Schreiner, Seifrid, and Vickers Assess Piper-Wright Debate at Boyce College

Yesterday, Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid, Brian Vickers, and I had a conversation with the students of Boyce College about Paul’s doctrine of justification. In particular, we discussed Tom Wright’s new book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, which is largely a response to John Piper’s 2007 book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. You can download the audio of this discussion at the Boyce College blog, or you can listen to it by pressing the play button below.


In the main, the panel members agree that Wright’s book doesn’t advance the discussion beyond where it was before. The central concern of John Piper’s book is his charge that N. T. Wright interprets Paul to teach final justification on the basis works. Here’s what Tom Schreiner said about Wright’s response to Piper on this point:

“Wright does not answer the question and in that sense I think the book represents no progress at all over what he had written previously. . . It’s simply a restatement, and the most fundamental question that Piper poses . . . he doesn’t answer that question.”

In the book, Wright simply reasserts what he has written elsewhere and argues that initial justification is by faith and that final justification happens on the basis of Spirit-inspired works. In this sense, Wright appears more Augustinian than Protestant. Seifrid described it this way:

“Wright doesn’t mean to be Catholic. I don’t think he knows that he’s becoming an Anglo-Catholic, but that in effect is what he is doing. I suspect (I could be wrong) that the poor man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. . . He’s very good on the historical Jesus, but here he is absolutely horrid. . . so there’s something to be appreciated but not in this book.”

The panel also agreed that the tone of Wright’s book was patronizing towards his opponents. I think this is a fair critique of Wright’s book, but readers will have to judge this for themselves.

As you can see, the response from the panel was generally critical of Wright’s exegesis of Paul and of his mode of engagement with opponents. For more on this conversation, I encourage you to listen to the whole thing at the Boyce College blog.

83 Responses to Schreiner, Seifrid, and Vickers Assess Piper-Wright Debate at Boyce College

  1. Russ Ware April 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    Wright doesn’t mean to be Catholic. I don’t think he knows that he’s becoming an Anglo-Catholic, but that in effect is what he is doing. I suspect (I could be wrong) that the poor man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. . . ”

    This is an absurd statement. Of course Wright is aware of the historical connections between the ‘new perspective’ and the more historic/Catholic understanding of the relationship of works and faith. Are you kidding me?

    “Wright appears more Augustinian than Protestant.”

    May his tribe increase. 🙂

  2. John Holmberg April 16, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    Schreiner and Vickers articulated their positions well and handled the discussion like scholars with gracious interaction.

    Seifrid sounded like a sour man who just got his high school girlfriend stolen by the quarterback. Saying things like “Biblically speaking,” calling Wright a “poor man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” calling his book “absolutely horrid,” and calling his tone “snide,” when he himself adopts the same tone, is not helpful and does not advance the discussion.

  3. Ryan Kearns April 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Hey Russ,

    Think your language may be a little to strong and not supportable. What knowledge do you possess of what Wright does and does not know? How is it an “absurd” statement to claim that Wright is unaware of something when his writings seem to indicate that he is not clear of the difference?

    Just think you might want to back off calling something “absurd” unless you have personally confirmed that Wright is aware his views skew toward an Anglo-Catholic perspective.

  4. dan April 16, 2009 at 2:57 pm #


    thanks for posting this. I am not surprised that Wright didn’t directly answer Piper’s concerns about “future jusification” bc it seems that Wright is always reminding everyone about “the story of Israel” in everything he writes, which will some how answer all our questions.

    Towards the end of the audio, Schreiner mentions how he is in complete disagreement with Wright’s view of Israel being the solution for the world. Do you know in particular what Schreiner’s views are?

  5. Jeff miller April 16, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Thanks Denny,
    I prayed along with you at the beginning and end of this session.

  6. Bryan April 16, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    Too bad you didn’t get any pro-Wright people on the panel. This is kinda like a fox news version of a debate?

  7. Russ Ware April 16, 2009 at 3:35 pm #


    Thanks for the edit.


    What knowledge do you possess of what Wright does and does not know?

    Reading and listening to Wright for the last several years obviously doesn’t give me comprehensive knowledge of what Wright does or does not know, but it certainly gives me adequate grounds to find Seifrid’s statement absurd. Seifrid is making a claim on what Wright doesn’t know based on the same material I presume… and that is what I find absurd, and really rather bizarre.

    his writings seem to indicate that he is not clear of the difference?

    I’m not sure what you are talking about here… what is the ‘difference’ he is not clear of, indicated by his writings?


  8. Chris Poe April 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Dr. Burk,

    Thank you for posting this and for moderating this forum. Honestly it thrills my soul to hear this forum and the clear defense of justification by faith alone.

    Final justification on the basis of works does clearly lead in a Romish direction. And Wright’s ecumenism toward Rome is well documented.

  9. Chris Poe April 16, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    I’m glad there weren’t any pro-Wright people on the forum.

    IMO That would be symptomatic of a return to the pre-Mohler days at Southern.

  10. Mike Templin April 16, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    Yeah lets get four guys, that don’t agree with Wright…what a balanced approach and Wright absolutely knows he is Anglo-Catholic, read his articles! I Love Schreiner but this is unbalanced.

  11. Bill Smith April 16, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    Well if everyone agrees that the panel got Wright’s views right then why the concern about a pro-Wright representative? I think everyone agrees that Wright does not hold to the Reformed view of justification and that his view is closer to the RC view than to the Reformed Protestant view.

  12. Denny Burk April 16, 2009 at 6:59 pm #

    Some of you have asked why there wasn’t a “Wright representative” on the panel. The answer is really very simple. This event was one of many that you will find on the campus of Southern Seminary that features faculty members addressing a given topic. For instance, last semester Southern had a faculty panel discuss the topic of “Christology in the Old Testament,”

    It’s not that there aren’t other views out there besides those of our faculty, it’s just that we see value in having our faculty address our students on important topics. From time to time we do have outside speakers come to campus that might represent other perspectives, but this wasn’t one of those times.

    Anyway, that’s all there was to it. It was just a faculty panel.


  13. Lucas Knisely April 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    Dr. Burk,

    It was the first time I got to see you speak publicly. I enjoyed the forum and what everyone had to say. I’m glad you’re our dean!

  14. Ryan Kearns April 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Sorry for the convoluted comment Russ, my last comment was written in haste.

    My point was that it simply seemed to strong to call the statement absurd since there seems to be evidence in Wright’s writings that he might be confused of the links between Dunn’s new perspective and historical Catholic teaching. I am not saying he is, but he could be…

  15. Russ Ware April 16, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    Thanks Ryan. That makes sense.

    But, I don’t think Wright’s writing on this issue gives any basis for Seifrid’s statement. But I will revise my comment a little nonetheless. Having now listened to the actual audio, I get the impression that Seifrid is simply being snide and really doesn’t mean it anyway.

  16. Matthew Staton April 16, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

    To this friendly discussion, I would like to add the useless comment that there is something unfortunate about that big giant “ASSESS” at the top of the page, headlining a picture of scholars, no less, LOL.

    (it’s the coffee talking, I swear. sorry about that.)

  17. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 12:03 am #

    I will reiterate that I am glad that the undergraduates of Boyce College have been exposed to theological discussions. I don’t know if the chapels are mandatory, but it is good that a certain number of the chapel gatherings remind these freshly-scrubbed young-uns about the worship of Christ through the exercise of the mind.

    Having said that I must say that I am disappointed by this particular forum. It was exactly as I expressed my concerns earlier. It was frontloaded against Wright, and thus the likely first exposure that some of these young kids had to Wright is that he is “horrid.” I found it richly ironic that someone on the panel commented that Wright is “snide” in tone against other interpreters while Seifrid recited a rather snide condescending limerick. Also, someone commented that Wright accused his opponents of being “modern” and “Western” and used the “geo-centric” metaphor before he developed his biblical argumentation, and yet all during this forum to a likely uninformed student body who had never read Wright, those present were pre-conditioned to be against Wright from the opening comments of the forum. Wright was pronounced wrong, wrong, wrong with summations of his position with very little (as far as I could detect) actual citation or reading from his works. The panel members summarized Wright, but I have to wonder whether their summarizations are fair and accurate. Maybe they are, but the tone I got from the forum makes me suspicious. I guess now I will HAVE to read the actual book.

    I found it incredibly disappointing that a book was reviewed and evaluated and declared wrong before an academic college of undergraduates before the students could even gain a copy of the work. (It becomes available in June!) The students have now been set up to be against it. The dogma has been declared that Wright is wrong. Why couldn’t these New Testament scholars have presented instead a forum on the biblical material on justification expressing the reasoning for their conclusions? The Bible is currently available for analysis before, after and during the forum discussion. One of the panelists wisely commented that the biblical material is where one should start.

