The system of salvation by Covenant Nomism that Wright advances is a different gospel.
I was extremely grateful to see Prof. Douglas Kelly's recent article on N.T. Wright and others and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" in PCANEWS. My hope is that it will not only serve to inform members of the Presbyterian Church in America about the nature of the modern attack on the historic Protestant and Reformed doctrine of Justification, but that it will also serve to alert us that members of our own church have come under the influence of these new theories, and that in many cases the doctrines that Prof. Kelly refuted so ably are actually being proclaimed from our pulpits.
As I expected, Prof. Kelly's article is already being assailed by men who have themselves embraced these doctrines, and already the assertion is being made that contrary to Prof. Kelly's essay, N.T. Wright's novel doctrine of Justification is somehow compatible with the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession, and that somehow Wright's New Perspective on Paul is actually "Reformed." This has already been refuted in detailed analyses by men like Prof. Richard Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, writing on the subject in the Westminster Theological Journal, but perhaps another consideration of whether Wright's "New Perspective" on Justification is really Reformed is in order.
A WRIGHTIAN REFORMATION?
If N.T. Wright's view of Justification had prevailed at the time of the Reformation, instead of the Reformational one, then the Reformation and its aftermath would have looked radically different. In fact, most of the developments we have seen in the history of the Reformed church would not have happened at all. For the Reformation doctrine of Justification, I'll be using Calvin's definition:
"Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christs righteousness" (Institutes, 3.11).
This is in substance, the same as Luther's definition, and also the definition that Presbyterians have historically confessed: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 33).
Now when we talk about the Reformation, we need to remember that it occurred because two different issues had reached a point of "critical mass" - the worldliness and corruption of the church, and the promulgation of bad theology. The Roman Catholic counter-Reformation attempted to address the first problem while defending the theology of the second. At the heart of the problem with the theology, lay the doctrine of Justification.
The rediscovery of the Greek texts led the Reformers to conclude that when the Apostles spoke of Justification, they were talking about a forensic or "legal" declaration of acquittal on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, imputed to believers. In other words, they believed that the Bible taught that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of his sheep, he literally propitiated God by expiating the sins of the elect. Their theology necessarily involved what is sometimes called "dual imputation" the doctrine that our sins are imputed to Christ and his perfect righteousness is imputed to us. Thus the believer is declared not guilty and moreover declared to be righteous. This comes through union with Christ, which is on the basis of faith alone (Gal. 2:16).
This was radically different from the Roman doctrine of the time which maintained that righteousness was something that was gradually infused into believers via the sacraments, rather than it being the result of imputation. The Reformed doctrine was, according to the Vatican, a "legal fiction." How, Roman Catholic theologians protested, could God accept someone who wasn't really righteous? They believed imputation eliminated the necessity for real holiness, and without real holiness, no one could be saved.
Those works of obedience that the believer did could not merely be fruits of some sort of inward change, they must have some merit which also stemmed from the grace of God towards our final justification. If doing good works is a necessary part of salvation, they must logically be part of that salvation. Therefore Roman Catholicism maintained that Justification was a process, not a declaration, and that it could not be declared to be finished at any point in a believer's lifetime. For Roman Catholics, developing an ordo salutis, or order of salvation, that logically separated things like justification and sanctification was anathema.
Enter N.T. Wright. Wright's position on Justification is that both the Medieval Roman Catholics AND the Reformers badly misunderstood the Pauline concept of Justification. Both erred, he maintains, in placing it in the realm of soteriology (the theology of salvation) rather than ecclesiology (the theology of the church).
The Reformers, however, got it more wrong than Rome in that they eisegetically misread Paul, assuming that Paul's problems with the Judaizers over the doctrine of Justification were very similar to the Protestant struggle with the Roman church. Like the Dispensationalist who reads the book of Revelation through the lens of modern events in the Middle East, the Reformers read Paul, Wright maintains, through the lens of their struggle with Semi-Pelagianism.
Not only that, Wright believes that Reformers like Luther imported their own psychological angst into the text*, seeing Justification in terms of "How do I, a guilty sinner, get right with a holy God?" and assumed that this was Paul's own inner struggle as well, rather than seeing Justification in Paul's supposedly ecclesiological terms and asking, "Who is a member of God's covenant people?" (Prof. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Penn., masterfully refutes this thesis in an article entitled: A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian available online at: http://www.crcchico.com/covenant/trueman.html/.)
"'Justification' in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people" (N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p.119).
All of the questions therefore that deal with the individual and his judicial standing before God, and the answers and theology that have flowed from them are, Wright asserts, essentially misguided. Our view of Justification should have been corporate, not individual, and dealt with the doctrine of Justification and all the theology that deals with it from the point of view of membership in the covenant of community.
