NT Wright: An Old Perspective on the New Perspective

A Response to N.T. Wright and his New Perspective on Paul

In their attempt to reject the old ways, they actually embodied them.

Over the last few decades, the "Emerging Church" has been a philosophical influence among postmodern evangelicals, especially those who were post-conservative (reformed former fundamentalists like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren). Church services were now gatherings, sermons now conversations, and the assembly often not even called a church.

Their main tenets were acceptance of varying viewpoints and a commitment to dialogue. Disillusioned with the program-based design church and focused on deconstructing the Bible, worship, and Christian community, they wanted to be known for generous orthodoxy and missional living.

To do this they used rediscovered spirituality, meaning things taken from the Church Fathers and traditions of what I call the Imperial Church. This meant a return to candles and other—not early church, but Imperial Church (AD 250-1250)—accoutrements. In their attempt to reject the old ways, they actually embodied them.

Among those Christians, N.T. Wright emerged as a theological rock star. Wright is currently Research Professor of the New Testament at St. Mary's College in Scotland. He took this position after he retired as the Anglican Bishop of Durham in 2010, and prior to that he was Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey.

Being one of the most significant New Testament scholars in the world, it was kind of a big deal when Wright successfully defended the historicity of Jesus and the bodily resurrection against Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg, Walter Wink and the entire Jesus Seminar(these are not Marvel Comic characters and I am not making this up).

Wright is one of those authors who is so smart and verbose that as you read through his dense prose, many of his footnotes have to refer the reader back to something he has already argued or written.

Wright is popular with progressive evangelicals because:

  • He is in favor of women occupying the senior leadership position of pastor/elder in local churches (egalitarian view)

  • He denies the doctrine of imputation—the doctrine that Christ's righteousness is imparted to the believer (2Co 5:21). Wright says he believes in substitutionary atonement (that Christ died for the remission of sins), but only in the context of a view of Christ's work called Christus Victor (that Christ died merely to break the bonds of sin and death).

  • He doesn’t agree with dispensationalism (yet he says to understand the Bible you must read it as a play divided into five acts!)

  • He "reimagines" (I am being generous here) the biblical view of justification by faith

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..the problem with the law was not that you tried to keep it to get to heaven, but simply that it divided Jew and Gentile.

This reimagining began with Swedish New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, who in 1963 published a seminal monograph: The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West. He argued that a new psychology needed to be applied to Paul, and once enforced one will come to realize that the current views of Paul (and justification) does not match Paul's writings. He says once you understand this, you can see we have been operating under mistaken assumptions about Paul's religious context and beliefs all this time.

Stendahl's monograph was followed by E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. Sanders took a selective choice of comments from early rabbinic writings to craft an argument which said first century Judaism was not a works-based religion.

Okay, let me get this straight. Rabbis of the first century, who wanted to stamp out the doctrine of justification by faith alone, are mixed with a psychological approach to reading Paul, which basically turns everything he says inside out and backwards. I see. This must be how scholarship is supposed to work.


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But wait, there's more. This turns out to be the perfect way to justify the Anglican view of baptizing infants! Because, you see, baptism is the "boundary-marker" of those who are "in the covenant," in the same way circumcision was in the Old Testament. After all, Judaism was not a religion of legalism but of grace, because Jews believed they received salvation by the grace of election through the covenant, and the keeping of the law was just evidence that they were saved.

Circumcision, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath were simply "boundary markers" of those who were God's elect (Israelites). So the Jews, in essence, were really just proto-Calvinists, believing they were saved because they were the elect.

They kept the law to remain under that covenant, just as every good Lutheran/Methodist/Anglican-born person should do today with their boundary-markers. Because the problem with the law was not that you tried to keep it to get to heaven, but simply that it divided Jew and Gentile. Our rituals, sacraments and ceremonies are as good as theirs, after all.

This New Perspective on Paul (NPP) was summarized and affirmed in a public lecture in 1982 by British scholar James Dunn. Wright further honed those arguments to popularize it outside academia, and confirm how modern (and postmodern) liturgical religions like Anglicanism are every bit the same as ancient Judaism. (But didn't we know that?) Where he errs and what he has to twist to prove is that this is what Paul and your New Testament actually teach as Christianity.