    This is the kind of forum that I got when I attended a liberal Baptist college in my undergraduate days. I was never exposed to opposing positions being fairly presented (in that case a conservative scholarship). No, I was condescendingly taught a liberal approach with no citation or exposure to even the possible existence that there might be such a thing as conservative scholarship. Some of my peers bought the liberal line hook, line and sinker. Being a bit ornery, I held out that surely there were some conservative academics who would offer opposing research. In seminary, I finally discovered the high qualities of conservative scholarship. But my exposure to the liberal mindset was helpful in this way. It forced me to work out discernment based on the details of research. I was forced back to the text. I became suspicious of professorial pronouncements. I had hoped that college would be a place where I could learn a rigorous method of research demonstrated by the actual pedagogical method of the teachers. But instead I got the dogmatic pronouncements of the faculty, the condescending dismissal of the opposition, and that was that. While this forum was not as bad as what I experienced under that liberalism, I am disappointed that this forum did not foster an objective investigation into the issues; instead it dictated Wright as being wrong in summary pronouncements. I hope this is not the regular technique in the classrooms of Boyce College and Southern Seminary. I would hope instead that the students are brought to the primary source of Scripture, taught rigorous methods of analysis and then allowed to objectively evaluate whoever pronounces anything whether it be Piper or Wright. I was not convinced by this forum that these panelists modeled a discerning method for evaluating anyone. This is my opinion as I have just finished listening to the forum.

    At the very least, thank you for letting us be exposed to some current discussions.

  18. Matthew Staton April 17, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    David Rogers,

    There is something about how you write that communicates more than facts; it communicates experience. Your experience resonates with me.

    I am amazed by how much I react to group-think, at least, when I notice it, but surely I do it too, unawares. I grew up in a conservative group-think environment.

    On the one hand, I assumed that if all the poor ignorant people out there would just listen to us for once, they would be won over by our fine thinking. On the other hand, I always suspected that there might be counter-arguments and opinions. It is my opinion that if you want people to truly internalize and be persuaded by the strength of the truth in your argument, you have to risk being fair to other arguments.

    Not trying to be overly critical – I didn’t watch the video and I understand what Denny is saying about the forum, that it is a forum for the profs to interact with the students. Some profs would be too high-and-mighty for such things. I imagine that each of these men have full schedules and obligations on top of that. They are to be commended for their willingness to share yet another part of their energy and time.

    Nevertheless, to an outsider, four people who are all against a book discussing it – this does not appear to be objective and fair discussion.

  19. jeff miller April 17, 2009 at 3:04 am #

    David Rogers gets an amen!

  20. jeff miller April 17, 2009 at 3:15 am #

    Biblical exegesis should not be predetermined by what is “safest” for the Roman Catholic position or for the Reformed catholic position. If they were both off center it would not do to let those positions dictate our reading of the text. The most helpful observation from the panel was that an interest in the biblical terminology over later theological terminology may be helpful.

  21. GLW Johnson April 17, 2009 at 6:39 am #

    Both Paul helm and J.I. Packer have labelled Wright’s rehashed Baxterism. Baxter’s contemporary,John Owen wrote a stinking rebuttal that still carries force when compared to the views of Bishop Wright.

  22. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 8:19 am #

    “The most helpful observation from the panel was that an interest in the biblical terminology over later theological terminology may be helpful.”

    …a suggestion which was made by the “snide” one. 🙂


    I resonate with your concern that we present both sides of the discussion fairly and thoroughly but I think we also need to consider context here. The panel was responding to a particular book and had less than an hour to discuss it among themselves. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the panel for laying out their differences with Wright from the start. In this setting, where there is general agreement on the nature of justification and where time is limited, isn’t it best to get to the heart of the disagreement?

    As for prematurely influencing students to be anti-Wright…I think that the classroom decorum of all 3 members of the panel (and the moderator for that matter 🙂 ) demonstrates that if scholarship is to be Christian scholarship then it must be charitable. In the context that counts the most at Southern and Boyce – namely the classroom – all 3 lay out opposing positions fairly and equitably and then disagree charitably. My intent here is not to defend all things Southern Seminary. But at this one point, to assume on the panel’s scholarship as some (not you) have done in this thread is at best unfair. They are no slouches and have done there homework.



  23. GLW Johnson April 17, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    opps, that should read “Stinging rebuttal”

  24. Bryan April 17, 2009 at 9:15 am #


    That makes sense, but you should call it a faculty panel and not a debate.


  25. Matt Privett April 17, 2009 at 9:43 am #

    Boyce College didn’t call it a debate. It was advertised as a panel discussion that assessed the debate currently going on between Wright and Piper on justification.

  26. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 10:14 am #

    If the forum had been made to doctoral students or had occurred in a faculty lounge, I would have had absolutely no concerns. The “doc” boys and girls (and I’ve been one) would have enough biblical and theological context to properly process the discussion. They would be able to listen and analyze the points made or at least have the cognitive experience to know where to proceed. I don’t even necessarily have a problem with it being an “unbalanced” panel against Wright. (I do appreciate them taking the time to work on this.) My problem is that it was presented to an undergraduate chapel of unprepared students, that is, students who had no known academic preparation to understand the basic doctrine being discussed (justification), no known preparation to understand the specific contemporary debate (Wright vs. Piper) and no known ability to go further evaluate the comments (the book under discussion being currently unavailable).
    This forum was a pedagogical moment, and there was virtually no introduction to the topic that would have been instructional for an undergraduate audience. The forum just launched into the discussion. This was my problem. This first exposure to the topic was a shocking full immersion into the Wright discussion with no preparation for the undergraduates.

    In my opinion, this is unthoughtful pedagogy. This forum could have been scheduled after the book’s release. This forum could have been focused on an examination of the biblical material on justification, and the professors would have been more than able to do such as that.

    GLW Johnson has given us an illustration of being involved in a discussion that assumes that the audience knows the topic being discussed. He spoke of Wright’s interpretation as being “rehashed Baxterism” (referencing Helm and Packer). This label of “Baxterism” carries a certain denotation and connotation that he assumes makes a substantive argumentative point. (The reference to John Owen also does so.) These references only carry persuasive weight if the reader actually is aware of to what and to whom they refer. Otherwise, they are merely academo-babble.

    I believe it is wise for those in academic ministry to become aware of not only the content they present but also the form in which it is presented and also to whom it is presented and also the timing in which it is presented. Specifically I refer to preparatory timing by which I mean the timing of presenting academic topics to students in such a way that they are best prepared to receive them and process them. I would not play the audio of the forum to my upcoming VBS this summer because they would not be prepared for it. I am suspicious that those present at this chapel may not have been prepared for it either. But maybe I’ve assumed too much. Maybe those at this chapel forum were all totally versed in Wright and academic discussions of justification. I would appreciate being told such, and then I would retract.

  27. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    Oh, let me add I would have less of a problem if the forum had been presented to masters level seminary students. It is the undergrad presentation that concerns me. Now if these undergrads had received preparatory instruction in their classrooms, then my concerns would be lessened.

  28. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    One more add. I am not saying that undergrads are stupid (although sadly all too many have become undiscerning, thinking Wikipedia is an authoritative resource for citation . . . , but I digress). I am saying that they may be able and even should be able to process material if those in pedagogical charge present the material in such a way that does not frontload and bias the analysis before the primary resources (i.e. the Bible) or the secondary resources (i.e. Wright’s interpretations) are examined.

    I face a similar challenge because I am currently teaching a Seminary Extension course on Systematic Theology to pastors and a youth worker who have no academic theological training. I am definitely not a Calvinist but I am dedicated to accurately presenting the Calvinist ideas in their actuality and thus will probably be a Calvinist advocate when presenting the material since the ones I am instructing may have a certain level of misunderstanding Calvinism, e.g. thinking that Calvinism necessarily leads to non-evangelism. That is not a legitimate criticism of Calvinism in its ideological form, and thus I must teach against that myth. Calvinism has plenty of legitimate stuff that I can criticize. I only need to accurately present it. 😉

  29. Matthew Staton April 17, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    David #30,

    IOW, it is important to you to be able to present a viewpoint, say Calvinism, such that a reasonable Calvinistic prof (for this example) would be able to nod his head in agreement and say “Yes, that is essentially what I believe” — am I reading you correctly?

  30. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 11:45 am #


    I am sympathetic to and agree with much of what you’re saying. I laughed pretty hard at the Wikipedia comment. I grade for undergraduate classes so I know where you’re coming from.

    As for the preparation level of those in attendance, I know that some of the Boyce students had been studying Wright on the NPP and thus would be prepared for a fair amount of the discussion. I saw many master’s level students heading towards the discussion as well. I don’t have any idea about the breakdown of the audience but it wasn’t an exclusively Boyce event. Also, I don’t think it was required of all Boyce students, though I’m not sure about that. From my perspective there was enough reason to assume some knowledge of the debate in order to move onto a discussion of apparent problems with Wright/NPP. I agree there could have/should have been more explicit discussion about Wright’s position right up front in order to frame the discussion, but there was enough through out the discussion so that no one cannot say he (Wright) has been misrepresented.

