Vanhoozer on Wright

If you didn’t know this already Kevin Vanhoozer gave an all star performance at this year’s Wheaton theology conference. He delivered a paper entitled “Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright.”

In a humorous address, Vanhoozer sought to bridge the divide between N.T. Wright and his critics.

Here are some notable points from his lecture:

1) Wright has often made the claim that a traditional understanding of justification can amount to nothing more than legal fiction. Vanhoozer drew upon his understanding of speech-act theory to suggest that justification was a performative utterance. He cited theologian Eberhard Juengel’s idea that justification effects an ontological change. Vanhoozer pointed out that sometimes Wright’s lacked this effective dimension of declaration. Vanhoozer pointed out that NTW’s emphasis on declaring people a part of the covenant community should include the effective dimension – it makes people part of the covenant community.

2) Part of the debate between NTW and his critics revolves around whether when God justifies sinners, he is declaring them in the covenant or innocent, that is, freed from the guilt of sin. To me, this debate seems useless for to be declared a member of the covenant means that your sins are forgiven. The two are not mutually exclusive. Vanhoozer’s solution to this (apparent?) problem is the doctrine of what he calls “incorporative righteousness.” With this concept, justified persons are both declared to be in the clear and in the covenant.

3) Perhaps most importantly, Vanhoozer points out that the theological category of adoption might bring together NTW and his critics. Adoption is able to include the Reformer’s emphasis on being right with God and NTW’s emphasis on being in God’s family.¬†For Wright, Vanhoozer asks if the legal courtroom is seen as an adoption courtroom, where we are actually declared to be God’s children with all the attending rights, privilege and status, could there not be some form of imputation in play?

I think that the last point bears further reflection. Adoption does seem to be a category able to transcend the current impasse. By succeeding where Israel failed in obeying the covenant, Christ is declared to be God’s true son, who God always longed Israel to be. And though as Paul says in Ephesians 2:3 we were once children of wrath, Christ’s status of true sonship is imputed to us as we are adopted into God’s covenantal family. In Vanhoozer’s words, to declare one to be adopted means that we have the imputation of a new filial status.

Our sins are forgiven, some sense of imputation is maintained, and we’re declared to be a member of God’s family.

Problem solved?