I have been in Atlanta this week attending a series of professional meetings for theologians and Bible scholars. The first meeting was the annual gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). This year, the theme of ETS was “justification,” and our special guest in one of the plenary sessions was N.T. Wright.
Tom Schreiner gave an excellent critique of Wright’s views on justification and actually teased out of him a rather remarkable concession. In fact, I would say that this concession was the most significant thing that happened this week at ETS on the topic of justification.
Schreiner critiqued Wright’s published view that justification occurs “on the basis of the whole life lived.” In N.T. Wright’s response, Wright said that he couldn’t remember ever having said such a thing. Wright’s forgetfulness on this point was rather astonishing to me, because the heart of John Piper’s critique of Wright was on precisely this point—a point that Wright never answered in the entire book that he wrote in response to Piper. Here are some direct quotes from Wright’s writings to illustrate the point:
“Paul has . . . spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people on the basis of their whole life.” –Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 121
“Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14–16 and 8:9–11) on the basis of the entire life.” –What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129
“This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense.” -“New Perspectives on Paul,” 260
Nevertheless, Wright conceded in his exchange with Schreiner that if he did use the phrase “on the basis of” that he would want to “nuance” it to mean “in accordance with” works. Don’t miss that. Wright believes that justification is in accordance with works, not on the basis of them. This is huge in my view, and I don’t want anyone to miss the significance of this statement. This brings him much closer to the traditional Protestant position (and the biblical one too!), and that is no small matter considering how the debate has unfolded thus far.
Schreiner and Wright’s papers will eventually be published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and you will be able to read them there. In the meantime, you can order an audio recording from ETS if you want to hear the interaction between Wright and Schreiner on this point.