Tonight at the annual meeting of the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) Tom Schreiner gave a helpful paper entitled “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” on N. T. Wright’s view of justification.

Schreiner explained that he wanted to avoid two dangers in evaluating Wright’s scholarship—uncritical adulation on the one hand and uncritical denigration on the other.

He began by listing a significant number of areas of appreciation, including:

  • his “creative yet faithful, provocative yet conservative” work on the historical Jesus
  • his insistence on proclaiming the unity of the biblical story, not missing the forest for the trees
  • his work on exile and restoration
  • some aspects of the New Perspective
  • some aspects of his work on justification

With regard to justification—the focus of this paper and ETS in general this year—Schreiner summarized his concern with Wright as follows: “Tom tends to introduce false dichotomies, presenting an either-or when there is a both-and instead. To put it more sharply, even when he sees a both-and, he at times puts the emphasis in the wrong place, seeing the secondary as primary and the primary as secondary.” (This echoes a sentiment by Doug Moo that Wright often  backgrounds what the NT foregrounds, and foregrounds what the NT backgrounds.)

Schreiner then identified three false polarities in Wright’s thought.

  1. Wright wrongly says that justification is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology.
  2. Wright often introduces a false polarity when referring to the mission of Israel by saying that Israel’s fundamental problem was its failure to bless the world whereas Paul focuses on Israel’s inherent sinfulness.
  3. Wright insists that justification is a declaration of God’s righteousness but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

After working through each of these points, quoting from Wright’s writings, and explaining why he thinks the Bible resists these polarities, Schreiner concluded in this way:

We can be grateful on so many fronts for the scholarship of Tom Wright. His innovative scholarship has helped clarify biblical teachings and rectified wrong notions. My hope is that this paper will be received in the spirit in which it is intended, for like so many I stand in debt to his outstanding scholarship. Nevertheless, in my judgment Tom’s view of justification needs to be both clarified and corrected, for our sure hope for eternal life is the righteousness of God which belongs to us through our union with Jesus Christ.

It was a helpful paper—an example of critique expressed in a careful and charitable way.

I’ll let you know when the paper is published.