From the first moment I heard the name of N. T. Wright, about twenty years ago I think, I was told to avoid him like the plague. Why? He was a dangerous man with a theology that would undermine the entire Protestant Reformation. Dutifully I avoided him because those I respected told me to do so. I limited my reading of Tom Wright to a few articles and to only one book about him (not by him). I was told that he embraced a position called “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). This position was a damaging (some say, quite literally, a damning) stance on Paul’s corpus of New Testament material because it directly attacked the most important truths of the Reformation. Thankfully a very good friend, who had taken the time to begin to read Tom Wright for himself, challenged me bluntly and forcefully to my face. In effect he told me to keep my mouth shut about Tom Wright until I had really bothered to read him for myself. In the mid-1990s I began to read Tom Wright and have appreciated his work profoundly ever since.
Shortly after I began to study Wright’s work I decided to conduct an interview (a friend did it for our journal) with Bishop Wright. (He is the Anglican Bishop of Durham today.) We published this interview in our quarterly journal. Later on we did an entire issue of our journal on the theology of N. T. Wright. Time and again I heard stories of people saying that John Armstrong had given up the gospel and embraced the NPP. (Oddly, I heard all of this second-hand and in books and articles after the fact.) In almost every case the people who made these statements didn’t seem to realize that Wright actually did not promote the NPP at all. He is admittedly appreciative of certain aspects of the NPP and openly writes of which parts he agrees with and why. But it made no difference to his critics. A label was found and a great scholar, who was and still is doing some remarkable biblical work, was deemed dangerous. The only problem with all of this hype was that it all only made Wright more interesting to a horde of younger readers, some inquiring pastors who would still read beyond what they were told to read, and a lot of us who just wanted to know what the hullabaloo was really all about. The end result is that Tom Wright is now one of the most widely read biblical theologians of our time.
I remember the first time I heard Tom Wright preach. I thought to myself, “If this man doesn’t preach Christ and the gospel then who does?” He warmly commended the grace of God and the sufficiency of Christ alone to save those who believed the good news. He spoke with spiritual fervor and human warmth. I knew heresy when I hear it and see it and this did not seem like heresy to me. I was not alone in this response. A growing number of people made this same discovery by meeting and listening to Wright and over time they too found Wright compelling in so many ways.
Some years ago, before John Piper decided to write his book against Tom Wright’s teaching on justification, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, several friends joined me for an evening of discussion with John about Paul’s teaching on the nature of saving faith. It was a spirited and revealing dialogue. We clearly disagreed about some aspects of faith and the doctrine of imputation but parted peacefully. I had no idea, at least at that time, that John would eventually devote an entire book to this subject, seeking to show why Tom Wright’s views compromised the gospel at several serious points. Wright then answered John Piper in his 2009 book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
I have longed argued that the vast majority of ordinary folks, and many pastors must also be included here, criticize Tom Wright without paying careful attention to what he has actually written or spoken. I often begin a conversation about Wright with one simple question: “What books of Tom Wright’s have you read in whole and what did you learn? Tell me what he actually says about such and such and tell me what did you object to and (very specifically) why?” The silence is often staggering. One critic, according to a source who knows this author personally and informed me of this fact recently, has read one small book by Tom Wright, What St. Paul Really Said. Based upon his reading of this little popular primer (with its one offensive chapter about imputation and 2 Corinthians 5:21) this man has written a rather large book that can very easily be construed as one of the more anti-Tom Wright books available to ordinary readers. (There are some excellent scholars who do disagree with Wright in a serious and engaging way and have done a wonderful job of expressing disagreement in a rigorous and proper academic way!) So hearing Wright critiqued in a context where he would personally interact with critics has always been a personal hope of mine. This is precisely what happened at the annual Wheaton College Theology conference on April 16-17. I was pleased to attend the entire event and enjoyed it immensely. I was not surprised, however, that I could not find a serious critic of Wright’s in the entire crowd as I mingled and engaged scores of people one-on-one. (I am sure there had to be a few in a crowd of 1,100 plus registrants!) The serious academic critics who disagree with Wright will tell you why. Some of this came out at the Wheaton Conference as you can see for yourself. He doesn’t pretend to have everything figured out and admits he is still thinking through the implications of his own paradigm.
