Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Better Late than Never I Suppose


A few weeks ago I got my shiny new American version of Tom Wright's book on justification. It has since garnered dust in my growing "books to read" pile. Therefore, in the hope that I'll actually read it, here's what I intend to do. Since bunches of bloggers have already weighed in on Wright's book, I plan on coming approaching it from a different angle. I'm going to read Wright's book in conjunction with Piper's book, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each construal of justification. I hope to determine where the heart of the disagreement lies, and suggest some potential ways forward.

I think it's especially important that those of us in the Reformed camp listen to Wright with great care. Given the ruckus generated by his work, I'm surprised how often he is sympathetic to Reformed tradition. For example, listen to this interaction from a recent Q & A with Ben Witherington;

Q. You seem to argue that initial justification and final justification are on the same basis, but you also take seriously that there will be a judgment of human works, including the works of Christians. Are you saying that apostasy is possible for Christians, or do you take the more Reformed view that those who fall away were probably not Christians in the first place, being self-deceived?

A. The initial verdict is the true anticipation of the final one because God will complete the good work he has begun (Philippians 1). That doesn't lead Paul to a careless, oh-well-I'm-going-to-make-it-so-who-cares stance, because there is always the possibility that he is self-deceived and that having preached to others he himself will be a castaway (1 Cor 9). But I see that possibility as self-deception about genuine faith rather than faith today and apostasy tomorrow. Pastorally this may be a hard call for oneself and for others, which is why all the time the focus has to be away from oneself and towards God. Which is why the disciplines of scripture, sacrament and service to the poor are all vital...


I think Piper, Schreiner, and Calvin would each answer the question similarly. Wright clearly subscribes - in Witherington's words - to the "more Reformed view".

People get quite anxious over what Wright has said about justification. I understand some of the concern, and take issue with a number of points in his articulation of justification. However, statements like the following should caution us against fecklessly throwing Bishop Tom under the Pelagian bus. His work is far too thoughtful and complex to merit such a response.

4 comments:

briankb said...

Can someone who spends far more time agonizing over phrases like justification please answer the following? It seems that our seemingly unlimited expenditure of time, ink, and electrons on whether or how or why someone is "justified" stands on sand. I would assume Paul was aware of the Jewish creation story (I will not say myth in respect for his contextual belief) as do all other church fathers. However, unless one chooses to ignore over 150 years of science, we were not "created" perfect and then chose to "fall." Logically then we cannot be "justified." I don't argue that humans are beautifully flawed, and "justification" could be seen as a path towards a more "righteous life" but to agonize over how one is "justified" for something I have no power nor was responsible for (seem that God is responsible) strikes me as profoundly unhealthy. I don't intend this question as a challenge, but having been raised in a Reformed faith, seeing this emphasis week after week, and leaving that view behind, I am frankly perplexed.

Ian Clausen said...

It may help us (me) if you focus your question, as you seem to have several here. Is your main concern with a 'literal' reading of Genesis? or that Reformed views of justification seem implicitly to violate libertarian notions of free will? or that Christian anthropology is 'unhealthy'? Would like to know.

briankb said...

Hi Ian,
Thanks for the response. I will attempt to be more precise. In a 21st century context and understanding, what are we being justified from and to? Perhaps, in my limited scope of understanding, I have a false or imprecise concept of the use of the term. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that it is used here to "qualify one for salvation."

Thanks.

Jeffrey Bruce said...

Hi Brian,

We are justified from the futile way of life apart from Christ (Acts 13:38-39; Rom 6:7) so that we can be enslaved to God. Using "from" and "to" language in relation to justification can be problematic if the prepositions are construed in such a way as to make sanctification synonymous with justification.

I think justification is the decisive verdict whereby, in virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, God acquits sinners and sees them within the righteousness of his Son. Once we are in union with Christ, we are of course freed from sin and enslaved to God. However, I still hold there to be a logical distinction between the declaration and the resultant transformation.

As to what it means for 21st century Christians to be justified, I think it means what it meant in the 1st century (though the significance might be different). If Paul's anthropology is fundamentally flawed, I don't care all that much what he thinks about justification, since the two are integrally linked.

Finally, as to why I plan on reviewing these two books in tandem, there are a few reasons...

First, many Protestants have maintained that justification is the crown jewel of theology. It is the manner in which we are made right with God. However, N.T. Wright maintains that justification is an ecclesiological doctrine; a way to tell who is saved. It is not fundamentally about the means by which we are saved. This shift in focus is significant. If Protestants are wrong on this issue, they are wrong on a host of others.
Second, I find the debate interesting.

Hope this helps.