Volume 31 - Issue 3

N. T. Wright on Prolegomena

By J. V. Fesko


In the current debates involving the old and new perspectives on Paul there has been disagreement on what the apostle Paul means by key biblical terms such as righteousness, justification, and works of the law. Critics of the new perspective on Paul (NPP) have interacted with the corpus of literature at various levels seeking to define these key terms through exegesis and interaction with primary sources such as the literature of Second Temple Judaism.1 Some of those who have critiqued the NPP have traced the development of key ideas through the history of New Testament (NT) studies to give a historical background to the nature of the debate.2 It is certainly important to contextualize historically the nature of any debate, as it gives the investigator an important frame of reference regarding the issues, key ideas, figures, and current trajectory of the discussion. Yet, one area that remains relatively untouched, if at all, is the area of theological presuppositions. In other words, what theological commitments do proponents of the NPP bring to the debate and how do they colour and affect the whole of their thought? Addressing the subject of theological prolegomena, then, is of the utmost importance. Establishing the presuppositions of a person’s thought will enable the investigator to understand more fully why and how he comes to his conclusions.

While we cannot explore the presuppositions of every proponent of the NPP, we can narrow the scope of our investigation to one individual and trace the impact of his theological prolegomena throughout the whole of his thought. Certainly one of the most prolific and perhaps best-known proponents of the primary concerns of the NPP is N. T. Wright. Moreover, given that he has set forth his epistemology and therefore implicitly his understanding of Scripture in the first volume of his projected six volume series on Christian origins and the question of God, we have ample information to investigate and establish his views.3 This essay will, therefore, explore the subjects of Wright’s theological epistemology and understanding of Scripture. The thesis of this essay is that though Wright is heralded as a conservative reformed theologian, his presuppositions place him in the traditional liberal historical-critical school of thought. The essay will proceed along the following lines to substantiate this thesis:

(1)  survey Wright’s prolegomena, theological epistemology and understanding of Scripture;

(2)  critique his views and demonstrate what effect his presuppositions have upon the whole of his thought; and

(3)  conclude with some general observations.

We may therefore proceed to examine Wright’s prolegomena.

Wright’s prolegomena

Wright makes the important observation that presuppositions must be explored before one begins the study of the NT otherwise the ‘study of Jesus, Paul and the gospels will remain largely the projection of an undiscussed metaphysic’.4 Wright therefore begins with a study of epistemology.


Wright argues that one must have an understanding of worldviews before one can begin to assess data. He contends that worldviews ‘form the grid through which humans, both individually and in social groupings, perceive all of reality. One of the key features of all world views is the element of story.’5 It is through an understanding of story, argues Wright, that one can articulate what he calls ‘a critical-realist epistemology’. Wright explains that the post-enlightenment epistemologies of positivism and phenomenalism fall short of providing a firm basis of knowledge. The positivist believes that there are some things about which we can have definite objective knowledge. This data is collected through empirical testing in the physical world, through measuring and observing.6 There are, of course, certain types of knowledge that do not fit the positivist category and must be classified as ‘belief’, not knowledge. Wright explains, for example, that aesthetics and ethics are reduced to functions of experience. On the other side of the spectrum lies phenomenalism, the knowledge that one gathers through experience with the external world.7 The only information of which one can be sure is the sense-data that one collects from the external world. Wright illustrates the two types of epistemologies with the following diagrams:8


Observer ——— Object

simply looking at objective reality

tested by empirical observation

if it doesn’t work, it’s nonsense


Observer —– Object

I seem to have evidence of external reality

but I am really only sure of my sense-data

Wright illustrates the problems between positivism and phenomenalism when he states:

If knowing something is like looking through a telescope, a simplistic positivist might imagine that he is simply looking at the object, forgetting for the moment the fact that he is looking through lenses, while a phenomenalist might suspect that she is looking at a mirror, in which she is seeing the reflection of her own eye.9

In contrast to positivism and phenomenalism, Wright offers an alternative, critical realism:

This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality,’ so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionally. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower.10

Wright takes this method of gathering data and weds it to his presupposition of the importance of worldviews. He states that no one has a God’s-eye view of reality but that everyone interprets information through a worldview, a community of interpretation. This means that, according to Wright, critical realism ‘sees knowledge of particulars as taking place within the larger framework of the story or worldview which forms the basis of the observer’s way of being in relation to the world’.11 Wright further spells out the relationship between worldview and epistemology through the following diagram:12

Story-telling humans —– Story-laden world

initial observation (already within a story)

is challenged by critical reflection on ourselves as story-tellers (i.e., recognizing that our claims about reality might be mistaken)

but can, through further narrative, find alternative ways of speaking truly about the world, with the use of new or modified stories

What this means is that one must constantly subject data to testing and verification so he can spiral-in on the truth. How does this epistemology work as it is applied to the study of the NT, or especially to one’s theological epistemology?

