Tuesday, May 11, 2004

N.T. Wright: Rutherford House Lecture on St. Paul (With My Reactions)

Rutherford House, Edinburgh
10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25–28 August 2003
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham


This will be excerpts, highlighting the more "Catholic" and less "traditional" Reformed elements of Wright's thoughts (I won't bother always adding ellipses but I will at least separate material from different paragraphs). My comments will be in blue:


There are several different agendas coming together at this point. The issue is sometimes treated as a variation on old modernist controversies, at other times as a clash between a Christian absolutism and a religious relativism, and at other times as a variation on a perceived protestant/catholic divide (or even a high-church/low-church divide), with the so-called new perspective focusing on ecclesiology rather than soteriology and being condemned for so doing. And that’s just the beginning. From time to time correspondents draw my attention to various websites on which you can find scathing denunciations of me for abandoning traditional protestant orthodoxy and puzzled rejoinders from people who have studied my work and know that I’m not saying what many of my critics say I’m saying. Go to amazon.com and look at the comments which anonymous correspondents have appended to some of my books.

Poor guy. I can relate on a very minor scale -- see the denunciations of me on the sidebar which make me resemble a cross between Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler. I look at some of this stuff, look around the room, and think, "is this ME they are talking about"? I admire Wright for seemingly accepting the nonsense written about him with such cheer. Good for him.

When I began research on Paul, thirty years ago this autumn, my aim was to understand Paul in general and Romans in particular better than I had done before, as part of my heartfelt and lifelong commitment to scripture, and to the sola scriptura principle, believing that the better the church understands and lives by scripture the better its worship, preaching and common life will be. I was conscious of thereby standing methodologically in the tradition of the reformers, for whom exegesis was the lifeblood of the church, and who believed that Scripture should stand over against all human traditions. I have not changed this aim and this method, nor do I intend to.

So Wright comes to his conclusions essentially from Scripture alone, not from a nefarious, heretical, jesuitical "Romish influence".

I believe that often both sides were operating with mistaken understandings of Paul. I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many of the others would tell us to read scripture afresh, with all the tools available to us – which is after all what they did – and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and I believe I am honouring them thereby.

Luther's and Calvin's arbitrarily dogmatic attitudes towards their own proclamations and dissent against them often contradicted their own stated principles, but as far as their theoretical statements on authority, sola Scriptura, etc., Wright is, I believe, correct.

I was puzzled by one exegetical issue in particular, which I here oversimplify for the sake of summary. If I read Paul in the then standard Lutheran way, Galatians made plenty of sense, but I had to fudge (as I could see dozens of writers fudging) the positive statements about the Law in Romans. If I read Paul in the Reformed way . . . Romans made a lot of sense, but I had to fudge . . . the negative statements about the Law in Galatians.

. . . it dawned on me, I think in 1976, that a different solution was possible. In Romans 10.3 Paul, writing about his fellow Jews, declares that they are ignorant of the righteousness of God, and are seeking to establish ‘their own righteousness’. The wider context, not least 9.30–33, deals with the respective positions of Jews and Gentiles within God’s purposes – and with a lot more besides, of course, but not least that. Supposing, I thought, Paul meant ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness’, not in the sense of a moral status based on the performance of Torah and the consequent accumulation of a treasury of merit, but an ethnic status based on the possession of Torah as the sign of automatic covenant membership? I saw at once that this would make excellent sense of Romans 9 and 10, and would enable the positive statements about the Law throughout Romans to be given full weight while making it clear that this kind of use of Torah, as an ethnic talisman, was an abuse. I sat up in bed that night reading through Galatians and saw that at point after point this way of looking at Paul would make much better sense of Galatians, too, than either the standard post-Luther readings or the attempted Reformed ones.

