Is N.T. Wright a Christian?

Arius, Pelagius, Marcion… will N.T. Wright be added to this list?

It’s one thing to be notable but another to be notorious and sometimes it’s hard to see where one will end up in the judgements of history.

The most well known and influential Protestants have weighed in on the doctrines of Christianity’s most controversial figure, Wright. One of those would be Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology at the influential Westminster Seminary California. His influence over the past decades has increased exponentially even while being eclipsed by N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham (Anglican) as the world’s most catalyzing figure in contemporary theology.

With this, as we might expect, Wright has been hagiographied into a saint by some but demoted to the level of quick talking theology salesmen by others. Some of the latter might have been earned through shifting in and out of subject matter so as to never answer a question with a simple yes or no. Wright rarely answers any of the fundamental questions of traditional Christian thought in ways recognizable through the historic language, creating perhaps more nuance in theological discussion at the cost of being understood. That would include simple questions, such the status of the after life, the deity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, final punishments and the doctrine of the Trinity.

To see theologians disagree is normal as theologians usually do (some would say it’s what they do best) but there’s a line not often crossed that removes the face theology often wears as a mere academic pursuit among accomplished gentlemen.

“Considering Bishop N.T. Wright’s doctrine of justification, do you believe he is teaching another gospel?”

Horton answers, “J.I.
 Packer has a great line: Tom Wright foregrounds what the Bible backgrounds, and backgrounds what the Bible foregrounds—but Wright does more than that; he denies a crucial component of justification, namely imputation.”

“So, in answer to your question, yes—in denying imputation, Wright is preaching another gospel.” Michael Horton

For Horton to say that Wright is preaching another Gospel is not small potatoes within the context of his Presbyterian and Reformed theological tradition. Different lines of Christian thought have different ways of saying things and so we take them more by what they mean than what they say. In that sharply focused, carefully defined Presbyterian tradition they measure doctrines down to carefully distinguished dogmas. They categorize with judicious language. The separation of “Christian” from “non-Christian” is not passive or vague in their vernacular. Yes we can use the words in a broader sense, like Christendom or the Christian vs. the Islamic or Hindu world but also in a very particular and restrictive sense.

By saying that N.T. Wright “is preaching another Gospel” Horton is saying two things that are really one: First, that Wright is a false teacher; Second, that Wright himself is not a Christian.

It’s a bold claim.

The historic language is drawn from the prophetic words of the Apostle Paul who in writing to the Galatians:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”

So those that preach another Gospel are presumed to be under God’s curse and there aren’t any pleasant ways to take that kind of thing. It’s traditional language reserved for the very worst teachers of false Christianities.

So what does it take to be “a Christian”?

Believing in Christ? Which Christ? Any at all? The Christ of the Hindus? Of the Muslims? Presumably the Christ of the Presbyterians gets a pass but what about Baptists, Methodists and Messianic Jews? These seem to be believing in an identical Christ – or at least so close as to be indistinguishable as to the identity of the person. Mormonism’s Christ (as a contrary example) might be the same only in name and a few historical referents.

But let’s say that while the metaphysical properties of the Christ were all in tact, he was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior – that the message of the Jesus presented were not the message that he did in fact bring. Would believing in that Christ be a believing in the true Christ – when believing in the true Christ seems necessary to being reconciled to the true God? How far a field can that understanding of that message be and it still be a believing in Christ unto salvation?

That’s a hard question because we want to be as open as possible to the salvation of anyone that makes a profession of faith while being as careful that that profession of faith is valid. We’re not doing anyone any favors by letting them think that they have a relationship with Jesus when they really have a relationship with the dictates of their own conscience and imagination. Conscience and imagination tend to be poor measures of divine things.

This is just to say that we must not only believe in some Jesus but the right Jesus, and not just some Gospel but the true Gospel. We might even say that believing in Jesus Christ and believing the Gospel are the same thing; you can’t believe one without the other. If so, then those that miss the message miss the man, and those that miss the man miss his Father.

As Jesus explained:

That is why I said you will die with your sins unforgiven. If you don’t have faith in me for who I am, you will die, and your sins will not be forgiven.” John 8:24

And so really, what one believes about Jesus is right there with believing the Gospel. One cannot be said to be believing the Gospel and not be believing certain things about Christ. The wrong Christ seems to preclude a right Gospel. This is why, for my money, Wright’s understanding of Jesus is perhaps a greater danger than even his interpretations of justification, sanctification, grace and faith but it’s for that reason; that missing Jesus misses everything important about the Bible:

Wright says:

“I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself, ‘Well, I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!’ ( N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 154).”

That quote alone would be too much for most churches.

So what is it then?

The New Perspective on Paul is essentially a restorationist movement – not wholly different from those that came before but for the liberal theological bias. The supposed restoration is to a lost Christianity obfuscated by first by Rome, then the Reformation, and perhaps more so by Evangelicalism itself.