Wright applies his epistemology to the study of the NT by determining the stories that first century Judaism told. The only way to understand their stories is to do so from within their own culture, historical setting, and worldview. The investigator must, therefore, reconstruct the first-century Jewish worldview in order to understand the nature of the conflicts between Judaism and Christianity. It is not possible, argues Wright, to boil-off propositional truth from the stories because this process falsifies the worldview.13 One might say that Wright would argue that abstracting propositions from the stones is much like taking the paint off a painting—doing this destroys the painting and hence the intended message. For this reason Wright states that his task ‘throughout this entire project, will involve the discernment and analysis, at one level or another, of first-century stories and their implications’.14 What this means for Wright’s methodology is that he wants to discuss the historical origins of Christianity.

In the study of the NT, argues Wright, one must neither dismiss out of hand the possibility of miracles, nor the historicity of the events recorded therein. Rather, with Wright’s critical-realist epistemology the investigator can challenge his own story, a consequence of his own culture, historical setting, and community of interpretation, with the stories of the NT. The challenge and interaction between the worldview of the interpreter and that presented in the text then enters the spiral of hypothesis and verification:

History, then, is real knowledge, of a particular sort. It is arrived at, like all knowledge, by the spiral of epistemology, in which the storytelling human community launches enquiries, forms provisional judgments about which stories are likely to be successful in answering those enquiries, and then tests these judgments by further interaction with data.15

Through the hypothesis-verification investigative method, the reader can determine the validity of the stories he finds in the NT. What this means for Wright is that the study of the NT is essentially a study of first-century religious movements. One must study, for example, the stories of the various competing groups in the first century: the Essenes, who believed they were participating in a secret new covenant; Josephus, who believed that Israel’s god was going over to the Romans; Jesus, who told a story about a vineyard; and the early Christians, who told the story of the kingdom of God and its inauguration through Jesus.16 Wright states that, ‘We are therefore studying human history, in the recognition that the actors in the drama, and hence in a sense the drama itself, can only fully be understood when we learn to see the world through their eyes.’17 Now, at this point one might conclude that Wright is exploring the NT simply as a historical phenomenon to the exclusion of any theological significance. This, however, is not the case.

The authority of Scripture

Wright argues that ‘theology asks questions, as to whether there is a god, what relation this god has to the world in which we live, and what if anything this god is doing, or will do, about putting it to rights.’18 Theology is, therefore, an important element of Wright’s investigative process because it highlights ‘the god-dimension of a worldview’. For this reason, if one is to understand the language of the NT, he needs to understand the specific nature of early Christian and Jewish first-century theology.19 The implication of the union between the study of stories, or worldviews, as well as their theology, is that Christian theology tells a story and articulates its own worldview. It tells the story that humans are made in the image of their creator, placed in a good and beautiful, though transient, world but that humanity has rebelled against its creator. The solution to this problem is that the creator has acted and is acting to deal with the evil and bring the world to its intended goal through Jesus and the ‘spirit’ of the creator.20 Wright takes these elements and applies them to his understanding of how the stories of the NT exercise their authority over other stories.

Wright argues that only a theological analysis of contemporary culture can make the investigator aware of his own questions, presuppositions, aims, and intentions. The investigator brings his own stories and has them challenged by the stories of the Bible. But how is the story of the Bible authoritative? Wright offers the analogy of an incomplete play of William Shakespeare. Imagine that a group finds an unfinished play of Shakespeare and sets about to finish it. The group would have to finish the play in a manner that was befitting and harmonious with the previously written acts. Wright contends that there are five major acts of Scripture: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the final act. In the final act, the first scene consists of the writing of the NT, in which there are hints of the end.21 The intervening scenes, that is between scene one and the conclusion of the final act, are performed by the church under the aegis of the previous four acts, at which point the final act concludes. The church, therefore, faithfully improvises the final scenes of the play based upon what has been written before. Wright contends that:

I am proposing a notion of ‘authority’ which is not simply vested in the New Testament, or in ‘New Testament theology’, nor simply in ‘early Christian history’ and the like, conceived positivistically, but in the creator god himself, and this god’s story with the world, seen as focused on the story of Israel and thence on the story of Jesus, as told and retold in the Old and New Testaments, and as still requiring completion. This is a far more complex notion of authority than those usually tossed around in theological discourse.

Wright argues for this type of authority of Scripture for two reasons:

(1)  to show that though Christ has come in act four and ascended in act five, scene one (Acts 1–3), these events demand the necessity for further work; and

(2)  that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus does have a climactic sense to it but the need for further work is evident by Paul, who couples the work of Christ in the past to the work of the ‘spirit’ in the present.

This construction, according to Wright, fends off an anti-historical tendency in some branches of modern scholarship.22


One may summarize Wright’s prolegomena in the following manner: through a hypothesis and verification method one challenges the stories offered by various worldviews to spiral-in on the validity of a worldview. This means that one must place the stories of the NT within their historical setting to understand what they mean. One must also account for the theology, or god-dimension, of the stories of the NT. As it is theology and history, or the combined elements of the story, that challenge the stories of the investigator. The church takes the stories that have been written and faithfully improvises upon them in the present, which is an extension of the authority of the story of Scripture. We may now proceed to a critical analysis of Wright’s prolegomena.

