19 April 2006

The Wright Stuff

A parting gift
from Phil Johnson

Here's a letter I wrote to the iMonk a year ago this very week, before I ever even considered entering the blogosphere. (As a matter of fact, the episode that precipitated the following letter, closely followed by a campaign of terror at the Boar's Head Tavern, is the biggest factor that finally provoked me to start blogging. I made that decision last year, a couple of weeks after this letter was written.)

Some background: Last March, the iMonk stumbled across a critical review of an NT Wright book from a lecture I gave in London more than a year before that. (I also gave a completely different review of the same book last year at the Shepherds' Conference, a couple of weeks before Michael Spencer's diatribe. The two reviews were for completely different audiences. They complement, but don't contradict one another, and—just to be clear—it was the earlier one that was the object of so much derision from Michael Spencer last April.)

It's putting it mildly to say that the iMonk hated my critique. He dashed off an angry post about it at the Boar's Head Tavern Blog. He didn't bother interacting with the substance of what I actually said, but he took quite a bit of liberty misrepresenting what I said. For example, here's how he paraphrased the thrust of my message: "Just keep reading those Macarthur commentaries, and all will be well. Consider us warned."

Of course, I hadn't mentioned MacArthur or anyone's commentaries anywhere in my critique. I had described Wright's book and disagreed with four points, all related to his view of justification.

Anyway, the following letter was my response to Michael's suggestion that Wright should be off limits to lesser beings like me:

13 April 2005

Dear Michael,

Readers of your blog have informed me that there is some controversy there concerning how much of N.T. Wright I may or may not have actually read. Someone sent me a collection of remarks you have posted about me ["he hasn't read the people he's citing. . . . He's only read WSPRS {What St. Paul Really Said} and he's only going to critique WSPRS. Tell-tale sign of what you are getting. . . . If I'm wrong about this, I will publically apologize"]—and strongly suggested that in the interests of self-preservation I need to write and give you an accounting.

At the moment, I'm supposed to be editing a book that's due to the publisher at the end of the month, so I don't have time to peruse many blogs or even keep my own website up to date. I apologize for missing the brawl over at The Boar's Head Tavern. But you have my permission to post this e-mail in full as my one and only contribution to the brouhaha. I wish I could come and join the fray personally, but my schedule seriously doesn't permit me to do so at the moment.

Anyway, to the business at hand:

I am by no means any kind of expert on Wright's written corpus (nor did I ever claim to be). On the other hand, I've read a little more Wright than you originally guessed.

Of Wright's large works, I have read only The Resurrection of the Son of God and a generous helping (but not much more than half) of Jesus and the Victory of God. Of his smaller works, I have read The Challenge of Jesus, Who Was Jesus? and What Saint Paul Really Said. I actually had to read WSPRS multiple times, because after my first reading, I participated in two semester-long discussion groups with a dozen or so seminary students who were particularly keen to study that book. Then I was asked to review it twice in separate conferences.

Also, when N. T. Wright was canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, the gift shop there used to carry his books. (They quit doing that when he became Bishop of Durham. So much for brand loyalty.) I once stopped in there and bought a bagful of his little commentaries in the "For Everyone" series. I've used them frequently (the "Galatians" volume is particularly dog-eared); I have listened to several lecture series by Wright; and I have read virtually all the short pieces by him posted at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/.

WSPRS is the only Wright book I have ever formally reviewed. For the most part, I thought The Resurrection of the Son of God was superb. I do greatly appreciate Wright's unrelenting defense of the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection. I've seen him a couple of times on the BBC, dismantling the latest skepticism, and I appreciate how he handles that kind of nonsense. As I have said often and publicly, we owe him a great debt for the clarity and force with which he has answered the left wing of contemporary "Jesus scholarship."

But I don't think it necessarily follows that it's impossible or unreasonable for anyone who truly appreciates those contributions to conclude that Wright's view on justification by faith poses certain serious dangers.

And to suggest that all my concerns about Wright boil down to "four paragraphs in a small book" is the very kind of ham-handed hyperbole I think you rightly deplore. (Likewise for your comment that I am "freaked out" and "panicked" about Wright's "attack on transactionalism.") Wright has written a considerable amount to try to clarify his position on sola fide. I have read as much of it as I have been able to obtain. I still have grave concerns. Sorry, but I do.

The earliest thing I read from Wright on justification was a chapter titled "Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism," which he originally wrote in 1980. I first saw a reference to it in the late '90s in Philip Eveson's book on Justification. (Eveson's published criticism of Wright actually preceded WSPRS.) So I acquired a copy and read it. That chapter contained the seeds of almost everything that troubles me about Wright's view of justification and the atonement. It was written 20 years before WSPRS, so to suggest that Wright only recently got himself in trouble with Reformed critics because of "four paragraphs" in one of his less technical books doesn't really do justice to the larger argument.

The folks at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/ have kindly posted that chapter from 1980, as well as several other articles by Wright in which the Bishop attempts to defend his views on justification. I've read all of those, and obviously, I remain deeply troubled about Wright's position.

