N. T. Wright, Biblicism, and Justification

Jun 27th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

N. T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009) is a somewhat polemical response to his Reformed critics, in which Wright summarizes and defends his understanding of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification. For me, the book has proven to be both illuminating and frustrating. This post began as a chronicle of those illuminations and frustrations, but has since been reduced to a brief comment on Wright’s theological modus operandi, together with a comparison of his doctrine of justification with the Catholic and traditional Protestant doctrines.

Rules of Engagement

I give considerable weight to the noble traditions that have sustained the church throughout the years.

— Tom Wright

Wright is justly famous for his historical scholarship, particularly with regard to Christian origins in the cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism. This scholarship is the basis for his doctrine of justification. This doctrine (or “reading”), like Wright’s theology in general, does not exactly conform to any traditional or confessional brand of theology. If you know anything about Wright’s own ecclesial communion, you might conclude that this is only so much as to say that Wright is an Anglican. And he is. But it would also be true to say, as Wright himself has said, that his fundamental doctrinal orientation is biblicist. He often avows his intention of being as consistent as possible (more consistent than his Reformed critics) with the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. Interestingly enough, given the consternation his work has caused among many conservative Protestants, the means by which Wright’s doctrine is derived are impeccably Protestant, near and dear to every pastor and professor who upholds the sufficiency of historical-grammatical exegesis for establishing the doctrinal basis of Christian faith and practice.

It is in this light that we must understand the quote at the beginning of this section. For Wright, the “weight” of the Church’s tradition is measured by his own interpretation of Sacred Scripture. In keeping with his fundamental rule of engagement, Wright presumes that his scholarship can and has  trumped Church tradition (on either a Catholic or a classical Protestant rendering of “Church”), which is a pretty bold posture, though far from unprecedented. At the very least it should not go unremarked. In fact, Wright himself often remarks on this aspect of his work, reminding his sometimes indignant interlocutors that he, like Luther, will not bow to any tradition, not even the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification. [1]

Three Perspectives on Paul

Over the past few decades, Wright has unfolded his doctrine of justification by means of an extended reading of the Epistles of St Paul. That reading is epitomized in Justification, and will be presented at length in Wright’s forthcoming two-volume study of Paul as part of his “Christian Origins” series. In addition to re-presenting the results of his academic inquiries, the purpose of the present book is to compare and contrast Wright’s own understanding of justification with traditional Protestantism and (more obliquely) Catholicism. Wright’s biblical-theological project is therefore a moment in the history of Christian doctrine, as well as a scholarly endeavor in its own right. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision offers a new and alternative understanding of justification, which is at some points complementary, and at others contradictory, to both Catholicism and traditional Reformed Protestantism. What follows is an effort to gain the general doctrinal bearings by way of describing the gist of the three perspectives on justification and offering a rudimentary critique of Wright’s reading.

1. The Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification is presented in terms of God’s forgiveness, actual renewal, and progressive transformation of human beings, whereby we are given to participate in the life of God (eternal life), thus becoming what we cannot become by nature, that is, children of God and heirs of eternal life. [2] The decree of justification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone. [3] The rationale for this realist understanding of justification is as follows: God speaks only truth. His speech is not merely constitutive (in the legal sense), it is creative (in the ontological sense). Justification is analogous to creation in that God’s word makes something (righteousness) where before there was nothing (unrighteousness). God justifies the ungodly by re-creating them in Christ. This particular speech-act, justification, considered as a categorical proposition (X is Y), has an obvious and appropriate term in one who by that very act has been made just. The infused gifts of sanctifying grace and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) render it completely unnecessary to relegate the predicate “just” to something extrinsic to the justified. Justification has both legal (acquittal) and ontological (renewal) aspects, which are complementary. In the language of Sacred Scripture, we are justified by faith in Christ; in him, we become the righteousness of God. Our past sins have been washed away and forgiven; all things have become new.

