Wright, Reformation, and Gospel

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ I’ve found Cornelis Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ to be a great Reformed resource for interacting with recent revisions of justification as found in the New Perspectives on Paul.  Venema’s chapter describing N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul is especially helpful, clear, and fair.  As I read this chapter (5), I tried to capture the main points by writing marginal notes.  I’m going to put those marginal notes below along with a summary of Venema’s comments, which I hope is beneficial for our readers.  I strongly recommend getting this book and reading the chapter; these points obviously need to be explained more than I do here.

What are some of the main points of N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul?

1) First-century Judaism was not legalistic.  Wright’s perspective is that Paul was not concerned about Jewish legalism because Judaism in the first century wasn’t really legalistic.  Wright says it this way: “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”   One implication of this perspective of Wright is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are completely wrong in their interpretation of Paul, works, the law, faith, and justification.

2) Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism.  Paul’s problem with Judaism was not ‘works-righteousness’ or ‘legalism,’ but perverted and prideful nationalism.  For Paul, Wright says, the law doesn’t have to do with legalism, but national privilege of which the Jews became proud.  One implication here is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about legalism, antinomianism, justification, and Christian liberty.

3) The gospel is not primarily about salvation of sinners.  Instead, for Wright, the gospel is about who is Lord.  The principle message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King who gained a victory in the cross and resurrection.  But the gospel does not really have to do with how to be saved, or how to find favor with God.  That, in Wright’s perspective, distorts and narrows the gospel into individualism.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are mistaken when they say the gospel has to do with a sinner being saved from sin, God’s wrath, and hell.

4) Justification is not about soteriology, but ecclesiology.  In other words, Wright says that Paul’s doctrine of justification doesn’t have much to do with being accepted by God.  Rather, justification is about who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”  “Justification,” Wright notes, “is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.”  Again, one implication here is that the Reformed and confessional discussions of justification as a judicial act of God’s grace alone through faith alone are totally misreading Paul and therefore incorrect.  In fact, Wright clearly says that the Reformation tradition turned the doctrine of justification “into its opposite.”

5) God’s righteousness is not something he can give to his people.  Wright’s view is that “the righteousness of God” means only that God is faithful to his promises, that he is trustworthy.  Wright denies that the righteousness of God can be credited or imputed to the account of a sinner.  Wright doesn’t deny that there is some forensic aspect to “the righteousness of God,” but he does deny imputation.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about imputation (i.e. our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us).

6) Faith is a badge of membership, not an instrument that receives a gift from God.  The nationalistic Jews saw the works of the law as something that distinguished them from Gentiles and thus Gentiles were excluded from the covenant community, in Wright’s perspective.  However, since Christ has come, the only badge of belonging to the covenant community is faith.   This of course goes against the grain of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, which explain that saving faith is an instrument that receives God’s free gift of righteousness and shows itself by good works.

7) Substitutionary atonement isn’t overly important.  For Wright, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection was a fulfillment of Israel’s exile and restoration, but not necessarily a substitutionary atonement for condemned sinners.  Christ’s death and resurrection are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is extended to God’s people worldwide, but not necessarily a propitiative, expiative, and penal substitution through which the curse was removed for sinners.  Since Wright’s definitions of justification and faith aren’t primarily about salvation from sin, so his discussion of Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t primarily about salvation from sin.  Obviously, the Reformers and the Reformed confessions very much stress substitutionary atonement.

All of this information is found in chapter five of Venema’s book, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.  I’ve edited it to keep it brief, but again, I recommend reading it for yourself.  I trust the perceptive reader will now at least begin to understand why confessional Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran churches have strongly spoken out against the New Perspectives on Paul and N. T. Wright’s revision of these key Christian doctrines.  N. T. Wright’s views are critical of and contrary to Reformation doctrine.  One cannot hold to the truths of the Reformation and to Wright’s revisions; it is logically impossible.  Both cannot be right.