    Also, to be fair to the panel, they did conclude (in response to a question about how one preaches justification) that you have to preach each text on its own merits, that you shouldn’t preach justification from a text in such a way so as to flatten out the text. In other words, our biases should be acknowledged (to the degree that is possible) and if need be changed in light of Scripture and secondarily, better arguments. That is a good word for all of us, regardless of which side of the discussion we gravitate to.

    Anywho. Just my 2 cents,



  31. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    As an add… 🙂

    What I mean by enough discussion of Wright’s position throughout are the several references to his understanding of final justification as well as one comment (that I remember, there may have been more) regarding his view of Israel and how much that plays into his interpretation of the NT documents in general. Were they fleshed out in great detail. No. Were they explained enough to give some valid concerns/criticism. I think so. Given time constraints, in my opinion this was enough foundation to move into a discussion of concerncs over his positions.



  32. James Merrick April 17, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    A couple of thoughts on this panel discussion:

    (1) I found it frustrating that the panelists continued to refer to Wright’s position as ‘justification by works’ even after Seifrid (reluctantly) admitted it was more ‘justification by the works of the Spirit’. This sloppiness can only perpetuate the misunderstanding that Wright thinks we earn our justification (which he does not, as Seifrid later acknowledges).

    (2) It seems to me that, thankfully, this debate is becoming more and more minor in scope, though, unthankfully, those disagreeing with Wright still seem to want to exaggerate the proportions, making Wright out to be this dangerous figure. By this I mean that the points of contention are becoming so fine as to be almost meaningless. So many times I found the panelists saying something to the effect of: ‘Well, Wright’s right about all these important, essential things, but he just doesn’t get this little detail right’. I found myself saying: Really, that’s what were all worked up about, that little point?

    (3) Seifrid’s comment, quoted above, that Wright is becoming an Anglo-Catholic (actually, Seifrid shows his ignorance of Anglicanism because what he really wants is just ‘Catholic’ here) unawares is fun polemically, but actually irresponsible, not just in terms of Wright and Anglicanism, but in terms of the Reformation itself. For the Reformation was/is about far more than justification – Wright could still be a Protestant even if he held a ‘Catholic’ doctrine of justification (which he actually does not as even Piper admits in his book) by denying papal authority, the magisterium, and so on and so forth. Seifrid seems a bit too eager throughout this conversation, and I for one think it discredits him as an authority on this issue.

    (4) I do find it odd, and I think it shows how cultural knowledge is, that people think the tone of Wright’s book was harsher than Piper’s. Lest we forget, Piper repeatedly accused Wright of novelty and constantly put Wright at odds with historic Christianity. There were some pretty stern moments in Piper’s book, even more stern than the heliocentrism illustration. I suppose, though, we only pick up on the tone when we feel implicated in the critique…

  33. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 1:37 pm #

    Did Denny Burk and the professors know the Piper-Wright-justification debate knowledge level of the audience? If not, or if only a minority of students knew it, then time should have been taken to frame the discussion. I understand the point about not enough time but Denny and the professors were in complete control of what they presented. They are teachers and they are charged with teaching undergraduates. This was not a special panel to a class that had been studying this, it appears to be a chapel program for all the undergrads regardless of their year of study or the classes they had previous to this chapel. I’m asking why this allegedly general audience was not spoken to as an allegedly generally uninformed audience. This was not a panel at the SBL or ETS. Did some higher authority dictate that this subject had to be presented in this forum at this time to these students? If not, then I am concerned why this kind of presentation was made without, in my opinion, a proper framing for the discussion.

    Wright may have been accurately represented but his representation was embedded and scattered in the comments of the panel members. There was no assured guarantee for the students there that Wright’s position could be fully understood by the students before his position was critiqued.

  34. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

    Good thoughts James.

    1. The panel’s critique was the apparent synergistic (sp?) nature of Wright’s understanding of justification (i.e., justified by faith through grace initially; by works of the Spirit finally). I don’t think it’s sloppy as much as it is using terms synonymously. Although, you are right in one sense because of the baggage the phrase “justification by works” carries.

    2. If Wright’s opponents are correct, namely that his view tends towards synergism, then the “big deal” becomes very clear.

    3. The Reformation might have been about more than the nature of justification but it wasn’t about less than the nature of justification. It seems to me that the fundamental concerns of the Reformation came to their clearest expression in the debates over justification.

    4. I’ve not read Piper’s or Wright’s book though I’ve read enough of their other works to be familiar with their thinking on the topics. Thus, I will refrain from comment on the tone of either book.

    Thanks James,


  35. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 1:52 pm #


    Well said. I don’t disagree with your concerns. I just don’t think the expectations should be as high for this context. It was not a debate. It was open to the entire campus. It was not required of all students. It didn’t appear to be a chapel service though it met during the time Boyce typically has chapel. It was voluntary which means more than likely only those who were interested in or knew something of the debate would attend. I’m not saying your concerns aren’t valid, only that I don’t know if they are realistic when applied to this setting. To a debate, certainly but to this particular 45 minute discussion + Q & A, I think it’s asking too much.



  36. David Rogers April 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm #


    I’m glad it wasn’t required. A captive audience to a frontloaded critique concerns me. I do hope that all teachers (myself included as both pastor and Seminary Extension instructor) will keep at the front of their minds the important awareness that teaching is not only about delivering one’s own interests and absolute conclusions, it is also about teaching learners how to learn, how to process material, how to evaluate and analyze especially those with whom one would disagree always being aware that some may hear what is being said for the first time and will thus carry the things taught for quite a long while and possibly convey what has been taught to others in a copied or distorted form.




    Matthew #32, yes that is my intent.

  37. James Merrick April 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm #


    Thanks for your gracious reply. If I may:

    (2) Well, first, synergism is probably unhelpful, especially given the Arminian/Wesleyan contingent of evanglicalism who, saying similar things, would not like being called synergists any more than semi-pelagians. Secondly, it didn’t seem to me, and I had this same feeling after reading Piper’s book too, that there was a definitive case that Wright is consistently teaching any sort of works based justification. The whole point of ‘works’ as contrasted with ‘faith’ is to talk about human activity and merit. Wright isn’t saying human work is meritorious on its own, he’s saying that it is the Spirit’s work in us. Of course, he’s linking that to justification in a way that Protestants haven’t done (and neither have Catholics!), but it’s still not just our work.

    As to (3), I think you’re missing the point a little. Seifrid seemed to say that Wright is too ignorant to realise that he’s actually now a Catholic because of his doctrine of justification. My reply is that that’s an exaggeration meant to scare off potential sympathisers because Wright obviously doesn’t hold to other things that would make one a Catholic. In the same way, I know a number of Catholics who are effectively monergist and christocentric when it comes to justification and yet that doesn’t make them effectively Protestant. They still hold to mariology, transubstantiation, papal authority, the magisterium, and so on. It’s just a rhetorical ploy, and I think it does injustice to the Reformation just as much as it does to Wright.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Feel free to push back.

  38. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    Thanks David. Good word for us all. Have fun with the Calvinism discussion. 🙂


  39. Josh Husmann April 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    I’m very surprised by this. Why are we ostricizing a man that actually has quite conservative views within the circle of scholars with which he deals. I mean Wright actually believes Paul wrote all the Epistles. I think he should be praised for that.

    On the issue of justification I haven’t read this book by Wright and will need to. I have read others and have sat in a classroom for a D. Min. course with him for a week straight where I pushed him on some of these issues (particularly subsitutionary atonement) and I can assure there is no sense of works righteousness in Wright’s theology. What a terrible panel to have no dissenters. Fox News at least has one liberal.

    I’m not saying I will agree with Wright’s views after reading this book; however, I do think the “absurd” thing to do would be to make a brilliant man who loves Jesus and recites the entire Bible in Its original language all while holding mostly conservative views as some crazy liberal simple because we disagree, or perhaps misunderstand, this one area of his theology.

  40. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    Thanks James,

    As for your first point, I think you’re right about synergism vs. justification by works – both have baggage – I’m not sure of a better term though.

    At the end of the day, if my works (Spirit wrought or not) are necessary in order for God’s final verdict to be true then I’m not sure how one can escape the charge of synergism, justification by works, etc. This conversation certainly hinges on whether or not Wright actually argues for final justification by faith + Spirit wrought works. But, best case scenario he is being unclear and not answering critiques that have been articulated. I think this was Schreiner’s point of critique.

    I thought Seifrid’s point about justification being an effectual declaration was helpful. It makes works necessary in the same way that the sun necessarily shines but not meritorious.