Critical analysis of Wright’s prolegomena

When we consider the various features of Wright’s prolegomena, there are both strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of Wright’s prolegomena begin with his consideration of epistemology. First, seldom do theologians, but especially NT scholars consider presuppositional matters such as one’s theory of knowledge. This is a commendable aspect of Wright’s overall project, as recognizing one’s presuppositions in the interpretive process is necessary, otherwise, as Wright correctly states, one will simply project an undiscussed metaphysic upon the Scriptures. Karl Barth’s (1886–1968) Kierkegaardian existentialism comes to mind.23 Second, Wright notes the important interpretive principle of reading the NT within its historical-cultural context. The de-historicizing methodology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) comes to mind.24 Third, Wright highlights the importance of accepting the claims of the Scriptures and not prejudicially dismissing the miraculous because of an anti-supernatural bias. The history of religions school, F. C. Baur (1792–1860) and D. F. Strauss (1808–74), comes to mind.25 Fourth, and finally, Wright emphasizes the importance of the authority of Scripture. For many throughout the history of the interpretation of Scripture, the Bible has represented merely a history or source book rather than an instrument of God’s authority. So, these four characteristics of Wright’s prolegomena are commendable. There are, however, weaknesses present in his theological presuppositions. We may begin, first, with his epistemology.

Theological epistemology

Wright offers his critical-realism in contrast to positivism and phenomenalism. He admits the need to recognize the reality of the subject under investigation, something outside the knower, the importance of critical reflection, and challenging one’s own presuppositions. At the same time, he fails to account for the noetic effects of sin, which bears especially upon one’s theological epistemology. Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) notes that:

If Christianity is a religion of redemption in the full and true sense of the word and hence seeks to redeem human beings from all sin, from the errors of the mind as well as the impurity of the heart, as much from the death of the soul as from that of the body, [Scripture] in the nature of the case cannot subject itself to the criticism of human beings but must subject them to its criticism.26

Therefore, how can fallen man, apart from the assistance of the Holy Spirit obtain correct knowledge about the Scriptures? Wright, at least as he has outlined his epistemology in his New Testament and the People of God, has no place for the noetic effects of sin or the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit for a correct understanding of the Scriptures.27 Any one who undertakes the subject of theological epistemology must deal with Paul’s statement: ‘The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. 2 Cor. 3:14–16).28

For the reason that Paul explains, namely that the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, the Reformed church, in contrast to the more rationalistic wing of the church at large (Socinian, Arminian, and Cartesian) has emphasized the need for the work of the Holy Spirit in the comprehension of, and trust in the Scriptures. God’s external source of religious knowledge (principium cognoscendi externum) is the objective revelation of Christ in Scripture and the Holy Spirit is the internal source of knowledge (principium cognoscendi internum).29 Because Wright fails to account for the noetic effects of sin and the need of the illumination of the Holy Spirit in epistemology, but especially in theology, his offered solution of critical-realism is not all that different from the rationalism of René Descartes (1596–1650). The starting point of Descartes’ epistemology was autonomous reason, which is the same basis for Wright’s critical-realism.30Wright would reject this conclusion, as he states:

It is impossible to find solid (‘objective’) ground to stand on: such a thing does not exist, All epistemologies have to be, themselves, argued as hypothesis: they are tested not by their coherence with a fixed point agreed in advance, but (like other hypotheses, in fact) by their simplicity and their ability to make sense of a wide scope of experiences and events.31

Wright would most likely contend that because he denies the possibility of objective ground on which to stand, he is not committed to rationalist autonomy. Yet, one must ask the question, if all epistemologies have to be argued as hypotheses, who decides their validity or truthfulness but the individual? Like Descartes’ foundation of doubt, in Wright’s epistemology it is the individual who admits what is true. So, Wright’s admission that there is no objective ground on which to stand only means that he is humble in his rational autonomy.

In contrast to Wright’s autonomist epistemology, the church has historically argued that there is indeed objective ground on which to stand, namely the revealed Word of God.32 Wright and others might object to this on the basis that it is circular argumentation: one cannot appeal to the Word of God to prove its inspired character. While it may appear circular at first, this line of argumentation is not circular but linear. Again, Bavinck notes:

While revelation may be made credible by proofs, it is and remains a truth of faith, a gift of grace. Only the Spirit of God can make a person inwardly certain of the truth of divine revelation. God’s revelation can be believed only in a religious sense, on God’s own authority. The ground for faith is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. This position, however, seems circular: We believe Scripture is God’s revelation because the Bible tells us so. Such circularity can be broken only by the inner conviction that God has spoken. This witness of God is the final ground of faith; our will to believe is, by God’s grace, the final cause of our faith.33

For the reasons outlined by Bavinck, the Reformed church has historically affirmed that the Scriptures are self-authenticating (autopistos). The doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, therefore, was incorporated in the French, Belgic, and Westminister Confessions.34 The Belgic Confession, for example, states that the church accepts the books of the Protestant canon ‘especially because the Holy Ghost witnesses in our hearts that they are from God’ (§ 5), and the Westminster Confession states, ‘Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts’ (1.5).35 Wright’s error in his theological epistemology naturally leads to subsequent errors in his doctrine of Scripture.