However, let me address the larger issue of "the Grand Canyon of scholarly gravitas that exists between Phil Johnson and N.T. Wright," and the corresponding question of whether a "hack" like me has any right to subject a scholar like Bishop Wright to the kind of scrutiny the Bereans employed when they analyzed the teaching of the apostle Paul:

  1. I admit freely and without reservation that there is a vast, almost unbridgeable chasm—nay, virtually a bottomless pit—of "scholarly gravitas" between Wright and Johnson. No argument there.
  2. And insomuch as my first review of WSPRS (especially the printed editions of my transcripts) may have failed to pay due respect to the Bishop's scholarly credentials, I do humbly acknowledge and bewail my manifold sins and wickedness, which I, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed. And I promise to try to do better in the future.
  3. On the other hand, I wasn't actually critical of Wright's scholarship so much as his theological opinions. Oh, sure—I noted at one point that there are still some fairly competent New Testament scholars who would strongly disagree with Wright's characterizations of Second Temple Judaism. But I didn't pretend to be one of them. If that wasn't completely clear, I herewith apologize for that, too, and I repent in dust and ashes.
  4. Still, hopefully even you would agree that the world's most decorated canon theologian's academic status doesn't ipso facto translate into sound doctrine. Nor should scholarly credentials be used as a shield to guarantee immunity from criticism. Else you and I both might be forced to put our hands over our mouths whenever John Dominic Crossan speaks.
  5. I'm not the least bit offended by those who notice my lack of scholarly credentials. I'm not even offended by legitimate questions about whether I have done my homework. From time to time I have had to be put right on theological issues by people who know better than me. No one needs to apologize for challenging me. I herewith formally absolve you from any guilt on that score.
  6. However, I don't think the dispute between NPPers and critics like me hinges on the issue of anyone's academic credentials. It's a fundamental difference of enormous magnitude, encompassing basic theological, hermeneutical, and world-view issues.

Which is to say that I don't think the debate over the New Perspective on Paul is going to be won by Wright's devotees if their only answer to every argument is, "You just haven't read enough Wright." I know only one guy who really has read all of Wright. (Who can keep up with the Bishop's pen? Does the man never SLEEP?)

But the argument is little more than a convenient dodge. Every time I hear it, I am tempted to ask why Wright never seems to explain his controversial statements in the context where he MAKES them. After all, why do I have to read all 741 pages of Jesus and the Victory of God plus 300+ pages of The Climax of the Covenant to understand Wright's attack on the concept of imputation in WSPRS? Or is your real point that no one can possibly understand Wright without agreeing with him?

Some Wright enthusiasts have flatly denied sola fide. Others (usually his more Reformed devotees) insist that his views pose no threat whatsoever to the formal principle of the Reformation. Wright himself rather weakly and obliquely seems to make that same claim in WSPRS (p. 113), but he's not explicit enough to know for sure what he means. Do we really have to wait for his next volume before we're allowed to complain about this rather glaring ambiguity?

In short, how much of Wright should I expect to have to read before I am entitled to criticize what he has written specifically about the doctrine of justification?

(By the way, the apostle Paul himself really isn't that hard to make sense of.)

Meanwhile, Wright is aiming books like WSPRS and his small commentaries at lay people, some of whom are under my pastoral care. He has also given a glowing, unqualified recommendation to Steve Chalke's blundering attempt to blend post-modernism and Socinianism and sell it to grass-roots churchgoers as a "lost" form of Christianity. I'm not going to stifle my criticism of stuff like that just because someone tries to intimidate me with insults about what a hopeless Luddite I am intellectually, academically, or theologically. I'll accept those criticisms, but they don't really speak to the doctrinal and biblical issues I have raised, do they?

Phil Johnson
The Spurgeon Archive http://www.romans45.org

P.S. BTW, if you really think about it, John MacArthur or Michael Horton aren't really germane to the differences between us, either. I'm a little mystified about why their names keep getting thrown in and kicked around in this particular discussion. After all, trashing MacArthur doesn't really answer what I have written. And as far as the New Perspective is concerned, Horton has raised concerns that are strikingly similar to mine. So he isn't really going to help you much here, either.

I am surprised to see how well the letter works a year later. I am even trying to finish another major editing project. (I wish this stuff would come up in August, when my schedule isn't so hectic.)

Anyway, what made me think of this letter was a comment by "Dr Thomas" (an imaginary character with an imaginary degree) in the mega-thread of comments under Dan's post. Several of us had taken pains to explain why we think nothing—no academic credentials, and no philosophical sophistry—could possibly justify Wright's endorsement of Marcus Borg's "passionate" love for "Jesus." (Especially given the fact that Borg's actual idea of Jesus is that He was a mere human who is now dead.)

Then "Dr. Thomas" wanted to know if I was familiar with Wright's epistemological framework as explained in Wright's 550-page tome, The New Testament and the People of God. I gotta admit: That's one of Wright's books I haven't read yet. (Though I did finally finish with Jesus and the Victory of God.)

But I still think what Wright said about Borg is unjustifiable, no matter how much "academic respectability"-capital it may have earned for Wright.

Phil's signature


Dr Thomas said...

If there is one you should read, NTPG is the one. He states that Jesus and the Victory of God is completely dependant on NTPG in the intro.

NTPG was the first Wright work I ever read. His discussion on epistomology is essential to understanding the other volumes in the series.

For your readers interested in learning more about Wright and why evangelicals like him read these works in the following order:

1) The new testament and the people of god
2) Jesus and the victory of god
3) Resurection of the son of god
4) Jesus and the identity of God - an article found here: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_JIG.htm

Stay away from his short popular stuff, it is really average and boring. To tell you the truth, I never understood why anyone thought WSPRS was worth reading. It is so superficial and ambiguous it is annoying.

CJD said...

"By the way, the apostle Paul himself really isn't that hard to make sense of."

I couldn't agree more. I think this goes for most of the Scriptures too.

And what Wright said about Borg, given what the implications of his work on the resurrection demand, was indeed unjustifiable.

Since we're probably missing the whole interview from the Australian newspaper (you know how the editing process — especially in the media — goes), I wonder if any excised snippets would have helped clarify this situation at all?

DJP said...

Maybe when Peter Jackson puts out the Extended Edition?

< /LOTR geekery >

CJD said...


Like when that really long and loving look betwixt Frodo and Sam in the unedited version lasted a full ten minutes! That was great!

Nathan said...

By the way, the apostle Paul himself really isn't that hard to make sense of.

To anticipate an objection, I'll agree, but with this qualification:

...just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand..." (cf. 2 Peter 3:14-16).