    In the end what makes a man, woman, boy, or girl right before God? God’s gift of righeousness in Christ or God’s gift plus ____? I may be wrong, but this seems to be the concern of the panel as well as of Piper.



  41. Denny Burk April 17, 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    Josh (#42),

    While Wright does hold to Pauline authorship of the Hauptbriefe, Ephesians, and Colossians, I don’t think that he believes that Paul wrote the Pastorals.


  42. Andrew Cowan April 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Dr. Burk,

    Thanks so much for hosting this forum and posting it here. I enjoyed listening to it, and there is a good bit of helpful analysis in the midst of it. I do think, however, that the excerpts you posted above were some of the less helpful parts.

    I hesitate to write this because I deeply respect and personally really like both Tom Schreiner and John Piper, but they seem to be missing how Wright’s definitions of righteousness and justification are a response to Piper’s central question regarding future justification and works. Piper asked how Wright is not ultimately arguing for some type of salvation by works since he claims that future justification is based on works and that present justification is an anticipation of that future verdict.

    Wright has two different ways that he responds to this charge; one of them is helpful and the other just brings in more confusion.

    The one that brings in more confusion is his claim that they are Spirit-wrought works (as in the quote you read from the book). Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with saying this, but it does not get him out of trouble with Piper/Schreiner and co. at all because it still leaves the believer’s works in a crucial position with respect to being right with God.

    However, his other response to this charge is to explain that he understands terms like righteousness and justification to have essentially covenantal rather than directly soteriological meanings in Paul. As he explains many times in both his old works and the new, Wright thinks that the trial to which justification (and the consequent verdict “righteousness”) is the answer is the trial asking the question “Who are the covenant people of God?” Or, in more individualistic terms, “Are you a member of God’s covenant people?” Given this rendering of the question that justification is answering, to say that final justification is based on works is to say that works are the means by which one proves that one is a true member of the covenant. What this amounts to is that works, for Wright, are the evidence that one is truly a believer (which, ironically, is exactly what Piper wants to say about the function of works in the final judgment). Works are not, for Wright, in any way the basis for God granting salvation. They are the result of God granting salvation (see This is the point where his insistence on the distinction between salvation and justification becomes crucial. Because the trial is asking the question, “Are you a member of God’s covenant people?,” the “basis” of the verdict is still not the “basis” of one’s salvation. The “basis” of the verdict is simply the evidence that one presents in order to demonstrate the membership in God’s covenant that one already possesses. That is also why Wright likes to talk about justification in terms of “badges of covenant membership.” Badges don’t make you something, they serve as a sign of what you are. (A side-effect of this is that Wright also locates the function of faith differently with respect to justification than others do, but I’m afraid that I’m going on for too long already.)

    For this same reason, Seifrid’s comment that Wright is an accidental Catholic is deeply mistaken. That would only be the case if Wright understood justification to be a constitutive soteriological event, which he does not. (Both those excited and those upset about Wright holding a Catholic view can relax.)

    I find this all disappointing because these same misunderstandings of Wright have been repeated over and over, and ultimately hamper legitimate debate with his position. I do think that there are problems in the way that he formulates things, but I don’t think that we will get very far in discussion with him or devotees of his work until we can articulate his position in a way that demonstrates sympathetic understanding.

    That being said, there were some really good points in the midst of the discussion especially by Schreiner (regarding the definition of righteousness) and Vickers (regarding Adam), and I really appreciate your work in making this happen. It was good to see you at SBL. May God’s grace be with you.

  43. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm #


    I’m not sure anyone has called him a liberal. In fact, I don’t think anyone on the panel would say Wright isn’t a Christian. What they are voicing are concerns over his explanation of justification that if not clarified are dangerous for those who embrace it.

    As far as works righteousness, it may or may not be there but it is his lack of clarity at that question which opens him up to critique. I have sat in seminars with all 3 of the panel members and I can assure you they all have many areas for which they are appreciative of Wright’s contribution. And again, I don’t think given the format it was necessary to have someone to defend Wright’s views. This recurring reference to Fox News isn’t helpful in my opinion.



  44. Kyle Barrett April 17, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    Thanks for the clarifying points Andrew. Those are helpful.

    Help me understand your quote though:

    “Because the trial is asking the question, ‘Are you a member of God’s covenant people?,’ the ‘basis’ of the verdict is still not the ‘basis’ of one’s salvation. The ‘basis’ of the verdict is simply the evidence that one presents in order to demonstrate the membership in God’s covenant that one already possesses.”

    To be a member of God’s covenant people seems to me to be a soteriological category. If you’re in the covenant you experience the blessings, if you’re not you expereince the curses. But, it seems Wright would say that covenant doesn’t speak to salvation at all? Assuming the distinction between justification and salvation, I understand why Wright sees justification as based on works (i.e., the verdict of membership is based on the badges). But, this doesn’t seem to me to do justice to the Bible’s understanding of covenant or justification. What am I missing?



  45. Andrew Cowan April 17, 2009 at 4:27 pm #


    Thanks for the good questions. I will try to clarify further.

    Being in God’s covenant people is a soteriological category for Wright. To be in the covenant is to be saved, in his estimation. Now, the way that justification plays into this is that justification has nothing to do with getting into the covenant. Justification is simply a declaration about who is already in. In his view, God brings a person into the covenant by what Paul terms the “call.” Wright thinks that “call” is Paul’s term for conversion. God performs the “call” through the Spirit. Thus the sina-qua-non of covenant membership is possession of the Spirit. In Wright’s view, the first thing that the Spirit does is to produce faith. Thus, when one wants to ask the question, “Who is a member of the covenant?,” the answer (at present) can be given on the basis of who possesses the Spirit, which is equivalent to who possesses faith. Thus, present “justification” (declaring who is in the covenant) is “based” on faith. For Wright, this means that one can assuredly be declared a member of God’s people if one possesses the clear sign (or badge) of membership in God’s people, namely, faith.

    Then, in Wright’s view, throughout the subsequent life of the believer, the Spirit continually inspires good works. Because this inherently happens to all who participate in God’s covenant people, these works themselves become another indisputable sign that one is truly a covenant member. Thus, according to Wright, God looks for this evidence at the final judgment in order to demonstrate who were truly his people and who were not. This obedience does not make one a member of the covenant, it simply demonstrates that they were true participants in it who were, after all, decisively and irrevocably saved when God “called” them.

    Thus, Wright does believe (as you do) that being in the covenant is a soteriological category, but avoids teaching salvation by works because justification is not a means of making one a member of the covenant (now or at the last day), but rather a means of declaring who the true covenant members are.

    That all needs to be understood well before one attempts to critique Wright. However, given all that, does this do justice to the Bible’s understanding of covenant or justification? I think that there are certainly some problems, but at other places some really good insights

    One of the problems is the definition of the trial in terms of “who is in the covenant?” I just don’t think that will work given that the buildup to Romans 3:20ff. is a massive explanation of how all of humanity stands under the wrath of God due to the moral problem of sin. Here, I think Piper made a very good point in laying out how the charge “None is righteous” is amplified in terms of “no one does what is good” in Romans 3:10ff.

    Also, I am not persuaded that “in the covenant” is always a soteriological category. Certainly to be in the new covenant is soteriological, but to be in the Sinai covenant just means that one is subject to its stipulations and will experience the blessings or curses of the covenant based on whether one fulfills their covenantal obligations. (Thus, Gentiles will not be condemned for not circumcising their children. Only those under the law will be judged by the law, cf. Rom 2:12.)

    I could go on to enumerate other problems (and other virtues) of Wright’s approach, but I think that these considerations are the most germane to your particular question. I hope you found them helpful.


  46. Denny Burk April 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm #


    Wright says this in the new book:

    “When Piper says . . . that ‘Wright makes startling statements to the effect that our future justification will be on the basis of works,’ I want to protest: it isn’t Wright who says this, but Paul.” -p. 260, n. 11

    It seems to me that Wright here agrees with Piper’s characterization of his view. Furthermore, Wright attributes his view to the apostle Paul himself. Future justification will be on the basis of works.


  47. Andrew Cowan April 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

    Dr. Burk,

    I don’t think that anything I said denied that Wright affirms future justification by works. In fact, I was trying to affirm that he does, but clarify what he means. Do you see something wrong with how I spell out what Wright means by future justification in primarily covenantal rather than soteriological terms?

    I don’t think that Wright agrees with Piper’s characterization of his view on that particular point. Piper gets this right at the beginning of his book, but then loses it on p. 101 and the subsequent argument when he over-interprets the significance of the link Wright draws between final justification and resurrection (a “saving event”).