Wright’s distaste for how most today would describe the Christian faith is evident in every lecture. He’s an apologist of sorts for a new Christianity that he claims was the original but not seen in millennia. Wright’s tools are not special revelations from angels or the visions of a prophet but the contributions of higher critical scholarship and the ongoing revisions demanded by historiographic investigations into the time and meaning of the original writers and audiences of the text. His, if it were ever to be codified into a definable system, would perhaps be a Christianity neither Protestant nor Catholic, not Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist; like the Christianity we’ve known but also not.

What’s the big deal?

When Wright reads the Bible he does so through a lens that he and a series of like teachers have created, that leads them to take the Apostle Paul to mean very different things. Unfortunately a great deal of the historiography and hermeneutical devices are coming to nothing under the white hot spot light of time and sustained theological scrutiny.

The lens is that something entirely other is going on at the time of the writing of the New Testament than the early Church, the Reformation, or even Rome could figure out with the tools they had available. Now, because we have the insights of Higher Criticism, the Search for the Historical Jesus, access to additional texts from the era and Modern Historical methods we can judge more accurately the shape and intent of the authors of the New Testament.

This is what leads him to write:

“I am convinced, Ed Sanders is right: we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism.”

I think it’s important to write first, that no one (I mean really no one) has ever argued that early Judaism was an early version of Pelagianism. Often, in Wright’s writing, he seems to create an error that verges on absurdity and then fights it as irreconcilable with his own insight. That might make for an easy win but against what? But seriously, here we have a clear statement of the method in action, being, that the primary hermeneutical strategy of almost every major Christian thinker of the last 2000 years has been fundamentally (not just a bit) off base.

The joy of thinking every one else is wrong.

All of them, all of us, all of you, got it (Christianity) wrong. It’s not at all about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – nor is the yeast of the Pharisees self-righteousness or the failure to believe in Christ unto salvation – but the error is that they won’t change their ceremonial laws and let in the gentiles. Justification by good works, works of the law, morality per se, is actually what they were teaching but, and here’s the rub… that’s what Jesus and Paul were teaching too, so it’s not really a problem.

Sure that seems to be a problem, but only until we understand that Jesus and Paul were teaching a salvation by grace, faith, faithfulness, good works, repentance, church membership and being baptized rather than circumcised – once we understand that we can understand that Jesus’ (and so Paul’s) gripe with the Pharisees could not possibly have been condemning them for a works based righteousness because that’s what they themselves were supposedly teaching.

Wright describes the Gospel he thinks the Bible teaches in this way:

“The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”CT 2009

But is the Gospel of Jesus Christ merely the announcement about changes in theology and the formation of a new community? And not the means, itself, of salvation, for all who believe that Gospel? Jesus was preaching the Gospel (he said he was) from the beginning of his earthly ministry before the things in Wright’s announcement had taken place. Did the Gospel change after Jesus’ ministry to a differing announcement?

Wright seems to be replacing the believing in Jesus with mere joining of the movement of Jesus. More like agreement with particular political party than a living faith as the effect of a spiritual regeneration from spiritual death to spiritual life; the effect is to make the Gospel an announcement rather than a means to regeneration, faith, justification and restoration to God.

This becomes particularly important when we try to understand the place of “faith” in regard to salvation, understood by the Reformation as being the “instrumental cause” of justification. That believing true things is a necessary means of receiving saving grace. In any case, believing false things, false gods, false goods is almost always held out as cause for the approbation of God. How much more false Gospels or false Christs.

The difference between believing in a false Christ and the true one, a false Gospel and the genuine article, is largely in what we think to be true. If we believe that Jesus is identical with Vishnu or Baal the passion or sincerity with which we hold that commitment will not make that Christ alive. That Christ will be false regardless of our fastidious worship or the greatness of our sacrifices given to earn their approval.  It’s an article, a fabrication, an idol of the mind. There is an historical objectivity to the Christ of God that does not condescend to our subjective intent. The extraordinary care we exercise in making sure we are in the faith is relative to our status as fallen creatures in need of grace; given the opportunity we might create idols but we cannot be saved by them.

Hebrews 11:6 says,  “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Faith in the Bible is often stated in terms of rightness of thought, of information, of thinking that certain things are true, being faith itself. It might be more than this but it seems to never be less than this, and is never confused or misinterpreted as “love”, good works or merely being a member of a given community. This is why its causation in regard to justification was said to be instrumental in regard to grace.

In Wright’s view, being a part of the group that holds these things effectively “becomes” the salvation promised in the Gospel and so faith itself become a mere series of activities of membership in a particular group. It does not actually require a definable spiritual component. This is often spoken of in Wright circles as the rejection of the Gospel as demanding personal or individual salvation rather than entrance into the community defined by the Gospel. Once faith and salvation and the Gospel have been re-interpreted in the light of Wright’s definitions they look very different than what the Church, any Church, has perhaps ever thought that the Gospel ever was. New Gospels are by their very nature dangerous things.

