My takeaway from the 62nd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, GA, is that N.T. Wright is at once the most winsome, witty, and incorrigible academic I have yet seen. His extraordinary intellect and persuasive abilities cause him to be a formidable foe indeed for any who wish to counter his positions on the teaching of Paul. Though Dr. Schreiner and Dr. Thielman gave adequate defenses of their own expositions of the writings of Paul, they seemed somehow inadequate to the task of taking on the likes of N. T. Wright.
Professor Wright seemed to me to speak from a loftier perch than either of the other plenary panelists. Theirs was an upward lurch to convince or perchance persuade Professor Wright to reconsider inferences pertaining to various exegetical insights in the Greek of Romans 1, 3, and 10, while his was a slightly bemused rejection of their ill-fated attempts—with the notable exception of Professor Wright’s acknowledgement that we are never justified “on the basis of” works. Notable indeed!
I am not meaning to imply that N. T. Wright actually held the higher ground—either by virtue of superior intellect or by the substance of his Pauline perspective. Rather, what I am saying is that N. T. Wright held the higher ground by virtue of his ability to articulate his position in relation to its overarching metanarrative. Drs. Schreiner and Thielman offered adequate defenses of particular exegetical points related to their translations of the writings of Paul. However, they did not engage Dr. Wright at the level of his metanarrative. It seems to me that N. T. Wright is not actually quibbling about what the text says (although he constantly repeats that chorus). Rather, he is aiming at a wholesale re-writing of the Pauline narrative in a decidedly less soteriological direction. Whether this is merely a matter of emphasis or not, I do not know, but, given the arrogant manner in which he simply discarded some of critics—telling them to “Get a life”—I would guess that his aim is toward something more than mere emphasis.
One of the critics being told to “Get a life” by Dr. Wright was Mark Seifrid of Southern Seminary. Far from being a “cut and paste blog-poster” critic, Dr. Seifrid is well-informed in the matter of Pauline perspective. He began writing on new perspective issues more than two decades ago, including the time of completing his dissertation at Princeton on this very subject. Having presented books, articles, lectures, and chapters on the subject throughout the last two decades, Dr. Seifrid is more than capable of articulating a defense of a more traditional reading of Paul. Surely, his decades of faithful labor cannot be so readily dismissed, as though Wright is simply flicking aside a nuisance from the sleeve of his expensive theological suit.
More to the point, I think in one way Dr. Seifrid may have been the best suited to engage Professor Wright, although Professor Wright’s barbs against Seifrid would indicate that such an encounter is unlikely. Still, at the level of narrative, Dr. Seifrid appears particularly well-suited to encounter N. T. Wright. Here is what I mean.
It is possible that Professor Wright conceded an important theological point at ETS, namely, that final justification is not on the basis of works. Whereas his earlier writings indicated that the final verdict is declared by God on the basis of a lifetime of faithfulness (or some such language), N. T. Wright now affirms—at least as of Friday at ETS—that his intention all along has been to say “according to” and not “on the basis of.” This is fine as far as the particular phrasing goes.
However, engaging Dr. Wright on the particular inferences of the Greek text or on particular nuances of the theological language he uses is not in itself adequate. As Dr. Seifrid showed in his paper following Dr. Wright’s plenary session and panel discussion, N. T. Wright still needs to answer a great many questions at the level of his narrative. It is his overall narrative that is problematic, not simply his translation of texts related to righteousness.
In his overall narrative, N. T. Wright clearly resets the narrative of the people of God on an ecclesiogical rather than a soteriological trajectory. That line of trajectory leads, as Seifrid points out, to the very important question of whether final justification for the people of God consists in something more than (or in addition to) a divine declaration grounded solely on Christ. Seifrid cites numerous entries from Wright’s Justification in which it appears that Wright is asserting that between our initial justification and our final justification, there is a work in which the Spirit makes us pleasing to God so that we can stand at the final judgment. As Seifrid points out, this sounds more like Trent than ETS.
[Seifrid refers the Reader to Justification 144, 149, 156, 182-93, 226, 239. One can find Seifrid’s article, “(W)right with God?: A Response to N. T. Wright’s Vision of Justification I: Atonement and Justification in Biblical Perspective,” MWJT 8 (2010) 1-38.]
In other words, the problem which Wright brings to the fore is more than a biblical or exegetical one; it is a theological one. It may not be so much the case that Wright’s preaching is wrong in general. It is his perspective that is wrong. Whether his perspective is new or not is irrelevant if it is wrong. Contrary to Professor Wright, the fundamental crisis Paul engages is not how one becomes a member of Israel, but how one might be saved. Thus, the fundamental point which must always be engaged with Professor Wright on the matter of justification is the very point made by the Philippian jailer, when, in a moment of existential crisis, he cried out to Paul, “How can I be saved?”