Paul can be difficult to understand, but not incomprehensible. Moreover, it's not Paul that's difficult to understand, but his subject matter. I think perhaps this is Phil's point: Paul is not so difficult to understand that only a professional theologian can unravel him.

Steve said...

Thanks for sharing all that, Phil. That was an excellent letter.

As for taking N.T. Wright to task...it doesn't make sense that anyone should be obligated to read ALL or even MOST of N.T. Wright before being given permission to challenge a problematic statement.

A problematic statement will always remain a problematic statement no matter how much other text you read from that same author.

I am still intrigued by the fact not a single N.T. Wright defender was willing to answer Dan's forthright question at the end of his blog.

Pretty odd for those who place such a premium on academic brilliance.

Dr Thomas said...

I am pretty sure I answered the question.

The Clinging Vine said...

What puzzles me most, as I've followed the Wright/NPP embroglio over the past few years, is how he got a reputation as a wonderful writer.

Wonderful writers can communicate their thoughts without listeners and readers having to read multiple books of theirs.

Again and again, though, when Wright is criticized for something he wrote or said, the protest inevitably comes that if only the critic would read this book or that book or those articles, all would become clear.

John MacArthur. John Piper. RC Sproul. Sinclair Ferguson. Heaps of theologians have written multiple books without regularly causing massive confusion as to What It Is They Really Believe.

Okay, fair's fair...I can think of one occasion. The first edition of "The Gospel According to Jesus" elicited a good deal of concern that MacArthur was promoting legalism, and some of his fellow-theologians spoke to him about it.

IIRC, he voluntarily made some changes to a later edition, in an effort to clear up the confusion.

There's no shame in that; far from it. Especially considering the number of books he's written!

Yet according to Wright's fans, though they'll likely puff up like pouter pigeons at the thought, he is difficult to understand without a reader dipping into a minimum of three of his books.

As I said, it's really quite strange.


Chuck said...

Glad to see Phil's taking a break from blogging.

Jason E. Robertson said...

...and the fire has burned ever since!

Der Fuersprecher said...

I must confess that I am somewhat puzzled as to why a person like Michael (who has no serious academic credentials himself - unless one is forced to recognize the illustrious fact that he once participated in a DMin (!) program) seems to focus so often on the lack of academic credentials of his theological interlocutors/persecutors/reformed meanies.

Nor is the Tavern a bastion of academic respectability either. In fact it’s really nothing more than a public display of just how unseemly presumption and ignorance are when combined (John Piper’s academic credentials [the man has a doctorate from the University of Munich!] were even called into question at the site).

So Michael’s posturing in this regard is curious, to say the least.

Der Fuersprecher said...

Believe it or not, many if not most scholars have little interest in the sources you cited because they themselves tend to be insular and obscurantist. And do you really think a world-class New Testament scholar is going to interact with John Piper in a scholarly work? He's not even on the radar in the vast majority of the academy.

How about dealing with Witherington's arguments instead of trying to find a way to be able to ignore what he has to say without having to actually deal with it?

# posted by Keith : 12/13/2005 6:04 PM

Thankfully cached at:


As I said - the site is a sad combination of presumption & ignorance - an unseemly coupling to say the least.

wordsmith said...


(quoting Phil) "By the way, the apostle Paul himself really isn't that hard to make sense of."

I couldn't agree more. I think this goes for most of the Scriptures too.

WOW! Perspicuity of Scripture! What a concept! It's amazing how so many people will go to great lengths to avoid "a due use of the ordinary means" and thereby fail to attain a sufficient understanding of Holy Writ.

Gummby said...

Dr. Thomas (or whatever your real name is):
Your argument boils down to this: "I don't really agree with N.T. Wright, but when you read his books, you'll see he's consistent in his theology."

My answer to that is: so what? I know lots of cult members and outright pagans who are consistent in their theology as well. The consistency of his theology doesn't make it true--it's the faithfulness to Scripture.

I'm not making a comment on his books because I haven't read any of them. If that makes me a stupid TR Luddite, so be it.

What I will say, unabashedly, as many times as it takes, is that his comment to the Aussie paper does not match up with Scripture. If that's OK with you, fine; I happen to prefer my prelates with a bit more Scriptural soundness.

And since it's Easter, I'll just add that the real mystery to me is why anyone who would call themselves a Christian would get so excited about the writing of someone who says that justification isn't about soteriology. That's not exciting to me at all, because if Christ's death and resurrection isn't about how my sins get taken care of, I'm toast no matter what it's really about.

If justification isn't about my relationship with God but just about the unity between Jews and Gentiles, then I'm in trouble, 'cause I got this whole sin thing going on, and I thought I understood how God was gonna take care of it, but now it turns out I was deceived. (On the good side, however, it turns out if I just love Jesus passionately it's OK).

One final note, and then I'm done for the night. I thought Phil's statements sounded somewhat familiar, so I went back and checked, and indeed, Ligon Duncan said the exact same thing. Here are his words:
Perhaps I should pause right here and tell you a little bit about how and why I began to read on this topic, and my initial reaction to Sanders and Wright, in particular. I want to mention this, because I find, in talking with evangelical students who are enamored of Wright and the NPP, that they are often dismissive of anyone who has a criticism of Wright, and assume that the only reason that you are critical is that you haven't read Wright, or that you haven't read Wright right, or that you haven't read enough of Wright, or that if you had only read more of Wright, you would believe that Wright was right, and so on.

Devotees of the NPP also assume, because it is frequently the case, that critics of Sanders, Dunn and Wright have read them in order to critique them. That is, critics of the NPP have picked up Sanders, Dunn and Wright to read, only after their suspicions have already been raised concerning their positions. Thus pro-NPP evangelicals dismiss their reading of Sanders, Dunn and Wright as myopic and hyper-critical.
(emphasis mine)

Duncan goes on to lay out a fairly extensive list of reading that he did, the order that he did it in, etc. (The whole post is available here).

