Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Are We To Do With N.T. Wright?

The work of N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, is the object of heated controversy among Reformed and evangelical theologians. This controversy might not have aroused the interest of most lay people, since much of it revolves around theological issues that would normally draw the attention mainly or exclusively of specialists. But as it happens, Wright is also the widely-read author of more popular religious works. These books, ranging from pastoral writings to apologetics and from ethics to doctrines of justification and salvation, have made him a leading defender of the faith for many non-theologians, including a good number of Reformed ones. His popular writings have, in fact, given him a status approaching that of another leading Anglican author and apologist, namely C.S. Lewis.

I too have found Wright’s books enlightening and have written positive reviews of a number of them (most recently of his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters). In view of the reservations about his theology, however, I think the time has come to address the question whether or not he is indeed a trustworthy guide. Some among us do not think so – every so often we read or hear of pastoral warnings that Reformed folk would do better to ignore Wright and go to Reformed guides for answers to their questions. Are these warnings justified? Or, assuming that there are indeed problems with parts of Wright’s theology, are there also aspects that deserve our positive attention? This, I may as well admit at the outset, is my conclusion, which I hope to substantiate in what follows.

For this essay I have relied on two recent publications on Wright’s views. One is a book-length critique of his work by well-known Reformed-Baptist author John Piper, a man who has long interacted with Wright’s ideas, is highly critical of several of them, but attempts to evaluate them fairly. The book in question is The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007) [freely available online]. The second is Wright’s answer to Piper and other critics, titled Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009). The two books of course contain far more information than I am able to do justice to in a brief survey. I will be able to mention only some of the points in the debate. Nevertheless, I hope that my remarks will help us at least to begin coping with the question I raised in the title of this article. Reactions are therefore invited – also from those who have studied Wright’s work in more detail and are able to add to my remarks and where necessary correct them.

The New Perspective

Wright is a scholar of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The New Perspective is not easy to define, both on account of its complexity and because there are important differences among NPP adherents. A common element, however, is that all find fault with Luther’s understanding of the nature of Paul’s controversy with the Jews. Luther’s main error, they argue, was that in attempting to explain Paul he ignored the historical context of Paul’s letters and believed that he could equate the issues at stake in the first century with those he himself had to deal with 1500 years later. Luther’s burning question, like that of many people in the late Middle Ages, was how to find a merciful God and so assure his personal salvation. Roman Catholicism at the time placed a heavy emphasis on the role of works (think of the scandal of the indulgences), rather than on the all-sufficiency of divine grace. Unable to find peace by doing the prescribed works, Luther at last found the answer to his question in the gospel of justification by faith (Romans 1:17). Lutheranism, as well as other branches of the Reformation, thereupon began to see Paul’s issue with the Judaists of his day, and also with Jewish Christian who insisted that pagan converts must become Jews (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians), as similar to the Reformers’ struggle against Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism. First-century Judaism, in short, became the mirror image of the late-medieval church and Paul was fighting the same battle in his days as the Reformers did in theirs.

It is this interpretation that Wright and other NPP scholars reject. They refer to newly discovered documents of the period and argue that first-century Judaism must be explained within its own context, which, the documents show, was very different from that of Reformation Europe. Their conclusion is that in the first-century context “works of the law” had little to do with Reformation ideas of works-righteousness. The Jews Paul was dealing with knew that membership in the covenant was not because of merit but because of God’s grace, and obedience to the laws of the covenant (Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, dietary laws, separation from Gentiles, and so on) was again not seen as meritorious, but as the prescribed means to maintain one’s status within the covenant. These “works of the law” functioned at the same time as the means that kept Jews and Gentiles separate. Paul, on the other hand, celebrates the coming together of Jews and Gentiles which, as he writes in Ephesians 3:1-7, is “the very heart of the mystery of the Messiah, the secret which had not been revealed before but now is on public display” (Wright, 173). (The most important text for the NPP, I should mention here, is Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too.”)

