Pauline Perspectives

N.T. Wright is alternately enthralling and infuriating to read. He is enthralling when he is trouncing dispensationalism, and leaving the tattered remnants (!) of their theology on the floor; or when he writes a beautifully written, cogently argued defense of the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead (The Resurrection of the Son of God is, in my opinion, by far the best book Wright has ever written, even though I disagree with some of his methodological standpoints); or defending the substitutionary atonement (though there are points in that area where he makes me very nervous indeed). He is infuriating when he positions himself as a sort of eschatological exegete: all the Reformers were wrong, and only with the advent (!) of N.T. Wright has there come understanding of Paul. No doubt he would cry foul for that blow, and yet his dismissal of Reformational understandings of Paul is so thorough and systemic that one wonders if Wright believes anyone really understood Paul except Paul and N.T. Wright (and those who have had glimmerings, such as Sanders, Dunn, Hays, Horsley and some others). When I read Wright, therefore, it is a surreal roller-coaster of sorts, with interesting insights in many places followed immediately by howlers.

This book, by N.T. Wright, consists of essays written from 1978-2013 on the subject of Paul’s theology. Most of the important articles on this subject are included with the exception of those that found their way into Climax of the Covenant. The most interesting feature of reading these articles in chronological order is to see his development. The essays are a working out, development, and continual updating of what is largely one thesis, looked at from mostly overlapping (there is a rather enormous amount of overlap in these articles), but still complementary angles. Early in his career, the thesis looked like this:

Paul regarded the historical people of Abraham as God’s answer to the problem of the sin of Adam…First, the Messiah sums up his people in himself, so that what is true of him is true of them. Second, the Messiah has died and been raised. From these two sources flow salvation history and justification by faith, not as two parallel streams, nor even as two currents in the same stream, but as one stream…the one God has purposed and promised that he will create one worldwide family for Abraham, a family in whom the sin of Adam is reversed: and this he has achieved in the Messiah, Jesus (pp. 6-7).

What is central to Wright is what happened to Israel, which is that “this people, being themselves sinful, fail in the task, and their anointed representative has to do the job solo” (p. 8). In responding to this, I want to affirm with Wright that dispensational readings of Scripture simply do not do Galatians 3 and Galatians 6 justice. God’s purposes for Israel always had a worldwide perspective on them. I agree wholeheartedly with Wright on that point.

Sometimes, however, I get the impression that Wright’s position entails some sort of “plan B” on God’s part: that Adam sinned, and Abraham was elected to fix the problem, and his people Israel failed too, so then God had to cast about for a further solution. Put this way, Wright would probably disagree that such was what he meant. He does not always guard against this possible misinterpretation, however. Israel was the carrier of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Israel’s failure did not necessitate a change in God’s plan. This problem is not helped by the unguarded language on p. 426: “Humans sin; that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan for the world is thwarted.” This is unguarded at best, simply wrong at worst.

Lately (2012), the thesis looks like this: “Paul was picking up the idea of Israel’s vocation, to be the light of the world, and was explaining, in terms of Israel’s own scriptures, not so much that all Israelites were sinful (though he believed that too) but that Israel had failed to be faithful to its commission” (p. 489). This is still closely connected with the Abrahamic promise of one worldwide family that would inherit the new heavens and the new earth.

At the beginning of his career, Wright was much more open to the Reformational understandings of Paul, as is demonstrated on page 12, where we nevertheless see the first of many false dichotomies (Wright may be said to be a master of false dichotomies, in fact):

Paul never speaks of Jesus obeying the law (though he certainly did not imagine that Jesus had broken the law), but rather, in Philippians 2 and Romans 5, of Jesus’ obedience to the whole saving purpose of God. Not only did Jesus offer God the obedience which Adam had failed to offer: he offered God the obedience which Israel should have offered and had likewise failed in, obedience to the vocation of redemptive vicarious suffering for the sins of the world.

This is a false dichotomy for a very simple reason: God’s saving purpose involved Jesus obeying the law (as Galatians 4:4 makes rather clear). Even if one rejects (as Wright rejects) the idea of the imputed active obedience of Christ, there still remains the vitally important truth that Jesus would not be the proper substitute for sinners without a sinless perfection. How can God be faithful to the covenant if Jesus is not? And does not that covenant include the law?

