Wright @ ETS

Last week was the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in the ATL. I really wanted to go, but the flow was too low. The theme of the meeting was the doctrine of justification and the keynotes were Tom Schreiner, N.T. Wright, and Frank Thielman. I have learned much from all three of these men and would have loved to sit in.

I have a love/hate relationship with Wright. He is one of the best writers I read and I even have a special place on my bookshelves for him (not insignificant for bibliophiles). I have benefited greatly from much of what he has written. His work on Jesus, the resurrection, ethics, empire, the new earth, and most of Paul's theology is wonderful. However, there are a few things, some more important than others, that drive me crazy about his work. He is a controversial figure among most Protestants and the biggest point of controversy is his repeated insistence that final justification is "on the basis of the whole life lived." I can't count how many times I have read or heard him say that. This of course contradicts one of the key points of the Protestant Reformation. A clearer way to put his view is that final justification is on the basis of works.

Pastor Piper was so disturbed by this that he wrote a whole book calling Wright to be clearer on this point. A big part of Piper's book was dealing with this very issue: the role of works in final justification. Wright, in turn, churned out a book in response to Piper (sort of). Wright never really clarified himself on this key point, so in this sense it was not much of a response. Wright never tires of claiming that no one understands him.

It was for this reason, that I was very excited to hear that Dr. Schreiner would be replacing John Piper on the panel at this year's ETS conference. Schreiner is super gracious and incredibly sharp. Well, all that to say, it appears that Wright has changed his view. Those who have followed him will know that he has progressively become more Protestant in his views of justification (compare What Saint Paul Really Said with his later Paul or his latest work Justification). Dr. Denny Burk reports that he has changed his mind about his view of justification "on the basis of the whole life lived." I am only basing my thoughts on Burk's report, but when Wright was asked about his belief that "justification is on the basis of the whole life lived," he said he didn't recall writing such a thing. I find this incredible. This point has been at the heart of all the controversy (see here and here.) Most of the flaming darts thrown at Wright by Reformed people were lit with these statements in mind. There is even a footnote in Justification, where Wright says, "I am aware that John Piper puts a great deal of store by technical meanings, within Reformed debates, of the word 'basis' (e.g., Justification, pp. 117-18). I have to say that, since Paul does not use a phrase which corresponds to this, I am not convinced that this is the way to clarity" (258 n. 7).

Burk provides the following quotations from Wright's work:

“Paul has . . . spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people on the basis of their whole life.” -Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 121

“Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14–16 and 8:9–11)on the basis of the entire life.” -What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129

“This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense.” -”New Perspectives on Paul,” 260

Many more could be added. Burk writes,

"Nevertheless, Wright conceded in his exchange with Schreiner that if he did use the phrase “on the basis of” that he would want to “nuance” it to mean “in accordance with” works. Don’t miss that. Wright believes that justification is in accordance with works, not on the basis of them. This is huge in my view, and I don’t want anyone to miss the significance of this statement. This brings him much closer to the traditional Protestant position (and the biblical one too!), and that is no small matter considering how the debate has unfolded thus far."

I agree whole heartedly. This is huge. One part of me wants to be thankful and applaud Wright for his humility, but another part finds it unbelievable that he could not recall saying that justification is "on the basis of the whole life lived." It is one thing to say, "Yes, I have rethought my position and no longer think 'basis' is the most helpful word to use." It is quite another to deny you ever said such a thing, when it is so easily shown that this language abounds in his works. Either way, I praise the Lord that he has nuanced his view. In my mind, this is a very important distinction. I look forward to seeing how all this works out in his forthcoming beast of a book on Paul.

(Also see the TGC blog)