Sunday, April 25, 2004

Criticism of N.T. Wright 

I have never been overly impressed with N.T. Wright's characterization of historic evangelical Protestantism. It seems to me that Wright often deals with evangelical Protestantism in its more popular forms rather than engaging more rigorously with theological source texts (as he generally does with more liberal scholarship). I have witnessed most of the errors that he refers to in his writings. However, many of them tend to be found not in confessional documents or works of leading theologians but in the confused understandings of preachers and people in pews. New Dictionary of TheologyI came across this quote from Wright yesterday in his New Dictionary of Theology article on justification:—
In reacting against [the medieval view of God's righteousness as iustitia distributiva], Luther never totally avoided the risk of making faith a substitute for works, and hence itself a meritorious performance on man's part.
I feel that this is quite a daring statement from someone who is hardly a Luther scholar. I far prefer Richard Hays' position in The Faith of Jesus Christ where he attributes this error to more popular understandings of the doctrine. Hays goes on to at least partially exonerate Luther by reminding his reader of Luther's argument against the Anabaptists: that believers' baptism turned faith into a work. Faith does not make Baptism; it receives it. For Luther faith is our response to the grace of God objectively given in the Word and sacraments. Luther's chapter on Baptism in his Larger Catechism, which Hays quotes from, is well worth reading on this point. Wright's interaction with historical Protestant theology is one of the points where he is at his weakest, in my estimation. I feel that Wright would be well advised to interact with the best of Reformed theology if he is avoid confusing many of his readers. Wright is not ignorant of the Reformed tradition and it is clear that he has read widely in it (I would be surprised if someone with limited knowledge of the Reformed faith would have had his work published by the Banner of Truth as Wright has! — see my December 15th entry). He certainly has read Herman Ridderbos and others. I would appreciate if Wright would interact more with their readings of Paul, rather than battling with misconceptions held by many evangelicals, which are rejected by virtually all leading theologians. Wright is at his strongest when he is interacting with concrete scholarship, rather than vague generalizations (some of which, not least on the subject of politics, I find embarrassingly simplistic). For example, Wright says that he denies the concepts of active obedience and imputation. However, when one probes Wright's works a bit more closely it seems that Wright is rejecting a popular distortion of these doctrines and not the positions held by leading Reformed scholars. Many Reformed and evangelical readers will be confused by Wright's denials of these doctrines and will be put off from reading him more closely, failing to recognize what exactly he is reacting to. I would be surprised and concerned were Wright to strongly reject the doctrine of imputation as held by someone like Richard Gaffin, for instance. On active obedience, Wright writes:
Nor is his "faith" a kind of meritorious work, an "active obedience" to be then accredited to those who belong to him. [NIB Romans commentary (3:22a)]
Of course, this is quite far removed from the understanding of active and passive obedience proposed by such Reformed theologians as Berkouwer (e.g. The Work of Christ) and Murray (e.g. Redemption—Accomplished and Applied). Berkouwer, for example, firmly roots Christ's obedience in His Messianic vocation. Both Berkouwer and Murray make clear that the distinction between active and passive obedience is not a distinction in periods. On occasions Wright attacks the idea of imputation as if its proponents believed that the judge's righteousness was given to the acquitted party. This is not helpful when the proponents of the doctrine are understanding it in a differing framework. On many other occasions Wright seems to understand imputation as involving the abstraction of Christ's merit from His Person — resulting in a legal fiction. Of course, some do hold this, but very many firmly reject the idea. When Wright comes out and actually expresses his understanding, it becomes apparent that he is not as far removed from the best of Reformed scholarship as one might expect:—
The first of these [the status of being ‘in Christ’] is particularly important, and is the theme of verse 9, which sums up a good deal that he says at more length in Romans and Galatians. Paul draws out the contrast, the same contrast he’s been talking about throughout the passage, between those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant people because they possess, and try to keep, the Jewish law, the Torah, and those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant family because of what the Messiah has done. In 2:8 he described the Messiah’s achievement as his ‘obedience, even unto death’; here he describes it as his ‘faithfulness’; but the two mean substantially the same thing. And the way we share in ‘the Messiah’s faithfulness’ is by our ‘faith’. Our belief that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world, and our loyalty to him, are the sign and badge that we have a credit balance consisting simply of him, over against all the debits we could ever have from anywhere else. This is Paul’s famous doctrine of ‘justification by faith’, which continues to be a comfort and a challenge to millions around the world. [Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (SPCK 2002) pp.120-1]
On another occasion he writes:—
As far as I can see, Paul's central statements of something that I might be prepared to say 'imputation' about are in a passage like Romans 6, where the logic runs: by baptism, you are 'in Christ'; therefore what is true of Christ is true of you; therefore, specifically, his death and resurrection are true of you; therefore you must calculate this, do the sums, work out who you actually are — and then live accordingly. But I think this provides a somewhat different grid of understanding to normal 'imputation' theology. The 'reckoning' thus takes place within, and as part of, incorporation into the people of the Messiah.
Compare these two statements with Gaffin:—
At the same time, however, various considerations already adduced point to the conclusion that Paul does not view the justification of the sinner (the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) as an act having a discrete structure of its own. Rather, as with Christ’s resurrection, the act of being raised with Christ in its constitutive, transforming character is at the same time judicially declarative; that is, the act of being joined to Christ is conceived of imputatively. In this sense the enlivening action of resurrection (incorporation) is itself a forensically constitutive declaration. This does not at all mean that Paul qualifies the synthetic character of the justification of the ungodly. The justifying aspect of being raised with Christ does not rest on the believer’s subjective enlivening and transformation (also involved, to be sure, in the experience of being joined to Christ), but on the resurrection-approved righteousness of Christ which is his (and is thus reckoned his) by virtue of the vital union established. If anything, this outlook which makes justification exponential of existential union with the resurrected Christ serves to keep clear what preoccupation with the idea of imputation can easily obscure, namely, that the justification of the ungodly is not arbitrary but according to truth: it is synthetic with respect to the believer only because it is analytic with respect to Christ (as resurrected). Not justification by faith but union with the resurrected Christ by faith (of which union, to be sure, the justifying aspect stands out perhaps the most prominently) is the central motif of Paul’s applied soteriology.
If Wright would interact with someone like Gaffin, whose position is quite close to Wright's own position, people would be more inclined to give him a sympathetic hearing. By tending to interact with more popular evangelical misunderstandings of doctrines, Wright leaves himself wide open to misinterpretation. Popular misunderstandings of doctrines are very easy to attack, but introducing them into the debate can often merely muddy the waters. Needless to say, Wright is not the first person to do this — I myself have done it on plenty of occasions — but I do think that it is important to try to avoid such things. I am essentially convinced of Wright's position on imputation and believe that it has much to teach us. For this reason I would love to see Wright's work receive a wider readership in Reformed circles. Were he to interact more sympathetically with the various Protestant traditions he would be more likely to receive one.

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