Saturday, 5 September 2009

Muddling through with N.T. Wright

Ok, so I've managed to find a bit of time recently to plod on a little further with Tom Wright's book on Justification. I'm now ready to launch into the exegesis section, but I found reading the last chapter of the first section - 'Justification: definitions and puzzles' rather unsettling. My problem is this: it's just so muddled.

My biggest issue is this: Wright happily wanders from describing and critiquing what is essentially the Catholic view of justification, stemming from Augustine, that sees the term justification as referring to pretty much the whole of salvation, and then switches back and forth to John Piper and his like - representing the reformation position - as though there were no difference between them! Yet it was the Augustinian position that Luther (the source of so many of our ills according to Wright) reacted so strongly against! I cannot believe that Wright is so incompetent a scholar as to not realise the massive difference between the two positions - his reputation would forbid it. Surely he must see that there is a world of difference between the instant imputation of Christ's righteousness of the Reformation doctrine and the slow life-long infusion of righteousness (roughtly equating to sanctification) of Augustine - yet he seems to imply the two are identical by simply switching the discussion from one to the other without notification (pg. 71). I hope that this is merely a very badly written chapter, but to the uninformed reader it would certainly very unfairly prejudice them against the Reformation doctrine of justification simply because it isn't clearly set out, other than those bits of it that Wright likes. The Catholic position, however, receives ample description and critique, but along the way Wright pauses to engage with... John Piper et al - who don't hold this position at all!

Here's my other big complaint: in a chapter concerning the definition of justification, I would hope to discover how Wright considers his doctrine to differ from the Reformation doctrine, but all I've worked out is that it's different from Catholicism, and seems to approve of an awful lot of the Reformation teaching. It would seem to me that the only thing like a definition of justification offered (pg. 69f) is in real agreement with the 'Old Perspective'. I've yet to discover what the big deal is from Wright's own pen. On points where I want clarification he is vague and on points that I understand (e.g. covenant theology, Christology etc) he is full of detail!

What I find most concerning is that he seems content to be vague on areas such as the role of the cross (other than that Jesus dealt with sin there somehow), what grounds God has for justifiying us etc. These things may not be the doctrine of justification per se, but a reasonable doctrine of justification cannot stand without them. Dare I suggest (well, yes I do - it's my blog and I can say what I like!) that it just sounds so Anglican - the aim is to remain vague where reasonably possible so as to accommodate as many positions as possible (apologies to the many evangelical Anglicans I know to be glorious exceptions to this rule). Maybe that explains the surprising range of people that give commendations inside the front cover - Michael Bird being a lecturer at a seminary that advertises itself as Reformed, and Brian McLaren being no advocate of orthodoxy. Will that be the end result? A biblical-sounding doctrine that actually crosses very few t's and dots as few i's as possible so that when the rubber hits the road you can mould it to suit nearly whatever brand of teaching you like? I know this approach is very popular in contemporary Christianity, but it does nothing for the cause of biblical truth or biblical unity. It is only the truth that will set us free. Vagueness leads only into the fog.


  1. Hm. Haven't read any of Wright's books yet, only articles online, but found Reeves' seminars on justification at NWA v helpful for such clarification - goes through history (mainly Augustine & Luther), some exegesis, application and contemporary challenges (Rome, NPP & Federal Vision). Probably buyable from their online media store.

  2. They're excellent - I've linked to them toward the end of my previous post 'Is Wright right?'. We took Reeves on honeymoon with us - well, in audio format anyway... made for good listening and discussion on the very long journey to Northumberland!