Wright’s covenant theology

According to this new perspective, then, the error of the first-century Jews with which Paul struggled was not their works-righteousness as the Reformers defined the term. It was Judaism’s ethnocentrism and exclusivism, its forgetting that God’s covenant with Abraham was altogether inclusive; that in Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Wright believes that Christians often have held a similar limited view; that like the Jews they have forgotten (or underemphasized) the cosmic and missional nature of the Abrahamic covenant.

All this brings him to a matter he has written about in greater detail in his work Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), which deals with the nature and scope of salvation. Many believers, he says, see salvation as “going to heaven when you die.” That answer, however, is individualistic and therefore inadequate. It suggests a spiritual geocentrism: the belief that the Sun revolves around us instead of the other way around. In the Bible salvation is not God’s rescue of individuals from the world but the rescue of the world itself, the cosmos in its entirety. Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins, but also for bringing in the Gentiles (Wright, 171). Not only the individual, but “the whole creation is to be liberated from its slavery to decay (Romans 8:21)” (Wright, 10). The covenant, Wright says, is to be explained in these terms, and the doctrine of justification must be rooted in the single biblical narrative (101). One of Wright’s major themes is: “It is central to Paul, but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new, and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centred upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (Wright, 35; italics in the original).

The acknowledgement that the Messiah fulfilled Israel’s call as its representative plays a role in Wright’s explanation of Romans 9-11. It also gives further substance to his warning that we must not de-Judaize Paul and his message (Wright, 195). As Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Wright’s reminder that there is a history of salvation is reminiscent of what Reformed people have come to know as the redemptive-historical approach. Like his emphasis on the covenant, the reminder should therefore resonate with Reformed believers.

What about personal salvation?

Although Piper rejects much of Wright’s version of the NPP, he does have praise for some of Wright’s contributions and is especially grateful for “the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham” (Piper, 15f.). He recognizes that this insight “accounts for some of [Wright’s] reactions to the individualism and pietism that mark some preaching of the gospel,” and agrees that “there simply aren’t enough preachers who show the gospel to be what it is, the magnificent announcement of the Lordship of Jesus, not only over my personal problems, but over all of history and all the nations and all the environment.” The preaching of the gospel must indeed be rescued from “myopic, individualistic limitations” (Piper, 81). All this is close to Wright’s implicit questioning of “a non-historical soteriology the long and the short of which is ‘my relationship with God’ rather than ‘what God is going to do to sort out the world and his people’” (Wright, 61).

At the same time, however, Piper fears that Wright’s strong emphasis on the covenant’s and the gospel’s global reach threatens to place other biblical teachings in jeopardy. He is concerned, for example, about Wright’s view that the gospel, being the proclamation of Christ’s lordship, is not to be equated with the message about how we are to get saved (Piper, 18). But isn’t this what the gospel is about as well? The question “How am I to be saved” is a legitimate and indeed an urgent one which, Piper rightly argues, needs to be answered more clearly than Wright does. “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring will probably have global scope to it,” Piper comments, “but will not deal personally with the human heart of sin with clear declarations of how Christ dealt with sin and how the fearful heart can find rest in the gospel of grace….” (Piper, 101). Piper admits that Wright does not ignore the relevance of the gospel for the individual life of faith and piety and the individual’s search for salvation, but fears that all this does not get the attention in Wright’s system that it receives in traditional protestant theology and in the gospel itself. “What puzzles me,” he writes elsewhere, “is that Wright seems to be able to speak of the gospel without explicitly showing what makes it good news for me” (Piper, 45, note 17).

Imputation

There are other instances where Piper criticizes what he sees as one-sidedness or even errors in Wright’s presentation. Among them are Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as God’s covenant faithfulness (Piper says it is that, but also much more), Wright’s statement that justification denotes a status, namely that of being acquitted and forgiven, rather than moral transformation, and Wright’s questioning of the doctrine regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. This doctrine, based on such Bible texts as 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”), is often referred to as the “marvelous exchange” (Luther’s term), whereby Christ took our sins upon himself so that we might receive his righteousness. The doctrine of imputation has an important place in traditional Reformed teachings on justification: we confess it explicitly in Art. 22 of the Belgic Confession and Answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Wright questions it on exegetical and other grounds and argues that we are justified not because of imputation but because, having died and been raised with him, we are “in Christ.” This means that we are “summed up in him,” so that what is true of him is true of us (Wright, 104 and passim). He concludes, “To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah” (Wright, 233). I think that he is right here, but isn’t there also biblical evidence for the doctrine of imputation? Why should we not continue to accept both?

