Ten Questions for N.T. Wright regarding Catholicism, Justification, and the Church

Nov 30th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This post originally appeared at the Canterbury Tales blog.

Let me begin by saying that I am honored to have received a response from N.T. Wright in Christianity Today last month. He is a giant and he has probably influenced me more than any other living theologian (yes, even more than Ratzinger/Benedict XVI).

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would like to engage some of N.T. Wright’s comments made in the context of his response to me in the recent Christianity Today article: “Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Protestant debate on justification is reigniting questions about Rome.” I recounted how I began to read N.T. Wright’s books as a seminarian at Westminster Theological Seminary, and how this experience opened my eyes and heart to the Catholic Church. Wright answered that his theology does not necessarily lead to Catholicism. Trevin Wax recently published N.T. Wright’s full response here.


Wright’s response left me with ten questions. I realize that it is unlikely that I will receive another response from Bishop Wright. He is a busy man, an Anglican bishop, and a world renowned theologian—so I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, at least others who have read Wright’s books might ponder these questions and suggest educated answers. No matter how it turns out, here are the Ten Questions:

1. Bishop Wright, in your new book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (page 141) you write concerning 2 Cor 5:21:

“The little word genometha in 5:21b-‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’-does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers. If that is what Paul meant, with the overtones of ‘extraneous righteousness’ that normally come with that theory, the one thing that he ought not to have said is that we ‘become’ that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much towards a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness? How careless of Paul to leave the door open to such a notion!”

Question 1: You seem to indicate here that Saint Paul does in fact teach the “Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness.” How would we be wrong if we were to assume that you are here denying justification by imputation and favoring “a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness”?

2. Also in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (p. 164), you wrote: “what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, “working together with God.”

Question 2: Should we conclude that you agree with Trent regarding syngergism and disagree with Luther and Calvin on monergism?

3. Bishop Wright, on p. 230 you write: “Thus when [John] Piper says (22) that ‘Wright makes startling statements to the effect that our future justification will be on the basis of works’, I want to protest: it isn’t Wright who says this, but Paul.” Your words conform nicely to the Council of Trent’s Session Six, Chapter 10: “faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.”

Question 3: Are you not affirming with Session Six of the Council of Trent that our justification (with it’s future implications) will be on the basis of works? John Piper doesn’t want to let you off the hook on this one.

4. Bishop Wright, in What Saint Paul Really Said (page 119) you wrote that justification is about ecclesiology before soteriology. This lines up nicely with Session Six of the Council of Trent (especially Chapter Seven) which relates justification in the traditional terms of catechumens and the Church.

Question 4: How is your teaching in What Saint Paul Really Said substantially different from the Council of Trent’s formulation?

5. Bishop Wright, you note that Heinrich Schlier was a fine New Testament scholar. In fact, Schlier states that it was Sacred Scripture that lead him into the Catholic Church.

Question 5: Do you believe that Schlier was so naïve as to believe that being Bultmannian or being Catholic were the only two options available to him?

6. Bishop Wright, you state the Council of Trent provided the wrong answer regarding “nature/grace question.” As far as I can tell, Trent only touched upon this question in Session Five and even there the word “nature” only appears twice.

Question 6: Could you clarify what you mean by “Trent gave the wrong answer, at a deep level, to the nature/grace question”? To which session would I turn in the Council of Trent to find the alleged “wrong answer”?

7. Bishop Wright, you state that Trent’s “wrong answer to the nature/grace question” led to Catholic abuses in Marian doctrine and devotion.

Question 7: Are you referring to something as general as the prayers to Mary or something more specific like her bodily assumption into Heaven?

8. You indicated that the Catholic Church has sought to prevent the belief that God works through women and lay people. You wrote: “Communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them.”

It is rather noteworthy that the two greatest saints of the Catholic Church are the Blessed Virgin Mary (a woman) and Saint Joseph (a layman).

Our profound love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the incarnation goes without mentioning. Moreover, the Catholic Church venerates three female Doctors of the Church (St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Sienna, and St Therese of Lisieux) who stand next to the other great Doctors of the Church like St Augustine, St Basil, St Thomas Aquinas, et al.

Question 8: Could you be more specific as to how the Catholic Church devalues the role of women and laymen?

9. You write that the Reformed, Anglican, charismatic, and emergent traditions can encompass the best of what it means to be “sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological.” Yet, these four traditions (Reformed, Anglican, charismatic, and emergent) are in fundamental disagreement over what a sacrament is, how a human is justified and/or sanctified, what the church is, and what the eschaton is and how it will occur. Even within their own jurisdictions (e.g. Anglican Communion), there is vast disagreement over all of these issues. You say there are “bits of it” in the emergent church, but we could also say that there are “bits of it” when I pray the Our Father with my children before they fall asleep – yet “bits of it” do not entail the climax of the covenant as anticipated in Isaiah, Daniel, or the Minor Prophets.

