06 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 3

In my previous post on the PCA report on NPP/FV, I tried to substantiate my general observation that the report evidences inadequate generosity in presenting the views of others. In this post, I will move on to one specific way in which the report does this:

[2] The report isolates particular statements and uses them as lenses through which to portray wider perspectives, thereby distorting them.

Fair interpretation of texts requires not only attention to specifics, but also to the overall shape of what texts say, their emphases, and their flow of argumentation. One way views can end up distorted is when one particular statement becomes isolated from larger considerations and comes to function as a lens to interpret other statements and overall perspectives.

There are several places where I think the report seems to fall into this kind of interpretive stance.

N.T. Wright

Analysis: Among those identified with the NPP, the report gives most of its attention to N.T. Wright, explaining and criticizing his prolific writings in relation to several issues of soteriology.

Since Wright is not a Presbyterian and does not subscribe to our Standards, one would not expect Wright's views to operate within the terminology and categories of the Reformed tradition. Assessing his views, therefore, requires imaginatively inhabiting his thought and, from within that, developing an understanding of its relationship to Reformed dogmatics and our Standards.

I would contend that the report fails to do justice to Wright's work in this regard. It requires significant effort to set aside one's own theological and terminological baggage in order to hear what someone else is saying who uses words in a different way. To my mind, the report does not evidence having sufficiently engaged in that labor with regard to Wright.

One area in which this seems most apparent to me is with regard to the doctrine of imputation. As Reformed believers we rightly wish to value and safeguard the precious truth that we stand before God's judgment, not in a righteousness of our own making, but clothed only in the righteousness of Christ, received only by faith, a righteousness that results from his obedience unto death.

I have no wish to dispute this crucial truth of the Christian faith.

What I wish to suggest is that the report mistakenly supposes that Wright's exegesis of Paul excludes any notion of an "imputed righteousness" by which sinners are justified, by which we are accepted and accounted as righteous in God's sight (2219:13 - 2220:9). The report states
Wright denies any understanding of "transfer" language in the NT, which also means a denial of imputed righteousness. This is a position that contradicts our Standards and strikes at the system of doctrine contained in them. (2224:36-38; emphasis mine)
I would urge, however, that matters are not quite as straightforward as the report states.

There are several issues here since a "denial of imputed righteousness" is ambiguous and could have several distinct meanings.

First, a "denial of imputed righteousness" could mean a rejection of a particular construal of either what is meant by "imputed" (e.g., seeing it as primarily a bookkeeping metaphor) or what is meant by "righteousness" (e.g., seeing it primarily in terms of meritorious law-keeping or moral accomplishment) or both. But rejecting these construals does not entail a rejection of the view that believers have legal title to Christ's righteousness in other senses.

Second, it could mean that the specific New Testament texts typically seen as teaching imputed righteousness (e.g., those that use the terms "impute" or speak of the "righteousness of God") are not in fact speaking of such an imputed righteousness. But this does not preclude us from deriving a doctrine of imputed righteousness from the New Testament by other exegetical routes.

Third, it could mean that Wright does indeed deny any sort of imputed righteousness altogether. But, even if that were the case (and I'm not convinced it is), this would not mean that Wright's wider exegetical proposals, even if accepted, necessarily require us to come to the same conclusion. That's to say, it seems to me that one could be deeply sympathetic with Wright's overall treatment of justification and yet come to a different conclusion on imputed righteousness.

Having set out these distinctions, I shall argue that Wright's "denial of imputed righteousness" falls under the first and second sense of what that might mean. Therefore, there is nothing in Wright's views that entails a denial of imputed righteousness understood in a different way from the sense he rejects and upon a somewhat different exegetical grounds.

But let's examine the way in which the report arrives at its apparently more sweeping conclusion: that Wright rejects imputation altogether.

It seems to me that the report goes astray when it takes Wright's arguments against particular understandings of dikaiosune theou and logizomai and uses them as lenses through which to view his theology more generally. In doing so, it misunderstands the precise target of Wright's criticisms of "imputation" and, I think, mistakenly concludes that Wright would reject "any understanding" of "transfer language" in the New Testament.

Let's consider the details here.

Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (dikaiosune theou) on several occasions in Romans and elsewhere. In much traditional exegesis this is taken to refer primarily to a righteousness that God has and which he gives over to human beings for their justification (by infusion in the case of Roman Catholic understandings and by imputation in the case of Protestant understandings).

