Ten Questions for N.T. Wright regarding Catholicism, Justification, and the Church

Ten Questions for N.T. Wright regarding Catholicism, Justification, and the Church

Let me begin by saying say I am honored to have received a response from N.T. Wright in Christianity Today last month. He is a giant and he has probably influenced me more than any other living theologian (yes, even more than Ratzinger/Benedict XVI).

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would like to engage some of N.T. Wright’s comments made in the context of his response to me in the recent Christianity Today article: “Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Protestant debate on justification is reigniting questions about Rome.” I recounted how I began to read N.T. Wright’s books as a seminarian at Westminster Theological Seminary, and how this experience opened my eyes and heart to the Catholic Church. Wright answered that his theology does not necessarily lead to Catholicism. Trevin Wax recently published N.T. Wright’s full response here.

Wright’s response left me with ten questions. I realize that it is unlikely that I will receive another response from Bishop Wright. He is a busy man, an Anglican bishop, and a world renowned theologian—so I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, at least others who have read Wright’s books might ponder these questions and suggest educated answers. No matter how it turns out, here are the Ten Questions:

1. Bishop Wright, in your new book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (page 141) you write concerning 2 Cor 5:21:

“The little word genometha in 5:21b-‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’-does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers. If that is what Paul meant, with the overtones of ‘extraneous righteousness’ that normally come with that theory, the one thing that he ought not to have said is that we ‘become’ that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much towards a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness? How careless of Paul to leave the door open to such a notion!”

Question: You seem to indicate here that Saint Paul does in fact teach the “Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness.” How would we be wrong if we were to assume that you are here denying justification by imputation and favoring “a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness”?

2. Also in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (p. 164), you wrote: “what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, “working together with God.”

Question: Should we conclude that you agree with Trent regarding syngergism and disagree with Luther and Calvin on monergism?

3. Bishop Wright, on p. 230, you write: “Thus when [John] Piper says (22) that ‘Wright makes startling statements to the effect that our future justification will be on the basis of works’, I want to protest: it isn’t Wright who says this, but Paul.” Your words conform nicely to the Council of Trent’s Session Six, Chapter 10: “faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.”

Question: Are you not affirming with Session Six of the Council of Trent that our justification (with it’s future implications) will be on the basis of works? John Piper doesn’t want to let you off the hook on this one.

4. Bishop Wright, in What Saint Paul Really Said (page 119) you wrote that justification is about ecclesiology before soteriology. This lines up nicely with Session Six of the Council of Trent (especially Chapter Seven) which relates justification in the traditional terms of catechumens and the Church.

Question: How is your teaching in What Saint Paul Really Said substantially different from the Council of Trent’s formulation?

5. Bishop Wright, you note that Heinrich Schlier was a fine New Testament scholar. In fact, Schlier states that it was Sacred Scripture that lead him into the Catholic Church.

Question: Do you believe that Schlier was so naïve as to believe that being Bultmannian or being Catholic were the only two options available to him?

6. Bishop Wright, you state the Council of Trent provided the wrong answer regarding “nature/grace question.” As far as I can tell, Trent only touched upon this question in Session Five and even there the word “nature” only appears twice.

Question: Could you clarify what you mean by “Trent gave the wrong answer, at a deep level, to the nature/grace question”? To which session would I turn in the Council of Trent to find the alleged “wrong answer”?

7. Bishop Wright, you state that Trent’s “wrong answer to the nature/grace question” led to Catholic abuses in Marian doctrine and devotion.

Question: Are you referring to something as general as the prayers to Mary or something more specific like her bodily assumption into Heaven?

8. You indicated that the Catholic Church has sought to prevent the belief that God works through women and lay people. You wrote: “Communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them.”

It is rather noteworthy that the two greatest saints of the Catholic Church are the Blessed Virgin Mary (a woman) and Saint Joseph (a layman).

Our profound love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the incarnation goes without mentioning. Moreover, the Catholic Church venerates three female Doctors of the Church (St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Sienna, and St Therese of Lisieux) who stand next to the other great Doctors of the Church like St Augustine, St Basil, St Thomas Aquinas, et al.

Question: Could you be more specific as to how the Catholic Church devalues the role of women and laymen?

9. You write that the Reformed, Anglican, charismatic, and emergent traditions can encompass the best of what it means to be “sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological.” Yet, these four traditions (Reformed, Anglican, charismatic, and emergent) are in fundamental disagreement over what a sacrament is, how a human is justified and/or sanctified, what the church is, and what the eschaton is and how it will occur. Even within their own jurisdictions (e.g. Anglican Communion), there is vast disagreement over all of these issues. You say there are “bits of it” in the emergent church, but we could also say that there are “bits of it” when I pray the Our Father with my children before they fall asleep – yet “bits of it” do not entail the climax of the covenant as anticipated in Isaiah, Daniel, or the Minor Prophets.

Question: If what it means to be sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological “can be found in” these four contradicting traditions, doesn’t it entail that each of these four (or even all four together) do not actualize what it means to be sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological? In other words, “these elements can be found in their congregations” doesn’t entail “these elements constitute their congregations.”

10. Bishop Wright, you write: “Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions.”

On the contrary, since the Reformation, only the Catholic Church has continued to hold councils and examine the deposit of faith. Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists still appeal to the same dusty articles of faith that they drafted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They do not hold doctrinal councils. They are unable to reform. They are what they are. So the accusation that the Catholic Church doesn’t clean house is actually more appropriately directed toward Protestant denominations.

Question: Is it the case that Protestant theology is clean and tidy when compared to Catholic theology?

Bishop Wright, you wrote:

I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person [that’s me, Taylor] needed a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd.

I would like to point out that I am not simply an isolated “this person” who “needed a change.” It’s quite ironic that Wright should says this the wake of the Pope’s announcement of the new Anglican Personal Ordinariates. I’m not the only one. Thousands and thousands of clergy and laity from his own denomination have appealed to the Pope as a result of the Anglican Communion losing its sacramental and communal nature. If Anglicanism can provide a Christianity that is “sacramental, transformational, communal, and eschatological,” then why are these Anglicans so deeply dissatisfied with Anglicanism? Would Wright also say that their “jump to Rome” is “very odd”?

Thank you for reading. As a grateful fan and reader of N.T. Wright’s books, I am continually amazed by his profound insights into Sacred Scripture. As a Catholic, I continue to enjoy his books and find myself returning to his works on a regular basis. I have the highest regard for Bishop Wright and wish him all the best.

I’d like to open up the comments and ask for responses. Would you agree that within Wright’s writings and public comments, “there are some things in them hard to understand”? What are we to make those passages that allege to be “not magisterially Protestant” but “not magisterially Catholic” either?

paul catholic cover 500x500 Ten Questions for N.T. Wright regarding Catholicism, Justification, and the Church

Please look for my new book: The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Summer 2010). It is based on the conviction that the Pauline epistles contain the primitive and pristine doctrines of the Catholic Faith (that is, the Patristic “old perspective” on Paul). In the Pauline corpus we discover a Paul who is Catholic, a theologian who is sacramental, a churchman who is hierarchical, a mystic who is orthodox.


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About the Author

Dr Taylor Marshall is a best-selling author and Catholic professor. he is a former Anglican (Episcopalian) priest and a graduate of Texas A&M University (BA Philosophy) Westminster Theological Seminary (MAR Theology), Nashotah Theological House (Certificate in Anglican Studies), and the University of Dallas (MA Philosophy). He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Dallas on Thomas Aquinas on the Natural Law and the Twofold Beatitude of Humanity. He is the author of 8 books.