What N.T. Wright Really Said

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My friend Andrew Cowan has offered to write an explanation of what is and isn’t going on with regard to Wright’s comments on justification at ETS. I’m grateful for his careful work on this.


Did N. T. Wright adjust or change his view of justification at the 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society?  The claim is now making its way around the internet that Wright indeed has reformed himself (to one degree or another) on this issue, and this claim is occasionally accompanied by the insinuation that he is being less than forthcoming about the degree to which he has changed.  (Here I do not have in mind A. B. Caneday’s comments highlighted earlier on this blog.  The careful reader will note that Caneday’s suggestion is that Wright has failed to communicate his position effectively in the past, not that Wright has changed his position and is seeking to cover it up.  The difficulty that many have had in understanding Wright points to some validity within Caneday’s concerns.)

In my judgment, however, the claim that Wright has changed his view on justification is misguided and results from the misreading of Wright that has been rampant in the Reformed world for quite some time.  I will explore this issue through asking and answering four questions.

1. What did Wright say at ETS to incite such controversy?

The issue under debate is Wright’s understanding of how the believer’s Spirit-inspired good works relate to what Wright calls “final justification.”  In his lecture at ETS and the following discussion, Wright stated that he understands final justification to be “in accordance with” works, and not “on the basis of” works.  In fact, he said that he does not remember ever using “basis” language to describe this relationship, and would be happy to adjust future editions of books if others would point out to him where he has made such statements.

Minutes later, Tom Schreiner pointed out one place in Wright’s work where he had spoken of final justification “on the basis of the whole life lived,” and bloggers have drawn attention to a number of other instances of similar language in his books and articles.  In response to one such post (written by Denny Burk), Wright claimed (in a blog comment!) that he has not “retracted anything that I meant in my many, many earlier statements on this subject.”  He said that after receiving Tom Schreiner’s paper (in which he was critiqued for using the word “basis” in his descriptions of the role of works in final justification) he did not have access to his works to check whether or not he had used the language of “basis.” After recognizing the examples produced by Burk, Wright then wrote, “I have always made it clear, as I did yesterday, that I did not mean or intend the kind of thing that clearly some theologians think that word ‘must’ mean.”  Wright thus agreed that he had used the word “basis” to describe the relationship between works and final justification, but suggested that the context of these statements clarifies that he has never meant by this word what many of his critics have taken him to mean.

2. What have Wright’s critics taken him to mean?

One of the most prominent critics of Wright’s views on justification is John Piper, who devoted an entire book to the topic (The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright). Chapter 8 of this book discusses Wright’s view of the relationship between works and the final judgment.  In this chapter, Piper first admits that he finds Wright’s view “ambiguous” (p. 117), but after extended analysis, he concludes that Wright’s denial of the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ “results in a vacuum that our own Spirit-enabled, but imperfect, obedience seems to fill as part of the foundation or ground or basis alongside the atoning death of Jesus” (p. 128, emphasis original).  Piper hastens to add, “I say ‘seems to,’ since I would be happy for Wright to clarify for his reading public that this, in fact, is not what he believes” (pp. 128-129, emphasis original).  Nevertheless, Piper’s tenuous portrayal of Wright’s position has become common among Wright critics in the blogosphere and elsewhere, particularly among folks who self-identify as Reformed.  These critics suggest that the Spirit-inspired obedience of the believer stands as the believer’s righteousness in Wright’s understanding of final justification in the same way that Christ’s lifetime of perfect obedience stands as the believer’s righteousness in the traditional Reformed view.  Thus, they understand Wright to be teaching a sort of Augustinian works-righteousness.

3. What has Wright really meant?

Are the critics right?  The keys to adjudicating this question are Wright’s understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language in Paul and his understanding of the trial to which justification stands as a verdict.

In his ETS lecture, Wright indicated once more what he has stated many times: in his view, when Paul applies the word “righteousness” to a human being, it means “covenant membership.”  (This is slightly different than when the word is applied to God, in which case it often, but not exclusively, means “covenant faithfulness” according to Wright.)  This definition of “righteousness” should immediately cause us to question the reading that suggests that Wright understands the believer’s Spirit inspired works to be the believer’s “righteousness” in final justification.  If “righteousness” is covenant membership, then righteousness does not and cannot consist in good works themselves, either the believer’s Spirit-inspired works or Christ’s works on the believer’s behalf.

This becomes even clearer when one considers Wright’s understanding of the trial to which justification stands as a verdict.  According to Wright, the question under consideration in the divine courtroom is not whether or not one measures up to God’s moral standards, but rather whether or not one is truly a member of God’s covenant people.  Thus, the trial is meant to determine which people are truly covenant members, and to be justified is to be declared a covenant member.

According to Wright, present justification occurs immediately after conversion.  In Wright’s understanding of conversion, God sends the Spirit to produce faith in one who hears the proclamation of the gospel (Wright thinks that Paul refers to this event with the word “call”).  Thus, faith is the first evidence that one has become a member of God’s covenant people.  Present justification follows immediately.  Present justification is “by faith” because faith in Christ is irrefutable evidence that God has indeed made one a member of his covenant people through the work of his Spirit.  Thus, in Wright’s view, when Paul speaks of present justification by faith, he means God’s declaration that one has been brought into the family of his covenant people.  The evidence that God cites to demonstrate that one has already been brought into covenant membership is the presence of faith.

