Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why NT Wright Is Wrong

NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, enjoys tremendous popularity among "thinking Christians". He is even getting a foothold in the secular bookstores, as evidenced by finding his latest book on display at the front of a Barnes and Noble store I recently visited. This has prompted me to write a post about him as he has not been previously discussed on this blog.

It is true that Wright's landmark book "The Resurrection of the Son of God" is widely recognized as an outstanding defense of Christ's bodily resurrection. Getting the resurrection right seems to have opened a lot of people's receptivity to Wright's subsequent books where he discusses the cross, justification, and penal substitutionary atonement (Wright even endorsed Steve Chalkes book in which Chalke described the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as "cosmic child abuse"). Many reformed theologians have been greatly disturbed by the theology that NT Wright's subsequent works have revealed. It may well be that Wright's scholarly defense of the resurrection turns out to be a scholarly trojan horse concealing destructive heresies.

At the heart of Wright's many troubling ideas lies his view of the doctrine of justification, particularly the component of imputed righteousness. Over and over again, Wright attacks the classic Reformed and biblical doctrine that the righteousness of Christ is imputed, or reckoned, to the sinner's account, and it is on the ground of Christ's righteousness alone that we obtain our righteous standing before God. Wright says:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom . . . If we leave the notion of 'righteousness' as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship (p98 What St Paul Really Said).

Phil Johnson responded to these exact comments in a sermon by saying "Well, I, for one, am quite happy to worship a God who justifies the ungodly and who is both just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus."

John Macarthur has this to say about the importance of getting imputation right:

The cornerstone of justification is the reckoning of righteousness to the believer's account. This is the truth that sets Christian doctrine apart from every form of false religion. We call it "imputed righteousness". Apart from it salvation is utterly impossible (p197 The Gospel According to Jesus).

Here is an excerpt from an interview RC Sproul had with Michael Horton discussing the theology of N.T. Wright.

[Q] Considering Bishop N.T. Wright’s doctrine of justification, do you believe he is teaching another gospel?

[A] J.I. Packer has a great line: Tom Wright foregrounds what the Bible backgrounds, and backgrounds what the Bible foregrounds–but Wright does more than that; he denies a crucial component of justification, namely imputation. So, in answer to your question, yes–in denying imputation, Wright is preaching another gospel.

There’s a kind of fundamentalist approach to Scripture that Tom Wright seems to want to confront. And while he does a wonderful job of highlighting the fact that justification in Paul’s writings is understood within a broader redemptive-historical framework, something not all presentations and defenses of justification do, he is not confronting historic Reformed theology. Reformed theology always has understood justification within a broader redemptive-historical framework. If he were to read the Reformers and more recent Reformed writers, such as Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos, he would clearly see that justification is placed in its proper context with the believer’s union with Christ and within the whole history of redemption. Reformed writers speak of Paul’s treatment of justification being inseparable from the inclusion of the Gentiles. Then, when you read Tom Wright he makes it seem as if he’s the first person who saw these emphases of Paul, and that everyone else before him sort of taught the four spiritual laws. It’s an incredibly naïve view.

I know Tom Wright–not well, but we had a few conversations in my Oxford days; we’ve gone back and forth about these issues, and he simply doesn’t know historical theology. He’ll actually admit that when you catch him at a few points; he’ll say something along the lines of “well this really isn’t my area of expertise.” Well, if your thesis is that the Reformation fundamentally misunderstood Paul, it better be your area of expertise to at least know what the Reformers said–and he doesn’t. So, Wright creates a straw man. And the people who are swayed by him, who are enamored of him, are also in many cases ignorant of what the Reformers actually taught, what Reformed theology has taught on these matters. And let me offer an impassioned plea to folks: There are Reformed presentations of the doctrine of justification that include some of the very salient points that Tom Wright has raised and incorporated, without denying the very crucial component of imputation as Tom Wright does. Without imputation, justification isn’t good news. When he says that the Gospel is “Jesus is Lord,” I reply, there are many passages that tell me “Jesus is Lord” isn’t good news. There are many passages that tell me “Jesus is Lord” means to a whole lot of people “the great Avenger on the white horse with a sword in His hand, bringing the last judgment.” “Jesus is Lord” means that He will be your judge. On Mars Hill in Athens, Paul said there is a judgment coming, a last judgment coming, and God has given proof of this to everyone by raising Jesus from the dead. So Jesus is Lord is not necessarily good news. Only when God assures me that I am in Christ by grace alone through faith alone and kept by grace is the announcement “Jesus is Lord” good news rather than the worst possible news (online source).

