Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Commentary on an interview with NT Wright (installment 3)

Here I'm seeking to explain some of the teaching of and controversy surrounding Tom Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham.

Part 1:

Part 2:


The First Meaty Question: On The Gospel

Trevin Wax: Could you give us a brief definition of "the gospel"?

N.T. Wright: I could try taking a Pauline angle. When Paul talks about "the gospel," he means "the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world." Now, that's about as brief as you can do it.

An interesting follow-up question here would have been "and what did the other New Testament writers mean by 'the gospel'?". Wright's speciality in New Testament studies has been Pauline studies, though he has written very widely, including a popular-level commentary series over the whole New Testament. We'd have to go there to get his answer to this follow-up.

Look at his answer to the question very carefully, and analyse its structure. Its structure is no mistake - the answer very accurately reflects Wright's thought at large:

The gospel is, according to Wright, the good news that Jesus (who is crucified and risen) is Messiah (of Israel) and Lord (of the world). It is a essentially declaration about Jesus' person, and not so much about his work. Now, we do well to note that Wright includes the fact of Christ's death in identifying Jesus, and an exanded explanation of this is of course implied as necessary if we're going to expan Wright's definition into a full presentation or sermon. But the subsiduary placement of that concern is the thing to notice here. Wright doesn't deny Christ's sin-bearing death in the place of his people, or say that it's not related to the gospel - but he does say that the gospel's heart must be seen structurally in terms of Christ's Lordship, not his saving work at Calvary. The latter is a supporting component - both important and a necessary part of the scheme - but not the heart of the scheme. The gospel is not, according to Wright, fundamentally concerned with sin, wrath and atonement - but with the revelation of a person who is the Christ and King.

To spell out that this is exactly what Wright is saying, he expands his answer as follows:

The reason that's good news… In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor came to the throne, there'd obviously been a time of uncertainty. Somebody's just died. Is there going to be chaos? Is society going to collapse? Are we going to have pirates ruling the seas? Are we going to have no food to eat? And the good news is, we have an emperor and his name is such and such. So, we're going to have justice and peace and prosperity, and isn't that great?!

Now, of course, most people in the Roman Empire knew that was rubbish because it was just another old jumped-up aristocrat who was going to do the same as the other ones had done. But that was the rhetoric.

Paul slices straight in with the Isaianic message: Good news! God is becoming King and he is doing it through Jesus! And therefore, phew! God's justice, God's peace, God's world is going to be renewed.

Do you see what's happening here? The gospel is, according to Wright, essentially a proclamation modelled after a political type, akin to the announcement of a new Caesar. It follows from the character of the actual "new Caesar" in question - namely Jesus - that there's going to be a lot of good stuff to say about justice, peace and renewal. But that is all derivative, not fundamental.

Wright goes along this path because he has accepted the following as the "back story" of the New Testament: God's people are in a kind of exile, because they are suppressed by the Romans. God has made a covenant with them to promise them his covenant blessings. Whilst the Romans rule, those blessings aren't being enjoyed. Israel has failed to achieve what God needed for it. It now needs a Messiah to come and bring it to its rightful position.

That's all true in as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn't go far enough. There is a more ultimate and fundamental back-story which we need to read the New Testament against. It is the story of the fall and humanity in general in sin - not just Israel. All people everywhere are under the wrath of God, because they have sinned against him. They cannot enjoy fellowship with their maker until their sin is atoned for. Being unable to themselves, they need a Saviour who will make an effectual reconciliation between them and God.

I don't believe that Wright would deny any of what I've just said. He'd just say that it's not what Paul calls the gospel. He'd say that it was more Biblical to emphasise things the way he has, instead of the way that I, as a historic evangelical, have. That is, in fact, pretty much exactly what he does say in completing his answer to the question:

And in the middle of that, of course, it's good news for you and me. But that's the derivative from, or the corollary of the good news which is a message about Jesus that has a second-order effect on me and you and us. But the gospel is not itself about you are this sort of a person and this can happen to you . That's the result of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.

It's very clear in Romans. Romans 1:3-4: This is the gospel. It's the message about Jesus Christ descended from David, designated Son of God in power, and then Romans 1:16-17 which says very clearly: "I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation." That is, salvation is the result of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself.

