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.