For the staunchest defenders of Wright, the bottom line defense is this: if you don't agree with Wright, you don't understand him, or you're not qualified to critique him--no matter your academic qualifications, no matter how many of his books you've read, etc. As Phil alluded to in his letter the Virtual Trappist last year, they just can't believe that anyone who reads him could possibly disagree with him.

P.S. for Dr.T
If you really want to pass yourself off as a Doctor, let me make two suggestions:
1) Learn how to use spell check.
2) Figure out the difference between Arizona & Arkansas.

sk said...

Jeez, how long are all of you going to take these post-modern knaves seriously? "You have to read all his 900 page books to even begin to be allowed to have an opinion of him! [Hee, hee, hee, I used that one on them again...]"

Wright is no different from any other fool (or heretic) who knows that to poison a well you don't have to replace ALL the water. Please stop congratulating these people on being right about 'some' things. The devil himself impersonates an angel of light. He doesn't come on in a goat suit with horns and a forked tail...

The Clinging Vine said...

Matt nails it: "If justification isn't about my relationship with God but just about the unity between Jews and Gentiles, then I'm in trouble, 'cause I got this whole sin thing going on, and I thought I understood how God was gonna take care of it, but now it turns out I was deceived. (On the good side, however, it turns out if I just love Jesus passionately it's OK)."

And not only that, but you get to pick which Jesus to love.


donsands said...


Have a question for you. What would be your definition for a heretic?
Mine is someone who teaches, preaches, and/or proclaims a different Jesus, and/or a differnt gospel, than the one of the Holy Bible.
Paul says, if we or even an angel come preaching a different gospel, let them be accursed.
Paul also says, some preach the gospel in sincereity, and some in pretense, but as long as the gospel is preached I will Rejoice!

Difficult words from the Apostle, but we need to understand these and let them renew our minds, and shape our hearts.

sk said...

Heretic, heretic wannabee, mere mischief-making jester, whatever.

The recent OPC smackdown of all those clowns should serve as a model.

We've got Calvin, Spurgeon, a dozen on-the-mark systematic theologies, scores of Puritan writers, a handful of sound commentaries, seven or so brilliant and on-the-mark summations in the form of confessions and catechisms, etc., etc. People who have built a real bridge. Little N. T. Wright sits in the middle of the bridge trying to remove bolts, while his audience declares him "brilliant" giggling that the bridge is "gonna fall down! hee hee hee!"

"See this bolt here? This is justification. Loosen this bolt and the whole structure collapses." "Yaaaaay!" his gallery shouts.

Meanwhile the police keep showing up and removing him from the bridge, and fortunately the bolt in question is bigger than N. T. Wright and all his little cheering buddies put together.

God built the bridge. Use it. Watching N. T. do his thing is not redeeming your time wisely...

CJD said...

Matt Gumm, just so you (and others) know, Wright's emphasis is not so much on the fact that justification isn't soteriological, it's that soteriology is a subset of ecclesiology (i.e., election) — to show faith in Jesus and thus be member of the covenant (i.e., the church of Christ) is to show that one is justified, which necessarily carries along with it a soteriological aspect:

"And of course this does not mean, despite many efforts to push the conclusion this way, that it has nothing to do with sinners being saved from sin and death by the love and grace of God. The point of election always was that humans were sinful, that the world was lapsing back into chaos, and that God was going to mount a rescue operation. That is what the covenant was designed to do, and that is why 'belonging to the covenant' means, among other things, 'forgiven sinner'" (Wright, Paul, p. 121).

Get it?

I suggest folks read, if you haven't done so already, a good (and surprisingly generous) review of this book at that bastion of conservative, Reformed orthodoxy, reformation21.

Patagonia Mike said...

Hey Matt,
Great quote by Ligon Duncan. BTW I think Dr. T is trying to play us. Check out his blog and links to his academic preparation.

Michael Spencer said...

der fuersprecher

"Keith" is not a member of the BHT. I have no idea who he is. We've never had a Keith on the BHT.

Your contention that the BHT has questioned Dr. Piper's academic credentials is untrue. In other words, it's a mistake or a lie.

Please clarify your error so we can agree its a mistake.

The Clinging Vine said...

Cjd, does it matter in which Jesus one puts one's faith?

Putting one's faith in a dead Jesus, one not conceived by the Holy Spirit and who did not physically rise from the dead...is that a Jesus who gets one into the covenant?


Phil Johnson said...

Der Fuersprecher,

I checked your source and traced it back. The comment you quoted is not from the BHT, but originally appeared in a comment at Triablogue, attached to this post.

The post you originally quoted from was ambiguous as to the source. Steve Hays was responding in that post to a BHT post made by Matthew Johnson, in which Johnson said Ben Witherington "isn't going to interact with Piper, Schreiner, or even Carson."

However, Johnson quickly added, "I am not saying that Piper, Schreiner, or Carson aren't 'scholarly'." So to be fair, it should be noted that the opposite assertion from what's implied in Der F's quotation was expressed at the BHT.

Steve Hays used his remarks in reply to M. Johnson as a segue into a response to a comment posted by the elusive "Keith" in the previous comment-thread at Triablogue.

It wasn't expressly stated where the second quote came from, but it was not the BHT.

It seems very odd to be defending the BHT against the charge that one of their favorite tactics is belittling their critics' academic credentials, since they have used that response to me so many times I have lost count.

But in this case, they are not guilty as charged. If we can't be scholarly, let's at least be fair.

DJP said...

Matt Gumm and Anne ("The Clinging Vine"), I can't tell you how many times I've deeply appreciated your well-phrased and on-target comments in this ongoing discussion.

