Tom Wright has written-in to clarify that he in fact did not intend his ETS plenary address to signal a change in his position on justification. He writes, “I haven’t retracted anything that I meant in my many, many earlier statements on this subject.” His step back from “on the basis of” language was only a change in terminology, not a change in substance. In short, he says that his current views on the matter are what they have always been.
1. Has Wright changed his position?
As I noted above, Wright says that he has not changed his view on justification. I think this is a matter that is still worthy of some discussion. I concede that in his own reckoning he has not changed his view, but I still think that what he said on Friday is very difficult to reconcile with some of his earlier published work.
On Friday, Wright said that he could not recall ever having affirmed future justification “on the basis of works” but that even if he had he might want to nuance that language a bit. Wright clarified his view that future justification will be “in accordance with” works, not “on the basis of” works. He also said that future justification in no way compromises justification by faith in the present time (as is taught in Romans 3). Justification by faith in the present is forensic, sure, firm, and unchangeable.
When Wright put these remarks forth at ETS, I thought it sounded very different from the many books and articles that I have read by him in the past. For instance in Wright’s essay “New Perspectives on Paul” (Baker, 2006), Wright distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from human works and argues that final justification would be “on the basis of” Spirit-wrought, human works.
“[Paul] looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favorable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, or because he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work… I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a swift rebuke of ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.’ The fact that Paul does not feel obliged at every point to say this shows that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done… He is clear that the things he does in the present by moral and physical effort will count to his credit on the last day…” (p. 254)
In the same essay, Wright goes on to say that future justification “occurs on the basis of ‘works’” (p. 260). This is just one essay, but Wright has made similar “on the basis of” remarks elsewhere (see previous post for examples). So when I heard his address on Friday, it certainly sounded like a change to me.
I am not the only one who interpreted Wright’s address in this manner. In Tom Schreiner’s response to Wright, he also detected a change in Wright’s view. I’ll quote directly from Schreiner’s remarks:
“I am delighted that Tom [Wright] now speaks of the final judgment as one that will be in accordance with our works instead of on the basis of our works. I think this adjustment and clarification is exactly right and does not contradict the idea that our righteousness is in Christ… I am in full agreement with his formulation: we are judged according to our works, but not on the basis of our works” (underline mine).
Schreiner noted an “adjustment,” and there was no correction from Wright on this point. Since nothing else was said on the matter, it is not surprising that many people in the room agreed with Schreiner’s interpretation that Wright had changed his view (e.g., Ardel Caneday, Marc Cortez, Mike Wittmer, et al.). I was among them, and that is why I made a note of it in my previous post.
I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether Wright’s earlier published work can be reconciled with the view that he expressed on Friday. I confess that I have difficulty seeing how it can be done. In any case, the clarification that Wright made on Friday was a good one. Future justification is “in accordance with works” and not “on the basis of works.” This language is welcome, and with Schreiner “I am in full agreement with his formulation” on this point.
2. Why not highlight the agreement on the return-from-exile theme in Paul?
Wright also mentioned that it was a pity that I neglected to mention some other key moments in the debate. Wright thought the agreement over the return-from-exile theme was something that I might have highlighted over and against the bit about future justification.
I highlighted the discussion of “on the basis of/in accordance with” because I read that to be one of John Piper’s chief critiques of Wright’s work on justification. After reading Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, I never found where he clearly answered that particular critique from Piper. So from the outset of Wright’s address on Friday, I was listening for him to address that point in particular.
It is notable that Tom Schreiner agrees with Wright on the return-from-exile” theme, as does our colleague Jim Hamilton who just published a biblical theology that explicitly agrees with it as well (see God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology). So this aspect of agreement was no news to me, and that is why I didn’t think to mention it. I guess our perspective shapes what we see to be important.
3. What about the charge that Wright’s opponents are Neo-Catholics?
Wright also highlighted Tom Schreiner’s apparent agreement with him “that some of the push-back I have received, appealing to tradition rather than scripture, is basically neo-catholic in its method.” This part of Wright’s address was really clever rhetorically. Wright is sometimes accused of having a Roman Catholic view of justification, and he turns that criticism right back on his critics. He argues that his critics’ dogged adherence to tradition over scripture is a tacit denial of sola scriptura and makes them Roman Catholic in their theological method.
Of course Schreiner affirms the principle of sola scriptura over and against all human tradition, and so do I. I also think, however, that Wright needs to be careful with his charge of neo-catholicism. Yes, there are Old Perspectivites who make appeals to reformed tradition and who do not engage this debate sufficiently at the level of biblical exegesis. We can all be grateful for correctives against this sort of error. Nevertheless, I think Wright sometimes paints all of his critics with this broad brush. Schreiner and Thielman engaged the issue at the level of exegesis and could not fairly be charged with the neo-catholic error. I think Piper engaged the matter at the level of exegesis as well in his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. I suspect Wright would agree with me about Schreiner and Thielman, but I’m not so sure that he would agree with me about Piper.
Many thanks to Wright for being with us at ETS this year. Evangelicals have been greatly blessed by him on many points, and it was an honor to have him on the platform. Many thanks also for his follow-up in the comments on this blog. The interaction has been a privilege.