What the church has said faith is, is knowledge, assent and trust: a trust that rests in the completed work of Christ and holds nothing in its hand but sin.

So the idea of Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the definitions and understanding of traditional orthodox Christianity is not what Wright means by these things and very much that with which he disagrees. Minimally, though using familiar terms, he has a different “salvation” in mind through means of a different Gospel. How much that impresses our religious conscience might say a lot about how we read the Bible.

Wright famously explains his thought on this:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom . . . If we leave the notion of ‘righteousness’ as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship (p98 What St Paul Really Said).

Now a lot of people miss first that the “law court” language is exactly the language of sacred scripture but more, the language that the church has always used to speak of these things because salvation does seem to be in part a legal transaction between the King of Kings and his world. But more, the derogatory language toward God, saying that he would hardly want to worship a God that does what God does indeed seem to do should not be easily excused. It’s almost as if Wright is saying that we that hold to the old faith are not indeed Christians; that we hold to a God that is hardly worthy of worship. Ouch.

Here, Wright would argue that while Christ did in a sense die for the sins of the baptized community; they receive the declaration of righteous status from God in the absence of receiving a righteousness from God. We receive neither the Roman Catholic infusion of righteousness that  makes one actually good in themselves nor the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ. We simply have the declaration of a transfer of status from guilty to innocent.

And so we end up with Wright following through by saying that the righteousness of God in our salvation applies strangely, only to God himself – not being given to those whom he saves. The “righteousness of God” in our salvation, in Wright’s thought, is that righteousness that God already has in himself.

Calvin spoke differently about these things:

This is a definition of that righteousness which he said had been revealed when Christ was given, and which, as he has taught us in the first chapter, is made known in the Gospel. He affirms that it consists of two parts. The first is that God is just, not indeed as one among many, but as one who contains in Himself alone all the fullness of righteousness. He receives the full and complete praise which is His due only as He alone obtains the name and honor of being just, while the whole human race is condemned of unrighteousness. The other part refers to the communication of righteousness, for God does not by any means shut His riches within Himself, but pours them forth upon mankind. The righteousness of God, therefore, shines in us in so far as He justifies us by faith in Christ, for Christ was given in vain for our righteousness, if there were no enjoyment of Him by faith. It follows from this that in themselves all men are unrighteous and lost, until a remedy from heaven was offered to them. Calvin, On Romans 3

I mean, it’s not as if no one ever asked the Apostle Paul what they must do to be saved. His answer was. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” Acts

Here, Wright’s sacerdotalism and Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology might confuse his conscience and perhaps his reading of relatively simple texts according to his previously established presuppositions about the nature of justice and the ways of God. We can’t come to God and tell him what kind of a God he should be, what methods he must follow or how best to realize his ends.  Neither can we give him orders as to the appropriate means for saving our souls. He does so through the simple believing of the message of Christ and so knowing what that message is (so that we can believe it) is of the utmost importance. Getting it wrong would seem to be of vast consequence.

Where does this go?

We could describe the new dogma in this way: we come into the covenant with God through grace and faith but we stay in the covenant unto justification and eternal life through good works and legal obedience; if we do err so as to be cast out of the visible church by the clergy our election becomes non-election, our justification is lost and our salvation fails. Christ did intend to keep us because the offer of salvation is well-meant but we can thwart that intent to save. Even if we did “believe the Gospel” faith is defined in such a way as to make that incapable of causing our justification according to the righteousness of Christ; it is necessary but not sufficient for our salvation. Christ covered our sins but the righteousness we bring will be wholly our own – helped by grace of course.

This is sometimes described as that all covenants with God are by grace but conditioned upon the works of the law for that grace to have its full efficacy.

This is of course almost identical to Wesley and the theology of the Higher Life sanctification movements so prevalent in the 1800s but more importantly, brings back the sanctification as the ground of justification roots of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. When we do all that we can with the grace given us we are justified upon the basis of our due labors and performance of the laws within the covenant of God. The Covenant of Grace is conditioned upon legal obedience judged upon the basis of the entire life as lived; measured down to the jot and title.  That’s the doctrine. Its amazing and frightening.

Confusingly, as described it is said to be an affirmation of grace alone, denying meritorious salvation while, powerfully demanding that our justification before God be dependent upon His final judgment of all of our works of good or evil in this body of flesh (and if found wanting, condemned). Which might lead us to believe that even if the term ‘merit’ is avoided its plain meaning comes back with a vengeance upon the conscience of the soul looking to Christ.

