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ETS President Clinton E. Arnold Weighs in on Justification Debate

December 3, 2010

Nov. 19 was a day that had been circled on the calendars of many theology buffs for at least the past several months.

That morning, three prominent theologians — N.T. Wright, Thomas Schreiner and Frank Thielman — sat down at the annual Evangelical Theological Society conference in Atlanta to engage in a highly anticipated debate on justification by faith, with a particular focus on Wright’s untraditional and increasingly prominent understanding of this important doctrine. (Numerous summaries of the discussion can be found online, including these accounts from Mike Wittmer and Collin Hansen.)

In the center of it all was a fourth man: Talbot School of Theology professor Clint Arnold, who served as moderator of the discussion in his role as president of ETS. He recently sat down for an interview to share his thought about the debate.

ETS had a record-high attendance this year, and there was a great deal of anticipation going into it — most of it revolving around this discussion between N.T. Wright, Tom Schreiner and Frank Thielman. Why is there so much interest in this ongoing debate about justification, and what’s at stake for each side?

Well, traditionally evangelicals have believed that the doctrine of justification by faith is right at the center of the gospel. Those who advocate the New Perspective on Paul have called that into question in some degree, and they’ve advanced a new interpretation. Most notably, Tom Wright has a different way of interpreting justification and has gone so far as to say that it’s not a soteriological concept, it’s an ecclesiological concept. It’s not at the heart of the gospel in terms of being a salvific metaphor. So that makes this discussion front and center, because we’re talking about the very heart of the gospel. From a Lutheran and Reformed framework, justification by faith has been just central.

What stands out for you as being the highlights of the discussion at ETS?

Well, I think overall the discussion was done in an ideal way. Each of the three panelists were well-prepared, they were gracious to each other, they listened to each other, they absorbed what the others were saying. At the same time, they spoke the truth in love and were free to disagree with each other quite sharply on a number of issues. The panel was very satisfying in that sense. It felt like we were able to spend two hours and 10 minutes really grappling with the key matters in the debate.

I tried to understand ahead of time where each of these panelists landed on the key issues. I spent a lot of time researching and reading from each of the panelists. And I have to admit that going into it I was probably much more aligned with where Frank Thielman and Tom Schreiner were on some of the key issues than Tom Wright. So I guess the question is, “Did Tom Wright change my mind on a number of issues?” I came away feeling like Tom has some very important emphases in his approach to not only justification but the whole constellation of issues that surround it — the righteousness of God, imputation, the understanding of Romans 3 and how we interpret Judaism and legalism in that. In this constellation of issues that surround [justification], I felt that Tom had some important emphases. Jew and Gentile united into one body, for instance, is a very important theme in Paul’s writings. But I came away not convinced that that’s the definition of justification; the unification of Gentiles into a single body of the people of God with the Jews is a very important implication of the gospel, but isn’t the definition of justification.

Now, that being said, I think [Wright’s emphasis] can help us to realize that in Romans, in Galatians, and especially in Ephesians, that there’s a huge emphasis on God bringing in the Gentiles, and the Gentiles being united with Jews in one body forming one church. But it’s not the definition of justification. So he didn’t persuade me on that.

Wright has expressed frustration over the years about feeling misunderstood by the Reformed camp on a lot of his points. People in the Reformed camp have also expressed frustration that Wright misunderstands elements of the traditional view. Do you feel like the discussion helped to advance the conversation and increase some understanding on both sides?

I think it really helped advance the discussion — and I sure hope it did, even more than I think it did, right now. Now, if I could be, just for one moment, a bit critical of Tom Wright: I think he has a tendency to overstate his case for rhetorical purposes. He pushes the envelope too far to make his point, but then takes some of it back in discussion. I think that’s where a lot of the problem lies, because I find myself having difficulty understanding him at times and thinking, “How can you say this? This is going way too far” — but then in discussion feeling OK about some of the things he’s saying. But, in saying that, I think he makes concessions from time to time. In our discussion time at ETS — and I would have to go back to the transcript on this — but it seems to me that he admitted at one point that righteousness is a gift from God. Now there are other dimensions to righteousness than that, but I felt like — especially in calling attention to Ephesians 2:1-10 — that he could say that righteousness is something that God gives us and that it is an individual appropriation of our salvation. That seemed to me to be a fairly important concession that would result in a lot of unity with the Reformed and Lutheran camp if he emphasized that, but I think he wants to press these other things so far because he sees them as so important in Paul’s argument.

Another point that received attention from some people was his statement at the conference that final justification is in accordance with works, when in the past he has written that it’s on the basis of the whole life lived. Did that strike you as a change in his position?

I think it’s a clarification. I don’t think he’s far off from where traditional Reformed people have been on that because of the passages in Paul that talk about a judgment based on works. So clarifying that it’s “in accordance with” rather than “based upon” is an important distinction, and given that, I think he would find himself right in line with a lot of other scholars, where works are a sign or a demonstration of the reality of the faith that’s within us.

What was it like for you personally to moderate the discussion? I’d imagine there would be a decent amount of pressure.

It was a lot of fun. I have great respect for each of the three guys, and to have an opportunity where we could sit down together and really hash out the differences — there was something very satisfying about that. I wish the conversation could have gone on for four hours, because we could have even brought out more things. But it was enjoyable. It made me feel like we need more times like that when Christians disagree with each other — to really speak the truth in love and grapple with these things together.