In essence this means that the early church had the right emphasis, from Wright's point of view. Things in a very real sense can be said to have started going seriously wrong with medieval works examining justification in soteriological (and worse yet individual terms) such as Anselm's Why the God Man? This is because according to Wright, salvation is predicated on being a member of the community of believers, it is a belief in Jesus as the resurrected Lord (Wright is conspicuous in preferring to translate the title "Jesus Christ" as King Jesus, rather than Jesus the Savior). Therefore by believing in Jesus the King, I enter into the Covenant Community. It is the members of this Covenant Community who will be justified at the end of time. Therefore faith, rather than being the sole means by which we are individually united to Christ, is a "badge" of my membership in the Covenant Community. Faith is not reckoned as righteousness. For Wright there is no category called "imputed righteousness" the righteousness of God is merely the Pauline way of referring to God's covenant faithfulness. It is God who vindicates the Covenant Community at the end of time.
In other words, Wright teaches that the law court language of the Reformers is fundamentally misguided. If we must use any law court image, it can only have reference to the assurance that at the end of time, God will vindicate his covenant people by declaring that they were right and the people who did not believe were wrong. The massive differences between Wright's view of Justification and that of the Reformed confessions should be quite apparent. It is not a question of individual pardons or declarations of righteousness and it is also not a question of propitiating an angry God. All of those ideas, Wright maintains, belong to the wrong 16th century paradigm. It is God who is the righteous one, and it is his covenant faithfulness (not the imputation of Christ's righteousness) which is the key to his people's final vindication:
"justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be wrong" (ibid, p. 131).
Justification then, according to Wright, has wrongly divided Protestants and Catholics, because we have both viewed it from the wrong soteriological paradigm. It does not concern infused or imputed righteousness. Rather, instead of being divided over Justification, we should have been joined by it. A Christian, a member of the Covenant Community, is someone who believes that Jesus is Lord, the second member of the trinity, that God raised hHim from the dead, and is living in obedience to his commands. In Wright's system, all of this arguing over imputation, how we are saved, how we maintain that salvation, and all the other flotsam and jetsam that divides Protestants and Catholics is ultimately extraneous, because by right of our belief in the risen King Jesus and our desire to obey his commands, we have all entered into the covenant community. Justification is for Wright "the great ecumenical doctrine":
"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" (ibid, p. 158).
Therefore for Wright, everyone who affirms the beliefs he has identified as the essentials belongs at the table of the Lord's Supper, Evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, etc., should sit down together and eat and drink at the great ecumenical meal of the covenant community:
"Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself, properly conceived, isn't the thing which should determine eucharistic fellowship
Believing in Jesus believing that Jesus is Lord, and the God raised him from the dead is what counts" (ibid, p. 159).
SAUL OF TARSUS ALREADY SAVED
Paul then, according to Wright, was already a member of the Covenant Community and thus already Justified, on the Damascus road. What happened is that Paul's world was rocked with the realization that Jesus was Lord and King, and that now entry into the Covenant Community would involve believing in Jesus, it had been extended beyond just the borders of Israel. Thus while Paul's vocation was changed as a result of his encounter with Christ, this was not a conversion from sinner to saint. Rather, it was when Paul went from misguided saint, to saint with a mission.
Wright strongly believes the current historical trend that says that no first century Jew actually believed in an individual works-salvation, he believes that this is an inauthentic overlaying of the Pelagian controversy onto Pauline theology. Instead, Jews held that they would be finally justified vindicated at the final reckoning. It was because they believed and had the "badges" of covenant membership that they were part of the community. Wright teaches that faith, like the sacraments, is one of those badges. What had happened is that the badges changed, the parameters of faith changed to include Jesus as Lord, and the badges changed, too.
Therefore, Paul's conflict with the Galatian Judaizers had nothing to do with a works based salvation; Wright believes that idea to be just another eisegetical mistake of the Reformers. Wright believes that the Galatian problem was with Jews who were attempting to get Christians to accept the Law (which Wright understands in this context as the "National Charter of the Jewish Race") when it was not necessary. Here Wright sums up his view of the message of Galatians: "Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences" (ibid, p. 122). Again, Wright has Justification, the great ecumenical doctrine leading us to the ecumenical meal.
CAN WRIGHT BE REFORMED?
Should we then follow the advice of some of our PCA brethren and import this new perspective into Reformed theology, finally freed up from all this introspective angst (Am I really saved? Is my faith authentic? Am I trusting in Christ ALONE?), and with the knowledge that we have a lot more brothers in Christ than we ever did before? I don't believe that is possible if we are to maintain our orthodoxy. We must, after all, never forget that in speaking of Justification we are not batting around some sort of minor or obscure theological concept. We are speaking of the very thing that Luther described as "the article upon which the church stands or falls." Simply put, if our understanding of Justification becomes defective, we cease to be a true church of Jesus Christ.
