on the theology of N.T. Wright

In case it hasn’t been known, I’ll let the cat out of the bag and share that I am not a huge fan of N.T. Wright and honestly, I have only read one book of his What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans) or the main thrusts of the New Perspective on Paul (on which I did take a seminary level course and read quite extensively many articles and books related to the teaching).  So some of my critique is not based on wide reading of his works – yet, at the same time, I have a feeling once one has read a book or two of his, you’ve pretty much heard what he has to say as it is all repeated in one fashion or another throughout.

Well, anyways, Mike Wittmer has a post reflecting on Kevin Vanhoozer’s response to Wright from during the recent Theology conference held at Wheaton.   His reflections on Vahoozer’s thoughts and what Vanhoozer has to say, basically reflect my own sentiments.    These sentiments are that there is something missing from the picture Wright tries to paint.   My sentiments reflect what Vanhoozer sees right and what he sees wrong about Wright’s theology.  His points about adoption are well taken and need to be more fully developed.

Here is part of what Wittmer writes:

Vanhoozer wisely and with good humor suggests that Wright is right in what he affirms (the communal nature of salvation) and wrong in what he rejects (the traditional Protestant understanding of justification).  Vanhoozer shows how John Calvin already suggested what Wright seeks to accomplish, and that the theological category of adoption may be the best way to bring together the best that the traditional Protestants and the New Perspective has to offer.

I winced when Vanhoozer admitted that most systematic theologians do little with adoption.  It’s an important part of our salvation, but we generally focus on more controversial topics such as justification and sanctification.  Vanhoozer explained that adoption is able to account for both the Reformers’ focus on being accepted by God and the New Perspective’s emphasis on being in God’s family.  Here’s the money quote, which I roughly paraphrase from memory:  “What if the legal court is also an adoption court?  What if the same court that declares us to be innocent also declares us to belong to God’s family?”

A similar reflection was made by Chris Tilling on his blog as well, especially when he notes:

By protecting NT texts so thoroughly from eisegesis, his [Wright’s] presentation of the gospel has sometimes been framed in a way that eclipses the significance of the good news for me. Yeah, ‘modern individualism’ blah blah, but I challenge you to pick up Bultmann’s NT theology without finding yourself addressed by a gospel that speaks a clear word of hope to you personallynot just creation generally.

So what’s the issue?  The issue is that when one reads Wight, there is little if any sense of he power of the gospel or the power of the cross for YOU personally – that redemption is for you personally, not just all of us corporately; that sin is a particular individual problem, not just a general problem that affects humanity and the creation.  I accept that many need the corrective that salvation has its communal holistic aspects – that God is saving a people for himself, that he intends to redeem all creation.   What seems to be missing is that Jesus came to save sinners too (1 Timothy 1;15).  Wright seems to think that the only way of thinking for Paul was that of community and the creation at large.  He seemed to miss the verse I just noted, 1 Timothy 1:15 (as an example) where Paul says,

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”   The individual aspect of Paul’s thinking is seen in his statement “of whom I am the worst.”  (TNIV)

So, that is my main issue with the theology of N.T. Wright – perhaps he has put some emphasis on the individual aspects but so far as I can tell he hasn’t spelled it out clearly enough or, it is just not there (which I think if it was there more Reformed folk would support him).  If he did have this dual emphasis of redemption being both individual communal, I think he win over more people and face less controversy.

 It’s a both and not an either or – redemption is both individual and corporate – for both humanity and the whole of creation.

There you have it – there are plenty other issues to consider but this will suffice for now.