Building upon earlier exegesis (including Reformed figures such as Ridderbos and Cranfield, as well as Lutherans such as Kasemann), Wright suggests that "righteousness of God" needs to be read against the Old Testament use of the phrase and similar phrases. In that context, according to Wright, it means something more like "God's righteous character as creator and redeemer, particularly as manifest in his faithfulness to his covenant promises."

So, for Wright the argument in Romans has to do in part with the question of how it is that God can be righteous given that he has promised salvation through Israel, but Israel is an unfit and faithless vessel for this promised salvation. How will God come through on his promises of salvation in the face of human sin? How will God vindicate himself as just and righteous, particularly given that divine justice would seem to have to punish sin rather than pardon it as promised?

Paul's answer, as Wright reads him, is that the "righteousness of God" is manifest in the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah, by which God's promises to Israel for the salvation of humanity are indeed kept, but sin is also dealt with definitively.

The difficulty with all of this for traditional readings, however, is that one of the customary proof texts for "imputation of God's (or Christ's) righteousness" is taken away.

When the report cites Wright as rejecting the view that "the righteousness of God" is imputed to sinners, it refers to Wright's lexical conclusion about the meaning of dikaiosune theou and not a general theological stance against the notion of imputed righteousness per se (2219:13-29). The report's argument appears to overreach here by using Wright's lexical comments as a lens through which to consider his theology of justification.

It's worth noting at this point, that Wright's understanding of dikaiosune theou here is not without some precedent in either the Reformation or wider catholic tradition. Ambrose, for instance, took the "righteousness" here to be "the mercy of God pardoning and forgiving sins...For it is the righteousness of God because he bestows what has been promised." Bucer argues along similar lines, while nonetheless holding to imputation.

The question, then, is whether the doctrine of imputation requires a particular interpretation of dikaiosune theou or whether one can provide a biblical case for imputed righteousness apart from this "proof text." It seems to me that the biblical doctrine of imputation does not rest upon so slim an exegetical basis, so that one's interpretation of dikaiosune theou need not count against a commitment to the doctrine of imputed righteousness.

A further issue is how Wright interprets logizomai.

Wright seems to suggest that none of the passages that actually use the word "impute" (logizomai) really talk about an imputed righteousness, in the sense of some kind of transfer of Christ's righteousness from his account to ours. The word does mean to "account" or "regard" or "reckon," but in context Wright suggests that it is, for instance, Abraham's faith that God sees and that faith which he reckons to Abraham as righteousness. If there's an imputation of Christ's righteousness here, it's not directly on the surface of the text (2220:1-9).

So part of the difficulty is that the biblical use of "impute" doesn't match up exactly with how "impute" is used in our systematic theology. D.A. Carson agrees, by the way, in a essay where he interacts with Wright's view, where Carson sees "imputation" (in the traditional systematic theological sense) as a theological implication of the New Testament text - a way of expressing and filling out the forensic character of justification in dogmatic language - rather than something that is directly taught by Scripture using the term in its lexical meaning (see "The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields" in Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates, edited by Husbands and Treier, IVP 2004).

So what does Wright actually believe about justification? Allow me to set this out in some detail, because many of Wright's own summaries often end up, I think, being too succinct and thus liable to confusion.

Wright believes that justification, in the context of the Old Testament, referred to God's eschatological judgment (see, for instance, his brief "The Shape of Justification"). In this judgment, all persons would be brought before the divine law-court and judged - either condemning them to eternal death or finding them to be "in the right" before the court, rendering a verdict of "not guilty."

According to Wright, this justifying verdict was promised to God's people throughout the Old Testament as part of the covenant he made with them. Moreover, God promised (particularly in the prophets) that this verdict would take the form of vindicating restoration: the enemies of God and of his people (ultimately sin and death) would be judged and destroyed, and God's people would be restored and raised to everlasting life, constituting them, thereby, as his one true, righteous covenant people, redeemed and forgiven.

Thus, in the broadest terms, for Wright justification is both forensic and covenantal. It is forensic in that it is a vindicating verdict of "righteous" before the divine court. It is covenantal in that it is the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to Israel and, through Israel, the whole world. It is also covenantal in that God's verdict is spoken over those who, in that verdict, are constituted as his righteous covenant people.

The difficulty with the Old Testament picture, Wright suggests, is that it is unclear how God could possibly come through on his promises. Israel was unfaithful and deserved the same judgment as her enemies. Even the seemingly faithful remnant of Israel was plagued by unfaithfulness. And, besides, God's promise had always been that his salvation would go out into all the world and among all nations, through the vessel of Israel. But now the vessel proved unfit.

