Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Examining an interview with N T Wright (part 4)

Part 3: http://mothwo.blogspot.com/2008/02/commentary-on-interview-with-nt-wright_13.html
Interview: http://trevinwax.com/2007/11/19/trevin-wax-interview-with-nt-wright-full-transcript/

Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?

If you've been following so far you'll understand where this question is coming from. Wright has just explained that the gospel is (not includes) the declaration of Christ's Lordship - and hence what has historically been held to be at the centre of the good news, namely the announcement that Christ through his atoning death has offered a full satisfaction for the sins of everyone who believes in him, is relegated to one of the off-shoots of the good news, rather than being the good news itself. Historic evangelicalism has always proclaimed that the doctrine of justification by faith is right at the heart of the gospel - it announces that everyone who trusts in the crucified and risen Christ receives a free pardon at the moment they believe: they are declared justified. If, though, the gospel is an announcement about the identity of a person, then where do we fit in the great declarations of God about the status of believers in Jesus? Hence Wax's question. Here's Wright's answer:

N. T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.

 And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.

The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be  the means by which  the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.

So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed  in advance of  that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!

And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.

So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.

And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith  alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.

Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But  that  is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.

In order to examine that answer, I think it would be helpful first (since my aim in this series is more to explain Wright to newcomers to his thought rather than anything else), to summarise it. On the first few readings you might read Wright, read him again, and still be scratching your head saying "how does this answer the question?". What's being said here is this:

Wax: So, if the gospel is about Christ's Lordship, then what about justification?

Wright: The world is a mess. God's plan is to sort out the mess, not to scrap it and start again with a few select individuals. God's way of fixing this mess is through a covenant with Abraham which culminates with the resurrected Christ. Through the resurrected Christ, the world will be put to rights. Ultimately that's in the final renewal, but in fact it's already begun because Jesus is already risen. Justification comes in here. The real announcement of God's verdict as to who are his renewed people is in the future - but it is anticipated now. We can already identify who will be part of that final renewal - it's the people who have faith in Jesus (not the people who had the right credentials in this life or did the right things).

Actually there's a lot of this answer, especially the first part, that I like and think that evangelicals today ought to emphasise more. The failure to emphasise it is part of what's opening the door to the bits of the answer that I have severe problems with. I do believe that many evangelicals have a far too truncated view of the gospel and its intention. Because the West has experienced a severe back-sliding over the last century or two, many have adopted the view that the picture of a tiny remnant struggling to survive amidst enormous apostasy is the whole picture. We're meant just to huddle together whilst the world collapses, waiting for Jesus to return, and then he'll bring in a state of perfection. This age gets progressively and inevitably worse, before we're rescued by the second coming. Jesus saves a few shavings of humanity, whilst the nations as a whole are doomed. To talk about working out the implications of Christianity in culture, in the arts, in science, in politics, etcetera, is just wasting our breath (so they say), because Jesus' purpose is just to rescue the remnant before everything else is wiped away in the general fire. If we looked at the world as a whole then in fact the last century has been the most dramatic advance for Christianity since the times of the apostles.

I don't think that this gloomy picture does justice to the Bible's big picture of what Jesus came to do and what he is doing. Indeed, I do see a fundamental conflict between this picture and the Lordship of Christ. This picture is acceptable to dispensationalists who believe that Christ's Lordship belongs to a future age. However for evangelicals who believe that Jesus has now received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18-21) and is now reigning at the Father's right hand, putting down his enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25), just as the Father promised he would (Psalm 2), this proposition is an unacceptable one as the big picture. Put bluntly, it would mean that Christ has received this power and authority, has the ability to rule, advance, reign and conquer, being enthroned at the position from which to do so - but for some unfathomable reason has decided not to. Instead, he's going to allow the preaching of his gospel to be a general failure, overcome and defeated by the various opposing strategies of Satan (in our age, secularism, atheism, humanism, etcetera), until the end when he'll suddenly turn it all around not through the preaching of the gospel, the proclamation of the truth and the power of the Holy Spirit, but by sheer force of might at the second coming. As if his kingdom was like the kingdoms of this world (in terms of the way it wins its victories) after all.

So, I appreciate Wright emphasising that the plan of salvation is to put this world to rights, and not some disconnected future world. The gospel, not the second coming, is the plan to restore the world. What I think we see in Wright's theology, though, is an inconsistent working out of this insight. At later points, the practical outworking because little distinguishable from old-style liberal ethics - and this is because of the structural alterations Wright has made in the gospel. I don't want to start talking about that yet though - we're getting ahead of ourselves. Just keep in mind that whilst I'm with Wright on the matter of the gospel being designed to restore creation, we're going to disagree later on on the matter of how this restoration works out.

That's, then, the substance that I like from Wright's answer itself. I don't like it too much, though, as an answer to the question he was being asked. I don't like, either, the bits that come next, either on themselves or as an answer to the question at hand. What do I mean by that? Next time...

No comments: