Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wright or wrong?

Over at The Ugley Vicar (aka John Richardson, theologian) you can find a series of posts over recent days, along with erudite comments, on issues in the theology of Bishop Tom Wright. John Richardson is particularly concerned to tease out the question of Wright's theology of salvation. He (and others) do not see that Wright clearly teaches the 'imputation' of God's righteousness, or God declaring the believer to be righteous on the basis of Christ's death on the cross as a complete sacrifice for sin and not on any other basis such as the consequent good works of the believer. In Richardson (and others') view, the teaching of the imputation of righteousness is a divider between true evangelical theology and inadequate or non-evangelical theology. If Wright is wrong on this then at worst he is not deserving of the description 'evangelical' and at best he keeps company with various people who can properly be described as 'evangelical', however inadequately, such as Arminius.

I am not expert enough in the writings of Wright to know whether he is an 'imputer' or not. I know enough to know that he is a doughty fighter so I would like to see his response!

But there is another point to be made (and if you follow the comments on one post you will see I have tried to make it there). Often we evangelicals debate questions of salvation in respect of the 'point' of salvation: baptism or faith or both? justification 'imputed' or 'imparted' (as in Catholic theology)? once saved always saved? In this debate I am with imputation, the decisive importance of faith in Jesus Christ, and the complete 'one perfect' sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But I find things get a bit murkier when we consider the 'process' of salvation. If we shift from Romans to Philippians, for example, we find Paul saying things like 'You must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling' (2:12), 'if only I may arrive finally at the resurrection from the dead' (3:11), and 'I press towards the goal to win the prize which is God's call to the life above, in Christ Jesus' (3:14).
Here Paul seems to be saying that to fail to remain in the 'process' of salvation (i.e. working out salvation, pressing forward into Christian maturity, obeying Christ and undertaking the good works he has set for us to do (Ephesians 2:10)) is at best to risk losing salvation and at worst to definitely fail to enter into the fullness of eternal life.

Now a whole lot of questions emerge here which I will not attempt to answer; suffice to observe that if Wright is wrong, the challenge remains for evangelicals to articulate the 'role' of good works, growing maturity, and following Christ in the process of salvation. Is it possible that evangelicals focusing on 'imputation' of righteousness can readily delineate ourselves from alternatives, but when our discussion extends turns to working out our salvation we find it hard to delineate ourselves from alternatives?

Final notes:
- John Richardson is very careful to distinguish critique of Bishop Tom's "theology" from Bishop Tom the person. That is a good model for evangelical debate.
- though the debate of Bishop Tom's theology is pretty sharp edged in England itself, where Bishop Tom, as Bishop Durham and as a major church figure in the media, is hugely influential, it is well worth paying attention to the debate Down Under ... Bishop Tom is influential here also, and there are some pointed debates occurring in these parts, for example here on The Sola Panel


Doug Chaplin said...

Oddly, Wright's views on Paul have not been particularly controversial in the UK, but his perspective on Paul's understanding of gospel and justification has recently become very heated in the US, and the US discussion now seems to be headed back into some UK evangelical circles. John Piper has on online book criticising Wright, which I have in turn reviewed and critiqued on my blog. On this particular issue, I am more on Wright's wavelength.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Doug
I will follow up your response to John Piper.
Down this way Wright seems to have moved from an 'uncontroversial' figure to invite to evangelical conferences in the 1990s to someone now seen as 'controversial'.
Partly that is concern that his take on Paul undermines, ultimately, the gospel ... partly people have not taken kindly (as in England) to his "turning on" conservative evangelicals. (Though that raises the oddness of sensitivity to criticism on the part of CEs given the tendency of conservative evangelicalism to engage in strident criticism of liberals).
Enough meandering!
I personally like BIshop Tom the person, having heard him speak on several occasions and would happily invite him to any conference any where any time!