My attention has been drawn to this recent talk, followed by a Q and A session, by Stephen Kuhrt about his book ‘Tom Wright for Everyone’.
Stephen is vicar of Christ Church, New Malden. He is clearly an avid fan of Tom Wright and, as the subtitle of his book indicates, he is interested in ‘putting the theology of N.T. Wright into practice in the local church.’
Since I’m reasonably well acquainted with Wright’s more popular writings (although not the big scholarly tomes), there wasn’t much in Stephen’s talk that was new to me. But it has prompted me just to think again about some of the main strands of Wright’s teaching. Here they are, as I understand them:-
1. The Bible is assumed to be normative and authoritative. Indeed, Wright often criticises those evangelicals who claim to adopt a higher view of Scripture than he does, but who (in his opinion) rely too much on their own doctrinal traditions.
My opinion: It is very refreshing for a major scholar such as Wright to constantly appeal to the text of Scripture, and to accept that text without question. However, his articulation of how and why the text of Scripture is authoritative is weak (I cannot detect a clear doctrine of inspiration). In his eagerness to declare independence from traditional evangelical exegesis he is too fond of ‘fresh’ (his oft-repeated word) interpretations.
2. The storyline of the Bible is: God intended the Jewish nation to be his means of blessing the whole world. Through disobedience, they became a part of the problem, rather than of the solution. Jesus came as the ‘perfect Jew’ in order to bring god’s salvation to both Jew and Gentile. The New Testament contains a strong theme of ‘end of exile’.
My opinion: this emphasis on the metanarrative of the Bible is a significant strength, and of great help to preachers. The idea of Jesus as the ‘perfect Jew’ seems over-done. I am frankly unconvinced by the claim that theme of ‘end of exile’ is prevalent in the New Testament, and I think that it skews Wright’s exegesis in some strange ways.
3. ‘The righteousness of God’ means ‘God’s faithfulness to his covenant’, and the expression commonly translated ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ should usually be translated ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’.
My opinion: Not convinced at all. While the idea of ‘covenant’ is absolutely central to the Bible’s storyline, I don’t see how it can be shoe-horned so confidently into these particular expressions.
4. Atonement is understood primarily in terms of Christ’s victory over sin and evil, with less emphasis on ‘penal substitution’. The latter phrase is retained, but with a vigorous critique of the doctrine as traditionally conceived in evangelical theology.
My opinion: I think that the idea of ‘God’s self-substitution’ (as explained by John Stott in ‘The Cross of Christ’) is central to the biblical doctrine of atonement. ‘Penal substitution’ is a slightly unfortunate phrase, and has become a bit too much of a badge of orthodoxy these days, but I think that Wright has conceded too much to the critics of this doctrine. His endorsement of Steve Chalke’s ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’, and his subsequent defence of that endorsement, is regrettable.
5. The big debate in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians is not about whether people are saved by works or by grace, but about how one identifies the true people of God (their adherence to ‘works of the law’, on the one hand, or ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ on the other hand).
My opinion: This is, or course, one important strand in ‘the new perspective(s) on Paul’. I’m not at all convinced.
6. ‘Justification by faith’ has less to do with describing how people get saved, more to do with how one knows who is saved. There is a shift of emphasis, therefore, from soteriology to ecclesiology.
My opinion: Not convinced. I would say that ‘Justification by faith’ does say something important about God’s plan of salvation, and that its ecclesiological implications are secondary to this.
7. ‘Imputed righteousness’, as traditionally conceived, makes no sense. The classic text in 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ’, is not about how salvation works, but about Christian ministers as ambassadors. Some of the doctrinal ‘freight’ carried by the traditional doctrine of imputed righteousness is better placed under the rubric of ‘union with Christ’.
My opinion: This is, perhaps, the key disagreement between Wright and John Piper. As far as I’m concerned, Piper won that debate, although it became apparent that some of the differences were more apparent than real. Piper scored a bit of on own goal by defining ‘the righteousness of God’ in his own rather idiosyncratic way. I’m pretty happy with the usual evangelical understanding of ‘imputed righteousness’ and Wright does help us to avoid some of the more glaring misunderstandings of this. His emphasis on ‘union with Christ’ is welcome, but already very strong within reformed evangelical theology.
8. The Christian hope looks forward to a conjoined ‘new heavens and a new earth’, with all kinds of implications for mission in the present, physical world. The idea of defining salvation as ‘going to heaven when you die’ is strongly resisted.
My opinion: Yes, I think that Wright has helpfully clarified biblical teaching here. Popular evangelical thinking (and probably a lot of other thinking too) has been in need of correction at this point. However, in refusing to accept a dualistic approach (‘physical = bad’, ‘spiritual = good’) Wright and his followers have probably ended up neglecting an important strand of teaching (prominent in 1 John, for example) that teaches us not to love ‘the world’.
9. Evangelicalism is said to be highly valued, but frequently criticised. Wright’s theology seems to offer a new ‘post-evangelical’ paradigm, positively ecumenical in its outlook and relationships and less committed to the evangelical subculture.
My opinion: Wright has a regretable habit of seeming to damn evangelicalism and evangelical theology with faint praise: ‘I owe a huge debt to evangelicalism, but…’; ‘Of course, personal salvation is hugely important, but….’; ‘I affirm penal substitution, but…’; ‘No-one is more committed to the text of Scripture than me, but…’). One admires Wright’s independence of mind and his refusal to to be pigeon-holed. But his rather negative attitude towards evangelicalism, along with the far-reaching (and, to my mind, often questionable) doctrinal revisions that he proposes, do tend to make him appear as less of ‘critical friend’ of evangelicalism, and more of a rather grumpy ‘ex-evangelical’.
Stephen Kuhrt is much more of a fan of Tom Wright than I am. But will I read Kuhrt’s book? And will I continue to read Wright’s books? Sure I will, expecting to be stimulated and infuriated in about equal measure.