I'm not going to launch into a refutation of that statement now. I'm taking it that historic evangelicalism is correct, and that Wright is not one of the first people in church history to correctly describe the focus of the gospel. That can wait for another post, if I decide to argue that point. My point now is this: If Tom Wright's theology gains more wide acceptance, as it is doing in some particularly American circles where pastors are being trained, it will be disastrous. Wright's message fits in very well with a modern world which likes to relegate thoughts about God's holiness, wrath, human guilt and sinfulness. It fits comfortably with an agenda which treats these concerns just as one thing amongst many, and wants to also place political concerns (which for Wright includes socialist economics and environmentalism) at the same level, as just one amongst several issues of comparable importance. It fits dreadfully with the word of God and with authentic Christianity, which must insist that the atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross is primary, and that all other concerns are derivative from this. Jesus' Lordship is a redemptive Lordship - he purchased sinners through the blood of the cross, and insists that before we can have any other kind of dealings with God at all, we must come to the Father in repentance and faith, seeking and finding forgiveness. By all means let us seek to be Christians in the sphere of politics and in the sphere of looking after the created world - but before this, we must be Christians.

Wright's error is so devastating because it is so subtle (and so skillfully presented, with Wright's massive learning). You won't often hear Wright saying anything outrightly heretical. You'll just hear him de-emphasising the things that the gospel emphasises, and pulling into the foreground some of the things that the gospel implies, but puts further back. To my mind, this kind of error is worse. Open heresy that directly attacks the gospel is easy enough to spot and avoid. Subtle mistakes which undermine from within more easily catch out the undiscerning. That's why church leaders today need to understand Wright - and why he's wrong.

To be continued...


Anthony Smith said...

Hi David. Interesting to read what you have to say. But I'm struggling to see how an emphasis on Jesus' lordship might lead to a de-emphasising of "God's holiness, wrath, human guilt and sinfulness". Surely if Jesus is lord of the whole earth and I'm found to be a rebel against him, then I have a serious problem with wrath, guilt and sinfulness ... hence the need for atonement (note the importance of Psalm 2 in NT thinking).

It seems to me that the central importance of the atonement is derived from the centrality of God's holiness (and Jesus' lordship) - otherwise why would we need atonement at all?



David Anderson said...

thanks for your comment. Your meaning isn't completely clear to me, as the seems to be some contradiction between your first and second paragraphs. If God's holiness is central (which it is), then atonement must be central, so I agree with your second para - with the implication that atonement must then be at the heart of the good news, and not merely one derivative benefit amongst others as Wright has it. In reply to the first para where you're seemingly taking a different tack, I'd agree with the substance but argue that it's insufficient - we've still lost something. If sin is reduced from being transgression of God's moral laws to being rebellion against Jesus' Lordship alone, then all those who are ignorant of the proclamation of Jesus' Lordship become less guilty. But as I say, it's not clear to me how to reconcile the different parts of your comment. God bless, David.

Anthony Smith said...

Hi David,

What I think I was trying to say ... is that the message of Jesus' lordship reinforces the message of the atonement - the one implies the other. So I don't see how the "gospel" as NT Wright sees it is a threat to the importance of the cross.

But I think his concern is (at least in part) to shift the focus of the "gospel" away from me and onto Jesus. Personally, I think he's right to do that. Once again, it's a question of emphasis: is the gospel fundamentally about Jesus (what God has done for him, with our salvation being a derivative of that), or is it fundamentally about "you and me" (what Jesus has done for us, with Jesus' exaltation seen as a necessary component of our salvation)?

At least, that seems to be the sense of the "And in the middle of that..." paragraph.

All the best,


David Anderson said...


I think that rather than interacting with this now, I'd like to continue with the series and demonstrate how, in fact, Wright's theology does lead to a weakened doctrine of sin and atonement. The alterations Wright makes in the structure of the gospel have far-reaching effects throughout his whole theological system, and I think it'd be better to demonstrate as we go along rather than bring it out here in the comments. For now I'd just like to say that I find the casualness with which Wright is willing to restructure the gospel, to be deeply contrary to the Pauline spirit (Gal. 1:8-9, etc.). The good old gospel has done well enough for 2000 years and didn't need this restructuring. The Reformed Faith already had enough resources to combat rampant individualism, and Wright is aiming at the wrong target in editing the gospel in order to fight the Arminian and Pelagian tendencies which he is such an eloquent critic of.

God bless,

Anthony Smith said...

Hi David,

Good plan - looking forward to part 4!