31 July 2006

tom wright and reactions

First, a caveat: I am by no means a New Testament scholar. I'm not up on all the debates of the past century. The amount of Bultmann, Schweitzer, Harnack, and so on, that I've read could be printed in a volume of perhaps a couple hundred pages. My schtick is much more on the systematics, history, and philosophical theology end of the spectrum.

Still, I do try to keep abreast of what's going on in broader spheres of Christian scholarship and I have hardly been able to ignore discussions, in the wake of E.P. Sanders, concerning the nature of Second Temple Judaism and how that might occasion a re-reading or re-contextualization of certain parts of the New Testament. Moreover, given the position of N.T. Wright as one the leading New Testament theologians in the evangelical (and indeed, wider scholarly) world, I've made it a point to read a cross-section of his work.

In light of all that, it's difficult not to form at least a preliminary assessment of those discussions, what's at stake, what kinds of concerns some folks have, and the value of various criticisms.

I was asked recently, by someone who has found what she's read of Tom Wright's work to be helpful and edifying, why his writings have been such a particular focus of criticism among evangelicals. Part of the answer is that Wright probably has a greater degree of direct influence over evangelical thought than many other contemporary mainstream New Testament scholars, thereby coming under closer scrutiny, as well as the fact that we tend to criticize most sharply those with whom we differ who are otherwise the closest to us.

I replied more fully, however, that I think there are a lot of issues that come together in specific critiques of Wright's theology, some more broad and contextual and some more specific and exegetical. None of the following is to say that Wright's theology is above criticism or that he gets everything correct. I certainly have my differences with him. And Wright himself has said he's pretty sure that at least of third of what he had said is likely mistaken - the tricky bit is figuring out which third.

What follows is simply a catalogue of what I see as major reasons that he gets criticized and some gestures towards why some of those criticisms strike me as off the mark. I'll start broad and move towards specific.

[1] Tom Wright is working out of a perspective that emerged from the more liberal end of the theological and scholarly spectrum and thus, in the eyes of some, has the wrong pedigree. Wright himself, of course, is quite orthodox, but he interacts with liberals, understands them sympathetically, gives their arguments a fair chance, and argues with them in their own terms. To some readers, this smells suspicious.

And it also leads to misunderstandings, e.g., assuming that when Wright talks about a "Lutheran" reading of Paul he means confessional Lutheranism rather than, say, Bultmann, who is likely his more direct target, at least in some contexts; or that when Wright sets Paul up as within "Jewish story-theology" rather than "abstract Hellenistic speculation" that Wright is attacking all systematic theology rather than attacking guys like Harnack who saw Paul as more Greek than Jewish. Since many evangelicals don't really know how to speak the language of the mainstream academy, they don't know how to read Wright, especially his more technical work.

[2] Add to this that Wright is working out of an appreciative regard for E.P. Sanders (though also a highly critical regard) and of Sanders's re-reading of 2nd Temple Judaism (i.e., the period from the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile up to AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem - the Jewish context of Jesus and Paul).

While Wright disagrees strenuously with many of the details of Sanders's account of 2nd Temple Judaism, he does agree that the fundamental problem of that sort of Judaism was less a matter of individual works-righteousness in a semi-Pelagian sense (which is what the Protestant Reformers were reacting against at the end of the middle ages) and more a matter of Jewish identity over against the Gentiles, a sense of identity that held to Torah (including circumcision) as a symbol of that identity, as an end in itself, and as a marker of exclusivistic national claims.

[3] This reading of Judaism hardly lets Jesus and Paul's various opponents off the hook because that sort of Judaism still misunderstands grace and the inbreaking of God's kingdom, misconceives God's purposes for Israel in the world, and is still rooted in a kind of legalistic pride. But it has the practical effect of making the Protestant Reformers' reading of particular New Testament texts at a bit more of a remove from the immediate application in the original first century context.

Wright has said he thinks the Reformers were absolutely correct to apply the biblical texts to the problems of their own day in the way they did, but they were mistaken to think that the contours of late medieval Catholicism matched those of 2nd Temple Judaism in quite such a direct, precise way.

[4] Furthermore, Wright has a highly eschatological reading of the New Testament and, in particular, Paul's polemic against the Judaizers. That's to say, Wright reads Paul not so much as saying that the Judaizers had gotten "the way of salvation" wrong per se, conceived as some kind of timeless system of salvation. Rather Wright reads Paul more as saying that the Judaizers failed to understand at least three things: [a] where they were in time, in God's unfolding acts of redemption, [b] Israel's temporary and now completed role in that redemptive plan, and [c] the discontinuity and shift introduced by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

This makes a lot of difference in how one reads a variety of New Testament texts, particularly in Galatians and Romans. So part of the reaction against Wright is that, at a gut level for many evangelical readers, he is "robbing us of our Bibles." Folks mean by this, I think, that Wright is challenging the familiar, comfortable, indeed seemingly "obvious" ways in which particular texts have been read and used since at least the time of the Reformation. That's to say, Wright challenges some of our situated and historically contingent traditions of interpretation of the Bible in favor of retrieving a historically-grounded reading of the text of the Bible itself, a good Protestant impulse I should think.

