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.


  1. I don't see a change on Wright's part here. The quote from WSPRS puts his point into terms of "standard christian theological language" - but it's precisely that language that he is trying to somewhat reshuffle. I think a charitable reading can see the older quote as a rhetorical point that his new statement from the interview clarifies.

  2. Daniel, you should go back and reread this section of What Saint Paul Really Said. The section quoted above, in its context, is not something that Wright is trying to "reshuffle". Rather, he is restating his main thesis of that section in "standard christian theological language", just as the questioner does in the interview. His main point, in non-standard christian theological language is that "'Justification' in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people" (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119). Here, he sets up an even stronger either/or than he does in the section I quoted above. Thus, my point still stands, on this particular issue Wright has shifted, which is a good thing! To be clear, I am glad that Wright is moving in the right direction. I still think he has more moving to do on this point, but all and all, I think this is a good thing.

    Further, what is it that is "charitable" about your reading (that fact that it is your reading!) and by implication uncharitable about my reading? I would argue, that taking Wright in his own context is charitable!

  3. The "uncharitable" aspect that I thought I saw was taking his words in a kind of absolutist way to the neglect of the underlying point. But granted, I didn't have the context on hand and I accept your response. ;)

  4. This still doesn't answer the million-dollar question of "How is one in Abraham's family saved?" Saying that it is through the seed of Abraham doesn't actually answer the question. Any Roman Catholic could say as much. You can have a redemptive-historical model that makes Jesus into a Savior who dies for injustices, or a Savior who died to bring you into the covenant community to give you His Spirit and enable you to fulfill the law to some extent in order to be saved. This is virtually what Wright says when he is dealing with eschatological justification at the 32-35 min. mark. That is Roman Catholic soteriology. Wright is extremely sophisticated in how he attempts to give an exegetical defense. For instance, when he comes to take up Romans 2:13 He suggests that it must be read in light of Romans 8:4. He never deals with the issue of the pericope in which Rom 2:13 is found. Rom. 2:13 must be read in context of 1:18-3:30 and in light of 3:21-22, contra Wright. Also, Wright's appeal to Calvin on final justification in Rom. 8 (at the 33:50 mark) is just not true. Read Calvin on Romans 8:4 for yourself and see whether he says it refers to justification in any sense. Wright has a propensity for appealing to Calvin for novel positions that Calvin never actually supported. It makes him sound Reformed, when he is really Anglo-Catholic. Would Wright be able to affirm that justification it is by faith alone through Christ alone? I doubt it.That's the problem.

  5. Nick, your comments are very helpful, thanks. Wright seems to be the Karl Barth of our day. He appears to be one of us. He has impeccable academic credentials. He is "Reformed" in some sense. He has defended various essentials of the faith, contra liberalism. Yet he is willing to fudge on at least one other essential of the faith, and wonders why we don't all fall in line.


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