Blomberg and Wright’s Straw Man

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has posted a favorable review of N. T. Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. In it he characterizes Christ’s active obedience as “his obedience to the law” and Christ’s passive obedience as his vicarious death on the cross.

Justin Taylor has pointed out that Blomberg’s definition is in fact incorrect and that Blomberg has reiterated a common caricature of the Reformed view. Taylor writes,

‘I did want to draw attention to one aspect of the review that represents an important but common misunderstanding regarding the doctrine of justification:

‘Dr. Blomberg glosses Jesus’ “active obedience” as his “sinless life” and Jesus’ “passive obedience” as his “atoning death.” But that’s not historically what the terms mean–though I will admit that some popular defenders of the Reformed view (though not Piper) sometimes make this mistake.

Taylor then goes on to define properly what the Protestant Tradition has really taught on this question, and I don’t have anything to add to Taylor’s correction of Blomberg. I encourage readers to read his full remarks.

I would, however, make one observation related to this whole discussion. It appears that Blomberg’s misunderstanding comes right out of Wright’s book. Wright makes the exact same mischaracterization of Christ’s passive and active obedience on page 231, where he writes

‘In line with some (though by no means all) of the Protestant Reformers and their successors, [Piper] insists . . . that the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ—his “active obedience” as opposed to the “passive obedience” of his death on the cross—is the ground of this security. Jesus has “fulfilled the law,” and thus amassed a treasury of law-based “righteousness,” which we sinners, having no “righteousness” of our own, no store of legal merit, no treasury of good works, can shelter within. I want to say, as clearly as I can, to Piper and those who have followed him: this is, theologically and exegetically, a blind alley.’

So Wright himself has wrongly defined Christ’s active and passive obedience in the Reformed tradition, and he then makes it a focus of his critique of Piper. If ever there were a case of building a straw man and then blowing it down, this is it.

This is one of many problems with Wright’s book (and Blomberg’s endorsement of it). And it is ironic that while Wright criticizes Piper repeatedly for not understanding Wright’s views, Wright fails to comprehend how much he misunderstands Piper’s.

16 Responses to Blomberg and Wright’s Straw Man

  1. mike May 18, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    i think this example is typical for both sides of the debate – the promiscuous dispersing of logical fallacies.

  2. Matthew Staton May 18, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    Does Wright source Piper on this, or does Wright just insist that “[Piper] insists” without a source? It seems to me that Justin’s defense is of Reformed theology but not of Piper; he quotes Berkhof and Murray but does not quote Piper.
    I do not have the book so I cannot check this myself.

  3. James Merrick May 18, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    But to talk about the “Reformed tradition” as if it is a monolithic unity on this issue is to make the exact same mistake being complained of here, caricature. Moreover, Wright and Blomberg should be forgiven, as one standard resource, edited by a number of leading “Reformed” theologians no less, makes this supposed mistake: “Reformed theologians have often distinguished between Christ’s active obedience (his life of filial obedience to the Father) and his passive obedience (his suffering of the Father’s judgment against covenant-breakers). (“Obedience of Christ,” in New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair Ferguson, David Wright with J. I. Packer, page 474).

    More seriously, this whole issue is a red herring in the debate. It matters not to Wright’s case that he has misunderstood the supposed uniform teaching of the Reformed tradition on active and passive obedience. It seems to me that this complaint can only serve to distract us from the real issues, and therefore should be recognized for what it is: an attempt to discredit Wright and Blomberg and make people feel uneasy about listening to them. This mistake, if it is one, really doesn’t change anything in terms of how Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians are to be read.

  4. James Merrick May 18, 2009 at 11:31 am #

    What’s even more ironic is that a bunch of *baptists* are making a big deal about a purported transgression of the Reformed tradition. It strikes me as a bit contrived, and, again, because this is a red herring, desperate.

  5. John Inman May 18, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Is the lack of distinction between active and passive that Justin Taylor points out, so obvious that you would have pointed it out had Justin not?

  6. John Holmberg May 18, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    “Red herring” is certainly the right word in this case, James. I have found the red herring fallacy very common from the reformed camp in regards to N.T. Wright and those who agree with him.

