Sunday, November 28, 2010

Justification: Schreiner on Wright

The continuing debate about justification came to interesting junction recently with the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Atlanta, Georgia. The focus was justification, and Tom Wright was one of the speakers to present a paper along with Tom Schreiner whose paper was written in response.

There is a fairly through and even-handed overview at this Gospel Coalition blog by Colin Hanson.  There is also a fair amount of comment on the theological blogosphere (see for example First Things' roundup) about the ETS event, Wright's thesis and Schreiner's response.  Blogger Denny Burk was amoung the more provocative, noting that Wright had either changed his mind about the place of works in a believer's life or was being dramatically inconsistent. His blog posts are notable because Tom Wright himself weighs into the comments, although in my opinion it boils down (again) to Wright, and others, saying "I'm being misunderstood."  However Burk has a point and as Carson has pointed out elsewhere, Wright is often difficult to pin down.

Perhaps more constructive is Schreiner's paper in response to Wright.  It's definitely worth reading, beginning with his points of agreement with Wright before proceeding to a very lucid critique of Wright's view of justification.  Justin Taylor has distilled them into these three points:

  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.

Most significantly I was most struck by Wright's view (as he was recorded saying in the roundtable discussion after the papers were presented) that sanctification wasn't very important to the Apostle Paul because it wasn't included in the 'Ordo-Salutis' of Romans 8:30.  The more I think about the doctrines of Grace the more I see the significance in God helping us kill sin and make us more Christlike by the power of the Holy Spirit, a process that seems conceptually and systematically separate to justification.


arthurandtamie said...

I can't say I've really been following this whole thing. I've still got a copy of Justification sitting on my shelf, untouched. And the tendency of blogging to kick dust in the air isn't making it any more appealing.

I do feel for Wright -- how icky to be talked about so much, and on blogs of all things! Wright may keep pleading that he's misunderstood, but it's hardly surprising when 'the debate' itself, at least as it appears on a blog like Denny Burk's, has shifted from 'what St Paul really said' to 'what Wright really said', and a million and one riffs on 'right and wrong'.

I'm interested in the way in which this has become such a popular-level debate -- it has left 'the academy', or, at least, the margin between scholarship and public has got pretty thin. That's not a bad thing, but it brings new difficulties to the fore -- the netizens want answers, and they want them right away! Rar! Rar!

Point of clarification, Luke: in your last paragraph, what do you mean by 'struck'? :)


Andrew Bowles said...

The difficulty here is that behind the facade of theological discussion this has degenerated into a tussle about who gets to use the word 'justification' to talk about the concepts that they are interested in. Piper et al want to use it to mean the soteriological process of imputation. Wright wants to use it to mean the incorporation in God's covenant people. There is a very clear article where Wright explains his use of the word, I can't remember the title.

So most of the criticism of him is just a fog, since people insist on talking as though he is saying that one is forensically declared righteous (what they mean by 'justification') by becoming part of the Church (what he means by 'justification'). For instance, you say 'Wright wrongly says that justification is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology.' But of course if justification means 'the process of how one is saved' of course it is about soteriology not ecclesiology, because soteriology is about 'how we get saved', but that doesn't advance understanding of why Wright might be mistaken, it just shows that the word is being used a particular way.

Andrew Bowles said...

p.s. I just read Schreiner's article, and I think it demonstrates my point. Essentially his only 'criticism' of Wright is a difference over the philosophical concept of 'the one and the many', whether it is more appropriate to say that one is justified individually and therefore part of the justified people or part of the justified people and therefore justified individually. I think in reality this is an 'argument about words', since the 'one and the many' of justification is reconciled in baptism, the individual being justified at the same time as becoming part of the justified church, and for the same reason, union with Christ.

The Borg said...

"a process that seems conceptually and systematically separate to justification."

Hey Lukatron, can you please expand on this? :)

arthurandtamie said...

Thanks for that, Bowlesy!


Luke said...


I think of the all the theological topics I've explored over the last four years, Justification was helped most be reading the blogs. In fact Doug Wilson's critique of Wright's response to Piper was better than reading Piper himself!

However I can see how Burk's blog posts can throw up some dust so to speak as we get into who said exactly what.

By struck I mean "insight" into the importance of sanctification, contra Wright in that particular quoted context.

Luke said...


I agree that a lot of the confusion exists in the process of communication and perhaps an event like this (the recent ETS meeting) along with all the attendant 'blog-fog-of-war' will help the communication land on target a little more as people think and talk about it all.

Regarding Schreiner, I think there are few more criticisms, perhaps your combing them in a way I don't follow. Paragraph two: the difference between soteriology with ecclesiology (as you've already alluded to). Paragraph three: Wright's Pelagian Straw-man. "The parallel between Paul and his Jewish opponents and Luther and his Catholic opponents may be more apt than Tom suggests." Paragraph four: Paul's work's not merely acting in Paul's writing as covenant markers. Paragraph seven: Arguing that Abraham is an example that can then be universalized.

Luke said...


"a process that seems conceptually and systematically separate to justification."

Although Romans 8:30 suggests a rough 'ordo-salutis' (order of events/doctrines) of salvation, I don't think it's an exhaustive statement. The constant call for Christians to be holy and obedient should be separated from how they are made right with God. I say conceptually, because when we assemble all doctrines of grace together (predestination, justification etc) it helps to think of them separately. I say systematically because all the biblical evidence when gathered up points to a separation of the two.

Andrew Bowles said...

In general Schreiner's criticisms emphasise the individual and subjective side of justification over the corporate and objective, which he feels that Wright has over-emphasised in his turn. Eg. Wright talks about boundary markers as part of the works of the law, so he talks about the personal theological/spiritual meaning which someone like Paul invested in those boundary markers. Piper did the same kind of thing in his book. He had a continual return to saying something like 'Yes, justification is corporate, but what does this mean for me, the individual? How do I become justified?'. Not that I think these issues don't need to be addressed, but I'm not satisfied by this kind of see-sawing back and forth rather than integrative thinking.

With regards to clarity, I think it's unlikely that this will be resolved, because most people involved realise that accepting the New Perspective brings you a lot closer to Catholicism. So Reformed pastors and theologians are not going to give it an inch.