Having said that, I am only too well aware that in defending Wright's New Perspective on Justification, some in the Reformed camp have asserted that Wright is not teaching anything essentially at odds with the doctrine of Justification contained in the Westminster Confession. But to adopt this line of argument is disingenuous to say the least, because it contradicts one of Wright's own central theses namely that the historic Reformed perspective on Paul was fundamentally misguided.
As a matter of fact, in defending Wright some have tried to simultaneously maintain that Wright's view of justification is fundamentally the same as that of the Westminster Confession and the view that while there are differences, since the Confession was supposedly written to address theological problems specific to the 17th century, Wright's answers are much better. While I have become used to this kind of sophistry in his defense, I do not personally believe it is good policy to employ it.
To maintain that Wright's new theology is essentially the same as our old Confessional theology is completely untenable; after all, this is the New Perspective not the Old Perspective on Paul and Wright himself attacks the old Reformed understanding. For example Wright frequently uses language regarding Justification like the following:
"Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God" (What St. Paul Really Said, p.120).
Therefore, it would be far better if those within the Reformed camp who choose to defend Wright adopted the stance that Wright's New Perspective on Paul is indeed different from the old Reformed understanding, and then argue that his approach is more scriptural, as Wright himself does. The use of both arguments simultaneously by his Reformed defenders, on the other hand, is simply illogical.
If I can, let me briefly attempt to show where just a few of the fundamental incompatibilities between Wright's New Perspective theology and the theology of the Westminster Confession lie.
As I have shown above, N.T. Wright places Justification under the heading of Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and not Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). This is contrary to the practice of the Reformers and most Reformed systematic theologies that have been published to date. But the fact that he does so highlights the differences between Wright's view of Justification and that of the Reformed. For Wright, Justification is not about "How do I, a guilty sinner, get right with a holy God?" (soteriology), but about "Who is a member of God's Covenant people?" (ecclesiology).
Unfortunately, in an attempt to Reform Wright's theology, his defenders often themselves make several Reformed leaps that Wright himself never makes. For instance, it is sometimes boldly alleged that Wright does indeed teach "justification by faith alone." But while Wright sometimes uses the phrase "justification by faith," I have never once read him use the phrase "justification by faith alone." Apologists will realize that even the Roman Catholics are willing to state that Justification is by faith, but that they will never say that it is by faith alone. Additionally, what his defenders fail to note is that when Wright uses the terms Justification and Faith he means something very different from what the Reformed Standards mean by those terms. For instance, in defining Justification Wright gives us the following definition:
'Justification' is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham. That is how the word works in Paul's writings. It doesn't describe how people get in to God's forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital (The Shape of Justification, N.T. Wright).
Whereas the Larger Catechism says this:
Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone (Larger Catechism, Q.70).
While Wright's defenders may fail to do so, Wright himself understands and makes the critical delineation between his definition and the Reformed one. For the Westminster Standards, Justification is an act and it is the means by which a sinner is made a member of the invisible church. It is not a declaration that they are members of the covenant family as Wright insists that declaration being visibly made in the Reformed sense via the sacraments.
Also, for Wright, faith is not the means by which we are united to Christ and thus the key to justification, it is a badge that marks one as a member of the will be finally vindicated and thus justified Covenant Community. As Wright puts it: "Faith is the badge of membership, and, as soon as there is this faith, God declares 'justified'" (The Shape of Justification). Thus Wright explains that faith functions in a very similar manner to the "badges" in the OT that delineate the believer from pagans:
Torah provided three badges in particular which marked the Jew out from the pagan: circumcision, sabbath, and the kosher laws ... it was Torah, and particularly the special badges of sabbath and purity, that demarcated the covenant people, and that therefore provided litmus tests of covenant loyalty and signs of covenant hope....the 'works of Torah' were not a legalist's ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity (The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 237,238).
In his writing, Wright indicates that he views baptism, not Justification, as the means by which we formally enter into the covenant family, and our justification as we have seen is based on our being a member of that covenant family.
From the above we can see that Wright's work with what is sometimes referred to as Covenant Nomism in the Old Testament and the New Testament is a continuity, and to introduce fundamentally different understandings of Justification and Faith that deal with the individual sinner's Justification, is impossible.
From the point of view of the Westminster Confession I am justified at the moment I believe and am united to Christ. My justification in turn is based on the dual imputation of my sins to Christ and his righteousness to me. I thus enter into the invisible church at that point in time by my justification. Wright, however, never uses the language of justification based on dual imputation in his works, in fact, just what Christ did on the cross in relation to the sin debt of individuals is always left vague in his writing. The definition of the imputation of Christ's righteousness as it occurs in the Westminster Standards is quite clear. Wright does not retain that definition but rather totally redefines it:
The force of what people have believed when they have used the idea of imputation is completely retained in what I have tried to do. Why? Because in Christ we have all the treasures, not only of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 1, and also1 Corinthians 1), but in whom we have the entire package, meaning sanctification and wisdom, as well as righteousness. So Paul's theology of being in Christ gives you all of that (Reformation and Revival Journal, 11:1 (Winter 2002): 117-139).
