What About Imputation? More on N.T. Wright at ETS

In a recent post, I said that N.T. Wright’s presentation at ETS surprised me with regard to two areas: his clarification regarding final justification and the role of works and his comments on imputation.  Here are my reflections on the role of works.  Now on to the matter of imputation.

Wright has often suggested that the Reformed doctrine of imputation makes righteousness out to be a gas-like substance that can be passed across the divine courtroom from judge to defendant.  I thought this was an interesting and, perhaps, valid objection; that is, until I read some Reformed writings on imputation.  I then discovered that Wright’s portrayal of imputation was a caricature and that he was knocking down a straw man.  No serious Reformed thinker thinks of imputed righteousness as a substance that can be passed around like a gas.  It would seem that the debate was at an impasse.
I do think, though, that some of Wright’s comments at ETS may provide room for some progress in the debate.  If I recall correctly, at the end of his talk he indicated that through faith the believer is united to Christ and, as a result, that which is true of Jesus becomes true of the believer as well, which may very well include Christ’s righteousness, even though the Bible doesn’t really speak that way of Christ.  Wright said that you could call that imputation, but that this is not what the Reformers meant by the word.  Wright is concerned about the idea of merit being acquired by Christ and shifted to the believer.  He charged that those were medieval categories that the Reformers took on board but shouldn’t have, and that may or may not be the case.  I’m no historical theologian, so I’ll avoid saying too much about what the Reformers said. 
I would suggest, though, that the concept of faith-union with Christ as the way in which that which is true of Christ becomes true of those in Christ is a good place to start an attempt to move forward.  I think Wright and the Reformed camp could agree on this.  If Christ has indeed been justified, that is declared righteous, because of his perfect obedience, and if those who are in Christ share with him all that is his, then it is right to say that the verdict that came to Christ because of his obedience (merit?) is reckoned to the believer because they are joined to Christ by faith.  The imputation of Christ’s righteousness would be shorthand for that rather long sentence.  I think both sides could agree with this summary.  If not, someone out there help me out.

The Role of Works: Further Reflection on N.T. Wright at ETS

Thanks very much to Revd. John P. Richardson for directing his readership to my post reflecting on Tom Wright’s recent comments at ETS.  So many of you clicked through that I thought I would say a bit more regarding my brief comments in the previous post.  So, I’ll take a post on the matter of the role of works and one on the matter of imputation language. 
As indicated previously, I was quite pleased with Wright’s statement that he affirmed the language of final justification “according to works” over against “on the basis of works.”  I was pleased with this move because I raised just this question at the IVP lecture at SBL in New Orleans last year.  I raised the question because Piper very clearly asked Wright for clarification in his book The Future of Justification (22).  Piper did not charge Wright with teaching justification on the basis of works but pointed out that he regularly spoke of final justification on the basis of the whole life lived; Piper carefully cited several places where Wright has said this or a slight variation of it.  To Piper, this came across as suggesting that our works were the basis of our justification.  So, Piper asked for clarification.  In my reading of Wright’s response to Piper, I didn’t find any real clarification on this point.  So, I asked for clarification at the IVP lecture: Is justification on the basis of the whole life or in accordance with the whole life?  Insofar as my memory is accurate, Wright indicated that he believed that to be a distinction that is not made in the Greek.  Very well; that is a response.  Given the opportunity, I would suggest that this may be the precise distinction made when Paul speaks of judgment as each being repaid according to his works (kata ta erga Rom 2.6) as opposed no man’s inability to be justified from works of the law (ex ergōn nomou Rom 3:20).  That would have to be worked out in a much longer discussion; I simply submit it here as a potential avenue of conversation. 
The main point I’m getting at is that I took Wright to have actually thought through this a bit more and made the clarification for which he was repeatedly asked.  Last year he didn’t see a distinction between “basis” and “according to”; this year he has said that he agrees with judgment according to works over against judgment on the basis of works.  In my hearing of Wright and my reading of his clarification at The Ugley Vicar, I think he is saying that final justification is in accord with the works produced by the Spirit indwelling the believer.  I think Piper would agree with this as well. 
Given all that, I really think the talks at ETS provided an opportunity to make progress in the conversation on justification.  Tune in next time for some post-ETS reflections on imputation.

Belated ETS & SBL Reflections

I’m a bit behind most in the blogosphere who have already posted reflections on the recent annual gatherings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts:
1. This was the first year I attended ETS.  I was struck by the charity and reverence throughout.  You might be surprised to hear that I was struck in this way, ETS being a confessional professional society composed of people who are supposed to be, well, evangelical.  Academic conferences are not always the most charitable gatherings with many eager to present their work and critique that of others.  But this was different.  There was a certain attitude about the place, a certain holiness; this was a gathering of people who typically seemed to love Christ and his church, a gathering of people who desire to serve Christ and his church.  That would not be typical of academic conferences, even in theology.
2. As many have written, one of the best things about these conferences is the opportunity to gather with old friends and make new ones.  I enjoyed catching up with many I’ve not seen since these conferences gathered last year.  Catching up with classmates and professors at the Asbury reception is always a highlight.
3. Speaking of Asbury, let me say that I was quite glad to see a number of Asbury Seminary people at ETS.  In the past, you might only find one or two Asbury profs present.  I was happy to see several of Asbury’s doctoral students and hear a paper from Dr. John Oswalt, who is now in Wilmore once again.  Asbury’s president, Dr. Tim Tennent, was slated to present as was Dr. Robert Coleman, who has also moved to Wilmore.  I’m not sure if he’s teaching or not, though I imagine many would hope for it.  This is significant because Asbury has had a reputation for a bit of a leftward shift in recent years.  In light of that, I was very encouraged to see an increasing Asbury presence at ETS.  Wilmore seems to have gotten an evangelical influx in the last couple of years, for that we can be thankful.
4. I thought the plenary discussions on “Justification by Faith” at ETS were especially helpful and served to move forward what has, at times, become a stale conversation.  Thomas Schreiner’s presentation was very clear and kind.  Frank Thielman’s proposal that dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is polyvalent and includes the concept of “God’s fairness” was highly stimulating, entirely fresh, well-argued, and carried significant potential for common ground in the justification debate, if, of course, he is right.  I’m not ready to pronounce a verdict; his proposal needs time to simmer.  I was a bit surprised at how close Thielman landed to Tom Wright, which brings me to his presentation.  Wright surprised me as well.  I somewhat expected him to dig his heels in and simply restate what he had said in the past; this, of course, is basically what he did in his last book on justification, which disappointed me.  If one is going to take the time to write a book, then he ought to be sure to move the discussion forward.  But Wright really answered some questions this time.  Two particularly surprising moves were his statements (1) that final justification would be in accordance with works rather than on the basis of works and (2) that he might be comfortable with imputation language depending on how carefully it was defined.  These are movements towards the middle of the debate for Wright.  If you want more see the summary post by Andrew Cowan and a clarification post by Wright himself.  To my Southern friends, let me apologize now, but it cracked me up when Wright suggested some neo-Catholicism lurking behind closed doors at Southern Seminary (UPDATE: more on Wright at ETS here). 
5. Last and most likely least, my paper presentation at SBL was largely uneventful.  It went smoothly, and no one challenged my thesis.  No one said anything actually, which means either that the paper was not all that significant or that it was so clear and precise that everyone was stunned silent.  I’ll opt for the latter.  There was one senior scholar present who was nodding as I read the conclusion; so I’ll take that as encouragement and roll with it.