N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is by far one of the most scholarly, well-read, intelligent people of the modern church. It is no wonder people from all different points of view are flocking to him for answers to all kinds of things pertaining to theology and history. His impact can be felt both in the secular academic world as well as the theological world within Christianity.
So what are we to make of him? Well, there are many things we can outright affirm with N.T. Wright, one example being the resurrection of Christ. He is a relentless defender of the historical resurrection of Jesus, having written extensively to show this to be not just a myth or tradition within the church, but a reality. We should all be very grateful for someone of his education and knowledge to be on our side in this matter against the heresies raised against this pillar doctrine of the church.
In addition to defending the resurrection, he is an excellent historian, having brought much knowledge in the way of first century Judaism. Understanding this historical context is vital to understanding the thought, issues and problems dealt with in the New Testament. He has done a massive amount of writing and contributed greatly to our appreciation for and understanding of first century Judaism. As believers, we would all do well to read his works on both the resurrection and first century history. We are indebted to his work in regard to both of these areas.
But what problems are there? Unfortunately, there are a few things we must be very careful on, the main thing I’ll speak about being Justification. I will stick with this because it is the biggest controversial point of his theology. In theological circles this has been labeled the New Perspective on Paul, though by no mean is he the first to advocate this position. And by no means is he advocating it in the same way the forerunners of this position did.
Because of Wright’s knowledge in the area of first century Judaism, his reading of the Reformational (Protestant, evangelical) understanding of Justification within Romans and Galatians in particular (Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), seems to have been affected. He reasons that terms in these books of Scripture such as “works of the law,” “justification,” amongst other terms used by Paul in relation to salvation, must be understood through the lens of first century Judaism, not the Reformers.
In addition, Wright says that continuing to read these terms in light of the Reformation is erroneous. He argues that we must go back to the surrounding cultural Jewish texts, looking past the Reformational writings, and even Augustine’s work in the third and fourth centuries, (something he has definitely done, I’ll give him that) and understand that these terms do not carry the Reformational meaning we all have become accustom to.
My question (as a side point): so are we now sliding back toward Rome after having gone through such a tremendous theological shift from her in the Reformation? Francis Beckwith’s departure from evangelicalism back into full communion with the RCC sure does seem to indicate so. He’s not the only one too. Many theologians within evangelicalism are now blurring the lines of distinction between the RCC and evangelical churches on the point of Justification.
Anyway, Wright is essentially saying that the Reformers are reading an understanding into these terms (and thus unto Justification) that is not there. This has all kinds of implications, and more broadly, this understanding creates a whole new systematic theology, because all points of theology are affected by the other points inevitably.
If that is true concerning those terms, what are we to make of the Protestant understanding of Justification? Well, Wright seems to reason that Justification, as Paul used it, refers primarily to our inclusion into the community of believers. According to him, the Reformers were bringing unnecessary presuppositions to the text, and having come out of such political and theological abuses by the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers were radically departing from the Roman Catholic understanding. Essentially, he is saying the Reformers were swinging a bit too far and throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Hmm. There is more to the argument, but I’m not smart enough to grasp the entirety of it to be honest. This is what I have “gotten” so far though. That may be a reductionistic explanation (I’m willing to learn on this), but that’s what I have understood from it thus far. To be fair, I do not believe he rejects the Reformers theological understanding in its totality, but it seems to me at least he is rejecting the Reformers understanding of Justification.
As it relates to Justification, the main problem that arises out of all of this is the nature of imputation, that is Christ’s perfect record and righteousness being credited to our account through His work in His life, death and resurrection, at least as understood in the recovery of the Gospel during the Reformation. If Justification is simply about being in or out of the community of believers, then my question is, why did Paul seem to make the argument a legal one in both Romans and Galatians? And why did he seem to always relate his explanation to salvation and eternal life? Was it or was it not about eternal salvation, or just inclusion within (or exclusion from) the community of believers?
Also, Wright makes the argument that the term “works of the law” in first century Judaism meant a “badge of honor” (or pride) within the community. So he goes on to say that in Galatians, for example, Paul is not making an argument that the Galatians were trusting in their “works of the law” to save them eternally, but that they were merely being prideful and excluding those who did not adhere to the same “works of the law” they were adhering to. Also, the one big thing I have a problem with in all of this is Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:11 which says, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Is that a statement just about the Galatians including or excluding people merely? Or was it that they were eclipsing the Gospel by their supposed self-righteousness? I tend to think the latter.
This almost sounds like the same type of argument Arminians make in Romans 9 to say that what is being spoken of there is not the unconditional election of individuals to eternal salvation, but rather a temporal,corporate election of groups to historical roles. They both make the focus of the text temporal instead of eternal. Wright is way smarter than I ever will be though, and so I’m sure he could blow me away with some forceful argument as to how that is not what he is doing. But I just think his understanding may seem plausible, but in reality strays from what was recovered in the Reformation, that Christ’s work alone is what saves us. The Gospel itself is at stake in this debate.
Do you see how tricky all of this gets now? Quite a mess if you ask me. Wright’s arguments totally redefine the whole nature of the Gospel itself against the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of how we are saved and makes it one with a temporal focus instead of an eternal one. More than that, it opens the way, once again, for making works apart of our final justification, and thus turning Christianity into every other religion that says, “Do this and you shall live,” as opposed to the grace of the Gospel which says, “You can’t do this, Christ substituted places with you, and now you shall live.” Wright inherently seems to share their understanding that within our justification is included our sanctification, that is our works, because according to both of them (Wright and the RCC), Justification is the whole of the Christian life, instead of a once for all time declaration at the cross. There are a ton of other points of theology that are affected by this understanding. This is the most controversial though. This only scratches the surface.
So in summation, Wright’s works on first century Judaism and the resurrection of Christ should definitely be read and thought over. We should even use it in defense of the supremacy of Christ in our apologetic and evangelism work. Much progress has been made in defending the resurrection of Christ. But Wright’s theological and Scriptural understanding of Justification in particular should be read with great caution and warning. John Piper has written a book addressing the whole New Perspective, in defense of the historical, Reformational understanding. To me, Wright’s understanding has essentially paved the way for works to “re-enter” the understanding of evangelicals as it pertains to our Justification before God, one of the very reasons the Reformation was started to begin with.
Some more information on the New Perspective and N.T. Wright:
John Piper’s book against the New Perspective, responding to N.T. Wright in particular: http://www.monergismbooks.com/The-Futur … 17450.html
New Perspective section on Monergism.com: http://www.monergism.com/directory/link … rspective/