"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Thursday, August 16, 2007

N.T. Wright’s gospel of “being put to rights”

I just listened to N.T. Wright's talk on Romans at Calvin College. After listening to it, my verdict is…mixed. Wright picks up on two important themes:

1. Our poor eschatology of heaven as floating spirits (which is a gnostic, dualistic or Manichean idea coming from the concept that matter is somehow evil and a detour in creation).
2. Our lack of concern for greater new creation rather than just personal eternal life.

Then one gets to where N.T. Wright talks about justification as a “putting of the world to rights.” Wright has a system looking towards the restoration of the world in new creation. Thus, Judgment is restoring the rights of creation.

Ironically, N.T. Wright talks about how our understanding of Paul is too focused through Enlightenment concepts. Yet, Wright uses "rights" in a similar way as Enlightenment thinkers, in a modern idea of rights. “Right” becomes a positive claim, or an inherent birthright. This was conceived in some of William of Ockham’s ideas, birthed by the lawyer Grotius (the person who invented the idea of governmental atonement) and reached a whiny, violent adolescence in the French Revolution, the culmination of the Enlightenment.

A true pre-Enlightenment thinker, Thomas Aquinas, defined “right” (or "ius" in Latin) as DUTY. This idea was developed in explaining Romans 2:14-15:

for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith

Thomas Aquinas explained this “law written on their hearts” as “lex naturalis” (natural law). Specific precepts of natural law are “ius naturalis” (natural right[s]), in other words the law has specific duties.

We have ALREADY been put to rights or duties: we have been given the law. Our problem is not being “put to rights“ or properly speaking “being put to the law’s duties” but that we do not do our right/duty, we do not keep the law (Rom 3:10-11). The “right” thing to do (a better understanding and use of the term) is for God to do His duty as Judge to the law and now destroy us, as the law demands. The declaration that we are to “be put to rights!” should make us shutter! If the Judgment means everyone will be put to rights, then everyone is damned. The declaration that we have unmerited favor, or vicariously merited favor, is the good news.

To put it in classical terms (the right definition of right) is:
Christ has done our duty/right on our behalf. Christ was put to death for our trespass of rights.

To put it in modern terms (I rather use birthright than right):
Our birthright is death. Christ’s birthrite is life. Christ takes our birthright, and we take His birthright.

More important than justification by faith is justification by grace. We have no birthrights to restoration, only duties we cannot perform, but have been performed for us and a reward confered on us by shear grace.

But don’t be put off Wright altogether [Here is a balanced evaluation in Christianity Today]. He is great on the resurrection and generally on the new creation. Piper is putting out a book specifically targeting N.T. Wright, which I can only hope properly separates the good from the bad [as Piper does not have a reputation for gentleness in rebuke, ask any Free Grace adherent or Arminian]. Wright is a friend to orthodox Christianity, not an enemy. Wright tends to be about 90% correct in his teaching, a great leader against liberalization on homosexuality in the U.S. Episcopal church and a defender of the doctrines of the resurrection and the Bible as the Word of God. That's actually a big deal for someone in the Church of England.

Some good N.T. Wright:

[a tip of the hat to Solus Christus for first posting the Christianity Today article]

1 comment:

M. Jay Bennett said...

That's an interesting angle Jared. I hadn't thought about Wright's teaching on justification in terms of rights like that before.

In his book on theodicy Evil and the Justice of God Wright uses the term restorative justice frequently. He speaks of it in terms just as you say: putting the creation to rights or restoring order in the creation. I think that is a fundamental biblical idea that our evangelical context no doubt needs some correction on. But I think to speak only teleologically, in terms of restoration, and not deal significantly with the means of that restoration (i.e. the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ) is problematic. Why is it that Wright's theodicy does not include the concept of vindictive justice, or the idea that sin is, while certainly the disordering of creation, a personal offense against holy God? His silence speaks volumes I think.

I share your appreciation for Wright's work however. He makes some very insightful points and deals fairly and carefully with the text of Scripture, which he affirms as the authoritative Word of God. I also appreciate his emphasis on understanding the metanarrative of Scripture in proper biblical hermeneutics.

I am looking forward to Piper's book. But I share your hope that he will affirm the good. I especially hope that he will affirm the strong ecclesiology of Wright.

Great post Jared! Thanks for sharing your insight into this issue.