For Wright imputation is not the transfer of our sinfulness to Christ and the transfer of his righteousness (gained by his perfect obedience to the law) to us, received by faith alone. In the definition given above Wright is confusing theological terms. What Wright is describing are the gifts and benefits that believers receive via their union with Christ. These gifts and benefits are described in the chapters of the Westminster Confession dealing with adoption, sanctification, etc., but are not described as part of the vital transfer that takes place as part of our justification.
A quote from another Reformed standard may help to highlight the huge difference between what Wright is talking about in the quote above, and the Reformed doctrine of dual imputation. The Heidelberg Catechism defines imputation in the following manner:
Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 23).
Now while Wright claims he has retained the force of imputation by speaking of the treasures we inherit in our union with Christ (i.e., when we become co-heirs), this is clearly not what the Reformed have classically spoken of when they have mentioned the critical importance of imputation.
All of this should point out some of the critical differences that Wright's defenders seldom take into account. Merely saying that your theology is compatible with another theology because you have several words in common doesn't make it so. N.T. Wright uses many words in common with the Reformers, because they are biblical terms and thus staples of Christian theology.
However, his definitions of these words are often very different. Reformed people have many theological terms in common with Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witness, but as we define them very differently, they are at a core level not the same terms at all. The same goes for many of these terms as Wright uses them (Justification, Righteousness, Imputation, etc.) Wright recognizes and points out these differences, arguing that his redefinitions are more scriptural. We should at least accord him the respect of using his terms as he redefines them rather than pretending they are the same terms as they are mentioned in Reformed confessions.
While it is not Reformed, Wright's New Perspective on Paul is also not simply a new incarnation of Roman Catholic semi-pelagianism. We should be willing to readily acknowledge that it is exactly what it claims to be, a new perspective on the Apostle Paul and his theology. Wright has in the past accused those who disagree with him of simply lumping him in with the Roman Catholics; I am not attempting to do this at all. Wright's covenant nomism, while it has certain similarities with the new Roman Catholic emphasis on familial/relational theology (the family room vs. the law court, etc.) is a theological novum in its own right, and my criticisms of his work are based on my reading of it and not my association of it with Roman Catholicism.
I am also not defending the confessional doctrine of Justification because I am addicted to the Reformers or because I have any desire to live in the 16th century. I defend the confessional doctrine simply because I believe it to be an accurate summary of the doctrine taught in Scripture. They may be the "old paths," but I happen to strongly believe that they also happen to be the true ones.
As far as the allegation that the Confessions answer questions specific only to the 16th century is concerned, this is news to me. When I first encountered Reformed doctrine I embraced it because it scripturally answered the questions that I, a confused child of the late 20th century, was asking. I firmly believe that the truths taught in the Westminster Confession are eternal truths and that they answer the questions that men ask in every age, because although our technology may change, the fallen human heart and our need of redemption will remain the same until the end of "this evil age."
Further, I am not taking Wright and his theology or even his defenders to task out of any personal animus. Let me try to give you an example that I hope will hopefully illuminate this point.
I sometimes have to spend time in the garden removing various weeds from the flowerbed. I do not pull up these weeds because I hate them; I pull them up because they are choking the flowers. Many of these weeds would be harmless if they had been growing elsewhere. I also do not pull them up because I enjoy doing it or the painful blisters and aching back weeding produces. I do it because it had to be done.
My view of Wright's theology is very similar. His view of justification has begun to grow in the Reformed flowerbed. It is not a natural part of that flowerbed. It is not one of the Reformed "flowers" planted by our forefathers, and given enough time, it will begin to consume and choke those flowers. There are many elements in Wright's work that would be fine anywhere else, but growing where they are, they are harmful to all the beautiful flowers that 400 years of nurture and irrigation via the blood of the martyrs have cultivated in that bed. Therefore, while it is by no means enjoyable to do so, they need to be identified as weeds, not flowers, and uprooted.
What I have attempted to do in this essay is to show exactly how radical and far reaching these differences really are, and how incompatible the New Perspective is not only with the current doctrine of Justification, but the entire corpus of Reformed soteriology that has developed out of, and alongside that understanding. This is not just a case of tweaking, improving, or minor revisions; this is, I believe, a Reformation rewrite, a new and different Reformation that would have to supersede and replace the old one. This is a Reformation that by God's grace, I hope I will never see in my lifetime, or at any point in the history of the church. The system of salvation by Covenant Nomism that Wright advances is, in my opinion, a different gospel.
TE Andy Webb is the church planter of Providence PCA Mission in Fayetteville, N.C.
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