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.


13 responses to “on the theology of N.T. Wright

  1. One problem with this conversation, at large, is that “individuality” and “community” weren’t so at odds in the ancient world like they are today. For instance: American teenagers can struggle against the restraints of a family when they begin to taste the complete freedom that’s not too far away. In stark contrast, virtually no one in the ancient world ever attained that kind of total freedom. Self-sustenance was exceedingly rare, and so whatever sense common folks had of themselves as “individuals” was entirely contained within their natural sense of self as a part of their community.

    In other words, individual salvation WAS corporate salvation. That is, one person’s experience of being saved was simultaneously the experience of finding oneself with a new spiritual family. Philip’s Eunuch seems like an exception, but he undoubtedly went home and shared with everyone he could. Even Dio of Athens found himself with a handful of Christians (Ac.17). And of course Paul could speak of himself individually, but each moment of his ‘individual’ life was poured out upon others. How ‘individual’ is that?

    In our day, you’re probably right that NTW could balance his rhetoric on this issue. On the other hand, the individualistic side is already pretty well over-emphasized. Maybe the corporate needs a bit of over-emphasis for a while, just to get us towards some sense of balance?

  2. Bill,

    I appreciate your critique. I had similar thoughts after reading Brian thoughts.

    Perhaps NT Wright is not emphasizing enough PERSONAL cross that is so indicative of western evangelicalism. But how can one read Wright and charge him for not emphasizing the cross.

    NT Wright is a BIG picture guy, and rightfully so.

  3. I understand you points Bill and TC. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts.

    While I appreciate the big picture approach, why doesn’t Wright include the “problem of sin” in this big picture? Seems like an important part don’t you think?

    as a side note this is where i disagree with his take on the prodigal son – Wright says it’s the story of Israel but I disagree – its a confrontation of the negative attitude of the Jewish leaders towards sinners (see Luke 15:1-2) – the attitude of the big brother is the problem not really the problem of the younger brother – God want all to come home, not just the righteous.

    Also, I understand that the lines were blurred with the individual person and the community in first century Judaism, but did not Jesus call individuals to follow him despite families and community identities? Let the dead bury their own dead, you come follow me.

    This raises another problem for me in relation to how Wright handles the cross is his seeming to downplay the role of sin (as a particular problem) and the resulting separation from God (both Israel and the Nations) – I could be wrong but for Wright, at least when I read What Saint Paul Really Said, the coming of Jesus into the world wasn’t about confronting sin and reconciling man to God but about God doing “something bigger” namely the setting up of his Kingdom, fullfiling his end of the bargain in the Covenants, etc, and so on. Not sure what could be bigger than dealing with sin and reconciliation but I guess establishing the Kingdom is. It’s a both/and issue not and either/or.

    Again, I see this as downplaying sin since it seems to make it a general problem and not a particular problem, and a big one at that. Because of this my concern is that Wright seems to empty the cross of its power. I know that is a strong statement but plenty others have made it too so I know I am not alone on this.

    I understand his wanting to move away from traditional understandings but it seems odd not to include it. In What Saint Paul Really Said – I sensed Wrights understanding of the “gospel” wasn’t Jesus saving us from our sins through the cross and resurrection – it was the inaugaration of the Kingdom; that God was vanquishing evil and so on, but he never stated explicitly that part of the gospel message was that Jesus came to confront sin and through the cross reconcile man to God. Like I noted, if he did this, there’d be less of an uproar.

    As I see it, this is important too – and key aspect of the gospel that should be balanced with the coming of the kingdom, which while it began with Jesus coming into the world only moved forward in establishment after the cross and resurrection dealt with sin issues.

    What am I missing?

    • Brian,

      I see you get the big picture of Wright but still thinks he doesn’t devoted enough material to the sin problem

      Again, Wright is big picture. When this is understood, the treatment of sin at the cross finds it’s rightful place. The treatment of sin was not the main concern of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps we should let Jesus tell us what was: the kingdom (Luke 4:43, 44). Then we need to flesh out this whole thing about the kingdom of God for Jesus and Paul, and so on.

