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Are Wright’s Critics Misreading Him?

By Mark Horne

Copyright © 2003

What follows deals primarily with two essays, one by Dr. Douglas Kelly and the other by The Rev. Richard Phillips. My reason for writing this essay is that many people are confidently saying things about N. T. Wright that I believe are contrary to fact.

I choose Dr. Kelly and Rev. Phillips not because they are “bad guys” in any way but precisely because their character and discernment are of such quality that one ought, ordinarily, to trust them. Surprisingly, they are mistaken in this case. Something has caused some people to read Wright in an extremely jaundiced way. Hopefully what follows will give readers prima facie reason to reconsider what they think they know about N. T. Wright.

Pastor Richard Phillips made a comment that presents a window into what I think is going wrong in the way Wright is being read. He wrote:

Those who support the New Perspective seem to resent attempts to clarify their position by means of the summary statements their own proponents have written. N. T. Wright, for instance, has helpfully provided a summary of his views regarding justification in his book What Saint Paul Really Said, along with the article “The Shape of Justification.” In my experience, we who question the statements found in those summaries are consistently told we are misrepresenting the body of N. T. Wright’s work. Let me simply observe that when one presents his own summary of his views, it is only fair to expect people to take them as accurately representing those views.

I am sure there are many ways I would agree with Rev. Phillips in general and even over against Wright in particular. Nevertheless, in this case, I need to demur. His last sentence is quite inaccurate and destructive to rational conversation. When a reviewer selects quotations from the material he is reviewing, he has an awesome power to either reveal a person’s real position or to greatly misinterpret it. If no one checks the source then there will be no accountability. If someone claims to have checked the source and to have found the use of the quotation to be misleading, he has not made an inherently impossible claim. One cannot cut off all argument by saying the reviewer is beyond criticism in his conclusions simply because his conclusions follow from the quotations which he selected.

To provide evidence for my position I would like to start with some of N. T. Wright’s summary statements which are missing from critical reviews but, one would think, would need to be dealt with if one wanted to show someone the error of his ways in reading Wright with appreciation.

For example, Wright gives readers notice, in What Saint Paul Really Said that he is concentrating on what he would add to the traditional picture of Paul, without taking away what is affirmed. Page 22:

Some still use him [Paul] to legitimate an old-style “preaching of the Gospel” in which the basic problem of human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ. Others, without wishing to deny this as part of the Pauline message, are struggling to do justice to the wider categories and the larger questions that seem to be a non-negotiable part of Paul’s whole teaching (emphasis added).

Wright states he belongs in this latter group that does not with to deny that “the basic problem of human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ” is “part of the Pauline message.”

Clearly, Wright tells us that his book is aimed at specific issues and angles on Paul that are not being commonly dealt with by “an old-style ‘preaching of the Gospel.'” Nevertheless, his statement affirms “the basic problem of human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ” while at the same time explaining why he is concentrating on other issues. Page 41 reiterates this:

In the present case, I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say “the gospel.” I just don’t think it was what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t us the word “gospel” to denote those things.

Among the things Wright has listed as “what people normally mean” and which “people ought to say, to preach about, to believe” (emphasis added) is the fact that “Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness” (top of page 41). Why aren’t these summary statements, in which Wright lays out his agenda (with its limitations), dealt with by Dr. Kelly or anyone else? Should these summaries be factored into what other summaries, quoted by Wright’s critics, are actually referring to? Again, it is no neutral thing to pick and choose summary statements.

Having mentioned some statements that I would like to see taken into account, lets consider the way some other statements are selected. One way a critique can remain unpersuasive is when a quotation is selected or pointed to as a complete statement about a matter, and then accused of being insufficient. But if the quotation was never meant to be complete then this appeal is misleading. As John Frame has pointed out, no one can say everything at once.

Since my first example of the above comes from Dr. Douglas Kelly, and since Dr. Ligon Duncan has publicly implied that anyone who disagrees with Dr. Kelly is showing him great disrespect for doing so, it might be wise to say a word about him.

