Michael Horton makes some solid points in his article “Justification and Ecumenism.” He takes some fair shots at some of Wright’s positions, and generally hits the target. Unfortunately, the whole thing is undermined by his inconsistency–about which more anon.
Horton makes one significant point twice. “Wright distorts the Reformation positions and almost never footnotes his sweeping allegations.” And then, a little bit later, he says, “as in his earlier works, Wright practically never offers a single footnote for his manifold assertions concerning Reformation exegesis.” I actually think this is a fair cop. Wright is very expansive, broad and general when it comes to summarizing what he would call the “Reformation tradition.” You wouldn’t even know, in much of what he writes, if he is talking about Lutheranism, or if he is talking about the Reformed tradition, or both. Or perhaps he is just affected by the brand of evangelicalism that he grew up in. At the 2005 Auburn Avenue conference, when he was interacting with Richard Gaffin, he made it clear that his disagreements are largely with Lutheranism. But he has a tendency in his writing to set his new insights over against “what everybody knows the reformational tradition is or might be,” and this tends toward misrepresentation. It would be unusual, for example, to find Wright saying that this insight of Paul’s conflicts with the Westminster Confession, citing the house and street number for both Paul and Westminster. He doesn’t get that close to the action.
For an example of this, Horton cites a quotation from Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, in which Wright says that justification “has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from . . .” Horton rightly responds that “this is simply not true.” The Reformed interest (sometimes to a fault — e.g. the jumpiness over using the word justification for anything other than a nanosecond event at conversion, a jumpiness that lies behind the concerns over something like future justification.) has been to keep justification distinct and in its own watertight category, never wanting any leakage from the infusion tank over into the imputation tank. And by using the word “tank” in association with imputation here, I do not mean to imply infusion by intimating that righteousness is a fluid. I am a good Protestant, Scott Clark to the contrary. But if justification really was the term that the Reformed used to “do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action,” why would anybody have a problem with future justification?
Another example. In What Saint Paul Really Said, when Wright uses the image of justification floating across the courtroom like a gas, as though this were a common error in Reformed thinking, he is actually citing the error that Reformed theologians have been most concerned to reject. Now, this is not to say that Reformed thinkers cannot develop a wobble, or fall into certain errors that their emphases make them susceptible to. There is always a ditch on both sides of the road, and the Reformed sometimes perform a smeller into their ditch. But they are not so versatile as to be able to commit every error at once. They can’t crash into both ditches simultaneously. Another fair (and related) point is this one: “For all of his concern about ecclesiology in Paul, Wright does not seem as concerned about the actual positions that Protestant churches have held.”
This is all to the good, but then, in the last column of the article, the whole thing starts to go south on Horton. He offers this complaint — “Wright also has a clear agenda to get Christians to transform the world by ‘living the gospel.’” What? Like Calvin didn’t? Like Knox didn’t? Like Cranmer didn’t? Like Beza didn’t? Like Owen didn’t? Like Edwards didn’t? Like Bucer didn’t? Like Tyndale didn’t? Like Machen didn’t? Like Kuyper didn’t? Horton has made a big deal out of Wright not being able to “footnote” his negative assessments of the Reformed tradition. But if that is the standard, Horton is not able to footnote how a radical Klinean departure from centuries of Reformed social and cultural theology is in any way consistent with being really Reformed — or, if I may dare say it, with being truly Reformed. You want a footnote on Reformed cultural theology? How about this? “See the first 400 years of Reformation history.” On this point, and it is not an insignificant one, N.T. Wright is squarely in the Reformed tradition, and Michael Horton is not.
Another example. If you want footnotes on what the Reformed tradition actually taught back in the day before anabaptist Americans got hold of it, check out Robert Letham’s new (and magnificent) treatment of the Westminster Assembly. There are more than enough footnotes there to demonstrate that radical departures from the Reformed maintream can happen in Reformed seminaries as well as bishops’ palaces.
And last, here is the basic problem with Horton’s approach. Wright wants justification to be the great ecumenical doctrine. If justification is the declaration that we are all God’s people, then that declaration can hardly divide us, right? But if it is (as Wright contends the Reformation tradition has held) the doctrine that explains how we get saved, then it will remain a bone of contention about who is really saved. So far as this goes, I am with Horton, and not with Wright.
But the inconsistency is here. Horton says that by doing this Wright is smudging the very definition of biblical justification itself (true enough), and so it cannot be the basis of true ecumenism. But part of the reason that Wright’s ecumenical vision looks so attractive to people (despite the blurriness of it) is that people are tempted to accept that blurriness as the cost of avoiding the hyper-factionalism among those who claim they are contending for the true blue form of sola fide. Wright, Horton complains, is uniting with people who are confused on sola fide. Fair enough, I think he is. But Horton divides from people who aren’t confused about it. Horton, along with some others associated with Westminster West, is not demonstrating how a faithful and ecumenical (and thoroughly Protestant) usage of this doctrine would work. If our only choices were between including people who shouldn’t be included, and excluding people who shouldn’t be excluded, we might have a problem. But those are not our only two choices.
Non-Reformed catholicity is a problem, and Reformed sectarianism is a problem too, but there are more options than just those two. But as long as we allow them to continue their quarrel center stage, they are the two problems that feed off each other, and provoke one another.
So why not a Reformed catholicity?