      Lest we think N.T. Wright has muddled the matter of the cross, and since we’re quoting or echoing What Saint Paul Really Said, let me quote from it: “The cross was the moment when the one true God defeated the principalities and powers, in accordance with Jewish prophecy; it was therefore the moment when sin and death themselves were defeated…” (p. 174ff). I encourage you to read the rest of that section.

      Wright is simply echoing Paul and so on. How can we charge with anything than orthodox Christianity on the matter of the cross and its implications?

      The New Perspective on Paul has simply open up areas of Pauline theology that we have never really considered. Do I always agree with Wright? Not at all! But I do find myself agreeing more than disagreeing.

  4. Not having read WSPRS, this speaks only for me:

    Reconciliation from Sin is absolutely less important than establishing the Kingdom. It’s like saving a life or redeeming a wayward soul. You still have to go farther and nurture that soul, to help them build a life for themselves.

    Now, if NTW overlooks sin, I’ll grant you again such seems unbalanced. Yet…


    On the “you follow me”, that individual was not being called to leave family life but to trade families. Following Jesus MEANT becoming part of his followers. So that individual action still has an entirely, thoroughly corporate context.


    By the way, you just got me thinking about the Prodigal Son. I’ll post on that Monday. Thanks! 🙂

  5. Clarification: Reconciliation from Sin is less important, although more immediately necessary. That immediacy is one reason much of Christendom spends so much energy on evangelism and talks so much about salvation. It produces visible results. Jesus, however, knew you don’t just salvage the broken wagon from the trash heap. You’ve got to put it back together so it can fulfill its original purpose.

  6. Brian and Bill,

    Regarding treatment of individual passages (Prodigal Son, for example) in both Paul and the Gospels, that’s where I have trouble with his exegesis. That is why I’m on record of favoring Dunn over Wright as an exegete in this whole NPP.

  7. TC please know I haven’t been ignoring you. I am thinking about the comments but one line in Wright’s books isn’t going to convince me that he has a solid cross centered theology or that his mention of the cross is filled with implications for both the community and the person. The cross of Christ is the power of God to save – not a clock on the wall to tell us what God was doing in the world at that point in history. This might sound harsh but that is how I see Wright treating the cross at times.

    Bill I am not sure reconciliation is less important – Paul talks much about it and especially in his second letter to the Corinthians where he makes the appeal for them to be reconciled to God – perhaps part of establishing the Kingdom is the reconciliation of men and women to God? It was certainly blended into the ministry of Jesus as well – Jesus preached the Kingdom but also came as a ransom for many. Additionally, I do see the one goes from one family to another – still there is power and hope in the gospel for all people and persons.

    I hope I am not missing what you all are trying to say.

  8. In Surprised by Hope, Wright characterizes (and perhaps caricatures) “the normal Western Christian view: that salvation is about ‘my relationship with God’ in the present and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future” (196).

    By contrast, “For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God’s new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing [by their miracles] was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time, and matter” (198-99).

    Finally, for the individual, “salvation only does what it’s meant to do when those who have been saved, are being saved, and will one day fully be saved realize that they are saved . . . not for themselves alone but for what God now longs to do through them.” And “such people are designed–it isn’t too strong a word–to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos.” Thus, “they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen.” He then concludes, “To sum up where we’ve got so far–the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us” (200).

  9. Before you can ever understand Wright, you need to understand what he means by “Critical Realism”. Brian I think you might be being quite unfair to Wright in your summation (more the other guys though). He can’t Write everything that needs to be written. Furthermore, he isn’t a systematic theologian he is a historian and is seeking to paint a picture of the first century world view. He shouldn’t be compared to calvin or others because he is looking at a lot of secondary literature.

    Perhaps it is about time people start appreciating what it is Wright is trying to do instead of hitting him around the head about what he hasn’t or doesn’t do!

    • sure he can’t Wright every thing there is to be written but he can at least note the core issues of the gospel and that is the Cross of Christ and its role in reconciling man to God. I guess I am just a real stick in the mud! lol!

      • He’s a historian not a theologian. Read what he says and then look at those things in light of the historical evidence. Wright is the guy you turn to when trying to understand secondary literature.

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