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?


12 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.

  5. Kyle – Hello, 5 years later! I’m commenting here because I read through Piper’s interaction with you and your response as to Edwards’ conception of “righteousness,” and I had a thought I wanted to share, a five-paragraph, blog-comment dissertation. In *End*, Edwards has a section near the beginning of part two where he argues that “the moral rectitude of the disposition, inclination of affection of God CHIEFLY consists in a regard to HIMSELF, infinitely above his regard to all other beings; in other words, his holiness consists in this.”

    I think this is the section that most impacts Piper’s conception of what it means for God to be righteous. Piper says this in a footnote on this section in his republished addition of *End* (called *God’s Passion for His Glory*): “The truth of the preceding two paragraphs has been enormously important in the shaping of my own understanding of reality. I would encourage the reader to wrestle earnestly with this truth. . . . Edwards calls God’s regard to himself his ‘holiness.’ It may be more proper to call it God’s ‘righteousness.’ Thus his ‘holiness’ would be the infinite worth that God has in his own estimation, and his righteousness would be his valuing and respecting that worth without wavering and upholding it in all that he does. In my book *The Justification of God, I have tried to show that this understanding of God’s righteousness is the key to unlocking the ‘justification of God’ in Romans 9, and that it is a deeply Biblical definition, not merely a rationally compelling one.”

    So Piper’s conception of God’s righteousness *does* come from Edwards: Edwards just calls it God’s “moral rectitude” or “holiness,” and John thinks we can more properly call it God’s “righteousness.” And I don’t think Piper is wrong for doing so. I think that what Edwards means by “moral rectitude” is what we commonly mean now-a-days by “righteousness”—indeed, rectitude and righteousness are proper synonyms in the English language, as both denote a moral correctness or fittingness and stem from the concept of “straight”ness.

    So why then does Edwards opt for “moral rectitude” rather than for another English word that conveys exactly the same meaning—i.e., “righteousness”? My suspicion is that he is attempting to allow his language to best reflect the language of Scripture. Though he thinks in one sense God’s rectitude/righteousness consists in his valuing things in accordance with their intrinsic value, yet he also recognizes that often in Scripture “righteousness” is put for God’s “covenant faithfulness.” So in *End* Edwards uses “righteousness” in the sense of “covenant faithfulness,” thus making it an attribute of relation, and “moral rectitude” in the sense of “valuing things in proportion to their value,” thus making it an intrinsic attribute.

    In this light, I think it is evident that the reason Edwards cared to look into why the word “righteousness” is commonly put for “covenant faithfulness” in Scripture is that this seemed strange to him—that he viewed “righteousness” as inherently a wider term which cannot really be equated with “covenant faithfulness.” So he is trying to grapple with how that came about. So perhaps it is most proper to say that for Edwards, God’s *moral rectitude* or *holiness* is a wider, more basic term than God’s *covenant faithfulness*, and God’s *righteousness* really ought to be used synonymously with the former terms but it yet often Scripturally used in the sense of the latter. (I also do think it is significant that Edwards does not say that when “righteousness” is predicated of God in Scripture it *only ever* means “covenant faithfulness,” just that it “often” means “covenant faithfulness.” This at least opens the door for the possibility that Scripture may sometimes use “righteousness” in the sense of Edwards’ conception of “moral rectitude”—and this very thing is what Piper argues for in the *Justification of God* from Romans 9.)

    • Clayton, I think this is exactly what we must not say. You are simply saying, “I know Edward said x, but if we change it to say y it will be what we say.” Edwards isn’t using different terminology that we use. He is using the same terms in different ways, and that is not irrelevant. He has to have some kind of overarching machinery to do the same kinds of dogmatic work that we need to do, but it isn’t somehow unimportant that he turns to different things. In fact, that is what is most important. So if Piper’s understanding of this comes from Edwards, it says a lot less about Edwards than it does about Piper. They are saying too very different things. Piper assumes that God is righteousness within himself in a way that Edwards does not. That is not a matter of semantics. At the end of the day, why not just say that Edwards is wrong about this? It seems odd that you would want to force Edwards into your view rather than simply say, I think Edwards is wrong on this point, that his view is peculiar (which it is), and move on. There seems to be another agenda.

