Posts Tagged ‘N.T. Wright’

Reposted from an earlier entry. Here is an excerpt from a Ligonier interview 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.

– Michael Scott Horton, December 2009

Taken from Ligonier, here.


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For anyone who is interested in understanding the Reformed doctrine of justification, I would really recommend reading J.V. Fesko’s book. I’ve been reading through it and it is great. It’s clear, cogent, and illuminative.

Preferring light over heat, Fesko also offers considerable refutations to N.T. Wright and his understanding of Paul in the context of second-temple Judaism. Although Wright says a lot of true and pertinent things, (about both Paul and second-temple Judaism), Fesko points out how it’s not all that simple. I thought I’d offer you some quotations as well as my thoughts.

First, Fesko summerizes some of Wright’s thoughts on second-temple Judaism:

The first-century Jew [according to Wright] was not concerned about how one might have a saving relationship with God. Rather, the first-century Jew was already a member of the covenant and possessed a relationship with his covenant Lord. What was perplexing for the first-century Jew was, how could the chosen people of God be under the Roman occupation? Had not God promised in this covenant to Abraham that Israel would rule over the nations? Yet Israel was under the thumb of Rome. (Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, p. 213.)

Now what is important to realize is the degree to which Wright relies upon second-temple Judaism to help his understanding of Paul. Here, he is in company with many other contemporary (yet often critical) scholars. But then one must ask the question, is second-temple Judaism really the best indicator into what St. Paul really believed? Or would Paul’s presuppositions about many things (including covenant membership) have been somewhat (if not radically) divergent from those of his day. Fesko explains,

Wright is correct in that one must be sensitive to the surrounding cultural and historical context of the NT; However, he gives his interpretation of second-temple Judaism too great a role in defining the covenantal nature of justification. At various points Wright invokes the literature of second-temple Judaism to explain what lies behind Paul’s thought. What is problematic about this methodology is that Paul never directly cites the literature of the second temple. (p. 233)

Fesko then quotes J. Gresham Machen.

It is significant that when, after the conversion, Paul seeks testimonies to the universal sinfulness of man, he looks not to contemporary Judaism, but to the Old Testament. At this point, as elsewhere, Paulinism is based not upon later developments but upon the religion of the Prophets and the Psalms. (p. 233)

Fesko points out how “Wright assumes that second-temple Judaism has authoritatively interpreted the OT and that Paul builds upon this understanding.” (p. 233)

Now this is a huge problem for Wright. Although much of his conclusions about second-temple Judaism are historically accurate, he seems to miss the fact that Paul didn’t agree with them! The main questions they were asking weren’t the ones he was trying to answer. In fact you might picture Paul as saying, “Wrong question! Read your bible again.” And thus for us today, the main question in Pauline scholarship shouldn’t be, What did second-temple Judaism believe? But rather, What did Paul think about what they believed? And here we must realize that Paul would hardly have granted them their premise. They had a “zeal” but “without knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Fesko writes,

Instead, as Machen argues, Paul appeals to the OT, to Abraham, not to the erroneous positions of first-century Judaism. And as classic Reformed covenant theology has argued, the Abrahamic covenant, which Paul calls the gospel (Gal. 3:8), is built ultimately upon the protoevangelium, not the hopes of first-century Jews of being delivered from their Roman overlords. Paul’s concern is not the supposed exile under Rome as Wright contends, but the greater exile under the powers of Satan, sin, and death. (p. 234)

Now, this distinction carries with it drastic interpretive consequences. As Geerhardus Vos was famous for pointing out, eschatology precedes soteriology. And it is no less the case when dealing with first-century Jews and Paul.

As is evidenced all throughout the gospels, one of the things the Jews got wrong was their eschatology. Is it possible Write has overlooked this? What the Jews were looking for was not what Christ was looking for (or, rather, looking to do). How they read and interpreted the Scriptures was not how Christ and his disciples read and interpreted them. Thus the conclusions of second-temple Judaism regarding the covenant promises and their eschatological fulfillment would have been radically different than Paul’s. Paul had himself seen the risen Christ, and had tasted of the powers of the age to come. He would have had little in common with their base and carnal assumptions. There would have been a huge disconnect! Rather than offering a disinterested correction, Paul’s eschatology would have stood in glaring and direct contradiction to that of first-century Jews.

And although Wright seems to underplay this fact, the Jews were considerably concerned about salvation (or being saved) as well. But it wasn’t the kind of salvation Christ offered or Paul preached. And that was the problem!

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39 NIV).

Salvation, for Christ and Paul, was not about redemption from the hand of Roman oppressors. Fesko points out, “Paul shows no concern for what the enemies of the people of God might or might not think; Paul shows concern only for what God will say concerning the one who stands before his throne.” This can be grounded further in the gospels where Christ is constantly bringing to attention how the Jews have their eschatology all wrong, and therefore their soteriology as well.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mat. 10:28).

And then for something completely different:

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 5:54).

Talk about total disconnect! The Jews would have been like, “What in the world is he talking about?!?!” Even the disciples were confounded: “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it? (John 5:60). And yet Christ can say, “…if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me (v. 46).”

So, here we see the cosmic divergence. On the one hand are the Jews and their interpretation of the OT together with their understanding of the Covenant, Torah, and the eschatological fulfillment of the promises. On the other hand we have Christ, and his disciples, and their understanding of the Law and its fulfillment by Christ in the gospel.  Needless to say there is an acute, and even critical, discontinuity between these two systems. Yet Wright doesn’t seem to get this. Or at least he downplays it into insignificance. And so, although he does get much of second-temple Judaism right, unfortunately he still gets Paul wrong.

Fesko concludes:

Hence Wright is correct to say that justification is covenantal, law-court language, and eschatological. But these categories require reorientation because Paul does not discuss justification in the way that Wright does. Wright bases these categories in this understanding and construction of the worldview of second-temple Judaism and the longing for deliverance from Rome. Paul, on the other hand, bases these categories in the protoevangelium, the longing for deliverance from sin and death. (p. 239)

By highlighting and emphasizing certain ideas and themes over others, N.T. Wright ultimately creates false dichotomies that only distort the grand biblical message. Among various other errors, he sets second-temple Judaism up as a main interpretive grid against the rest of Scripture. In the end, his explanations are reductionistic, robbing the reader of the interpretive tools for making sense of the various (yet essential) biblical themes, and ultimately allowing to fall flat that very gospel message which is to bring life to the dead.

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Martin Downes on his blog Against Heresies talks about the deceitfulness of error and the need for Churches to have both a clear external expression of their faith (such as confessions) and a Spirit-wrought internal conviction of the truth. Great post here.

Also, Tabletalk takes on the New Perspectives on Paul. If you’re familiar, curious, or confused about the NPP or N.T. Wright, here would be a good place to start reading.

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