As this thesis started working its way through his thinking, he became much more pugilistic against the Reformational readings, probably because those holding to Reformational readings started critiquing his work. Of course, that pugilism reached an apex in his book What Saint Paul Really Said, which I regard as by far the worst book he ever wrote (not because it is pugilistic, but because it distorts so much). Pugilism is not necessarily bad. The thing that strikes me about Wright, though, is that he is considerably more careful and considerate of Second-Temple Judaism than he ever is with Reformation authors and views. He dismisses Reformational readings (usually caricatured) with a wave of the hand, hardly ever quoting an author who holds said view. For example, he accuses Reformational authors of equating justification with conversion (or regeneration) numerous times in this book (pp. 36, 215, 221, 284, 308, 342). Maybe I am woefully under-read in Reformational systematic theologies, but I have never seen this advocated even once by Reformed systematicians. Wright shows his own enormous ignorance of Reformed systematics on pp. 283-284, cf. p. 310, where he advocates something that Reformed systematics has supposedly completely missed. The word for conversion is “call” and not “justification” (p. 284). Hang on, I’m quite sure I’ve read something about effectual calling somewhere in every single Reformed systematic theology I’ve ever read. These kinds of caricatures raise a very important question: he wants us to treat him with charity and kindness, even asking for criticisms to be directed his way privately before making them public (see p. 222, which is nonsense: Matthew 18 is not about public teaching but about private offenses. Public teaching falls under the category of what happens in Galatians 2, where Paul did anything but criticize Peter privately first). However, Wright doesn’t treat Reformational readings with charity in any sense of the word. Take as another example his ridiculous statement regarding moral effort on p. 202: “Earlier readings of Galatians, particularly in the Reformation tradition, had so emphasized the wrongness of ‘justification by works’, understanding that phrase in a Pelagian or Arminian sense, as to make it difficult to articulate any sense of moral obligation or moral effort within the Christian.” This is so outrageously unfair to the Reformation, even to the Lutheran tradition, that Wright really ought to be ashamed of himself here. He should read Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification or Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity and seriously revise this caricature or eliminate it entirely. He might receive a bit more charity from old perspective people like myself if he himself were a bit more charitable towards the Reformation. A lot of his insights are not as original as he seems to think.

His understanding of the Reformational doctrine of justification is quite errant as well. For instance, in his description of the law-court setting of justification (take p. 100 as an example), he repeats the same error that was in What Saint Paul Really Said, namely, that the Reformational doctrine of justification has the judge passing his own righteousness to the defendant. There are only three parties in the courtroom, according to Wright’s account: the judge, the defendant, and the prosecutor. He leaves out the most important character of all: the Defense Attorney. In Reformational accounts of justification, it is our Divine Lawyer whose righteousness is imputed to us, not the Judge. The Judge passes the sentence of innocence on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. This takes place because of our faith-union with Jesus Christ. In that divine marriage (which is both corporate and individual), all of our divine husband’s assets become ours, and all of our debts become His. The marriage being both individual and corporate actually makes the Reformational reading much more global than Wright’s reading, which leaves out and denies imputation, despite his attempts to say that the NPP really retains all that is good from the Reformation.

Later on in his career, though still having many false dichotomies and caricatures, he makes more of an effort to say things like “if you believe my view, you get everything the Reformation wanted and more” (see, e.g., p. 427). In his Justification and in what I’ve read so far of his massive Pauline theology, he seems more interested in moving beyond the old and new perspective divide, though still being firmly new perspective.

Another development that happened around 2000 is his interest in the thesis that “Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not” (see his “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, pp. 169ff.). Here there would be significantly more grounds for me to agree with his work. I can definitely see a lot of what he is saying in Paul’s letters, though I am still a moderate two kingdoms guy myself.

There is much more than could (and should) be said. This is a very important volume for understanding N.T. Wright’s work. There are valuable insights in this work, and also many errors. The critical reader needs to be discerning.


  1. John Harutunian said,

    November 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    >There are only three parties in the courtroom, according to Wright’s account: the judge, the defendant, and the prosecutor. He leaves out the most important character of all: the Defense Attorney. In Reformational accounts of justification, it is our Divine Lawyer whose righteousness is imputed to us, not the Judge.

