Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wright and Calvin Again

In a comment to my previous post, Matt correctly pointed out that it’s insufficient to simply compare Wright’s and Calvin’s view of justification, in as much as they don’t mean the same thing by the term dikaioo. Part of the point of my last post was to assert that maybe they are substantively closer than many think, but Matt’s point is legitimate nonetheless, particularly as it relates to initial and final justification. I think a lot of the confusion regarding Wright is a failure to fully embrace the fact that he is using the term dikaioo differently. I fell into this a bit myself in the last post, and in reading Piper’s critique of Wright, I think he falls into it as well (not terribly, but occasionally). The same confusion arises when Reformed critics take Wright to task over his understanding of the term “gospel.” (I’m particularly sensitive to this sort of category mistake, because I think it happens frequently when Reformed thinkers appropriate Augustine’s doctrine of justification.) When trying to compare and contrast Wright and the Reformed paradigm I wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to drop the terms “justification” and “gospel” altogether, and instead utilize neutral terms that gets to the substance of what each theologian means. So here goes.

When it comes to substance (not semantics), there are four questions that every soteriological system must address: 1) What is the ultimate ground of our initial acceptance before God, 2) What is the proper human response for appropriating this acceptance, 3) What is the basis of our final acceptance before God, and 4) What is the proper human response for securing this final acceptance. I’m better on Calvin than Wright, but here’s how I think they both would answer these questions.

1)What is the ultimate ground of our initial acceptance before God?

For Wright, the ground of our initial acceptance seems to be the atoning work of Christ—his death and resurrection. Wright’s covenantal focuses gives his view of the atonement a unique twist, but basically he affirms penal substitution. Christ died in our place—the curse is poured out on him and thus the way is cleared for all to participate in the blessings of the covenant (or something like that). He doesn’t affirm double imputation as understood by later Reformed theologians, but he does maintain that through Christ’s atoning work the believer has a righteous status before God.

For Calvin, the ground of our initial acceptance is the cross-work of Christ and the imputation of a righteous status based upon this cross-work. (Calvin does not really affirm the imputation of Christ’s legal obedience as understood by later Reformed theologians). From what I can tell, Wright and Calvin are pretty much in-line regarding the ground of acceptance—the cross work of Christ, and maybe even the imputation (perhaps not Wright’s word of choice) of a righteous status.

2)What is the proper human response for appropriating this initial acceptance—i.e., what must a person do to “get in,” as it were?
Here’s where I think Wright gets a bit murky. From what I’ve been able to piece together, Wright doesn’t seem to think that any human response at all is required for “getting in.” For Wright the royal proclamation of Christ’s death, resurrection and Lordship (what Wright means by “gospel”) is itself the means by which a person “gets in.” This royal proclamation contains within itself the power to “save” those who hear it. He writes, “The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection…is announced to them; through this means God works by his Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life…” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 116). And again, “The [announcement of Christ’s death, resurrection and Lordship] carries its own power to save people, and to dethrone the idols to which they have been bound….[this announcement] itself creates the Church (151).”

But for me, the question still remains as to what human response is required to move a person from outside to inside. One might be tempted to think Wright views “faith”—specifically faith in the royal proclamation—as the necessary human response for appropriating the blessings of the covenant, but not so. Wright is pretty clear that faith is not a means of “getting in.” He writes, “Faith…is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into the God’s family or for staying there once in” (160). For Wright, faith is not a means of “getting in” but rather is evidence that one is already in. So is there any response needed from the human side that is necessary for getting into God’s family? I haven’t yet found it in Wright. Wright’s articulation here seems radically monergistic—as though the royal proclamation is a magic dust that gets sprinkled over people and “poof!”—they are part of the people of God. There is an irony here, because Wright is often accused by Reformed theologians of opening the door to semi-Pelagianism. But given the above, I just can’t see it. If anything, I don’t think Wright gives enough attention to the human response. If anyone has a better understanding of Wright and can provide more clarity here, I would appreciate it.

For his part, Calvin is pretty clear that faith is the necessary human response for securing the blessings of salvation—i.e., “getting in.” So this seems like a pretty major difference between the Calvin and Wright, but one that, if anything, makes Wright more of a monergist than Calvin.

3)What is the ultimate ground of our final acceptance before God? (i.e., On what basis are we allowed in the Kingdom of Heaven at the resurrection?)
From what I can gather, both Calvin and Wright would argue that the basis of our final acceptance at the resurrection is the same as the basis of our initial acceptance at our conversion. Calvin does not distinguish between initial and final acceptance. The acceptance granted by God initially is the same acceptance whereby the believer is accepted by God at the judgment. If I read Wright correctly, he takes the same basic position. This will become clearer below.

4)What is the necessary human response for appropriating this final acceptance? (i.e., what must we do to get eternal life?)
Wright definitely believes that a life of good works is a necessary fruit of all who are true members of God’s family, just as faith is a necessary fruit of all who are true members of God family. But Wright wouldn’t suggest that works somehow “earn” or “secure” one’s possession of eternal life at the final judgment. Just as faith is not a means of “getting in,” in an initial sense, so too works are not a means of “getting in” an ultimate sense. Both faith and works are the fruit of being in, not the cause. Pointing out that Wright affirms a final justification by works misses the point. For Wright, justification is not about getting in, but about declaring who is in fact already in. Wright is comfortable talking about Spirit-wrought works "vindicating" the believer at the judgment see here. But the reason good works are are a source of vindication as such is because such works show that one is "in Christ." If I read Wright correctly, we are “in” at the final judgment because the royal proclamation has had its way with us. The result of this royal proclamation in us is a life of faith and good works. At the judgment, God publicly declares who is in fact already in, in part on the basis of the good works wrought by the effect of the “royal proclamation.” But the final judgment for Wright is not about works “getting us in” but about God declaring who is already in.

