You would not believe how frustrating it is to follow the debate between Clark and Wilson. Clark has posted here and here; Wilson responds here, here and here. I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks that Clark is so determined to disagree with Wilson that he will create differences where they do not exist. Of course, the gospel is at stake in these slightest of differences. It always is, isn’t it!
You know, when you have someone decrying another person’s faith entirely on the basis of an argument that simply cannot be comprehended by a fairly educated Christian teacher and preacher (me), then what in the heck is going on? Presbyterians can go at it over things that the rest of the Christian world can’t even point at and nod.
I’ve listened to a lot of Federal Vision criticism and defense, and it makes me want to hear the welcome sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Along with recent discussions between FV proponents and critics about the nature of union with Christ, this sort of discussion reveals a particularly ugly side of Reformed theology — the tendency to get bogged down in the pettiest of disagreements whilst claiming that one is defending the heart of the Christian faith. When the gospel has been so utterly dissolved into theological fine print one wonders if there is anything to rejoice in anymore. The gospel is not about a precise and finely-attuned relationship and distinction between justification and sanctification. It never was and, praise God, it never will be.
This is why I love reading people like N.T. Wright. Wright’s gospel is so simple and straightforward that one cannot but rejoice. It really isn’t very complicated. Of course, when a mind that has been tying itself in knots over fine distinctions without differences encounters Wright it will go away deeply confused. The confusion, however, is in the mind of the reader, not in Wright himself.
When it comes to the distinction between justification and sanctification it seems to me that much of the heat of this debate arises from the fact that the wrong questions are being asked (both by many FV writers and by their critics). It seems that the question that guides the debate is still the question of how an individual can get right with a holy God. However, the more that I look at the Scriptures, the more that I come to the conclusion that this can only lead us to misunderstand the biblical teaching on justification. Justification in the Scripture is about how God sets men to rights (not, however, about a process of making people righteous), rather than about how men can get right with God. Once this has been appreciated the distinction between justification and sanctification is nowhere near as sharp as it would be otherwise (for instance, we can say that God is righteous to justify a person, among other reasons, because He has committed Himself to sanctifying the person and that, if He were not committed to sanctifying them then He would not be righteous to justify them) and faith and works can be far more closely related. We can even go so far as to claim that part of the reason that God is righteous in justifying us has to do with the holiness of faith.
If I were working in terms of the theological questions that shape Clark’s understanding of justification, my underlying theological concerns would probably lead me to much the same conclusions. However, my conviction is that the questions that shape his position are simply the wrong ones and that a better set of questions could lead us far beyond the impasses of many of the Reformation debates and may even allow for a more sympathetic reading of Roman Catholic theology on this matter. Whilst the idea of a sympathetic reading of Roman Catholic theology appalls many, I see no reason why it should, provided that we have arrived at such a reading through closer attention to the Scriptures, rather through the sacrifice of biblical convictions on the altar of compromise.
Update: Wilson blogs another response here.