And as our regular readers know, I’m with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  I believe they are much closer to Paul’s teaching than that of the NPP and N. T. Wright.  Venema’s book has been helpful for me in this area.  The Gospel of Free Acceptance In Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).

rev shane lems

15 thoughts on “Wright, Reformation, and Gospel”

  1. Hi Shane,
    I recently just noticed this book and look forward to reading it at some point in the future. Overall, I would say that his characterization is fair though I’m not sure #7 is quite accurate (However, I can understand why he would summarize it that way).

    I still maintain, of course, that Wright is a helpful and useful read. He is a necessary goad to the Reformed tradition to keep its nose buried in the Greek NT. I also think it is important to ask ourselves what it is that Wright is trying to protect–not only doctrinally but also methodologically. Stendahl’s thesis, while overdrawn and ultimately unhelpful, was right in observing that confessional Protestants have a tendency to refract their readings of the New Testament (and to a certain degree the OT) through the lens of the 16th and 17th centuries. Now as a fan of “Theological Interpretation,” I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing (every reception of a text is governed by a reading tradition). However, left unchallenged it can easily atrophy into a doctrinal deconstruction (and reconstruction) which is blissfully unaware of the NT’s own historical milieu. To put it another way, I do shudder sometimes when some in our tradition seem incapable of recognizing the very different historical contexts that inhere in the NT and the Reformation. Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us that saying the same thing in a different context changes the meaning. At the end of the day, I think this is Wright’s biggest concern: he wants Christians to read the NT within its own historical context and hear its own historical resonances. We can debate, of course, whether his own reconstruction does justice to that context, but I do not think we should casually dismiss his project. (On the flip side, Wright would be well-served to take heed of the historical theologian’s warnings that he is edging near some muddy waters stirred up by Trent. This should at least give him more pause than it seems to.)

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to Wright’s long awaited book, “Paul and the Righteousness of God,” which is scheduled for release this year (in 3 volumes, I think). I will be curious to see if he has modified his position much on some of these things. I do know that he has backed off some of his either/or rhetoric.

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    1. Thanks for the comments, Nevada. No doubt we can learn from Wright, as we can learn from Barth, Ratzinger, Brueggemann, Sarna, and other non-Reformed, anti-Reformed, and even non-Christian authors. I agree.

      Speaking of interpretation,one other problem I have with Wright is that in his interpretation(s) going against the grain of historical Christian interpretation. He doesn’t seem to be reading the Bible with the church of the ages (Augustine, Gregory, Tyndale, Chemnitz, etc.). I’ve read some of Wright’s short NT commentaries and he is continually and almost arrogantly dismissing earlier interpretations because, in his mind, we need a “fresh” interpretation of so many texts. For him, that usually means finding Israel under every NT exegetical stone.

      We also have to remember that the Reformers and the Reformed Scholastics were brilliant linguists and well-rounded scholars who knew the Bible very well. They spent countless hours – even their whole adult lives in some cases – studying, translating, reading, and writing. I think it is a grievous error to simply say they all (stress all!) got Paul wrong (which means Augustine did too). Further, many excellent scholars today (Carson, Horton, etc.) have also dealt with the NPP in great exegetical, theological, and historical detail and found it wanting.

      Anyway, you’re main point is helpful: we can learn from him and we should interact with him. At the same time, I think my main point still stands: his interpretation(s) and definitions of biblical and theological words are contrary to and against Reformed interpretations and definitions.

      And, as always, thanks for the kind tone. I appreciate it.

