N.T. Wright on Freedom in the Spirit

I read this passage this morning from N.T. Wright’s “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vison“, on page 164. I thought it worth putting up the whole paragraph for your consideration.

When, by clear implication, I am charged with encouraging believers to put their trust in someone or something ‘other than the crucified and resurrected Savior’, I want to plead guilty – to this extent and to this extent only: that I also say, every time I repeat one of the great historic creeds, that I trust in the holy spirit.

Of course, within Trinitarian theology one is quick to say that this is not something other than trusting in Jesus the Messiah, since it is his own spirit; the Father who sent Jesus is now sending ‘the Spirit of the Son’ (Galatians 4.4-7). But the point about the holy spirit, at least within Paul’s theology, is that when the spirit comes the result is human freedom rather than human slavery. When God works within a community, or an individual, the result is that they ‘will and work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2.13). The pastoral theology which comes from reflecting on the work of the spirit is the glorious paradox that the more the spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through to take free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-woon habits of life and to put to death the sinful, and often apparently not freely chosen, habits of death. Sin is what bubbles up unbidden from the depths of the human heart, so that all one has to do is go with the flow. That has the appearance of freedom, but is in fact slavery, as Jesus himself declared. True freedom is the gift of the spirit, the result of grace; but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from [this emphasis, BTW, has always been a central emphasis in Ratzinger], it isn’t simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against our wills and without our co-operation (what damage to a genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, ‘working together with God’), but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I too am doing. If we don’t believe that, we don’t believe in the spirit, and we don’t believe Paul’s teaching. Virtue is what happens – I know many in the Reformation tradition shudder at the thought of the very word ‘virtue’, but there is no help for it if we are to be true to scripture and to Trinitarian theology – when the spirit enables the Christian freely to choose, freely to develop, freely to be shaped by, freely to become that which is pleasing to God.

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9 Responses to N.T. Wright on Freedom in the Spirit

  1. I don’t find anything revelatory here, David, just good, basic teaching that actually sounds like Luther in parts (‘perfectly free servant of all’). So I do wonder who the “many” Wright refers to in the Reformation tradition as possibly having a problem with virtue ethics are? It could really only apply to theologians of a generation or two ago who were influenced by existentialism. If he thinks Luther was opposed to the notion of virtue he is mistaken and must be reading him out of historical context – if he’s reading him at all (Wright’s occasional remarks on Luther give me the impression he is relying a lot on secondary literature.)

    If one actually reads Luther, especially his sermons and not just his polemical works, one finds that he (and traditional Lutheran theology following him) had no difficulty with the idea of cultivating the social virtues, as long as they are not regarded as meritorious coram Deo, and he happily worked with the traditional theological virtues as well. Why, Luther even cited Biblical figures as exemplars of virtue in his sermons, including the Virgin Mary.

    A Scandinavian theologian who’s name I forget published an enlightening essay a few years ago in a German journal comparing MacIntyre and Luther, showing where the former misconstrued Luther and why Luther’s grounding of ethics in the revelation of God provides a stronger basis than MacIntyre’s traditionalism.

    Has Wright read that? Evidently not, or he wouldn’t make the silly remark he did in a recent interview that Luther regarded virtue as hypocrisy. Yes, Luther may have said that in a polemical context, but to doscover what Luther really thought one needs to balance such a statement against his many other comments on virtue to get a true picture. It’s akin to saying Luther regarded reason as a whore – yes, but he also said it was man’s greatest gift, divine even. It’s a matter of reading him in context and understanding the distinctions he makes.

    I can’t help but think that Wright perpetuates this caricature of Luther because it serves as a good foil for his own ideas. Whatever the case may be, I don’t rate Wright highly as a theologian.

    Fwiw, one day I’ll post something on why I think he’s misconstrued Paul!

    • Schütz says:

      Good Lord, Pastor Mark, you must have a particular sore spot this morning – I wasn’t having a go at Luther here, and I rather doubt that Wright was either (although I have not heard the interview to which you are referring).

      I find several things significant about the passage, and they are signficant for Catholics and Protestants alike:

      1) the idea of “faith in the Holy Spirit” is something that we do not hear very often. “Believe in God, believe also in me”, Jesus said. He could have added “And believe in my Spirit”. We say in the Creeds “I believe in the Holy Spirit” – is this fides quae or fides qua? If the latter, what part does “trust in the Spirit” play in the matter of justification? In classical medieval and Reformation discussions of justification, the role of the Spirit barely gets a look in (sure, he gets a mention when it comes to the fruits of justification, but where is the Spirit in the discussion of justification itself?).

      2) Whatever may be said of Luther and the virtues, it must be said that the ecclesiastical milieau in which I was brought up did not endow me with a “virtue ethic”. I think too that if you were honest, you would yourself recognise that an emphasis on the classical virtues is absent from modern Lutheranism, generally speaking. There are, of course, Lutheran preachers and teachers who are marked exceptions to this. It’s not that Lutheranism cannot be fertile soil for virtue ethics, it is simply that I have rarely found it growing there.