2. Reformed Protestantism has traditionally denied that regeneration, sanctification, and any other change in the sinner which actually heals his sinful condition is included in the gift of justification. [4] Rather, Protestants have defined justification as an exclusively legal action, which, although referring to man, nevertheless does not correspond to or change anything in man. Instead, God the Father declares that an unrighteous individual is righteous, and therefore acquits this individual of all charges of wrongdoing. This declaration is not considered to be unjust, however, precisely because Jesus Christ has become the sinner’s substitute, such that Jesus, an innocent and righteous man, was made the object of divine wrath against man’s sins, rather than the actually guilty parties. God the Father imputed our sins to his Son, and then waged retribution against him, thereby discharging himself of the obligation to punish sinners. [5] The actual righteousness of the Son, in turn, is imputed to elect sinners, whereby they are, in a legal and extrinsic sense, reconciled to God. In view of these arrangements, God overlooks their actual, sinful condition. The actual renewal of sinners, whereby we are cleansed and given to participate in the divine life, having the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is considered to form no part whatsoever of justification. The rationale for this nominalist understanding of justification is as follows: The Greek verb form, dikaiow (“justify”), is often used in courtroom or other legal, contract and/or covenant-making settings. It is therefore appropriate to understand the speech-act of justification in a legal (constitutive) sense, to the exclusion of a real or ontological (creative) sense. A judge’s declaration does not cause an ontological change in the defendant, and that declaration can be legally binding even if it does not correspond to the defendant’s actual condition. Furthermore, it is supposed that God’s declaration of justification simply cannot refer to the defendant’s actual condition, since in this life no one except Christ is actually righteous. [6]

3. N. T. Wright’s over-arching thesis is the biblical-theological claim that the structure of justification is essentially “covenantal,” as attested by St. Paul’s writings, especially in Romans and Galatians. Thus, St. Paul invokes Abraham, not merely as an example of faith, but because the Abrahamic covenant is the indispensable context for understanding God’s plan of justification by faith in Christ. For Wright, justification by faith in Christ is not so much a doctrine as a story, more specifically, the climatic moment in the Abraham story. The significance of justification by faith is that, in Christ, God has finally fulfilled his promise to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” As applied to individuals, the initial decree of justification grants one the legal status of belonging to God’s covenant people. This decree doesn’t have anything to do with the moral virtue of an individual, whether that virtue be imputed or infused. Whereas the Protestant tradition reads “the righteousness of God” as that moral quality or property of God whereby he himself is righteous, and “justification” as the imputation of that divine righteousness to sinners, Wright reads these as, respectively, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, and the inclusion of whomever has faith in Jesus in the family of Abraham (cf. Galatians 3:26-29).

This new perspective on Paul’s doctrine of justification has been lauded, and chided, for its similarity to (or at least compatibility with) the Catholic doctrine of justification. However, Wright’s teaching is, on the critical point of realism versus nominalism, more akin to the classical Protestant doctrine. Wright’s brand of covenant theology, for all of its Catholic-friendly moments, falls short of the “covenantal realism” that characterizes the Catholic Faith. In defining justification, Wright exchanges one purely extrinsic definition, imputation of alien moral righteousness, for another purely extrinsic definition; namely, change of social status. For classical Protestants, justification is a matter of being legally declared “not guilty.” For Wright, justification is primarily about getting one’s citizenship papers officially stamped. Thus, his analysis of justification, every bit as much as the traditional Protestant analysis, is marked by a kind of legalism, such that the dynamics of the courtroom dominate within the covenant. Wright’s construal is not, however, as open to the charge of legal fiction as is the traditional Protestant model of justification, since God is not, on Wright’s model, [falsely] declaring anyone to be morally righteous.

From a Catholic point of view, one problem with Wright’s doctrine of justification is that it favors a naturalistic, political reading of covenant membership over a supernatural, familial model. That is, when Wright comes to discuss incorporation into the people of God, i.e., covenant membership, i.e., justification, he shies away from speaking of spiritual rebirth into the divine family, despite the familial, moral, and transformational language running through the relevant passages. Catholicism is perfectly comfortable with reading “justification” as covenant membership, but the Church’s covenant theology is enriched by her doctrine the sacraments, which are understood as supernatural bonds of kinship. Justification does involve becoming a member of God’s covenant people, and this does have legal ramifications. But this “becoming a covenant member,” our adoption into the divine family, is not merely a mundane change of status. By faith in Christ, through the grace of the sacraments, we really become, and are therefore rightly regarded / legally recognized as children of God, partakers of the divine nature, members of the Body of Christ, and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.


