N.T. Wright and the Reformed

I, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity (as of yet) to read N.T. Wright’s new book on justification. I have had the opportunity to follow several blogs work through it, and I wanted to chime in on a certain point. I was reading Scot McKnight’s analysis of the volume recently (which has been incredibly helpful), and he noted Wright’s decision to read “the righteousness of God” as “covenant faithfulness” (see this post specifically). I was surprised to see how the comments on this post expressed the conviction that while this position is not new to Wright, it was still seen as “new” nonetheless. One commentator states that while this is not idiosyncratic to Wright, it is certainly not from the reformers. I think this is a bit naive, and is using “reformers” in some sense like “Calvin.” Note this quote from Jonathan Edwards:

“So the word righteousness is very often used in Scripture for his covenant faithfulness; so ’tis in Nehemiah 9:8, “Thou hast performed thy words for thou art righteous.” And so we are very often to understand righteousness and covenant mercy [to] be the same thing, as Psalms 24:5, “He shall receive the blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of [his salvation],” Psalms 36:10, “O continue thy lovingkindness to them that know thee; and thy righteousness to the upright,” and Psalms 51:14, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation; and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness” and Daniel 9:16, “O Lord, according to thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away” and so in innumerable other places.” (Y9:114-115)

Edwards continues on to add, “God’s righteousness or covenant mercy is the root of which his salvation is the fruit.” In a debate with Piper, this would have probably come in handy! My worry with this debate (without having read it yet), is that “reformed” can be taken in too narrow a sense, thereby ignoring the insights of the later reformed orthodoxy. Has anyone noticed the actual debate taking this turn at all? Have both sides been fair to the historical issues?

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5 thoughts on “N.T. Wright and the Reformed

  1. Hi Kyle,

    How timely.

    Great question, one that I’m glad to hear McKnight surface in his own working-through of Wright’s monograph. I have not yet visited McKnight’s analysis but I have made it through all but the final section of the book itself. I think it is important to note how insistent Wright is at the outset to repetitively and carefully define what he means by the term “covenant faithfulness,” which all too often is dismissed by virtue of “reflex misconstrual.” What do I mean by that? In the wake of the variety of New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP), particularly the brouhaha that has arisen with the notions of “variegated [or covenant] nomism,” it is all too easy to “hear” all kinds of things when we see (in writing) the term “covenant faithfulness”—things like Moses, Sinai, Torah, etc.

    I confess that I was at first entirely sympathetic to Piper’s almost instinctive repulsion by the term; as with him, it seemed to me in looking at some of Wright’s other defenses of that term that he was forcing categories from an excessive reliance on the notion of a primary influence on Paul of Second Temple Judaism.

    However, Wright seems to take no hostages in this latest return-salvo, making it clear that he has almost as many bones to pick with other NPP folk as he has with Piper and others purporting to come from a more “traditional” Reformed perspective—what Wright calls the “Old Perspective on Paul”; this, too, characterized by its own unsettling heterogeneity, which vindicates your take, Kyle, on Edwards, though Wright does not mention this in particular (of note, he does cite Packer, favorably, on pp. 64-5). In fact, however, Wright’s irritation and impatience over the mis-characterizations he has suffered at the hands of “Old Perspectivists” has ironically served to force him to be more creative in the way he expresses his position, and I think he has succeeded in a way that perhaps he didn’t quite succeed in past efforts to clarify his position with perhaps a different audience in view for his opus magnum: Christian Origins and the Question of God.

    The first hint of Wright’s clarification comes, of course, from Wright’s detailed knowledge of Second Temple eschatological expectations (p. 57), when he says:

    “The tide which was carrying all Israel along in the time of Jesus and Paul was the tide of hope, hope that Israel’s God would act once more and this time do it properly, that the promises made to Abraham and his family would at last come true, that the visions of the prophets who foretold a coming restoration would find their ultimate fulfillment.”

    Wright then goes on the coin his novel term—in deference to the German proclivity for synthesizing huge concatenated terms in order to fine-tune complex theological notions—as his favored “signifier” for “covenant faithfulness” (p. 67): God’s-single-plan-through-Abraham-and-his-family-to-bless-the-whole-world. This certainly makes a great deal of sense of the “righteousness of God,” but Wright does not make it the exclusive definition, considering the complex logical and theological connections with other terms. In fact, Wright actually offers a fairly detailed parsing of what he means by “covenant” (pp. 95-6), “eschatology” (p. 101), “Christology” and “Messiahship” (pp. 103-4), and perhaps most importantly, the various interrelated semantic layers of “righteousness” (pp. 121-2) and “justification” (pp. 133-36).

    Wright is a bit more “cautious” as he circles around the notion of “imputed” vs. “infused” righteousness and seems to mind his exegetical “p’s and q’s” quite carefully. We can talk about that, too, if you are interested, in light of our ongoing conversation with Dr. Kirk over Unlocking Romans.

  2. Jim, thanks for your thoughts. I plan on reading Wright’s book when I get back to Scotland. I am interested to read through his various parsings of these concepts, particularly the point you mentioned at the end concerning imputed vs. infused righteousness, both of which appear prominently in Edwards.

    As I read some of the comments on McKnight’s analysis, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this debate (and others like it) stems from an overly simplistic understanding of the tradition. Take impute vs. infuse for example. Infuse was standard for the high reformed orthodox, and yet the term is often touted as “Catholic.,” in comparison to impute, a suggestion Edwards, for instance, would deny wholesale. I think it is particularly interesting in light of Piper’s love for Edwards that he would be frustrated by a usage Edwards himself picks up (exegetically no less). Interesting.

  3. Kyle,

    I agree that the historical theology piece is a must for having a full-orbed discussion about justification. This is a bit different from the line of thinking you’re pursuing here, but I was interested to read some of Michael Horton’s thoughts in his Covenant and Salvation. Horton argues that some of the new perspective works misunderstand Luther and the Roman Catholicism with which he interacted. This has happened, Horton thinks, because Lutheranism has been engaged via Bultmann and others whose theological tack was (or is) quite different from Luther’s.

    On another note, like Jim above, I was glad to see Wright in his new book pushing beyond some of the old and new perspective tensions. In particular, he concludes from Rom. 3:19-20 that Paul took issue with insistence on doing “works of the law” because they separated Jew and Gentile AND because sinful human beings lack the ability truly to keep pace with the commands of the Torah. Even if old perspective folks continue to disagree with some of Wright’s exegetical moves, this is a conclusion that brings the two approaches a bit closer together.

  4. I don’t know it off hand. All of Edwards’ work is online with searching features at edwards.yale.edu. I’m sure if you copy and paste part of the quote in the search box you will find it easily.

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