Wednesday, 27 February 2008

An introduction to Tom Wright, part six

Part five was here:

The interview we're examining, to help us understand Wright's teaching is here:

Trevin Wax:
You have said in many of your books that justification is not  how one becomes a Christian but a declaration that one is a Christian. What language do you use to explain how one becomes a Christian?

N.T. Wright:  Let’s be clear about this because many Christians in the evangelical tradition use words like “conversion,” “regeneration,” “justification,” “born-again,” etc. all as more or less synonyms to mean “becoming a Christian from cold.” In the classic Reformed tradition, the word “justification” is much more fine-tuned than that and has to do with a verdict which is pronounced, rather than with something happening to you in terms of actually being born again. So that I’m actually much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize.

What most Reformed apologists, like myself, feel when reading this is "sort of, yes, OK... well, no." The use of a number of important Bible words has become rather loose in the last few decades in evangelical circles. It is good to tighten this up, and aim for more, Biblical, clarity. Wright's statement that he is "much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize" though exhibits a number of frustrating features which permeate his responses to his critics.

When reading Wright responding to his conservative critics, he often takes quite a different tone from when he is writing in another context - either setting out his own case positively, or critiquing someone else's. When setting out his own case, Wright will often freely and openly attack classic Reformed doctrine, and leave us in no doubt that it contains major errors, and that his reconstruction is basically the first faithful reconstruction of Paul's thought since apostolic times. He will freely attack, as he did for example the recent book setting out the case for penal substitution, his critics as being "profoundly unbiblical".

This ambiguity is frustrating. At some times, Wright recognises that his reconstruction contains fundamental and irreconcilable differences to the historic scheme, and says so openly; but when this same fact is stated by his critics, he goes all coy.

In the context of the above statement, Wright and the Reformed agree that justification is specifically a legal declaration - a "verdict which is pronounced". It is not a synonym for regeneration as a whole, or the like. That statement on its own is fine (though actually Wright means something more than that, but I think it'd be better to move quickly and bring that out later). This is all fine. But that is a rather superficial similarity. It's a declaration - but of what, and when made, and what the effects of it are - remain as points of profound disagreement. To talk about being close to the Reformed position here is very misleading.

We could say that the Reformed and the Roman Catholics agree that justification is to do with a state of ethical righteousness. To then go on, though, and have a Romanist say that on that basis he's actually far closer to being Reformed than he's granted credit for, would be ludicrous. The Reformed say it is an announcement that believers are counted as righteous for Christ's sake; Rome say that it is an announcement about our actual state in ourselves because of our faithful use of the sacraments and good works done in response to grace; these two contradictory beliefs represent two entirely different systems of theology. The same is true with Wright. He believes that justification is a legal verdict - good, but nowhere near good enough.

The other somewhat frustrating feature of Wright's response is one that I've noticed not only in him, but in many of his fans on the Internet. It's the feature of identifying those who he disagrees with very non-specifically. He claims to be closer to "some" Reformed writings - closer than "some" people have realised. Which writings? Which people? I realise that this is an interview - we can't expect chapter and verse. That would be nit-picking. The point, though, is that this vagueness which is legitimate in an interview is never rarely sorted out anywhere else. Wright often uses an image of a never-quite-identified bogey-man to promote his theology - playing it off against something which we're never told where we can find it, or as being anyone in particular's position.

To be continued...

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