Fred Sanders has a characteristically insightful—and edifyingly entertaining—post here about N. T. Wright. (What hath Hootie and the Blow Fish have to do with Tom Wright? Read on!)

Two of his points are worth quoting at length:

2. I should try not to think about NT Wright himself. The reason I had sort of forgotten how helpful NT Wright is, is that his relentless airplay had distracted me from Wright’s arguments and made me look at Wright’s public persona. That public persona is not something I enjoy. Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug. He is at his worst in the field of controversy, where he indulges in describing his critics as people who just don’t quite believe in heliocentrism. He constantly complains that anybody who disagrees with him hasn’t read him fairly. Hardly the happy warrior of Wordsworth’s poem, he tends to adopt a Nixonian tone (“The media’s out to get me… they even attacked my little dog Checkers!”). His book on Hope is vitiated by an “everything everybody has ever believed about heaven is wrong, and only I speak unto you the truth” tone of voice. It just makes my eyes cross; I can’t read on.

So far my rule of thumb has been that NT Wright’s big books are great, but his small books are to be avoided. That’s still not a bad guideline: make some time to study through any of the Wright books that top 500 pages, and you’ll get a blessing. The smaller books (where he can’t show all his work) give him too much opportunity to indulge in cutting a figure, in putting himself out there and invoking his own credibility. From these performances I will avert my eyes when possible. Life is too short, and reading time too precious, and the big books too good, for me to read the little ones with the regrettable passages. Your response to the Wright literary persona may be different; I admit this is subjective. But in the future, I’m not going to let my Wright annoyance factor cheat me out of benefiting from Wright’s plentiful good stuff.

3. NT Wright’s big idea is smaller than I thought. Somewhere in the second hour of panel discussion, it became clear to me that what Wright is insisting on in the justification debate is that there is such a thing as conversion, getting saved, and being forgiven by God, but the dikaio- word-group doesn’t refer to it. Here is a parallel: There is such a thing as growing in grace as a Christian, moving on from being oppressed by sin to living in victory over certain sins. The New Testament knows of that process and progress. But it doesn’t call it sanctification, as Protestants tend to in popular discourse. In other words, the hagio- word-group doesn’t refer to it in the NT. “Sanctification” in the NT tends to refer to a divine action in which he sets something apart for special use, or renders it appropriate for God’s presence. Now, I’ve noticed that, but I don’t correct people when they say things like “After being justified, do you go on to make progress in being sanctified?” I especially don’t correct them over the course of thousands of pages in which I warn them that they are seriously distorting the biblical message and are enslaved to traditions. Again, I speak here as somebody who is barely paying attention, so I could be wrong about everything. But I have provisionally made a different decision about how much it matters that the dikaio- word group does not map onto traditional Christian usage in a straightforward way. I decided it is not one of the major issues facing us today. I’m well aware that New Testament experts speak with greater precision than the rest of us about things like this, and I’m glad that they have epic battles amongst themselves about very precise matters. I want to learn from them, and to be accountable to them as the relevant experts. But precisely because there are hundreds of such arguments, I don’t norm all of my communication by the standards of that guild.

I don’t think this third point is quite right—it makes it sound like this is just semantics and technical issues and where to put the emphasis—but the larger point remains helpful, in my opinion.

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8 thoughts on “Navigating through N.T. Wright’s World”

  1. kevinleroy says:

    I always live by the principle of, ‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’

    “Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug.”
    I think the same can be said of many people in the Reformed camp who call NT Wright a heretic, without taking a hard look at their own positions on the issues. There are some issues that need to be looked at from both sides of the aisle but let’s come together and quit with the personal attacks and just deal with the issues.

    1. Justin says:

      Thank you for saying this. Wright is certainly the favorite punching bag among Reformed Christians.

  2. Chad says:

    For a nice, brief discussion on this third point by somebody who certainly is paying attention, see DA Carson’s comments on pp. 583-584 in this essay posted by TGC:

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/1997_reflections_salvation_justification.pdf

    Notably:

    “Similarly, when we speak of “the doctrine of justification” the term “justification” (whether in the Catholic or the evangelical heritage) bears no isomorphic relation with dikaiosuvnh in the NT.”

  3. monica says:

    considering the post that follows this, I wonder if we were to carefully examine THIS post, what interpretive framework would this fellow (and JT for posting this) be promoting? Frameworks go much farther than just biblical exegesis.

  4. “Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug. He is at his worst in the field of controversy, where he indulges in describing his critics as people who just don’t quite believe in heliocentrism.”

    To be fair, it is a rhetorical device that he needs to use when engaging in polemics. That doesn’t mean he is actually correct, but I think it is fair game when answering his critics.

  5. mark mcculley says:

    While we negotiate our way closer to N.T. Wright’s “worldview”, he continues on with his agenda. I quote from his essay on justification in The Great Acquittal, ed Gavin Reid, 1980):

    “Precisely because we believe in justification, we must get our view of the Church sorted out, and have done once and for all with the watery semi-Baptist theology which has been creeping into evangelical Anglicanism over the last decade or two.

    Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God’s people, the sign of regeneration, and thus faith, which follows and does not precede regeneration, need not precede baptism, though if it does not follow afterwards there will consequently be no justification.”

    My concern here is not to refute the idea that future justification is a result of regeneration imparting righteousness, nor even to reject the idea of infant baptismal regeneration. I am saying that, if we choose to be quiet now about the semantics of what to call “justification” and “imputation”, then it will be too late to call into question Wright’s assumption that the finished atoning work of Christ needs to be supplemented by “regeneration” as the atoning work of the Holy Spirit.

    I certainly appreciate the urge not to correct folks when they don’t talk about “sanctification” in the way the Bible does. After all, what can we expect when the confessions themselves talk about “more and more” sanctification? Nevertheless, the Biblical language about “sanctification” has much to say about the holiness of God and the nature of the gospel. For an excellent book on the “sanctification” topic, I recommend David Peterson’s Possessed By God (Eerdmans, 1995, New Studies in Biblical Theology)

  6. Andrew says:

    Justin you say “I don’t think this third point is quite right—it makes it sound like this is just semantics and technical issues and where to put the emphasis—but the larger point remains helpful, in my opinion.”

    However, I think he is actually really on to something with point 3. No, it is not solely semantics taking place but a lot of evangelicals are getting caught up on the way he emphasizes things and don’t realize that much of what he is saying has already been said by their favorite Reformed teachers but in different terms. For instance, he gets knocked for all his talk about works and their necessity but I have heard Piper say the exact same thing in reference to sanctification and one’s final salvation. Wright is simply framing the necessity of works and the final judgment in the context of one specific aspet of salvation, that being “justification” and is asking people to not confuse it with all the other various aspects.

  7. Jacob says:

    I find one of Sanders’ comments a little disconcerting. I have met Tom Wright before and sat in on a small group session with him. I also know several Wheaton College professors who know him fairly well. They would vouch that Wright is a pastoral, godly man who has undertaken an enormous task of representing Christ in the broader academic and “secular” world. To say that Wright comes across as smug is a little bit too close to an attack on his character. Also, could it be that culturally Wright is a Britisher, and hence his conventions of conversation are slightly different than Americans’? Just a few thoughts. I think we should be careful in our evaluations of others.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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