    But Lane, it looks like there are two concepts present here. One is Christ as our Advocate. Fine -but remember this is a metaphor borrowed from a courtroom. The other concept is that all three Persons of the Trinity are one not only in substance, but also in will and purpose. (And of course a judge and a lawyer do not have the same purpose.)
    This one-in-purpose concept of the Trinity is foundational to our faith, isn’t it? If it is, then any doctrine of substitutionary atonement, Christ’s imputed righteousness, etc. must be worked out in the light of it.

  2. Mark Kim (Grace Toronto) said,

    November 26, 2013 at 2:13 am

    I still find it funny how many within the NPP or FV camp think that the traditional Reformation understanding of Paul, the law, and justification is detrimental to sanctification. Do they even read works by Calvin, Bunyan, Turretin, Watson, Witsius, Owen, Spurgeon, Ryle, Buchanan, Hodge, Warfield, etc. etc.? It’s actually becoming tiresome.

    I am also still waiting for a good answer for the NPP’s justification to restrict Paul’s phrase “the works of the law” (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) as only pertaining to boundary markers. From what I understand, the early Jews never restricted the “works of the law” to only those things that divided them from the Gentiles. Again, this must be the Reformed Baptist in me that finds questionable about dividing God’s law into sub-categories.

  3. tonyphelpsri said,

    November 26, 2013 at 8:09 am

    This is excellent, Lane. Very helpful. I do wish Wright would engage actual and authoritative Reformational theology – as summarized in the Book of Concord, Three Forms of Unity, and Westminster Standards. No need to read all of Luther’s works or the entire corpus of Reformed and Puritan writings. It wouldn’t take that much effort. And Wright would need to speedily recant his inexcusable caricatures of Reformational exegesis & the confessional theology which resulted from it.

  4. Tim Harris said,

    November 26, 2013 at 8:34 am

    The only rational response to the Great Exchange, the imputation of alien righteousness to the sinner hauled before the Judge, is to stand up on the table and shout for joy. But for N. T. Wright, this concept is a big cloud of gas.

    In my mind, that alone is proof that he is still dead in his sins. So why do we keep paying attention to him, grubbing for pearls in the dunghill?

  5. John Harutunian said,

    November 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Tim, what causes us to mount the table and shout for joy is the fact that we have been set free by Christ’s sacrificial death; He loved us enough to die the death that we should have died; His blood has washed us clean.
    There are indeed Christians whose rejoicing seems inseparable from their intellectual understanding of the teaching that Christ’s alien righteousness has been imputed to them. C.S. Lewis certainly wasn’t one of them; neither am I; and neither, I think, is Christ’s Church as a whole.
    Hope you don’t take offense -but I do think you’re going awfully hard on N.T. Wright.

  6. B said,

    November 26, 2013 at 12:02 pm


    Very helpful post, thank you for your work analyzing and critiquing from within the source itself.

    I have one question/comment regarding our Reformed understanding of the courtroom setting. Please do not take this as a challenge as I think we are likely on the same page and I am just trying to help clarify.

    “He leaves out the most important character of all: the Defense Attorney. In Reformational accounts of justification, it is our Divine Lawyer whose righteousness is imputed to us, not the Judge. ”

    It seems to me that as guilty in Adam we do not have a defense attorney per se, but as others have pointed out we do have an advocate and we have a surety. In the courtroom, the surety takes the place of the guilty/defendant but is not necessarily his “Defense Attorney”. The surety becomes the “defendant” in the sense of taking the defendant’s guilt and bearing the consequences. In the divine courtroom, apart from death, there is not a defense that can be made that will satisfy the divine wrath of the just God. Justice must be carried out. The surety, Christ Jesus, comes as a separate party altogether – one who takes the guilt of the defendant and bears the consequence of that guilt on Himself – even death.

    Christ, became sin for us, He who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (paraphrasing II Cor. 5:21).

    This passage as well as any describes the relationship of a principal (defendant) with their surety. Christ as our advocate/surety stands by us in this divine courtroom and pronounces that He has become our sin and bears the just wrath for our sin. Because the sin requires death, he has died for our sins. Because he rose from the dead, the judgment has been fully paid. Because He is eternal God and fully man he is able to bear the weight of the punishment for all the sins of all the elect.

