Wright at ETS

I just returned from one of my more memorable annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society.  I made some new friends, reconnected with old friends, and heard some interesting papers.  This year’s splendid smorgasbord included Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Michael Horton, and Al Mohler questioning John Franke. 

One particularly magical session on John Ockenga ended with his successor at Park Street Church sharing a few words from his perspective.  When the young presenter thanked him for his insights and said the only thing better would be a word from one of Ockenga’s children, a fellow from the back stood up and said that Ockenga considered him his surrogate son, so he’d like to add his perspective.  It all felt a bit like the Field of Dreams—and it made me think that a great idea for future ETS sessions would be to have the old-timers share their stories from the early days of evangelicalism.

I presented a paper on N.T. Wright, which I will share in pieces next week, and Wright himself spoke yesterday morning, followed by a two hour discussion with the other plenary speakers, Tom Schreiner and Frank Thielman.  I took a lot of notes on the discussion, which I’ll share on Monday, but here are a couple of impressions/highlights from Wright’s talk.

Wright seemed a bit snippy and defensive.  I’m sure it’s hard to hear people question your orthodoxy, but I don’t think it helps to tell your opponents to “Get a life.”  In an afternoon session Mark Seifrid said that he was the target of many of Wright’s barbs.  He said that he wanted to be reconciled with Tom, “but I think I have to get a life first.”  The petulant tone in both Seifrid and Wright seemed childish and unhelpful.  This conversation is already hard enough without resorting to personal attacks. 

Wright began his lecture by saying that it’s misguided to think that his view leads toward Roman Catholicism (a question that I raised in my paper), because none of the New Perspective scholars have converted to Roman Catholicism.  He said that while his theological points may differ from the traditional Protestant view, he is more Protestant than his critics because he elevates Scripture over tradition.  He follows Scripture wherever it leads him, while many of his critics miss key points in Scripture because they have to make it fit into their tradition. 

Wright responded to the charge that he is insufficiently interested in personal salvation by saying that salvation is the key or general setting behind Paul’s writings while Jew-Gentile unity is the tune or melody that Paul sings.  Wright is merely paying attention to Paul’s tune—which is why he gives so much space to ecclesiology—but he does not forget that soteriology lies behind everything Paul says.

Wright said that he was delighted in Kevin VanHoozer’s paper at Wheaton’s spring theology conference, and said that our adoption and union with Christ is a promising category to unite both old and new perspectives.  While he does not believe that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a biblical concept, he said that we are incorporated into Christ, and on that basis are vindicated with him before the Father.

The statement that received the most attention afterwards was Wright’s claim that to his knowledge he had never said that our final justification is “on the basis of works.”  He said that he would gladly correct this wrong view if someone showed him where he had said that.  What he means to say is that our final justification is in “accordance with works.”  We don’t earn or merit our final justification but we will be seeking for it, and so our final justification is in accordance with—but not on the basis of—our works. 

Schreiner said in the following Q and A that he did a quick search while Wright was talking and found that Wright had said our final justification is “on the basis of the totality of life lived.”  And Michael Bird, in an afternoon paper, said that he nearly fell out of his chair when Wright said that, for in nearly every book on this subject Wright has said that final justification comes “on the basis of a life lived.”  I conclude that Wright either writes so much that he can’t keep track of everything he says, or more probably, this is one area where Wright is changing his view, perhaps in response to his critics.

10 Comments

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  1. Dr. Wittmer,

    A most helpful and clarifying post. It is sad when a lack of charity attends tough theological discussions. May God grant a much greater dose of gentleness and kindness to the future discussion. Also, your observations about the theological discussion were very enlightening as well. Great post. Thanks!

  2. That is kind of funny. Thanks for the update Dr. Wittmer.

  3. On the basis of the totality of life lived is NOT the same as on the basis of works. I don’t think Wright is forgetting what he’s written. I think his critics are re-interpreting what Wright wrote, and misunderstanding him. When paradigms are different, that usually leads to misunderstanding as people wind up talking past each other and using the same terms to mean different things.

  4. So, in considering justification “based on the totality of a life lived,” how does this impact our view of the thief on the cross or a death bed confession of faith? There appears to be a conflict with what Scripture and Jesus says, specifically pertaining to the thief.

  5. In the context of what Wright said he was charged with “convincing others to believe in the Spirit over Jesus” I think his comment for Seifrid to “Get a Life” is rather appropriate. it is nonsense that Seifrid would suppose that Wright would say that!

    Its tantamount to charging you with your emphasis on the goodness of creation as one who wants people to stop believing in heaven because its ALL about the new earth! As anyone who knows you, that is not the case and such a response like Wright’s would be appropriate in that instance.

  6. Mike,

    In regards to your thought about the “old-timers” sharing stories – I agree. Stan Gundry shared several personal stories during the Evangelicalism course he taught, and it was great. In addition, he brought in photos and such from conferences that had featured several big names of previous generations and/or their families sharing stories. I think you could probably convince Stan to help put something like that together.

    But the real question is: who would be on your list of “old-timers” that you would want to hear from?

  7. Unfortunately in books by Wright years and years ago he consistently resorts to personal attacks… this only weakens his argument in my opinion and turned me off to him.

  8. @Ron Brown
    As I recall, the thief on the cross was mentioned in passing as pertinent to the discussion by Wright, Schreiner or Thielman (I don’t recall who mentioned). Perhaps Mike W. can recall?

    Nevertheless, your comment is important and I look forward to receiving the recordings from the plenary sessions and panel discussion and will listen with your inquiry in mind.

  9. Ron and Paul:

    I don’t remember the thief on the cross coming up in the discussion. I think Wright would say that his final justification would be “in accordance with the totality of his life short-lived.”

  10. Mike:
    I may be mixing this with another ETS session, but I will listen to the audio when it ships. Meanwhile, whether short-lived or long-lived….”in accordance with…” helps many since it’s “on the basis of” our faith in Christ’s work, which all three agreed.

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