Sunday, April 20, 2008

Continuity between Wright and Calvin

I just finished reading Tom Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. Here’s a few thoughts regarding continuity between Wright and Calvin, and between Wright and Reformed soteriology:

Both Wright and Calvin agree that justification is a forensic pronouncement, not an executive act whereby God makes us ontologically righteous. Both Wright and Calvin agree that the “righteousness” of justification is a “status,” metaphorically comparable to the status a judge gives a defendant in a law court when the judge has decided in the defendant’s favor (Calvin does not articulate a doctrine of double imputation in the way later Reformed theologians do).

Here’s an additional point of continuity that I think is overlooked by both Wright and Reformed theologians: Wright works hard to distance himself from a view of justification (in his mind, the Reformation view) that makes it a doctrine of “how to get right with God.” Justification, Wright argues, is not about how to get right with God, but about who is already right with God; it is the divine pronouncement that so and so is in right standing with God. For Wright, this means justification is about ecclesiology—who is in the covenant; not about soteriology—how to get into the covenant. He hasn’t sold me on the ecclesiology/soteriology thing (see here), but at any rate, Wright’s view really isn’t all that different than how justification functions within Reformed thought.

For Calvin and the Reformed tradition, the declaration of justification is based upon the prior imputation of legal righteousness. God declares us righteous (i.e. justifies us) because we are in fact already legally righteous through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness via our union with Christ. Both Wright and the Reformed tradition agree that justification itself does not make anybody right with God, but rather is the declaration that one is already right with God based upon some prior reality. Thus the doctrine of justification proper within the Reformed tradition, as with Wright, is a doctrine that declares who is in right standing, not a doctrine that creates right standing. Technically, in Reformed thought, it is the doctrine of imputation—not justification—that makes one right with God. Many theologians (both Reformed and non) unhelpfully conflate imputation and justification, and this is probably the reason why Wright sees his position as so different than the Reformed paradigm. I suppose Reformed theologians could make the same ecclesiology/soteriology distinction, following Wright’s logic.

There are, of course, substantive differences between the Wright and the Reformed tradition, particularly relating to the ground of justification. For Calvin, God’s declaration in justification is based upon Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the forgiveness/non-imputation of sins (later Reformed theologians add the positive imputation of Christ’s legal obedience). Good works play no role in justification. But for Wright, God’s declaration is based upon Christ’s atoning work on the cross, the forgiveness/non-imputation of sins, and the whole life lived. Wright is comfortable importing a bit of merit theology into his doctrine of justification (though I’m not sure he’d use that term). For Wright, justification is the “in-breaking” of the final, eschatological pronouncement, which is in part, based upon the way we’ve lived. God declares now, in the present, based on faith, what he will declare of us in the future, based upon the whole life lived.

And of course Calvin thinks Paul is battling against proto-Pelagianism and Wright does not. And Wright’s understanding of justification is much more covenantally and eschatologically focused than Calvin’s. But when it comes to the forensic, declarative nature of justification, Wright and Calvin aren’t all that different.


Matt said...

But isn't there a fundamental semantic breakdown here. If Wright is talking about final justification and Calvin (to some degree) is talking about initial justification, aren't they talking past each other? What does it look like when we compare their views of initial justification and their views of the final acceptance of the believer into God's presence?

Gerald said...


This is a good observation, and is one of the things that make it difficult to compare/contrast Calvin and Wright. I started writing a response to your question, but it was getting long enough that I'm going to address it in a future post.

I think the thing I was going for in this post was to point out that that both Wright and Calvin utilize forensic (rather than ontic) categories for justification, and that in spite of Wright's insistence that his view of justification is about ecclesiology rather than soteriology, the way he lays it out seems pretty soteriological to me. Even the Reformed tradition's view of justification could be articulated using Wright's ecclesiological/soteriological distinction without substantively changing it. In other words, I don't think Wright's eccelsiology/soteriology distinction is really that helpful in distancing himself from the Reformation tradition.

I wonder, does Wright insist as well that final justification is also primarily ecclesiological rather than soteriological?

Bradley said...

I think that's the first time I've ever seen someone use the word "ontic."

That's cool.

I like your posts about Wright! Your thoughts are very helpful. Always. They bring great clarity to important questions. I'm glad your reading more of Wright. See his latest interview with Trevin Wax, it's quite interesting. He responds to some comments made at T4G, and Trevin was nice enough to me to ask him one of my questions (question #2, which has a SAET type focus).