Friday, November 26, 2010

The growing evangelical agnosticism toward Justification

Much has already been said and written about the recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The theme of this year's gathering was the doctrine of the Justification. Much attention was gained by the fact that N.T. Wright would be 'debating' Tom Schreiner and Frank Theilman on the subject. Wright, an excellent scholar and skilled communicator is now famous (infamous?) for maintaining that the Reformers erred in their understanding of Justification. There is not enough space here to go into the details of Wright's thesis but essentially he states that Justification is on the basis of works. Surprisingly, Wright stated at the ETS meeting that he has never written that justification is on the basis of works but is, rather, in keeping with works. There is a profound difference between those two notions. Disappointingly, however, Wright has indeed written, on many occasions that justification is "on the basis of works." So it is unclear if Wright is truly ignorant about his own writings or if he sees no fundamental difference between "on the basis of" and "in keeping with."

What is becoming clear however is that Wright is a bit of a rock star among many evangelicals who do not seem to think that departures from the historic Protestant doctrine of Justification is any big deal. This is disturbing indeed.

Gene Veith weighs in on this very point:

Might justification by faith end up as just another weird idea those Lutherans believe? That teaching–that we are declared righteous because of the Cross of Jesus Christ–used to be common to all Protestants, but it is under attack today, not just by liberal theologians but by evangelicals.

I was at the Evangelical Theological Society convention very briefly to give a paper on vocation. The overall theme was justification. The keynote speaker was N. T. Wright, the former bishop of the Church of England, who draws on “the new perspective on Paul” to put forward a new view of justification. According to Wright, Luther got it wrong when he thought that we are justified by faith in the sense of being saved from our moral transgressions.

Rather, justification is not soteriological but ecclesiastical. That is, it is not about salvation from sin but about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church. When Paul talks about the Law that Christ frees us from, he does not mean the moral law; rather, he means the Jewish ceremonial law. Here is how Christianity Today summarized his position a while back ago:

Justification refers to God’s declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God’s purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the “works of the Law” (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart)...

Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy 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.

My impression is that many and probably most of the papers at the ETS took the traditional stance towards justification and criticized Wright’s position, though Luther and Lutherans were largely absent from the program. Still, I heard that Wright’s reading of Paul Epistles is becoming a settled issue in New Testament scholarship.

The Christianity Today piece linked above sets up a point/counterpoint between Wright’s position and the traditional position articulated by John Piper (again!), who wrote a book criticizing Wright’s view. Would some of you read the whole article? Does Piper get it right? (His seems to be a Calvinist take on the issue, full of “God’s glory” talk, whereas Lutherans would put some of this quite differently. Where do you note the differences?)

It seems to me that Wright’s view of justification makes salvation a matter of works. It also seems to lead to some variety of the social gospel–that the purpose of Judaism and now Christianity is to improve the world. As such, it eviscerates the Gospel.

The notion that Christianity is primarily about inclusion sounds like the language of the ELCA’s latest dictate on homosexuality. Perhaps it lies behind the megachurches that want to include all the people they can, regardless of what they believe.

At any rate, if the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, as the early Reformers insisted, today’s Church is tottering.

1 comment:

Annette said...

We are saved by grace only and only because of Jesus' redeeming work on the cross-His shed blood on the cross. It is not anything that we've done or could do.