      3) Then there is affirmation of the freedom of the Christian which the Spirit brings. This is a little different from the “freedom of the Christian” which Luther spoke about. He was speaking about freedom in terms of “perfectly free lord of all/perfectly dutiful servant of all” – in other words, “freedom from” all external laws, a bondage only to the internal law of love. But Wright is speaking of a “freedom of the will” which is brought about the grace of God through the power of the Spirit, ie. the freedom to choose to do what is virtuous rather than what is sinful. In a later passage in the same book he writes: “Humans become genuinely human, genuinely free, when the spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act, and choose to become people who more and more naturally act (that is the point of ‘virtue’, as long as we realise it is now ‘second nature’, not primary), in ways which reflect God’s image, which give him pleasure, which bring glory to his name, which do what the law had in mind all along. That is the life that leads to the final verdict, ‘Well don, good and faithful servant!'” That sort of thing is so close to the sort of thing that I read in Ratzinger, that I find it startling. I cannot, on the other hand, think of anywhere where I ever read this in Luther. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t sound like Lutheran theology to me. Not that a Lutheran theology along these lines could NOT be developed; I just haven’t come across it as yet.

      4) And finally, you cannot deny that the general aversion to “virtue ethics” in the Lutheran tradition has been due to a fear of “synergistic” doctrine. As you yourself say “as long as they are not regarded as meritorious coram Deo”. Well, Wright’s idea of “pleasing” to God rather than “earning merit” with God is interesting. Actually it isn’t his idea, it’s St Paul’s (as he demonstrates conclusively). When we freely, by the grace and the power of the Spirit, choose good and refuse evil, God is pleased. He’s happy! He smiles! He gets all warm inside! Again, I don’t know if I ever heard this sort of thing from a Lutheran pulpit.

      In all this I am not saying that such ideas were alien to Luther himself (in fact, in his Large Catechism he spoke of the simple obedience of little children being “pleasing” to God), nor am I saying that such teaching is even against current Lutheran doctrine. It’s just not an emphasis that I have found there.

    • Kyle says:

      I think you are being harsh here. Wright did not explicitly mention Luther and it is quite a hubris to equate Luther with the whole of reformation theology. Secondly, he did not say that reformers shuddered at virtue ethics; he said simply that they shuddered at the word ‘virtue’. It is one thing to reject virtue ethics; it is another simply to be cautious about virtue and certain interpretations which overemphasize habit-formation and lead into a kind of soft-Pelagianism. I think Wright is just saying that we need not be cautious at all if it is granted that the Spirit accomplishes it.

  2. Matthias says:

    Reminds me,Pastor Mark that i must go out and purchase Luther’s TABLE TALK . I wonder if the “many “Wright refers to might be the AnaBaptists/Mennonites/Brethren.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I don’t think he was having a particular go at Lutherans. He may not even have a Catholic/Protestant divide in mind. It could also be that Wright has in mind the perennial division between evangelical and charismatic protestants. Charismatics are generally much more comfortable with a theology of “trusting in the Holy Spirit” than are evangelicals, and have a higher view of the possibility of the regenerated soul being able to live a sanctified life pleasing to God. And I also found myself thinking that this characterises a different between Eastern and Western spirituality too: again the Orthodox have a much more “pneumatic” spirituality (if it isn’t tautologous to say so) than the “Christocentric” spirituality of the West. There might be something in this there too.

  3. Christine says:

    Well, Wright’s idea of “pleasing” to God rather than “earning merit” with God is interesting. Actually it isn’t his idea, it’s St Paul’s (as he demonstrates conclusively). When we freely, by the grace and the power of the Spirit, choose good and refuse evil, God is pleased. He’s happy! He smiles! He gets all warm inside! Again, I don’t know if I ever heard this sort of thing from a Lutheran pulpit.

    Well stated, David. It’s not something one generally hears from a Lutheran pulpit. I never did.


  4. Um…hello people, Wright often ‘has a go’ at Luther and the Lutheran tradition in his writings and public comments, and there is quite a bit going in the other direction as well, and also from Reformed people within and outside of Anglicanism – this is one of the most vital and interesting discussion happening in theology at present – my comment came out of that context and the fact that I had recently read the transcript of the interview in question.

    Oh, and if you ever sat under my pulpit you would hear that the good works of believers are pleasing to God and even merit temporal and eternal rewards, just as the Lutheran confessions declare. Goodness, I’m amazed that these old canards about Lutherans get repeated so often by Catholics.

  5. Christine says:

    Oh, and if you ever sat under my pulpit you would hear that the good works of believers are pleasing to God and even merit temporal and eternal rewards, just as the Lutheran confessions declare.

    I’m very glad to hear that, Pastor. May your tribe increase. Unfortunately that was not the case at the LCMS congregation I attended. One of the pastor’s favorite mantras was that we should never think any of our good works are pleasing to God.

    Along with regular admonitions that if one doubted that dinosaurs were on the Ark with Noah one could be in danger of doubting the entirety of Scripture.

    It’s difficult to find many authentically confessional Lutheran churches these days.


    • Dear Christine,

      Your pastor was confusing works done by unbelievers with those done by believers in faith and the power of the Spirit. Sigh!

      Anyway, Exhibit A on how Wright misreads Luther (and by extension Paul) is up at my blog, ‘Glosses From An Old Manse’. Do drop by, comments are welcome.

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