He rejects the notion that justification is transformative and contains liberation from sin's mastery.

Beyond not believing Jesus is going to set up an earthly kingdom, Wright redefines clear biblical terms like justification. It now becomes (a) a law-court issue, (b) covenant language, and (c) a metaphor. Therefore "justification" must not be associated with personal salvation, but with what "marks" someone as a member of God's people. The repentance Jesus talked about was national, not individual.

He rejects the notion that justification is transformative and contains liberation from sin's mastery. And righteousness now denotes simply God's covenant faithfulness. Wright changes the definitions to what he wants them to mean (based on his understanding of Patristics, the writings of the fathers of the early Imperial Church). He does so under the banner of "but this is the way Paul would have understood it."


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Wright says Romans 10:3 is the fulcrum around which everything else in his new perspective on Paul moves: "For they [Israel] being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."

Because Wright denies the biblical doctrine of imputed righteousness (where an external righteousness, namely Christ's, is imparted to believers), he redefines what righteousness means. So instead of Paul saying, "Israel is ignorant of the righteousness which God imparts to those who are justified by faith in the finished work of his Son," he reimagines Paul as saying, "Since Israel is ignorant of God's covenant faithfulness to them as his elect, they did not submit themselves to it.”

Wright says, "In other words, what we have here is a covenant status which is for Jews and Jews only.” 1. Paul, he claims, isn’t saying that Israel is rejecting God’s imputed righteousness, but rather that they’re rejecting the righteousness of the law. Paul’s saying they need to return to the works of the law, and we (as the baby-sprinkled, catechized, etc., church) "embody” that law obedience.

we will trust that he has preserved his word for us in our language.

Straight question: Is the Bible authoritative? Wright’s answer: No, because "the phrase 'authority of scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.'" 2. And I suppose, as with most things Anglican, you can let that mean what you need it to mean for you.

Wright’s thoughts are summed up thus: "As interpreters of Scripture we are more like actors improvising a final act to an incomplete Shakespearean play than we are detached and objective scientific exegeters. Our imaginations must be rekindled by the rich symbolism of Christian Scripture and liturgy." 3. We are to be actors, not exegeters (much less expositors). It’s all about symbolism, not literality. Liturgy, not sound doctrine.

The modern magnification of original author, original hearers, and original manuscripts are all overshadowed by faith in the preserved words of God unto every generation (Psalm 12:7). Yes, we need to pay attention to the historical context of scripture, but there’s a difference between historical context and storied context (aka fables Imperial Church fathers made up).

 

If we are to trust what God’s word says, we will trust that he has preserved his word for us in our language. Every nation, tribe, and tongue after all. With this view of biblical authority we can reject Wright's subversive hermeneutic, where he twists the promises of God, the people of God, and the kingdom of God.

As with the majority of Bible scholars for the past half-century or so, Wright gives most of the authority to other scholars, whether old (like Luther and Calvin) or contemporary. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather attribute authority to the Lord of hosts.

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Wright fights for a new perspective, but I’d venture we should cling to the old perspective that has been handed down to us by Christ (the Word made flesh) himself.

Jeremiah 6:16 Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

Let’s look to the word of God. Let’s ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein. That’s where we, and those we preach to, will find rest for our souls. Hold fast to the words of truth in a generation that says, “We will not walk therein.”


References:

1. Wright, N.T. An Interview with N.T. Wright. http://hornes.org/theologia/travis-tamerius/interview-with-n-t-wright

2. Wright, N.T. Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 21

3. Roberts, Alastair. N.T. Wright: A Biography. https://alastairadversaria.com/2006/09/11/nt-wright-a-biography/

4. Wright, N.T. Jerusalem in the New Testament. http://ntwrightpage.com/files/2016/05/Wright_Jerusalem_New_Testament.pdf

5. Richardson, Joel. N.T. Wright and Eschatology. https://joelstrumpet.com/6773/


Alan Shelby is the pastor of Harvest Baptist Church, a Living Faith Fellowship church in Blue Springs, MO. Alan Shelby is also dean of the  Living Faith Bible Institute. In this post, Pastor Shelby explains the ideologies of scholar N.T. Wright and the dangers of giving doctrinal authority to things other than the word of God.