    How is this relevant to justification, Denny? Also, how do you expect to be so surprised about Wright and Blomberg when those inside your own camp don’t even seem to understand active vs. passive obedience? I see here a blown down straw-man about you calling Wright’s argument a straw-man, and that is ironic.

  7. Justin Taylor May 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    The definition found in NDT is hardly incompatible with what I have written and cited.

    Further, the quote from Murray was cited by Piper in Counted Righteous in Christ.


  8. James Merrick May 18, 2009 at 4:55 pm #

    JT, on what basis do you deny this? In the NDT passage, active obedience is connected w/ “life” while passive is connected w/ “suffering.” This is precisely what you argued against. Indeed, what of the Murray quotation: “…we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive obedience to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.” You’ll have to pardon me for protesting your protest.

  9. Andrew Cowan May 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm #


    As I read the statement at Justin Taylor’s blog, I did not get the impression that he was trying to discredit Wright or Blomberg, but rather, it seemed to me that he was taking the opportunity to explain a nuance of the doctrine of imputation that is often missed.

    I also think that Dr. Burk was not trying wholesale to discredit Wright and Blomberg with a red herring, but rather to attenuate the significance of their (justified) charge that Piper did not fully understand Wright. It doesn’t seem unfair to point out that the misunderstanding runs in both directions. Now, you might claim that the theological significance of this misunderstanding is much less than Piper’s, but this one does relate to some of the important exegetical issues (e.g., Rom 5:18-19).

    However (and this relates to no substantial point in the debate, I just found it laugh-out-loud funny when I realized it), I am yet to see anyone point out the greatest irony in Wright’s book: the geocentric/heliocentric metaphor. Wright compares the debate to arguing over whether the earth goes around the sun or vice-versa, and suggests that his God-centered view is equivalent to claiming that the earth goes around the sun because it is all about God and his purposes (the sun) rather than us (the earth). Now, leaving aside the massive lack of knowledge of the writings of John Piper that this displays (I doubt that Piper has ever been charged with not being God-centered enough before), outside of the metaphor, when one looks closely at what Wright means by “God-centered,” he actually means something quite literally geo-centric. The “purposes of God” that Wright thinks Piper is missing (which he is not, see the final chapter of his book Future Grace), are in fact God’s purposes for the earth itself. Although he paints his opponents as geo-centric in the metaphor, claiming that their view is reduced to “me and my relationship with God,” the thing that he adds to “me and my relationship with God” is “God’s purposes for the earth.” And he does this by using a metaphor that insists that the sun rather than the earth is the center of the universe. Now, I don’t think he’s wrong to assert the importance of the earth in the purposes of God (nor would Piper), in fact, I really like the trajectory of his work at this point. But using a metaphor that makes the sun rather than the earth the center of the universe in order to highlight the importance of the earth reaches a level of irony that really makes me laugh.

  10. James Merrick May 18, 2009 at 6:41 pm #

    Andrew, thanks for your kind correction. You are very temperate in these matters. I admit I put things starkly. But it seems to me that almost daily something negative about Wright echoes around this family of blogs. I’d be inclined to believe you that this was simply an innocent point, if it were not for the noticeable absence of positive things to say about Wright. Why not just one post about where he is really helpful or right? What about all the places where his work upholds and defends the cherished Reformed view? These major contributions can be overlooked for a very technical, petty nuance that he misses along with a host of others? I see this disproportionate emphasis on what’s wrong with Wright and I can’t help but be suspicious. Indeed, now it appears that even those who write “favorable review[s]” of his work are ripe for some negative press?

    I appreciate your charity here. And that was witty, insightful catch on the geo-centric/theocentric illustration. Happy to hear you push-back.

  11. Andrew Cowan May 18, 2009 at 7:57 pm #


    I feel sympathetic to your concerns. Wright often does receive more bad press than good press in the more or less Reformed family of blogs, and I too wish that there was more said about his contributions. Despite differences here and there, I am a huge fan of his work (my wife and I read the entirety of Jesus and the Victory of God together out loud), and I feel like the benefits of reading him outweigh the drawbacks significantly. If nothing else (and there is so much else), simply figuring out what he is saying on justification is a great exercise in learning to think within a different framework, whether you agree or not.