For those who are I remind you the same is true of great theologians of the past like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc. Scholars speak, for example, of the early-Luther, the middle-Luther, and the late-Luther. Why will we give him a pass and if a living teacher like Tom Wright admits he is growing this is a sign that he is dangerous? Like I tell friends, fall in love with the work of a theologian who is dead and things will be tidier and a great deal safer for you.
This theology conference was filled with hordes of ordinary people, local church pastors and bible professors who have read Tom and wanted to hea
r him speak. Like me they wa
nted to hear various academics respond to his work in a gracious, critical and helpful way. You can be the judge of all of this for yourself since the entire conference is now available on video at Wheaton College. I hope you will take the time to watch and listen. I think you will find Tom Wright to be one of the truly great Christian thinkers of our time. And I also think you will be impressed by his gracious, humble and winsome manner throughout. If you are going to call this man dangerous then make absolutely sure that you know why before you repeat such a warning. If you are wrong then you may well be keeping yourself, and a lot of others, from the very theological truths that need recovery in our time so that we will discover the unity in the church that Jesus and Paul worked and prayed for in their own ministries.
Personally, I think Bishop Tom Wright is very dangerous. I think he is dangerous precisely because he winsomely and powerfully challenges some esteemed (and I think incorrect) ideas that need to be challenged by a fresh and faithful biblical theology. He seeks a theology that focuses upon the Jesus who is revealed to us in the New Testament. He wants a theology that lines up with the central emphasis of the Apostle Paul upon our unity in Christ in the church. (He refers to this as covenantal inclusion!) Two presentations by Wright were the very best in this conference if you do not have time to watch them all. First, watch the short chapel address that he gave the Wheaton student body on Ephesians. Second, watch his Saturday night presentation on the theology of Paul. I was moved deeply by both messages and gladly commend them to you. Meanwhile, be forewarned. Tom Wright may well be a dangerous theologian in your life. I believe he is so dangerous that his work will very likely change your thinking in ways that call for repentance and real faith. He will make you see the Jesus of the Bible and long for the unity of the Spirit that Paul labored for throughout his entire ministry. I have grown to love Christ more by reading and listening to this highly esteemed teacher of the gospel of Christ. I believe this is a danger that we can afford to take on board when the church is in desperate need of a new biblical reformation.
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Thanks for this post on the conference at Wheaton.It is very helpful set in the larger context. I had read the article in CT by someone who had attended both this conference as well as Together for The Gospel and tried making some interesting contrasts. I’m afraid by focusing almost exclusively on that cardinal doctrine of justification by faith, the one crowd has largely missed what Wright is contributing to the universal church.
No matter how much people want to argue over some of their different understandings or vocabulary of the gospel, at the end of the day, N. T. Wright is truly one of the church’s brightest theologians.
If the world put up it’s ten best and brightest scholars to attack Christianity, all I can say is the church would be doing itself a great service to make N. T. Wright one of those spoke-persons for the Christian faith that we would o[put forward to answer those scholars who attacked the faith.
Unless people forget, when the Jesus Seminar was causing so much confusion over the question and identity and actual sayings of Jesus, there was N. T. Wright standing with that crowd and giving a voice to what most Christians hold dear to them—the veracity of the Bible and the world’s Savior—Jesus Christ.
I was all set to write that Wright is definitely dangerous…for the exact reasons you listed in the final paragraph. I’ll just let your words stand. 🙂
John, thank you for your clear and generous invitation for cantankerous nay-sayers like Bray and Piper to set aside their anxious polemics and enter a civil and constructive dialogue with one of our generation’s most important Christian scholars and leaders.
In my part of the world (Sydney, Australia), we unfortunately have imported some of these divisive tendencies via visiting American speakers and their influence via Youtube et al.
I attended the Wheaton Conference and found it a truly marvellous experience, not at all caught up in the handwringing defensiveness so characteristic of too many of Wright’s critics, but rather breathing the fresh, exhilarating air of God’s liberating gospel.
I have yet to finish an entire Wright tome, but I can say that his elucidation, his careful language, and winsome manner are worthy of imitation. As a person who did not grow up Christian, his serious interaction with critical scholarship is welcome also. I’d say that in the event his work really does undermine the Reformation, we should welcome it, because he is not leading us away from Christ; far from it.