No one needs to explain to me that Dr. Kelly is indeed a scholar and a gentleman. My wife and I were loaned his tapes on the Trinity (I believe these were done in Pensacola) and greatly enjoyed his teaching together for several hours on a road trip. While I was in seminary, the Francis Schaeffer Institute sponsored an ecumenical dialogue in which I was able to witness Dr. Kelly representing the Presbyterian cause. He did so splendidly. I was personally thrilled to hear him endorse so highly Ronald Wallace’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Word & Sacrament, one of the guidestones of my ministry. I don’t doubt that Dr. Kelly is as troubled by Ronald Wallace’s own neo-orthodoxy and some of his statements about the text of Scripture as I am, but the book remains an incredible value. My pastor in seminary, Jeff Meyers, also spoke highly of him after speaking with him at a conference. No one has to tell me of his well-earned reputation.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Dr. Kelly was performing at his usual high level in this instance. He writes:

The only way for Him [God] to retain His righteousness in accepting and acquitting sinners is propitiation through the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:25). Propitiation is a stronger term than expiation. Expiation deals with the covering of sin; propitiation deals with the objective turning away of God’s wrath against that which violates His holy character (namely, sin). Jesus’ infinite obedience in holy life and in atoning death has fully satisfied the just requirements of the character of God, which requires Him to deal justly with sin. Jesus’ blood has turned away the wrath of God against all those who identify through faith with His atonement. This final reality is not seriously dealt with by Dunn and Wright (e.g., see Wright’s insufficient explanation of ‘justification’ as found in Rom. 3:24-26 in What Saint Paul Really Said, 129).

Now readers can check the original context for themselves, but I’m quite sure that Dr. Kelly is claiming that Wright’s explanation of justification is “insufficient” and that the insufficiency is a failure to deal with the need for God to be propitiated in regard to sin.

But the reason the explanation is insufficient is because it was never meant to be a complete summary. On page 129, which Kelly cites, Wright claims that “those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family, which of course means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant.” Anyone who is reading this book’s pages in consecutive order will have already read about “the purpose of the covenant.” Page 48:

When we ask how it was that Jesus’ cruel death was the decisive victory over the powers, sin and death included, Paul at once replies: because it was the fulfillment of God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed he would undo the evil in the world. God established his covenant with Abraham in the first place for this precise purpose” (emphasis added).

So the purpose of the covenant was to undo sin. How was that accomplished? Here I quote from the same paragraph on page 48: “the fulfillment focuses on the death of Jesus, the covenant-fulfilling act, the moment when God executed judicial sentence on sin itself (Romans 3.24-26; 8.3)…”

To repeat: Wright says that the death of Jesus was “the moment when God executed judicial sentence on sin itself.” There is no way to get around it. Here, N. T. Wright says, by any known use of the English language, that God punished sin in the cross of Christ. Indeed, Wright uses forensic terms. God passed a “judicial” sentence. He punished sin in Christ’s death. Furthermore, the texts that explain that God did this include Romans 3.24-26. Wright affirms precisely what Dr. Kelly say he denies. Even in the page Dr. Kelly cites, Wright makes a point of saying that God has “dealt with sin” and “in the crucified Christ he has done so impartially.” Why impartially? Because he did not simply let people off the hook but maintained his justice by punishing sin “in the crucified Christ.” He, as we’ve seen, “executed judicial sentence on sin itself” (p.48).

Wright defines “impartially” at one point as for Jew and Gentile alike, but only because he has argued that

All humankind is thus in the dock in God’s metaphorical law court. In terms of the law-court diagram [i.e. the triangle of Judge, Plaintiff/Prosecutor, and Defendant], it is no longer the case of Israel coming before God as the plaintiff, bringing a charge against the pagans. Gentile and Jew alike are now guilty defendants” (p.106).

It is especially interesting that this statement about Jew and Gentile comes from Wright’s brief overview of the content of Romans 3.21-26. there he also writes that “the death and resurrection of Jesus” is “the point at which, and the means by which, God’s covenant purpose for Israel, that is, his intention to deal once and for all with the sin of the world, would finally be accomplished.” He also writes:

…the gospel of Jesus reveals God’s righteousness, in that God is himself righteous, and, as part of that, God is the one who declares the believer to be righteous. Once again we must insist that there is of course a “righteous” standing, a status, which human beings have as a result of God’s gracious verdict in Christ… He has been true to the covenant, which always aimed to deal with the sin of the world; he has dealt with sin on the cross; he has done so impartially, making a way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike; and he now, as the righteous judge, helps and saves the helpless who cast themselves on his mercy (p. 107).

All this is said under the subhead, “Romans 3,” so it is relatively easy to find and does seem a likely place to find a summary of Wright’s views of Romans 3. Why wasn’t this quoted or alluded to as Wright’s “summary statement” for his view of Romans 3 including verses 24-26? Here God’s judicial wrath is upon Jew and Gentile alike and God deals with sin on the cross of Christ and thus bestows a verdict in Christ by grace upon his people–a people defined by faith not by the works of the law (p. 132; top of page).