I've only hesitated because I know I'm leaving out several others I've also greatly appreciated... but finally decided it's better to say some thanks than none.


CJD said...

I too am thankful for what Gumm and Vine have said with respect to "which Jesus" one needs to cling to. But let's not overlook theirs (and others) complete botching of what Wright actually teaches with respect to justification.

I'm not thankful for that; it only further propounds the confusion surrounding this issue.

To answer your question as succintly as possible, Vine, yes, it does matter which Jesus is the object of our faith. And, as I said earlier, "what Wright said about Borg, given what the implications of his [own] work on the resurrection demand, was indeed unjustifiable."

Steve said...

For Wright's defenders (including BHT) to appeal his academic credentials and belittle those without such credentials reveals they put more stock in worldly measurements of knowledge than compatibility with biblical truth.

The key to weighing the validity of any man's words is NOT to look at the credentials behind those words, but to compare them to the light of Scripture. That's the ONLY test that really matters.

DJP said...

If Matt and Anne are incorrect, they share that inaccuracy with a great many Wright readers all up and down the academic spectrum.

There's a saying: when everyone tells you you're drunk, you'd best sit down.

I think it has an application here.

Gummby said...

Phil beat me to the punch on the BHT thing. Nice work.

cjd: It's possible that I've botched it. But I find it highly ironic that the "surprisingly positive" article you pointed us to makes (what appear to me anyway) to be the very same points I and others have been making.

For those who didn't hop over to read it, here's an excerpt (from the critique section).

First, Wright has redefined much of Paul’s language. “Righteousness” is different than we ever thought; “the righteousness of God” has been redefined; “faith in Christ” is different; “Christ’s obedience” is different. The list could go on. A potential danger exists in Wright’s redefinitions. Most of Wright’s “stories” are biblical. He is just getting them from texts and terms that have never before given precisely those stories, and he is not getting the “stories” that those texts have given the church for much of her history. Is this good or bad? Wright often asks his readers to rethink old passages in new, or “fresh,” ways. The positive side to this tendency is that it is easy for scholars and lay interpreters of the Bible to get stuck in exegetical ruts, pulling familiar doctrines from passages that have similar language to the doctrine but may not actually be expressing the beloved doctrine. The negative side to Wright’s tendency is that he often falls into the exact same pit from a different angle. Wright often gets a certain doctrine from a passage that almost says what Wright says, but not quite. Due to Wright’s emphasis on narrative thought, he often glosses over many details of a passage for the sake of the overall thrust (again, Wright’s “story” or “narrative”), and then redefines the terms accordingly. Yet often it is the very details of the passage that would challenge Wright’s stories. He has over-simplified many Paul’s passages. Reading Wright, I am frequently left thinking, “The story he just told is biblical enough, but is that actually what this text says?”

Second, what is the gospel? Is Jesus just the Lord, or a savior too? Wright places a heavy emphasis on Jesus’ lordship. Naturally this is not a negative emphasis. The problem comes in that it is only a small amount that he accentuates Christ’s savior-ship. He does mention Christ as savior, to be true, but even here it is typically Jesus’ ultimate salvation from oppression (of sin and injustice) that Wright discusses. Very rarely does Wright discuss the notion of salvation from the personal guilt of sin. Wright does mention the importance of the forgiveness of sin, thus assuming sin’s guilt. The notion of guilt cannot be said to be absent from Wright’s thinking, nor from his writing.

Kim said...

Dan, I agree with you about the comments of Anne and Gummby. I have found them very informative.

Anne, you are the dose of (dare I say it?) estrogen that the comments section needs!

CJD said...

Matt, the criticisms Jonathan Worthington makes don't seem to me to be same thing. I agree with his review wholeheartedly. In fact, it is one of the few (and I mean few) critiques of Wright's work from a conservative, Reformed perspective that has been judicious, clear, and therefore on the mark (and I don't include either Duncan or Kelly in that bag, whose critiques amount to "Well, the Westminster Confession doesn't say that [hyperbole to make a point here, forgive me]. I would say that Doug Moo, Tom Schreiner, and Frank Thielman have done well in this regard also).

Worthington states, "Very rarely does Wright discuss the notion of salvation from the personal guilt of sin. Wright does mention the importance of the forgiveness of sin, thus assuming sin’s guilt. The notion of guilt cannot be said to be absent from Wright’s thinking, nor from his writing."

You wrote, "If justification isn't about my relationship with God but just about the unity between Jews and Gentiles, then I'm in trouble, 'cause I got this whole sin thing going on, and I thought I understood how God was gonna take care of it, but now it turns out I was deceived."

This is not the same critique.

And djp, I'll take another round of Guinness, I'm not through throwing darts just yet.

Der Fuersprecher said...

As Phil has demonstrated, the citation I attributed to the BHT vis-à-vis Piper was from another source.

I apologize for the inaccurate citation.

However, the demonstration that members of the BHT didn’t call into question unquestionable credentials simply can’t rescue their credibility to speak competently or dogmatically about the relative value of anyone’s CV.

And in any event (and perhaps more to the point), I still find it curious that Michael is questioning anyone's academic credentials (or lack thereof) in light of his own academic credentials.

The Clinging Vine said...

Cjd, I think that (having mulled it over a fair chunk during a stormy, ergo sleepless, night) I can sort of see where Wright's creative definition of justification would permit him to refer to someone who explicitly denies several key tenets of the faith as "Christian."

IIRC, anyone who is baptized in a legitimate church (excluding Mormons, for instance) is "justified" in the, well, ecclesiastical sense. Once one is justified, there one is. Even if one winds up rejecting key elements of the faith, so long as one keeps showing up for services, one is "Christian."

This "justification through church membership", however, means not everyone who is justified is eternally saved, seeing as how soteriology is but a subset of ecclesiology.