This fits in with my own longtime understanding, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic, that the New Covenant was a continuation and consistent development of the Old, that Grace was not unalterably opposed to Law, but rather, that Jesus came to "fulfill" the Law, not abolish it (Matthew 5:17-18). I hadn't worked it all through as Wright has, of course, but what he is saying is perfectly consistent with my more typically "Reformed" (and Catholic) -- rather than dispensational or revivalistic or "pietistic" -- understanding of the relationship between Law and Grace.

In other words, this makes a great deal of sense to me and strikes me as a very helpful exegetical insight that transcends the Catholic-Protestant debate (since I myself would have agreed with this while on either side of the fence). And I cited my friend Al Kresta at length in my first book, expressing a lot of this same kind of thought (because he had hundreds of commentaries in his library and kept up with the field of professional exegesis, as a pastor and Christian talk show host).

I came to this position, not because I learned it from Sanders or Dunn, but because of the struggle to think Paul’s thoughts after him as a matter of obedience to scripture.

Amen! May we all be afflicted with this disease!

It is blindingly obvious when you read Romans and Galatians – though you would never have known this from any of the theologians we discussed yesterday – that virtually whenever Paul talks about justification he does so in the context of a critique of Judaism and of the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ. As an exegete determined to listen to scripture rather than abstract my favourite bits from it I cannot ignore this. The only notice that most mainstream theology has taken of this context is to assume that the Jews were guilty of the kind of works-righteousness of which theologians from Augustine to Calvin and beyond have criticised their opponents . . . What I miss entirely in the Old Perspective, but find so powerfully in some modern Pauline scholarship, is Paul’s sense of an underlying narrative, the story of God and Israel, God and Abraham, God and the covenant people, and the way in which that story came to its climax, as he says, ‘when the time had fully come’ with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This is excellent analysis. In other words, Paul's concern is with narrative, story, salvation history, development of historic soteriology and of the Jewish understanding of eschatological salvation along with the new Christian expansions upon and development of same, with the fuller revelation of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete -- as opposed to mere abstract formulae (which is a far more "Greek" approach than a biblical, Hebraic one).

Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War, and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals got tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its proponents together, and nuke them from a great height. That has not made a pretty sight. Speaking as one of those who is regularly thus carpet-bombed, what I find frustrating is the refusal of the traditionalists to do three things: first, to differentiate the quite separate types of New Perspective; second, to engage in the actual exegetical debates upon which the whole thing turns, instead of simply repeating a Lutheran or similar line as though that settled matters; and third, to recognise that some of us at least are brothers in Christ who have come to the positions we hold not because of some liberal, modernist or relativist agenda but as a result of prayerful and humble study of the text which is and remains our sole authority.

It is ironic that many of the same folks who engage in anti-Catholic propaganda and slander, now turn their sights also onto the cutting-edge of current-day Protestant exegesis. They assume that any exciting new development must be a corruption of what came before. But this isn't surprising, given their overall fundamentalistic, sectarian, exclusivistic mindset. They are bound by their own categories, while those of us who remain orthodox within our own historic Christian traditions (and more in tune with the actual heritage, rather than post-Enlightenment, post-liberal caricatures and bastardized versions of it) can freely talk about this stuff without all the ludicrous charges flying around.

To give the devil his due, however, I can see how many elements in Wright's thought do overturn many centuries of cherished Protestant traditions (even in some key areas). So in a sense, one can understand a strong reaction against this. It appears at first glance (from one perspective) just like all the usual liberal attacks on received precedent and doctrine. But if one assumes, like Wright, that even Luther and Calvin could have been wrong on some things, then it shouldn't pose a problem within a Protestant perspective. Wright could be disagreed with, but shouldn't be demonized and hung in effigy.

Like Calvin, we must claim the right to stand critically within a tradition . . . if we are siblings in Christ there are, I think, appropriate ways of addressing one another and of speaking about one another, and I regret that these have not always characterized the debate.


I begin where Romans begins – with the gospel. My proposal is this. When Paul refers to ‘the gospel’, he is not referring to a system of salvation, though of course the gospel implies and contains this, nor even to the good news that there now is a way of salvation open to all, but rather to the proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and thereby demonstrated to be both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. ‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.

I have been stating this (or something close to it, at any rate) for 23 years now, both as a Protestant and as a Calvinist. I fought Protestants on this point as one of them, and continue to do so as a Catholic, having little success. So it is refreshing to hear a prominent Protestant exegete agree with me. Thus I wrote in my 1997 paper, "What is the Gospel?":

It's quite curious to me that so many Protestants want to define the gospel in the strict sense of "justification by faith alone," when the Bible itself is very explicit and clear that this is not the case at all . . . St. Paul defines the gospel in Acts 13:16-41 as the Resurrection of Jesus (vss. 32-33), and in 1 Cor 15:1-8 as His death, burial, and Resurrection . . . The gospel is -- as Paul teaches -- the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus. This is the "good news," not some technical soteriological theory. Even common sense would dictate that this "good news" is comprised of Jesus' redemptive work for us - the great historical drama of His Incarnation and Atonement, not forensic,
"legal," imputed justification! And the Prophets foretold these events, not a fine-tuned theory of application of those events to the believer -- irregardless of whoever has the correct theory. How could a mere theological abstract reasonably be called "good news"?

. . . Catholics and Protestants both hold to the gospel as biblically defined above. We differ on questions of justification, which is the application of salvation and the gospel and Jesus' work to the individual, not the gospel itself. Nor is TULIP (Calvinism) the gospel, strictly speaking. The key is the absolute primacy of grace and the utter condemnation of Pelagianism in both systems.

. . . since the gospel is the heraldic proclamation of Jesus as Lord, it is not first and foremost a suggestion that one might like to enjoy a new religious experience. Nor is it even the take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation. It is a royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance; and the form that this submission and obedient allegiance takes is of course faith. That is what Paul means by ‘the obedience of faith’.

How different from the usual "four spiritual laws" presentation of the "gospel" in so many biblical quarters today. Catholics have other problems. As individuals we scarcely proclaim the gospel at all. So in one camp it is skewed and wrongly-defined; in the other it is hardly heard except in church.

Despite some odd recent attempts to deny this, if you want to understand forensic justification you must go to the law-court and find how the metaphor works. In the Jewish lawcourt Paul would have known, there is no Director of Public Prosecutions; there is a judge, with a plaintiff and a defendant appearing before him. When the case has been heard, the judge finds in favour of one party and against the other. Once that has happened, the vindicated party possesses the status ‘righteous’ – not itself a moral statement, we note, but a statement of how things stand in terms of the now completed lawsuit. As someone said to me yesterday, it all depends what you mean by ‘righteous’. But this status of righteousness has nothing to do with the righteousness of the judge. For the judge to be righteous, it is necessary that he try the case fairly, refuse bribes or other favouritism, uphold the law, and take special note for the helpless, the widows, and so on. When either the plaintiff or the defendant is declared ‘righteous’ at the end of the case, there is no sense that in either case the judge’s own righteousness has been passed on to them, by imputation, impartation, or any other process. What they have is a status of ‘righteous’ which comes from the judge. Let me stress, in particular, that when the judge finds in favour of one party or the other, he quite literally makes the righteous; because ‘righteous’ at this point is not a word denoting moral character, but only and precisely the status that you have when the court has found in your favour. If this had been kept in mind in earlier centuries a great deal of heartache and puzzle might have been avoided.

Fascinating. I love stuff like this, that gets back to the culture behind the biblical metaphors.

Is there then no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in, for instance, Romans 5.14–21? Yes, there is; but my case is that this is not God’s own righteousness, or Christ’s own righteousness, that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of ‘covenant member’, and/or ‘justified sinner’, which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith’.

More than enough to rattle more than a few Protestant cages . . . :-)

. . . it seems that there has been a massive conspiracy of silence on something which was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16 . . . here is the first statement about justification in Romans, and lo and behold it affirms justification according to works! The doers of the law, he says, will be justified (2.13). Shock, horror; Paul cannot (so many have thought) have really meant it. So the passage has been treated as a hypothetical position which Paul then undermines by showing that nobody can actually achieve it; or, by Sanders for instance, as a piece of unassimilated Jewish preaching which Paul allows to stand even though it conflicts with other things he says. But all such theories are undermined by exegesis itself, not least by observing the many small but significant threads that stitch Romans 2 into the fabric of the letter as a whole . . . The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation . . .

I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works . . . he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him. We are embarrassed about saying this kind of thing; Paul clearly is not. What on earth can have happened to a sola scriptura theology that it should find itself forced to screen out such emphatic, indeed celebratory, statements?

Praise God for this!! I have made this point (when I didn't know N.T. Wright from one of the brothers who invented the airplane) in my chapter on justification in my first book, pointing out how Paul has many statements about works in this sense (without denying the primacy of grace). I also stressed in a failed dialogue with an anti-Catholic Calvinist, that all the scenes of judgment that I could find in Scripture always talked about works alone, and never about faith. I didn't know I was perfectly in line with some of the best Protestant biblical scholarship today. Now I do. And this shows, too, of course, that the Catholic conception of the relationship of faith and works is eminently biblical -- as I have contended for over thirteen years now, to the guffaws and smirks of our beloved anti-Catholic brand of Protestants.

Paul uses ‘justify’ to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who hasn’t before believed the gospel is gripped by the word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as the risen Lord. Here is the central point in the controversy between what I say about Paul and what the tradition, not least the protestant tradition, has said. The tradition has used ‘justify’ and its cognates to denote conversion, or at least the initial moment of the Christian life, and has then debated broader and narrower definitions of what counts. My reading of Paul indicates that he does not use the word like that; and my method, shared with the reformers, insists that I prefer scripture itself to even the finest traditions of interpretation . . . For Paul, ‘justification’ is something that follows on from the ‘call’ through which a sinner is summoned to turn from idols and serve the living God, to turn from sin and follow Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead . . . the final verb in Paul’s sequence is not ‘sanctified’. He would say that this has already happened to all baptised believers (see 1 Corinthians 6.10f.). It is ‘glorified’.

. . . 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. And, near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the ‘call’ of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This is the point about justification by faith – to revert to the familiar terminology: it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future. Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian. And, just as the final declaration will consist, not of words so much as of an event, namely, the resurrection of the person concerned into a glorious body like that of the risen Jesus, so the present declaration consists, not so much of words, though words there may be, but of an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipating that final resurrection. In other words, baptism. I was delighted yesterday to discover that not only Chrysostom and Augustine but also Luther would here have agreed with me. Traditional protestants may not like this much, but it is I submit what Paul is saying.

This thought has much in common with the fashion in which I have analyzed justification in many papers and book chapters: as more of a process; not a one-time event. And he describes justification as the result of baptism. I wove many of these same strands of Scripture together in my lengthy dialogue on baptism, showing that Paul's interplay between sanctification and justification, and their relation to baptism was far different from the usual Protestant paradigms. One of my arguments was as follows:

Titus 3:5 (NIV):

he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Compare this to John 3:5:

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (cf. 3:3: "unless a man is born again ...")

The two passages are almost exactly parallel:

Titus: "saved" / John: "enter the kingdom of God"
Titus: "washing of rebirth" / John: "born of water"
Titus: "renewal by the Holy Spirit" / John: "born . . . of the Spirit"

This is how one interprets Scripture: by comparing it with itself when there are obvious parallels, to help determine what the less clear passages might mean. I think this one is undeniable. What is "washing" in one verse (with two other common elements) is shown to be "water" in the other. Thus, baptism is tied to salvation, in accord with the other verses above. The evidence is strong. 1 Corinthians 6:11, is also similar to Titus 3:5:

And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So the "justified" is the parallel of "kingdom of God" and "saved" in Titus 3:5 and John 3:5; "washed" goes along with "washing of rebirth" and "born of water," and all this was done by the "Spirit." Once again, it is a striking threefold parallelism (now for three passages). Baptism is again being discussed. Furthermore, it is notable in that baptism, justification, and sanctification are all mentioned together. The past tense justification fits in with the Catholic notion of initial justification (cf. the discussion of Abraham's three justifications, above). But in Protestantism, justification (for any true, "saved," elect Christian) is past, and sanctification is in the future, or (more accurately) ongoing. Paul -- not seeming to understand the rules for Protestant theology, places sanctification with justification, not apart from it, and also in the past tense.

According to Romans 6, when God looks at the baptised Christian he sees him or her in Christ. But Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ. That would of course be the wrong meaning of ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’. He sees us within the vindication of Christ, that is, as having died with Christ and risen again with him. I suspect that it was the mediaeval over-concentration on righteousness, on iustitia, that caused the protestant reformers to push for imputed righteousness to do the job they rightly saw was needed. But in my view they have thereby distorted what Paul himself was saying.

It should be noted that the late medieval period was not noted for its sterling teaching on soteriology. There were several versions of Pelagianism floating around among the prevailing nominalists at the time, which ran contrary to the legitimate Catholic orthodox tradition of sola gratia, from the 2nd Council of Orange and St. Thomas Aquinas. Whatever was the cause of these misunderstandings, the early Protestants got it wrong, as Wright contends, because they misinterpreted Paul.

. . . if we are thinking Paul’s thoughts after him, we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead . . . One of the sad ironies of the last four hundred years is that, at least since 1541, we have allowed disputes about how people become Christians – that which we thought was denoted by the language of justification – to divide us, when the doctrine of justification itself, urging us to unite across our cultural divides, went unheard . . . justification by faith tells me that if my Roman neighbour believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead then he or she is a brother or sister, however much I believe them muddled, even dangerously so, on other matters.

Excellent; music to my Bible-loving, ecumenical ears.

I discover an irony in the anti-New Perspective reaction in specifically Reformed circles. The New Perspective launched by Sanders and taken up eagerly in many American contexts was always a reaction, not to Reformed readings of Paul, but to Lutheran ones and the broader protestantism and evangelicalism that went along for the Lutheran ride, particularly in its negative assessment of Judaism and its Law. Had the Reformed reading of Paul, with its positive role for Israel and the Law, been in the ascendancy rather than the Lutheran one, the New Perspective might not have been necessary, or not in that form.

In this case, the Protestant tendency towards false dichotomies has prevailed. Good for Wright, that he refuses to fall prey to that.

I end with a plea. I have lived most of my life in and around evangelical circles in which I have come to recognise a strange phenomenon. It is commonly assumed that Luther and Calvin got Paul right. But often when people think of Luther and Calvin they see them, and hence Paul, through three subsequent lenses provided by western culture. The Enlightenment highlighted the abstract truths of reason over against the messy facts of history; many Protestants have put Lessing and Luther together and still thought they were reading Paul. The Romantic movement highlighted inner feeling over against outer, physical reality; many have thence supposed that this was what Paul, and Luther and Calvin, were really saying (hence the knee-jerk protestant anti-sacramentalism). More recently, existentialism has insisted that what matters is being true to my inner self, rather than being conditioned by history, mine or anyone else’s; many people, not only Rudolf Bultmann, have read Paul and Luther in that light. At a popular level, this mess and muddle shows up in a general sense that anything inward, anything to do with strong religious emotion, anything which downplays outward observance, must be striking a blow for the Pauline gospel of justification by faith. This is as worrying as it is absurd. All these movements are forms of dualism, where Paul believed in the goodness and God-givenness of creation, and in its eventual promised renewal. Together they reinforce that gnosticism which is a poison at the heart of much contemporary culture, including soi-disant Christian culture. It is time to turn away from all this; to rub our eyes, and look clearly at the path by which we and our culture have come.


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