It is worth noting that many false teachers survive on the basis of their lack of clarity. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when they speak in a foggy and unclear manner. NT Wright has become (unwittingly perhaps) the Mr Miyagi of the emergent movement for this reason. Wright communicates a different gospel in a way that is obscure enough not to be pinned down outside of orthodoxy. He is the master of answering questions by cutting a short story long and burying the initial question in the process. With this in mind, I have found a good rule of thumb when choosing our feeding grounds for Christian teaching. Sound biblical teachers are aways explicitly clear about the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. Choose feeding grounds that communicate the Gospel faithfully, accurately, and clearly.


gandalf said...

come on, Cameron, you disappoint me a bit.

There is actually an article on the internet where NT Wright discusses the atonement and PSA in especial. He also writes about his talks with Steve Chalke on the matter and testifies that Chalke said to him that he does not deny PSA in general but wanted to point out that there are strange caricatures of the doctrine going round and that he wanted to critique these.

The article can be found here:

Embedded in the article is a link to a sermon which is also noteworthy in this context:

Also, when it comes to "imputed righteousness" to call that "something" apart from which salvation would be utterly impossible I must say that I strongly disagree with that.

The foundational issues about the atonement that every Christian must believe is WHAT the atonement through the penal, substitutionary death of Christ achieves, any theory about HOW this works (and "imputed righteousness" is in that category) is secondary to that and christians at all times had somewhat different theories about that. I borrow this thought from C.S. Lewis in "Mere Christianity" but I think many other thinkers are more or less on the same boat about the relative importance of specific theories about how the atonement works.

Practically, if MacArthur means it that way as it sounds like, prior to reformation no one could be saved except maybe in the first to third century, I would say that would be a very risky statement (on border to be very judgmental) then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very clear summation of Wright't theology. He is speaking at my school (the university of Chicago) next week and I wanted to be clear on the points where Wright diverges from scripture. Thank you for laying it out. I think it is always dangerous to have a "new perspective" on anything in Scripture. New usually means wrong.

Anonymous said...

Wright is right on. Cameron, I pray you can loose your reformed bias and see scripture free of it. Whoever the anonymous responder is. Take notes when NT is in town. He may be able to set you free from a Reformed legalism that is destroying lives.

Trent said...

Great blog! I am not sure why you allow comments against you, if I got my own blog I would allow no comments but that's just me.
Anyway, I read Wright's How God Became King, because even though he's wrong on Paul, I kept hearing how 'brilliant' he was on Jesus. So I became infatuated in trying to learn what Wright had to say on the Gospels. So after I read it, actually didn't even have to get through the first book of HGBK before coming to the conclusion (I did read the whole thing btw),that I thought he was the most arrogant theologian ever. Horton is right, he sets up straw-men thinking that this American, and perhaps English, anti-intellectual evangelicalism of today are the direct descendants of Calvin and Luther. He interacts with none of them but, does interact with the liberals are fair amount in the book. I was unimpressed. Also, in the first chapter, he spends the whole time bashing everyone's view on the Gospels and even has the audacity to say that everyone has gotten the Gospels wrong. But he backtracks with a parenthesis and says 'well that's a BIT of an overstatement but, I do believe the overwhelming majority of people, pastors and theologians have gotten the Gospels wrong.'
I found Wright absolutely useless, and far from edifying. His NPP and ego are his epistemology and the lens through which he views the Bible and life, and ones to stay away from. By no means does this make him not Christian, just a deeply erroneous one.

