N.T. Wright on Romans 13: Civil Government

If you’ve been reading “The Reformed Reader” for quite a while, you know that I’m at major odds with N.T. Wright when it comes to justification, imputation, and faith alone. That is still the case; yet to be honest, I think that other things N.T. Wright has written are helpful and worth while. His brief comments on Romans 13.1-7 are one of those helpful things.

“…Christians, who were regarded as the scum of the earth in Rome at the time, must not get an additional reputation as trouble makers. No good will come to the cause of the gospel by followers of Jesus being regarded as crazy dissidents who won’t co-operate with the most basic social mechanisms. Paul is anxious, precisely because he believes that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, that his followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords. They are indeed a revolutionary community, but if they go for the normal type of violent revolution they will just be playing the empire back at its own game. They will almost certainly lose, and, much worse, the gospel itself will lose with them.”

“The Old Testament had denounced pagan nations and their rulers – but some of the very prophets whose denunciations were the fiercest also told Israel that God was working through the pagan nations and their rulers for Israel’s long-term good (Assyria, in Isaiah 10; Cyrus, in Isaiah 45; Babylon itself, in Jeremiah 29).” Wright notes that there was much tension in the OT between Israel and the pagan nations – and this tension “came to its head when, in John’s story, Jesus stood before the Roman governor and declared that, even though he was about to execute him, the power by which he did it had come from God in the first place (John 19.11).”

See Wright’s Paul For Everyone, Romans: Part Two (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 85-87.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

11 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Romans 13: Civil Government”

  1. “other things N.T. Wright has written are helpful and worth while.”

    That’s exactly what makes him so dangerous.



  2. Yes, that is exactly what makes him so “dangerous.” But I’m using “dangerous” here in a different sense than is Mike G. Some time ago, I had posted something on this tendency of Wright’s detractors, this odd unanimity of voices saying “I disagree with Wright on this or that doctrinal analysis, but I think he’s amazing when it comes to everything else.” And I hear the same “tone” in your post, Shane. I guess what I’m saying is maybe, just maybe, this guy is onto something. Maybe our traditions have told us that Scripture says A, B & C, when it is longing to tell us A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I & J.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World


  3. I must agree with Raffi. If we cannot trust NT Wright then we need to ask ourselves if we are living in a house of mirrors, an echo chamber, or a theological police state like Luther had to contend with. Wright asks that we be readers of scripture and to let the scriptures critique our confessions where necessary. I think this is what God would want from us.


  4. Sola Scriptura must be the rule we apply to all theologians. We’ve been blessed with dozens of consistently orthodox theologians to draw from, yet we’ve also been given the likes of Barth and Aquinas whose fruit must be harvested from the midst of thickets. Even Augustine, who helped lay much of the doctrinal foundation we stand on, makes us squirm when we read his ecclesiology.

    Azk is (w)right on; we shouldn’t give a critical pass to anyone; if someone as wrong as Wright can contain elements of truth, then the converse must be true as well- that someone as right as Calvin, Turretin or Bavinck can contain elements of error.

    Thank God for the gift of the ultimate standard of truth.


  5. Hmmmm. #’s 2, 3, and 4, are you saying that unless you agree with everything a writer says, than you should agree with nothing that they say? If not, I’m not sure why you find it strange that someone can accidentally stumble on correct answers . . . I do that all the time! If someone were to assume that everything I say is bunk just because they disagree with me on points A, B, and C, that would seem to be some sort of variation on the genetic fallacy.


  6. Actually, Andrew, I think we’re making the same point. Just because Wright, or anyone else for that matter, is wrong on points A,B,C,D, and E does not necessarily mean that he’ll be wrong on F, it just means it’s likely he’ll be wrong on F. I think what we’re saying in #3 & 4 is that all theological claims need to be judged independently against scripture.


  7. I am of the opinion that Christianity is a system of doctrine. While I don’t agree with any notion of a central dogma, I do believe that Christianity is a full orbed system, comprehensive in scope. It’s one big package, and it all hangs together.

    If Wright is completely wrong about justification, then yes, he can stumble onto some truths in Scripture, but he’s not interpreting Scripture from within the Christian system of doctrine, but from without.

    This is not “thought police”. Can people disagree on matters of doctrine? Sure. But some doctrines are more important than others. If justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, then Wright is not our friend, but one who is undermining the church. If we seek to preach the gospel, if we seek to further it, then we seek to further the understanding of the doctrine of justification. If Wright has a different doctrine of justification, he preaches a different gospel, furthering a gospel other than the gospel of Scripture.

    Being wrong on justification is far different from being wrong on whether or not we should have a worship team in church or whether or not ministers should be members of the local church or the regional church. A different view of justification is not some subtle nuance of opinion.