In this sense, I don’t think Wright is all that different than Calvin. For both Wright and Calvin, works don’t “earn” or “acquire” eternal life, but are rather the necessary fruit of all who are true members of God’s family—the membership badges, as Wright calls them. If anything, Calvin's discussion of judgment and works could be construed in slightly synergistic terms. Calvin is comfortable talking about eternal life as a “reward” given to works, but only in as much as one is already grafted into Christ.

Conclusion
If I’m reading Wright correctly, I don’t think substantively that he is all that different than Calvin when it comes to their basic soteriological framework. Semantically yes, but substantively no. But Wright definitely parts company with later Reformed theologians in as much as he rejects the Reformed notion of double imputation.

7 comments:

Pontificator said...

Very good post. You raise several good questions that I hope will be answered by those who know well the writings of Wright.

#1: 1)What is the ultimate ground of our initial acceptance before God?

I think you may be right here, but it's not clear to me if penal substitution really accurately states Wright's position. It seems to me that Wright senses an inadequacy in evangelical construals of penal substitution. But I may be wrong.

#2: What is the proper human response for appropriating this initial acceptance—i.e., what must a person do to “get in,” as it were?

I am particularly struck by your suggestion that "Wright doesn’t seem to think that any human response at all is required for 'getting in.'... For Wright, faith is not a means of 'getting in' but rather is evidence that one is already in." I'm not convinced, but this makes sense. In support one might invoke Wright's understanding of the corporate nature of Jesus' messianic identity and Wright's interpretation of baptism in the writings of Paul (see esp Wright's commentary on Romans). Yet of course, the Church only baptizes in response to conversion and confession of faith. Wright knows this.

#3: What is the ultimate ground of our final acceptance before God? (i.e., On what basis are we allowed in the Kingdom of Heaven at the resurrection?)

Here I find Wright quite confusing, perhaps because Paul himself is confusing. Following Paul, Wright refuses to tie everything together in a nice consistent package. I think.

#4: What is the necessary human response for appropriating this final acceptance? (i.e., what must we do to get eternal life?)

I am not yet persuaded you have Wright right on the final judgment. I'm not saying that you are wrong in your interpretation of Wright. I simply find him confusing. But I think Wright has done a great service in forcing us to take seriously Romans 2.

Matt said...

Thanks so much for doing this! It is very helpful.

One quick question: is there a specific passage in Calvin or a scholarly source which would help me think through the divergence between Calvin and Reformed thought on "double imputation"? This point fascinates me for obvious reasons.

Bradley said...

Matt,

The best introductory resource on this is actually Hiestand's Thesis work: Augustine and the Justification Debates. He has a chapter in this book that answers your question in a fresh way in light of recent controversy over justification. But if this topic truely fascinates you, you should read his whole book. It's well written and well researched.

I can't remember the website my memory, but I make a link to it on my blogrole @ koopstacochran.blogspot.com.

Cheers,


Bradley

Gerald said...

Al,

Thanks for the feedback. Regarding number one, I'm pretty sure about this. See the link below:

www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205.

Regarding number two, I'm interested in chasing this down. I have a few more thoughts on why Wright might not want to highlight a human response, but I'll lay that out in a future post. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

As to numbers three and four, I find Wright confusing here as well. But that may just be because I haven't read enough of his work yet.

blessings,

Gerald

Gerald said...

Matt,

I don't know a lot (any?) other scholars saying this. I lay it out in my MA thesis in my chapter on Calvin's understanding of justification (as Bradley notes above). The chapter is a couple of years old now, and should really be reworked and better nuanced. But I still think the gist of it is correct, even if a bit sophomoric. You could also take a look at Brian Vicker's book "Jesus' Blood and Righteousness." Vickers acknowledges that Calvin focuses primarily on the non-imputation of sins, and even at points insists that justification consists "solely" in the non-imputation of sins. But Vickers also argues that Calvin still affirms the positive imputation of Christ's righteousness.

I think Vickers fails to fully grasp that for Calvin, righteousness is a "status" which is synonomous with "legal innocence." For Calvin, the imputation of Christ's righteousness (i.e., Christ's legal innocence) is identical to the non-imputation of sins. Calvin isn't concerned so much about the imputation of Christ's "law-keeping" per se, but rather about the imputation of Christ's legal status. Of course, Christ's legal status is derived in measure from the fact that he never sinned, and in this sense he achieves "legal innocence" because he is obedient to the Law. But Calvin is quite comfortable stating (repeatedly and often) that the sum total of justification is the non-imputation of sins. You don't hear later Reformed theologians talking like that.

blessings,

Gerald

Gerald said...

Matt,

An additional note on Vickers book;

As I check my notes, he argues that for Luther, the non-imputation of sins and the imputation of righteousness are the same thing, but that the "raw material" of positive imputation is there in Luther's thought.

Regarding Calvin, Vickers suggests that the Institutes explicitly affirm positive imputation (here's where I disagree) but that his commentaries are less conclusive.

Ultimately, Vickers argues that positive imputation is "arguably present in Luther, more pronounced in Melancthon, and even clearer in Calvin." (37)

Ultimately, I think that the way Vickers reads Luther is how he should have read Calvin.

Matt said...

Thank you for your very helpful answers! I am definitely going to pick up the Vickers book and your dissertation and start thinking this through. Amazing stuff!