      • Kyle – Thank you for the response! But I think I must be missing something. I’m not sure precisely what it is you’re critiquing in my comment. And I’m not sure how I’m trying to “fit” Edwards into “my” view. I didn’t even share my view. So please help me understand. I’m just trying to look at Edwards and Piper on this issue and see what’s going on. Where precisely did I say something you disagree with, and why do you disagree? I’m open to correction, and I posted here because I wanted to hear and understand your thoughts in response to mine.

      • After re-reading what I wrote, I suppose I did share a personal view when I said that I don’t think Piper is wrong to use the term “righteousness” when describing what Edwards is getting at with “moral rectitude” in *End*, but I didn’t think that was very debatable because I was simply speaking purely from a linguistic standpoint: in the English language, rectitude and righteousness are synonyms. Since the former is outdated and not as well known, the latter can be used. That’s all I meant.

        Maybe you could help me understand two things specifically: 1. You say that “Piper assumes that God is righteous within himself in a way that Edwards does not.” But Edwards speaks of God having moral rectitude within himself. How is “moral rectitude” different from “righteousness”? Is there a meaningful difference between what is communicated in those two statements? I can’t conceive of any. 2. You say, “It seems odd that you would want to force Edwards into your view rather than simply say, I think Edwards is wrong on this point, that his view is peculiar (which it is), and move on. There seems to be another agenda.” I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t have an agenda—or if I do I’m just making it up as I go along. :-) And I’m not sure what gives the impression that I’m trying to squeeze Edwards into my view of something, or that I really don’t agree with Edwards but I’m trying really hard to. I really just am trying to understand Edwards on his own terms, and I really do think I agree with Edwards: that “righteousness” started as a forensic term, broadened to a general sense of “rightness” as opposed to “wrongness” (from forensic, to a general right and wrong, to ). I’m sure I must be missing something here, so perhaps you can explain! But I’m ready to disagree with Edwards: just like I do on all sorts of other matters like baptism, church-state relations, eschatology, etc.

        • Clayton, I looked back and I was confused a bit at what was you and Piper in that first post. Nonetheless, I think the key issue is your presuppositions. You are assuming a linguistic connection that Edwards does not assume. Edwards is reading these terms in very technical ways, which is why I think it is unhelpful to start with our own definitions of them and force Edwards’s view into that. For Edwards, righteousness and moral rectitude are not synonyms. I think what is happening with Piper’s view of Edwards is that it is simply anachronistic. It starts with a presupposition about what must be the case, that righteousness means x, y and z, and then moves on. Rather, I suggest, it is more faithful to Edwards to allow him to define the terms within his own thought and understand him from within (if at all possible).

          I hope that helps.

          • That does help. A key question I would have though is just what sort of internal evidence there is in Edwards that suggests that the concept of “rectitude” is a distinct thing from “righteousness” or “justice”—and, if there is a difference between the terms, just what the difference consists in? As I’ve already said, certainly from a linguistic standpoint there’s no observable difference. Though there may be some technical distinction Edwards has in mind. Nevertheless, from a brief glance through some occurrences of “rectitude” via a search at the Yale Edwards cite, it seems he uses it in conjunction with other words like “holiness” and “righteousness” fairly often in a way that would seem to make them equivalent, or at least very similar. A few examples even seem to explicitly equate the rectitude and righteousness:

            From his notes on Scripture: “Hebrews 1:9. ‘Thou hast loved righteousness,’ etc.] ‘This refers to that unparalleled instance of the love of moral rectitude , which Christ hath given in becoming a sacrifice for sins…'”

            From the Controversies Notebook: “Tis apparent, without looking in any concordance, that [in Scripture] the words ‘righteous,’ ‘righteousness,’ etc. ordinarily signify virtue or moral rectitude; and perhaps is never used otherwise but as signifying moral rectitude, or with reference to it.”

            I do see what you are saying, that Piper makes a jump in calling “righteousness” what Edwards called “rectitude” in that section in *End*. But I don’t think it is a rash or indefensible one.

            • This is why it is so important to assess the progression of Edwards’s thought and how he changes his view, as I mentioned, to some degree, on righteousness. Whatever the case, holiness and righteousness cannot be synonymous in Edwards’s thought because of his trintiarian theology and understanding of the divine attributes. It is unclear to me what that exact difference is, or if Edwards is even consistent with all of it. But the “rashness”, I think, stems from the technicality of Edwards studies. It is just not enough to point to something Edwards says somewhere and say, “See, Edwards thinks this.” Edwards’s thought is too fluid.

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