But from Wright's POV anyone who is an active member of the church is, by definition, justified and being justified, a Christian, never mind what lunacy said Christian espouses.

Which is how he could say, probably without giggling, that he knows some Christians who love Jesus and passionately believe in Him though denying He actually did anything so unnatural as being physically raised from the dead.

Is that pretty much correct?


P.S. Thanks for the kind words, Dan. I appreciate the opportunity to participate.

CJD said...

Yes, Anne, I think that's largely fair. I would add to your description of Wright's POV a qualification as to what "active membership" means (it's more than "just showing up for services," of course), namely, someone who "loves Jesus and believes in him passionately" (i.e., has active faith). I think it's a bit of a "higher" view of the church than modern, Western evangelicals are used to (it could be said, ironically, that it is actually a "lower" view of the church, but, well, I'm not going to say it).

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

The Clinging Vine said...

Well, cool. ;^)

Mind, it doesn't actually change a ding-dong thing, for I strenously disagree with Wright's nouveau view of justification, which obviously includes any possibility of someone who rejects key tenets of the faith as being "Christian."

ISTM once the bodily resurrection of Christ is rejected, stick a fork in your faith...it's done.

But by jingo, at least I'm disagreeing with him accurately, if you see what I mean, and that's a good thing.



P.S. Does anyone else have to input those word verification letters two or three times, even though I know doggoned good and well I put them in correctly? Or is this a glitch arising from my pesky 'puter?

Dr Thomas said...


My degree from FDU is legit. Feel free to ask thier academic department. Spell checking is for wimps.

I am not of the opinion that good writers need to be able to make points in few words. Complicated topics take expansive writing to make a point. This is especially true when presenting something controversial. I contend that Wright needs to be read in light of NTPG and then disagreed with or agreed with from there.

donsands said...


Those who preach the gospel in pretense, for selfish ambition, though we need to acknowledge this, are in fact preaching the gospel, and as Paul the Apostle said, "i will rejoice in that!"

How do you see what Paul is saying here?

Gummby said...

My degree from {Free Degree University} is legit.


Sorry. Having a hard time responding to that with a straight face.

As it happens, I agree that spell-check is for wimps (but then, I can spell).

Chris the Less said...

Dr T,
A degree from FDU is legal, but not accredited. No accredited university will accept your degree. The Hague Convention of 1961 (which allows your degree to be legal) abolished government regulation of foreign public documents. It did not mean that any university or scholar must accept that your degree, which costs approximately 900 USD, comes from an academic institution that is accredited by a non-government agency such as SACS. Do you honestly think that people who attend Yale, Princeton, MIT, or even Southern Seminary just sit around for years without doing any kind of actual research under some supervision by a person with an accredited degree?

Dr Thomas said...


That is exactly the sort of comment I would expect from a non academic.

Jerry Wragg said...

It matters little whether someone "believes passionately" in a divine covenant of promise through a savior named Jesus, if it is also true that said covenant wasn't made, ratified, or fulfilled by the One True God in the actual Jesus of scripture. Therefore, when a card-carrying "covenant-participant" denies that the historical Jesus is the same in-the-flesh human being whom "God raised...putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power", they cannot simultaneously claim to be covered (justified) by that same historical Jesus of scripture. Confidence in or justification through an "ecclesiological framework" actually accomplishes nothing other than participation in an earthly group, idea, or ethic. No one who denies the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ can possibly have access to the true heavenly promise.
Why? Well, in two classic covenantal sermons, Acts 2:24-36 and Acts 13:16-41, Peter and Paul directly connect the historical Jesus of the crucifixion to the Jesus of a bodily resurrection. In fact, in both texts David's bodily decay is used in contrast to Jesus' freedom from it, which would make no logical sense if Jesus wasn't raised bodily (from decay and corruption of the flesh). Moreover, the only way to freedom from sin, according to Acts 13:38-39, is belief in this historical Jesus who is bodily alive and is the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to the fathers (13:33-34).

It isn't beyond me that someone might deny this...nor is it a curious thing...it is clear proof that at every level, the unbelieving heart rages against a coming, face-to-face encounter with the living Christ! And if I were in their hardened state...I would too!

BTW, isn't it interesting that all significant historical aberrations of the doctrine of justification have one common penchant: Inclusivism...

centuri0n said...

I just wanted to note that I love it when Gummby says, "so what?"

Gummby said...

CJD: I'd much rather hear the Bible quoted than the creeds. But Phil wrote a similar discussion to Ligon Duncan, using Scripture instead of confessions, and got pretty much the same response. That's the point I was making (albeit somewhat poorly).

We all have this tendency to blindness in those we admire. I love Piper and MacArthur, but have had occasion to disagree with them both in the past year, where they wrote something that I thought was forced on the text. It was hard to do, precisely because of the respect I have for both of these men. But, in the particular instances, I believed they weren't being true to Scripture, and Scripture must be the final authority.

Look, if you want to say I haven't understood Wright, that's fine; I'm definitely more of a John Ploughman than a John Owen.

But if Anne's statement that "justification through church membership", however, means not everyone who is justified is eternally saved, seeing as how soteriology is but a subset of ecclesiology is an accurate summary of what Wright teaches, then I think I've understood him just fine. He's not teaching what's in the Bible, and I don't plan on putting to much stock in what he has to say.

FWIW, my personal opinion on all this is that Wright will get more muddled, not less, and that as time goes by, the more that comes out, the more we'll see issues. The redefining justification and the claim that the Bible doesn't talk about heaven all that much is only the beginning.

I hope I'm wrong.

P.S. Dan--thanks for the kind words, & I wasn't kidding about wanting to meet you if you ever get down south.

Gummby said...

Cent: thanks.

Dr Thomas said...

Matt said: "The redefining justification and the claim that the Bible doesn't talk about heaven all that much is only the beginning."

