Luther and Wright, Justification and Ecclesiology

Continuing the theme of my TCI post on NT Wright, I would like to address another question many raise regarding the bishop’s new perspective. That is: what does it imply about the application Luther made of Paul’s thought to his own day?

I want to make the case, briefly, that Wright’s view of Paul doesn’t change much vis-à-vis the Reformation issues.

Wright’s critics have charged him with relocating the doctrine of justification from soteriology to ecclesiology. There is one line in What Saint Paul Really Said that certainly gives this impression, but in later works he has clarified his point, and affirmed that what he really means to affirm is a both/and. Justification is about salvation, but also about church.

Many have not noticed, though, that Wright’s affirmation consists with the Reformers. They too affirmed that justification was both about soteriology and ecclesiology (not to mention politics!). As Brad Littlejohn puts it in his summary of Luther’s view of the two kingdoms:

It flows, in short, from the doctrine of justification, with Luther’s famous concept of simul justus et peccator, his conviction that the realm of appearances is very different from the realm of spiritual realities.  Christ reigns mysteriously and invisibly over the kingdom of conscience, and no human authority may dare to interpose itself as the mediator of this rule; it is by faith alone that we participate in this kingdom, so we must not be deceived into identifying it with external works or rituals.  Perhaps better than the terminology of the “two kingdoms” then, the zwei Reiche, is that of the “two governments,” zwei Regimente.  The spiritual government is that by which Christ rules inwardly in the conscience by his Word and Spirit, the realm of grace; the temporal government (weltliche Regimente) is that by which Christ governs all external human affairs by law, in which he works not directly and immediately, but through the larvae, “masks,” of earthly governors and institutions.  Only the elect experience the former; the latter they share in common with the unregenerate.

Luther’s doctrine of justification severed the absolute link between any human institution and divine rule.  This meant, of course, that no ecclesial authority could claim the power to ultimately determine who was saved or lost.  No bishop or Pope could set a divinely authoritative boundary around the community, and include or exclude at his whim. Rather, God alone determined the ultimate shape of his church, and he did this through his Word, received by faith.

As I noted in my previous post, Wright would agree with all of this. But, further, his explanation of Paul’s logic in, e.g., Galatians, requires Luther’s practical conclusion for the Roman Catholic Church of his own day.

Wright explains in What Saint Paul Really Said (p. 122):

When two people share Christian faith, says Paul, they can share table-fellowship, no matter what their ancestry. And all this is based four-square, of course, on the theology of the cross. ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ he writes, ‘nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me’ (2:19-20). The cross has obliterated the privileged distinction that Saul of Tarsus supposed himself to enjoy; the new life he has as Paul the apostle is a life defined, not by his old existence, but solely by the crucified and risen Messiah.

The bishop emphasizes that in Paul’s day a major point of the doctrine was to build a united Jew-Gentile church; but it is just as clear that the logic of Paul’s teaching opposes other possible divisions, beyond those of race. That is, if the unity of the church is based on the new life Christians receive through their initial faith, a life defined solely by the crucified and risen Messiah, then clearly it is impossible for a new human institution to come along and create new rules that will again divide that family.  God has created one badge of membership: faith.  To add to that badge, whether with the Jewish law or a new manmade one, is to offend against the same divine work.

I’m not the first person to notice that something like Wright’s perspective still causes problems for institutions such as the RCC in Luther’s day. Donald Garlington, in his book Studies in the New Perspective on Paul (pp. 14-15) speaks of the implications of his NPP, which is similar to Wright’s:

If I may build upon and extrapolate from Dunn’s remarks, the difference between my version of the NPP and Roman Catholicism revolves just around the relation of tradition to final judgment (justification) by works. If my perception is correct, then what is stake in the latter’s doctrine of judgment is not “good works” in the most generic terms, but a commitment to the Tridentine standards, including such articles of faith as papal infallibility, the mass, the sacraments, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and prayer to the saints. By contrast, the obedience of faith in Paul bypasses all forms of tradition, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, and focuses fidelity solely and exclusively on Christ. The latter- day justification of the people of God hinges on union with Christ and the observance of all things that he has commanded the church (Matt 28:20), and nothing other than that. In short, what is required for a favorable verdict in the last day is allegiance to Jesus and his law (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). It is in this regard that the Reformers made a right application of Paul’s denial that justification is not by “works of the law.” That is to say, if justification is not by Jewish tradition, then it is not by church tradition either.

My way of putting the matter would be: insofar as the Roman Church conceived itself as having the power to determine who belonged in the community of God’s people, and who did not, based on its laws and canons in addition to the faith God requires, it was reproducing precisely the Judaizing heresy, though now without any possible claim to Mosaic sanction.