      shane

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      1. I have heard it said, Wright is a lone tree on a hill, seems his followers are the student/emergent type who only read him thinking he’s the best thing since sliced bread.
        I am glad you mention the word ‘arrogantly,’ reading his How God Became King I came off of that high I had of him to see what the Gospels said and it proved worthless. He really does dismiss any interpretation that is not his and he interacts with the liberal theologians more than the caricatures he always uses of reformed theology. He came across as the most arrogant theologian I have read, just a slightly friendlier version of what Dawkins writes. He had the audacity to say that everybody has gotten the Gospel wrong but him. He backs up a bit and says, that’s A BIT of an overstatement but, that he nevertheless believes the overwhelming majority have gotten the Gospels wrong. It’s either at the end of the first book of HGBK or the end of the first chapter.
        I am sure we can profit with what he says but, what he says (unlike what he thinks about he being the first since the Apostles to point this out) has already been said before by more orthodox theologians. He clearly doesn’t believe in the analogy of faith or the clarity of scripture (having to have the ‘historical background’ completely reinterpret Paul and others in the 21st century) and gets everything backwards. In doing so he takes something that is true of the historical background of the text(s) and makes it an absolute.
        I am sure we’ve read some of his paraphrased translations right? When I read his interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:15, for instance, I was speechless. If Paul had meant to say what Wright said, wouldn’t he have said it in a similar fashion so people would understand? Likewise with Philippians 2. Lane over at Greenbaggins even said he’s more interested in the flow of a narrative than actual exegesis. S. Lewis Johnson said similarly that there is no real exegesis on his commentary in Romans which is rather bizarre for someone who is a touted as a Greek scholar.
        In many ways, he’s sort of worthless with his NPP driven agenda. When I emailed Dr. Derek Thomas when I really wanted to know what Wright said about the Gospels (as I heard he was brilliant just not on Paul), he basically said to steer clear of him since NPP is an epistemology that drives him in other places outside Paul.
        Well that’s my 2 cents and I am sticking by it, I’ll read other orthodox theologians that interpret the text.
        Thanks for putting this up Shane.

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        1. Hi Trent (and Shane, again :-)

          I’d like to comment on a couple of things you said.

          1) Undoubtedly there are over-enthusiastic Wright “fans” (just as there are over-enthusiastic Horton fans, Scott Clark fans, etc.— And yes, they exist — Hortonites and SClarkians give me just as much of a headache as Wrightians!). I think you are right that many are “emergent.” However, I would see Wright’s influence among that demographic as a blessing. Who else among the emergent church types is calling people to read their Greek New Testaments? Wright, for better or worse, espouses a form of bibliocentrism rooted in catholic (small “c”) Christianity (i.e., he’s actually ordained in a real church with real accountability) that is sorely lacking in the rootless, fluid world called “emergent.” I can think of far worse things that encouraging young people to read the Bible for themselves. (Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons Wright has become so popular among the younger emergent types. Starved for the Bible, he’s one of the few people who actually offers them a kind of redemptive-historical paradigm for Bible reading.)

          2) I have to admit that I’m always puzzled (and a bit disturbed) when I hear anyone trot out the “Wright-is-arrogant” line. I have read (as far as I know) all of his academic books (I tried a few of his “popular” titles but quickly discovered that they consisted of watered down, recycled material.) and listened to hours of his lectures online and in person. I have never caught a hint of arrogance. I am sure he has his faults like all of us, but in this instance, I am very suspicious that arrogance is in the eye of the beholder. I realize that what both of you are referring to are Wright’s repeated sweeping statements about “getting Paul/Jesus/whatever wrong.” To be frank, I’ve always taken this as a standard rhetorical device to gain attention. Speakers do this all the time, and scholars love to pretend that they are the first to figure something out. I suppose I am a bit hardened, but after sitting at SBL meetings listening to scholars like John Dominic Crossan pontificate about orthodox conspiracy theories to cover up the “myth” of the resurrection and promote hell, N. T. Wright seems pretty harmless.

          Furthermore, I gently remind you both that now you know how the Roman Catholic Church felt when listening to Luther. If Wright’s rhetoric is arrogant, Luther’s recklessly (in my opinion “lovable”) rhetoric borders at times on the insane. What did the RCC say when Luther came along? “What an arrogant fool! He thinks everybody has been reading Paul wrong for the last several centuries! As if he is the first to figure everything out! Doesn’t he know that we’ve had brilliant linguists and well-rounded scholars throughout the centuries who gave up everything to study the Scriptures in monasteries?”

          Now, I’m not saying that Wright is some modern-day Luther, but I do think the analogy is instructive and should give us pause before trotting out comments about someone’s arrogance. In the end, such statements are literally “ad hominem,” (“to the man”) and do little to help us engage his actual thought. (As a side note, I actually think these sort of comments help to promote Wright’s mystique among his followers–i.e., his suffering “persecution.”)

