Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Move in the Wright Direction?

Yesterday, Justin Brierley, from Unbelievable?, posted this interview he conducted between N. T. Wright and James White on the subject of justification. As someone who has followed the so-called New Perspective(s) on Paul discussion, I listened rather intently to the whole discussion, twice. Overall, it was an informative interchange. Fortunately, White continually pressed Wright on the grounds of justification (i.e., what is the ultimate reason a person is justified), both present and future. Unfortunately, the listeners did not receive a clear answer on this point from Wright (yet again).

Delightfully, Wright took issue with a comment made by Brierley. Here is the transcript of their exchange from the 20:42 mark:
Justin Brierley: If I can try and, try and, spell this out–and you will have to correct me–can we say then that justification, then, as far as Paul was concerned, was about membership more than personal salvation, if you like?

N.T. Wright: Eh-Eh... This is precisely the either/or that we have to avoid...

Justin Brierly:...okay...

N.T. Wright:...because the membership question is the membership in the family of Abraham and the purpose of Abraham’s family was to undo the sin of Adam...
(Emphasis mine)
After hearing Wright's remarks on this point, I could not help but think back to his book, What Saint Paul Really Said because Wright makes the same point in this book that he rejects in the interview. He writes on page 119:
In standard Christian theological language, [justification] wasn't so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church. (Emphasis mine)
(Is it just me, or does this comment from Wright's book sound virtually identical to the restatement made by Brierley that Wright rejected?)

On the one hand, it is good that Wright seems to be now distancing himself from the false dicotomy (i.e., justification is either about who is 'in' or it is about who is 'saved', but not both). On the other hand, however, this is a false dichotomy that he himself established in What Saint Paul Really Said. One would hope that Wright would have acknowledged that he has changed with reference to this point and that he would clarify that he understands things differently now, after listening to critics and upon further reflection. The impression one gets after listening to the conversation with White is that Wright has always been saying the same thing on this point. The above quote from What Saint Paul Really Said seems to imply that this is not the case. The New Perspective discussion would be greatly advanced if both sides could openly admit when they have changed on this or that point. In this way, new ground could be covered instead of retreading old paths.