Understanding of Scripture

Wright’s understanding of Scripture contains problems that originate with his epistemology. At the outset of his epistemology Wright makes no room for the objective ground of Scripture as a starting point and the needed illumination of the Holy Spirit. This, therefore means that with his critical-realism, he approaches the text of Scripture merely as a historical phenomenon. Wright states that the task of his investigation ‘will involve the discernment and analysis, at one level or another, of first-century stories and their implications’. He goes on to write that, ‘Our overall task is to discuss the historical origin of Christianity.’36 Wright certainly does argue that one must investigate the theological aspects of the various first-century stories, what he defines as the ‘god-dimension of a worldview’.37 So, he might counter that, no, in the end, his analysis of Scripture is not solely historical. Rather, over and against those who have imposed a philosophical or theological grid over the Scriptures, he wants to take seriously the historicity of the events. While Wright’s method is certainly an improvement over Bultmann, as he takes seriously the historicity of the events of Scripture, Wright none-the-less fails to account for the redemptive-historical character of the Scriptures.

The Scriptures are not simply a historical occurrence like that of any other event, but instead represent the redemptive-historical activity of God in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, just as Wright fails to account for the work of the Holy Spirit in his theological epistemology, which pertains to the ordo salutis [order of salvation] he fails to account for the work of the Holy Spirit in his understanding of Scripture, as it pertains to the historia salutis [history of salvation]. Throughout Wright’s corpus he does much to emphasize the eschatological nature of Christ’s ministry and Paul’s soteriology.38 This is important and should be commended, as too many theologians treat eschatology as if it only entered the loci of systematic theology at the end. Wright fails, though, to account for the eschatological nature of the Scriptures, an eschatological manifestation of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

When formulating one’s doctrine of Scripture one must account for the two-stages of history of which Scripture speaks: the present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the age to come.39 It is Christ, as the second Adam, who inaugurates the eschatological age, or the age to come. Nowhere is this more evident than when Paul writes: ‘Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” ’ (1 Cor. 15:45).40 What is important to note here is that Paul closely identifies the eschatological age not only with Christ as the second Adam, but also the Holy Spirit. As Vos notes, ‘Being thus closely and subjectively identified with the Risen Christ, the Spirit imparts to Christ the life-giving power which is peculiarly the Spirit’s own: the Second Adam became not only [Pneuma] but [pneuma Zoopoioun]’.41 The eschatological age, therefore, is not simply the age of the second Adam, but especially the age of the Holy Spirit, as the author of Hebrews states, the Spirit is the power of the age to come (Heb. 6:5).42 For this reason, Vos notes that, ‘the Spirit is not only the author of the resurrection-act, but likewise the permanent substratum of the resurrection-life, to which He supplies the inner, basic element and other outer atmosphere.’43 If one accounts for the two-age structure of redemptive history, and that the eschatological age is marked by the work of the Holy Spirit, then this must colour one’s understanding of Scripture.

Scripture, or more specifically, the NT cannot be merely one historical document among the other literature of the first-century. Rather, the NT is the extension of the work of Christ into the eschatological age by the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul gives a scriptural redemptive-historical connection between the old Adamic and eschatological ages when he writes that the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been revealed to the nations through the prophetic writings. This was the OT (Rom. 16:25–26), which Peter elsewhere identifies as the result of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). Paul also explains that the Holy Spirit has revealed the same mysteries ‘to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’ (Eph. 3:5), which we now have in the NT. This connection between Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the apostles is the promised means by which Christ would communicate to the church (John 14:26) as the Spirit had communicated with OT Israel. Hence, as Herman Ridderbos notes, ‘Christ not only provides salvation, He also provides trustworthy communication about that salvation.’44 The way by which Christ communicates to the church about salvation is through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The eschatological work of the Spirit as it pertains to Scripture is that for which Wright fails to account.

One cannot approach the Scriptures as merely a historical document. This type of methodology is no more of an improvement over the quest for the historical Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus had no interest in any claims of Christ’s deity, it only wanted to know of what Christ did in history. Along these lines Ridderbos notes that:

The objection to the historical-critical method is not that it is historical. In that respect it has brought to light many things that formerly were either unknown or too often neglected. The objection is that the origin of the historical method is secular, not revelation. The historical-critical method thus misunderstands the absolutely unique character not only of the content of the New Testament message but also of the manner in which it has come to us.45

Wright’s failure, therefore, to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit on the level of theological epistemology, the work of the Spirit applied to the individual in the ordo salutis, and at the level of redemptive history, namely the work of the Spirit as the agent of revelation in the eschatological age, produces implications for the whole of his thought.

