Highlights of the Panel on N.T. Wright at SBTS
Over dinner this evening I listened to the audio from today's Panel on N.T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification at Southern Seminary (SBTS). I highly recommend listening to (or watching) the entire panel, especially if:
- You enjoy theology and/or biblical scholarship and don't know who N.T. Wright is or why he matters in the discussion of justification.
- Like me, you actually do know who N.T. Wright is, enjoy reading various things written by him, and appreciate many points of agreement with what he teaches.
Overview of the Panel
The panel was moderated by Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of SBTS, and included various professors of theology from the seminary (Drs. Burk, Schreiner, Seifrid, and Vickers - a personal favorite). I'm not going to take time to recap the whole discussion, because the panel itself recapped a discussion (or controversy?) in modern Evangelical theology that spans the last few decades. A lot of ground has been covered in what has been dubbed the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP).
The tone of the panel was both charitable toward N.T. Wright and his positive contributions to biblical scholarship and pastoral as it evaluated how what we believe about justification will affect our ministry. The professors do a good job of bringing listeners up to speed on the various issues at stake, and if you find yourself lost in the discussion, I encourage you to listen to the first half twice.
Issues at Stake
A few "traditional" issues that are questioned by the NPP include:
- The definition of the gospel, or "Good News." Is it an announcement of the salvation of sinners or is it enough to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus?
- The imputation of righteousness. Do we stand before God in righteousness based on what Christ has done?
- The scope of justification. Is it primarily a soteriological ("What must I do to be saved?", the traditional scope) or ecclesiastical (who is in my covenant community, the NPP) doctrine.
- The context of the New Testament. Was the religion commonly practiced as Judaism in the time of Jesus legalistic, and is Paul really responding to such legalism in his letters?
- The historical interpretation of Scripture on the doctrine of justification, especially since the Reformation. Basically, the NPP argues that the Reformers and their predecessors did not understand the context of the New Testament and so "got it wrong" on justification. (The "New" of the NPP is in relation to "Old" of the biblical commentary and scholarship on these issues since at least the time of Calvin, Luther, et al.)
There's obviously more to the NPP and even more discussed in the panel, but the panel did at least spend a few minutes on each of the issues above, making sure they accurately portrayed Wright's position and providing initial responses to these deviations from historical interpretation. For further study, I highly recommend The Future of Justification by John Piper (who, Dr. Mohler notes, wrote this as a scholarly critique from within the context of a full time pastoral ministry). I was actually greatly encouraged as I read what I've read of it. If you're not sure you want to buy it, you can download a free copy of the entire book via the link above... some business model!
As I've mentioned before, I really recommend listening to the whole thing. However, I will take the time to transcribe a few interchanges and statements by the gentlemen on the panel. These won't necessarily make sense in isolation, but I'm posting them because I found them to be particularly poignant responses to the NPP.
Reading Into Scripture
First off, Dr. Schreiner and Dr. Seifrid held a small interchange around 40 minutes in which they describe something of a hermeneutical misstep Wright makes when he discusses the doctrine of the imputation of righteousness in his recent book:
Schreiner: When he speaks of imputation he says that the traditional understanding is wrong, because justification is a courtroom, forensic doctrine. I agree with him there, but then he says in a courtroom the judge can't give his righteousness to the one who is being charged. I think that's amazingly reductionistic, as if the illustration of the courtroom is exhausted by our human experience. Instead you have to look at the biblical text to see the richness of what it is saying about what is happening. And yet he bases it on what happens in our courtrooms. I think that's quite astonishing.
Seifrid: I think that's right. Although the Scriptures of course understand God's justifying work in Christ and the final judgment as a forensic scene, what takes place there is beyond all human expectation because of God's marvelous love in Jesus Christ. Part of the problem also with Wright on this point is that He imports a modern courtroom into the Scriptures.
What about Adam?
Dr. Vickers sees something missing in Wright's understanding of the overarching story of the Bible:
There's something missing. I like when I hear Wright talk about "from Abraham to Israel to Messiah to the world." I like the idea of the big picture of Scripture. But what's missing in my view is, "Where's Adam?" And this gets down to what the traditional view is all about - Paul boiling the human race down to two people. Anyone you ever meet will either be in Adam or in Christ, and the actions of one of those two people affect and determine the status that people have before God. If you're going to deal with the traditional view, that's central.
What is the Good News?
Speaking of the pastoral implications of the NPP, Mohler and Burk said the following...
Mohler: N.T. Wright makes a fascinating statement. Bishop Wright says that the gospel is not primarily a message about how one is saved. That's an incredible statement, isn't it?
Burk: For him it's simply a declaration that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Lord. That's the gospel. That's the announcement. As John Piper so carefully points out, that is not good news unless you give an account of how the resurrected savior is for you and not against you. We're all sinners. We have committed sins against this resurrected Lord who's going to judge the world. It's not good news to know He's back! Ok? That's not good at all.
Mohler: It's not good unless there is a firm confidence in the fact that we will be found righteous in Him.
Burk: Right, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Even in the Apostolic declarations of the gospel narrative, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is an account of how that counts for us - that somehow he is a substitute for us and that he is justifying us. To leave that out of the gospel proclamation has horrible pastoral applications in addition to being unbiblical."
Dr. Schreiner in his closing remarks comments:
I think there's a danger for those listening to a discussion like this where we focus on Wright's weaknesses, I think there's a danger of a young student reading Wright and seeing the good things and thinking everybody up here on the panel overreacted. And so I think we'd all want to reaffirm. There are good things in Wright from which we can learn, but don't miss where he's gone astray. And a fundamental area, the gospel. Young students tend to want to believe something new, but if you stray in terms of the gospel, you've forgotten the gospel. Luther was right. We need to re-learn the gospel every day. If we think we know the gospel, if we think we've mastered the gospel, we don't know it. We have to be mastered by it.
Not Resting on Assumptions
Dr. Vickers in his closing remarks comments:
Where do we go from here? It goes to show that these ideas never go away. The centrality of something like justification, never goes away. ... It should challenge us not just to rest on assumptions, but to go back to the text, go back to the Scriptures, not just follow this person or that person but go back to the Scriptures and read them again. So that we can speak to some of the issues that we're talking about related to justification today were not things they were talking about in justification debates fifty years ago.
Dr. Mohler adds to this in his closing remarks:
We're not just merely defenders of a tradition. We are those who go back to the Scriptures and say, "How do we read, hear, obey, preach, and teach the Word of God in such a way that God is glorified, Christ is amplified, and the Church is edified." The biggest problem I have with Bishop N.T. Wright's perspective on Paul and justification is that I cannot imagine in the end how you would preach what I would recognize to be the gospel if you accept his assumptions.