    Wright does not point out this misunderstanding explicitly in the new book, but the whole first chapter (and the controversial helio-centric narrative) seem to me to be Wright’s indication that he doesn’t think his critics (including Piper) really understood what he has said (see p. 5 “The problem is that [Piper] hasn’t really listened to what I’m saying”). When I spoke with him about Piper’s book in person, he also expressed that he didn’t feel Piper had fully done him justice. I think that my explanation displays well how that is so.

    Again, I’m not saying that Wright doesn’t affirm future justification by works; he does. But what he means by this does not equate to salvation by works (which Wright also says repeatedly). Anyway, what I really want to know is if there is something wrong with how I explained what Wright means by future justification by works. I think that my explanation accounts for both how he affirms that and how he denies salvation by works.



  48. Michael Bid April 17, 2009 at 5:09 pm #

    What was the nervous laughter among the panelists at the start when my name was mentioned? Do I have a reputation down your way that I need to no about?

  49. brian manns April 17, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    To all commentators:

    There seems to be a over concern about the representation of Wright’s position in this discussion. The main thing to keep in mind is that these panelists received a pre-published copy of Wright’s book. No one else in this discussion is really in a place to make a comment about what Wright said in his new book unless they have actually read it. Fortunately for us (I am a Boyce student) we have a faculty that is concerned about addressing new theological debates to the school under their supervision. These professors on this panel each have expertise in the area of New Testament and in particular Pauline Doctrine. Please refrain from bashing their representations of a book that most of us have not read.

  50. James Merrick April 17, 2009 at 8:20 pm #

    Kyle, I don’t think it’s (W)right to treat Wright’s view as advocating ‘God’s gift plus ___’. Wright is clear that the works of the Spirit done in the believer are ‘God’s gifts’!!! It’s God at work in the believer, not the believer at work with the help of God (inasmuch as that distinction can be made).

    The way I have understood Wright, and I think this is similar to what Andrew is nicenly saying (perhaps Andrew could clarify for it seems he contradicts himself saying first that the covenant is not a soteriological category (in his discussion of Wright’s second reply) and then later says it is in his follow-up comment), is that Wright defines salvation not as individual ‘rightness/righteousness’ with God and so not as justification, but as the Abrahamic family and new creation. Hence, he’s always criticising the Reformed for collapsing salvation into justification and for being individualistic soteriologically (thinking the individual is the end of salvation, when God’s salvation is actually about a family, a church, the body of Christ).

    Now, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (salvation) is accomplished by Christ alone (!)through his fulfillment of the Law and his undergoing for the penalty for Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness (since the promises of Abraham were to go through Israel, the consequence for Israel’s disobedience needed to be dealt with). There is absolutely no soteriological synergism or Christ plus anything on this account of salvation. I cannot stress that enough.

    Justification, continuing with his view, is about membership in the Abrahamic family (which makes a lot of textual sense since Paul’s arguments about justification usually lead to answers about who the children of Abraham are). Justification is not about salvation in the first instance; again, salvation is about the blessing/restoration of creation through Abraham’s family. One is declared to be a member of the Abrahamic family, not on the basis of Torah works, but on the basis of faith in Christ who has, in completing the covenantal obligations on Israel’s behalf, ushered in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant and so wrought salvation. Although justification has shifted from a soteriological to ecclesiological category, I think structurally, as Doug Wilson has acknowledged, this is at home with the Reformed view. Indeed, Wright does talk about how even faith is a gift from God, so he is Calvinist in that sense (see his for everyone Ephesians commentary)

    It all comes down, then, to the issue of the Spirit inspired works. They are, again, not the basis for salvation since salvation is wrought by Christ and is about the Abrahamic family. But they are, in a sense, the basis of an individual’s future justification which in turn is the basis of an individual’s ‘salvation’ (membership in the Abrahamic family). But Wright is clear that these Spirit inspired works are part of justification, not in the sense that they contribute to Christ’s salvific work (!!!), but in the sense that they are part of what it means for one to be a member of God’s people, that is, justified. Now, once the traditional Reformed hear that part of what it means to be justified is to have works, their Reformation ears ring and they immediately react as though Wright is teaching a works based salvation. Again, one has to keep in mind that salvation is not justification for Wright.

    But still, I suppose, some will see this as effectively a works based salvation since it is so for individual membership. But here again, Wright is not saying that human works contribute or add to Christ’s atoning work, on the one hand, nor even that human works merit their justification. People must read pp 208-212 of Wright’s new book for themselves, but as I understand it, Wright is quick to say that these works are the gifts (!) of the Spirit which are part of justification by faith, not achievements that the believer can boast about before God. I suspect Andrew is (W)right that they function more like evidences or fruits of faith, ‘signs’, as WRight calls them.

    But I think the best way to understand this is to say that for Wright, justification is not static or a one-time event. It encompasses the whole of the Christian life. So, we begin with faith in Christ and continue by walking in the Spirit, by the Spirit effecting Christ’s new creational life in us, thus never leaving Christ behind. Indeed, Wright accuses the Reformed of not being fully trinitarian (p. 212).

    I confess, I cannot see how this is all that different structurally from the Reformed view, especially since many Reformed would say that fruits of the Spirit are evidence of faith.

  51. John Holmberg April 17, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    I too am curious about the nervous laughter when Dr. Bird’s name was mentioned.

  52. Russ Ware April 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

    What a fine discussion this has turned out to be. Far more thoughtful and instructive than the original panel in my opinion. Some good clarity on Wright’s position has been offered in several comments, not the least of which being James’ comment #51.

    I read and listen a lot, but I definitely would self identify as an armchair theologian. I really appreciates the level of discussion here… even if I can’t always dive in at the same level.

    Great stuff.

    This is simply not a debate between salvation as gift of God v. salvation by works. Proper Catholic theology does not even argue for salvation by works (the practice of a great many Catholics as well as no small number of Baptists, I might add, notwithstanding).

    It seems instructive to observe where so much of the push-back to Wright is coming from. You can almost get the impression that one must either be Calvinist or Catholic when it comes to justification. As if a firm line has been drawn and those are the two categories to be considered. (If that were so, I wonder on which side of the line Charles Ryrie would place John MacArhtur? 😉 )

    But I don’t see this so much as the historical Protestant view v. Wright/New Perspective/Catholic view, but rather the Calvinist or maybe even more the Reformed Baptist view v. a whole lot of the rest of us (Catholic and Protestant) who are comfortable with, or even very interested in, exploring the more historical, covenantal, yes even synergistic understanding of salvation, along with those who never abandoned it in the first place! I’m sure that is an overstatement, but I think there is some truth there.

    My Calvinist/Reformed friends (I have several whom I greatly respect) are always trying to convince me, part in earnest and part in playful ribbing, that Augustine was a monergist… along with Luther, the Apostle Paul and Christ himself of course… well… actually they were all Calvinists!

    … but I don’t believe them. 😉

  53. Andrew Cowan April 17, 2009 at 11:12 pm #


    Thanks for your comment. I will attempt to clarify the point about which you asked. In my first post, I was trying to make a particular distinction between Wright’s covenantal understanding of justification and the usual soteriological interpretation. That distinction is that justification is an analytical declaration regarding one’s covenant membership, not a declaration that makes you saved (the standard view). On the other hand, in my second post, I was trying to point out that Wright believes that being in the covenant does indeed imply that one is saved. Covenant membership is thus a status with irrevocable soteriological significance for Wright, but that does not nullify the earlier point that justification is not itself a soteriological event. It is a declaration that one has already entered into God’s covenant, and thus falls within the class of people whom God has saved, is saving, and will save. Does that help?

  54. Daniel April 17, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    “I suspect (I could be wrong) that the poor man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. . .”

    And the panel suggests that Wright’s tone is patronizing?

    Maybe Seifrid isn’t aware of how condescending that sounds.

  55. Denny Burk April 17, 2009 at 11:41 pm #


    I interpreted it not as “nervous laughter” but as “hey-we-know-that-guy” laughter.

    Thanks for reviewing the forum!


  56. Mike Bird April 18, 2009 at 3:57 am #

    That sounds about right. Wish I had a video of it! Glad to be known as a friend to so many good scholars.

  57. Josh Husmann April 18, 2009 at 4:42 am #

    Denny [#43],

    Thank you for your comments. I have not read Wright’s views on the Pauline epistles (I would love to at some point), but I did see him verbally respond to a question by a student referring to the authorship of the Pauline letters by saying he believes Paul wrote all the epistles. It seemed clear at the time he was referring to all the letters, including the pastor epistles. I really do not think I misunderstood him, but if you know a book that says otherwise, please let me know. Thanks again for the comment.

  58. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 4:56 am #

    Andrew. Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying. What do you make of my reading of Wright? I’m not asking for your approval, so much as wondering whether were on the same page since I resonated with your interpretation.