Wright’s understanding of the function of Spirit-inspired works in final justification is identical to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification.  Just as Spirit-produced faith is the initial sign that God has made one a member of his covenant people, so in final justification, Spirit-produced good works serve as the sign that one was truly a member of God’s covenant people from the point of one’s conversion on.  When Wright has said that good works are the “basis” of the believer’s final justification, he has meant that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one truly is a covenant member.  They are the “basis” for final justification the same way that a paternity test may serve as the “basis” for the verdict in a paternity lawsuit.  A paternity test does not make one a father; it demonstrates that one was a child’s father all along.  So also, Spirit-inspired works do not make one a covenant member in Wright’s view; they demonstrate that one has been a covenant member all along.  The assertion that Wright understands Spirit-inspired works to be the believer’s “righteousness” in final justification misconstrues both his understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language and his understanding of the question under consideration in the divine courtroom.

[Two parenthetical comments:

(1) In his writings, Wright has sometimes muddled this issue by his responses to critics.  Wright has two arguments for why his position does not promote any kind of works-righteousness, as his critics claim.  The first is his understanding of the trial and “righteousness” language as detailed above, and the second is his assertion that the works considered in final justification are Spirit-inspired.  This second argument does not satisfy many of Wright’s critics, and sometimes that is the primary response Wright makes to such charges.  When Wright focuses on this argument rather than the first, his critics often become confused and don’t realize how the broader framework of his understanding of the trial and “righteousness” language make the works-righteousness interpretation of his writings impossible.

(2) A second point where confusion has arisen is through the claim that Wright understands justification to be primarily “ecclesiological” rather than “soteriological.”  Although Wright once expressed this contrast himself (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119), he has more recently decried this depiction of Paul’s meaning as a false dichotomy, suggesting that here we have a “both/and” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 132-133).  Nevertheless, careful attention needs to be paid to how he describes the relationship between justification and soteriology.  He relates justification to soteriology in two distinct ways: (1) he insists that declaring one a covenant member is to declare that one is indeed saved because the blessings of covenant membership include forgiveness of sins, etc. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 121-122); (2) he wants to broaden our understanding of the term “soteriology” to include deliverance from the plight of Genesis 11, in which humanity was fractured into different nations, in addition to deliverance from the plight of Genesis 3, in which humanity fell subject to death through sin (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 133-136).  In Wright’s view, justification directly “saves” humanity from this plight by creating one cross-national covenant people of God, and is thus a directly “soteriological” act because it directly reverses the plight of Genesis 11.  Thus, when Wright claims that his view of justification is both ecclesiological and soteriological, he does not mean that his view of justification is soteriological in the precise sense that some of his critics mean.]

4. What is the meaning and significance of Wright’s assertion at ETS that final justification is “in accordance with” and not “on the basis of” works?

We return now to our original question: has Wright changed his view by denying that final justification is “on the basis of” works?  In short, the answer is no.  Nothing that he said indicated that he has changed his understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language in Paul’s writings.  Nothing that he said indicated that he has changed his understanding of the trial to which justification stands as a verdict.  On the contrary, he reasserted his position on both of these points.

What then did the denial of “basis” as an appropriate way to talk about the relationship between final justification and Spirit-inspired works mean?  The most responsible reading of this statement is that Wright is denying the interpretation of his writings that insists that he equates the believer’s righteousness in final justification with Spirit-inspired works.  I think that everyone in the room who has read his works carefully was probably stunned to hear him say that he did not remember using the language of “basis” in this way, but I think that his lapse in memory on this point demonstrates that the language of “basis” is so inessential to what Wright has always meant that he can dismiss it without realizing how frequently he has used it in the past.  Basically, Wright’s shift in language simply means that he is using new wording to express what he has always been saying, but in a way that is less apt to be misunderstood than his previous statements.  He still holds that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one is truly a member of God’s covenant people in final justification, and this corresponds to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification.  He has not changed his view at all, but he has finally offered the clarification for which Piper hoped by denying that he understands works to be the “basis” of final justification in the way that Piper understands Christ’s righteousness to be the “basis” of final justification.  One might wish that he had made this clarification clearer in his book-length reply to Piper (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision), but we may all be grateful that he is now speaking in a way that perhaps fewer people will misunderstand.  Also, perhaps the debate can now shift from this red-herring to the real points of disagreement: Wright’s understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language and his construal of the question under consideration in the divine courtroom.  On these points, Wright should be engaged and evaluated with an open mind, an open heart, and, not least, an open Bible.  The discussion at ETS was a fine example of such engagement, and we should all be thankful to the panelists for modeling a charitable dialogue on this issue focused on the exegetical details from which the differences arise.  May God give us wisdom as we continue to consider His Word together.

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