Systemic impact

The systemic impact of Wright’s prolegomena, his epistemology and understanding of Scripture, surfaces most prominently in the interpretive role he assigns to the literature of second-temple Judaism, his exegetical conclusions, and the role of narrative in theology.

Relationship of Second Temple literature to Scripture

Wright sees his study of the NT primarily as a historical investigation, a historical investigation of first-century stories and their implications.46 He states that, ‘We are therefore studying human history, in the recognition that the actors in the drama, and hence in a sense the drama itself, can only be fully understood when we learn to see the world through their eyes.’47 One must understand the worldview of the first century in order to understand properly the events that the Scriptures record, whether the ministry of Christ or the teaching of Paul. Wright argues that:

we cannot escape the constant task, important in the study of second-temple Judaism as much as anywhere else, of reconstructing the worldview which informed and underlay not only this or that particular writing but the society as a whole. We need to plot, and understand, the stories that Jews of the period were telling themselves and one another about who they were, about what their god was up to, about what the meaning of it all might be.48

Now, while one must certainly establish the historical-cultural context of any document to interpret it properly, Wright seems to locate the interpretive centre of gravity in the first century apart from two important factors: the inspired nature of the NT; and the methodology of the authors of the NT.

First, as noted above, the NT is the work not only of human authors in the first century but also the Holy Spirit. Placing interpretive priority in the first century and its worldview gives too much weight to uninspired documents and fails to give interpretive priority to the OT. This is evident, for example, when Wright states, ‘There is a sense in which the Old Testament is not the book of the church in the same way that the New Testament is the book of the church.’49 Again, if the OT is the product of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21), then one must go beyond the first century and explore the views dating back at least to the 15th century bc and the composition of the Pentateuch. The interpretive relationship, therefore, between the OT and NT must take priority over the worldview of the first century. This does not mean that one must ignore the first century context, but rather note that there is the necessity of consciously connecting the revelation of the NT with the preceding history of revelation, the OT.50 This interpretive connection is clearly evident in the way the authors of the NT use the OT.

Second, when we examine the methodology of the authors of the NT, there is quite a different picture from what Wright would have us think. Wright argues for the need to understand the first century, apart from which we will have no understanding of the message of the NT. Yet, when the authors wrote the NT they rejected the first-century understanding of things as authoritative, they looked, not to the literature of second-temple Judaism, but to the OT. As Ridderbos notes, ‘The traditions of the Jewish elders were rejected by Jesus and Paul as obfuscations of God’s commandments and as misunderstandings of the redemption Christ brought (Mark 7:8; Matt. 5:21ff; Col. 2:8, 16ff).’51 Moreover, nowhere does Paul cite or quote the literature of second-temple Judaism. J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936) observed that,

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.52

Paul uses the OT exclusively.53 and this was not something that was peculiar to Paul.

Many first-century Jews recognized that the prophets, men inspired by the Spirit of God, were no longer in their midst (1 Macc. 4:46; 14:41). This is what accounted for the great interest in John the Baptist, one who dressed and spoke as a prophet, even Elijah himself; a prophet was once again in the midst of Israel (Matt. 3:1ff). Other first century Jews such as Josephus (ca. 37–100 ad) recognized the closed and inspired nature of the OT canon. Josephus writes:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation, is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them.54

Here we see a clear difference between the books of the OT, essentially the division of the OT canon that we now possess, and the literature of second-temple Judaism, specifically the Apocrypha.55

What distinguished Jew from Christian, was not one’s view of the OT canon, as the Jews held the OT canon to be inspired and closed. What distinguished Jew from Christian was their interpretation of the OT canon. Ellis notes that:

Not without significance for the question is the fact that no explicit quotations from the Septuagintal apocrypha appears in the New Testament, in Philo or in the literature of Qumran. In its conception of the Old Testament the messianic community of Jesus differed from the mainstream of Judaism not in the content of its Bible but in the interpretive key that it used to open the Bible.56

The interpretive key, of course, was Jesus Christ. Moreover, the interpretive key of Christ could only be comprehended with the illumination of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:14–16). Additionally, whereas the Jews had hesitation adding to, or changing the content of the OT canon and recognized the inferior quality of their own recent literature, the authors of the NT had no such reluctance.

