Friday, April 17, 2009

Schreiner, Vickers, and Seifrid on Wright

I just finished listening to this podcast. It's a good discussion by able NT scholars regarding Tom Wright's new book on justification. Wright's book is, in many ways, a response to Piper's The Future of Justification. Michael Bird has a good review post on the panel discussion that's worth checking out. Here are my two cents as well...

I haven't read a ton of Wright, but I have read a good deal of his work as it relates to justification. And generally, I think much of the criticism leveled against him misses the mark, chiefly because his critics fail to deal with him on his own semantic terms. Simply put, Wright doesn't use the term "justified" in the same way that more traditional Protestants do. For Wright, justification is not about getting saved, but about declaring who is already saved. So when Wright says that we are justified at the judgment on the basis of spirit-wrought works, he doesn't mean that we are saved at the final judgment by such works. He means that our position within the covenant (already previously determined) is made evident at the judgment based upon God's work in our life. Substantively, I don't find this any different than Piper or Calvin or any other theologian who ascribes to works a vindicating, rather than instrumental, role at the judgment. If you listen to the panel discussion, you'll see that this issue in particular--a final justification according to works--is a real sticking point for Seifrid and Schreiner.

Now it's necessary at some point to have a discussion about the way the term "justified" is used in Scripture (and thus the best way to use it theologically), but that's not the same thing as having a discussion regarding the substance of one's position. Just because Wright is not using the term "justified" in the traditional sense, does not mean that he is necessarily jettisoning the substance of Reformation soteriology. Two sides of a debate can largely agree in substance, yet strongly disagree in semantics. Or they may both disagree in substance and semantics. But until each side takes the other on their own semantic terms, they will never be able to get to the substance of the other's position. A brief example from church history to illustrate my point...

During the great Arian controversy, the term homousia (one substance) was used by Athanasius and the (largely Western) pro-Nicene party to defend the full deity of Christ. But for many of the eastern Fathers, the term homousia had a different nuance, one that did not readily allow for a real distinction between persons. Thus to deploy the term homousia in the Eastern context was to till the soil for Sabellianism, a heresy they were particularly leery of. Consequently, as the Arian controversy ebbed and flowed many of the eastern Fathers were lumped in with the Arians because of their refusal to adopt the (then) controversial term. But the differences between the pro-Nicene party and these "semi-Arians" were only semantics. Both sides meant the same thing, they just couldn't agree on how to say it. Wisely, Athanasius saw that the semi-Arians were substantively correct, even if reticent to adopt the Nicene formula (given their Eastern context). Athanasius worked toward reconciliation, arguing that the substance of one's position was more important than any particular terms that were used. Holding out an olive branch, Athanasius insisted that the semi-Arians be regarded as orthodox. He then bent over backward to show the semi-Arians that the Nicene deployment of homousia was the best way to dispel the Arian threat. Eventually, the semi-Arians were brought into the Nicene fold.

But imagined what would have happened if both sides had insisted on retaining their respective understandings of homousia. Athanasius and the pro-Nicene party would have continued to issue anathemas against the substantively orthodox, yet semantically hertrodox, Eastern Fathers. And for their part, the Eastern Fathers would have continued to view Nicaea as a largely western/Latin capitulation to Sabellianism. But Athanasius' ability to see beyond the semantics enabled both sides to stop anathematizing the other and come to a real place of understanding, and ultimately, reconciliation.

In many ways, I feel like something similar needs to happen between Wright and his critics. I'm not suggesting the differences between Wright and his critics are merely semantics. But I'm increasingly convinced that many of Wright's critics have an inability to deal with him beyond the semantic level. Consequently, they are unable to deal with the real substance of his position. I'm no disciple of Wright. I tend to follow Seifrid on these things. But I am fairly certain, given what I've read of Wright thus far, that he is not as substantively different from traditional Reformation thought as his critics make him out to be. I've written at length about that here.


Anonymous said...

Gerald: You've did it again! Great review. I had similar thoughts after listening to the "discussion" (which seemed to me more like a platform to polemicise than a genuine discussion---e.g. there was nobody sympathetic to Wrights position invited to be a part of the discussion). Anyways ... Your thoughts are very helpful.


Beloved said...

Hey Gerald! Just found your blog from the link on Todd's.

I'm assuming you've read Seifrid's book on justification in the NSBT series. If so, aren't you a bit surprised that Wright's notion of final justification on the basis of works rubs him wrong? Seifrid essentially argues this in his book, and I actually found it one of the more brilliant contributions of the book. Then again, maybe I misunderstood him (his writing style is very convoluted).

Gerald said...


Yes I've read it (thought it's been awhile) and yes, I remember thinking that Seifrid's comments on the final judgment and works were well done. (At the time I hadn't read any of Wright's stuff, so I didn't connect those dots.) Though I remember thinking that Seifrid didn't develop his idea in that area as much as I would have liked.

Sometimes I wonder if Seifrid, in as much as he is anti-imputation, is so hard on Wright in an attempt to distance himself from some of the politics and criticism leveled against Wright. Frankly, Siefrid's comments toward Wright in the interview were not particularly charitable and I felt like he came off rather poorly. I don't follow Wright on everything, but I get tired of him always being thrown under the bus.