Faith and works

More could be said on this matter, but I must turn to what Piper and other critics consider as perhaps Wright’s most striking aberration, namely his remarks about the role of works in judgment and salvation. Most of these occur in chapter 7 of his book, where he deals with the Letter to the Romans. Having come to Romans 2, he quotes the words, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life….” (vv. 6, 7). He concludes that according to Paul at the judgment to come “the criterion will be, in some sense, ‘works,’ ‘deeds’ or even ‘works of the law.’” He admits that such a conclusion “has naturally been anathema to those who have been taught that…since justification is by faith, there simply cannot be a ‘final judgment according to works’” (Wright, 184). The fact remains, however, that according to Romans 2 God will indeed repay according to works, and this same message occurs elsewhere. The Bible even says that the believer’s good deeds can please the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Wright, 185-7).

Does this mean that Paul teaches legalism, Pelagianism, or synergism (the doctrine that we cooperate with God, each doing his part)? Wright answers this question in the negative and points to the work of Christ’s Spirit in the believers’ lives; it is the Spirit alone who enables them to obey, by faith. Works-righteousness is out of the question. But the Spirit’s work is effective. Humans become “genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act…in ways which reflect God’s image, which give him pleasure, which bring glory to his name, which do what the law had in mind all along…. The danger with a doctrine which says, ‘You can’t do anything and you mustn’t try’ is that it ends up with the servant who, knowing his master to be strict, hid his money in the ground” (Wright, 192f.).

Piper gives much attention to the issue. He agrees with Wright that the life we now live is not irrelevant at the final judgment. To teach otherwise is “unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself” (Piper, 116). But he objects to Wright’s occasional statement that we are justified “on the basis” of our works,” rather than “according to our works” (although he admits that Wright speaks also in more traditional terms of our works as being evidence of the authenticity of our faith) (Piper, 118f.). Nevertheless, Piper’s great concern is that Wright’s teachings may detract from the gospel’s message of justification apart from works. He points out that the rewards that are promised in the Bible do not contribute to a person’s final justification, but are for those who are justified (Piper, 167). In accordance with clear biblical teaching, the authentic Christian faith “looks away from all self-wrought or Spirit-wrought obedience in us to the blood and obedience of Jesus….” (Piper, 149, italics in the original).

Take and read

Wright remarks that in situations of controversy and turbulence people are likely to overstate the point they are trying to make. He refers especially to the protestant Reformation but, as at one point he admits, the same applies to NPP scholars and himself (Wright, pp. 46, 196). Piper has done us a service by pointing to a number of these over-statements and by attempting to correct what he sees as actual errors in Wright’s system. By doing so, and by inviting Wright’s response, he has allowed us to hear both sides of the controversy.

I have learned from Piper and recommend his book. He is right, for example, when he questions Wright’s too rosy picture of first-century Judaism, pointing out, among other things, that ethnocentrism implies reliance on oneself and is therefore indistinguishable from works-righteousness (Piper, 155-8). Also noteworthy are his pleas that the spiritual needs of the “ordinary folk,” the person in the pew, not be ignored, and his defence of the gospel of justification by faith, apart from works. We must remember, however, that Wright does not deny this gospel. Salvation according to him also is by faith alone. At the same time I am convinced that Wright is also right in drawing attention to the Bible’s strong emphasis on the importance of “works.” This truth must indeed not be ignored, and the question arises: Do we, together with Wright, have to consider the possibility that Reformation theology, rightly anxious to safeguard the gospel of justification by faith, has wrongly underemphasized this aspect? Wright reminds us of Jesus’ own words that not the smallest part of the law has been abrogated by his coming. In a time when the temptation of “cheap grace” is as strong as it has ever been, it is good to be reminded of this truth. As various Reformed scholars have argued (including Anthony Hoeksema and Richard Gaffin), mentioning of a final judgment according to works simply reinforces the notion found elsewhere in Scripture that faith must necessarily issue in works and that, though we are not saved by works, we are not saved without them either. And finally, there is of course Wright’s much-needed reminder of the historical and global sweep of the covenant and of its implications for mission. On all these points we can learn from him.