  59. Josh Husmann April 18, 2009 at 5:15 am #


    Thanks for your comments as well and I apologize if I seemed rough on the panel at all, that was not my intention. In response, I think Andrew’s comments above summarize and clarify Wright’s points well and perhaps better than I could. I know no one has referred to Wright as a “liberal” or certainly not a Christian, but it does come across as illegitemately ostracizing someone (something often done with the label of liberal) when their views are somewhat misrepresented and then strongly opposed. I actually disagree with both Wright and Piper on some points (although I think these two agree on much more than has been mentioned), but again it seems Wright’s views were partially misrepresented or at the very least underrepresented.

  60. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 5:49 am #

    Brian Manns, I’m not sure to whom you were referring, but I am part of that ‘all commentators’ group so… I’ve read Wright’s new book. Not that that licenses me to ‘bash’ the panel, but if that’s the prerequisite for commenting, then I guess I have the right.

    Furthermore, I don’t think what I said in my initial comment could be characterised as ‘bashing’ the panel. I think a lot of us who would disagree with the panel, and are frustrated with Wright’s reception in North American conservative evangelicalism (I love how specific we now have to be about which evangelicals we are talking), think Wright has a lot to say and a lot that could actually advance evangelicalism’s faith, mission and witness. The panelists, well, at least Seifrid, along with a number of other conservative evangelicals seem interested only in warding people off of Wright by various rhetorical tactics (calling him ‘horrid’, associating him with Catholicism, or, as Piper did repeatedly in his book, making him out to be a lover of innovation [a common critique of heretics, mind you], at odds with historic Christian belief both Catholic and Protestant, tragic and the perpetrator of views that will lead to a works based gospel). Indeed, much of the NA conservative evangelical reaction has been so concerned to warn potential readers of what’s wrong with Wright (and those points, as I said in my initial comment, seem to be rapidly decreasing as it becomes more and more apparent that Wright is not as radical as he was initially made out to be), rather than learn from his insights and integrate them in our own thinking. I think that is ashame, lamentable and hopefully not an indicator of the intellectual and spiritual vitality of conservative evangelicalism.

    So while I can’t speak for everyone who disagrees with this panel’s representation of Wright, I can say that there are a lot of us who are wondering why these people feel it so necessary to at every opportunity voice their disagreements with Wright and seem only interested in talking about why Wright isn’t helpful. Folks like me fear that in the process, all that Wright positively offers will be lost.

    Why not a panel discussing Wright’s insights and how they could enhance our understanding of the Bible (which so many who have read him have experienced)? Why not more articles and books taking up his interpretations and advancing them? Having read Wright since 2003, I can say that in all my classes, seminars and conferences I have yet to hear conservative commentators substantively discuss the benefits of his interpretations. The trend seems to be: preface your critical remarks with a few positive affirmations, especially lauding his work on the resurrection, and then just proceed to harp on the dangers and problems, and if possible, associate him with some heresy. That’s tragic, because Wright has so much to offer, and it’s sad that conservative evangelicals don’t seem to trust the intelligence and discernment of their audience enough to let them learn from Wright.

  61. Mat April 18, 2009 at 8:24 am #

    Point 1: Heliocentric vs Geocentric. One of the panelists asserts that “everything on earth is made to serve humanity.” If humans are meant to be stewards not owners, and creation is meant to serve God not humanity (though stewarded by humanity), does not such a statement prove Wright’s point of being geocentric?

    Point 2: How can the panelists insist on exegeting Genesis 15:6 with Paul to the exclusion of James’ explicit exegesis of Genesis 15:6. They throw James a small bone, but ultimately do not take him seriously. Wright’s view seems to do a better job of this, understanding that faith and obedience are part of the same coin. There is no attempt by the panelists to harmonize their view of justification with all of the Bible. It sounds like their mistaken view of James is much like Luther’s.

  62. Russ Ware April 18, 2009 at 10:06 am #


    Amen… again.

    Just a thought… I think there is a sense in which your ‘North American conservative evangelicalism’ descriptor might be even more clearly defined as ‘Southern North American conservative evangelicalism.’ I suggest this because I spent a fantastic several days a few years ago up at an academic conference at Wheaton… and I assure the tone there was quite different, and profoundly refreshing to this former Baptist/Bible Church boy from Dallas.

  63. Andrew Cowan April 18, 2009 at 10:12 am #


    My wife ordered a copy of the book for my birthday (in Feb.) from the UK. I haven’t finished the whole thing, but I have read over a hundred pages and am very familiar with Wright’s other writings on this topic, and he doesn’t seem to have changed his position significantly (he summarizes his views in the first half of the book, which I have read in full). It is on that basis that I have written my comments in response to the panelists. I do, however, agree with you that it is a wonderful thing that your school has a faculty that cares about these things, and I’m very glad that they had this panel. I just don’t agree with all of their assessments.


  64. Andrew Cowan April 18, 2009 at 10:48 am #


    I think that one of the things your reading of Wright does very well is to emphasize how Wright wants us to see the global nature of salvation. He constantly insists in these discussions that salvation is not simply about me and my relationship with God, but rather God’s purposes for the whole world, which will be accomplished through new creation.

    There were a few points where I was confused, though (and perhaps here I don’t quite understand what you are saying). On the one hand, you seem to agree with me that for Wright works function in the final judgment as signs that one is truly a member of the people of God rather than being the obedience by which one is made right with God. But then, you also say that the believer’s works “are, in a sense, the basis of an individual’s future justification which in turn is the basis of an individual’s ‘salvation’ (membership in the Abrahamic family).” It is the second half of this statement that I’m not sure about. In my reading of Wright, final justification simply declares the membership in the Abrahamic family (a synonym of “covenant membership” for Wright) that one already possesses, and so to speak of final justification as being the basis for one’s membership in the Abrahamic family (rather than a declaration that this simply is the case) doesn’t sound (W)right to me.

    I have the same confusion when I hear you say that “some will see this as effectively a works based salvation since it is so for individual membership.” It sounds like you are here claiming that for Wright individual membership is a works-based thing, which again conflicts with how I understand works to be functioning as signs or evidences (and results) of membership rather than things that make one a member.

    But, as I said, you also seem to endorse what I said about works in Wright (“I suspect Andrew is (W)right that they function more like evidences or fruits of faith, ’signs’, as WRight calls them”), so I’m not sure how to fit together everything that you said there. You do seem, overall, to be on the right track; I’m just not sure if the statements that I have highlighted here as confusing are accurate.

  65. Chris Poe April 18, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    With regard to the “liberal” comments–The New Perspective on Paul is clearly the product of liberal scholarship. That is admitted even by those who think it has something to offer. One NPP leaning man told me that “Sanders is not even a Christian” yet this man believes Sanders has something to teach us about the Bible’s teaching.

    I’m not interested in wrangling over labels, but I for one don’t think it to be a totally unwarranted label. There’s more to being biblical (or “conservative”) than defending the resurrection. The Wright fanboys often act as if no one ever did that before Wright came along and that we’d just have to roll over and accept the “findings” of the Jesus Seminar if it wasn’t for their hero.

    See here for more resources on Wright/NPP:

  66. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 11:56 am #


    Thanks for following-up, and for forcing me to be clear where I wasn’t. Yeah, that’s a really good question and thinking through it is helping me better understand this whole discussion, so let me try to be clear.

    Let me try to answer this by picking up one of my final points, left undeveloped, in which I suggested that it might be best to read Wright as thinking that justification is not a one-time event (even though he calls it a declaration), but encompasses the whole of the Christian life. Justification is sort of ongoing. I don’t see this as all that different, actually, from Mike Bird’s work, nor the argument of Seifrid that the declaration of God creates a new person who will bear out good fruit (which I think he just stole from Bird). But Wright seems to think that if one is justified, then one will, as a part of that justification, possess the works of the Spirit (so he makes much of those fruits of the Spirit passages).

    Now, immediately when we see works included in justification the charge of semi-pelagianism comes to mind. You and I’ve tried to get Wright off the hook by talking about these works as evidences, and I think that’s partially true because Wright can talk that way. Wright’s reply, as far as I can tell, is just to say that these are the *Spirit’s* work, not the believers’. If you are justified, you will necessarily, as part of what justification means, have the Spirit at work fruitfully in your life. So justification is not just about faith, but also about the Spirit and thus about ‘works’ (very helpful for making sense of that James passage, I might add where, as my Catholic friend loves to point out to me, ‘the only time in the Bible where the words “faith” and “alone” occur are in James where James says we’re not justified by faith alone’). Hence his comment about the Reformed not being thoroughly trinitarian in their doctrine of justification on p. 212. In a sense, what Wright has done is just collapsed what the Reformed distinguished as sanctification into justification.