This is exactly the problem with a lot of Wright critics. Especially critics that cut thier teeth in theology prior to the fall of liberalism (late 1980s). There is a fear that everyone is drifting into liberal theology. The fear was somewhat rational in prior to 1985 when there were still liberals out there but as Allister McGrath says "liberalism is dead". NT Wright is not a liberal, he is not slowly sliding into liberalism. He may be wrong on things but he is consistent (right or wrong) since he began writing in the 70s.

If there is one reason I like Wright it is because he makes liberals look like to goofs they are.

Gummby said...

Dr.T said: He may be wrong on things but he is consistent (right or wrong) since he began writing in the 70s.

That makes me feel much better about him. Hope that consistency holds--but in my experience, it rarely does.

CJD said...

Matt, I do want to say that Wright's view on this particular subject is a bit more nuanced than what you've offered. I'm not casting aspersions on anyone's ability to understand.

Understand too that when said "church membership" I added what to my mind is a necessary qualification when speaking of Wright's view: "church membership" must mean "faith in the one, true God of Israel who has accomplished his plan through his messiah, Jesus." I am speaking strictly technically here; I don't mean to downplay the (however unhelpful it may be) distinction of "invisible" vs. "visible" church.

And saying "not everyone who is justified is eternally saved, seeing as how soteriology is but a subset of ecclesiology" is little more than saying "That person who we thought was justified (i.e., 'one of us') apparently is not, because he has since 'gone out from us.'"

From our perspective, those who may have thought were justified in the present, may prove to be otherwise in the future. But from God's perspective, "those whom he justified, them he glorified." Period.

I think we agree on more than may be apparent at first glance, Matt. I just see much more usefulness in guys like Wright than you do.

The Clinging Vine said...

Cjd wrote: From our perspective, those who may have thought were justified in the present, may prove to be otherwise in the future. But from God's perspective, "those whom he justified, them he glorified." Period.

Then they were never justified, right? Faux-justified, but not factually.

I'm getting confused again (ah, if only confusion were a profit center!), for I can't count the number of times NPP'ers have insisted all those presently justified are really, truly, honest-to-goodness justified, only not all of 'em will wind up being justified on the last day.

This does not seem to square with what you said.

Not that you're necessarily positing yourself as The Last Word On All Things NPP, of course. I understand that. ;-p


Phil Johnson said...

Regarding "Dr. Thomas"—

Whoever he really is, he is very clever and wryly funny. But as I pointed out in the other thread, he's someone's sock puppet, not a real commenter. He is not seriously arguing that his degree is legitimate. If he really wanted to fool us with a phony degree, he wouldn't have obtained it from a website called "Free Degree University."

Rule 4 applies here, folks. Arguing with Dr. Thomas about the value of his degree isn't necessary. He's being funny. Appreciate the joke. Don't feed the troll, though.

To Dr. Thomas: That's not to say you can't keep posting. In fact, please do. Trolls and sock puppets are welcome here in small numbers, as long as they are really, really clever. So I'm not saying you should leave; just that you're going to have to find lunch somewhere else.

I have enjoyed your input so far. I haven't yet figured out whether the spelling errors are part of the "persona." If so, well played. You did have me fooled for a while. I look forward to reading more of your enlightened observations.

And if you want to e-mail me privately and confess whether you are 1) Frank Turk or 2) One of the "Communio Sanctorum" guys, your secret will be safe with me. I'm just curious to know which end of the spectrum we're really dealing with here.

CJD said...


First, please don't confuse what I'm explicating with what I actually believe. My posts are long enough without getting in to all that.

Second, regarding your question, I would say that they were never justified, but for those who deem justification to not be a once-for-all declaration of imputed righteousness (instead opting to say that justification is a declaration in the present that said person is a member of the covenant [and faith shows it]), then they could easily say that "once justified, not always justified," for the simple reason, and probably not many NPPers say it this way, that our whole lives will be taken into account (works included) on that final day when God, through Jesus, judges mankind.

Now, you can take this two ways:

1) Sanctification is not definitive (classic Arminians, et al).

2) Sanctification is definitive (this is where I gather Wright is at). Put another way, God uses (i.e., secondary means) our good works, that is, "the obedience of faith," to vindicate us on the day of judgment, which judgment will be shown when the dead in Christ rise (in the body).

I'm sorry if this muddles the equation more. Just please be mindful of what we're doing — squeezing Wright's exegesis into Reformed dogmatics. It's not always a good fit.

The Clinging Vine said...

Not muddled at all, dear sir. Very well explained!

Thanks ever so.


Paul Lamey said...

Gumm said, “Wright will get more muddled, not less, and that as time goes by, the more that comes out, the more we'll see issues.”

But wait “dr.” Thomas counters with, “He may be wrong on things but he is consistent (right or wrong) since he began writing in the 70s.”

And the winner is Matt Gumm!

Proof: In 1972 Tom Wright along with three other Oxford fellows penned a work entitled “The Grace of God in the Gospel” (published by Banner of Truth). To this day one will hardly find a better and more concise treatment of the doctrines of grace and the way of salvation. However, over time Wright and two of the other authors began to distance themselves from the popular book. When the publishers wanted to renew the edition in 1999, Wright would have nothing to do with it and has continued to distance himself from its message. Why would Wright do such a thing? Because readers will be quick to note that dr thomas’s beloved NTPG is a great odds with the message of the book “The Grace of God in the Gospel.” The book has subsequently been republished as “Saving Grace” by John Cheeseman (a faithful Anglican who is standing strong amidst a lot of rubbish). I recommend it to all.

Point: N. T. Wright has moved in considerable theological and practical ways and anyone (i.e., “dr” Thomas) who argues that he has been “consistent” has not read all of Wright (to borrow from a worn-out BHT phrase).