    On the basis of Christ’s finished work, namely his propitiation and penal vicarious atonement, the “defendant’s” sin has been imputed to Christ (“He became sin for us”) and the surety’s / advocate’s (Christ) righteousness has been imputed to the “defendant” (“That we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”) – therefore the defendant is pronounced justified!

    On this basis, could we say the parties in the courtroom analogy are the Judge, the defendant, the prosecutor, and the Surety?

    I appreciate your time and feedback and again thank you for your work on this post.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    November 26, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    B (what is your full name, please?), I would say that there is no need to make a distinction between defense attorney, advocate, and surety. In the Hebrew lawcourt, they all function as the same thing. It is the function of the angel in Zechariah 3, which I believe is a pre-incarnate appearance of the second person of the Trinity. He is the one who (in step with the eternal agreement) steps forward to the bench and tells His Father that the repentant sinner, having turned to Him faith, belongs to Him, and that that is why the Judge can acquit the defendant.

  8. greenbaggins said,

    November 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    John, the lawcourt analogy and the Trinitarian aspects of salvation are certainly walking in lock-step, as long as one remembers the eternal agreement that the Father has with the Son.

  9. John Harutunian said,

    November 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Lane, thanks for the succinct defense of the orthodox Reformed position.
    I will press my point just a bit more:

    To speak of a “theory” of the Atonement probably wouldn’t be fully acceptable to you (and definitely not to Tim!). OK -so let’s speak of the “doctrine” of the substitutionary atonement. Fine. But when we articulate our doctrine of _God_ as a Trinity -one in substance, will and purpose- we’re at a deeper ontological level aren’t we?
    In light of that: let’s now move the Crucifixion into the courtroom. What do we end up with? “God punished Himself for our sakes.” And of course judges don’t do things like that. (Not even “merciful” ones.)

    As you probably realize, I’m not denying substitutionary atonement -I’m just showing the limitations of the courtroom imagery.

    (And, hopefully, showing why I don’t consider N.T. Wright to be dead in his sins.)

    Thanks for the dialogue!

  10. greenbaggins said,

    November 26, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    John, certainly all metaphors have their limitations. But the Father does in fact punish the Son for the sins of the people of God. It was a punishment that the Son agreed to take on.

  11. jsm52 said,

    November 26, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    “God punished Himself for our sakes.”

    This seems too close to blurring the distinction between the person of God the Father – eternal and invisible and holy – and the person of God the Son, eternal and invisible and holy, who yet in time became visible – incarnate – becoming a man, willingly taking upon his sinless self the sins of those given him by the Father, bearing their penalty in order to redeem them according to the eternal, unified purpose of the triune God in the covenant of redemption.

  12. November 27, 2013 at 8:20 am

    […] Pauline Perspectives ( […]

  13. Trent said,

    November 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I see Wright still hasn’t changed attacking straw men. He’s like a self proclaimed and self taught master martial artist who only spars with a lightweight bag with a picture of John Calvin on it.

  14. WA Scott said,

    November 27, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    “I still find it funny how many within the NPP or FV camp think that the traditional Reformation understanding of Paul, the law, and justification is detrimental to sanctification.”

    Amen, it is the traditional Reformation understanding of justification that actually gives an unadulterated view of the true holiness of God and His Law (and thus the true measure of our own sin and of the transformation that is needed in our life through the Holy Spirit). Without this we’re left with the watered down holiness promoted on Called to Communion, etc. where we are “perfectly fulfilling the Law” inwardly as long as we have some agape/are not in mortal sin. God Bless, W.A.Scott

  15. William Scott said,

    November 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    p.s. Of course, there are many other reasons than what I mentioned above for why the Reformation understanding of justification increases sanctification–not the least of which is the fact that it does a much better job than the alternatives of expounding the foundation/heart of the Good News (i.e. our free and absolute perfect justification in Christ despite our continual absolute and damnable lack of inward worthiness). The greater this Good News of our justification the greater the fruit–i.e. a sanctified life of loving gratitude–as our Lord notes in Luke 7:36-47.

  16. paigebritton said,

    November 30, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Hey, thanks, Lane! I will add that to my NTW collection. I’ve just decided to write my dissertation on the development of Wright’s thought from Jesus –> justification. (Imaginary dissertation.)

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