    Let me provide some quotations from Wright’s new book where he’s talking about the works of the Spirit and ‘final justification’ and see if this clears up things:

    It all starts on the bottom of p. 206 where Wright talks about how in Romans 8, Paul is talking about ‘final justification’. He notes on p. 208, closing sentence of the first full paragraph, that: ‘But if we follow Paul and see justification by faith … within the larger framework of his biblical theology of God’s covenant with and through Abraham for the world, now fulfilled in Christ, we will discover that from within that larger, and utterly Pauline, framework there is a straight and easy path to understanding (what is sometimes referred to as) the place of “works” in the Christian life, without in any way, shape or form compromising the solidity of “justification by faith” itself’. – I take from this that he’s trying to include works in justification, and yet at the same time deny the charge that this makes him semi-pelagian.

    He goes on to note that in this context Paul is still talking about ‘righteousness’ and so justification, and importantly the argument here is about the work of the Spirit (see p. 209).

    He then says ‘Paul never says that the present moral life of the Christian “earns” final salvation [a slip up here, since he probably means ‘justification’]. It looks towards it, it “seeks for” it (2.7)’. ‘At the same time he [Paul] insists’, insists Wright, ‘that the signs of the spirit’s life must be present: if anyone doesn’t have the spirit of Christ, that person doesn’t belong to him (8.9), and “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (8.13)’ (p. 209).

    From this Wright draws the conclusion that you cannot have the Reformation doctrine of assurance without the Pauline doctrine of the Spirit (see sentence on bottom of p. 209 that spills over onto p. 210).

    Notice his summarising comments here: ‘For Paul, a stress on “justification by faith” is always a stress on the present status of all God’s people in anticipation of the final judgement. But when he puts this into its larger, covenantal context [i.e., in Romans 8],…it is always filled out with talk of the spirit…Paul invites his hearers to trust both in Jesus Christ and in the father whose love triumphed in the death of his son – and in the holy spirit who makes that victory operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return (5.5; 8.28). The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical. It is also insufficiently Trinitarian’ (pp. 211-212).

    Thus, I understand Wright to be saying that justification is an act of the triune God. And because it is at every stage a work of God, not a work of human beings, it is not some sort of semi-moralism or works based. But Wright is insistent that justification includes the works of the Spirit, and it is by those that the believer will be judged on the final day. Yet, he sees this as perfectly compatible with the Reformation doctrine of assurance because, well, to use a Bible verse, ‘the God who started a good work in you will be faithful and just to complete that good work’. So, Wright’s just bringing the work of the Spirit into God’s act of justification, and consequently, justification is not a static event of the past, but the dynamic, ongoing work of God in the Spirit who is effecting Christ’s new creation in us, works by which we will be finally judged as fitting members of God’s family.

    Does that protacted rambling clear up the ambiguity?

  67. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 11:58 am #


    What’s your point? Just because something had an origin in ‘liberalism’ does that mean it’s necessarily flawed? That’s a logical fallacy, it’s called the genetic fallacy. Guilt by association doesn’t work, sorry.

  68. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 12:58 pm #


    Thanks for your kind encouragement. I think one can find this mentality across the States. Unfrotunately, it seems to be both a hangover from evangelicalism’s culture-project and stem from a sort of piety that thinks it must have every doctrinal-I dotted at conversion or else one’s faith is vain. It’s been referred to as a sort of custodialism or protectivism, and personally I find it rather disillusioning, even if I’m willing to suffer it at times.

  69. Andrew Cowan April 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm #


    I think I get what you are saying now, but I don’t think I quite agree. What you are saying is equivalent (I think) to what I described as Wright’s first defense against being charged with works-based salvation. He certainly makes that argument, and that is the argument that he most frequently juxtaposes with the charges leveled against him.

    However, I think his framework is slightly different than how you portray it. Although he believes everything you have claimed about the Spirit and being renewed, I don’t think that your construal of how that fits into his theology of justification is quite accurate. Justification, for Wright, is not a declaration that brings about the transformation itself (as in Seifrid and Bird–and I think that you have the genealogy there backwards; see Bird’s comments on Seifrid in the review of the forum on his blog or the footnotes in SROG). Instead, present justification for Wright is the declaration that God has brought one into his family, and God makes this declaration based on the one certain evidence that he has begun this transforming work, faith. Final justification is the declaration that one is indeed a member of God’s people based on the evidence that one was transformed by God during their life. Thus, Wright does not collapse justification and sanctification, although he does relate them differently than many Protestants have. He does not make justification the actual means of transformation; he makes final justification a declaration that one is a member of God’s family on the basis of the evidence of having experienced God’s transformative work.

    Thus, I don’t think that he would affirm that justification is a life-long thing in the sense that I think you would (that is, to say that justification is itself the ongoing transformation of the believer), but he would say that at every point the believer is justified because God’s declaration of the believer’s membership in his family always stands over their ongoing life of faith/faithfulness. These good works are thus not “part of the justification” for Wright, but rather the evidence taken into account when God climactically vindicates his people by granting them resurrection life.

    On p. 70, Wright seeks to distinguish himself from Augustine whom he describes as holding that justification involves “transforming the character of the person.” He goes on to say, “part of the point of Paul’s own language, rightly stressed by those who have analyzed the verb dikaioo, to justify, is that it does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ‘justification,’ not the character. It is in this sense that justification ‘makes’ someone ‘righteous.'” He then goes on to ask the question that one objecting to his view might pose, “If that’s all it is, how will they become good Christians?…however much the post-Augustinian tradition has used ‘justification’ to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last, Paul has used it far, far more precisely and exactly.” (That bled over into p. 71)

    I’m afraid that you are expanding Wright’s understanding of justification in more of an Augustinian direction than the very precise way that he thinks Paul intends. Although you are very right that he wants the Spirit’s work to be taken into account in justification, I think that he means that it is taken into account as the evidence for one’s covenant membership at the final judgment.


  70. James Merrick April 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm #


    Very well put. You know, you may be right about this. I’m going to go back and re-read the relevant portions of the book. I wonder, though, would it be right to say that regeneration is more fundamental than justification for Wright? If that’s the case, then I can’t see how he’s that far from the Reformed view after all.

    Thanks for your insight here, Andrew. Very helpful.

  71. David Rogers April 18, 2009 at 2:24 pm #

    To me, James and Andrew’s excellent back and forth explication of Wright’s view shows how inadequate the actual forum was in clearly presenting Wright’s view and then critiquing it. I haven’t read Wright yet specifically in this area, and so I am dependent on those who have read him to present his positions. And then accurately dogpile on it for the audience.

    If James and Andrew’s explanations are accurate, then Wright’s views are more complex (for newbies) than how his views were presented at the forum. If the forum was one’s first exposure to Wright’s views, and then one (like myself) found out that there was more to Wright’s interpretation than what the forum presented, then one might become suspicious of the academic pedagogical (not personal and spiritual) integrity of the scholars on the panel. (I’m not suggesting that they are not scholars or even whether they are not great classroom teachers; I am wondering if their pedagogical responsibilities were functioning at their highest levels during the forum.)

    Why do I keep on this track of comment? Let me explain.

    I pastor in a Baptist association of 35 churches with a number of pastors with little to no academic theological training. These godly men are working hard to minister to their small churches but it is difficult for them to address significant theological issues that will affect their young people as these young people go off to the “big city” colleges and universities. These men have strong basic Bible knowledge but their abilities to analyze more complex and nuanced theological issues is hinderend not by their lack of intelligence (I sincerely believe) but by lack of exposure to solid theological instruction and by their suspicion of arcane academo-babble that some received at seminary or bible college or what they have heard occurs at those institutions.

    We do not have a lot of theological analysis at association gatherings because of this suspicion and because no one wants to appear stupid (although they are definitely not stupid).

    I am concerned that this lack of theological analysis will adversely affect the congregations because, like it or not, people of these congregations are exposed to the influences of worldly and heretical and goofy ideas which seep into their awareness through the book racks at Wal-mart. Mere indexing and citation of Bible verses will be less adequate unless they are accompanied by theological exposition of how the biblical concepts relate to the ideas of Oprahworld.

    Here is where academic pedagogical responsibility comes in. Teachers of academics are not only responsible for conveying content to be learned for tests; they must recognize that they are also ambassadors for the necessity of ongoing rigorous analysis of ideas. They demonstrate this by displaying not only what they have learned but by modelling how to learn and analyze. If a professor jumps to a specialized topic using specialized vocabulary, then he may alienate those who are not quite ready to immediately receive the information. The audience may become bored or may conclude that the topic is too far above their comprehension and thus they focus their attention to more practical matters. The importance of theological analysis is left to the “experts” and thus a generation of pastors who are the theological gate-keepers of their congregations are reduced.

    I see this response regularly, and thus my concern. It need not be this way. I am not asking for things to be “dumbed down”, but for teachers to teach which means that some topics must be explained from the ground up, especially when presented for a general audience, whether the chapel was mandatory or not.