Dr Thomas said...

paul, I have read Wright's comments on the book and he states that he is not conserned with the conclusions so much as his academic approach. In other words, he is of the opinion that he approached the book without the care that he developed as his career progressed.

But the fact that Wright has been largly unchanging stands. I quote Phil Johnson (have you heard of him):

"The earliest thing I read from Wright on justification was a chapter titled "Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism," which he originally wrote in 1980. I first saw a reference to it in the late '90s in Philip Eveson's book on Justification. (Eveson's published criticism of Wright actually preceded WSPRS.) So I acquired a copy and read it. That chapter contained the seeds of almost everything that troubles me about Wright's view of justification and the atonement. It was written 20 years before WSPRS, so to suggest that Wright only recently got himself in trouble with Reformed critics because of "four paragraphs" in one of his less technical books doesn't really do justice to the larger argument."

He was troubling Phil Johnson 20 years ago. Is that unchanging enough for you?

Paul Lamey said...

dr. freedegree,

Let's try this: Wright started well with "The Grace of God in the Gospel" and everything since that writing concerning salvation has not been a fuller development but a deviation from his earlier work. I would call that a change. However I do grant your secondary point that Wright has been off topic at least since 1980.

If “dr. Thomas” is Frank, I want a mug, a shirt, and an original pyromaniac sticker!

Gummby said...

Thanks, Paul. I need to come up with a name for it, but for now, we'll just call it the Second Law of Spiritual Thermodynamics.

Those whose deviation starts small end up being way off course.

It always happens without mid-course corrections, just like in orienteering, because our natural orientation is away from God.

Michael Spencer said...

Mr. Lamey,

I'd like to commend you for what is a truly rare moment of clarity in the consideration of Wright by reformed Baptists. I have the book you are discussing, and have often thought of the point you are making.

It might be summed up this way:

When Wright was a 21 year old undergrad, but a five point Calvinist writing for Banner of Truth, he was exactly who and what he needed to be.

In his insuing growth as a scholar, a person of faith, understanding the Bible and studying Jesus through intensive discipline, he has departed from that Calvinism, and has gone downhill into error, apostasy, and apparently, likely reprobation.

That's the story. Few Calvinists are willing to say it. I salute you.

Even So... said...

As I said waaayyy back yonder in the other post, it seems as if NTW is missing a "p" from his "flower". I didn't think it would take anyone this long to catch on. Perhaps they did, but not until Campi's comments did anyone seem to agree.

I like what Matt said, it is the slippery slope, and if iMonk is not being sarcastic, then a moment of clarity for us all. I take your last comment at face value, Mr. Spencer.

sk said...


Those who preach the gospel in pretense, for selfish ambition, though we need to acknowledge this, are in fact preaching the gospel, and as Paul the Apostle said, "i will rejoice in that!"

How do you see what Paul is saying here?

It's not relevant to N. T. Wright. Wright is about sprinkling the 1% of deadly bad doctrine leaven into the rest of the 99% of what he is bringing to the public as a teacher, not preaching for selfish ambition. Frankly people like Wright could care less about personal fame or money. Like political liberals (in Hollywood, for instance) they will gladly forgoe monetary gain to indulge their liberal agenda. They are engaged in spiritual warfare against God and God's Word and God's people, not worldly gain.

Der Fuersprecher said...

"dr thomas" is not a co-belligerent, so the Turkman is out.

The confusio sanatorium folks are antagonistic enough to qualify, but they don't even know who Bob Thomas is, so they're out as well.

My guess is that he is someone with a prior TMS connection who has a picture of the Bishop of Durham on his night stand and at present possesses little regard for either his former institution or his pseudonym.

And even so…, Spencer’s comments, which ensued after his expressed agreement with Paul were dripping with sarcasm.

donsands said...


Interesting. Thanks for the input. I'll be pondering what you have said.

Paul Lamey said...

Spencer...sarcasm? Looks like he’s still chasing his favorite “TR” boogey men. The problem is many folks can’t tell when BHT folk are being serious or silly and that whole thing about bearing false witness seems lost on BHT speech etiquette. How ironic for the leader of a saloon that talks big about being “generous” and “loving” in fleshing out the truths of Christianity. Mr. Spencer, please aim your nerf gun somewhere else.

On another note, I think Der Fuersprecher “Chris” is on the right trail about dr Thomas. I think he’s someone with soiled green hang-ups but that’s just a guess.

Gummby said...

Gents, those are interesting thoughts regarding the Doc.

I wonder if Phil has Sitemeter...

sk said...

Biblically, here's the thing with Wright and other theologians and Christians like him: an antichrist denies Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. That is to say they deny the most important things. When it comes down to it. Wright is like this when he is forced to make a meaningful choice or stand. On homosexuality you saw it, on the resurrection you saw it. On justification you see it. Where he comes down on what is most central and foundational and important exposes what he really is.

It's similar to the 'conversatives' that were made by 9/11. Former liberals who suddenly became hawks and so forth. So along comes the '04 presidential election, and lo and behold you saw many if not most of those 'conservatives' just "having" to vote for Kerry. With alot of hand-wringing and justification, but there it is, "sorry, my newly found fellow conservatives, but I just have to go with Kerry this time around..." But of course.

Aaron said...

I clearly have spent too much time here over the last three days. I had a dream last night that C.H. Spurgeon, in a book opposing N.T. Wright's New Perspectivism, endorsed Pyromaniacs as "The greatest blog in Christendom."

I kid you not.

DJP said...

LOL, Aaron, that's hysterical! I love that. < cracking up >

The Clinging Vine said...

Wow, Aaron!

Shades of Joseph's dreams, eh? ;^)


Gummby said...

Aaron: dude, I think it's time for a little blog holiday for you.

Matthew said...

No more frozen pizza for dinner for you, young man. ;)

Aaron said...

Ha! Actually, this time, Matthew, it was a hamburger from Chili's.