A Life Lived for Us: The Righteousness of God and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ in Wright, Torrance and the Reformation

Deep within his Big Paul Book, N.T. Wright (foot)notes his disagreement with the classic Reformed doctrine of the active and passive obedience of Christ. More precisely: it’s not so much that he disagrees with the fact that Christ was both actively and passively obedient – this is to my mind beyond dispute – but rather that he disagrees with Christ’s active obedience as something which merits righteousness which is then reckoned, credited or imputed to believers. Actually, even more precision is called for here, because Wright doesn’t especially really disagree with the idea that believers are reckoned to be righteous (this is, again, not really disputable). What he disagrees with is how that conclusion is reached, which, for the classic Reformed, is the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

Thus Wright:

Yes: the faithful are accounted righteous ‘in the Messiah’; but this is not because the Messiah possesses something called ‘righteousness’, earned by his own covenantal lawkeeping, which he can share or ‘impute’ to his people, but because the Messiah is the covenant-people-in person, demonstrated as such by his being raised from the dead. (p.950)

One might be forgiven for treating this characterization of Reformed theology with some skepticism, since Wright has hitherto done everything in his power to avoid accurately portraying Reformed theology with anything even approximating accuracy or charity. However, rhetoric aside, this is indeed how many of the Reformers and post-Reformers articulated things. Calvin, Chemnitz, Wollebius, Turretin and Owen (among many others) all argue along similar (similar in a family-resemblance sort of way) lines that through his active obedience, where he actively fulfills the law’s demands, and his passive obedience, where he submits to death and the curse, he merits righteousness, which is reckoned or credited to the believer (for space’s sake, let’s call this the Classic Reformed View – CRV). Allowing for differences in language and tone, I think Wright gets the basic gist of this aspect of the CRV correct.

HOWEVER. There is more to CRV than the basic gist, and it’s just this ‘more’ that Wright gets painstakingly wrong. Actually, he doesn’t even really get it wrong, since, so far as I know, he never references the two aspects that keep the CRV from being a mere legal fiction: union with Christ and what could be called the ‘unity of the obediences’. The former, generally tied to Calvin but receiving perhaps its most sophisticated formulation in John Owen, says that imputation is linked inextricably to the believer being joined to Christ:

…we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are seperated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1)

This, in brief, prevents imputation from being a legal-fiction, since it’s not arbitrary but based on the joining of the believer with Christ. Wright is not that far from this idea when he expounds his ‘in the Messiah’ talk. The latter, the unity of the obediences, says (or perhaps means to say) that it is only on the basis of the whole life of Christ as a lived unity that we can say that Christ fulfilled the demands of the law and so procured righteousness. As Calvin notes, as soon as Christ took the form of a servant he began to atone for our sins. Again, Wright is not too far from this when he talks about the Messiah embodying the covenant people, doing what they could not do:

The Messiah has done that for which Israel was chosen in the first place. His death…has made the atonement through which all nations are redeemed. God’s faithfulness is therefore fully and finally unveiled in the cross. The Messiah has done for the world what Israel was called to do. He has done in Israel’s place what Israel was called to do but could not, namely to act on behalf of the whole world. God has set him forth as a hilastherion. (Paul, in Fresh Perspective p.120)

So there is in both the CRV and Wright an emphasis on Christ’s life being something lived for us. For the CRV, Christ’s whole life of obedience is something we could not do, and for Wright, the life of the Messiah was something that his people were called to do but could not do. Where is the difference between them? It lies in the CRV’s presupposition that God demanded a life of perfect obedience from man, which man could not live, which Ursinus lays out starkly:

This is the argument we employ; It is necessary that righteousness which will stand in the judgement of God must be absolutely perfect, and conformable to the law in every respect. But our best works in this life are imperfect, and defiled with sin. Therefore our best works cannot be the whole, or even a part of our righteousness before God. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism)

Chemnitz mirrors Ursinus while drawing out the idea of Christ’s vicarious life:

…in keeping with His revealed will, God does not will to justify a person without righteousness, that is, not unless satisfaction has been made for sin in keeping with the Law and unless the Law has been fulfilled by perfect obedience…but God has set forth His Son as our mediator, made under the Law, for which He has made satisfaction both by bearing our sins and His perfect obedience. (Justification, pp. 232-234)

Examples could be multipled (the Westminster Confession and Irish Articles both formalize this line of thinking), but these two quotations serve to show that on the CRV, perfect obedience was demanded, and in virtue of Christ’s unified life, perfect obedience was rendered. Thus, Christ’s life was a life lived for us –  a vicarious life. And, as we saw above, for Wright, Christ’s life is also a life lived for us. The difference is that while the CRV sees Christ as having offered perfect obedience, and so meriting something (righteousness) that could be imputed, Wright sees Christ as having done what Israel could not do, vindicated by the resurrection, with the result being that those ‘in the messiah’ (in Christ/union with Christ) don’t have something imputed to them but rather share in the status of the Messiah: ‘…the present declaration ‘in the right’, rooted in the Messiah’s death, is pronounced over all who are in the ‘Messiah”, (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 951). In essence, Wright argues for a representative substitution, drawing on Galatians 2: ‘The Messiah represents his people, so that what is true of him is true of them’, (Paul, in Fresh Perspective p. 113). The conflict, then, turns on whether or not Christ is obedient in order to accrue righteousness. A serious difficulty here for the CRV is, that as Wright points out:

