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Collin Hansen and Mike Wittmer -- among others -- have provided some helpful summaries of the Wright-Schreiner-Thielman discussion on justification at ETS.

Thanks to Robbie Sagers for pointing out these links from Patrick (Son of Thomas) Schreiner: Schreiner's response to Thielman's paper and Schreiner’s response to Wright’s paper. To my knowledge these are the only plenaries publicly available.

One of the more interesting moments in the discussions came during Wright’s paper, where he said that he doesn’t think he has used “basis” terminology with regard to works and the final judgment/vindication/justification. This was surprising to anyone familiar with Wright’s work, since he has used this language repeatedly, and it was something that John Piper challenged Wright on and invited him to clarify. Wright said that if he had used that terminology he would have it removed in subsequent editions of his book.

Denny Burk has some helpful interaction here on Wright’s walk back, including some blog comments by Wright on Burk’s blog.

Continuing on the issue of “basis” language I appreciated A. B. Caneday’s lament--shared by many--concerning Wright’s penchant for tirelessly complaining about being misunderstood and never acknowledging that it might just be partially his fault:

. . . one disappointment that I heard many times was that attendees wished that Wright had presented the needed correction as a full and clear acknowledgment of his error of writing rather than present it as a needed correction of his readers' failure to read his written words correctly or of his hearer's failure to hear his spoken words correctly. Alas! How difficult it is to acknowledge wrong, especially to do so publicly and especially to do so when the wrong is so widely published in one's own words. Is it unreasonable to think that N. T. Wright owes all his readers a brief published statement to acknowledge his error and to correct his error?

Young scholars, may I paraphrase James' admonition, "Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19)?

"Be quick to listen and to learn."

"Be slow to speak, to present, and to publish."

For, if you do these things, then obedience of the third imperative will come more readily, "Be slow to give way to anger," especially to defend yourself when others point out your misstatements.

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13 thoughts on “Justification at ETS”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “Is it unreasonable to think that N. T. Wright owes all his readers a brief published statement to acknowledge his error and to correct his error?”

    No, it’s not unreasonable.

    Nor is it unreasonable to wonder whether N.T. Wright possesses a pride that refuses to acknowledge his error.

  2. JK says:

    another review I found extremely helpful was TD Gordon’s piece, Paul on his own terms? A review of N. T. Wright on Justification. The article link is here in the Ordained Servant Online:
    While Gordon’s piece is not a review of the ETS plenaries but of Wright’s book on justification, it is thoroughly germane to the present discussion as anyone who took in the ETS conference will readily attest. And as I think you’ll see, Gordon is both evenhanded and incisive with respect to Scripture and tradition.

  3. Paul says:

    Thanks for providing these links to the ETS presentations and reviews. This is very helpful.

  4. Melissa Fitzpatrick says:

    Your quotation of Caneday’s lament, is a bit excessive in my view, especially at this point, “Is it unreasonable to think that N.T. Wright owes all his readers a brief published statement to acknowledge his error and to correct his error?”

    I mean, does he really?

    Whether Wright has nuanced his “on the basis” language or not, he is still not promoting a traditional Lutheran doctrine of imputed righteousness, so quite frankly I do not understand why he would need to publish a statement to acknowledge his “error.” It seems to me that Wright was willing to concede “in accordance with” language in order to clarify his position (as interpreted by Schreiner and others), not change it. Wright’s clarification needs to be interpreted in light of the fact that at this point in the panel discussion he was explaining his theological *conception* of justification and not offering some precise English rendering of a phrase in the Greek text. It was clear to me from watching the panel discussion that even though Wright rearticulated his view with different terminology, his conception of justification was still the same; in my opinion, concluding that he has fundamentally changed his position is disingenuous.

    In the end, this discussion makes me uncomfortable, not because I agree with Wright, but because I think that taking something that Wright has said *in passing* on a public panel discussion as authoritative over words that he has carefully thought through in written form elsewhere is quite dangerous. I also think that we should think long and hard about how we take our discussions from professional societies like ETS or SBL and represent them in the blog forum. James’ admonitions to be slow to speak are especially appropriate, not just for Wright, but also for those of us who are claiming to represent Wright (or others), on our blogs.

  5. A Humbled TUAD says:

    “Be quick to listen and to learn.”

    A lesson most difficult for the Internet Age.
    Pride plus rapid technology minus silenct
    meditation on the Word equals disaster.

  6. Chad says:

    Is this a distinction without a difference?

    Should someone call out other reputable scholars, or only NT Wright?

    “At the last judgment, as revealed in Matthew 25:31–46, people will be sent to heaven or hell based on their works. Their state of faith underlies those works. But what is in focus, at least in this passage, are their works.” – R.C. Sproul, Before the Face of God vol. 4, p. 434.

    “Judgment will be on the basis of works (Matt. 16:27).” – L. Morris, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s.v. “Judgment”

    “Thus we conclude that Paul is not arguing that Gentiles will be judged on the basis of commands that they have never heard about. He is arguing that both Jews and Gentiles will be judged on the basis of their deeds, whether or not they have ever read the Mosaic law.”
    W. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 546.

