Friday, August 23, 2019

Wright's Climax of the Covenant

I just finished reading N. T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. I’ve read a number of Wright’s articles (and listened to a number of his lectures), but this is the first book length project I’ve read by him. One of Wright’s major premises in the book is that Paul’s soteriology is grounded squarely in a Jewish covenantal framework. Paul sees the death and resurrection of Christ as the climax of Israel’s covenant with God. More pointedly (if I’m reading Wright correctly), Wright argues that Paul views the death and resurrection of Christ as the in-breaking of Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s “New Covenant.” Justification for Paul means something along the lines of “being declared to be in right standing to the covenant—to be declared ‘in’ the people of God.” Faith, not works of the Torah, is the defining boundary marker that reveals who is in the covenant.

While I depart from Wright at some points, I’m in basic agreement with his covenantal focus. It seems to me that Paul’s soteriology revolves around (and points toward) the Holy Spirit, resurrection, and ontological renewal—all major themes of the New Covenant promise. Too often evangelicals (following Luther and Calvin) fixate exclusively on the forgiveness of sins, as though this were the central element in Paul’s soteriology. A covenantal/pneumalogical focus does not exclude the forgiveness of sin (indeed forgiveness is a significant theme of the New Covenant), but Paul’s doctrine of justification extends beyond forensic categories and includes a strong ontological component. (In some passages, Paul can go from "dead in sins" to "alive in Christ" without using a forensic metaphor or mentioning the forgiveness of sins at all.) Connecting Paul’s soteriology to the New Covenant helps to compensate for the tunnel vision found in much of Evangelicalism's doctrine of justification.

A question for any who know: It wasn’t clear to me exactly which covenant Wright sees as climaxed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Is it the Abrahamic covenant of Gen 12? The Levitical/Deuteronical covenant? The New Covenant? Or does Wright view all three of these covenants as extensions and developments of one overriding covenant between God and Israel? I don’t recall Wright explicitly stating it, but I suspect his positions lies somewhere closest to the latter. He seems to collapse all three covenants into one singular covenant.

Faith as a "Means" of Salvation (or not) in Wright

Wright is concerned that faith not be viewed as a means of “getting in” to the covenant. 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” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 160). For Wright, justification—the divine declaration regarding who is “in” the covenant—is not based upon works of the law, but rather upon faith. Faith, while indeed the “badge” of true covenant membership, is not the means of entering into the covenant; it is simply the sign that one is already in. Wright’s logic here regarding faith as a sign parallels that of Reformed thought regarding works. For the Reformed tradition, works are not the means of “getting right with God,” but are a sign that one is already right with God. Wright adopts the same logic, but applies it to faith.

One might wonder why Wright is so insistent that faith not be viewed as a means of appropriating the blessings of the covenant. I think the answer to this question lies in the parallel relationship between faith and works. The manner in which faith function in Paul's system, is parallel to the way in which "works of the Law" function in the system of Paul's opponents. Paul’s position that "justification is by faith" is in direct opposition to his interlocutors insistence that "justification is by works of the law." If Paul views faith as a means of getting into the covenant, then it naturally follows that Paul’s opponents viewed “works of the Law” as a means of getting into the covenant. And if the latter is true, this very much suggests that Paul was battling against some form of proto-Pelagiansim. Even if--as Dunn insists--"works of the Law" refers primarily to ceremonial works such as kosher laws and circumcision, it is easy to see how such a system would lead to legalism, if not outright Pelagianism.

For my part, it seems fairly evident that Paul views faith as a means of appropriating the blessings of God’s promise. Even granting Wright’s definition of justification (which I don’t), Paul’s wider soteriological language clearly links faith to salvation in an instrumental way (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 10:10-14, Galatians 3:14, etc.). Faith is not merely a “sign” that accompanies one who is already saved, but is in fact the necessary precondition for one to be saved.

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.

Justification: Ecclesiology or Soteriology?

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.

Even granting Wright’s view of justification, I’m not certain his attempt to remove the doctrine of justification from soteriology really works. Ecclesiology cannot be so neatly divided from soteriology. When it comes to the doctrine of justification--even as Wright has defined it--ecclesiology is soteriology. A doctrine which defines the boundaries of the covenant, demarcating whose in and whose out, sounds pretty soteriological to me—particularly when one’s final salvation is directly related to being “in” the covenant.

The question of “who will be vindicated at/by the final resurrection” is fundamentally soteriological, with subsequent ecclesial implications, rather than fundamentally ecclesial with subsequent soteriological implications. It would seem to me that a discussion of justification framed in this way still provides plenty of soil for proto-Pelagianism to grow and flourish, despite Wright’s insistence to the contrary.

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.

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.

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.