When Jesus explained the significance of his own ministry, he did so, not with the literature of second-temple Judaism, but with OT, the law and prophets (Luke 24:44). One should also recall that Peter thought Paul’s writings were equal with those of the OT (2 Pet. 3:15–16), unthinkable for a first-century Jew. Paul also saw his own writings as the product of the Holy Spirit.57 For these reasons Ellis writes that:

The apostle’s OT exegesis was not just an adoption of current traditions but reveals a vitality and understanding totally foreign to rabbinical literature. If Paul used Jewish interpretations, he culled and molded them to a Christological understanding of the OT; if he was a ‘child of his times,’ they were for Paul the times of the Messiah, His Cross, and resurrection, and His revelation of the true meaning of Scripture. Paul was a disciple of Christ not of Gamaliel.58

Therefore, for these two reasons, the inspired nature of the NT and the methodology of the NT writers, Wright’s emphasis upon the interpretive significance of the literature of the second-temple is misplaced. The interpretive significance of the second temple is not the only error produced by Wright’s prolegomena. His view of scriptural authority produces questionable results and undoubtedly influences the way he uses Scripture in his theological project.

Scriptural authority and exegesis

In Wright’s view of scriptural authority, the church completes the story of Scripture by improvising the unfinished scenes of the play. Christ has risen in act five, scene one, and the church must now write the end of the story, based upon the previous four acts. Wright argues that this view of scriptural authority:

… is not simply vested in the New Testament, or in ‘New Testament theology,’ nor simply in ‘early Christian history’ and the like, conceived positivistically, but in the creator god himself, and this god’s story with the world, seen as focused on the story of Israel and thence on the story of Jesus, as told and retold in the Old and New Testaments, and as still requiring completion.59

This view conceives of Scripture as the product of the church rather than the other way around. In Wright’s view it is the church who writes the intervening scenes between act five, scene one, and the conclusion of the play. This seems to fall closer to the Roman Catholic view of scriptural authority—the Scriptures are authoritative because the church has declared them so and its own tradition is equal to that of Scripture. By contrast, Ridderbos notes that, ‘In its redemptive-historical sense, the canon is not the product of the church; rather the church is to be the product of the canon.’60 Moreover, far beyond any positivistic view of Scripture, the Reformed tradition has never viewed the Bible as a storehouse of facts out of which one constructs an empirical authority.61

Historically, the Reformed church has recognized the pneumatological character of Scripture. This has important implications for one’s view of scriptural authority. For example, though the Westminster divines recognize the importance of the testimony of the church, the heavenliness of its contents, the efficacy of its doctrine, the majesty of the style, consent of all the parts, and many other incomparable excellencies of Scripture, their ‘full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word’ (WCF 1.5). How does this pneumatological principle impact their understanding of the authority of Scripture? The divines base the authority, not ultimately on empirical grounds, but on the work of the Holy Spirit. What makes Scripture authoritative is ‘no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture’ (WCF 1.10).62 The absence of the recognition of the Holy Spirit in Wright’s view of the authority of Scripture leads to a problem concerning theological method.

The absence of the recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit in Wright’s view of the authority of Scripture causes Wright to produce questionable exegetical conclusions. This is evident, for example, in his explanation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. In his What St. Paul Really Said, he restricts his treatment of Paul to the undisputed Pauline epistles: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians.63 Moreover, when Wright treats important subjects such as the interpretation of the phrase, ‘the works of the law’, he relies upon and agrees with the conclusions of James D. G. Dunn.64 Yet, Dunn bases his interpretation for the contested phrase upon the undisputed Pauline epistles apart from Ephesians and the Pastorals, which Dunn believes to be post-Pauline.65 Yet, there are a number of important passages in Ephesians and Pastorals that deal with the subject of works.66 Wright’s conclusions are therefore questionable because he fails to consider all of the evidence. Even if he did affirm the Pauline authorship of all of the epistles that bear the apostle’s name, to restrict investigation to the undisputed epistles allows the unchecked presuppositions of the historical-critical school into the equation and fails to account for the testimony and authority of the Holy Spirit in these matters. Once again, the autonomous individual sits in judgment over the Scriptures and exercises authority over it, rather than submit to the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking therein. What about the role Wright assigns to narrative in theology?

The role of narrative in theology

One element connected to Wright’s epistemology is the role that he gives to narrative in theology. As previously stated, Wright believes that any attempt ‘to “boil off” an abstract set of propositions as though one were thereby getting to a more foundational statement would actually be to falsify this worldview at a basic point.’ Wright argues that the only proper way, therefore, to speak of Israel’s god is through narration.67Wright’s antipathy to proposition and support for narrative is evident in other statements he has written: ‘Much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.’68 Wright’s antipathy is essentially towards evangelical attempts to systematize the Scriptures into a coherent theology. Wright argues that narrative theology does not distort the message of Scripture like systematic theology. He bases this conclusion, not only on his epistemology, but also on Christ’s use of parables: ‘That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already.’69 Wright’s point is that Christ tells a story to challenge the existing stories around him; he does not rattle off doctrinal propositions.