Question 9: If what it means to be sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological “can be found in” these four contradicting traditions, doesn’t it entail that each of these four (or even all four together) do not actualize what it means to be sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological? In other words, “these elements can be found in their congregations” doesn’t entail “these elements constitute their congregations.”

10. Bishop Wright, you write: “Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions.”

On the contrary, since the Reformation, only the Catholic Church has continued to hold councils and examine the deposit of faith. Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists still appeal to the same dusty articles of faith that they drafted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They do not hold doctrinal councils. They are unable to reform. They are what they are. So the accusation that the Catholic Church doesn’t clean house is actually more appropriately directed toward Protestant denominations.

Question 10: Is it the case that Protestant theology is clean and tidy when compared to Catholic theology?

Bishop Wright, you wrote:

I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person [that’s me, Taylor] needed a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd.

I would like to point out that I am not simply an isolated “this person” who “needed a change.” It’s quite ironic that Wright should says this the wake of the Pope’s announcement of the new Anglican Personal Ordinariates. I’m not the only one. Thousands and thousands of clergy and laity from his own denomination have appealed to the Pope as a result of the Anglican Communion losing its sacramental and communal nature. If Anglicanism can provide a Christianity that is “sacramental, transformational, communal, and eschatological,” then why are these Anglicans so deeply dissatisfied with Anglicanism? Would Wright also say that their “jump to Rome” is “very odd”?
Thank you for reading. As a grateful fan and reader of N.T. Wright’s books, I am continually amazed by his profound insights into Sacred Scripture. As a Catholic, I continue to enjoy his books and find myself returning to his works on a regular basis. I have the highest regard for Bishop Wright and wish him all the best.

I’d like to open up the comments and ask for responses. Would you agree that within Wright’s writings and public comments, “there are some things in them hard to understand”? What are we to make those passages that allege to be “not magisterially Protestant” but “not magisterially Catholic” either?

Please look for my new book: The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Summer 2010). It is based on the conviction that the Pauline epistles contain the primitive and pristine doctrines of the Catholic Faith (that is, the Patristic “old perspective” on Paul). In the Pauline corpus we discover a Paul who is Catholic, a theologian who is sacramental, a churchman who is hierarchical, a mystic who is orthodox.


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  1. Tay,

    Thanks for this, man. I too dig N.T. Wright, as you know. Can’t get enough of his stuff. (Which is fine, really, because the man publishes things faster than I can read them. He’s some sort of machine. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of Wright reading material so long as I live.)

    Maybe, to kick things off, I can offer a few responses to a few of your questions, just to see where things lead discussion-wise.

    So, as to Q1: Doesn’t Wright think that the whole question of imputation vs. infusion is in some sense misconceived, at least if we’re doing Pauline exegesis solely? What I mean is that, whereas Wright may well agree that this passage from St Paul would support a Catholic case, were we to approach the text with the traditional Catholic/Protestant dispute about imputation/infusion in mind – a noteworthy remark by itself – still, according to Wright, we ought not be approaching this passage specifically, or St Paul in general, with that particular question in mind. This is so because, on Wright’s approach, St Paul doesn’t have this question anywhere on his radar, really, but is discussing something else that is at best only indirectly or tangentially related to the imputation-vs.-infusion question. (To be clear: I’m not defending Wright’s reading here, just airing what might be his position.)

    So far as I understand, Wright does deny imputation a la Piper et al., and so his remarks here are consonant with that denial; but since he thinks the whole question of imputation vs. infusion is ill-formed exegetically, it isn’t clear that his remarks provide support for infusion over against imputation. As I understand it, Wright frames this remark (“become God’s righteousness”) within the context of St Paul’s defense of his apostolic credentials: “But if Paul means ‘so that we apostles embody in our own lives the fact that, in Christ, the God of the covenant has been faithful to his single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world,’ is this not an exact and accurate way of saying just this? … we find again and again that Paul is talking about what God is doing in Christ and thereby in and through the apostle and his work … It is as though Paul cannot get tired of saying it: if you want to know who we are, we are people in whom God is at work, because of and according to the pattern of the Messiah, for the benefit of you and of the wider world. How might we expect Paul to summarize all this? What about this: ‘In him we embody the covenant-faithfulness of God’” (165-166). I’m not sure this successfully gets Wright off the hook of your question, as noted above, but he might want to rely upon his reading of the wider interpretive context so as to sail through the horns of the imputation on the one hand and infusion on the other. What do you think?

