Wright roundtable

Immediately after Wright’s paper he dialogued with Tom Schreiner and Frank Thielman for two more hours.  I won’t include everything they said, but here are the highlights from my notes (see Collin Hansen for a summary of all three papers and Marc Cortez for a concise theological summary.  Scroll down the comment section on Denny Burk’s blog to see where Wright himself chimes in–an interesting case study in perspective–what stood out to Wright differs from what impressed many of us). 

Each person was given 15 minutes to respond to the other two papers, followed by questions from the moderator, followed by a few questions from the audience.  As the session wore on the three men interacted more directly with each other—which sometimes made for riveting theater—and all were gracious throughout and seemed to genuinely appreciate each other.

Schreiner’s 15 minutes:  he said that he appreciated hearing that Wright agreed with Vanhoozer’s focus on adoption and incorporation into Christ and that he would like to hear Wright expound more on this.

Schreiner said that he and Wright have different emphases:  he sees justification as primarily about salvation with ecclesiological implications, while Wright views justification as primarily about ecclesiology with soteriological implications.

He wondered how justification could mean both a forensic declaration and “covenant membership.”  He noted that the Jews didn’t think the Gentiles were bad merely because they didn’t keep the Jewish boundary markers but because they were sinners. 

He closed his remarks by noting that Wright is a rocket that takes us deep into the Scriptures, but he’s a rocket that needs some adjustment.  The audience laughed and Wright reached over and warmly clapped him on the back.

Thielman’s 15 minutes:  he noted that Piper and Schreiner objected to Wright saying that our final justification will be on the basis of works.  Wright has now clarified that he only means that we are justified in accordance with our works, so now we can agree on this important point.

He said that the key difference between Wright and Schreiner is what Paul primarily means by justification:  is it the forgiveness of sins or union of Jew and Gentile into the one people of God? 

He concluded that Wright and Schreiner likely have no major theological differences:  they both say that we are saved by grace through faith without individual effort—that we are sinners who can’t save ourselves or do meritorious works.

Wright’s 15 minutes:  Wright said that to say that righteousness is a “gift” is to imply the concept of imputation—that righteousness is something that gets passed around—God shares some of his with us who don’t have enough.  For this reason Wright doesn’t like the term “gift of righteousness.”

Wright said that Paul presupposes soteriology in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, but what he is really talking about is ecclesiology. 

He said that Israel is not merely an illustration of a general truth—an example of the impossibility of keeping the law—but Israel is “the thing.”  They are the ones who are called to carry God’s promise of salvation to the world.  Wright said that Schreiner’s view that Israel is an example of universal sinfulness is a step down the road to demythologizing—saying that what Paul really was talking about was not what he was talking about.

Moderator’s Question Time

Schreiner said that Romans 1:16-17 teaches that righteousness is a gift of God.  Wright said that the Greek participle “ek” (“of”) is not there, while Thielman defended Schreiner by saying that it’s not unreasonable to insert “ek” and Schreiner added that the idea is present there.

Schreiner said against Wright that God’s righteousness overlaps with covenant faithfulness but it doesn’t mean covenant faithfulness.  God’s righteousness means he conforms to what is right.  God’s righteousness fulfills covenant faithfulness but it should not be reduced to covenant faithfulness. 

Thielman asked if we are united with Christ and Christ is righteous then don’t we receive the righteousness of Christ?  Wright asked, “Where does Paul say Christ is righteous?”  Thielman responded:  “OK.  You got me there.”  [In his afternoon session Michael Bird argued that while the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach imputation, it does say that we are united to Christ.  He said that Wright wrote once that the work of Christ is reckoned to those who are in him, so even Wright accepts the concept of imputation.  Bird asked, “What does union with Christ do?  Imputation seems to be necessary to explain the benefit we receive from our union with Christ”].

Wright said to Thielman that God reckons Christ’s death and resurrection to us but not his active life of obedience or righteousness.  Wright and Schreiner then discussed whether 2 Cor. 5:19-21 is primarily about our individual salvation (by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) or Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry.  Schreiner said that both are present, while Wright said that he fears saying “both/and” for then people may blow off his paradigm shift and leave ecclesiology outside our salvation, only bringing it in when we need it.

