Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Are We To Do With N.T. Wright?

The work of N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, is the object of heated controversy among Reformed and evangelical theologians. This controversy might not have aroused the interest of most lay people, since much of it revolves around theological issues that would normally draw the attention mainly or exclusively of specialists. But as it happens, Wright is also the widely-read author of more popular religious works. These books, ranging from pastoral writings to apologetics and from ethics to doctrines of justification and salvation, have made him a leading defender of the faith for many non-theologians, including a good number of Reformed ones. His popular writings have, in fact, given him a status approaching that of another leading Anglican author and apologist, namely C.S. Lewis.

I too have found Wright’s books enlightening and have written positive reviews of a number of them (most recently of his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters). In view of the reservations about his theology, however, I think the time has come to address the question whether or not he is indeed a trustworthy guide. Some among us do not think so – every so often we read or hear of pastoral warnings that Reformed folk would do better to ignore Wright and go to Reformed guides for answers to their questions. Are these warnings justified? Or, assuming that there are indeed problems with parts of Wright’s theology, are there also aspects that deserve our positive attention? This, I may as well admit at the outset, is my conclusion, which I hope to substantiate in what follows.

For this essay I have relied on two recent publications on Wright’s views. One is a book-length critique of his work by well-known Reformed-Baptist author John Piper, a man who has long interacted with Wright’s ideas, is highly critical of several of them, but attempts to evaluate them fairly. The book in question is The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007) [freely available online]. The second is Wright’s answer to Piper and other critics, titled Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009). The two books of course contain far more information than I am able to do justice to in a brief survey. I will be able to mention only some of the points in the debate. Nevertheless, I hope that my remarks will help us at least to begin coping with the question I raised in the title of this article. Reactions are therefore invited – also from those who have studied Wright’s work in more detail and are able to add to my remarks and where necessary correct them.

The New Perspective

Wright is a scholar of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The New Perspective is not easy to define, both on account of its complexity and because there are important differences among NPP adherents. A common element, however, is that all find fault with Luther’s understanding of the nature of Paul’s controversy with the Jews. Luther’s main error, they argue, was that in attempting to explain Paul he ignored the historical context of Paul’s letters and believed that he could equate the issues at stake in the first century with those he himself had to deal with 1500 years later. Luther’s burning question, like that of many people in the late Middle Ages, was how to find a merciful God and so assure his personal salvation. Roman Catholicism at the time placed a heavy emphasis on the role of works (think of the scandal of the indulgences), rather than on the all-sufficiency of divine grace. Unable to find peace by doing the prescribed works, Luther at last found the answer to his question in the gospel of justification by faith (Romans 1:17). Lutheranism, as well as other branches of the Reformation, thereupon began to see Paul’s issue with the Judaists of his day, and also with Jewish Christian who insisted that pagan converts must become Jews (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians), as similar to the Reformers’ struggle against Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism. First-century Judaism, in short, became the mirror image of the late-medieval church and Paul was fighting the same battle in his days as the Reformers did in theirs.

It is this interpretation that Wright and other NPP scholars reject. They refer to newly discovered documents of the period and argue that first-century Judaism must be explained within its own context, which, the documents show, was very different from that of Reformation Europe. Their conclusion is that in the first-century context “works of the law” had little to do with Reformation ideas of works-righteousness. The Jews Paul was dealing with knew that membership in the covenant was not because of merit but because of God’s grace, and obedience to the laws of the covenant (Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, dietary laws, separation from Gentiles, and so on) was again not seen as meritorious, but as the prescribed means to maintain one’s status within the covenant. These “works of the law” functioned at the same time as the means that kept Jews and Gentiles separate. Paul, on the other hand, celebrates the coming together of Jews and Gentiles which, as he writes in Ephesians 3:1-7, is “the very heart of the mystery of the Messiah, the secret which had not been revealed before but now is on public display” (Wright, 173). (The most important text for the NPP, I should mention here, is Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too.”)

Wright’s covenant theology

According to this new perspective, then, the error of the first-century Jews with which Paul struggled was not their works-righteousness as the Reformers defined the term. It was Judaism’s ethnocentrism and exclusivism, its forgetting that God’s covenant with Abraham was altogether inclusive; that in Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Wright believes that Christians often have held a similar limited view; that like the Jews they have forgotten (or underemphasized) the cosmic and missional nature of the Abrahamic covenant.