    On the other hand, a lot of the recent posts relate to the Piper/Wright debate, which is hot news these days, and I’m not surprised that this has been the emphasis in most posts of late. Most of Wright’s other recent publications have been at more of a popular level, and don’t really break new ground. It seems that the most interesting thing that he is involved in of late is this debate, and one cannot blame those who disagree with him for being largely negative in their posts on the topic (although one can blame them when they don’t present him fairly). And given that those who oppose him on justification generally consider it to be the center of soteriology, I can also understand why they consider it to be so important. For them, it is not a technical nuance that he is missing; it is the central biblical way of articulating the heart of the gospel. Even if you disagree with that assessment, I think that you can understand why it is so important from their perspective. Given the centrality of the issue, the default mode regarding Wright then becomes “warn off readers.” I don’t think that many of Wright’s critics have listened closely enough to see exactly what his proposal about justification actually does, but I think that their posture makes sense within their framework.

    Perhaps when he publishes his large volume on Paul and deals with much more than justification, we will see if there is balance in the assessments of his contributions or if the whole thing is dismissed due to his position on this point.

  12. James Merrick May 19, 2009 at 4:06 am #

    Andrew, once again you are very judicious here. To clarify one point, though, when I said these folks are being petty with making much of a technical nuance, I was speaking of the active/passive obedience issue, not the larger issue of justification. You’re certainly right that the later is at the heart of soteriology for these folks and thus their amplified concern is to be expected. That said, I too would want to say that justification is central. Obviously, I differ on the questions of (a) whether Wright is in fact parasitic to soteriology/justification; and (b) whether the contemporary evangelical Reformed view is the only way to get to a monergistic divine-human relationship.

    Andrew, given your insight and charity, I’m rather eager to have you do book reviews for a journal I edit. I’m wondering if you’re interested, and how we might be able to correspond. I contribute to a blog, . I wonder if you might leave a comment there, inputing your email address in the appropriate slot, and I’ll write to you?

  13. Andrew Cowan May 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm #


    Thanks for the invitation, and sorry about the misunderstanding. I think it is fairly obvious from our previous conversation that I share your two concerns, although I hold a view that is pretty close to the contemporary evangelical Reformed view (there is nothing they want affirmed that I deny, but at a few points I think they ought to say more).

    Nevertheless, as I read Justin Taylor’s post, I really think he was just trying to clarify a point about the standard Reformed position. I think it is helpful to note that by “active” and “passive” they intend to refer to two functions rather than two phases of Jesus’ obedience. I do think that in light of this meaning, the labels “active” and “passive” can easily be misleading, and it is understandable how Wright and Blomberg could miss it or misstate it. But, I don’t think it is unfair or petty to clarify the point (as Taylor did) or to point out that this is a misunderstanding (as Burk did) analogous to the type of misunderstandings that Piper has of the nuances in Wright’s work. I think each side wants their position to be represented fairly, with all of its nuances, and that is one of the reasons that I often comment on blog posts related to this debate. I often see misunderstandings on one side or the other, and that will not result in an edifying discussion. Thus, just as I was eager to point out what Wright had said in response to the Boyce College forum’s critiques, I feel that it is equally important to get the Reformed position on the table with all of its nuances so that we can really search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, with full knowledge of what “these things” are on both sides.

    Thanks again for your kind words. I look forward to our correspondence via email.

  14. James Merrick May 19, 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    Andrew, yes. Well said, a great and welcome recommendation. I sent you an email earlier today; I hope it went through.

  15. Michael Metts May 19, 2009 at 7:07 pm #

    Perhaps when [Dr. Wright] publishes his large volume on Paul…

    That’s going to be a thick one, I expect.

    Great dialogue Andrew and James.

  16. May 20, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    I just wanted to add a response to what I am reading alot in the blogs concerning this “Active/Passive obedience” in the form
    of a question. If Jesus’ unified obedience consists in two aspects of one obedience, shouldn’t there still be exegetical
    support for both aspects?

    It seems to me what is happening here is that Jesus’ obedience (as expounded by Paul in his letters) keeps emphasizing exclusivly Jesus’ propitiatory death (which is defined by the reformed tradition to be his the passive act of his unified obedience), and the reformed tradition wants to add in this “active” (as they define it) aspect as well.

    We shouldn’t just go to a whole bunch of texts which talk about Jesus’ obedience and claim two aspects to it, we must find justification within the text.

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