    A different justification is a different gospel. Paul makes it very clear that anyone who brings a different gospel is condemned. This is not thought police, this is taking a stand on justification. This is drawing a line and saying, on the other side of this line, you have departed from Christianity altogether.

    Still, a non-Christian might have some knowledge of Scripture, and might have something interesting to say when he interprets it.

    What makes Wright so dangerous is that he is not espousing Christianity, but he says he is. He is espousing a different gospel, a different doctrine of justification. And yet, few are willing to admit as much.

    But as for me, he is “not my people”. I would not make such a claim about someone who thinks that, for example, only adults with a valid profession of faith ought to be baptized. I would not make such a claim about lots and lots of various errors. I recognize that the church must be patient with its members, who are all at different levels of maturity.

    But we all must draw a line somewhere. Here’s where I draw the line: justification. I think it’s very clear that that’s also where Paul drew the line in Galatians. It’s either by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, or you’ve departed from Christianity. Those are the only two options. I grant that some who are immature might not fully understand this.

    But those who profess to be officers in the church, who take it upon themselves to write books and publish them, and so deceive many about the doctrine of justification – this is a wolf who preys upon the flock.

    And his correct interpretation of some texts, helpful though they may be, are just places where his disguise looks very convincing. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Where he is helpful, there we do not see the claws and blood soaked teeth of the wolf, but the gentle wool of a sheep. But there is nothing but a vicious monster underneath.

    This is why I say he is dangerous: because his disguise is very good. Nonetheless, he is still a wolf, feeding on the fat and clothing himself in the wool of the sheep.



  8. Mike:

    Thanks for taking the time and the energy to sketch out where you’re coming from, which is a different place then where I’m coming from, but the Body needs eyes, ears, arms, legs and noses, right?

    I hear what you’re saying in general, but I wanted to press you on the specific issue of Wright and the specific issue of justification. It sounds like you’re implying that Wright denies that justification “is by grace alone thorugh faith alone in Christ alone.” If he were, I’d be with you. But I’ve read a lot of Wright, a whole lot, and I don’t recall any single implication as such.

    Wright doesn’t deny that justification is by grace through faith, he seeks to understand and explain what Paul meant by the concept of justification. Here’s a section from “Paul: In Fresh Perspective:”

    “The point is that the word ‘justification’ does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul, clearly and unambiguously, uses a different word for that, the word ‘call.’ The word ‘justification,’ despite centuries of Christian misuse, is used by Paul to denote that which happens immediately after the ‘call:’ ‘those God called, he also justified.’ In other words, those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people, his elect, ‘the circumcision,’ ‘the Jews,’ ‘the Israel of God.’ They are given the status dikaios, ‘righteous,’ ‘within the covenant.’

    If we’re gonna ban someone from “our people,” let’s at least make some effort to specify the basis of their excommunication.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World


  9. How can you guys keeping trotting out this unScriptural, late medieval doctrine of Sola Scriptura? It’s certainly not what Paul taught. Paul told us that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). It was Paul who asked the Church to abide not only by what was taught in his letters, but also by what was taught by word of mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:15). For Paul, and for Scripture, there was another source of the one truth — the believing community.
    In fact, if truth comes from Scripture alone, why should I listen to YOU?


  10. Come on, Glen. If Sola Scriptura is un-scriptural, then your poor exegesis of I Tim and 2 Thess are irrelevant anyways, as scripture alone would not be a sufficient basis for truth. Even proof texts which are properly understood would not have much use, as any one of them could be usurped by ‘church’ teaching.

    If Sola Scriptura is obsolete due to its late medieval originations, then the Canon Law you seem to be espousing is even more obsolete, as Sola Scriptura was formulated in direct response to ‘truths’ the Roman Church promoted such as indulgences, simony and icon worship.

    This is the whole point of this thread; without the absolute standard of truth provided by scripture, all we have left are the teaching of well meaning, well educated, yet ultimately FALLIBLE theologians. In fact, your the last line of your entry drives home the point: if my comments, or NT Wright’s comments, or anyone’s comments deviate from the truth as expressed in the Word of God, do not listen!

    Once we abandon the fact that scripture is the only infallible, sufficient and complete word of God, we’ll begin our slide down a slippery slope that will take us past the Roman church with it’s contrived Canon Law, past liberal protestants with their idolatrous focus on the self instead of the divine, and even past the Mormons in Texas and their 12 year old brides. (I know… reductio ad absurdum, but the point is that even the activities of the Texas Mormons are righteous according to their belief in scripture AND their version of ‘canon law’. At least they’re honest about the Mormon faith.)

    CW locuta est, causa finita est. If that maxim works for Rome, why can’t it work for me?

    Semper Reformanda, Glen.


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