This is where Jesus fits into the plan of God, as Wright understands it.

Where Israel was unfaithful, Wright notes that Jesus remained faithful, taking up the identity and vocation of Israel for the sake of the whole world, living out the truly human identity and vocation as Son of God incarnate. Jesus' vocation led to the cross as the place where God deals with and condemns sin and death once and for all, thereby, enabling God to come through on his covenant promise even in the face of human unfaithfulness. In raising Jesus from death, God's pronounces his verdict over Jesus' faithful life and death, granting him the eschatological justification that had been promised.

Again, justification here is, for Wright, both forensic and covenantal. In raising Jesus from the dead, God declares him to be in the right - to be righteous - before the divine court and, moreover, that sin and death have been dealt with through the cross. This verdict is, at the same time, God's fulfillment of his covenant promises and the declaration that Jesus, as Messiah, is the true eschatological covenant people of God.

But the office of Messiah is, as Wright repeatedly insists, a legally representative office of king, so that what is true of the king is true of his people. All who put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah - and in what God has accomplished through him - are incorporated in the Messiah's people. Thus, what is true of the Messiah (legally and otherwise), is true of them.

Wright sums it up this way:
the basis of justification is God’s covenant-faithful action in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus both as Israel’s Messiah and as the incarnation of the one true God. Since what is true of the Messiah is true of his people, all those who are "in the Messiah" by baptism and faith have his death and resurrection reckoned to them so that when God looks at them he sees Calvary and Easter ("Answers" March 2004)
That is to say, the condemnation of sin that Jesus experienced on the cross and the verdict pronounced over Jesus in his resurrection are reckoned to all who, through faith, are united to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Our sin is dealt with in him and his resurrection status as "righteous" (a result of his life of faithfulness unto death) is accounted to us.

Wright, therefore, does not reject the idea of "God's reckoning Christ' righteousness to us" but re-configures it.

Thus, while there's a sense in which Wright "rejects imputation" (in terms of the meaning of dikaiosune theou and logizomai in the New Testament), there is another sense in which Wright's views are quite open to more imputational understandings, in terms of theological exposition and filling out of the biblical picture.

Wright might also reject the notion of a "transfer" of Jesus' life of faithfulness unto death (i.e., his righteousness) to our account as the basis for God's separate verdict over us. But that rejection involves Jesus' righteousness only insofar it is abstracted from God's verdict over Jesus in the resurrection and the reckoning of that verdict to all who are in Christ by faith.

By focusing in upon Wright's lexical analysis of Pauline terminology and by latching onto Wright's qualms concerning "transfer" language, the report seems to obscure the positive content of Wright's account of justification that, as far as I can see, accomplishes the very same thing as traditional understandings of imputation.

I apologize for taking up so much space expositing what I understand of Wright's views. But there is so much confusion afoot over these matters that I thought they deserved more extensive attention.

Even if I am mistaken about the details of Wright's own views, I hope I have demonstrated that such an interpretation of Wright is not implausible and, moreover, that an account of justification that is deeply sympathetic with Wright's emphases is not in any way hostile towards a robust affirmation of imputation.

Effects: In connection with Wright on justification, the report concludes, "This is a position that contradicts our Standards and strikes at the system of doctrine contained in them" (2224:37-38).

I hope I have given some reason for thinking this judgment is exaggerated and largely rests upon a misreading of Wright through a particular interpretive lens. At the very least, my analysis indicates that there are ways of reading Wright that do not so clearly contradict our Standards or strike at their system of doctrine.

By not acknowledging these ways of interpreting Wright, the report intimates that any sympathetic regard for Wright's views on justification entails a conflict with our Standards. My concern is that, if its recommendations are adopted, the report could be too easily used against those who have sympathies towards Wright, even where their own views are fully in accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in our Standards.

Federal Vision

Analysis: The report reads FV proponents through a particular lens in a way not dissimilar from the way it reads Wright.

In this case, the lens is the contention that FV proponents believe that "water baptism serves as the means of uniting each participant to Jesus; those baptized receive all the benefits of Christ's mediation except final perseverance" (2234:41-43). This contention comes up repeatedly and pointedly in the report (2213:19-21; 2223:1-9; 2223:16-22; 2225:15-16; 2231:6-8; 2232:4-6).

