Monday, May 3, 2010

Justification: Vanhoozer on Wright

If your interested in the recent controversy about justification, Vanhoozer's talk at a recent Wheaton Conference about NT Wright's work, gives some great insights. (I noticed Michael Jensen recommends it as well.)  For those who don't have the time to listen, these extensive quotes from Reformation21 are a great summary of Vanhoozer's comments:

The Saturday sessions, which were devoted to Wright's approach to the Apostle Paul, began with an entertainingly "punny" paper by Wheaton systematic theologian Kevin Vanhoozer entitled "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology."  Responding to Wright's rejection of imputation and his contention that Luther, and to a lesser extent Calvin, misread Paul on justification, Vanhoozer questioned whether the covenant theme of God's plan to bless all of humanity though the nation of Israel is as prominent in Paul as Wright suggests.  The Wheaton theologian went on to argue that the emphasis on covenant and the corporate dimension, while helpful in itself, has tended in Wright's work to undercut the genuinely biblical emphasis on individual salvation.  Focusing specifically on Wright's denial of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, Vanhoozer referenced speech/act theory (without which no Vanhoozer presentation these days would be complete).  Here he insightfully suggested that Wright's presentation of the divine law court implicitly views that court as civil rather than criminal, and he asked whether justification for Wright means "in" (the people of God) or "innocent."  

The reviewer then concludes with this observation:

But there are also, in my opinion, at least three significant dangers lurking in his theology.  First, without a deeper appreciation for the role of faith commitments in historical scholarship, Wright's historical endeavors run the risk of lapsing back into the historicism he so abhors.  Second, his nearly constant preference for corporate inclusion over against the individual's experience of forensic justification risks a tragic obscuring of essential Reformational insights.  Finally, his apparent distaste for the church's confessional tradition is unlikely to serve the church well in the long run and is, in fact, likely to undercut his ecclesiology. 

I think Wright's elevation of covenant and emphasis on the divine Messiahship of Jesus are invaluable.  He has without a doubt carved for himself a place in historical theology.  Somewhat ironically I also owe a debt to Wright for my understanding of justification which wouldn't have been as clear without the current controversy.  However given weight of Adamic guilt, justification must have a individual forensic centre, if Adam's guilt was imputed to us, then how much more will Christ's innocence (and obedience) be imputed to us!


Alan said...

Thanks for posting this man.

Andrew Bowles said...

This debate seems to me to be at some level just theology proceeding by means of reaction instead of integration. The Reformers emphasise individual justification too much, so Wright emphasises corporate inclusion too much, so Piper...

I think justification is like a triangle. You have the mystical union with Christ, which is the subjective side, you have the legal 'declaration' which gives it objectivity, and you have the incoporation into the church, in which justification is realised concretely and shown to have happened.
None of these is the 'centre' around which the other two revolve. They are the same reality viewed from three perspectives. The centre itself would seem to be 'faith in Christ'. Forensic imputation without union (subjectively experienced) and without church life is abstract and practically meaningless. Subjective union can give way to doubt without the objective assurance of God's external righteousness, and if it does not lead to unity with other believers it is a delusion. And inclusion in the church becomes only an institutional or social reality without the objective and subjective elements that make it spiritual.

The Reformation was a movement of reaction. That doesn't mean we have to enshrine reaction as a permanent way of life in order to be 'faithful' to their insights.

Luke said...

Glad to be of service Alan, I like that visual description of what's going on Andrew. (Thanks for stopping by!)