Wright’s view of justification is defective and unbiblical, SBTS panelists say

Communications Staff — September 4, 2009

(L-R) R. Albert Mohler Jr., Denny Burk, Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid and Brian Vicker at a panel discussing N.T. Wright's doctrine of justification. Photo by John Gill
(L-R) R. Albert Mohler Jr., Denny Burk, Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid and Brian Vicker at a panel discussing N.T. Wright. Photo by John Gill

N.T. Wright’s doctrine of justification subverts the core of the Gospel and must be rejected, Southern Seminary professors agreed at a panel discussion, Sept. 3, in Alumni Memorial Chapel.

Though Wright has made many significant contributions to evangelicalism defending the resurrection and historicity of Christ, his views on justification are cause for alarm, said Southern professors Tom Schreiner and Mark Seifrid.

“Wright has had a massive impact in New Testament scholarship,” said Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of Scripture and interpretation at Southern. “He would be in the evangelical movement. He has written a fabulous book on the resurrection of the Son of God. I think that is the best book out on the resurrection. He has written very helpful material on the historical Jesus.”

Seifrid noted that Wright’s view of justification as a progressive reality deviates from Scripture.

“Wright’s view shifts the nature of salvation from the once and for all work of God in Jesus Christ to some sort of gradual transformation in your life or my life,” said Seifrid, Mildred and Ernest Hogan Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern. “Wright thinks of Jesus fundamentally as example, as this paradigm of what a human being is to be, while He is also God at the same time. (For justification) everything then depends on transformation in our lives.”

Boyce College Dean Denny Burk disagreed with Wright’s differentiation between initial and final justification.

“Wright argues that initial justification is by faith, but final justification is based on works, whereas we would say that initial and final justification are based on Christ’s work,” Burk said.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern, moderated the panel, which featured Schreiner, Seifrid, Burk and Brian Vickers, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern.

Wright, who has served as bishop of Durham since 2003, is the author of “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009). Wright’s work came out after John Piper wrote “The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright” (2007). Some have called Wright’s book a response to Piper, pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., but Mohler said the work doesn’t read that way.

“Wright doesn’t actually take on the most crucial and critical arguments made by John Piper,” Mohler said.

Burk said Piper’s critique of Wright’s distinction between initial and future justification is the most important part of “The Future of Justification,” a view Wright reaffirms in his new book.

Imputation

The panel identified the doctrine of imputation as a fundamental area of disagreement with Wright, who believes the Protestant Reformers got that cardinal doctrine wrong.

“Wright’s claim is no less than that the Protestant Reformers and their heirs have misunderstood not only Paul and not only first-century Judaism, but the doctrine of justification and thus, the Gospel,” Mohler said. “That is an audacious claim.”

Burk noted that Wright believes it would be unjust for God to impute Christ’s righteousness to people.

“He doesn’t believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” Burk said. “He says that there is not the exchange of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us and our sin being imputed to Him, because this would be unjust.”

Vickers noted that Wright’s new book often mixes truth with error. While he speaks of Abraham, Israel the Messiah and the world in his tracing of the broad storyline of Scripture, Wright fails to develop a key theme.

“What is missing in Wright’s new book is: where is Adam?” Vickers noted. “The traditional view (of justification) is all about Paul boiling the human race down to two people: Adam and Christ. People are either in Adam or in Christ. That is not dealt with at all in Wright’s book.”

Schreiner said the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther and Wright would be talking about two different things if they had a discussion about justification.

Tom Schreiner
Tom Schreiner

“I think they define it very differently,” Schreiner said. “Wright defines justification as covenant faithfulness. Wright says that justification is all about inclusion in the people of God, it is about ecclesiology. Luther would say it is about being right with God; it is about how you get saved.”

The New Perspective on Paul

Schreiner noted that one foundation of Wright’s view of justification is E.P. Sanders’ argument about first-century Judaism in “Paul and Palestine Judaism” (1977). Schreiner said Sanders argues that Judaism was not a legalistic religion, that it was not a religion of works-based righteousness.

Despite the fact that many respected New Testament scholars have questioned the validity of Sanders’ reading of Jewish sources that accord with his view — including Seifrid, D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien and Simon Gathercole — Wright simply assumes Sanders’ view is correct.

While Wright has not made any theological or philosophical contributions to the New Perspective, Schreiner said that the bishop’s popularity among evangelical circles has been a boon for that interpretative movement.

“Wright is a lot closer to us (evangelicals theologically),” Schreiner said. “So, when he speaks he resonates with evangelical audiences. He holds Scripture to be the Word of God. He has a plan to put the whole Bible together: we want to do that as evangelicals. He is enormously gifted, has a wonderful personality and really speaks to people today.”

Despite his popularity, the panelists agreed that Wright’s defective view of justification is a threat to orthodox Christian teaching not only exegetically and theologically, but pastorally as well. Schreiner said he recently read a book by Wright that was a compilation of sermons Wright gave at a church in England during the week of Easter. In the sermons, Schreiner said Wright failed to preach the Gospel even once.

“He did not proclaim the Gospel in a whole week of Easter sermons. I find that mind-boggling,” Schreiner said. “Why did he never proclaim the Gospel? Because it is not at the forefront of his thinking. It is not at the forefront of his thinking that people need to repent and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. What is at the forefront of his thinking is social transformation.

“I think he misses what is happening with ordinary people and their stance before God. Nothing is more important than one’s stance before God.”

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