ETS paper: my final question

Is Wright’s view broad enough to include both Roman Catholics and Protestants?  A position broad enough to include Roman Catholics is insufficiently Protestant.

Protestants believe that our acceptance with God is by faith alone while the best (Augustinian) Roman Catholics say it is faith and works (yet still grace alone).  If Wright’s view is broad enough to include both faith and works, then it can’t be narrowed to faith alone.

Here are the reasons I raise this question:

1. Wright may not appreciate the differences between RC and Protestants.

a. He underestimates the impact of Pelagianism and the difference between RC and Protestants.  Note how the following quote conflates Augustine’s view of justification with Luther’s and Calvin’s, thereby obscuring the difference between RC and Protestant views.  I wasn’t there, but I doubt that the best explanation of Luther’s doctrine of justification was expounded by a Jesuit.   

“There is simply no way that human beings can make themselves fit for the presence or salvation of God.  What is more, I know of no serious theologian, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, who thinks otherwise; indeed, one of the best expositions of the Augustinian or Lutheran or Calvinist doctrine of justification I have ever heard was given by a Jesuit, Father Edward Yarnold, in an ecumenical meeting.  If Pelagius survives at all today, it is at the level of popular secular moralism, which is in any case becoming harder and harder to find in the Western world” (Justification, 116).

b. He thinks that justification should unite rather than divide RC and Protestants.  This makes sense given Wright’s redefinition of justification, but it is far from Luther’s “the article by which the church stands or falls” and Calvin’s “the hinge upon which all religion turns.”

“The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor.  It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family…Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself, properly conceived, isn’t the thing which should determine eucharistic fellowship” (WSPRS, 158-159).

2. Wright’s generic description of conversion is insufficiently nuanced to address the specific question of how we become right with God.  He seems to conflate sanctification with justification (understood in the traditional sense).

“This is the point at which it is idle to complain that I, or others who take a similar position, are encouraging people to ‘trust in anyone or anything other than the crucified and resurrected Savior.’  Is it wrong, or heretical, to declare that as well as and also because of our absolute faith in the crucified and resurrected Savior, we also trust in the life-giving Spirit who enables us to say ‘Abba!  Father!’ (Romans 8:12-16) and ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Corinthians 12:3)?  Of course not.  For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ includes a trust in the Spirit, not least, a sure trust that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of the Messiah’ (Philippians 1:6).” [Justification, 107].

“Paul invites his hearers to trust both in Jesus Christ and in the Father whose love triumphed in the death of his Son—and in the Holy Spirit who makes that victory operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return (Romans 5:5; 8:28).  The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical.  It is also insufficiently Trinitarian” (Justification, 239).

Wright correctly notes that we must believe in the Spirit as well as Jesus, but this is precisely the point that Protestants want to make clear.  Belief in Jesus is the door to justification, while the Spirit’s empowerment for good works belongs to sanctification.  Protestants take pains to distinguish justification from sanctification, so it isn’t enough to say that we believe in the Son and Spirit and leave it at that.  More precision and nuance is required for the Protestant view.

3. Wright may include baptism as a vital part of our conversion.  My Baptist tradition ironically places too little emphasis on baptism (it’s merely an optional step of obedience), but I wonder if Wright’s view is too strong.  He says that those who have been baptized have been “set free from the guilt, penalty, and power” of this evil age.  I would like to hear more precisely what baptism does and doesn’t do for our salvation.

“The context and argument…is all about God’s strange but single plan for the family of Abraham, now accomplished in the apocalyptic events of the faithful Messiah’s death and resurrection, generating a single family who are characterized by faith, and who through baptism have left behind their old solidarities to discover their inheritance as Abraham’s children, God’s children” (Justification, 132). 

“Paul is assuming that those who have believed in the Messiah and have been baptized into him have thereby been set free from the guilt, penalty, and power of ‘the present evil age’ and their own membership and behavior within it” (Justification, 134).

My Conclusion:  Wright’s view needs further development to safeguard the Protestant understanding of how we are right with God.  Specifically, I would like to hear a precise term that arises from biblical texts which teach that our acceptance with God comes by faith alone.  As it stands, I believe that Wright’s view is broad enough to include both Roman Catholics and Protestants, which by definition means it is insufficiently Protestant.


Add yours →

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for posting your critique. I wonder about Wright’s underlying hermeneutic and whether he is so committed to what he thinks Paul meant or his original audience would have understood that he leaves no room for Scripture to speak contemporaneously. Beyond that, I also wonder whether his assumptions about what Paul meant or didn’t mean are too narrow to permit the Spirit to speak through Paul’s words a Truth that transcends the mere words. We know Paul liked to find spiritual significance in the OT texts; should we be so surprised to find deeper truths hidden in his words.

    Maybe Wright needs to read Steinmitz’s article you posted on several months ago. Just a thought.

  2. Mike:
    Thanks for posting your paper. It is very balanced and helpful.

    … paul

  3. Should we be surprised? From a distance I could see red flags (and green bibles) with N.T. Wright.

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