In conclusion: Yes, Wright must be read critically, and John Piper is doing us a favour not just in showing us this but also in guiding us in our reading. Of course, critical reading is required of us in any case, also in that of Piper himself. If that is kept in mind, I heartily recommend both Piper and the response of N.T. Wright (as well as Wright’s other popular books to which I referred). Whatever the shortcomings of his theology, Wright does open our eyes to aspects of the gospel and its riches that we may be in danger of forgetting. But in case there is still a suspicion that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I quote these words of commendation by John Piper himself: “I am thankful for [Wright’s] strong commitment to Scripture as his final authority, his defense and celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God, his vindication of the deity of Christ, his belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, his biblical disapproval of homosexual conduct, and the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham – and more” (Piper, pp. 15f.).

11 comments:

David said...

Thanks for addressing this topic. I find the treatment of Wright in some Reformed circles absolutely mystifying.

You were quite charitable with Piper. In fact, The Future of Justification is not a very helpful book. Piper brings up all kinds of irrelevant matters (for example, acknowledging that Wright holds to penal substitution while subtly questioning this at the same time). Most importantly, his exegesis of Paul is flawed because Piper is deeply rooted in the American revivalist tradition. Piper at bottom cannot understand the gospel in covenantal categories.

To give just one example, Piper does not really understand that God's covenant commitment (his faithfulness) is expressed in both salvation and judgment. So he says (page 70, note 18) that the "righteousness of God" cannot refer to God's "covenant faithfulness" in Rom 3:5 because what is at issue is God's punishment of sin. Here and elsewhere (68 n.17) Piper writes as though God's covenant faithfulness must have an exclusively positive valence; it can only refer to salvation and not to judgment. This ought to be strange to any Reformed reader. It is just one clue that Wright is a much stronger and more reliable covenant theologian than John Piper.

David DeJong
South Bend, IN

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I thank Rev. John van Popta for the following correction (received by private mail): “N.T. Wright is no longer Bishop of Durham. He recently (Aug 2010) resigned that ecclesiastical office and took up an appointment as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the
University of St Andrews in Scotland.”

John also lent me his copy of Gerhard H. Visscher’s Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise (2009), a book based on Dr. Visscher’s doctoral dissertation. Besides providing helpful definitions of the NPP, Visscher offers a critical assessment of the approach while at the same time recognizing its positive aspects. A summary of this learned and rather technical book is of course out of the question, but I recommend it to readers who are looking for a detailed evaluation of the movement by a trusted Reformed theologian.

Josh Walker said...

Dave,

I am currently working through Piper's book. I was wondering if you have an example of Piper's "flawed" exegesis that is in the mainline of his argument (i.e. not in a footnote)?

I think all Reformed theologians, even those who find most of N.T. Wright unhelpful or even wrong, would agree that Piper misses the covenantal aspect(s) of this discussion. All that to say, I was wondering if there are sections of Piper's argument, in the main, that are "flawed".

Josh Walker
Hamilton, ON

David said...

Hi Josh,

You’ve drawn me in to a longer response, which I was desperately trying to avoid. :)I don't really have the time to provide detailed interaction with Piper; however, I do find Piper’s exegetical arguments flawed throughout the book.

The one problem that I wanted to point to was Piper’s misunderstanding of the fundamental structure of the covenant, as this is something that would be of particular interest to Reformed readers. This problem does not occur only in the footnotes. The entire discussion from pages 62-71 is Piper’s vigorous attempt to interpret Romans without reference to the covenant. He does by claiming the phrase the “righteousness of God” does not mean God’s “covenant faithfulness” but refers instead to God’s commitment to his own glory. But pitting God’s commitment to be faithful to Himself against His commitment to be faithful to the covenant is wrongheaded; the entire argument is rooted in a false dilemma. This leads Piper to offer very strange and straining exegeses of Rom 3:1-8, 25-26 in particular. (See Wright’s comments, Justification, 64: “I am not aware of any other scholar, old perspective, new perspective, Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, anyone, who thinks that [the “righteousness of God”] actually means ‘God’s own concern for God’s own glory’.”)

