Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom Schreiner’s Response to N. T. Wright’s Presentation at ETS, Atlanta

Tom Schreiner’s responses to both Frank Thielman and N. T. Wright which he presented at the ETS conference in Atlanta last week are now available on the Internet, thanks to Patrick Schreiner.

Of special note in Tom Schreiner’s response to Wright is his happy acknowledgment of Tom Wright’s terminology clarification or adjustment from “on the basis of the whole life” to “in accordance with our works.” Tom Schreiner states,
I am delighted that Tom now speaks of the final judgment as one that will be in accordance with our works instead of on the basis of our works. I think this adjustment and clarification is exactly right and does not contradict the idea that our righteousness is in Christ.  I resonate with Tom when he says that we too quickly drown out what is said about the role of good works in the final judgment because of our tradition. And I am in full agreement with his formulation: we are judged according to our works, but not on the basis of our works.
Since I commented on the terminology clarification or adjustment that Tom Wright offered during his plenary presentation, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” on the final day of the ETS conference in Atlanta, I believe that it is proper for me to underscore the point I made in my earlier entry on this matter. I have always granted Tom Wright the benefit of the doubt when he has repeatedly made the following statements in numerous essays and books.
“Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life.”[1]
The whole point about “justification by faith” is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3.26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2.1-16). Until justification is set firmly within this eschatological, as well as covenantal and apocalyptic, framework, we shall never be able to understand what Paul is talking about.[2]
And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the “call” of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.[3]
Along with lawcourt and covenant goes eschatology. Paul has set up a further question which will take him until Romans 8 to address fully. The new note he strikes in Romans 3:21-31 (justified in the present on the basis of nothing but faith!) sounds initially all wrong in terms of the tune he was playing in Romans 2:1-16 (justified in the future on the basis of the entire life!). He has set himself the challenge of filling in the intervening harmony and showing how, in fact, it is exactly what was required.[4]
I have always accepted Tom Wright’s phrasing, “on the basis of,” as his attempt to mean what I think is the much more accurate way to translate κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ (Romans 2:6), namely, “according to their deeds” or “in accordance with their works.” In fact, it seems to me that Tom Wright’s third statement cited above requires that we readers grant him the benefit of the doubt that I have consistently granted him. For he explains what he means when he clarifies “that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense” (emphasis added). Nevertheless, precisely because other readers have consistently found it difficult to grant him the benefit of the doubt and because readers (I included) have pointed out the unnecessary confusion created by using the phrase “on the basis of ‘works’,” it seems quite reasonable that we might have expected Tom Wright to have taken more ownership of the confusion and frustration caused by his choice of words when he seemingly resolved the matter by his clarification last week at the ETS conference. Yet, his effort to clarify fell short of taking ownership and set the blame upon readers instead. Keep in mind that John Piper did not hide his concern over Tom Wright’s phrasing in some obscure footnote in The Future of Justification. Piper devotes a whole chapter, chapter 7, spanning pages 103 through 116 to the issue. Yet, Tom Wright’s published response, Justification, does not offer the clarification of terminology that he offered at the ETS conference when he responded to Tom Schreiner’s presentation in which he points out the same confusing terminology. As I state in my own paper which I presented at the ETS conference, in Justification, his response to Piper,
Wright remains unbowed as he claims that future justification is on the basis of the whole life while simultaneously insisting that even though he differs from Piper on the idea of imputation, he agrees that justification by faith is “on the basis of Jesus’ death and triumphant resurrection.”[5] Earlier in his response Wright acknowledges the tension his statements pose, but he believes these statements, that incite others to charge him with “synergism,” accurately reflect Paul’s “paradoxes.”[6] Wright rejects the charge of “synergism” and explains: “I am not saying for one moment that ‘God does part of it and we do part of it’ (one classic form of ‘synergism,’ but not Paul’s). Paul’s regular paradoxes . . . remain the best way of putting it: ‘I struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me’ (Colossians 1:29); ‘I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10).” [7] 
Clearly, Wright’s statements disallow generous readers to suppose that when he uses the expression “on the basis of” that he intends what many take the words to mean, that they require some kind of synergism. I have always happily and eagerly granted him the benefit of the doubt that he is no synergist, that he is no semi-Pelagian nor a Pelagian. I know what it is like to be so charged, for Tom Schreiner and I have been accused of such by individuals who fail to read The Race Set Before Us correctly. Both Tom and I have patiently responded by explaining how and why we are not synergists. I have posted extensive responses on my blog (TRSBU), and Tom has published a small book in which he responds to such criticisms (Run To Win The Prize). If being understood properly by others is what we surely all want for ourselves, should we not avoid terminology and phrasing that introduces confusion, especially when we are addressing such crucial issues as the gospel?

[1] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 129. Cf. Wright’s definition in the glossary of terms in his popular commentary series as, “God’s declaration, from his position as judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin. This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Romans 2:1-6), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus’ achievement, because sin has been dealt with through his cross (Romans 3:21-4:25); the means of this present justification is simply faith. This means, particularly, that Jews and Gentiles alike are full members of the family promised by God to Abraham (Galatians 3; Romans 4)” (Paul for Everyone—Romans: Part One [London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 169-170; emphasis original).
[2] N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 57-58.
[3] N. T. Wright, “New Perspective on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006): 260.
[4] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 214.
[5] The full statement is, “Justification by faith on the basis of Jesus’ faithful death and triumphant resurrection, revealing the ‘righteousness’ of the Creator God, his faithfulness to the covenant-through-Israel-for-the-world—this justification means that God now declares circumcised and uncircumcised alike ‘in the right,’ ‘members of the covenant family,’ the former ‘on the basis of faith’ and the latter ‘through’ faith—a small but perhaps important distinction” (Wright, Justification, 216; emphasis added). Consideration of the latter portion of this statement follows shortly.
[6] N. T. Wright states, “As long as theologians, hearing this kind of proposal, shout ‘synergism’ and rush back to the spurious either-or which grows out of a doctrine that has attempted to construct the entire soteriological jigsaw puzzle on the basis of a medieval view of ‘justice’ and with some of the crucial bits (the Spirit, eschatology, not to mention Abraham and the covenant) still in the box, or on the floor, or in the fire, we shall never get anywhere” (Justification, 192).
[7] Wright, Justification, 192 (emphasis added).

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