[1] The implications of this sort of individualism, which turns out to be endemic to confessional as well as other varieties of Protestantism, have been discussed by Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch in the article, “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.”

[2] Cf., the Council of Trent, Session VI., Chapters 4, 7, 10.

[3] Ibid., Canon 11.

[4] Cf., the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11.1.

[5] Ibid., 11.3.

[6] For a Catholic response to these arguments, see, e.g., herehere, and here.

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  1. I’m not sure if I’m mis-reading you, but you said “imputation of Christ’s alien, moral righteousness” at least two times. This is inaccurate, for the Protestant holds justification to be forensic, thus the righteousness that is alien and imputed is “legal,” not “moral.” The former is justification, the latter is sanctification.
    (This post need not be posted publicly, just some info for you guys.)

  2. One thing I came across that will stun many Protestants (and Catholics) is that Greek Expert Daniel Wallace says Romans 5:12ff is *not* talking about justification (contrary to what Protestants have historically thought):

  3. Hey Nick,

    You’re right about imputation being a forensic act, but it is also the case that that which is imputed, Christ’s righteousness, is moral righteousness. So what happens in justification, on the Protestant reading, is that this moral righteous is imputed to us (so that God reckons us to be morally righteous), although it is not imparted to us. Therefore, Christ’s righteousness remains, for us, alien (i.e., not inherent is us), although it is, in itself and as imputed to us, moral righteousness.

    I look forward to reading the bit about Wallace and Romans 5:12.

    (By the way, hope you don’t mind that I posted your first comment. You raise an important point, and my response might be inadequate, so by posting these we give more people the chance to chime in. Also, the comment is a shining example of how to state one’s disagreement with someone else’s claim or argument. So there’s that too.)

  4. Hi Andrew,

    I’ve never heard the justification scheme you just described, with it being a ‘moral righteousness’. The Active Obedience of Christ is akin to Christ scoring a 100% score on His obedience test, and this 100% score being credited (imputed) to the sinner’s account (who in actuality holds a 0% failing score). So when the Judge looks at the sinner’s account, he doesn’t look at his actual test score, but rather (graciously) puts a post-it note on the file saying “see Jesus’ test score instead”.

    (Note for other readers: While Christ was perfectly obedient throughout His life, the Bible nowhere teaches His perfect obedience is imputed to us or that it is even a grounds for justification)

  5. Nick,

    “Moral righteousness” is Wright’s language for referring to either Christ’s active obedience (imputed to sinners, in some Protestant schemas), or to the quality of righteousness that is infused in sinners, whereby they are purified of their sins and made righteous (the Catholic view). Wright rejects both views, and holds that justification does not have anything to do with moral righteousness (in the sense of some virtue or quality, inhering in Christ, or in us, or both), at least, not until the eschaton, and even then only in the demonstrative sense of showing who was really justified, all along.

  6. All,

    Maybe Wright’s new work, “After You Believe,” on Christian virtue would be a good read for the topics raised.

  7. Daniel,

    Looks like a good read. Maybe here he digs into what the Spirit (Romans 8) is doing in the lives of the faithful, bringing them from initial justification to eschatological justification (Romans 2)?

  8. I would say so – no major surprises on my end when I read it – but I also know I am not his primary audience. Merely raising the topic among the “unchurched” is quite a bold move.

  9. Perhaps a great deal of confusion concerning justification can be cleared from our rhetorical records of division, if we come to a simple premise that God has provided in His grace, an Amnesty Program for all the rebellious, all of the outlaws, all of the unfaithful of humanity, so that they may accept God’s Word and conditions, and return into the kingdom of God’s love, righteousness and promise.

    First let us understand the ramifications of the word “Amnesty” as it is taken from the internet Wikipedia:
    Amnesty (from the Greek ἀμνηστία, amnestia, oblivion) is a legislative or executive act, by which a state restores those who may have been guilty of an offense against it, to the positions of innocent people. It includes more than pardon, inasmuch as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the offense. The word has the same root as amnesia. Amnesty is more and more used to express ‘freedom’ and the time when prisoners can go free.

