Justification & Ecclesial Legitimacy after N.T. Wright

In an email discussion group about the theology of Tom Wright issues of Justification and Ecclesial Legitimacy have been some recent topics. I see a connection between the two in Wright’s approach and wrote what is below:

Some Orthodox (I think of Alexei Khomiakov) argue that the Roman Catholics were the first Protestants because of their decision to modify the creed on their own without the support of a general council of the church. As a Protestant (read “willful”) body, fracture is only to be expected. When non-consultative, non-consensual change is enshrined in a movement (“Semper reformanda”), no one ought to be surprised at further fracturing. Our problem as Protestants (yes, I count myself in that category) is that we need to both legitimize our shift from catholocism AND ILlegitimize further shifts away from our own position. Adopting a RC-like theory of “we’re the one true church (and therefore everyone else is wrong)” might be attractive here, but I’m not sure how it can succeed, whether in general or in arguing from Protestant principles.

Some of the discussion lately has been on critiques of Wright on
Justification. No one would deny that Reformation theories of
Justification were formulated in contrast with Catholic practice and theory. Since group identity has a strong negative dimension – where the grup decalres what it is not – I’d suggest that theological reasons work with sociological reasons to make Justification the flash point it is.

Wright’s perspective (and I’ve heard him say it several times – most recently in his Jesus and the Victory of God lectures on Regent Radio) is to start with Protestant “meta” position – Back to the bible – instead of starting with Justificaton. Wright – rightly, I believe – sees the most important object for Christian negative identity not to be RCism, but the World, thus he experiences a double freedom to change. First, his appropriation of Protestant biblicism frees him to start with the Bible instead of the Reformation era interpretation of the Bible. Second, because he sees the primary need to define the church over against the world rather than Protestantism over against Catholocism, he can push the Protestant vs. Catholic dimensions of justification to the margins.
I don’t know if Wright ever addresses the issue of ecclesial legitimacy, but my guess is that his approach opens the possibility to treat it as a non-issue. If our concern as the church is to live as intentional agents of God’s New Creation begun in Christ, then we do not need to find a single sphere of authority and legitimacy in which this takes place. Both Creation and New Creation are diverse, and one can imagine a variety of ways of being faithful to God. Furthermore, since the New Creation is historically and narratively grounded – (more than institutionally grounded), this diversity DOES have limits, and doesn’t result in relativism.

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