    On Q2: I guess the Reformed could reply that they do indeed have a place for synergism in the ordo salutis, inasmuch as sanctification is a synergistic process. Perhaps this reply doesn’t really apply, since we’re talking about justification here in specific; my hunch, though, is that the Reformed will want to allow synergism its place in sanctification (but not justification), and analyze the passages to which Wright calls our attention along those lines. I myself don’t think that Wright would try to do this, because I don’t think he really cares about preserving the distinction our Reformed friends are concerned to preserve; but would our Reformed friends be forced to deny the distinction, if they were to embrace Wright’s exegesis? (I’m really asking. I’m honestly not confident about my abilities to infer from Wright’s biblical exegesis a bunch of systematic/theological conclusions.)

    Q3/4: Good questions.

    Q5: Where does Wright discuss Schlier? I want to read what he says there – not because I’m suspicious of your follow up question, but I am interested in it. I notice, too, at a few points in what I’ve read from Wright, that he (quite uncharacteristically) rides roughshod over folks/positions to whom you’d think he’d afford more scholarly respect. (Maybe this is a biblical/systematic thing?)

    Q6: Where does Wright say this about nature and grace? I’m really really interested in reading that, if he provides some arguments for this claim. (If he just says this, but doesn’t argue for it – as is sometimes his wont, given his exegetical interests [see above] – then don’t bother hunting down the reference for me. But if he does provide a theological argument, it would just be really cool beans to see what it is. (Similarly for Q7.)

    Q8: Yeah, I know, he makes these remarks from time to time, and I think they’re frankly unbecoming of a man of his scholarship and erudition. He’s written a bit about women’s ordinations; you can find material on that ntwright website. Well worth the read, as always. But despite that, this sort of well-worn accusation against the Catholic Church just seems party-line-ish and feeble.

    Q9: Cool.

    Q10: “Lots of right answers to wrong questions.” Very interesting. Quite interesting, in fact. Should a person reject allegiance to the Catholic Church on the basis that the Church has said the right things (doctrinally or dogmatically) even if the exegetical (prooftext) support for those things doesn’t really support those things (as Wright thinks)? In this case, the prooftext citations might be embarrassing or problematic; but it doesn’t follow from this that the dogmatic “conclusions” are themselves false. (This would be something like denying the antecedent.) Wright discusses this issue in reference to McGrath’s Iustitia Dei, and I think it’s a very interesting question, especially in light of Wright’s remarks here.

    In any case, I’d say that even if “Protestant theology” were not cluttered or beholden to past formulae, this wouldn’t mean anything, really, as regards the truth or falsity of the pertinent Catholic dogmas, for the reason(s) Wright points out in Justification and elsewhere. Though, I do admit that I’m a little hazy myself on how the questions I raised above (in Q10) should be answered.

    Thanks for letting me spew this stuff out, Taylor, and thanks especially for posting this. I’ll learn a lot just reading what folks say here.

    In Christ,


  2. Dear Neal,

    Legit. Thanks for your thoughts.

    You asked about where Wright writes certain things. I think everything you asked about can be found Wright’s longer Christianity Today response. Trevin Wax recently published N.T. Wright’s full response here:


    I completely agree with your observations. I grant that Wright doesn’t technically deny imputation and that he doesn’t technically or strictly hold to the Catholic infused/inhering theology of justification.

    The initial questions focus on things he has actually written – and then ask, “How can this square with what you teach publicly and how would this not chop away at magisterial Protestant theology?”

    It’s true that Paul didn’t have most of these questions in my mind — but that doesn’t mean that we can’t bring his thought to bear on these questions. The 2 Cor 5 response that you provided (that is, the “becoming righteousness of God”) speaks to the Apostle’s apostleship and authority) would no doubt be Wright’s response. But this won’t hold water given the text:

    2 Cor 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    Christ became sin “for our sake” in order that “we” might become the righteousness of God. The first “our” is qualified by the “we.” If the “we” only refers to apostles or the apostolic leaders of the Church, then this would imply that the Christ became sin “for the Apostles’ sake,” and that claim is incorrect.

    Moreover, not even Catholics (who hold a very high view of Holy Orders) would say that those in ordained ministry “become the righteousness of God” in some specific way. This would entail “justification by Holy Orders.” I don’t really think that Wright or anyone else wants to teach that “Paul became the righteousness of God” by virtue of being an Apostle. “Justification by Holy Orders” fits nobody’s theology!

    These ten questions seek to show that Wright’s theology opens up the doorways of the heart to Catholic theology. I also want to challenge his casting out cliches about nature/grace, the Council of Trent, Rome being misogynist, and his swipes at our Mariology.

    Wright isn’t a Tridentine believer. However, he is a very intelligent man who has employed Sacred Scripture to show that the traditional magisterial formulation of justification is not biblical and lacking in evidence.

