Blomberg on Wright and Christ's Obedience

Yesterday Craig Blomberg posted a strong endorsement of Tom Wright’s latest book. (Update: The more complete review is now online).  I expect to review Wright’s historical claims about Calvin this summer. For now I want to focus on the significance of Blomberg’s endorsement and on some of the claims he makes along the way.

Of course this is disappointing as it signals the continued slide of the evangelicals away from the Reformation. It’s also disappointing to see him whinge about how Wright’s evangelical critics (he names Piper) don’t understand him. In view of the extensive and responsible literature critiquing Wright and co this complaint is not only tedious but disingenuous. Once more I point readers to the following responsible, accurate, and careful critiques of the NPP (including Wright who is mainly a popularizer):

There are others titles one could list. These are just the first that come to mind. Now, if we want to find genuine misunderstanding let us consider briefly Blomberg’s mischaracterization of the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Justin Taylor has politely and helpfully provided some remedial education for Blomberg who misstates the doctrine by assuming the chronological distinction made by those who deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

Blomberg writes:

In fact, he is affirming all the major Reformation perspectives on justification. The only one he denies is one that was unique to one wing of Calvinism and not even to the entire Calvinist movement. While warmly embracing the representative, substitutionary atonement of Christ through his crucifixion and emphasizing the legal, courtroom context of justification as a metaphor for the declaration of right standing before God not based on anything of our meriting, Wright does deny that Paul, or any other Scriptural author, teaches that the righteousness God imputes to us on the basis of Christ’s cross-work has anything necessarily to do with combining what has been called Jesus’ active obedience (his sinless life) with his passive obedience (his atoning death). And when one looks at the texts often cited in support of such a doctrine (most notably 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21), one does indeed look in vain for such a distinction.

I’m not sure exactly how extensive is Blomberg’s research into the history of the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience but his claim about the history of Reformed theology on this point is misleading. In fact, as I demonstrated in the chapter on IAO in CJPM (see above), the doctrine of the IAO was widely held by Reformed theology. It was, in fact, only a small, noisy minority (Piscator and three or four others) denied the IAO and that on a priori, rationalist grounds: They knew what justice must be and that justice is such that Jesus had to qualify himself to become a Savior (Anselm). In fact, the denial of IAO was not driven chiefly by the bible but by a view of the nature of justice by which they interpreted Scripture.

Second, as Taylor correctly notes, Blomberg has misunderstood and thus misrepresented the Reformed doctrine of IAO. The evidence from Blomberg’s post suggests that it is not the evangelical and confessional Reformed critics who have misunderstood the NPP and Wright, but as Mike Horton has shown, it is Sanders, Wright et al who have consistently misunderstood and misrepresented the history of theology, the nature of the Reformation doctrine of justification, and its relations to its medieval predecessor(s) and thus the entire NPP project is built, to a remarkable degree, on a false premise.

That Blomberg thinks that Wright understands or embraces what the Protestants actually confessed about justification is a shocking indictment of the degree to which the basics of Reformation history and theology are no longer understood in evangelical academia.

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  1. Hello Dr. Clark,

    I have often appreciated your work on this blog, and now am thankful to see you and Justin Taylor interacting with other N.T. Wright supporters, such as Blomberg. I appreciate yours (and JT’s) emphasis on properly understanding the active and passive obedience of Christ and its impact for believers.

    I would like to ask though how you interact with Blomberg’s more significant endorsement of Wright’s work, namely the situating the “individual” element of God’s salvation within the larger framework and scope of “cosmic” redemption, and thus one’s “works” prove/establish that one is justified? Is this not the same thing as “perseverance” seen throughout Scripture?

    This seems to be what Blomberg picks up as a highlight of Wright’s book. How would you respond to this?

  2. I’m glad you’ve taken this up, Scott. I replied on his blog, but Blomberg brushed me off with a quick “well, if you haven’t read Wright’s latest, then you’re in no position to be at the table” nonsense. As if Wright had actually changed his position, when we all know he hasn’t!

  3. I am not all that surprised by this. Blomberg has been in the forefront of promoting what amounts to EMT-Evangelicals and Mormons Together- so it comes as no big shock to see this.

    • Gary, what the hump is EMT? Please tell me it’s a bad joke! Don’t tell me Blomberg is advocating tidy hair, white shirts and sacred undergarments? The only time I want to be together with a Mormon elder is in a cage fight.

