Bishop Tom Wright is a hugely influential figure in the Christian church today. He is a prolific author – both at the scholarly and the popular levels -, an engaging speaker, and an original thinker. It is, perhaps, his penchant for ‘fresh’ thinking that thrills some, infuriates others, and perplexes the rest of us. Of course, he himself would chuckle at this last remark, for he would say that he is regarded in the theological academy and in the Church of England as an ultra-conservative. He believes in the Resurrection, for goodness’ sake!
Evangelical opinion tends to be somewhat polarised. Readers of this web site will perhaps realise that I do not feel ready either to demonise Wright or to canonise him. In this regard, I was interested to read Phil Heaps’ review of Wright’s recent book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I find that Phil expresses rather well some of the ambivalance that I feel.
Is [Wright] a heretic, whose distorted gospel is all the more dangerous because he writes not only scholarly tomes, but popular, engaging books for ‘the man on the street’? Or is he a brilliant expositor whose explanation of the New Testament and the gospel is ground-breaking and hugely significant?
He pinpoints one of the difficulties facing anyone who ponders Wright’s voluminous writings:-
The difficulty with reading Wright is that he uses familiar words with radically different meanings — not to be obscure or deceptive, but claiming to recover their biblical meanings, as opposed to their usage in, for example, Reformed Confessions and popular Christian jargon. This presents a double problem: reading things that sound orthodox, but actually mean something different, and reading things that sound all wrong, but may in fact be perfectly orthodox.
Accordingly, many critiques of Wright simply struggle at a superficial level with the terminology that he uses. Heresy hunters can have a field day. For example, critics are appalled by Wright’s apparent insistence that justification on the last day will be based on a believer’s works, whereas what he might actually mean is that we are seen to belong to God’s people by by our lives of obedience.
Wright seems constitutionally incapable of saying anything in quite the same way as anyone has ever said it before. He regards himself, perhaps, as setting forth a new paradigm, one which re-examines all of our treasured traditional beliefs and then ends up as…well, a restatement of what the best Christians in the reformed traditions have always believed and taught.
Having said that, Wright does have some characteristic emphases that we should take very seriously. For instance, he wants very much to draw out the corporate aspects of the Christian message, as opposed to the crass individualism of 20th-century evangelicalism. Then again, he directs our attention to the Jewishness of our faith, relating it both to the Old Testament story and to the Judaism of New Testament times. But there are problems, too, not least in Wright’s (over?-)emphasis on Christ as the end of exile. It is ironic (and I think that he finds it so) that his severest critics come from Calvinist ranks even though he is convinced that he stands very firmly in the tradition of Calvin himself (as opposed to the Lutheran or pietist traditions).
Not mentioned by Phil Heaps, but too important not to be mentioned here, is Wright’s insistence that ‘eternal life’ does not equate to ‘going to heaven when I die’. Clearly, Wright has a point here, although we might wish that he would deal less in caricatures of evangelical teaching. I find it worrying, for example, that he so often mentions the more personal aspects of salvation, only to dismiss them with faint praise (“Of course, that’s hugely important, and I wouldn’t deny it for a moment, but what really matters is…”
Phil discusses two further aspects of Wright’s teaching, particularly as they touch on the doctrine of justification. These are: ‘righteousness’ and ‘faith’. Wright seems to force both of these great Pauline (and biblical) terms into moulds in which they do not quite fit. Faith, for example, becomes less the means by which a sinner finds peace with God, and more a ‘badge’, marking out who is a member of God’s people.
Phil Heaps concludes:-
At its best, Wright’s exegesis is competent and rigorous, and his logic compelling, in striking contrast to at least some of his vocal critics. At other times his big picture seems to sweep aside the actual details of his text, and rhetoric makes up for lack of argument. In particular, he tends to dismiss or caricature alternative views using loaded language (‘abstract, simplistic, merely…’) rather than seeking to present them as attractively as possible, before effectively critiquing them (something of which we are all guilty?). Thus he needs reading carefully and critically, to see whether his case is as strong as it sounds! Sadly, sometimes Wright is unnecessarily sarcastic or cutting. Undoubtedly many of his critics are wrestling a ‘straw man caricature’ of his views. But this doesn’t justify his (humble sounding, but actually rather patronising) assumption that the only possible reason anyone might disagree with him is that he hasn’t explained himself clearly. It doesn’t appear to cross his mind that, having understood him, someone might reject many of his key assertions based on the evidence!
And he adds that criquing Wright is still ‘work in progress’. I know what he means.