Calvin in the Hands of Anglican Revisers (1)

N. T. (Tom) Wright has published a new volume articulating again his proposed revision of the way Paul’s doctrine of justification should be understood. The volume is Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009). In the preface he indicates that he understand that many Reformed folk (he mentions John Piper to whom (i.e., The Future of Justification)  he is chiefly responding in this work) believe that at the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification is the doctrine of imputation. He says, “I understand the force of that proposal, and the sense of assurance which is gives. What’s more, I agree that this sense of assurance is indeed offered by the doctrine of justification as Paul expounds it. But, as I argue in this book, Paul’s way of doing it is not Piper’s.” My interest in this post (and the others that may follow) is not so much in Wright’s handling of Paul (which has been handled better elsewhere by others).

Once more here is just some of the literature to which I refer:

There are more resources here. My interest here is to consider Wright’s historical claims about the Reformation generally and Calvin in particular.

In chapter 1, as an aside, as he is explaining his motivation for replying to Piper, Wright says that Piper has “gone better than the rest and devoted an entire book to explaining why I’m wrong about Paul, and why we should stick with the tried and trusted theology of the Reformers and their successors (or at least some of them; actually the Reformers disagreed among themselves, and so did their successors.)” Here, in an endnote, as evidence of his historical claim he cites volumes by Alistair McGrath (Iustitia Dei, and “several essays” in Husbands and Trier eds, Justification: What’s at Stake in in the Current Debates and in Bruce McCormack, ed. Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments…). I take it from this endnote that Wright believes that there is scholarship supporting his claim (vague though it is) that there were multiple doctrines of justification in the 16th and 17th centuries among orthodox, confessional Protestants.

I quite profoundly doubt this thesis. Consider the prima facie evidence, which folk seem to ignore rather conveniently (perhaps because it doesn’t figure into their own theology, piety, and practice) of the Protestant confessions on justification. Consider the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), Art. 4:

1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

Consider the Gallic (French) Confession (1559) Art. 18:

We believe that all our justification rests upon the remission of our sins, in which also is our only blessedness, as saith the Psalmist

We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merit, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favor in the sight of God. And, in fact, we believe that in falling away from this foundation, however slightly, we could not find rest elsewhere, but should always be troubled. Forasmuch as we are never at peace with God till we resolve to be loved in Jesus Christ, for of ourselves we are worthy of hatred.

Consider the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q. 60:

60. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace,5 grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), ch. 11:

1. Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

Now, it could be that the Augsburg Confession, the French Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, written over a span of 150 years were all idiosyncratic, non-representative documents, but if that is so, then the German, French, Dutch, English, Scottish, and American Reformed Churches have all been incredibly deceived by a massive conspiracy to hide the true variation in the real history of the Reformation and post-Reformation churches.

Or not.

More later.

1. Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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11 comments

  1. Wright should even check out his own article on Justification that he (presumably) took an oath of subscription to:

    Article XI:
    We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

    The Homily of the Salvation of All Mankind, expounding just this doctrine from Romans and other places in St. Paul’s writings, teaches that:

    This faith the holy Scripture teacheth: this is the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion: this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ’s Church do approve: this doctrine advanceth and setteth forth the true glory of Christ, and beateth down the vain glory of man: this whosoever denieth is not to be counted for a true Christian man, nor for a setter forth of Christ’s glory, but for an adversary of Christ and his Gospel, and for a setter forth of men’s vainglory.

    Anglican revisers indeed.

  2. I’ve read a good bit of the book. He loves dismissing historical protestantism with the stroke of a pen, leaving the mis-informed with the impression that he’s being devastating, when actually he’s being ignorant. His rhetoric is so powerful that he can almost get you on side before he’s even made a substantial argument. Therein lies his skill and his danger.

    Regularly it seems that those who attack the confessional protestant understanding of justification come out with the old chestnut that there wasn’t a ‘monolithic’ doctrine of justification. With a few simple quotes from the confessions you’ve demonstrated what a stupid claim that is.

  3. I think that it’s a bit funny how so many evangelicals are buying into this sort of theological propaganda. I have some of Wright’s book in which he makes the same reverberations of theological promiscuity. I don’t think he’s handling the Word of God as a Biblical scholar. I definitely think he is concerned with the Church as it is today–even as you, Dr. Clark, have mentioned in the RRC–but is handling God’s Holy Word, via revisionism, in the wrong way. He has nice language, but the content is obviously eschewed.

  4. On this thread at the “Between Two Worlds” blog, I asked: “I need assistance in getting a handle on N.T. Wright’s service to the King. It’s incomplete.

    On the positive side of the ledger:

    (1) Defends the historicity of the Resurrection against Jesus Seminar scholars. (But to be honest, seems like many other evangelical theologians could have done the same thing).

    On the negative side of the ledger (admitting my theological biases):

    (1) Staunch egalitarian.

    (2) New Perspective on Paul.

    (3) Believes that one can be a Christian without believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, per Albert Mohler. Which sort of offsets the positive contribution he made against the Jesus Seminar scholars.

    So overall, according to my admittedly and woefully incomplete scorecard, I’m rather underwhelmed by Bishop NT Wright and am puzzled as to why he seems to have an elevated status in the Christian world.

    Can someone illumine me as to why +Wright merits a higher status than what my scorecard has assigned?

    (If anyone wants to tell me that I’ve assessed +Wright correctly, I’m open to that as well!)”

    The only response I received was this:

    “TUAD,

    Not many people who have read Wright’s work ask the question of what benefit there is.

    Here are some of the major points:

    1) His work on methodology in The New Testament and the People of God is brilliant. He articulates a robust critical-realist epistemology and defends a healthy hermeneutic geared towards authorial intention within that framework.

    2) His defense of the biblical portrait of Jesus’ life as historically viable in Jesus and the Victory of God is both compelling and highly illuminating. (This book helped me to understand scores of passages in the gospels that were previously opaque to me.)

    3) His exegesis of Paul is also at times very illuminating. Even if you disagree with his take on the New Perspective (and I do, in certain places), if you read him, I believe that you will find that he is a very insightful exegete whose work on Paul has undeniable merits.

    4) Within the Anglican communion, he has been one to stand up and say that homosexual practice is not biblically justifiable.

    5) He has managed to pull all of this off and not only be respected, but also to be viewed as one of the leading scholars in not only the Evangelical world, but also the broader world of biblical scholarship. It is probably the fact that one who holds so many conservative views is so respected there that he draws (and deserves) such attention from Evangelicals.

    Anyway, I could go on, but, as Wright likes to say, in reality, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In my estimation, the pudding is good; I commend it to you.”

  5. I’m going through the book at the moment, having been lent it by a friend. His historical work is absolutely dreadful, so thankyou, Scott, for taking him on at that point. The odd thing is that his theological prolegomena do not seem, in themselves, controversial: he says that we should read Scripture based on covenant, lawcourt, Christ etc. The difficulty is that he then goes off in a completely bizarre direction with all that and starts confusing sanctification with justification.

  6. Hey Dr. Clark!
    What do you think of McGrath’s Iustitia Dei? I read where he says that the reformers brought in a discontinuity by dividing justification and sanctification. What of Luther ‘introducing’ imputed righteousness as well? Does he try to defend these things or is it a only a history of the doctrine?

    • Well, there’s a lot of good work in it but there are problems. It’s a good place to start one’s study but it is a poor place to end one’s study of the history of the doctrine of justification. It’s a “longitudinal” survey, i.e., a series of talking heads. The figures covered aren’t give a great lot of space.

      You can see my reading of Luther here.

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