  4. “In fact, he is affirming all the major Reformation perspectives on justification. The only one he denies is one that was unique to one wing of Calvinism and not even to the entire Calvinist movement.”

    Eh? I’ve read the book and, if I’m not mistaken, NTW believes in double justification. So there’s another major Reformed distinctive he jettisons.

  5. Nick
    It is no joke. Blomberg gave BYU professor Robert Millet’s book, ‘A different Jesus?’ a glowing endorsement and he has co-author a book with another BYU professor that seeks to make reproachmnet with Evangelicals and Mormons along the lines of ECT.

  6. Wow, it’s time for a little Christian truthtelling in the blogworld. I dismissed no one in the cavalier fashion I am accused of doing. There is no Evangelicals and Mormons together–there is an Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue that has been around a decade that has very different purposes. I do not agree with everything Tom Wright says but find his current book clearer and more clarifying of his views than previous ones. I HAVE read Carson et al, Westerholm, Kim, and Stuhlmacher and Hagner and have warmly endorsed them in previous writings and frequently to my students. It’s time for everybody to slow down, stop the sweeping overgeneralizations, get rid of the hermeneutic of suspicion, relax and pray for God to empower them with a little Christian charity!

    • Craig,

      I appreciate aspects of what you say here but you understand don’t you that the NPP and it’s quasi-evangelical subsidiary movements are laying siege to what many of us regard as THE GOSPEL? The gravity of the question could not be greater.

      I read your review as essentially dismissing Piper as yet again misunderstanding Tom Wright. Are you saying that Piper has not misunderstood Wright? I also read your comments in the light of several years of complaints from proponents of the NPP that “the critics don’t understand us.” In light of the literature I listed, which commend to your students, you’ll understand what such complaints are tedious.

      Finally, I wonder if Christian truth telling extends to the past? As a historian of Reformation and post-Reformation theology, I regard Tom Wright’s project as bearing little resemblance to the theology of the Reformation. Thus far his project has had much more in common with Trent than it has had with Luther or Calvin. I have not yet engaged Wright’s latest but I intend to give it close attention this summer. Are you suggesting that Wright has reversed field from his previous works—which I have found quite perspicuous?

  7. Craig
    Did I misrepresent you in what I said? You did endorse Millet’s book and you have co-authored a book that seeks to built bridges with Mormonism, at least its more ‘progressive wing” that Richard Mouw characterizes as being very open to Evangelical concerns- is that not correct? If you wanted a more detailed analysis, I wrote an extended review of Millet in the book ‘By Faith Alone’ ( Crossway, 2007) that I co-edited with Guy Waters.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I have read parts of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and Guy Waters’ Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul. Have Horton’s Covenant and Salvation, but haven’t found the time to read it. I want to commend you and your WSC colleagues for upholding the biblical doctrine of justification against the modern attacks and doing so by framing that doctrine within its proper covenantal framework. I’ll look forward to your review of Wright’s latest.

  9. Oh heaven forbid evangelicals slide away from the reformation.. as if that is what Christianity is all about.. gee I thought it was about the historic apostolic faith,
    and orthodoxy where ever it is found.. I do not think that the reformation has a corner on it. do we really believe that at any one point in history some human actually got it all right? I doubt it.

    • Well, Eric,

      What do you think the alternatives to the Reformation might be?

      How do you feel about earning acceptance with God by grace and cooperation with grace? How’s your sanctity today? Are you perfectly, inherently righteous right now? If not, you’d better get sanctified pretty quickly or you’re in a lot of trouble.

      Or you could take a lesson from Martin Luther as he read the Apostle Paul and trust in the imputed, perfect righteousness of Jesus.

      That’s why losing the Reformation is a big deal.

  10. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I am ungrateful for the reformation, or that there are no longer lessons to learn from Calvin or Luther. The reformers were being faithful to the word of God in the time and place that they were. I am just saying that not everything there is to know about orthodoxy was established in the 1500’s, or that any slide away from the reformation is necessarily a slide into Trent. Jesus and Paul were Jewish, and the bible was not meant to be read as autonomous individuals. Evangelical scholarship is finding it necessary to tread new ground in light of this “revelation.” This is how the Church in this time and this place can be faithful to the word of God.
    Oh, and I have always been amazed that regardless of how much Calvin and Luther knew the scripture, and believed that Salvation was a free gift of God, the Gospel they preached didn’t stop them from feeling the need to have people executed… but sure, they were men of their times. But surprisingly who didn’t feel that need to take the lives of others were the Anabaptists. Go figure. My point is, the reformation was wonderful, and necessary, and I’m thankful for it, but it is not the end all say all. We still have much to learn, and fresh ground to cover, and new ways we will need to learn to be faithful.