The moderator—Clinton Arnold from Talbot, a man with a voice that smiles (I mean that as a compliment)—asked whether Ephesians 2 might provide common ground for uniting individual salvation (v. 1-10) and Jew-Gentile unity in the church (rest of the chapter).  Thielman thought so, but Wright argued that Jew-Gentile unity is already present in 2:1-10 (implying that this passage is mainly about ecclesiology, with individual salvation as Paul’s general key rather than his specific melody).

Audience questions

The moderator read the following five questions from the stack submitted by the audience.

1. How do we become a Christian?

Wright gave the answer he often gives in his writings—that the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel so that people believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world and are baptized.  Thielman gave the traditional answer that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us who believe the gospel, which must then include incorporation into the people of God.  Schreiner agreed with Thielman, with the emphasis that salvation comes by faith in Christ and not by works.  Wright said he agreed with Thielman’s statement but very little of it has to do with justification.  He added that Schreiner’s view that we need Christ’s righteousness is a medieval view of righteousness as some thing that we lack and obtain from Jesus.

2. How does justification relate to baptism? 

Wright gave a long answer that emphasized baptism as a sign of our final resurrection.  Schreiner said to laughs that “I just want to say that I agree with everything he just said.”  While I also agree with Wright’s answer, I noticed that he didn’t actually answer the question about how baptism relates to justification (as traditionally understood).  That is a question I raised in my paper (which I will begin sharing tomorrow), and I’m guessing that whoever asked that question was also not satisfied with Wright’s answer.

3. What about the biblical warning about fire that may burn up our works?

I didn’t write anything down, so nothing struck me as new or controversial.

4. How do you understand sanctification?

Wright said that sanctification is not an important category to Paul.  For example, note how he omits it from his ordo salutis in Rom. 8:30.  Wright says that he follows Paul and does not include it in his either. 

My paper wondered if Wright conflates justification and sanctification, and I made a note that the fact that Wright doesn’t pay much attention to sanctification may contribute to this problem.

Schreiner said that Paul usually uses sanctification as our position before God.  Wright responded that he is not familiar with positional sanctification but he is pastorally concerned that it might lead Christians to think that they already are saints so their obedience is optional.  We have been so worried about compromising justification by faith that we leave out Paul’s emphasis on transformation, and so for the best reasons we encourage people to sin.  Schreiner agreed, but said that pastorally we also need the comfort of knowing that our salvation is in Christ.  Christian perfectionism can also burden our people.  Wright said to laughter that he doesn’t know such Christians in England—apparently not many are trying too hard to be perfect.

5. What is the relation between justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness?

Thielman said that justification does include the imputation of Christ’s active and passive righteousness, though he acknowledged that these are categories of systematic theology that arise from the implications of Paul’s text.  He thanked Wright for calling us back to the text to make sure we are biblical, and then added that Paul does say that Christ has become our righteousness.

Schreiner agreed with Thielman.  He said that union with Christ implies imputation, and Romans 5, a passage which wasn’t discussed, teaches that when we are united with Christ we receive all that he is.  Schreiner bemoaned the many biblical texts they hadn’t had time to discuss, and said that they need more time together to exegete the various biblical passages.

Wright said that he appreciates what imputation is trying to do but says it misses the point that Paul is making in the text.  It is also based on medieval notions of righteousness that assumes that there is a fund of moral goodness that we can receive.  Wright concluded by saying that his version of the New Perspective on Paul (as opposed to Dunn and Sanders) gives everything that the Old Perspective has plus more besides.

Those are the highlights from an intriguing two hours.  While it was a helpful and worthwhile dialogue, nothing that was said answered the questions that I raised in my paper. I’ll begin sharing my paper tomorrow, in the hopes that you who know Wright better can help me find some answers.

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12 thoughts on “Wright roundtable

  1. Brian McLaughlin

    Thanks Mike. I look forward to hearing about your paper.