Piper’s attempt to dispatch with the troublesome concept of covenant is clear on p.66 where he tries to claim that Paul develops his doctrine of sin “without reference to a covenant.” Piper has made the classic forest/trees mistake here, as the entire argument of Rom 1:18-3:20 is structured according to covenantal categories of Jew/Gentile! Whenever you have a theologian trying so hard to interpret Scripture without reference to the covenant, Reformed readers ought to be suspicious.

CONTD

David said...

Piper’s treatment of Romans 2 is also extremely disappointing (104-110). He avoids v.16 completely in his discussion (esp. 109), because that verse rules out the interpretation of Rom 2 as a “hypothetical” judgment according to works, which he seems to prefer. He goes on, however, to offer a later account of the relationship between works and faith that is fully compatible with Wright (making one wonder why he has so many difficulties with Wright on Romans 2).

I won’t get into the rest of Piper’s book, though I must say I find most of his arguments strained. The book is less helpful than the commendation on this blog suggests. Wright’s Justification is much stronger. It is an exegetical tour de force. I don’t agree with everything Wright says, but I do think there are undisputed gains in Pauline interpretation today thanks to the NPP. Furthermore I think in this book Wright clearly backs away from some of the rhetoric that made the NPP problematic. He now sees that it’s not an either/or between ecclesiology and soteriology, but can in fact be a both/and.

Some of the gains I see resulting from the NPP:

(1) The ecclesiological dimension of justification is acknowledged. The NPP has tried in some cases to make this the primary or exclusive aspect of justification, which is clearly wrong (see Westerholm on this). But the Reformed tradition is equally wrong if they cast justification in exclusively soteriological terms. This is a false dilemma, as Rom 3:28 classically shows (“OR is God the God of the Jews only?”)

(2) The eschatological component of justification comes to the fore. We are justified by faith because to live by faith means to live in the present anticipation of God’s final verdict, which will be according to works. Paul agrees with Hebrews 11 once again.

(3) The covenantal basis to Paul’s thought is brought to the foreground. Paul is no longer interpreted in universal anthropological categories but in terms of God’s dealings with Israel and the promise to the nations.

(4) The study of Paul and the OT has flourished (Hays, etc.) in wake of the NPP precisely because it provides the theoretical context in which Paul’s concern is that of the OT, i.e., God’s covenant with Abraham and the promise to the nations.

Of course, the debate is not over and when the dust has settled I expect we’ll find that Augustine, Calvin, and Luther were all good interpreters of Paul as well. It has been convenient for the NPP to use the rhetoric of rejecting tradition in order to claim that it is presenting Paul “as he really was.” In fact as any post-modern knows we all read Paul through the lens of our day, and the NPP’s distinctly ecumenical lens is no less part of the spirit of time than was Luther’s exclusively soteriological lens in his. However the Zeitgeist does not necessarily distort Paul; it may also open up new avenues of interpretation that are helpful and true. What I am saying is, I think there are ways to affirm the good in the NPP without giving up the truth that in the gospel God saves by grace without reference to human merit (something Wright would in fact affirm).

Blessings!

David DeJong
South Bend, IN

Bill DeJong said...