    From this definitive excerpt, we can understand that amnesty is precisely what God, through His benevolence and justice in His Kingdom of Righteousness, has provided in His forgiveness of past sins. The first Adam or man was of the earth and in his confusion over his self esteemed rights, he sinned against his Maker thereby spurning the God of the living, and obviously forfeiting a right standing with the Eternal. From that moment on, the autonomous nature of self first, was genetically distilled into the future seed of all humanity and brought death to all of Adam’s offspring. As a result of Adam’s rebellion against God, mankind now does what is natural for self. But, God in His justice and at the appropriate time set aside the first man’s rebellion, in His good favor for the love and obedience of the second Adam, His only begotten Son, the man Jesus Christ.  “Now since, by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1st Corinthians 15: 21 – 22.) Those who have been held in the bondage of sin through Adam’s earthly nature are released from those original shackles, upon seeing themselves in the crucifixion death, burial and resurrection of the innocent man, Christ Jesus.

    Jesus calls to all who will hear: ?Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I AM meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28 – 30.)

    The true Gospel is simple and free for all to accept, but not unconditionally. The persons who are initially seeking to return to their Creator, must come in true repentance believing in God’s mercy and righteous judgment, accepting the full provisions of the amnesty that God has extended to them through their faith in Jesus Christ death, burial and resurrection. (Acts 17: 30 – 31) It is apparent that as far as God is concerned, all of the past sins, no matter how atrocious, are not only forgiven in their confession, but are totally wiped clean through the blood of Christ’s atonement as if they had never occurred. As some might say, our former offenses have been tossed into God’s sea of forgetfulness, as referenced in (Micah 7: 19), as we read the Scriptures concerning God’s mercy: “He will turn again, He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Hence, where God is concerned, and because of the sacrificial Blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, He willingly has amnesia for our confessed and repented past offenses. Again, we hear comfort from the Living Word of God: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pities his children, so the LORD pities them that fear Him.  For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103: 11 – 14.)
    The Holy, Holy, Holy God of creation shows that from the beginning He is righteous and just, and remains righteous and just to the faithful and the unfaithful. The conditional provisions of God’s Amnesty Program, as we alluded to before, begins with a person’s faith in God and in the Sovereignty of His Word to uphold His Covenant Provision of justification for the believer. Where the strength of sin is in the Law with its condemnation, now the strength of God’s covenant is sealed in the earth with the righteous Blood of His Son, even the Son of Man, Christ Jesus, Who has overcome the condemnation of the Law by His sinless life, crucifixion and resurrection in power over sin and death. “Now, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath set forth to be a sacrifice of atonement through faith in His Blood, to declare God’s righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;  To declare, I say, at this time God’s righteousness that He might be just, and the Justifier of him, who believes in Jesus.” (See Romans 3: 23- 26.)

    The righteousness of our faith, which is given to us in God’s amnesty program, is to be always bold in that same faith, for scripture says: “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is the word of faith, which we preach;  That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shall be saved. For with the heart man believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture says, whosoever believes on Him shall not be ashamed.” (Romans 10: 8 – 11.) With their public confession, activated by faith in Jesus Christ, a person is to follow the Lord in Baptism to seal their agreement with God and His amnesty Covenant for our justification, expunging all sins of the past, and that which was associated with their old Adamic nature, thereby giving that person a right standing with God. 

    Funk and Wagnall Dictionary: amnesty 1: an official act of oblivion or pardon of a government, absolving without trial all offenders or groups of offenders. 2: Intentional forgetfulness or overlooking, especially of wrong doing.

    “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.  And all things are of God, Who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;  To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.  Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be you reconciled to God. For He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2nd Corinthians 5: 17 – 21.) This Covenant of God’s peace is signed in the Blood of the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. The past offenses of the old man of flesh are obliterated in the Blood of Jesus Christ, “For so many of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death. Knowing this that our old man is crucified with Jesus Christ, so that the body of sin might be destroyed that hence forth we should not be a servant of sin, but a servant of God’s righteousness.” (See Romans 6: 3 – 9.)

    Therefore, there is no condemnation of sin bringing death to those who are now living a new life by faith in Christ Jesus. (See Romans 8: 1 – 2.) But now we have been delivered from the (condemnation of the) Law (of sin and death), having died to what we were held by (as in quarantined), so that we should serve in the newness of the spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. Romans 7: 6. Modified for understanding.


  10. […] [J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source) […]

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