Paul never speaks of the Messiah having ‘righteousness’. In the one place (1 Corinthians 1.30) where he comes closest, he also speaks of him having ‘become for us God’s wisdom – and righteousness, sanctification and redemption as well’. So if we were to speak of an ‘imputed righteousness’  we should add those others in as well, which would create a whole new set of doctrinal puzzles…the second half of the apparent ‘exchange’ of 2 Corinthians 5.21 is not about ‘the Messiah’s righteousness’, but about ‘God’s righteousness’; and it is not about ‘imputation’ but about Paul and those who share his apostolic ministry ‘becoming’, that is, ‘coming to embody’, that divine ‘righteousness as ministers of the new covenant…when Paul does speak of things that are true of the Messiah being ‘reckoned’ to those who are ‘in him’, the focus is not on ‘righteousness’ but on death and resurrection (Romans 6.11). (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 951)

Other difficulties might also be brought forward: is the demand for perfect obedience the best way to interpret the passages that were thought by Reformers to make explicit that demand (Melanchthon, for example, interpreted Romans 7-8 in just this way)? The exegetical evidence appears shaky, especially given the force with which the Reformers articulated their conviction that perfect obedience was demanded but impossible to render. And surely they were correct in their conviction that redemption is by Christ alone on the basis of his whole life and work, a conviction that Wright shares but one to which he arrives by a very different route. And yet, for all of Wright’s strength here his own viewpoint he has a tendency to overplay his hand when it comes to the identification of Jesus with Israel, the covenant people who failed in their vocation. So while the emphasis on the life of Christ is a conviction that needs to be upheld, there are problematic aspects with both Wright and the CRV. A way through, I submit, might be found by bringing T.F. Torrance into this conversation. Torrance emphasized as much as the Reformers did the importance of the whole life of Christ for our redemption, while shying away from the perfect-obedience-demand language that characterized their thought. Torrance glosses the active/passive obedience thus:

By active obedience is meant the positive fulfillment of God’s saving will in the whole life of Jesus in his sonship. From the very beginning to the very end, he maintained a perfect filial relation to the Father in which he yielded to him a life of utter love and faithfulness, and in which and received and laid hold of the love of the Father. This active obedience was therefore his own loving self-offering to the Father in our name and on our behalf, and also his own loving appropriation of the Father’s word and will in our name and on our behalf.

By passive obedience is meant the submission of Jesus Christ to the judgement of the Father upon the sin which he assumed in our humanity in order to bear it in our name and on our behalf. This is the passion he endured in the expiation of our sins, but it is also his willing acceptance of the divine verdict upon our humanity. (Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ pp. 80-81)

Here we can see that without even taking note of perfect-obedience-language Torrance has retained and perhaps even focused the force of the active and passive obedience of Christ – or, put another way, Torrance has interpreted a purely legal scheme in more dynamic and ontological terms. The ontological aspect here refers the fact that it is within the context of the hypostatic union, within which the divine and human nature are united, that the active and passive obedience has to be explicated, because our human nature, our very being that is healed from original sin. For Torrance the hypostatic union is of supreme importance: his brief note above on the assumption of our humanity testifies to this and is later fleshed out:

If we neglect this essential element [the union of human and divine nature in which Christ gives us ‘a share of…his obedient and loving life lived in perfect filial relation on earth to the father’] in the vicarious humanity and obedience of the Son, then not only do the active and passive obedience of Christ fall apart but we are unable to understand justification in Christ as anything more than a merely external forensic non-imputation of sin [Torrance retains imputation-language here]. (p.82)

Torrance thus focuses the power of the active/passive obedience by drawing out the importance of the hypostatic union. He is then able to give a much more ontological interpretation of the active and passive obedience than the CRV, as well as avoid over-reliance on the identification of Jesus and Israel as Wright does. Wright also doesn’t have the ontological force that Torrance has, perhaps because Wright is generally anxious to avoid things like the hypostatic union (a modified Hellenization thesis lurks here). While Wright argues that the declaration of being ‘in the right’ really does make someone ‘in the right’ he is unable to easily account for any aspect of transformation that Torrance can easily encompass.

Thus, in conclusion: in Wright, the Reformers and T.F. Torrance, there is a clear conviction that Christ’s life must be lived for us. The Reformers insisted on it, even though their reasons should perhaps be scrutinized. Wright avoids the perfect-obedience-demand and retains the vicarious humanity that the Reformers argued for, but at the expense of relying on a shaky thesis of identification between Jesus and Israel. By bringing Torrance into conversation with the CRV and Wright, the conviction of the vicarious humanity is preserved while the ontological force is focused in virtue of Torrance’s insistence on the importance of the hypostatic union. In all three, we see the importance of Christ’s active and passive obedience: a life truly lived for us.


2 thoughts on “A Life Lived for Us: The Righteousness of God and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ in Wright, Torrance and the Reformation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s