Monday, August 09, 2004

Wright quotes 

Don Garlington has done us all a great service in helpfully providing an online excerpt of N.T. Wright's chapter from the 1980 book The Great Acquittal (now long out of print), entitled Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism. One might be excused were one to get the impression, as I originally did, that the lengthy excerpt provided by Garlington included the entirety of Wright's chapter. Recently, however, I managed to obtain a second-hand copy of the original book and I discovered that five pages from the end of the article were not included in Garlington's excerpt. Here are some quotes:—

Modern evangelicalism is not in a position to be smug about the weakness of others, as though we had kept on the high road while our Catholic or radical brethren wandered about in the fog. We have tended to stand closer to Bultmann than we like to realize, with his emphasis on faith as experience unconnected with history, his existentialist call for decision, his view of justification as the establishment of a personal relationship with God, his wedge between justification and the historical people of God. That is why the charismatic movement, and movements for whom assurance is a matter of religious feelings (and what a pastoral disaster that is!), have gained such a ready following; why we have problems with our theology of evangelism; why we lose assurance if for any reason God seems remote; why we find ecclesiology so difficult and apparently compromising, and imagine that we can safeguard the doctrine of justification by insisting on low churchmanship, which is only marginally better than attempting to safeguard low-church traditions by insisting on the doctrine of justification.

All these things happen because we have taken the doctrine of justification out of the context of the covenant and reduced it to the idea that what God wants is inward religion instead of outward performances, churchgoing, sacraments and the like (and then we wonder why the House Church movement has such an appeal!). But this reduction of Christianity is an attractive and dangerous mistake. It is attractive because it fits in so well with the Spirit of the Age — with the remnants of the Romantic movement, the heritage of Idealism, the popular existentialism which leads to the cult of sincerity over aginst objective truth, the current emphasis on doing one's own thing instead of conforming to external norms. We latch on to the idea of inner personal religion (which we flatter ourselves is the same thing as justification by faith) because we find it a place where we can enjoy a good deal of Christianity (quietly forgetting the awkward bits, the Church and sacraments, that don't fit) and a good deal of the twentieth century. And this mistake is dangerous because it sets up a false either-or which precipitates evangelicals into being anti-Church and anti-sacraments: it is dangerous because it devalues propositional faith and objective truth, leaving doctrines like the incarnation as mere shibboleths without significance for our actual theology.

The irony of all this, and to my mind our great danger at the moment, is that in many evangelical circles people are preaching existentialism in Pauline dress and imagining it to be our biblical and Reformation heritage.

I thought that I would also share this quote with you:—

...if God has declared that we belong to his covenant family, it is time that we as evangelicals started to take that family seriously. Precisely because we believe in justification, we must get our view of the Church sorted out, and have done once and for all with the watery semi-Baptist theology which has been creeping into evangelical Anglicanism over the last decade or two. Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God's people, the sign of regeneration (in fulfilment of God's covenant promises), and thus faith, which follows and does not precede regeneration, need not precede baptism, though if it does not follow afterwards there will consequently be no justification. Again, the Lord's Supper is the great covenant sign, the physical embodiment of the doctrine of justification. As Cranmer saw so well, God declares in the eucharist that those who eat with faith really do belong to the Messiah's people.... Justification is not an individualist's charter, but God's declaration that we belong to the covenant community. If we are not taking that community seriously, we have not understood justification.

OK then, maybe one more!

The church is thus to be a living demonstration of justification by faith, in which each member is given by the whole community the security of acceptance not on the basis of who they are in human terms of race, class or colour, not on the basis of works, but simply because of shared faith in the risen Lord Jesus. Except in extreme cases of open and unrepentant sin (and then only because such sin is evidence of unbelief), we must not apply ethical tests as a basis for fellowship, particularly the little quasi-moral rules which are designed more to safeguard an insecure position than to promote genuine holiness. Justification provides all the security anyone needs: and the church is to be the community which will be secure enough to welcome into its fellowship all those who, however simply, and however naïvely or unclearly, share its faith. This is the clue to what a friend of mine called 'the mental health of justification by faith': to believe that God really does accept you, and to believe that and practise it as a church in our acceptance of one another, is to turn away from paranoid self-justification and self-defence and to experience the deepest possible personal and corporate security. And if we dare to apply that to our current identity problems, and to our relationships with non-evangelical Christians in our church and outside it, I believe that our whole approach to such relationships, and to the church politics they involve us in, will become radically different from what they are. This is in no way to advocate doctrinal indifference. Precisely because I take doctrine, and particularly justification by faith, with the utmost seriousness, I long to see evangelicals, and the Church as a whole, becoming in this way a living embodiment of the Gospel.

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