Wright on Imputation

I found this selection from Wright (see the whole lecture) to be helpful in clarifying his view on imputation:

The covenant plan of God has what may loosely be called a ‘participationist’ aspect, and this, too, is part of the glorification of God, as I have already shown from Romans 15. Abraham’s true family, the single ‘seed’ which God promised him, is summed up in the Messiah, whose role precisely as Messiah is not least to draw together the identity of the whole of God’s people so that what is true of him is true of them and vice versa. Here we arrive at one of the great truths of the gospel, which is that the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him’. This is the truth which has been expressed within the Reformed tradition in terms of ‘imputed righteousness’, often stated in terms of Jesus Christ having fulfilled the moral law and thus having accumulated a ‘righteous’ status which can be shared with all his people. As with some other theological problems, I regard this as saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong way, and the trouble when you do that is that things on both sides of the equation, and the passages which are invoked to support them, become distorted. The central passage is in fact Romans 6, and I think it is because much post-reformation theology has tended to fight shy of taking seriously Paul’s realistic theology of baptism that it has sought to achieve what Paul describes in that chapter and elsewhere by another route. The Messiah died to sin; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have died to sin. The Messiah rose again and is now ‘alive to God’; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have risen again and are now ‘alive to God’. This is what Paul means in Galatians 3 when he says that as many as have been baptised in to the Messiah have put on the Messiah, and that if we thus belong to the Messiah we are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. There is indeed a status which is reckoned to all God’s people, all those in Christ; and this status is that of dikaiosune, ‘righteousness’, ‘covenant membership’; and this covenant membership, in order to be covenant membership, must be a covenant membership in which the members have died and been raised, because until that has happened they would still be in their sins. ‘I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God; I have been crucified with the Messiah; nevertheless I live; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’. If this is what you are trying to get at by the phrase ‘imputed righteousness’, then I not only have no quarrel with the substance of it but rather insist on it as a central and vital part of Paul’s theology. What I do object to is calling this truth by a name which, within the world of thought where it is common coin, is bound to be heard to say that Jesus has himself earned something called ‘righteousness’, and that he then reckons this to be true of his people (as in the phrase ‘the merits of Christ’), whereas on my reading of Paul the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus is that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection; and, particularly, that this is what Paul means when he speaks of ‘God’s righteousness’, as though that phrase denoted the righteous status which God’s people have in virtue of justification, whereas in fact the phrase, always and everywhere else from the Psalms and Isaiah onwards, refers to God’s own righteousness as the creator and covenant God; and, underneath all of this, I object to the misreading of several key Pauline texts that results, and the marginalisation in consequence of themes which have major importance for Paul but which this theology manages to ignore. The mistake, as I see it, arises from the combination of the Reformers’ proper sense of something being accomplished in Christ Jesus which is then reckoned to us, allied with their overemphasis on the category of iustitia as the catch-all, their consequent underemphasis on Paul’s frequently repeated theology of our participation in the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and their failure to locate Paul’s soteriology itself on the larger map of God’s plan for the whole creation. A proper re-emphasis on ‘God’s righteousness’ as God’s own righteousness should set all this straight. (Bold text mine.)

I think Wright is off the mark in several important areas, not least of which being his weak understanding of the Reformers. (I wonder how much of Luther he has actually read. And I wonder how familiar he is with the Finnish interpretation of Luther, which argues rather persuasively—as least on the main points—that union with Christ (i.e., participation!) is at the heart of Luther’s soteriology and vitally connected to his understanding of justification.) The more I read Wright, the more convinced I become that his “freshness” is dependent to a significant degree upon his caricaturing his opponents’ position (i.e., the traditional view). While I have a massive amount of respect for him as a scholar, this point certainly has the opposite effect! That aside, this selection is important in that it demonstrates that Wright’s disagreement is less in substance than it is in form and expression—at least as he sees it.

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One Response to Wright on Imputation

  1. Matt Olliffe December 29, 2008 at 8:59 am #

    N T Wright’s criticisms of imputation IMHO rest on some mistaken views that are not just his but have become pretty common. However, his criticism of imputation is perhaps the sharpest, and a wholesale adoption of his view of justification I think does away not just with the doctrine of imputed righteousness, but with justification by faith alone. For NTW, justification in the present is by faith and baptism, and final justification is on the basis of the whole life, in other words, works. If justification is the final declaration being brought into the present, then he cannot logically hold to justification by faith alone – no matter whether he says he does or not.

    I think that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification is correct. It is vindicated when we see that.

    (1) NT Wright has overemphases righteousness as covenant faithfulness and neglected ‘righteousness’ as a word with ethical and moral connotations (see Westerholm, ‘Perspectives Old and New’). Righteousness demands obedience and keeping the law. This is evident even in Zeisler, ‘The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul’ the prime source of the ‘righteousness as covenant faithfulness’ idea. Westerholm’s approach is much more satisfying.