Obviously, picking and choosing summary statements is not an automatically objective or fair process. And if all these affirmations are somehow flawed, shouldn’t Dr. Kelly have dealt with them? After all, his and Ligon Duncan’s questions at the end of his essay are designed to keep out candidates of the gospel ministry who appreciate N. T. Wright. He obviously believes that Wright is influencing people. Wouldn’t it be wise to research and write a paper that actually shows such people where they have gone wrong in understanding Wright?

Thus far, I have merely written about the content of one book, the book which Dr. Kelly quoted from, What Saint Paul Really Said. But, to address another problem with Rev. Phillips’s observation, when I first read the above quotation by Kelly regarding the doctrine of propitiation, I did not have those other statements in Wright’s book bouncing around in my head. Rather, I was quite naturally reminded of some lectures on Romans I had heard this last year. In these lectures, the speaker castigated the New International Version of the Bible in no uncertain terms for taking the word “propitiation” out of chapter 3 of Romans. Dr. Kelly’s statements, “Propitiation is a stronger term than expiation. Expiation deals with the covering of sin; propitiation deals with the objective turning away of God’s wrath against that which violates His holy character (namely, sin),” could easily have been a direct quote from these lectures as far as my memory was concerned.

The lecturer was N. T. Wright, and anyone who buys his tapes on Romans from Regent College in Vancouver, BC, can hear them and confirm my testimony. I honestly thought to myself, as I began reading Dr. Kelly’s statement, “Oh, he’s about to at least admit that Wright got that right.” But no, these statements, that could have easily come from Wright himself, were used to condemn him. It was a truly disappointing experience. In light of it, I don’t find Rev. Phillips’s observation to be convincing.

(For a wider critique of Dr. Kelly’s editorial, see Daniel Kirk’s as yet unanswered response.)

My next example is from Rev. Phillips’s questions. He quotes N. T. Wright’s statement about justification not being how one enters the covenant community:

I want to be honest. It troubles me extremely that a minister who subscribes to the Westminster Confession could support such language. This is Wright’s own summary of his views — not mine, but his. (This, Mr. Woolsey, is why we continue to make this allegation against Wright. Despite caveats he makes elsewhere, when he offers his own summary of his view he states it in these terms.)

Since I don’t agree with (or am sure I understand) Wright here, I don’t have much to say about the issue. It seems to me that justification is a declaration that one is forgiven (among other things) and that, if it is first declared upon faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit, then it counts as an initial declaration (c.f. Acts 15.8) and an official reception into the people of God. In fact, I agree precisely with what N. T. Wright says in The Shape of Justification:

The lawcourt language indicates what is meant. “Justification” itself is not God’s act of changing the heart or character of the person; that is what Paul means by the ‘call’, which comes through the word and the Spirit. “Justification” has a specific, and narrower, reference: it is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status “righteous.” (We may note that, since “righteous” here, within the lawcourt metaphor, refers to “status,” not “character,” we correctly say that God’s declaration makes the person “righteous, i.e. in good standing.)

This distinction should seem awfully familiar to Reformed pastors. Compare these two questions from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q67: What is effectual calling?

A67: Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.

Q70: What is justification?

A70: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone

In any case–despite some of Wright’s statements distinguishing the difference (however problematically perhaps) between effectual calling and justification, as “getting in,” in his words, and determining that you are in–he does explicitly state that justification gives a sinner a new legal standing. Justification is “God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous.’” But what am I to make of the dismissal of Mike Woolsey’s counter-evidence? Refusing to account for a person’s caveats and condemning him by what you think he must mean according to a caveat-stripped summary statement is called “twisting words” in just about any circle of discourse I’ve ever been involved in. When we read Arminians use Calvin’s summaries of his views in such a manner we get highly offended and rightly so. When Lutherans make Calvin out to be a Zwinglian by taking a summary statement from him and insisting they don’t need to listen to his qualifications, we get highly offended and rightly so. This isn’t a helpful way of dealing with the question of N. T. Wright.

I remind all of us of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to apply principles impartially and of all the exhortations in the Pentateuch which tell the Israelites there will be one law for the native-born and the alien in our midst.

My third example also comes from Rev. Phillips’s questions:

Furthermore, I read in Wright’s article, The Shape of Justification, that our justification is patterned after Christ’s justification. Jesus obeyed God fully. He is declared righteous. I share in his righteousness as I am joined to him through faith. While making much of me dying with Christ, little mention is made of Christ having died for me, that is, on my behalf. At best, Wright makes allusions to the role of Christ’s death in our justification, enough so that I do not want to accuse him of denying that we are justified because of the cross. But the emphasis Wright places on his death is his obedience to God in it, not the blood-shedding of the Lamb of God to propitiate God’s wrath and expiate my sins. According to WCF XI.3, the main significance of Christ’s death is that he — did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.

