Wright, Helm and Imputation

I have a lot of time for Paul Helm’s writing at Helm’s Deep. Recently, I have been following his analysis of N T Wright’s recent offering on the doctrine of justification (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision). I have not read the book myself so I am not qualified to comment on it directly. However, Helm comes up with a curious conclusion that Wright’s doctrine is surprisingly close to the traditional Reformed understanding of justification by faith, while at the same time Wright himself denies it!

The root of the problem seems to be that Wright has simply not understood what the Reformed understanding actually was, and is, of imputation of righteousness. And Helm has helped me understand something about Wright’s treatment in What St Paul Really Said (which I have read) that puzzled me somewhat. There, Wright says

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 transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. (p.98)

At the time I read this, I thought, “he is just denying the imputation of a righteousness from God”. However, I realise now, thanks to Helm,  he was not. He was denying a particular definition of imputation that involves treating the righteousness as “an object, a substance or a gas” to be “passed across the courtroom”, which of course is nothing like the Reformed understanding. It seems obvious now, but I missed it then.

Helm seems to show that because of this failure to understand historical theology, Wright is really attacking a straw man. From my vantage point, this really does seem like a stonker of a blooper.

You can read Paul Helm’s articles here, here, here and here.

Wright, Helm and Imputation

7 thoughts on “Wright, Helm and Imputation

  1. Except if that straw man does exist, which, as far as I’m aware, it does within various strands of North American Protestantism.

    Hence the question, what exactly is imputation?

  2. I’ve heard that Helm himself has some questionable views on the Trinity, i.e., that the economic Trinity has no bearing on the ontologic Trinity.

    Any ideas what that might be about?

  3. Hi Pete,
    I would be interested in seeing citations of Reformed writers who hold to imputation as an imparting of some transformative principle, which Wright seems to think the Reformed view is. (Of course if we put Arminians under “Protestant” then that is a different matter. But Wright seems to be answering John Piper who is definitely not Arminian.)

    Imputation of righteousness in this context is simply “reckoning” as righteous “entirely through the interposition of Christ” (Inst. 3.11.3) i.e. through Christ as mediator.

    As for Helm, I have no reason to doubt his views on the Trinity. You would need to provide citations. I have “heard” many things in my day, some true, some not!

  4. Nick says:

    I don’t think Helm is correct here. Wright doesn’t have it right in terms of the classical understanding of Sola Fide.

    The fact is, Wright very much is rejecting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is especially seen in the fact Wright believes the ‘ground’ of God’s declaration of righteous is not in Christ’s Righteousness, but in the righteousness the Christian will one day exhibit. For Wright, justification is a ‘promise’ of what the Christian will one day become (righteous).

  5. Thanks for all who have read the piece on Helm’s Deep.

    Yes, Steve, Wright is very much rejecting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but that’s because of his view of righteousness, and also the fact that he misunderstands the doctrine of imputation, as I try to show in the piece. So what he in fact rejects is the ‘imputation’ of Christ’s ‘righteousness’, a different thing. Have a read of the piece.

    As for strands of protestantism misunderstanding its own position, there’s some of that too, as I also try to show, particularly in its use of book keeping and accounting analogies.

    First read, then comment?

  6. Stephen, the passage from Wright about imputation being like a “mist” transferred from Christ to us is from What Saint Paul Really Said. That book was written in the mid-nineties and was a response to A.N.Wilson, a liberal who said that Paul was the founder of Christianity. Wright was responding in an orthodox manner, showing that Paul was essentially in agreement with Jesus.

    The comment about imputation was an off-hand comment that had nothing to do with the thesis of the book. Conservative evangelicals have latched on to it as, at best, evidence of Wright’s ignorance, and, at worst, his heterodoxy. I’m sure he has regretted saying it ever since. His more recent works are, I’ve heard, far more nuanced in their treatment of justification.

    Nick, can you provide citations where Wright states that justification is based solely on our righteousness rather than the righteousness that we exhibit that is received from Christ?

    I have read a fair bit of Wright and I’ve never read any such statement where he hasn’t qualified it in that manner. Unfortunately, the qualifications aren’t always included when his work is critiqued by others.

  7. Nick says:

    I don’t have the book in front of me now, but Wright does not believe in ‘imputation of Christ’s Righteousness’ as classically defined in the historic Protestant Confessions. One example that comes to mind is how Wright looks to Romans 2:13 as how Christians will be justified by works, because at their ‘initial’ justification by faith God produces in them a renewed spirit that will one day show itself in actual and full righteousness.

    Also, I remember clearly a section in the book where Wright examines the phrase “Righteousness of God,” and he rejects the classical Protestant reading of it in favor of what he describes as “Covenant Faithfulness.” Wright is well known for maintaining this view, especially in his (in)famous reading of 2 Cor 5:21 on being made the “Righteousness of God” in a way that has nothing to do with imputation.
    This is simply incompatible with Sola Fide.

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