Wright’s Theological Starting Point in his Doctrine of Justification

Bishop WrightOne of the main reasons why many of Wright’s critics misunderstand his doctrine of justification can be traced to the fact that the questions that he is answering with his doctrine of justification are slightly different from those which traditional Reformed doctrines of justification are designed to answer.

Reformed doctrines of justification tend to have an anthropological starting point. The big question that the doctrine generally addresses is that of how an individual can get right with a holy God. Wright’s doctrine, on the other hand, takes its starting point with God. He starts with God’s covenant-renewing action in the gospel, rather than with man’s attempt to get right with God. Justification is understood in the context of the question of how God sets men to rights, rather than primarily in the context of the question of how men can get right with God.

When Wright talks about the basis for God’s justifying declaration, he is not providing a direct answer to the question of what we must do to be saved. For Wright, God’s declaration that we are right with Him is not merely delivered on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness extra nos, but includes the work of the Spirit within the believer as part of its basis. Wright believes that God is righteous in justifying because (a) Christ has died for the sins of the world; (b) faith is the appropriate helpless response to the gospel; (c) faith is the true obedience that the Law called for but could never provide; (d) faith, as the first sign of the work of the Spirit, is the sign of a new life that is obedient by nature (‘God’s verdict in the present is righteous, because the basis on which it is made is sufficient grounds for confidence that it will correspond to the righteous verdict of the last day’).

Wright’s doctrine of justification relies heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit in the convert (both in present and final justification). If Wright’s doctrine were designed as a direct answer to the traditional Reformed questions of justification it would probably be dangerously misleading. We would be taught to depend at least in part on the work of the Spirit in ourselves, an incomplete and imperfect righteousness within, rather than on the completed work and person of Christ extra nos. Such a dependence on an incomplete righteousness would produce assurance problems, given the lack of a proper ground for our justification (the need for a perfect righteousness as the basis of our justification is the issue that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness seeks to deal with). However, Wright’s doctrine is not designed as an answer to the traditional questions that Reformed Christians have tended to use the doctrine of justification to answer. To understand Wright’s doctrine of justification you really have to put the traditional questions to one side, something which most of Wright’s critics haven’t really grasped yet.

When Wright speaks of faith in relation to his doctrine of justification one of the things that should really strike the reader is how passive man is characterized as being. From his treatments of faith in such contexts, one could be led to wonder whether he believes that faith is something that human beings ‘exercise’ at all. For instance, faith is spoken of as the ‘boundary marker’ or ‘badge’ of the true people of God. One does not generally think in terms of ‘exercising’ a badge.

‘Faith’, for Paul, is therefore not a substitute ‘work’ in a moralistic sense. It is not something one does in order to gain admittance into the covenant people. It is the badge that proclaims that one is already a member. [What St Paul Really Said, 132]

Such a statement is bound to confuse the Reformed reader who is used to approaching the doctrine of justification as the doctrine that answers the question of what an individual must do to get right with a holy God. Given Wright’s theological — rather than anthropological — starting point, his doctrine of justification provides at best a confusing answer to the question that Reformed Christians are answering.

As Wright addresses the issue of justification within the context of the question of how God sets humanity and His creation to rights, his doctrine can include things that a doctrine with an anthropological starting point would find it hard to include. If we adopt an anthropological starting point, certain of the distinctions between justification and sanctification are far more important than they are if we begin with a theological starting point. From an anthropological starting point justification speaks of the way in which I can come to be accepted as righteous in God’s sight and sanctification speaks of a more synergistic process, through which I grow in personal righteousness. Viewed from this perspective it is crucial to keep justification and sanctification distinct, as we do not want to say that we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight on the basis of our works. The distinction between justification and sanctification is essential if we are to preserve monergism.

Viewed from Wright’s more theological starting point, justification and what we call sanctification are not so distinct. From a theological starting point sanctification is not really viewed as an essentially synergistic process (although from other perspectives it can legitimately be regarded as such). In Wright’s understanding, God’s declaration of justification has ‘sanctification’ — both present and promised — in view to some extent. However — and this point is absolutely crucial — the sanctification that is in view is God’s action, rather than ours. It is God who gives the badge of faith and the life of the Spirit in the effectual call and it is God who commits Himself to bringing to completion that which He has begun in us. The condition for this justification is something provided by God, rather than by us.

This means that Wright can maintain a far less antithetical relationship between faith and faithfulness in his doctrine of justification. He writes:

Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness’, which makes the point just as well. Nor, of course, does this then compromise the gospel or justification, smuggling in ‘works’ by a back door. That would only be the case if the realignment I have been arguing for throughout were not grasped. Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more not less. [What St Paul Really Said, 160]

All of this should alert the reader to the fact that Wright is not approaching justification as the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved. If someone asked Wright what they must do to be saved, he would clearly direct them to Jesus Christ and away from any dependence upon their own moral efforts. He would call them to trust in God, His Word and His promises, and not to rest their assurance on their own imperfect works. There is no ambiguity on this point. However, this is not the question that Wright believes that the doctrine of justification is intended to answer. Few points could be more important for the proper interpretation of Wright.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in N.T. Wright, NT Theology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Wright’s Theological Starting Point in his Doctrine of Justification

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  2. Jon says:

    Thanks Al… That clears up a lot of questions I had re. Wright on Justification.