Interesting summary, but it is an argument from silence based on the narrow scope of one essay. Again, remember John Frame’s dictum that one cannot say everything at once. What Wright actually says in What Saint Paul Really Said (quoted above) regarding Christ’s death being the moment when God punished sin should alleviate all concern. We can also look at other statements, the first expounding on the Last Supper and the second on the significance of the Jerusalem mob’s preference for Barabbas:

It [the Last Supper] was, first and foremost, a Passover meal. Luke has told us all along that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to “accomplish his Exodus”(9.31). he has come to do for Israel and the whole world what God did through Moses and Aaron in the first Exodus. When the powers of evil that were enslaving God’s people were at their worst, God acted to judge Egypt and save Israel. And the sign and means of both judgment and rescue was the Passover: the angel of death struck down the firstborn of all Egypt, but spared Israel as the firstborn of God, “passing over” their houses because of the blood of the lamb on the doorposts (Exodus 12). Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself. His own death would enable his people to escape…

Luke describes the event [of the mob choosing Barabbas] in such a way that we can hardly miss the point. Barabbas is guilty of some of the crimes of which Jesus, though innocent, is charged: stirring up the people, leading a rebellion… Jesus ends up dying the death appropriate for the violent rebel. He predicted he would be “reckoned with the lawless” (22.37), and it has happened all too soon… [T]his is in fact the climax of the whole gospel. This is the point for which Luke has been preparing us all along. All sinners, all rebels, all the human race are invited to see themselves in the figure of Barabbas; and, as we do so, we discover in this story that Jesus comes to take our place, under condemnation for sins and wickedness great and small. In the strange justice of God, which overrules the unjust “justice” of Rome and every human system, God’s mercy reaches out where human mercy could not, not only sharing, but in this case substituting for, the sinner’s fate (Luke 22.1-3; 23.13-26; Luke for Everyone, 262, 279, 280; emphasis added).

So it is there in black and white: Christ died as a substitute for sinners taking upon himself the fate they deserved.

But Rev. Phillips continues:

I am gratified to read that Wright sees us justified by Christ’s full obedience. But the manner in which this comes to me seems to be a point of some divergence. Whereas Adam and Eve were clothed with the external righteous of an innocent sacrifice, I seem to gain my righteousness by participating in the righteousness of Jesus. The emphasis on his death is made to be his obedience to God in it — an obedience in which I participate by faith — rather than atonement he made for me. Here, then, is my second question: Does this not represent a reformulation of justification, one that involves a participative righteousness rather than an imputed one, rather than merely a new perspective on it?

But what “seems” clear to Rev. Phillips seems to depend on reading certain portions of Wright’s work and not others (which also seems to me to be, in principle, a perfectly legitimate claim which all rational people should agree as allowable). As Wright affirms above, Christ died as a substitute for sinners. And this is received from outside oneself by faith apart from anything that is true of one’s own behavior: “faith looks backwards to what God has done in Christ, by means of his own obedient faithfulness to God’s purpose (Rom. 5.19; Phil. 2.6), relying on that rather than on anything that is true of oneself (“The Shape of Justification”; emphasis added).

In any case, Rev. Phillips contrast between a “participative righteousness” and an “imputed one” is a false disjunction. He is assuming that “participative” must somehow mean an infusion, even though Wright explicitly denies such a thing.

It should be pointed out that Rev. Phillips offers no evidence that the statements quoted from Wright are indeed “a summary of his views,” meant to have more interpretive authority than his other statements. Much of my defense of Wright has come from the very same document. Why aren’t my chosen statements not given the privileged status of counting as “a summary of his views”? Claiming that a certain problematic statement counts as a summary is itself a begging of the question.

I hope this alerts readers of how much power a reviewer has when he picks quotations from an author. If our goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter, we cannot possibly allow ourselves to assume that conclusions founded on a writer’s selection of quotations automatically guarantee that his conclusions are trustworthy. What both men seem to be practicing, and Rev. Phillips attempts to justify, is the exercise of skimming work in order to find whatever sounds worst and then taking it from it’s context and presenting it triumphantly to the jury for their verdict. To say to the defense attorney that his admission of context is irrelevant because the quotations are self-interpreting is to beg the question.