But what exactly are FV proponents saying? Are they actually contending that each and every baptized person truly receives the all benefits of Christ's mediation short of perseverance? That everyone who is baptized is justified, even apart from personal faith?

I think the prima facie absurdity of such a claim should be taken into account before attributing it to any author. What theologian, in all of church history, has ever claimed such a thing? Even the medieval Roman Catholic scholastics recognized that a person, through unbelief, could place an "obstacle" to the grace of baptism. Thus Peter Lombard quotes Jerome and Augustine:
Anyone who approaches falsely or without true faith does not receive the thing of the sacrament. Whence Jerome (on Ezekiel 16): "Those who are washed as Gentile heretics are not washed unto salvation. In the church also, any who do not receive baptism in full faith receive water, but not the Spirit." Augustine also says (on Psalm 83), "All the Jews communed in the sacrament, but not all communed in the grace that is the virtue of the sacrament; and likewise now all the baptized commune in baptism, but not all in the virtue of baptism, that is, in grace itself."
Thus, it seems to me simply implausible that, whatever some FV proponents may have written, that they intend to claim what the report attributes to them. Nonetheless, this claim becomes the lens by which the report interprets FV authors more broadly.

Thus, when FV authors speak of the effects of baptism (that it saves, washes away sin, unites us to Christ, etc.), the report seems to understand them to speak of the effects of baptism for every recipient, head-for-head, rather than the effects for those who receive Christ in baptism with a living and true faith.

To say that, in baptism, we receive the benefits of Christ is not controversial in Reformed theology if we speak of those who receive baptism in faith. Thus, Charles Hodge writes:
How then is it true that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism. (Commentary on Ephesians)
He adds further on, "the benefits of redemption, the remission of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and the merits of the Redeemer, are not conveyed to the soul once for all. They are reconveyed and reappropriated on every new act of faith, and on every new believing reception of the sacraments."

As far as I can see closest the report comes to providing a quotation that substantiates its interpretive lens is a single quotation from Steve Wilkins, "Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places" (2231:8-9; quoted from Wilkins, "Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation," in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons).

But even this quotation is not clear and, given the prima facie implausibility of interpreting it in the manner in which the report does, I would be inclined to seek another way of understanding what Wilkins is trying to say. Certainly, one might accuse Wilkins of confusion or unclarity here, but charity would demand trying to find more clear expressions in light of which to interpret the more confusing ones (or to seek out later clarifications or retractions, though that point will have to wait until my next post).

I suspect that Wilkins intends to say that the one and same Christ is personally present by his Spirit to all who are baptized and equally offered to all within the covenant, so that those who are baptized and remain in unbelief can truly be said to have rejected grace and forsaken Christ. In this, he is following Calvin's understanding of the sacraments.

Calvin insists that "the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). And so, he says, "Christ's body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good" so that unbelief does nothing to "impair to alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament." In the Institutes Calvin similarly says that "the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God's elect believers" but that unbelievers reject the proffered gift (4.17.33).

It seems then that report takes the isolated and unclear statement of one author and deploys it in a way that casts a number of FV figures in an unsympathetic light.

Effects: In connection with these sorts of interpretations of FV authors, the report concludes, "the claim of some FV proponents that all those who are baptized with water are savingly 'united to Christ' flatly contradicts the Westminster Standards" (2225:15-16).

But I have suggested that this may be putting the worst construction upon a couple of isolated statements and then using them to develop a larger perspective on what FV proponents say. In doing this, the report seems to suggest that all sorts of strong sacramental language pushes in the same direction, even when saying essentially the same as the quotation from Hodge above.

Thus, the report troubles me. If accepted, the report could be taken to suggest that more Calvinian views of the sacraments stand in tension with the teaching of our Standards and render such views potentially problematic.

Summary

I've argued that report interprets both Wright and FV proponents through the lens of particular statements in ways that tend to distort the wider contours of their views. But I have also suggested ways of understanding these statements that may not prove so problematic. And these are only several examples among others.

If the PCA embraces this report it will commend these sorts of distorting interpretive stances as proper ways of handling others' writings. Moreover, such distortions can easily become received interpretations and perpetuate themselves, breeding a climate of mistrust towards those who may interpret matters in ways congenial to our Standards.

Again, while I have no problem in principle with what the report's nine declarations seem to say, I worry that approving these declarations will, in effect, sanction the seemingly faulty reasoning in the report that stands behind them.

In these ways, then, in connection with my second assertion, I am concerned that the report, if accepted, could be detrimental to the health and culture of the PCA.