    (2) N T Wright fails to see that righteousness is actually a ‘gift’ and thus in some sense reified in Romans 5:17, pace Dunn’s WBC on the same verse. See also Phil 3:9. Righteousness as a gift (at least metaphorically) can be then devised or bequeathed (Wright’s words),despite his rubbishing of this. This is because gifts are given, bequeathed, devised or handed over, and when they are forensic gifts, as Wright admits, they are passed across the courtroom, at least metaphorically!;

    (3) Many people fail to understand that the underlying Hebrew of Genesis 15:6 has a double accusative, so that God reckoned faith righteousness; this is why Paul says that righteousness, not just faith, is imputed (Roman 4:6, 11). Righteousness and faith are different things. D A Carson has argued this latter point persuasively in his vindication of imputation in the Husbands and Trier volume;

    (4) Romans 5:18-19 does indeed refer to the whole course of Christ’s obedience. The heno dikaiomatos in Romans 5:18 should be translated ‘the justification of the one’ (see Augustine on the same verse in D F Wright in Justification in Perspective, Calvin on Romans 5:18, Leon Morris on Romans in Pillar). It refers to Christ’s justification. It therefore doesn’t refer to Christ’s death as a ‘righteous act’ but his resurrection as his judicial justification (in line with Gaffin’s view on Romans 4:25, 1 Tim 3:16, Rom 1:3-4 and his most recent essay in the K S Oliphant volume, Justified in Christ. Romans 5:19 then is clearly a reference to the whole course of Jesus’ life, and there is no need to limit it to Jesus’ death only, as Schriener, Moo and others do. The whole of Christ’s obedience is then imputed to the believer at the judgment, in line with the force of the future verb kathistemi which then means ‘appoint righteous at the eschaton’ which is clearly forensic.

    (5) Modern evangelicals need to reconsider Calvin’s and the puritan understanding of Romans 8:4 (contra Origen, Pelagius, Murray, Cranfield, Piper, Vickers, Schriener, Wright and Dunn but per (with some variations) Chrysostom, Shedd, Haldane, Gill, Kasemann, Nygren, Benoit, Fitzmyer, Msgr Knox’s translation, Moo). THis understanding in it’s most developed form is that the purpose clause in Romans 8:4 ‘so that the dikaioma of the law is fulfilled in us’ is not a reference to our Spirit wrought works in keeping the law, but to the fulfillment wrought by the sending in Romans 8:3 of the Christ in the likness of sinful flesh (ie Christ’s active obedience to the precepts of the law in that he was like us, fully human, but unlike us, sinless) and as a sin offering (ie Christ’s passive obedience to the penalty of the law) so that those of us who believe in our hearts in the Christ (cf Romans 10, which explains the force of ‘in us’ in Rom 8:4, contra Piper) take with us to the judgment the legal justification that Christ won for us by his life, death and resurrection. The benefit of Christ goes with us because the faith in us brings this gift of righteousness, which is the status of a righteous person, the righteousness of Christ, to the judgment. Again, dikaioma should be taken not as ‘righteous requirement'(eg Romans 2:26 and per the NIV) but as ‘justification’ (as in Romans 5:16, and on my view, 5:18, also the vulgate of Romans 8:4 and Msgr Knox’s version).

    (6) Then we can see that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not an alternative to union with Christ (pace Garlington) but a way Paul discusses the believer’s receipt of one of the benefits of the union with Christ. Our justification is found in Christ, and we receive in our union with Christ the whole of the Christ, not just bits and pieces of him. However, by reifying the gift of righteousness, by speaking of a gift of righteousness at length in Romans 5:15-17, and PHil 3:9, Paul is enabled to explicate one of the benefits of union with Christ at length. Union with Christ is to imputation of righteousness as The Golden Rule ‘Love your Neighbour’ is to the idea of an individual right. We are all called to love neighbour, which is a relational concept. But if we want to know what love to neighbour looks like, we might say that an individual has a right to food, clothing, shelter, etc. By calling these things rights, I have just reified them. I have turned them into things for the purpose of analysis. But they don’t really exist. They are ideas. Their proper place is in the context of a loving relationship. A loving neighbour asks, ‘How can I provide food, clothes, shelter, etc, to someone in need?’ But it’s not wrong to reify them, as a way of thinking, so long as we understand that the usual and more natural place we talk about them is in a relational way, that is, love your neighbour.

    Union with Christ is the umbrella concept that Paul uses, through en christw, syn prefixed on verbs, christon en moi, etc. As Gaffin says, however, union with Christ is not a bible expression, just like the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not a bible expression.

    This might explain some of Seifrid’s early reticence to fully embrace imputation (in Christ our Righteousness p175). More recently, he has become more critical (see in Trier and Husbands on Luther).

    Thanks for being patient with a long post.
    In Christ
    Matt Olliffe