N.T. Wright’s Pauline Respondents: Conference Report (5)

This final post on the N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference will consider the papers given on Saturday, the day devoted primarily to NTW and Paul. The papers were as follows:

“Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology,” by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Wheaton)

“The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies,” by Jeremy Begbie (Cambridge/Duke)

“Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?”, by Markus Bockmuehl (Oxford)

“Glimpsing the Glory—Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright,” by Edith Humphrey (Pittsburgh)

1. Kevin Vanhoozer’s paper was a theological and rhetorical masterpiece. If I were an evangelical reformed theologian (I’m an Anabaptist Methodist with Orthodox and Catholic interests), I would have said what he said, and I would have said a good deal of what he said even without being reformed. (But remind me that if I ever give a lecture at Wheaton to design a first-rate PowerPoint presentation—and to bring extra batteries for the remote.) Besides being a fine response to Wright, it was a noble attempt to build a bridge between the Bishop and his conservative reformed detractors.

Vanhoozer drew on his well-known adaptation of speech-act theory to argue that justification as declaration is not a legal fiction but a performative utterance, calling on Eberhard Juengel’s idea that justification effects an ontological change, and arguing that NTW’s understanding of declaration sometimes neglects this effective dimension of declaration. He suggested that NTW’s emphasis on God declaring people part of the covenant should include the effective dimension—it makes people members of the covenant community. I am with KV 100% on these points.

Vanhoozer also raised the question of whether the juridical declaration that justification is should be seen as something like a civil case or a criminal case, that is, is one declared “in” (settling a civil matter) or declared “innocent” (settling a criminal matter). (My hunch is that if one follows the juridical model, the answer should be “both,” which is where KV landed, though many, especially those who oppose NTW, stress the latter.)

Vanhoozer then offered an interpretation of imputation and union with Christ that he dubbed “incorporative righteousness,” which means that human beings declared to be justified are both “in the clear and in the covenant.” He went on to build on Calvin’s understanding of the double grace of justification and sanctification (distinct but inseparable) by speaking of the triple grace of becoming sons [sic] of God, heirs of heaven, and partakers of righteousness. Incorporative righteousness/union with Christ is forensic, ontological, and covenantal, a Trinitarian communication of righteousness that the Father declares, the Son enables, and the Spirit effects.

Finally, returning to the question of what kind of court the metaphor of declaration refers to, Vanhoozer raised the provocative question, “Is the law court an adoption court?”

This was an exciting paper in many ways. Not only did it challenge NTW on justification precisely where I think he needs to be pressed—on the question of effective declaration, ontology, transformation, union with Christ, participation—it really did open the possibility of conversation between NTW and some of his severest critics—if they (the critics) are willing to talk, that is. My own work on justification resonates with Vanhoozer’s at some very significant points, though he did not (and likely would not) use the term theosis.

I will need to be briefer in treating the others.

2. Jeremy Begbie (my office-next-door-neighbor at Duke last year) is a fine theologian and musician, and we were treated to both aspects of his brilliance at this event. He gave an analysis of NTW’s ecclesiology, explaining its appeal to the emergent-church folks. According to Jeremy, NTW’s ecclesiology has five characteristics, all of which appeal to emergent: it is (a) intrinsic to his theology and his understanding of what God is up to, not an add-on; (b) eschatological, meaning that NTW does ecclesiology backwards and that eschatology is the context for mission; (c) cosmically situated, indebted to Colossians 1 and Romans 8; (d) material; and (e) improvisatory, as in the work of Sam Wells, Dean of Duke’s chapel.

Jeremy added that there are three additional themes in NTW’s ecclesiology that are easily forgotten: the ascension, its Jewish roots, and its catholicity.

At the end of his paper, Jeremy thrilled the crowd with an original, creative musical tribute to Bishop Tom at the piano. At the end of the day, he was called back for an encore.

In the panel later that day, Bishop Tom made a funny comment in response: “Until this paper, I didn’t know I had an ecclesiology, but this is it.”

3. Markus Bockmuehl, who knows the primary sources like almost no one else, pressed NTW on what we might call his “personal eschatology.” Markus finds inconsistencies, and perhaps exegetical problems, in NTW’s presentation of what happens to people at death.

Unfortunately, I took very few notes on this lecture and have not had time to review it. I will just add that I too find NTW’s language (such as what he means by “life after life after death”) less than clear at times.

4. The title of and introduction to Edith Humphrey’s paper had some people a bit anxious about how critical, or even serious, it would be, but it turned into a tour de force. Once again, I took few notes (by Saturday afternoon the energy to do so had all but dissipated), but the gist of her argument was close to my own interpretation of righteousness in Paul: the key is 2 Cor 5:21, which (contra NTW) is not merely about apostles embodying God’s righteousness, but about all believers being transformed into the divine character. She noted that this text and its theology form an important part of the scriptural basis of the doctrine of theosis. (She is a recent convert to Orthodoxy.) I agree, and I make the same argument about 2 Cor 5:21, against NTW, in Inhabiting the Cruciform God.

Depending on one’s interest, all of these lectures would repay careful viewing and/or hearing. The presentations of Vanhoozer and Humphrey are especially important for anyone interested in the topic of justification/righteousness.

The IVP book that comes out of this conference will be a must-have for anyone interested in Jesus studies, Pauline studies, or NTW studies. (Yes, I met with a young scholar preparing to do a PhD dissertation on NTW as theological interpreter.) Congratulations and thanks are due to Wheaton, to all involved, and especially to Bishop Tom. As Richard Hays said at the outset, adulation is for rock stars; critical engagement is what honors scholars.

4 Responses to “N.T. Wright’s Pauline Respondents: Conference Report (5)”

  1. Siufung says:

    Thank you for these posts on the Conference. They are very helpful. I found Vanhoozer and Humphrey both very engaging. I particularly like Judith Humphrey’s presentation. It’s excellent. Look forward to the book.

  2. MJG says:

    Good to see you, Siufung! You are welcome.

  3. Ian Packer says:

    Mike,

    Thank you for this summary. Vanhoozer’s and Begbie’s talks (and Hays’) were the highlights for me. I think jetlag was still a problem for me as we went further into each day. I think I even dropped off (God forbid!) in part of Wright’s address on the first night.

    I hoped to meet up with you after one session, saw you but you left with someone. Maybe I can get to ab SBL some time. I like whatyou’re doing with justification and I think it helps me understand what’s happening in Rom 5 where I still had some questions for Wright. Vanhoozer was helpful in this also.

    I also thought Vanhoozer helped justify (ahem) the role of the ‘systematic theologian’ against the tired line that insinuates that theologians can’t seem to help but distort the text. (Not that I am unsympathetic to the concerns in such remarks.)

    Grace and peace

    Ian Packer
    PhD student
    Sydney, Australia

  4. MJG says:

    Dear Ian,

    So sorry we did not connect! Always feel free to “interrupt”!

    Why don’t you email me in early November and we’ll get together at SBL. By then I will have finished and delivered a lecture, at North Park Seminary in Chicago, called “Justification as Resurrection from the Dead (with special reference to Abraham)” so there’ll be more to talk about.

    Tell me about your work on Romans 5 when you get a chance.

    Mike

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