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  5. Al, I agree that Wright is asking different questions of the justification texts than the ones that the Reformers put to the, but I don’t think that the anthropological/theological contrast is helpful or accurate here. Is not the contrast, rather, one of anthropology and ecclesiology? Does not Wright see Paul’s reflections on justification as growing out of the question, Are Gentiles included in the new covenant?

    Part of the problem is that Wright is simply confusing here. I have read a lot of Wright’s material on justification, and I still find it difficult to say exactly what he believes that Paul is saying on the issue. On the one hand, he believes that the Reformers have misread Paul; on the other hand, he believes that his reading of Paul is compatible with the Reformation. I think he stumbles precisely at this point. Wright’s critics are right. Wright’s exegesis does undermine confessional Protestant construals of justification. I do not say that it supports Catholic or Orthodox positions; but I do believe that it most definitely attacks the exegetical foundations of the Reformation, as rightly seen by Rob Koons.

  6. Al says:

    Fr Kimel,

    I think that the anthropology/ecclesiology contrast has to do with the question that occasions Paul’s treatment of justification. The logical starting point of his doctrine, however, is within the broader context provided by God’s covenant-renewing and fulfilling work in the gospel. While this logical starting point is often not the question that occasions Paul’s or Wright’s treatments of justification, my point is that this starting point is crucial if we are to appreciate the underlying logic of Wright’s doctrine.

    As regards Wright’s relationship to the Reformation, it is certainly complicated. He challenges important exegetical arguments for Reformation positions. However, as a study of early Reformation exegesis of Romans and Galatians will bear out, if the foundations of the Reformation were exegetical the movement was doomed from the start. The movement was always primarily theological, rather than exegetical. At points theological breakthroughs were supposedly occasioned by new readings of the text (e.g. Luther on the ‘righteousness of God’). However, such exegetical arguments for the Reformation position were not universally followed. Early Protestant exegetes adopted a wide variety of exegetical lines; there was no set of ‘exegetical foundations’ that were universally adhered, although Protestant exegetes often tended towards particular readings rather than to others.

    It seems to me that Wright is quite right to claim that his position does justice to the concerns of the Reformers. However, I would hesitate to call Wright’s position ‘Reformed’. It takes the concerns of the Reformed on board, but moves beyond all earlier traditional and confessional formulations of the doctrine in a number of ways.

  7. Sam says:

    Dear Al,

    I at times find that the questions asked of the various theories of atonement by Scot McKnight (and folks commenting on his blog) force me to examine not only the questions I am asking on the topic, but also the assumptions and choices (almost always uncritically held or made by me) that underlie those questions. And I find that both challenging and beneficial. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful in your own thinking as well.

    – Sam

  8. Al, I do not disagree with you. It’s just that I don’t think calling Wright’s approach “theological” and the Reformation approach “anthropological” is all that clarifying. Both are concerned with God acting in Jesus Christ to reconcile humanity to himself. But I agree that Paul’s questions are not necessarily Luther and Calvin’s questions–and Luther’s questions are not necessarily Calvin’s questions.

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  10. AJ says:

    I appreciated this article and found the distinctions helpful in that Wright appears not to be asking the same questions. I find though that Wright goes further than looking at a particular topic from another (possibly new) perspective. Rather he (from the start if you look at N.T and the People of God) refuses to ask any questions at all. Rather he bears in mind the symbols, stories, cultural practices, etc. that help him to gain a picture of how first century Jews thought. I don’t think Wright would say it is just a case of answering a different question. He has refused to lay down to systematic collections of ideas to form nice confessions. Life, the facets that make up the fabric of society, the impressions, attitudes, social structures, language, culture in general that make the mind what it is, is complicated. It cannot be summed up by some nice doctrine for simple people of faith. It’s sad that John Piper (however much I regard him as a pastor) should start to attack Wright. It’s not the doctrine of justification (though for the “Reformed” it’s the be all and end all of faith) that is under fire, but the meanings of words, the thought processes, the complex aspects of the story that we read as we live out our lives that is really underview. Noone, I think, from the reformed branch can be bothered to take understanding the bible to such a simple yet very profound level. Faith after all was supposed to be simple. The only question I think we Wright asked when he started his theological journey was ‘Can we think with our own agendas and attitudes and still get anything meaningful from the Bible?’. I for one think not.

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  12. whitefrozen says:

    It would appear that I am quite late in commenting here – but fabulous and deeply perceptive post about a most worthwhile topic.

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