    • Eric,

      I fail to see how returning to the medieval doctrine of justification is exactly the same thing as “fresh light” breaking forth from the Word.

  11. Is it just me, or is the more and more commonly heard appeal to “read Scripture in community, not as individuals” being used as the equivalent of saying “I don’t like what you’re saying, and in this relational, democratic age where the majority rules via social pressure we can get you to shut up by saying that you’re just acting as an individualist”?

    I think that if one were to read with attention the life of Paul in the Acts of the apostles in conjunction with the voice of several of his epistles (especially the epistle to the Galatian church) we would find that acting and interpreting as an individual is not nearly as unprecedented, nor as dangerous, as some may try to prove.

    If anyone is being an problematic individualist in their interpretations and writings it would have to be men like Rob Bell or NTW. Back atcha!

  12. well.. at the end of the night, I guess we can all be glad we aren’t mainline liberals eh?

  13. GLW Johnson: “You did endorse Millet’s book and you have co-authored a book that seeks to built bridges with Mormonism, at least its more ‘progressive wing” that Richard Mouw characterizes as being very open to Evangelical concerns- is that not correct?”

    If this is correct, then there is no misrepresentation of Blomberg in these remarks by GLW.

  14. Eric,
    I don’t think anyone here thinks that orthodoxy stood still in the 16th and 17th centuries. But if we believe those guys to be faithful, the question is, are we developing in conversation with that milestone (as you say, not as autonomous individuals), or are we repudiating it (in which case, how exactly were Calvin and Luther faithful again?), or are we proceeding as if ignorant of it?

  15. For the record… I am not an emergent, or a fan of Rob Bell, I am a conservative baptist with strong anabaptist leanings. I am in no way repudiating Calvin or Luther, and it seems that the present topic (Wright’s version of NPP) is very much in conversation with that tradition (as far as I can tell Dr. Wright still considers himself a reformed theologian). So I am not suggesting that evangelicalism should proceed as if ignorant of the reformers (or any other part of Christian history for that matter), rather I would say that I am on board with a theologian such as the late Stanley Grenz who wanted to revision evangelical theology in such a way as to articulate orthodoxy in the post-everything era. One of the most important aspects of this IS learning to read scripture in community, and putting Christian doctrine in a cosmic framework, and for this I welcome the contributions of Dr. Wright. So again, I say the question should not be “Is this in line with the reformation? (as if any one place in history people got it right), but “is this faithful to God and his word?”

  16. Eric,

    I have some times been critical of Reformed scholarship that seems only to give lip service to semper reformanda. Indeed, I posted a two part essay on my seminary blog entitled “The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism.” Confessedly, I think that Dr. Clark and some of his colleagues need to move beyond the doctrinal achievements of the 16th and 17th centuries in a few areas. But there are some very important areas where I find myself in agreement with Dr. Clark, and justification is one of those areas (the free offer of the gospel is another). In my opinion, Dr. Wright and other advocates of the NPP are not merely suggesting refinements to a central tenet of the Christian faith. They are, rather, proposing a complete paradigm shift that subtly moves us back in the direction of Rome. This is not to deny that Wright is a brilliant and gifted scholar. And perhaps his focus on the ecclesial or corporate dimension (or ramifications) of justification could, if properly understood and qualified, serve to supplement the Protestant doctrine. But Wright and company seem intent to push what is at best peripheral to front and center, replacing the heart of the doctrine (i.e., how a sinner can be made right with God) with what is at best an implication flowing from the doctrine (i.e., that the Jewish boundary markers have been eliminated and now the covenant community consists of all, whether Jew or Gentile, who confess Jesus as Lord). This shift is dangerous. John Piper did a fine job in identifying Wright’s error. Dr. Clark and his colleagues do a slightly better job in that they provide the covenantal and historical-redemptive framework for a proper understanding of justification. I highly recommend the book Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

    Respectfully yours,
    Bob Gonzales, Dean
    Reformed Baptist Seminary

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