All this brings him to a matter he has written about in greater detail in his work Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), which deals with the nature and scope of salvation. Many believers, he says, see salvation as “going to heaven when you die.” That answer, however, is individualistic and therefore inadequate. It suggests a spiritual geocentrism: the belief that the Sun revolves around us instead of the other way around. In the Bible salvation is not God’s rescue of individuals from the world but the rescue of the world itself, the cosmos in its entirety. Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins, but also for bringing in the Gentiles (Wright, 171). Not only the individual, but “the whole creation is to be liberated from its slavery to decay (Romans 8:21)” (Wright, 10). The covenant, Wright says, is to be explained in these terms, and the doctrine of justification must be rooted in the single biblical narrative (101). One of Wright’s major themes is: “It is central to Paul, but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new, and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centred upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (Wright, 35; italics in the original).

The acknowledgement that the Messiah fulfilled Israel’s call as its representative plays a role in Wright’s explanation of Romans 9-11. It also gives further substance to his warning that we must not de-Judaize Paul and his message (Wright, 195). As Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Wright’s reminder that there is a history of salvation is reminiscent of what Reformed people have come to know as the redemptive-historical approach. Like his emphasis on the covenant, the reminder should therefore resonate with Reformed believers.

What about personal salvation?

Although Piper rejects much of Wright’s version of the NPP, he does have praise for some of Wright’s contributions and is especially grateful for “the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham” (Piper, 15f.). He recognizes that this insight “accounts for some of [Wright’s] reactions to the individualism and pietism that mark some preaching of the gospel,” and agrees that “there simply aren’t enough preachers who show the gospel to be what it is, the magnificent announcement of the Lordship of Jesus, not only over my personal problems, but over all of history and all the nations and all the environment.” The preaching of the gospel must indeed be rescued from “myopic, individualistic limitations” (Piper, 81). All this is close to Wright’s implicit questioning of “a non-historical soteriology the long and the short of which is ‘my relationship with God’ rather than ‘what God is going to do to sort out the world and his people’” (Wright, 61).

At the same time, however, Piper fears that Wright’s strong emphasis on the covenant’s and the gospel’s global reach threatens to place other biblical teachings in jeopardy. He is concerned, for example, about Wright’s view that the gospel, being the proclamation of Christ’s lordship, is not to be equated with the message about how we are to get saved (Piper, 18). But isn’t this what the gospel is about as well? The question “How am I to be saved” is a legitimate and indeed an urgent one which, Piper rightly argues, needs to be answered more clearly than Wright does. “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring will probably have global scope to it,” Piper comments, “but will not deal personally with the human heart of sin with clear declarations of how Christ dealt with sin and how the fearful heart can find rest in the gospel of grace….” (Piper, 101). Piper admits that Wright does not ignore the relevance of the gospel for the individual life of faith and piety and the individual’s search for salvation, but fears that all this does not get the attention in Wright’s system that it receives in traditional protestant theology and in the gospel itself. “What puzzles me,” he writes elsewhere, “is that Wright seems to be able to speak of the gospel without explicitly showing what makes it good news for me” (Piper, 45, note 17).


There are other instances where Piper criticizes what he sees as one-sidedness or even errors in Wright’s presentation. Among them are Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as God’s covenant faithfulness (Piper says it is that, but also much more), Wright’s statement that justification denotes a status, namely that of being acquitted and forgiven, rather than moral transformation, and Wright’s questioning of the doctrine regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. This doctrine, based on such Bible texts as 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”), is often referred to as the “marvelous exchange” (Luther’s term), whereby Christ took our sins upon himself so that we might receive his righteousness. The doctrine of imputation has an important place in traditional Reformed teachings on justification: we confess it explicitly in Art. 22 of the Belgic Confession and Answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Wright questions it on exegetical and other grounds and argues that we are justified not because of imputation but because, having died and been raised with him, we are “in Christ.” This means that we are “summed up in him,” so that what is true of him is true of us (Wright, 104 and passim). He concludes, “To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah” (Wright, 233). I think that he is right here, but isn’t there also biblical evidence for the doctrine of imputation? Why should we not continue to accept both?

