28 March 2011

Baxter's soup, Wright's soap, and Helm's in deep

[I wrote this entry about three years ago. Its introductory paragraph will explain why I haven't pressed the publish button until now—"now" being March 2011.]

IT IS WITH SOME trepidation that I post this. If you move within my circles, you'll know why. When writing and responding to the [former, et passim] Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, if you're not careful to distance yourself from him on certain points, you could find yourself in trouble. This is, of course, appropriate—we are, after all, a confessional bunch, and promoting doctrines that directly contradict the essential elements of one's confession (to be understood as conscience) is neither right nor safe (to borrow from Luther at Worms).

Too often among us, responses to him range from one extreme to the other—with the minority adoring everything the good bishop writes and many others offering only knee-jerk reactions as if everything he has written deserves being tossed in the waste bucket. But no thinker has gotten everything wrong (even Shelby Spong, as hard as that is to imagine), just as no thinker has gotten everything right. All deserve criticism and all deserve the benefit of the doubt. We would do well to blaze a middle way.

This post comes after having read Professor Helm's interesting thoughts on the supposed parallels between Baxter and Wright. Now, my own studies in seventeenth-century history and theology some years ago also heightened my sense of the possible parallels between Wright's "fresh" perspective and neonomianism. But the more I think on it, the more it seems that the similarities are incidental at best.

Reformed folks worth their salt have always had a robust doctrine of sanctification. It is as integral to the equation of salvation (systematically understood) as justification. Indeed, the two are to be distinguished, but never separated. They are two sides of the same coin. Put differently, they are two distinct legs on the way to salvation—and none of us will be hopping into heaven. That said, one does indeed have priority, for the latter (sanctification) must needs flow from the former (justification). With this background, when I've read Wright on the future of justification, and then when I read Professor Helm's critique, I get the feeling that I've missed something. Maybe I've given Wright too much credit, too much benefit of the doubt. It is in this spirit, therefore, of seeking to learn that my response is posted. I'd like to know where I'm wrong on this score, and if my Reformed goggles have tainted my reading of Wright on this particular point.

In the professor's analysis, he quips that he's unable to “see neither Wright nor Baxter come close to saying anything about what is to be done at the judgment about the believer’s continuing shortcomings.” I’m not so sure about Baxter, but it seems to me that Wright deems such shortcomings to be entirely irrelevant (with respect to the sweeping picture of redemption). This is not to suggest that he finds no place for the continuing struggle and the confession of sin in the Christian life (see his commentary on Rom 6 in NIB); it is to say that I think he thinks that continued imperfections are simply not a problem for those who are in Christ—not a problem, that is, in the sense that they’re irrelevant to God.

Why? Because of Christ. He writes: “...Paul was a realist, about himself, about his fellow Christians, about suffering, pain, depression, fear and death itself. These were not enemies he took lightly. But his entire argument in this chapter [Rom. 6] so far...is that the Christian, facing these enemies, stands already on resurrection ground. This is ultimately a truth about the Christian’s Lord, the Messiah, but because of baptism it becomes a truth about the Christian himself or herself” (p. 541). I assume that when he writes that this is a truth about Jesus, he means that despite the fact we Christians still struggle with sin, the fact that the sinless Jesus was utterly faithful to God’s covenant to the point of death (and resurrection) means, insofar as we’ve been united to Christ, that our continuing imperfections, in the final analysis, are caught up and done away with as a result (arguably akin to what Helm termed “double justification” in his critique—which has no relation to Bucer’s or Regenburg’s formulation, as confusing as this [oversight?] might be). In short, quite precisely because the Christian is assured of this pardon and that his or her works will be pleasing to God on that final day, possibly, then, Wright thinks the continued imperfections are irrelevant.

And, whatever else can be said of Wright, in Augustinian (Calvinian?) fashion he does think sanctification to be definitive (“the Christian...stands already on resurrection ground”). In his commentary on Romans 8:29–30 he begins: “In order to show the branches that they are indeed to bear blossom and fruit, Paul...goes back behind justification itself to God’s purpose and call, and behind that again to God’s foreknowledge” (601). About foreknowledge, he writes, “Foreknowledge is a form of love or grace; to speak thus is to speak of God reaching out, in advance of anything the person may do or think, to reveal love and to solicit an answering love, to reveal a particular purpose and to call forth obedience to it. More particularly, this foreknowledge produces God’s foreordaining purpose” (p. 602). After going on a side trail about how God’s sovereignty does not render human actions insignificant, Wright argues that “all these things [predestined, called, justified, glorified] have happened already to and in Jesus, the Messiah; and what is true of the Messiah is true of his people” (p. 603). “The steady beat of the verbs within Paul’s solemn rhetoric underscores the steady beat of God’s unshakable purpose set forth in the Messiah and completed by the Spirit” (presumably, by the Spirit in God’s people, p. 604).

Because of this certainty with which Wright speaks of the presently justified’s glorification, it would seem that his point about being justified in the future on the basis of the whole life lived is a sure thing. In other words, Christians will certainly burst forth in spontaneous obedience to God (freely given according to God’s grace and empowered by God’s Spirit), which obedience plays a part in their final justification, and which obedience, however tainted by sin, is made acceptable because of the acceptable-ness of Christ himself. Thus, the continuing sins of Christians are ultimately irrelevant to the redemptive program of God (keeping in mind, of course, that confession of sins itself falls into that category of Spirit-led obedience). As I've written and thought about this post over several months now, I find yet again support for this in Wright's newest book on the subject Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision:

The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.
Finally, Professor Helm asks, “On Wright’s account is there any place, then, in the final judgment for God justifying the ungodliness of the godly? If so, how does it happen?”

Maybe the bishop's answer would be that “ungodliness,” for those who are in Christ, is that which is passed over by “sheer grace to any and all who, despite their ungodliness, trust in this God” (commentary on Rom. 4:4–5, p. 492). And given Wright’s commentary on Paul’s discussion of how Christians occupy, as it were, a different sphere or place than they did previously (see pp. 542–547 of NIB), Wright might add that “ungodliness” is not a proper word for describing the life of a Christian (one might consider the validity of their profession otherwise). Maybe now the question could be more forcefully asked: “Is there any place in the final judgment for God justifying even just one account of ungodliness of the godly?” I assume Wright would say that that has already been taken care of in Christ, so let’s not fixate on that which has been dealt with (indeed, exposed by the law, which brings no condemnation for those in union with Christ Jesus).

Update: May 2014

So, after seven years, Wright finally grants me the opportunity to update this post with a definitive statement on the subject. The following appears in his recently published Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 948–49:
In Paul’s theology all this means two tightly interconnected realities, both of which he urgently wants to stress. First, all those over whom that declaration is made are permanently "in the right." The status of dikaiosyne is not temporary. It truly anticipates the verdict which will be issued on the final day. This is why "justification" is the heart of what later generations would rightly see as Christian assurance. Properly speaking, "justification" is not "how someone becomes a Christian," but "how someone who becomes a Christian through believing the gospel and being baptized can be sure they will receive the verdict 'righteous' on the last day." The judge has already pronounced it, and his word will stand.

So, now I ask again, quid tibi est?


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