    “… early Christianity and early Judaism … both share an elective grace and also assign a determinative role to works at final judgment.”
    Simon Gathercole, Where is Boasting? p. 135

    “The principle of judgment based on works runs throughout the OT and NT”
    R. Mounce, Romans NAC, p. 90 fn. 76

    and, last but not least:

    “It needs to be stressed, however, that the eschatological repayment on the basis of works is not applied only to those who will experience wrath on the last day. Paul also speaks of “the one who does good” … and that person will receive an eschatological reward of “glory, and honor and peace””
    T. Schreiner, Did Paul Believe in Justification by Works? Another Look at Romans 2, BBR 3, 1993, p. 142

    1. Dane Ortlund says:

      Chad – it seems you may be confusing ‘justification’ with ‘judgment.’ Is that possible?

    2. Jeff says:

      I have to admit, all of this is pretty confusing. Is Schreiner confusing judgment with justification, too? From his response to Wright (linked above): “I am delighted that Tom now speaks of the final judgment as one that will be in accordance with our works instead of on the basis of our works.”

      Is Denny Burk making the same mistake? One of the passages he cites from Wright to prove his case is also about judgment. Wright says: “I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works. It is not often enough remarked upon, for instance, that in the Thessalonian letters, and in Philippians, he looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favourable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, not because he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work.”

      Even more confusing: in this citation, Wright uses “according to” and “on the basis of” in the span of two sentences! Either he changed his position within one paragraph, or he’s using these phrases interchangeably. But if that’s the case, then is this debate all about a confusion?

      Caneday’s post about Wright’s change of mind is all about “judgment,” too. As I said, it’s all very confusing.

      1. John says:

        I think one needs to bear in mind Wright’s distinction between present and future justification. Future judgment based on works is by definition congruent with future justification in Wright’s model. However, the language distinction *might* mean something in a more traditional model (i.e. Schreiner). I say *might* because it is difficult to construct a soteriological model that separates judgment from justification.

  7. Chad,

    Your appeal for consistency is right. We all ought to accept correction if it is properly due unto us.

    May I suggest that the reason the scholars’ quotes, which you cite, seem to escape being “called out,” as you say, is that they all state that “judgment will be on the basis of deeds” whereas N. T. Wright speaks of “justification on the basis of ‘works'” or “on the basis of the whole life.” N. T. Wright’s formulation falls upon Protestant ears with a clank because it seems to challenge the Reformation slogan sola fide. (Any reasonably generous reading of Wright does not lead to this conclusion.) The formulations of those scholars you cite do not strike most Protestants as problematic, but they should.

    As for me, however, to explain Romans 2:6 to mean that God will judge us “on the basis of our deeds” is just as problematic as Wright’s expression that clarified recently. I have written much on this issue on my blog TRSBU. Yet, just as I endeavor to read N. T. Wright generously, so I read these other scholars. They mean something better than their words state.

    In such discussions, I endeavor to proceed on the belief that we all tend to believe better than we articulate our beliefs. I know that I have not always articulated my own beliefs with crystal clarity, so I grant the benefit of the doubt to N. T. Wright and to each of the scholars you cite above.

  8. Jeff,

    Your confusion is understandable and warranted because, as N. T. Wright has been attempting to make clear for several years now, Protestants have not adequately accounted for the biblical (and especially Pauline) correlation of judgment, justification, and works (deeds). Too many Protestant theologians separate justification from judgment. Wright refuses to separate what Scripture holds correlated together. I believe that Wright is correct to do this, even if I might prefer that he do so with his more recent formulation concerning judgment (“in accordance with our works”).

    You properly draw attention to how confusing the whole discussion has been and remains. This calls for everyone to engage the subject of the conversation with greater precision and caution. This was the very appeal of my own presentation at the ETS meetings in Atlanta.

    God speed!

  9. Chad says:


    Thank you for the link to your blog!

    It seems that if the best scholars use “based on works” and “according to works” interchangeably with reference to the final judgment, then Wright is in good company when he does the same, and that criticism toward him in this respect, as well as his recent restatement of the issue in response, may be ill-informed. It is possible that they all mean something different, but I’m not sure how likely it is for several scholars of this stature to all mean something other than what they wrote in their published works.


    Criticism toward Wright on his “basis of works” language, as well as his recent restatement of the issue, is always about the final judgment – even though Wright calls this event justification for the believer. (But other Catholics and Protestants have also called the final judgment the second justification.) For Piper, Wright, and these scholars, none would say, nor accuse Wright of saying, that ‘present justification’ or ‘conversion’ or ‘calling’ as Wright says, is either according to works or based on works. So, apparently Wright has been criticized for saying precisely the same thing about the final judgment (which he calls justification, but he’s talking about the same event) which several other good scholars also feel is appropriate to say.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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