Thanks for this wonderful contribution, Freda. I side with David in concluding that Wright's overall theology is more compatible with Reformed theology than Piper's. Piper cannot escape his baptistic orientation which inevitably ignores the communal and cosmic dimensions of redemption. I do wonder, however, whether Wright doesn't sometimes ignore the individual dimension. Nick Perrin made this point at the 2010 Theology Conference at Wheaton College in terms of repentance. For Wright, repentance is primarily a political call for Israel, with eschatological implications, to abandon revolutionary and militant zeal. Think of Wright's reference to that account in Josephus's autobiography in which Josephus instructs a brigand to "repent and believe," i.e, abandon his revolutionary tactics and trust Josephus and other aristocrats to work out a peaceful solution with Rome (Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 251]) Israel's refusal to repent, Wright emphasizes, would result in national catastrophe, i.e., Jerusalem would be destroyed. I have no doubt that this is part of what repentance means for Jesus, but didn't failure to repent have eschatological implications for the individual, transcending the destruction of Jerusalem? Perhaps Dave can respond to this.

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, Ontario

David said...

Hi Bill,

This is a good question and one that Wright has repeatedly faced from Reformed scholars, including Richard Gaffin. I think the parallel Wright draws to Josephus is apt but I think it only captures one aspect of the proclamation of both John the Baptist and Jesus. In fact, a better analogy is found in the prophets of the OT. Let me pose a question to you. If you substitute “Ezekiel” for “Jesus,” would you still pose the question in the same way? Here is your question with the substitution:

“Israel's refusal to repent . . . would result in national catastrophe, i.e., Jerusalem would be destroyed. I have no doubt that this is part of what repentance means for Ezekiel, but didn't failure to repent have eschatological implications for the individual, transcending the destruction of Jerusalem?”

I think it’s clear that for the prophets of the Old Covenant, the significance for the individual is only to be seen in light of the impending covenantal judgment. Individual repentance is important, but it doesn’t “transcend” covenantal judgment. In fact, I think posing the question with the OT prophets in view shows that the way you’ve phrased the question is a false dilemma. Of course, Jesus is not Ezekiel. But, in his teaching and his parables, he does consistently place himself in the line of the prophets that have called upon Jerusalem to repent. Furthermore he understands his own impending death in these terms: no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.

The problem with the way you’re putting the issue is nicely highlighted in your summary: “For Wright, repentance is primarily a political call for Israel, with eschatological implications, to abandon revolutionary and militant zeal.” However, for Wright, the dichotomy between what is “political” and what is “religious” simply does not apply to the first century. There is and can be no “merely political” call to Israel because the context for politics in the first century is the covenant.

That said, I do think you’re correct to point out that Wright overemphasizes Israel’s “revolutionary and militant zeal.” Wright wants this to be the “problem” with Israel because this supports his redefinition of justification in Paul (particularly his understanding of Israel’s failure in, eg., Rom 9-10). But for John the Baptist and Jesus, like the OT prophets, the primary problem with Israel is not their revolutionary zeal (though both Isaiah and Jeremiah do speak to this, and counsel against revolution). Rather it is that their sin is going to bring the judgment of God. This is a way of getting at the concern for the individual that you rightly want to see without trying to do so in spite of the covenantal context.

CONT’D

David said...

I tend to shy away from critiquing Wright too strongly on this issue. In our North American context a somewhat unbalanced and myopic preoccupation with soteriology (construed individualistically) is still the dominant paradigm in evangelicalism. And this is not only the case in broader evangelicalism. Though the Reformed tradition prides itself on at least having an ecclesiology, nevertheless in the past century or so debates about the relationship between covenant and election (i.e., issues of individual soteriology) have been prominent in the Reformed tradition and have even contributed to the existence of several different denominations in North America. The common denominator in these debates is angst over the assurance of individual salvation, and whether our experience can serve as a criterion by which God’s work of salvation (justification, sanctification) can be known and evaluated. These may be important questions, in their place, but they result more from Pietism and its pervasive influence than from Scripture itself.

