example of an understanding of scripture that avoids the dead ends of both of those theologies.  


Dana Ouellette said...

My first memory of NT Wright was when I was an evangelical christian and a new academic in biblical studies. A friend gave me a copy of that book, I can't remember the title but it's a debate between Marcus Borg and NT Wright about the historical Jesus. I really wanted to believe Wright and follow his arguments, but it was almost impossible. Borg's arguments were just more logical, especially having a history and classics background.

Then I went to grad school to do my M.A. in biblical studies and my second reader did his PhD under Wright and wanted me to use Wright in my Thesis on the gospel of Mark. And I argued that Wright's work is theological and totally irrelevant to textual biblical scholarship.

I'll be honest that I know very little about christian theology. In biblical studies we focus on the text and the history/culture/society/languages it was written in, and not it's application to the later church. But from a biblical studies perspective Wright's works are very very poor when it comes to Jesus and the Gospels. Basically crap scholarship. His works on Paul are actually a bit better and more in the vain of the new perspective on Paul (i.e. EP sanders and the like).

Dana Ouellette said...

P. S. When I was a kind of believer, I still enjoyed reading James 2 where James basically pwns Paul, in the parlance of our times. I firmly believe that James 2 was written directly against Paul and Paul is the "foolish man" (or worthless man depending on how you interpret kene). This given evidence internally by the fact that James 2 directly tears apart Paul's arguments for justification by faith found in Romans and Galatians 2. And is given further credibility by the fact that we know from Galatians 2, where Paul is arguing directly against the followers of james or people sent directly from james, that there was conflict between Paul and James.

It is my opinion that James, in chapter two, basically destroys Paul's argument of justification by faith alone. if a christian says that they have faith but walks past someone who is starving without helping what use is that faith? The faith is meaningless and dead if it doesn't have works, that is to say if it doesn't change the actions of that person and the way they treat the poor or the way they treat others around them.

I think the idea of Sola Fide, which unfortunately has stuck around since Luther, is one of the major problems with modern evangelical christianity. It allows what we see in the US, where the majority of christians are wealthy, support war, and oppose "hand outs" for the poor. In my opinion sola fide is one of the most tragic parts of christianity as it allows christians to focus on the belief, on their personal relationship with god, and it does not encourage them to do basically everything jesus preached about which is to feed the poor, and take care of the widows and orphans and immigrants.

So christian can talk about justification by faith all they want, but until that faith is evidenced by some action, unless it causes them to want to help and love others it is a meaningless and dead faith. Anyone who views singing songs, or abstract theological issues as more important than helping the poor, at least in my mind, is not a follower of Jeshua ben Josef.

Or as Oscar Romero put it "The poor have shown the church the true way to go. A church that does not join the poor, in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them, is not the true church of Jesus Christ."

Sorry for posting so much. I just discovered your blog through your facebook and i'm genuinely interested. I'm not trying to be a jerk.

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Andrew said...

I like you posting a lot, so no need to apologize. I am glad you are genuinely interested and wiling to put this much time into posting.

I only ask you be patient with my responses. Generally weekends are times when I have less time to blog; so I will be responding to this as well as your follow up on the idolatry one. Just give me time :)