This afternoon I settled into my chair and read N. T. Wright’s essay “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective. In light of this essay I had to go back and revise my article “Is Justification Forensic?” I hope this expanded piece is a bit clearer and more helpful.
It’s hard for me to pin down my disquiet about Wright’s construal of justification. I am simply not persuaded that justification is limited to God’s forensic declaration of who belongs to Israel. I think there are good reasons to believe that the Apostle was thinking of more than that when he spoke of justification by faith. But if Wright is right, then the preaching of the justification texts in the Pauline epistles becomes much more difficult for contemporary preachers–not difficult in the sense of “this is complex material that is hard to express” but difficult in the sense of “why would I want to preach on this given my limited opportunities to preach the gospel in my congregation.” After all, the question of Gentile inclusion in the Church was resolved two millennia ago. This simply isn’t a live issue for anyone. Of course, it is important to instruct the faithful in the story of salvation, beginning with Abraham; but the preacher does not need the language of justification to do so.
Nor do I really understand why Wright keeps saying that justification is not about “becoming a Christian.” Who ever thought that? Augustine? For him justification begins with baptism and continues throughout one’s Christian life. Luther? Only if one does not recognize the decisive importance of baptism for him: Christian existence is nothing but a daily return to baptism and thus to justification. Calvin? I’ll have to defer to those who are knowledgeable in the Reformed tradition. I suspect that Wright’s evangelical roots are betraying him at this point.
Let me also say that I find Wright absolutely energizing to read. Every preacher should read his stuff. One task of preaching is locating our people within the narrative of salvation. Wright teaches us how to do so. It’s just a shame that he is not more deeply informed by the catholic tradition.
Let me also say that Bishop Tom is an absolutely delightful dinner party conversationalist. Christine and I had the privilege of dining with him at our bishop’s home in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania ten years ago. It was a wonderful evening!
Coming from a traditionalist quasi-Anabaptist community, I have found Wright’s approach to justification very helpful. Our own church has split any number of times over issues of facial hair, dress, etc. The question, in my mind, is not simply a matter of Gentile inclusion, but of inclusion period. Why wouldn’t this be relevant today, Christian division abounds? (This may be all the more present in my mind having returned from a trip to Israel, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being a prime example of Christian division.)
As to his focus on the forensic aspect, I too am not sure I’m following. But perhaps one advantage of maintaining the forensic and declarative aspect of justification a short distance apart from the transformative in our theological language is that the importance of remaining united in Christ can be emphasized even when theosis seems to be lacking.
That being said, I do believe John Burnett’s comments on the previous post communicate a Wright approach to the question better than I could.
As Father has said, it was a wonderful evening. A couple of dozen priests & wives from the diocese were present, and there was much gentle jockeying for place going on in order to speak to Bishop Wright. When the time came to sit down to dinner I found, to my utter surprise (and Fr. Aiden’s chagrin–he ended up at another table), that I was seated not only at Bishop Wright’s table but at his right hand! Here I was sitting amongst eager theologians trying to use this opportunity to clear up issues for themselves or, I must sadly admit, call attention to their own brilliance. I tried to be gracious and look like I knew what they were talking about. At one point, however, something was said (I wish I could remember what it was) that struck home with me and I made an authoritative and passionate comment on the subject. Bishop Wright turned to me with a wide smile and said, “That’s exactly it! You’ve hit the nail right on the head!”. I wisely remained mute for the rest of the dinner – at least on theological matters.