It was the view of K. Barth that the obsession with assurance of individual salvation as it emerged in Pietism was an unavoidable outcome of the Reformation itself. That is, because Luther put the justification of the individual sinner at the forefront of Protestant theology, the Reformation was bound to lead to Pietism, and ultimately to the very tenuous situation in which the reality of God’s work is grounded on the vicissitudes of human experience. Barth tried to provide a theological solution to this problem; whether he was successful is of course highly debatable. I think Wright is reacting to the same problem, but he’s attempting to address it exegetically by claiming that the Protestant Reformation was in fact wrong on Paul. This is a strategy that I think will be more successful than Barth’s. It is a goal that inevitably leads to overemphasis of certain aspects of NT teaching at the expense of interpretations with which we are more familiar and comfortable. While I don’t agree with Wright on every issue or on the interpretation of every verse, I am on board with his project of criticizing the extensive influence of Pietism. I apologize for giving such a long response, but I strongly feel Wright’s so-called de-emphasis of “individual salvation” can only be fairly evaluated in light of this basic theological program (a program, I think, to which Schilder and his heirs might be sympathetic).

David DeJong
South Bend, IN

David Newton said...

Hi David and thanks for your helpful comments above, especially regarding pietism's skewed reading of scripture through it's overly individualistic soteriology. If I can just earth this discussion a little...

Let's say you're entering a lift (I think you might call it an elevator) on the ground floor, heading for level 30. As you get in you bump into an old friend. He remembers that at university you were "into religion and always talking about the 'good news'". Then he tells you he's got cancer and has a limited time to live. He concludes, "I remember you told me once that in the bible a man asked, 'how do I inherit eternal life?' So how do I? What is this 'good news' about anyway?" By now you are 15 floors up. My question is, what would you (or to NTW) for that matter, say to him in the remaining 30 seconds or so?

Warm regards, David Newton
Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand

David said...

Hi David,

I had to read through the discussion to remember what it was about! Glad it can still be of benefit, several years later.

I can't and wouldn't speak for NTW, but I can tell you what I might say. Because the man is referring to the story of the rich young man, I would take the cue to finish the story, as follows:

"Well, I hope we can discuss this over coffee sometime. Jesus' response to that man boils down to a two-word command, 'Follow me.' The Christian claim is that it is in becoming a disciple of Jesus and living in obedience to him that our lives find their true meaning and purpose. Becoming a disciple of Jesus sets you on the path of life. We believe that your cancer is not just some random meaningless mutation of cells. Your life is precious in God's sight and the threat to your life is not in line with God's vision of how the world should be. To follow Jesus is to take a path that can help you make sense of suffering and death and lead you to new life and hope. I hope you'll take me up on that coffee."

(Doubt I could say that in 30 seconds, but it indicates where I would want to go.)

David DeJong
South Bend

David Newton said...

Thanks for your reply David, good of you to take the time... I guess my question was less to do with “cancer" per se than sin and what this means for us personally/ existentially. I am not sure “follow Jesus” (i.e. ‘become part of what God is doing”), addresses this. To expand…

In a recent review of Wrights new book on ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, one reviewer wrote:
“…Reformed systematics (and it's distant cousin, Western evangelical theology), frequently want to address the kinds of questions raised by post-Augustinian scholastics. Wright tries to answer questions occupying Jews and Gentiles two millennia ago by understanding their stories. Introspective Luther, (that Augustinian monk!), asked: "How can I find a gracious God?" Paul's question is a bit different: "How is the gracious God going to get this derailed Creation project back on track?" That discovery satisfies every Luther, for sure. And it opens up a world far beyond our own (though important) consciences and private lives…”

As true as this may be, and accepting that, yes, we can go for a coffee – even a very long one – to discuss… such a reply doesn’t help my old friend reconcile with his maker –let alone “enter into God’s story”. The beauty of both Luther and Calvin is that, for all their considerable sophistication (like other world changers – e.g. Marx), their ideas are both easily comprehensible, communicable and transformative.

I accept that Western protestant/ reformed theology may well be guilty in over-personalising the Gospel (though as an Anglican evangelical converted from a socialist background this has never an issue for me or those who discipled me or those I have discipled over the years), but in the end, all human beings (and I speak as someone who has lived for some years in north East Africa and then the Middle east – both strongly communal cultures - through famine and war), decide and act and live and die as individuals.

As Hans Fallada would say, “every man dies alone”. Wright’s broad scoped and rich complexity may well address a number of issues foisted on us by the ‘new (middle aged?) perspective’ but doesn’t seem to address this pastoral issue.

In Christ
David Newton
Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand