N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians. He is the only theologian I have ever paid to hear, and I thought it was worth the money. I once heard him lecture on worship, and when he was done I was pretty sure I had never worshiped before in my life. I enthusiastically endorse his call for a robust theology of creation—and have written extensively myself to that end.
The highlight of my academic career occurred at the ETS meeting in San Antonio. My paper was scheduled for the same time and room number as Wright’s, but in a different building. To avoid confusion hotel staff stood outside my room and announced to everyone who entered that the N.T. Wright lecture was someplace else. So regardless what happens from here on, my work has been forever linked with his.
Despite my appreciation for Wright, I resonated with the questions raised by John Piper in The Future of Justification (Crossway, 2007). I thought Piper put his finger on something important when he asked, Does Wright’s emphasis on a future justification by works “undermine present justification as justification by faith alone” (129)? Is it “likely that his view will be co-opted as confirmation of the Catholic way”? (183).
I was hoping that Wright would address these questions in Justification (IVP, 2009), but his strategic decision to outflank Piper meant that he never directly addressed his concerns. After reading Justification I had the following question: If our present justification by faith anticipates our final justification by works (102, 187, 191, 214, 234, 238), then it seems that ultimately we are justified by works. Isn’t this Catholic?
Friends helped me process my misunderstanding. They said that Wright’s view is still Protestant because he is defining justification differently, as an ecclesiological rather than soteriological category. It’s not about how you get in but how you know you are in.
Fine, I said. But Cyprian taught us that “outside the church there is no salvation,” so ecclesiological and soteriological categories are not easily divided. Wright himself makes this point in Justification: “Is this ‘ecclesiology’ as opposed to ‘soteriology’? Of course not. It is ecclesiology (membership in God’s people) as the advance sign of soteriology (being saved on the last day). It is ‘justification’ in the present, anticipating the verdict of the future” (146-47). “Nor is this—as critics of the new perspective have said ad nauseam, and I understand why—to replace soteriology with ecclesiology…. But it isn’t an either-or. The whole point of the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world always was to deal with the sin and death that had infected humans and the whole creation” (132-33).
Yes, my friends said, but Wright’s use of justification is ecclesiological rather than soteriological because for him justification is the evidence of salvation (you are in) rather than what leads to salvation (how to get in). Justification is God declaring that you are a member of his covenant people; it is not about how you become one of those saved members. Justification is not a salvific act. It is about assurance. At present faith is the evidence that we are in the covenant family, while in the future we will have an entire life of good works to serve as evidence.
This discussion gave me an idea for this paper. Given that Wright redefines justification, what is his term for the traditional concept of justification (how we are righteous before God; i.e., how we “get in”)? What term does Wright use to do the work that justification used to do, and does that event come by faith or by works? I will focus on Justification, What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), and his Romans commentary (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, 2002), assuming that if Wright has a term for the old perspective on justification he will surely use it here.
Note: this paper is not attempting to assess whether Wright is right (there’s a pun you’ll hear a hundred more times before the weekend is over). I appreciate how Wright has enlarged our understanding of the gospel to include its implications for unity in the church, though I don’t think that he has to downplay the Reformation understanding of justification to get there. I am not persuaded by his new (he would say recovered) definition of justification, his rejection of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and his interpretation of 2 Cor. 5:21. But the goal of this paper is to understand Wright on his own terms—is his view sufficiently Protestant, or might it lead in a Roman Catholic direction?