Sunday, November 21, 2010

Wright Sets Right A Wrong

During N. T. Wright’s presentation, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” at the Evangelical Theological Society’s conference in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, November 19, he made a crucial statement which I cannot quote exactly from memory but the portion I will include in quotation marks is almost exact. At a significant point in his lecture Wright made a statement concerning the apostle Paul's phrase in Romans 2:6 (κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ) that sounded quite different from what he has written many times in his books. Instead of saying that humans will be judged “on the basis of their deeds” or that they will be judged “on the basis of their whole life lived,” he stated that humans will be judged “in accordance with their deeds.” Then he paused and went off script, or at least gave the impression that he went off script, and stated that he has been wrongly charged with claiming that Paul states that God will judge humans “on the basis of deeds.” He also stated that if anyone could locate where he stated that judgment will be “on the basis of deeds,” he would like to be shown the place so that he could correct it.

During the panel discussion that followed Wright’s lecture, attended by an overflowing large ballroom, Tom Schreiner indicated that he had located Wright’s statement that God will judge “on the basis of the whole life lived.,” which is not difficult to find in many of his writings. However, Tom was unable to locate anywhere that Wright expressly states that God will judge “on the basis of deeds.” Because I have been reading Wright’s works extensively in preparation for one of my own presentations at the ETS conference, I had at least one quote in my paper, but I did not have my paper with me during the Wright lecture. Wright does use the expression “on the basis of works” in the following quotation.
And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the “call” of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.[1]

As indicated in this quotation, it is evident that N. T. Wright, himself, explains that his phrase “on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit” means “on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense.” Since this is what he means, I read his statement generously. Nevertheless, even though he uses the phrase and explains that it is in a “redefined sense,” it is understandable that readers have understood Wright to be saying that Paul claims that God will judge humans “on the basis of deeds.”

Nevertheless, my readers will remember that I have been generous toward N. T. Wright as I have offered a couple of plausible explanations for the origin of his statements: (1) hyperbole, as Wright often exaggerates his assertions to make a point (something plainly evident many times during his presentations at both the ETS and IBR meetings in Atlanta, from which I just returned), and (2) Wright’s somewhat “sloppy” translation of his exegesis at times or at least his less than careful and precise exegetical commentary on the biblical text at crucial junctures. For my comments on Wright’s statements see TRSBU.

On Friday, following Wright’s lecture and the panel discussion I heard many attending the conference offer happy commentary upon the correction of his previous insistence that judgment will be “on the basis of deeds/the whole life lived.” Yet, one disappointment that I heard many times was that attendees wished that Wright had presented the needed correction as a full and clear acknowledgment of his error of writing rather than present it as a needed correction of his readers’ failure to read his written words correctly or of his hearer’s failure to hear his spoken words correctly. Alas! How difficult it is to acknowledge wrong, to do so publicly and especially to do so when the wrong is so widely published in one’s own words. Is it unreasonable to think that N. T. Wright owes all his readers a brief published statement to acknowledge and to correct his error? Such a correction would surely have a salutary effect.

Young scholars, may I paraphrase James’ admonition, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19)? “Be quick to listen and to learn.” “Be slow to speak, to present, and to publish.” For, if you do these things, then obedience of the third imperative will come more readily, “Be slow to give way to anger,” especially to defend yourself when others point out your misstatements.
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Denny Burk, Academic Dean of Boyce College, has posted N.T. Wright on Justification at ETS on his blog. Even N. T. Wright engages in adding a couple of comments. It seems that N. T. Wright’s comment on Denny Burke’s blog comes off as a kind of retraction of his correction. Instead of candidly acknowledging that his phrase (on the basis of ‘works’), even though he qualifies it, invites the understanding it has widely received, it  seems that Wright wants to stick with what he has written and blame readers for imputing a wrong meaning to his phrase “on the basis of ‘works’”.

Denny Burk has posted a follow-up piece, Wrong about Wright?

Also find Collin Hansen’s report on the Gospel Coalition blog at A Justification Debate Long Overdue.
[1] N. T. Wright, “New Perspective on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006): 260.

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