Friday, January 15, 2010

N. T. Wright's Paul and J. V. Fesko's N. T. Wright

All this while I have been reluctant to read stuff on St. Paul because one of the main player in the contemporary study is still in the progress of preparing his magnum opus on the subject. He is none other than N.T. Wright.

But in this semester, we will be discussing Paul very much in the New Testament class, and our lecturer Tony has recommended Wright's works. So I cannot wait any longer.

Therefore I sat myself down and finish reading 3 introductory texts on Paul in the past 6 days. I spent about 4 days with my piecemeal time over the weekend to read Paul Barnett's second volume of his trilogy After Jesus, Paul: Missionary of Jesus, 1 day each to read Wright's 1997's What St. Paul really Said and 2005's Paul: Fresh Perspectives. After that, I have some glimpses what's the recent fuzz over this subject about.

Then I picked up J. V. Fesko's 2008's Justification as the author states that the book "explore and interact primarily with the writings of N. T. Wright, as his work has been the most influential in the Reformed community." (p.3) I thought this is the best latest work that not only deal with Wright's work but also lays out the Reformed understanding on justification, as the book's subtitle ensures "Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine".

Fesko starts by describing "the classic Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; justification is based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is the sole ground and basis for the believer's declaration of righteousness both in the present and at the final judgment." (p.4)

Fesko's description is of course in direct confrontation with Wright's view: "If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfer his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant." (1997, p.98)

When Fesko discusses the language of imputation of Christ's righteousness, he states that imputation is a language of systematic theology and so not found in the Bible, like the word 'Trinity'. "Systematic theology typically requires terms that are theological constructs, terms often drawn from Scripture but given a more precise meaning to express the doctrines of the Bible." (p.154) It is on this point where, I think, Fesko failed to engage Wright.

For Fesko, 'imputation' is the best doctrinal term that carries the meaning of 'justification'. Hence the meaning of a doctrine is carried in a propositional one-for-one and straight-to-the-point way. The gist of each proposition found in the Bible (for eg. 'righteousness of God') can be better understood by translating it into another proposition which best expresses the not-so-clear proposition.

For Wright, doctrines are "portable narratives." (N.T. Wright, Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture, in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible, Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance, ed., p. 59-71) Doctrinal statements like the ancient creeds are terms that act like a semantic suitcase that packed the multi-faceted stories in the Bible to be carried from place to place so that they can be easily unpacked and explored further. The meaning of a doctrine is not the multi-faceted stories in the same way a suitcase is not what it is carrying within it. Hence doctrines are not proposition but carrier of stories.

From this observation, I think Fesko is not engaging Wright's thoughts after all despite his own claim to do that. Both started from different grounds in approaching the relation between scripture and theology. One may feel cheated by what Fesko wrote on page 3 about he interacting and exploring Wright's view. What Fesko does is simply dismissing Wright's view by saying that Wright has committed categorical mistakes. And Fesko does that by comparing his own category with Wright's category, and brushes off the latter's without explaining why his own category is better. No real engagement at all.


Israel Lee said...

Yes, Joshua. That is the sad scenario that is happening now which prompted Wright to respond with 'Justification' which in turn lead to more criticisms from those who thought they are engaging, but not .... which .... the cycle goes on and on. But, I think Wright will not respond further apart to this apart from the new book on Paul. Have fun reading!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel, yes it is wasting people's time and money to read these straw-man criticism.

I'm waiting to read John Piper's book. Then only I'll pick up Wright's short response. :)

Kar Yong said...

haha...welcome to the club. Now perhaps you understand why I don't really bother with those who are out there claiming that they "engage" with NT Wright in thier writing. And those who claim to engage Wright somehow just narrowly focus on the issue of justification. There is more than justification in Wright's writing.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kar Yong,

We just can't help but to admit that caricature at times has more truth in it.

Fesko's book published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing. When I saw that book, I gave them the benefit of doubt. I didn't want to judge the book by its publisher. But then, after reading it, I was proved wrong. Their books are skewed in many certain ways.

BTW now I know why you and Tony enjoy NT studies so much. All this while I am only attracted to the study on Jesus. It's very interesting as well as rewarding going through those intensive reading marathon.

SHWong said...

This is very helpful. Please write your views after all the reading.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

Thank you for the remark. :)