Why all this fuss among evangelicals about N. T. Wright?
He is a great communicator, which makes him fun to listen to and fun to read. And he helps people think in fresh ways about Jesus and Paul—ways that often seem like the key that fits the lock of both the Old Testament and the Second Temple Jewish background of the New Testament. The Bible is a big book, and Wright is good at describing the big story and helping people understand where we fit in the true story the Bible tells.
That sounds great! Tell me more.
He has plausibly debunked all the Jesus Seminar nonsense. With logic and wit he cuts the legs from under their program.
We have a lot to learn from Wright, particularly from the way he thinks through the Bible’s historical context, the way he fairly represents and dissects the thinking of those with whom he disagrees, and the way he applies the faith to contemporary life.
I like that. So why do some people seem to think he’s so dangerous?
He says provocative things. For instance, he thinks that when Jesus said that people would see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven, no first century Jew would actually expect to see a human figure descending on the clouds. He says that this is just apocalyptic language being used to communicate the theological import of what is happening. Thus, he refers to “the so called ‘second-coming.’” He says that the statements in Acts 1:9–11 about Jesus coming just as they saw him go look like a “post-Easter innovation.” He seems to think the return of Jesus took place in A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed.
In some ways that sounds like typical preterism. But does this comment about Acts 1:9–11 mean he doesn’t believe everything the Bible says?
I’m not sure. When he says that Acts 1:11 looks like a post-Easter innovation he is arguing that it wasn’t part of Jesus’s teaching that he would return in glory. This seems to divide what Jesus taught before the resurrection from what Luke wrote after it.
As for Wright’s approach to the Bible, he wrote a book on the topic in which he doesn’t use the language of inerrancy. He doesn’t say he’s for or against it, but when someone isn’t willing to sign onto it, you wonder where they are. Nevertheless, he does say that the Bible’s words are God’s words and that it speaks with his authority.
Okay, but there are other evangelicals, particularly British evangelicals, who don’t like the word inerrancy. Surely that isn’t the reason for the controversy.
True. The big controversy swirls around Wright’s views on justification.
What’s the problem with his understanding of justification?
In part it has to do with his basic agreement with E. P. Sanders on the point that Paul wasn’t confronting legalistic, works based righteousness.
Is this the “New Perspective on Paul”?
Right. E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright are key figures in the New Perspective, which isn’t a formal movement. And, the three of them disagree on many things, but they agree on the basic point that Paul wasn’t opposing Jewish legalism.
When I read Paul’s letters, it sure sounds like he’s dealing with legalism.
Correct. Wright likes to set statements that Paul makes in the wider context of the whole story of the Bible. This wider story often controls Wright’s interpretation of Paul’s words—to the exclusion of the words themselves.
Okay, so if Paul isn’t confronting works based righteousness, what is he confronting?
In Wright’s system, justification isn’t about “getting in” or “becoming a Christian.” Instead, justification is about being identified with the community God is going to vindicate when the final verdict is handed down. So the important point is not an individual conversion experience but participation in the community God is going to justify. So in Wright’s view, the “works” that Paul is opposing are not things people do to earn God’s favor, they are things people do to be part of the community. For Wright, circumcision in Galatians is a badge of membership in the community. In this scheme, faith, rather than “works of law,” is the badge one wears to signify one’s membership in the community.
Is this really what Paul means?
Well, if you read Galatians from Wright’s paradigm, you might be able to make the words Paul uses mean what Wright says they mean. The question is whether Paul means for the words to be understood this way, and to determine that we have to compare what Paul says in Galatians with what he says elsewhere. The question is whether Paul says things in other places that cannot fit Wright’s scheme. If so, the concepts in Galatians probably don’t mean what Wright says they do.
Well, does what Paul says elsewhere fit Wright’s scheme?
That’s something that we all have to engage in Pauline theology to determine. Read Romans 9:30–32 for yourself:
ESV Romans 9:30 “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.”
This language about having a “righteousness that is by faith” as opposed to pursuing a righteousness “based on works” sure makes it look like we get declared righteous, justified, by God when we believe. How does Wright understand this?
The traditional protestant understanding has been that Jesus took our sin and we get his righteousness. In other words, our trespasses are imputed to him, and he suffers for them in our place. Likewise, his righteousness is imputed to us, and we stand before God clothed in his righteousness. Several texts in the New Testament, taken together, lead to this position (Rom 4:1–8; 5:12–21; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9; Rom 9:30–10:4, see Brian Vickers’ book, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness).
Wright’s system only works if Paul is not talking about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Without imputation, Wright’s view that justification means being identified with the community that will be vindicated makes sense. Wright doesn’t believe that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers.
Ouch. That’s some cause for concern, but lots of scholars push the envelope. Why are people so exercised about Wright?
He’s not only a capable scholar at the highest technical levels, he’s taking his message to the people. Here’s a guy who is writing a 6 volume Theology of the New Testament (Christian Origins and the Question of God) that will make him the most influential NT scholar since Bultmann, and he’s also putting his views in dozens of little popular books for mass consumption. On top of that, he’s a charming speaker with a British accent, and this accent, of course, makes everything he says sound right.
But that’s not all. Evangelicals love him not only for the way he dressed down the Jesus Seminar but for his masterful defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Further, his first book was actually a defense of the Doctrines of Grace published by Banner of Truth. So he seems to come from the evangelical fold, and this can make his ideas even more attractive.
So he comes from conservative ranks, but am I right in thinking that he’s not exactly conservative anymore?
That seems to be the case. He says he wouldn’t write that Banner of Truth book if he had it to do over again. And he’s often dismissive of Luther and Calvin. He regularly charges Luther with reading the abuses of Medieval Roman Catholicism into the New Testament. Of course, the real issue is the Bible, not Luther, but if you think that Luther got more right than wrong, Wright may strike you as being a little hard on brother Martin.
He has also departed from the Bible’s teaching and the historic faith on the issue of women, whom he thinks can and should serve as pastors/elders (or as “priests” in his Anglican church).
Earlier you mentioned Wright applying the faith to contemporary life. Is this safe?
Some of it’s brilliant. Other parts are questionable. Lately Wright has been emphasizing what he calls the “fresh perspective” on Paul. This draws attention to the fact that Paul’s proclamation of Christianity would have been a direct challenge to the Roman Imperial Cult. This is all very interesting, and it is a healthy reminder that our citizenship is in heaven.
What becomes troublesome is the way that Wright seems to use this as a club with which to beat up on American foreign policy. This politicization of his message identifies him with the shrill voices of the liberal fringe.
How should we respond to Wright?
We can learn much from reading him, but we must obey Paul by testing everything and holding onto the good (1 Thess 5:21). As long as people continue to read their Bibles and compare what Wright is saying to the Bible, he can’t do too much damage. If we read him instead of the Bible, or if we allow his interpretations to dictate our reading of the Bible, we’ll get into trouble. But Wright himself doesn’t want us to read him that way.
We should also pray for N. T. Wright. He holds a high post in the very troubled Anglican Church, and insofar as he wants to uphold the authority of the Scriptures, the bodily resurrection, the reality of the coming judgment, and the need for people to come under the lordship of Jesus, we can heartily support him. Holding to these aspects of historic Christianity in the Anglican Church makes him one of their radical conservatives. May God bless every good thing he does for Jesus.