Final Justification, Protestantism, And Wright

I want to continue my series of posts on NT Wright and Reformational issues by focussing in on the matter of final justification. This seems to be one of the teachings many regard as a particularly dangerous part of Wright’s teaching. I already addressed this point in brief in my first post, but I can add a few more comments to strengthen my position.

I think the concerns of many Protestants regarding Wright’s view of final justification according to “the whole life lived” fall into three main categories: (1) his view is not Protestant, (2) his view is not Augustinian, and (3) his view is not Biblical. I will address these in turn.

Is Wright’s view Protestant?

Thankfully, I don’t need to do much work here. My friend Steven Wedgeworth has done it all for me. His survey clearly demonstrates the variety of expression amongst Protestant theologians about this matter, and that clear precedents for Wright’s position lie within that variety. More specifically, from the doctors that Wedgeworth surveys, the following say basically the same thing as Wright (I will append some brief quotes to make this point clear):

  • Martin Bucer
    • In the case of Bucer, Michael Bird provides the clearest testimony, though the post about Witsius below also contains a citation from Bucer.
  • John Diodati
    • “Whereas St. James takes the same word for the approving of man, in a benigne and fatherly judgment, as he is considered in the quality of God’s child, and living in the covenant of grace, as having the two essentiall parts of that covenant joyned together, faith to receive God’s grace and Christ’s benefit, and works to yield him the duties of service and acknowledgement;”
  • Benedict Pictet
    • “for in the first [justification] a sinner is acquitted from guilt, in the second a godly man is distinguished from the ungodly. In the first God imputes the righteousness of Christ ; in the second he pronounces judgment from the gift of holiness bestowed upon us; both these justifications the believer obtains, and therefore it is true that “by works he is justified, and not by faith only.”
  • Herman Witsius
    • “This justification is indeed very different from that other, of which we shall presently treat, wherein the person is absolved from sins, whereof he is really guilty, and which are forgiven him on Christ’s account. In this we are speaking of he is acquitted of sins, which he is not chargeable with, and is declared not to have committed.XXIV. The foundation of this justification can be nothing but inherent holiness and righteousness. For, as it is a declaration concerning a man, as he is in himself: by the regenerating and sanctifying grace of God, so it ought to have for its foundation, that which is found in man himself:He that doth righteousness is righteous, says John, 1 John iii. 7. and Peter says, Acts x.34, 35. “of a truth, I perceive, that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with God.””
  • Edward Polhill
    • “These things evince, that obedience is a condition necessary as to our continuance in a state of justification: nevertheless it is not necessary, that obedience should be perfect as to the evangelical precept; but that it should be such, that the truth of grace which the evangelical condition calls for, may not fail for want of it: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city,” (Rev. xxii.14.) The first fundamental right to heaven they have by the faith of Christ only: but sincere obedience is necessary that that right may be continued to them: in this sense we may fairly construe that conclusion of St James, “Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” (Jam. ii.24.)”
  • Thomas Goodwin
    • “So then, Paul’s judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul’s justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. iii.iv., he in chap. ii. also declares, that ‘he will judge every man according to his works.’ He doth so to the good: ver. 7, ‘To them who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honour, and immortality, eternal life.’”

In addition to Wedgeworth’s sources, one other deserves note:

  • Westminster Shorter Catechism 38
    • Rich Lusk rightly noted that WSC 38 teaches believers receive an acquittal at the final resurrection; the choice of proof-texts for this point may startle some, too, in that the Westminster divines selected a text about rewards for good works to prove believers would receive this acquittal (Matthew 25:23).

On the other hand, Wedgeworth rightly explains that John Calvin, Francis TurretinJohn PrestonJames Ussher, and Thomas Gataker, William Gouge, and John Downame shy away from speaking of two justifications with the second by works, though Calvin’s position in the Institutes is quite sophisticated and I think comes very close to the one evidenced in the list above. But to the list of reticent theologians we should add Martin Luther, and I would imagine the Lutheran tradition (though I know nothing about the particulars here).

Given Wedgeworth’s work here, I can’t see any reason to say Wright’s view fails the Protestantism test. At most one can say some Protestants disagreed with his view. But they did not excommunicate his predecessors.  As long as the fundamental Protestant concerns were upheld, there was manifestly room for difference on this matter.  And as I showed, Wright certainly sustains those fundamental Protestant positions.

Is Wright’s view Augustinian?

Anecdotally, on several occasions I have seen critics of Wright contend that his position on final justification is semi-Pelagian. Of the three issues I mentioned at the beginning, this one is the easiest to dispatch, I believe. For the charge that Wright’s view of the final judgment implies salvation by merit runs up against the problem of Augustine himself. If anyone was an Augustinian, and not a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, when it came to merit, it was the bishop of Hippo. Yet everyone recognizes that he did not teach a Protestant view of justification, i.e., he believed iustificatio referred to the transformative process by which God made us more just, not the verdict in God’s court which declares us so. For Augustine, justification and sanctification basically referred to the same process. But for all that, Augustine’s view of grace rendered it impossible for human beings to stand before God on the basis of merit. My reference to the saint’s saying that “God crowns the works he does in us” hinted at this point. The fact that God is the ultimate source of our good works, as many Protestants have noted, eliminates merit from the good works that those same Protestants affirm that we do. But if the divine origin of our good works eliminates merit in sanctification, then it must also eliminate merit even in final justification.

To put this all a different way: this charge confuses two issues which must remain distinct. The question of the instruments of justification, initial and final, stands beside the question of grace’s relation to merit. These matters remain separable, as Augustine’s own position makes clear.

Is Wright’s view Biblical?

For Protestants, at least in theory, all theologoumena must pass the bar of scripture, or else be discarded. At this point, I don’t wish to defend Wright’s view as biblical (though I believe it is). But I do contend (a) that his position is at least prima facie defensible (it has been defended by otherwise respected evangelical scholars of late e.g., beyond Wright himself, also Simon Gathercole, Mark Seifrid, and Tom Schreiner), and (b) that in light of my responses to the previous two questions, the answer should not be threatening to Protestants if Wright turns out to be correct. It undermines neither their ultimate concerns nor the (non-existent) uniformity of their tradition.

This will probably be my final post, at least for some time, concentrated on NT Wright’s place in Protestantism. I welcome feedback and criticism. I hope, at least, that I’ve provided reason for some critics of Wright to reconsider their problems with his teaching, even if I have failed to convince them of my entire position.