Unknown said...

You quote Wright as saying "Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom "

Well, of course it is not. But if he thinks that this disproves imputed righteousness he does not even know what the word or concept imputation means.

Surely someone as intelligent as he would trouble to find out the meaning of the word before pronouncing on it.

I cannot become manifestly righteous if i cannot approach God in relationship whereby he leads me to real life changing repentance. and if i am not imputed as righteous i cannot approach him at all.

Without imputed righteousness I have nothing at all.

I learn this through having struggled as St Paul did in the 7th chapter of Romans. Crying to God was not mere theology. It was life or death

Wright is a heretic and I reject his work completely. Any truths he has i can get from other sources

Mark Vincent said...

I'm disappointed with the blog's author. It seems to easy to throw out the word "heretic". Also, using the word "wrong". N.T. Wright a heretic? This is absurd! What about "imparted righteous" metaphors in Paul? Does not Christians share in the divine nature? Cannot we Christian's interpret Paul as both/and rather than either/or approach in Paul's righteousness theology?
I think Rev. Dr. Wright makes this emphasis in Paul's theology and understands it as a dynamic radical inner transformational change by Christ through the Spirit. This change occurs in Christ's salvific action. It is a change of God's attitude toward us (forgiveness). What Jesus said and what Jesus did for us is justification. However, it is also important to scripturally emphasize what God not only does for us in "justification or rightification", however we must reconize God's justifying or righteous actions within us and through us (impartation). Christian's experience His righteousness in and through regeneration and sanctification even to glorification.
I think overall Rev. Dr. Wright's message leads us to reconize life in the Spirit and that we actually can be right and live right like Jesus is right!
The continuing justifying and sanctifying work of change in the believer's will is where reformed thinkers continue to misunderstanding Paul's theology depth and breadth of rightness for the believer.

jim kerr ن said...

Hey, Mark Vincent, if you can call Wright "Rev. Dr." with a straight face, it's pointless arguing with you. Get a grip, man!

Now go watch that Phil Johnson video Cameron mentioned. Wright is a dangerous heretic because he presents another gospel. Paul would've handed him over to Satan for a BIT of tormenting.

Anonymous said...

Do we really picture Jesus having this type of conversation, "while NT Wright (insert any name here), is correct about who I am and 90+% of the things taught in the New Testament and has help turn the church away from it misrepresentation of me (Jesus) because he is questioning how imputation would work he is 'Preaching another gospel", and therefore I will condemn him to the lake of fire with all others who lead my sheep astray, and will tie millstone around his neck to boot!"

This boundary-keeping where "scholars" call others heretics who don't hold every view they hold, is for children. Leon Morris in his book Apostolic Preaching of The Cross does an excellent job of giving the positive case for imputation, without suggesting that people that don't hold his view are heretics.

I was going to comment that I doubt that Oxford teaches its students to use personal invective and fallacious reasoning (straw man, poisoning the wells, ad hominem attacks) but then recalled that Richard Dawkins teaches there.

John MacArthur guards over his view of the scriptures the way a praetorian guards Caesar. He has that option as a Fundamentalist preacher. He attracks those that are every bit locked into the belief that there are dozens of theological beliefs one must hold to be saved. Wright has a scholarly hat to where that requires asking questions of the text and making distinctions that MacArthur refuse to ask or make.

While I believe that penal substitution is the best explanation of the biblical data about Christ's atoning work, I'm not convinced that you have accurately represented Wright's views, and secondly, have you thought through the ramifications of your approach?

Do you really want to condemn all Catholics to hell for "preaching another gospel"?

Alex Koo said...

In reply to the commenter above (Mark): I'm sorry, but were you arguing from a Protestant or Catholic perspective? It as if you hold to the same view of grace and righteousness as Catholics adhere to: Sanctifying grace and infusion of grace.