The TSA of the Reformed World
Theology – N.T. Wrights and Wrongs
Written by Douglas Wilson
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Justin Taylor posts a helpful summary by Andrew Cowan of the N.T. Wright word-flurry at Evangelical Theological Society this year. You can read about that here.
This seems a quite reasonable summary to me, and it means that Wright is not a stalking horse for some kind of Romanist self-righteousness. But this means, in its turn, that Wright’s blunders are genuinely Protestant blunders. But blunders they are, and we really need to address them.
Also, perhaps the debate can now shift from this red-herring to the real points of disagreement: Wright’s understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language and his construal of the question under consideration in the divine courtroom.
Amen. But in order to address them effectively, someone needs to take the trueblue confessional screechers aside, and tell them to stop being the TSA (Transport Security Administration) of the Reformed world. Our TSA is not involved in establishing real security for air travelers, but rather is putting on an elaborate show of security theater. If you don’t count making life miserable for all the innocent travelers, their measures are only adequate for capturing really stupid terrorists, and that’s about it. So, in a postmodern world, teeming with egalitarian, evolutionary, academic, and relativistic C4, Scott Clark is busy confiscating knitting needles and bottles of contact solution containing more than three ounces.
So in my view, some “ready, fire, aim!” conservatives have made up their blundering part of this gaudy show. But this does not make Wright faultless when it comes to the existence of these confusions. He consistently has set his views over against the “traditional” Reformation view, and adherents of that view may be pardoned for thinking that he knew what he was talking about which, as it turns out, he didn’t. His area of expertise is not historical theology of the Reformation era, and it shows. And he managed to write an entire book responding to John Piper without really responding to him, which, let’s face it, looks fishy.
He has not changed his view at all, but he has finally offered the clarification for which Piper hoped by denying that he understands works to be the “basis” of final justification in the way that Piper understands Christ’s righteousness to be the “basis” of final justification. One might wish that he had made this clarification clearer in his book-length reply to Piper (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision), but we may all be grateful that he is now speaking in a way that perhaps fewer people will misunderstand.
What Cowan does is let us distinguish between these two questions: “has Wright written heretically?” and “has Wright written responsibly and accurately?” He clears him on the first question, and urges us to discuss the latter . . . responsibly.
The keys to adjudicating this question are Wright’s understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language in Paul and his understanding of the trial to which justification stands as a verdict.
If you all have a minute, I would like to address just the first part of the question.
In his view, when Paul applies the word “righteousness” to a human being, it means ‘covenant membership.’ (This is slightly different than when the word is applied to God, in which case it often, but not exclusively, means ‘covenant faithfulness’ according to Wright.)
Cowan shows how these definitions exclude the idea of personal, meritorous righteousness being used by a person to put him in with God.
Great. Righteousness, when applied to a human being, refers to his covenant membership. This view is not Romanist, but there are more ways to be wrong than that. There are numerous ways to show the faultiness of Wright’s position here, but let us just take one.
Suppose someone made a historical claim, saying that whenever John Adams used the word patriotic, he was referring to a man’s willingness to pay his taxes, and that’s all. If that were the claim being made, it would be relevant to the discussion to bring in all the times when John Adams used the word unpatriotic. And if the claim were correct, unpatriotic would need to refer to an unwillingness to pay taxes. If it turns out that the word unpatriotic applies to a bunch of other things, then the claim would necessarily fall.
So how does Paul use the word unrighteous when applied to human beings? Try to shoehorn in “lack of covenant membership,” and see how it fares. All quotations are from my forthcoming translation, tentatively titled The Massage.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and lack of covenant membership among men, who suppress the truth in that lack of covenant membership” (Rom. 1:18).
“Being filled with an unwillingness to join a church, which is to say, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers . . .” (Rom. 1:29).
“Know ye not that those who won’t join the covenant shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (1 Cor. 6:9).
So you see, in order to make this kind of reading make sense, I would need to do a lot more massaging than that.