  72. Andrew Cowan April 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm #


    On whether regeneration is more fundamental for Wright than justification, I would have to say yes, if you mean “fundamental for becoming a Christian.” I don’t know if he would like us using the word “regeneration” rather than “call,” though. What Wright believes Paul uses the word “call” to refer to is what Reformed systematicians generally refer to as regeneration (I think).

    You are really correct that he is much closer to Reformed theology than is often thought, at least at the systematic level. There are a few remaining points of real substantive disagreement, but none of them affect the core of soteriology in the way that his critics often think. However, the exegetical and semantic differences are legion, and I personally feel like those really matter because they determine what preachers ought to say when they speak on the relevant biblical texts.

    Having said all of this to clarify what Wright thinks, I would also like to iterate again that I do not think that he has gotten everything quite right. I don’t have time to ferret out here what I think is good and bad, but it would be a mistake to assume from my explications here that I am a proponent of the Wrightian view (if that’s a word). I do think that he has made certain contributions that ought to be taken on board, but I am often not happy with certain things that he denies.

    Thanks to all (especially James, who has written to me the most) for their generous tone throughout this discussion. I often don’t participate in blog discussions because they can become so vitriolic, and this was has been a fine exception to that pattern.

    Thanks again, Dr. Burk, for hosting the forum and letting us discuss it here.


  73. Chris Poe April 18, 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    Mat wrote:

    See Dr. Schreiner (one of the panelists) and Dr. Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance to see just how serious he is about obedience and perseverance.

    One would think that the fact that someone with his strong views on the subject would find Wright’s formulations on justification problematic would cause some to take a second look. The same goes for Piper, whose has in the past been accused of legalism by “free grace” proponents.

  74. Chris Poe April 18, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    Sorry, evidently I messed up the block quote formatting in my last comment, so I’ll try again:

    Mat wrote:

    “How can the panelists insist on exegeting Genesis 15:6 with Paul to the exclusion of James’ explicit exegesis of Genesis 15:6. They throw James a small bone, but ultimately do not take him seriously. Wright’s view seems to do a better job of this, understanding that faith and obedience are part of the same coin. There is no attempt by the panelists to harmonize their view of justification with all of the Bible. It sounds like their mistaken view of James is much like Luther’s.”

    My reply:

    See Dr. Schreiner (one of the panelists) and Dr. Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance to see just how serious he is about obedience and perseverance. My understanding is that at the recent “John 3:16” conference the book was accused of being in essential agreement with Trent!

    One would think that the fact that someone with Dr. Schreiner’s strong views on the necessity of perseverance would find Wright’s formulations on justification problematic would cause some to take a second look. The same goes for Piper, who has in the past been also accused of legalism by “free grace” antinomians.

  75. Richard April 19, 2009 at 9:02 am #

    These kind of theological discussions are rarely edifying for the church. They rarely lead us to worship God or push us to commit to our mission as his ministers of reconcilliation in the world. It frequently seems to make BOTH sides seem more smug, self assured that their theological position is right and the kind of satisfaction one gets from it. Theological debate is important and necessary if it is going to lead to worship, but i’m of the increasing opinion that it is more about power, prestige, and (oh the irony!) self justification! We all want to be part of the right club, and we all want to be assured that our own view is right…yet this betrays our best convictions about the gospel. The gospel, if it is really the story of what Jesus achieved for us, instead of us and on our behalf due to no good work of our own, should free us from our pedantic desire to be “part of the club” or to be interlectually vindicated and free us for more important things; getting on with telling people about Jesus, being conformed to his image and likeness, and proclaiming and bearing witness through the church and our whole lives to his reign and rule! Both Wright and guys like Piper are broadly on board with that. We all need to get over our egos. Unfortunately being “experts” on panels, or writing lots of books, or being a Bishop, or idolising a particular theological hero, or wishing to appear superior or well thought out on the internet tends to boost our egos right back up.

    I propose a moratorium on debating this stuff on the internet, and discussion of theology unless it can be related to pressing rather than abstract concerns. The last thing Paul was guilty of, or any of the biblical writers for most part, was abstraction or vain intellectual masturbation (harsh words but i can’t think of a better description). Most of this stuff is arguments about “chicken or the egg” type questions, often simply repeating old territory that gets people nowhere. I’ve heard this debate about a million time on blogs and its getting old.

    I can’t believe i wasted 15 minutes reading and writing all this.

  76. David Rogers April 20, 2009 at 1:02 pm #


    You said that you would want a moratorium on “debating this stuff on the internet and discussion of theology unless it can be related to pressing rather than abstract concerns.”

    Who is the arbiter of “pressing concerns”? Are you? Would you tell us the criteria for determining what matters relate to “worship” or “mission”?

    Every heresy that has arisen in the church (consult church history) arose out of “worship” or “mission” matters. The Church has engaged in these alleged “abstract” theological matters because pastors saw the effect that certain beliefs and practices had on “worship” and “ministry.” The earliest Church theologians were pastors.

    I am a rural church pastor, and I see the effects of theological ignorance and the inability to theologically discern things wreak havoc in the everyday lives of people.

    I have specific criticisms of this particular theological forum for its particular weaknesses but not for the practice of the format itself.

    Yes, power and prestige is a problem among academic and theological debate. It also among the so-called “practical”. I’ve seen numerous examples of condescending pride and prestige in the “more practical, more devotional than thou” crowd.

    Sure, God does not need the intellectual crowd with their book-learnin’ but He also does not need the ignorant with their book burnin’.

    If you only took fifteen minutes to read and assess all that was discussed in the comments above, then I fear for your ability to instruct others how to discern all the nonsense that is out there in the world that pays no attention to theological matters and how they shape virtually every belief and practice in this world.

    With sincere and open willingness to further discuss,

    David Rogers

  77. David Rogers April 20, 2009 at 1:37 pm #


    On re-reading your comments, I’ve thought that you may have meant that you spent fifteen minutes on your reply and not as an indicator of your time spent reading the comments. If that is the case, I apologize. If the “fifteen minutes” remark was hyperbole, I apologize for not recognizing it. If the “fifteen minutes” remark is an actual time remark, then my concerns stand.

    David Rogers

  78. Lydia M April 25, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    David Rogers, Amen to your comments about this forum.

  79. Bread Maker May 3, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    Wright . . . Anglo-Catholic? Do you mean one of those “The holy sacrifice of the Mass is offered for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed”-kind of Anglo-Catholics? And I suppose he’s about to publish “Thuribles for Dummies”? Look up, Gentlemen, there’ll be pork in the trees by morning!

  80. Myrddin August 15, 2009 at 12:29 am #

    It’s funny how Wright manages to be skewered here for being “anglo-Catholic” and elsewhere for being an emergent church sympathizer. He must be doing something right.

    Come on guys.

  81. Seth August 24, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    I was excited to get a look from the other side of the discussion on these issues. I started in on listening to the panel and just a little ways past Seifrid’s opening comments I had to turn it off. I hope to listen to it again sometime, but I would like to take a Pepcid AC, or Zantac 75 before doing so. Every time I hear one of these reformed guys go to quoting the Westminster Confession of Faith and old Reformed dead guys, I get this cringing in my stomach and my breath gets shortened.

    When are Reformed guys going to wake up and start doing the exegesis and STOP quoting the Westminster Confession. One thing that is so appealing about Wright is that he at least deals with the text in trying to advance this discussion. While he may be influenced by his forebears, I do not think he quotes them as though they were somehow authoritative. But it seems that many in the reformed camp are in serious danger of elevating the Westminster Confession and the Reformed Church Fathers (Luther and Calvin to be specific) to a level they do not belong.

    I know that Seifrid and others have gone to the text and dealt with some of these issues, so I want to give him credit where it is due. But this panel got off on the wrong start.

    I plead with all of you in the reformed and/or evangelical camp to go to the texts and deal with them. Forget about the Confessions, Creeds, and Fathers just for a moment to try to advance this discussion. I think we can learn a lot from one another.

    I am by no means a new perspective guy. I used to be a hardline reformed presbyterian. I would hear things like, oh “Wright is a heretic,” but they would have hardly any idea where he is coming from. They have not listened to the lectures, read the commentaries, or the articles. It is time we deal with this issue by going straight to the text.

    Please, please, please, don’t mention the “WC” (Westminster Conffesion) word again, or the “L” (Luther) word, or the “C” (Calvin) word. I can’t bear it any longer, and I suspect there are a lot of other reformed people out there who share my feelings. And many in the reformed wonder why this generation of seminary students and just bible students in general are parting ways with the “traditional” reformed teachings, because Reformed folk are committing the same error as Catholics in using the WCF in a quasi absolutized sense.

    Wake up! Wake up! Wake up O Reformed ones, or this new perspective giant that was awoken will be around a lot longer than you might hope.


  1. Schreiner, Seifrid, Vickers, and Burk Respond to Wright’s Response to Piper « For His Renown - April 16, 2009

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