Perhaps Wright’s antipathy to doctrinal proposition or systematic theology can be understood, especially in the wake of Bultmann. His rejection, however, of proposition is unfounded and contrary to Scripture. This is evident, for example, in Christ’s use of parables. Christ told parables for various reasons, sometimes to obscure and sometimes to illuminate the truth. Christ, however, did not stop with the parable. Millard Erickson notes that ‘Jesus accompanied his parables with an interpretation, which, we should note, was not in parabolic form.’70 Hence, narrative and proposition always go hand in hand. Erickson winsomely illustrates this point:

A former colleague tells a story that illustrates this requirement. It involves a French soldier in Napoleon’s army, who had lost an arm in battle. When Napoleon toured the hospital where the soldier was being treated, he stopped at this man’s bed, asked his story, and praised him for his sacrifice. Upon hearing this, the soldier stood to his feet, saluted, and replied, ‘For you and for France, my Emperor, I would gladly give my other arm as well,’ then took his sword and cut off his other arm.

As Erickson notes, the account is a powerful narrative of the man’s dedication and passion but propositional truth quickly raises its ugly head, How does a one-armed man cut off his arm?71

While one must never abstract the propositional truths of Scripture from the context of its narratives, one may certainly distinguish its propositions. The two, however, should never be separated. Separate the narrative from the propositional truth and one merely has a story that might be true, but open to inconsistency and contradiction. Separate propositional truth from narrative and all one has is an abstract system of thought, not necessarily rooted in reality or history. As Vos notes, ‘Biblical theology’, or narrative, ‘is of the greatest importance and value for the study of Systematic Theology’. Vos explains that the constructive principle of systematic theology is system and logic whereas that of biblical theology is purely historical: ‘In other words, Systematic Theology endeavors to construct a circle, Biblical Theology seeks to reproduce a line.’72 Because the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture it is not only one narrative from Genesis to Revelation but it is internally and logically consistent. Hence, biblical and systematic theology, or narrative and proposition, are not antithetical to one another. Vos, speaking of the earthly and heavenly spheres, or the historical and theological, and the similarities between Greek philosophical dualism and Christian theology, writes:

Notwithstanding a certain formal resemblance in the two-sidedness of the Christian life, it stands at a far remove from Greek philosophical dualism. Its very genesis forbids identification with this even to the slightest degree. Its mother-soil lies in eschatological revelation, not in metaphysical speculation. For this reason it is important to be able to show that the horizontal line of perspective is the older one, out of which only through an eminently-historical event the parallel structure of the two spheres was begotten. The historical was first, then the theological. And because the latter came from the former every possibility of conflict was from the outset excluded, neither of the two could interfere with the other.73

We may now proceed to conclude our study.


In our study we have examined Wright’s prolegomena, his epistemology and doctrine of Scripture. Throughout we have noted the deafening absence of any recognition for the need of the work of the Holy Spirit in both the ordo and historia salutis. By failing to account for the need for the work of the Holy Spirit to counter the noetic effects of sin, Wright’s theological epistemology is flawed. By failing to account for the eschatological work of the Holy Spirit, especially as it concerns the revelation of the NT Scriptures, Wright allows the literature of the second-temple too great an interpretive role. This produces problems with his christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. It affects his christology because he fails to recognize that Christ has sent the Spirit to reveal the truth of Christ’s ministry to the church. It affects his eschatology because he does not recognize the eschatological work of the Spirit especially as it pertains to Scripture. It affects his ecclesiology because in his view the church writes the concluding scenes of the great drama of redemption apart from recognizing its need to submit to the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, Wright also fails to make his case that narrative and proposition are antithetical.

Wright’s prolegomena, consequently, places him squarely in the historical-critical school of liberal thought. He is certainly on the right wing of the historical-critical camp, but nonetheless in their midst. Those who argue that Wright’s views are compatible with the historic reformed faith need to take a second look at Wright’s prolegomena and ask whether presuppositions that are at odds with Scripture can produce coherent results let alone results harmonious with the Scriptures. Some might respond that Wright will affirm conservative and reformed teachings regarding the theology of Paul, as his volume on the apostle’s theology has not yet been published. On the other hand, Wright cannot correct foundational errors without destroying the foundation. It seems unlikely, therefore, that any major change will come from his volume on Paul’s theology. While it may prove helpful in points, Wright’s explanation of Paul’s theology is still firmly in the historical-critical camp.

1 See, e.g., D. A. Carson, ed., et al., Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001); A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole, Where Is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1–5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective on Paul: Second Thoughts on the Origins of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Philipsburg: P & R, 2004); Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

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2 E. g., Waters, Justification, 1–34; Westerholm, Perspectives, 101–16.

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3 Wright is not alone in addressing matters of prolegomena, as James Dunn has also treated these issues, though his work is more narrowly focused on the theology of Paul (see James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 1–26).

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4 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 31.

5 Wright, People of God, 32.

6 On positivism see, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. Brian McGuinness and David Francis Pears (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2001); A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (St. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1977); Thomas Rickets, ‘Logical Positivism’, in Jaegwon Kim and Ernest Sosa, eds., A Companion to Metaphysics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 281–86. Cf. Michael W. Nicholson, ‘Abusing Wittgenstein: The Misuse of the Concept of Language Games in Contemporary Theology’, JETS 39/4 (1996), 617–29, esp. 625–28.