Faith and works

More could be said on this matter, but I must turn to what Piper and other critics consider as perhaps Wright’s most striking aberration, namely his remarks about the role of works in judgment and salvation. Most of these occur in chapter 7 of his book, where he deals with the Letter to the Romans. Having come to Romans 2, he quotes the words, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life….” (vv. 6, 7). He concludes that according to Paul at the judgment to come “the criterion will be, in some sense, ‘works,’ ‘deeds’ or even ‘works of the law.’” He admits that such a conclusion “has naturally been anathema to those who have been taught that…since justification is by faith, there simply cannot be a ‘final judgment according to works’” (Wright, 184). The fact remains, however, that according to Romans 2 God will indeed repay according to works, and this same message occurs elsewhere. The Bible even says that the believer’s good deeds can please the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Wright, 185-7).

Does this mean that Paul teaches legalism, Pelagianism, or synergism (the doctrine that we cooperate with God, each doing his part)? Wright answers this question in the negative and points to the work of Christ’s Spirit in the believers’ lives; it is the Spirit alone who enables them to obey, by faith. Works-righteousness is out of the question. But the Spirit’s work is effective. Humans become “genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act…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…. The danger with a doctrine which says, ‘You can’t do anything and you mustn’t try’ is that it ends up with the servant who, knowing his master to be strict, hid his money in the ground” (Wright, 192f.).

Piper gives much attention to the issue. He agrees with Wright that the life we now live is not irrelevant at the final judgment. To teach otherwise is “unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself” (Piper, 116). But he objects to Wright’s occasional statement that we are justified “on the basis” of our works,” rather than “according to our works” (although he admits that Wright speaks also in more traditional terms of our works as being evidence of the authenticity of our faith) (Piper, 118f.). Nevertheless, Piper’s great concern is that Wright’s teachings may detract from the gospel’s message of justification apart from works. He points out that the rewards that are promised in the Bible do not contribute to a person’s final justification, but are for those who are justified (Piper, 167). In accordance with clear biblical teaching, the authentic Christian faith “looks away from all self-wrought or Spirit-wrought obedience in us to the blood and obedience of Jesus….” (Piper, 149, italics in the original).

Take and read

Wright remarks that in situations of controversy and turbulence people are likely to overstate the point they are trying to make. He refers especially to the protestant Reformation but, as at one point he admits, the same applies to NPP scholars and himself (Wright, pp. 46, 196). Piper has done us a service by pointing to a number of these over-statements and by attempting to correct what he sees as actual errors in Wright’s system. By doing so, and by inviting Wright’s response, he has allowed us to hear both sides of the controversy.

I have learned from Piper and recommend his book. He is right, for example, when he questions Wright’s too rosy picture of first-century Judaism, pointing out, among other things, that ethnocentrism implies reliance on oneself and is therefore indistinguishable from works-righteousness (Piper, 155-8). Also noteworthy are his pleas that the spiritual needs of the “ordinary folk,” the person in the pew, not be ignored, and his defence of the gospel of justification by faith, apart from works. We must remember, however, that Wright does not deny this gospel. Salvation according to him also is by faith alone. At the same time I am convinced that Wright is also right in drawing attention to the Bible’s strong emphasis on the importance of “works.” This truth must indeed not be ignored, and the question arises: Do we, together with Wright, have to consider the possibility that Reformation theology, rightly anxious to safeguard the gospel of justification by faith, has wrongly underemphasized this aspect? Wright reminds us of Jesus’ own words that not the smallest part of the law has been abrogated by his coming. In a time when the temptation of “cheap grace” is as strong as it has ever been, it is good to be reminded of this truth. As various Reformed scholars have argued (including Anthony Hoeksema and Richard Gaffin), mentioning of a final judgment according to works simply reinforces the notion found elsewhere in Scripture that faith must necessarily issue in works and that, though we are not saved by works, we are not saved without them either. And finally, there is of course Wright’s much-needed reminder of the historical and global sweep of the covenant and of its implications for mission. On all these points we can learn from him.

In conclusion: Yes, Wright must be read critically, and John Piper is doing us a favour not just in showing us this but also in guiding us in our reading. Of course, critical reading is required of us in any case, also in that of Piper himself. If that is kept in mind, I heartily recommend both Piper and the response of N.T. Wright (as well as Wright’s other popular books to which I referred). Whatever the shortcomings of his theology, Wright does open our eyes to aspects of the gospel and its riches that we may be in danger of forgetting. But in case there is still a suspicion that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I quote these words of commendation by John Piper himself: “I am thankful for [Wright’s] strong commitment to Scripture as his final authority, his defense and celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God, his vindication of the deity of Christ, his belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, his biblical disapproval of homosexual conduct, and the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham – and more” (Piper, pp. 15f.).