    The fact that he holds up synergism against Luther and Calvin’s monergism is extremely noteworthy. On biblical grounds, he has granted many points to Rome – that’s all I’m saying.

    in Christ,

  3. Taylor,

    Thanks for these responses. It sounds like your assessment of Wright is pretty much the same as my own. I, too, find it especially puzzling and out of character when he makes the swipes and tosses about the cliches that you mentioned. Sometimes I think he might just be playing to a crowd (as I think he sometimes does in the Justification book — e.g., “Trent insisted on tradition [like you, Piper], Luther and Calvin answered with Scripture [like me, who has also proved that the Church has been wrong for 1500 yrs],” etc.), but sometimes I think he’s maybe just a bit snarky for some other reason, or maybe no reason. Anyway, I appreciate your responses, and agree with you.


  4. You know, I hear lots of people talk about the thousands upon thousands of Anglicans who petitioned for the fast track to Rome. It should be pointed out that the Vatican move came primarily in response to a petition by The Traditional Anglican Communion – a church in the Anglican tradition, but not one that is part of the Anglican Communion or Wright’s own denomination. SO it is a bit misleading to speak as if the Vatican move was in response to a great swell of Anglicans (from the Anglican Communion). Certainly there will be a few, but the fact that this is in response to an actual request by the TAC is almost totally left out of the conversations.

  5. […] other thing he does not address. That is the main subject of Taylor’s Marshall post. That his comments on Paul do suggest Luther was just plain wrong on doctrine when he split the […]

  6. […] For this reason, Professor Wright’s work, much to his chagrin, has been instrumental in leading some former Anglicans to the Catholic Church. I have long been an admirer of the former bishop, and have learned much […]

  7. The strongest support for justification by faith alone has always been passages like Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 2:15-16 and Galatians 3:10-14. The key insight of the New Perspective on Paul, however, is that these passages relate only to initial justification (getting into the new covenant) and not to final salvation. Those who read these proof texts to mean that man is saved by faith alone are reading them out of context and conflating redemption, justification and final salvation. If the New Perspective on Paul is correct, the real question is how you get from initial justification to final salvation and this is the question that Wright grapples with toward the end of his book.

    His position is consistent with Catholicism in a number of ways–
    (1) Man’s cooperation is necessary for salvation (synergism) (189, 192, 237)
    (2) The final judgment reflects what people have actually done (191)
    (3) People grow in freedom, increasingly less constrained by sinful habits (like the Catholic idea of justification as a process) (192)
    (4) People who are justified by faith don’t automatically live the kind of life that will pass the last judgment—thinking and moral effort are required (193)
    (5) No imputed righteousness (pages 206 and 232-233).

    But, in the end he insists that:
    (1) Salvation is by faith alone– faith from first to last (235)
    (2) Man can’t add his own merit to Christ’s finished work (189).
    (3) Those justified by faith have assurance of salvation—once saved, always saved based on Romans 8:31-8:39 (225, 234)
    (4) Salvation is determined when you get into the covenant before any good works are done (251)
    a. The final verdict has already been announced before the evidence is in (214)
    b. The verdict already announced is a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced (225, 204)

    I would suggest that the proper conclusion from the New Perspective is rather that you get into the new covenant by faith and stay in by works done in conjunction with the spirit. If you are still in the covenant when you die (i.e., in a state of sanctifying grace) you are saved, although there may be some temporal punishment before you go to your reward.

  8. Jay M: I would suggest that the proper conclusion from the New Perspective is rather that you get into the new covenant by faith and stay in by works done in conjunction with the spirit. If you are still in the covenant when you die (i.e., in a state of sanctifying grace) you are saved …

    Jay, how can the above possibly be reconciles with this:

    Those justified by faith have assurance of salvation—once saved, always saved …

    Ultimately, there are two flavors of the OSAS (Once Saved, Always Saved) doctrine taught in the Protestant world, the-elect-have-no-free-will flavor, and the-saved-man-has-free-will flavor.

    The no-freewill flavor of OSAS is taught by hyper-Calvinists that insist that a grace that is humanly impossible to resist changes totally depraved men into the elect of God. The elect are without free-will – the Almighty Sovereign Lord does not allow the elect to choose disobedience or deviation to his predestined plan for his elect. In some mysterious manner, irresistible grace forces the elect to become sanctified beings without any free choice by the elect on their part.

    The free-will flavor of OSAS is what is taught by most Southern Baptists. In this flavor of OSAS, it is asserted that once a man gets ‘saved’, there is no conceivable sin that a saved man could ever commit that would cause him to lose his salvation. If the saved man made the decision to die as an unrepentant Satan worshiper, he would still be assured of his salvation after death.

    Jay, it seems to me, that if a man says, “ If you are still in the covenant when you die …”, that man espousing a doctrine of Once Saved, Maybe Saved – it all depends upon whether or not you are still in the covenant when you die …. I don’t see how OSMS doctrine can be reconciled with either flavor of Protestant OSAS doctrine.

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