Finally, I think I should point out that Dr. Kelly not only produced an inaccurate analysis of Wright’s published views, but he attached a list of questions designed for people who appreciate N. T. Wright to keep them out of PCA presbyteries. An analysis of these questions will have to have to be another essay. At this time I will merely observe: these appeared on the denomination’s official news magazine apparently without any personal interaction with anyone in the PCA who has a different opinion of Wright (i.e. Pastor Travis Temerius, Pastor Rich Lusk, Pastor Jeff Meyers, Dr. Peter Leithart, etc). Is this how we preserve the peace and purity of the church? If an issue was really this important, should it be handled through news media rather than Biblical confrontation and the use of the Church courts? As one who believes any evidence of wrongdoing is severely lacking (for the simple reason that there has been no wrongdoing), I can’t help but wonder if some are hoping to “educate” the jury pool for awhile so that, at some point, a precedent can be set in a presbytery where everyone has been properly disposed to the “correct” verdict by a sufficient amount of second-hand information and selective quotations that, allegedly, are self-evident as “accurately representing” the views of N. T. Wright.

If one is worried about what ministers or candidates in the PCA believe, then one should investigate those beliefs. Even if Wright’s beliefs had been accurately set forth, and something dangerous had been revealed, the question would still remain as to why this should be a worry for our denomination. I’m sure C. S. Lewis is far more popular than Wright, but we don’t typically publish quotations from Lewis that make him look bad (let alone out-of-context quotations framed with inaccurate analysis and misleading context) and then append a list of questions that try to find out if candidates have any appreciation for him. The effect of Kelly’s mistaken piece with those questions at the end was to slander, not only potential candidates, but actual ministers in the PCA. This was a foreseeable result. It has also lent aid and comfort to far worse mischatacterizations. Making outrageous accusations about the New Perspective in general, and Wright in particular, is the newest fad in the denomination. It needs to stop.

I am sure that Dr. Kelly and Pastor Phillips have real concerns about N. T. Wright, and I hope they will endeavor to communicate them again with fresh evidence that accounts for his attraction to Reformed pastors and attempts to interact with them. The conversation needs to continue (or rather, begin). I offer this essay as an attempt or express some of my own concerns, both that the peace and purity of the denomination is being threatened, and that a man’s reputation–a man that I may differ with in any number of ways–is being inaccurately handled, no doubt unintentionally.

Copyright © 2003


  1. I read this back in 2003 and was reminded of it again when I read Paul Helm’s interesting analysis on the supposed similarities between Baxter’s neo-nomianism and Wright’s exegesis. I responded here.

    You were spot on about this specific topic then, and you still are.

    Comment by CJD — June 30, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  2. Perhaps Biblical and theological scholars are at odds with Wright because they do understand what he is saying. Piper confirmed those beliefs ahead of his books publication with Wright directly. Others have read and talked to Wright as well. It is not enough to accuse those of not understanding an author when they are quoting him in ways way he interprets himself. Here is a good concise article that demonstrates it by yet another critic.


    Wright is presenting a monumental shift in the way we define and teach Paul’s justification. Is it any wonder that he is being challenged? I find reading Wright first hand that he as well as his supporters get annoyed very easy whatever a challenge is brought forth. Wright started us down this road, it is now his to defend it!

    Comment by BT — November 21, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  3. BT, I presented arguments in this paper. Feel free to interact with them some time.

    Comment by Mark — November 21, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

  4. I agree with the comments of BT. I was a member of a large Wright e-mail group for 5 years and found the NPP participants arrogant with regard to conservative values and evangelical fundamentalism. While there is much to criticize with regard to fundamentalism, arrogance is never an acceptable avenue of expression. I own most of Wright’s book and was quite involved in the daily discussions of the group — at times they were very defensive and closed minded to the point of being cultish. Using Paul and giving him credit for the notion of “new perspectives” detracts from the authorship of Christ, his unique theological contribution (in fact, properly speaking, it is the “new perspectives of Jesus Christ)and sets Paul at odds with himself and his insistence that his gospel came directly from a revelation from Christ and was not the product of man or his own theological imaginations (Gal 1: 11 and 12).

    Comment by J David Smithson — December 7, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  5. Mr. Smithson,
    Since I was a member of the large discussion group that you refer to, I would like to offer a very different opinion. My experience was just opposite of yours in that I found the group to be a very well-behaved and peaceful group. I would call it anything but an arrogant bunch of cranks. Seems to me that your dissatisfcation may have arisen from your inability to find traction among so many who were symphathetic to Wright’s theological and exegetical labors. I’m disappointed and surprised that you interpreted this as arrogance.

    Comment by Rance Darity — December 7, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

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