I recently had a run with this doctrine at Fuller Seminary in a class I was taking with Richard Mouw (former President of Fuller Theological Seminary) with the visiting President of the Mormon church, who quoted the following verse in relation to his glowing reviews of N.T. Wright.

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

2 Nephi 25:23

As far as he was concerned, now that Wright had come Mormons and Christians were almost fully reconciled. (It’s going to be a little more complicated than that, I think) He went on to say that since doing all we can do with the grace given us and being judged upon the basis of those works is also reconcilable with Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy that all Christian folk could be reconciled through Wright.

Those are big shoes. Big fat shoes.

Figures as large in American theology as John Wesley thought many of the same things but for different reasons, so there does seem to be a precedent, for those that like Wesley. He too denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and affirmed our inevitable judgement on the basis of our own works with performed with the grace of God.

And so Wright said about our receiving the righteousness of Christ in our salvation:

“Imputed righteousness” is a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the medieval terms which were themselves part of the problem.” ―  Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision

While the final words of J. Gresham Machen, formative grandfather of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were:

“I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” to John Murray

As the Apostle Paul tells it:

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:19 – 28

On this, many these days argue that there Paul in referring to the law was speaking in terms of circumcision and the ceremonial laws. The signs of the Old Covenant were said to be acting as boundary markers for the measure of the people of God. To the contrary, Paul had just spent 3 chapters speaking to every kind of sin: blasphemy, homosexuality, idolatry, murder, slander, atheism, talking about people being completely divorced from the love of God. Plainly, he is not restricting his thought to Judaism and ceremonial laws.

The universality of the law and its applicability to all flesh seems to be of primary importance in making his point.

Here, Paul knows that he’s entering into a hard sell. He is trying to convince the reader that there are two salvations; one by law and one through faith. One means of salvation through perfect obedience to the laws of God and another through faith in Christ in the absence of such obedience. “The law”, loving God and loving our neighbor, the moral form of the Ten Commandments, become the means of God’s exercise of His jurisdiction over all (“So that every mouth many be stopped and all the World held accountable to God”).

But by the law no flesh will be justified; through the law, even though the law is good in itself, reveals that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The law is perfect in itself but if we break the law it becomes the means of our condemnation. We no longer have any hope in a salvation by means of the law because it is the law itself that condemns us.

Here, by the mercy of God, there is another means of salvation, that the law and the prophets approve. It is not “through” the law but neither does it disagree with or act in a way contrary to the law. There is the ‘law of works’and the ‘law of faith’ and these are mutually exclusive.

As with the Patriarchs, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”. Even Abraham was reconciled to God through ‘the law of faith’ and not through ‘the law of works’; how much more we who are the children of Abraham. As Paul explains the same truth in Ephesians 2, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”

Church membership was important to the Apostle Paul as were the sacraments – plainly those two were a response to a living faith that placed the person in the context of having received reconciliation to God through receiving the grace and merits of the cross work of Christ and not the ticket for admission to a salvation that would then be gained through ritual and membership.

It was the “saved” that joined the church and not the church that applied salvation to those with an already existing faith. There is here a distinction between the Visible and the Invisible church (Augustine) such that though they are ideally identical, and certainly overlapping, they are distinguishable. Not all members of one are members of the other. This often comes to the surface in conversations over the “objectivity” of the covenant. The objectivity of the covenant of Grace is fully affirmed by those with an understanding of that objectivity reconcilable with the Westminster Confession of Faith. But here the objective factor is faith. If one has a true and lively faith one is objectively identifiable as the elect of God and the recipient of salvific grace.

Here, and this is important, we do not allow those with a credible profession of faith to be baptized and join our churches so that we might make them Christians. We baptize and receive vows of membership only from those that have already made a credible profession of faith as the response of the church to the work of Christ already evident in their faith and life.

(The exception of course is in the case of infants who are baptized into the covenant of grace as already considered holy by God upon the faith of even one believing parent (1st Cor 7).

There is no magic in a baptism that makes a child a Christian; neither any in the Pastor or the Priest but there is a real relation between the sign the thing signified. Every Christian should be a member of the Christian church but church membership alone, or even coupled with Baptism, will not save in the absence of a true and lively faith, and that in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith, instead, is what makes one’s Baptism effectual and what makes one a member of that true and invisible Church. (Calvin)

And again:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, … Romans 4:5 (ESV)

The Westminster Confession of Faith also addresses this here:

Chapter XI Of Justification

I. Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God

And this:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love WCF 11.2

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says this:

WSC Q.86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?

A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

The Confession also addresses seeing the good works (love) of those that have faith as the effect of faith and not as the cause of a later grace of Justification correspondent to an earning obedience. People can call it whatever they want but a salvation contingent upon the value of good works performed toward a future reward is banking more than gratitude:

faith is never alone in those justified but is always accompanied by all other saving graces; it is not a dead faith but works by love (WCF 11:2).

Christopher Neiswonger

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