7 On phenomenalism see C. I. Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (La Salle: Open Court, 1946); Richard Fumerton, ‘Phenomenalism’, in Kim and Sosa, Metaphysics, 385–90.

8 Wright, People of God, 35.

9 Wright, People of God, 35, also 32–34.

10 Wright, People of God, 35. Cf. Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, vol. 17 (Allison Park: Pickwick Publications, 1989).

11 Wright, People of God, 37.

12 Wright, People of God, 44.

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13 Wright, People of God, 77.

14 Wright, People of God, 79.

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15 Wright, People of God, 109.

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16 Wright, People of God, 41.

17 Wright, People of God, 118.

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18 Wright, People of God, 127.

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19 Wright, People of God, 130–31.

20 Wright, People of God, 132–33.

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21 Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15; Rev.

22 Wright, People of God, 143.

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23 See Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1962), 307–315.

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24 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation,’ in New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984), 1–45.

25 F. C. Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Works, His Epistles and Teachings, Two Volumes in One (1845; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003); D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. Eliot George (New York: Continuum, 1998).

26 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 505.

27 There is one place where Wright acknowledges the need for the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s theological epistemology: ‘The Spirit broods over us as we read this book, to straighten out our bent thinking; the world-views that have got twisted so that they are like the world’s world-views’ (N. T. Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ The Laing Lecture 1989 and the Griffith Thomas Lecture 1989, 18; idem, ‘How can the Bible be Authoritative?’ Vox Evangelica 21 [1991], 7–32).

There are two points to make regarding this quote: (1) Wright makes no mention of this important theological point in his prolegomena in New Testament and the People of God, so whether it is an oversight or a change in his view is not known; and (2) if Wright still holds this view it does not materially manifest itself in his prolegomena.

28 All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

29 Bavinck, Dogmatics, 497.

30 René Descartes, Discourse on the Method, ed. & trans. George Heffernan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).

31 Wright, People of God, 45–46.

32 See Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg: P & R, 1974), 21–30.

33 Bavinck, Dogmatics, 562.

34 Bavinck, Dogmatics, 583–84;

35 For the Belgic and Westminster Confession see The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3 (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 383–436, 600–73. The need of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in understanding of Scripture, is of course, classically stated in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20–21, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.7.1–5, 74–81.

36 Wright, People of God, 79.

37 Wright, People of God, 130.

38 E.g., N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 576–91; idem, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 36, 96–99.

39 Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5. See Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology(1930; Philipsburg: P & R, 1994), 1–41.

40 Modified ESV.

41 Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 168–69.

42 See, Geerhardus Vos, ‘The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit’, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed., Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Philipsburg: P & R, 1980), 91–125.

43 Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 165.

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44 Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, trans. Richard B. Gaffin (1963; Philipsburg: P & R, 1988), 43.

45 Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 49.

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46 Wright, People of God, 79.

47 Wright, People of God, 118.

48 Wright, People of God, 119.

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49 Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ 12.

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50 Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 72.

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51 Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 17.

52 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1925; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 180.

53 E. Earle Ellis, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (1957; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 10–37.

54 Josephus, ‘Against Apion’, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 1.8 (38), 776.

55 See E. Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation in the Light of Modern Research (1991; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 3–10.

56 Ellis, Old Testament, 36.

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57 1 Cor. 2:4; 7:40; 2 Cor. 3:1–18.

58 Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT, 83.

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59 Wright, People of God, 132–33; also idem, ‘How can the Bible be Authoritative?’ 7–32.

60 Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 25.

61 There is, of course, the famous saying of Charles Hodge (1797–1878), ‘The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches’ (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 [rep.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 10). This quote can certainly be construed as positivistic, yet read within the greater context of Hodge’s theology, especially in consideration of his treatment of the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as his exegetical commentaries, it does not fall into the category of positivism (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 527–32). Additionally, the connection Hodge draws between the Bible and the facts of nature is a powerful demonstration of the exegetical nature of his theology (D. G. Hart, ‘Systematic Theology at Old Princeton: Unoriginal Calvinism,’ in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple, ed. David VanDrunen [Philipsburg: P & R, 2004], 11).

62 Cf. Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 32–33.

63 Wright, St. Paul, 8.

64 N. T. Wright, Romans, NIB, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 461, n. 97; cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, WBC, vol. 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988), 153–60.

65 Dunn, Theology of Paul, 13, n. 39. One should note, though, that Wright does affirm the Pauline authorship of Ephesians (see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection and the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], 236).

66 E.g., Eph. 2:1–9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5.

67 Wright, People of God, 77.

68 Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ 4.

69 Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ 15.

70 Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 282.

71 Erickson, Truth, 281–82.

72 Geerhardus Vos, ‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,’ in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed., Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Philipsburg: P & R, 1980), 23.

73 Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 41.

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J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California.