Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some thoughts on N.T. Wright

I am drawn to polemical discussions of doctrine, especially with the two big "traditional" churches, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. I have been posting recently in Fr. Kimmel's pontifications blog in the "Justification: declarative or transformative?" thread. In this thread, N.T. Wright, and by extension the "New Perspective on Paul" have been brought up to prove that the Reformation was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Pauline epistles, traced back to St. Augustine.

I don't want to get into the details of the New Perspective on Paul, but I do want to point out that in at least one place, Bishop Wright has not understood the fullness of what Lutherans believe. In fact, he said something very Lutheran while denying that it is Lutheran.

Lutherans believe that we are justified by faith, forensically justified in fact. But this justification brings with it benefits, including victory over sin, death and the devil. In other words, Lutheran justification entails more than merely God's declaration we are just for Christ's sake. It is not simply a legal fiction, it is an active declaration, just like the declaration God made when he said "Let there be light..and there was light". There is no justification without works--though works are not the cause of our justification. When we are justified, we are transformed, because we are reborn. Any way, bishop Wright wrote:

When he (St. Paul) describes how persons, finding themselves confronted with the act of God in Christ, come to appropriate that act for themselves, hr has a clear train of thought, repeated at various points. The message about Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection--the "gospel", in terms of our previous chapters--is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit on their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life and its common way of life. That is hoe people come into relationship with the living God.

If you say this is what you mean by justification by faith, I reply that we must take note of the fact that when Paul is setting out this train of thought, as he does (for instance) in 1 Thessalonians 1, he does not mention justification.
Again, leaving aside bishop Wright's broader critique of the Western/Augustinian/Lutheran reading of St. Paul, it is a fact that we believe faith comes by hearing the Gospel, or the cross and resurrection proclamation as bishop Wright says. When we believe that proclamation, we are justified before God. And interestingly, when we are justified, we are of the children of Abraham, or, the ones to whom the promises pertain. In other words, that is what we mean by "justification by faith".

This is a quibble to be sure, as Bishop Wright's teaching does not depend on this particular statement being true. None the less, it seems a lot of non-Lutherans try and place a template upon Lutheranism which does not fit.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ed,

I am so glad to see you talking with Pontificator. For reasons I won't go into now, I simply am unable to talk on Pontifications now (computer issues on my end). In any case, I have talked to him a lot over the past year or so whenever he has posted on justification and I am very pleased to see you engaging him as well. He obviously cares deeply about the issue and I have always appreciated his desire to talk about it.

Keep it up.

Nathan

Andrew Grams said...

For What it's Worth:

I read an article this morning, an interview with NT Wright where he confesses that he has not read anything from Luther in twenty years, and then, what he read, seemed only
to scratch the surface.

Andrew, Nashville

Edward Reiss said...

Hello Andrew and welcome!

Very interesting. Is the article online anywhere?

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