          3) Shane, in response to your comment about the Reformers being brilliant linguists and well-rounded scholars: I would say: “yes and no.” There was large range of competency among the various reformers and their successors. The work is uneven at best. Oftentimes, the real problem is that they have limited access to manuscripts and other contextual resources. I suppose my real reason for responding though, is that sometimes I get the feeling that some within the Reformed tradition think that “we figured the Bible out in 1517,” and there’s nothing new to learn. I recall the late John Stek (OT prof at Calvin Theological Seminary, 1961-1990) lamenting how when he entered seminary in the late 1940s the professors literally told the students that Louis Berkhof had summarized everything that the Bible had to offer. “The Reformation figured it all out, and all you boys need to do is memorize Berkhof. No one can discover anything new in the Bible.”

          Perhaps that is why I am hesitant to be overly critical of Wright. I always have a soft spot for those who take the Bible seriously and rigorously struggle with the text trying to understand how it all fits together. Questions are important.

          Alright, this is becoming far too long… Please take all of this in a fraternal sense. I’m not attacking anyone. I simply want to offer some thoughtful pushback.

          Cheers!

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  2. I understand your points. in number 2, as for him being arrogant in his popular level books it what he always says of re Reformers and the perceived tone of which he says it. I was told not to write the way I speak but, in his popular level books Wright tries to do just that. And as for that quote above that i mentioned he says, really got to me. I have not read his scholarly works and I can’t imagine he would write them in the same vain.

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  3. Reblogged this on A Daughter of the Reformation and commented:
    Pastor Shane Lems has an excellent summary of what is wrong with N.T. Wright. While Wright can be extremely difficult to follow, this summary is very clear. It also makes it obvious why Wright’s teaching is contrary to Reformed doctrine.

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  4. I can’t speak for all of Wright’s work, not yet having read it, but I can say that he is spot-on in the first two theses that you’ve listed. In Judaism, Torah is not the means of salvation, but the constitution of the redeemed people. When Christians try to claim otherwise, they misrepresent and even slander Judaism out of ignorance.

    I study the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashim alongside the New Testatment the same way many Christians study the histories of Josephus–to give the Scriptures their historical context. And having done so, I can tell you that 1st Century Judaism’s chief problem was not trying to “earn” salvation, but in a) abandoning its national calling to be a light to the Gentiles, and b) refusing to recognize that the Mosaic Covenant had been broken by Israel, that Israel was suffering under the curse of Deu. 28 as a result of that faithlessness, and that therefore a new covenant was needed per Jer. 31:30-34.

    Moreover, I think that my Christian brethren have been wrong in confusing the covenant with the commandments. While there is plenty of room to argue that certain commandments were intended specifically for the Jews (just as some were for men, some for women, some for farmers, some for priests, etc.), the Church has grievously erred in telling Jewish followers of a Jewish Messiah that they must stop keeping these Jewish commandments and Gentilize instead.

    If telling a Greek that he must Judaize (become a Jew, or as a Jew) in order to be saved is a false gospel worthy of anathema, how much worse is telling a Jew that he must become as a Gentile to be saved by his proper Jewish King?

    Shalom

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  5. I’ve only scanned the article so far, but I can already point out a major flaw in its reasoning:

    “In his survey, Carson concludes that while Sanders is generous in his evaluation of the Tannaitic period, he is substantially correct; however Carson notes and shows from the evidence that while some merit theology is present in the Tannaitic period, there is a drift towards much more of this merit theology in the later rabbinic material.”

    “Later rabbinic material” would be long after the NT period and would therefore be utterly irrelevant in interpreting the Pauline epistles. You have to use the material closest to the source in order to get an accurate picture, such as the Mishnah and the liturgy of the Amidah. And even there, you have to carefully sift out the material that obviously arose in response to the destruction of the Temple.

    Shalom

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  6. Your summary reflects a common mischaracterization of Wright that he has addressed ad nauseam. Its still mind-boggling to me that folks see his project as something so deeply antithetical to reformed confessionalism. It just isn’t. Why are we still arguing about NPP? smh

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