    Can you give me a brief description of how you are seeing these men speak of the difference between “basis of” and “according with” our works? I get the “basis of” part, but what is Wright saying when he says “according with”?

  2. This is rather interesting.

    “Thielman asked if we are united with Christ and Christ is righteous then don’t we receive the righteousness of Christ? Wright asked, ‘Where does Paul say Christ is righteous?’ Thielman responded: ‘OK. You got me there.’”

    This just seems odd. Was Wright arguing that Paul didn’t think of Jesus as righteous because the ipsissima verba aren’t there?

  3. Brian:

    I think the point is that our works are not the ground of our final justification but that they will be there if we are truly saved.

    Wes:

    Wright certainly thinks that Jesus was and is righteous, but that Paul doesn’t actually say that we receive his righteousness. He was making the point that our theological constructs read out of Paul something he doesn’t explicitly say. Wright believes that Jesus’ death and resurrection our reckoned to us but not his righteousness.

  4. Hey Dr. Wittmer,

    Nice summary, and helpful links. I look forward to reading your paper.

    The link with Wright’s comment, certainly indicates that he doesn’t think he has changed his mind, but he feels that he nuanced “basis of” in the rest of his writings, but in the future I would guess that he will use “in accordance with.”

  5. Brian McLaughlin

    It almost sounds like a slight blurring of justification and sanctification as in Roman Catholic and, I think, Augustine. Reformers had a much sharper divide (maybe too sharp??).

    Also, I can’t keep track of my ETS summary blogs, but one of them quoted Wright as saying something like this: “Luther’s view won the day, had Calvin’s view won we wouldn’t have needed the New Perspective.” What does he mean?

  6. John:

    That’s right. I’m surprised that he wasn’t more careful with his words, but then perhaps his Anglican context isn’t as tuned into our American evangelical controversies. I don’t know. Perhaps this confusion arose because of our different cultural contexts.

    Brian:

    You put your finger on one of my concerns (conflating J and S). I’d have to see the context to be sure, but it sounds like your quote from Wright may have come from his discussion of the law. He says that Luther had an entirely too negative view of the law, while Calvin appreciated its use in the Christian life. It’s this negative view of the works of the law which prejudiced Protestants from seeing that Paul actually had a properly high regard for the works of the law. The New Perspective is recovering this positive use of the law.

  7. Thanks so much for this summary. As a poor seminarian—who is fascinated by much of Wright’s work and sat in Thielman’s classes at Beeson—I wished I could have been there! This is just about the next best thing.

  8. [...] See comments by N. T. Wright #19 and #23 at Denny Burk’s blog. See also the post and comments by Preston Sprinkle here. Ardel Caneday’s comments are worthy here. Check out Mike Wittmer’s posts here and here. [...]

  9. Nice to have these comments – thanks for the effort. db

  10. Mike,

    If Wright believes that Jesus’ death and resurrection are reckoned to us but not his righteousness, how does his own view escape his criticism? In other words, Wright has complained about viewing righteousness as something that can float across a room from one person to another, like a gas. He doesn’t see how you can impute righteousness, or active obedience, even theoretically, it seems. Yet this calls into question his own affirmation of the imputation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the believer – if Christ’s righteousness cannot be passed on to others, then how can his death and resurrection? How is it possible for those two things be imputed when his righteousness cannot?

    Was anything like this addressed at the conference?

  11. Aaron:

    This wasn’t brought up, but you make a very good point. It’s true that Wright says that something about Jesus counts for us, so why not his righteousness?

  12. Something else I noticed about Wright’s comments as you have recorded them here (thank you for doing that!) and wondered if it was addressed:

    “Wright said that to say that righteousness is a “gift” is to imply the concept of imputation—that righteousness is something that gets passed around—God shares some of his with us who don’t have enough. For this reason Wright doesn’t like the term “gift of righteousness.””

    The problem here is that “gift of righteousness” is a biblicial and, specifically, a Pauline phrase. Romans 5:17 uses these exact words – τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς δικαιοσύνης – in direct connection to justification. This gift of righteousness results in justification (v.16). It is directly connected to Jesus’ obedience, and results in making many righteous (v.18).

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