It is important to note, I think, that Wright's end results still look very much like standard evangelical doctrine even if he arrives at those conclusions by somewhat different, and often times more complex, exegetical routes. But not everyone is comfortable with that.

[5] This gets us to some more specific issues. For instance, as I understand him, Wright doesn't read the Pauline phrase "works of the law" (ergon nomou) so much in terms of legalistic, meritorious works-righteousness by which we try to earn God's favor (though, of course, he would maintain that Paul's polemic would absolutely exclude that as well). Instead, he reads "works of the law" more in terms of how the Torah functioned to mark out Israel as God's elect people and how, for instance, still insisting on circumcision after the coming of the Messiah gets things backwards by making the goal of the Messiah's work the establishment of Israel and her identity, rather than Israel having existed for the sake of preparing the way for the Messiah's work.

Now, for the Judaizers to conceive of Israel in this way is self-righteous, prideful, and legalistic in a national or corporate sense, and so Paul's reaction against it would certainly cut just as much against more individual, semi-Pelagian versions of self-righteousness as well. As Wright himself says, the call of the Gospel
is the offer of forgiveness. It is the summons to receive God's gift of a slate wiped clean, a totally new start...As we saw earlier, just as you can't set up a ladder of human logic and climb up it to get to some kind of "proof" of God, so you can't set up a ladder of human moral or cultural achievement and climb up it to earn God's favor. From time to time some Christians have imagined that they were supposed to do just that, and have made a nonsense of everything. (Simply Christian 178)

[6] Another case: Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (dikaiosune theou) on several occasions in Romans and elsewhere. In much traditional exegesis this is taken to refer primarily to a righteousness that God has and which he gives over to human beings for their justification (by infusion in the case of Roman Catholic understandings and by imputation in the case of Protestant understandings).

Building upon earlier exegesis (including Reformed figures such as Ridderbos and Cranfield, as well as Lutherans such as Kasemann), Wright suggests that "righteousness of God" needs to be read against the Old Testament use of the phrase and similar phrases (see, for instance, my own reflections on the use of "zdq" in Isaiah). In that context it means something more like "God's righteous character, particularly as manifest in his faithfulness to his covenant promises."

So, the argument in Romans has to do in part with the question of how is it that God can be righteous given that he has promised salvation through Israel, but Israel is an unfit and faithless vessel for this promised salvation? How will God come through on his promises of salvation in the face of human sin and thus be seen as just and righteous, particularly given that divine justice would seem to have to punish sin rather than pardon it?

Paul's answer, as Wright reads him, is that the righteousness of God is manifest in the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah, by which God's promises to Israel for the salvation of humanity are indeed kept, but sin is also dealt with definitively. The difficulty with all of this, however, for traditional readings, is that one of the customary prooftexts for "imputation of God's/Christ's righteousness" is taken away.

[7] This points to another specific problem: the place of "imputation" in Wright's approach. Wright points out that not only does "righteousness of God" fail to refer to an imputed (or, for that matter, infused) righteousness by which we are justified, but also all the passages that actually use the word "impute" (logizomai) don't really talk about an imputed righteousness either, in the sense of some kind of transfer of Christ's righteousness from his account to ours. The word does mean to "account" or "regard" or "reckon," but in context it is, for instance, Abraham's faith that God sees and that faith which he reckons to Abraham as righteousness. If there's an imputation of Christ's righteousness here, it's not directly on the surface of the text.

So part of the difficulty is that the biblical use of "impute" doesn't match up exactly with how "impute" is used in our systematic theology. D.A. Carson agrees, by the way, in a recent essay where he interacts with Wright's view, where Carson sees "imputation" (in the traditional systematic theological sense) as a theological implication of the New Testament text, a way of expressing and filling out the forensic character of justification in dogmatic language, rather than something that is directly taught by Scripture using the term in its lexical meaning.

And Wright doesn't entirely reject the idea of "God's reckoning Christ's righteousness to us" but re-configures it in terms of corporate christology - our being "in Christ" by the Spirit through faith so that everything that Christ is and has is ours. For Wright, Jesus' resurrection was God's declaration of Jesus' own right-standing before the divine court, a verdict legally vindicating Jesus in what he did on our behalf. And when we are united to Christ and incorporated into him, what is true of Christ in his humanity is also true of us so that very same forensic status becomes ours (and since it's a legal status, it makes no sense to speak of it being "infused" as Catholics do).

That's more or less Wright's version of how the traditional Reformed doctrine of imputation functions in Pauline theology in more Pauline language and thought-forms and, as far as I can see, it really isn't so different from the understandings of Calvin, Ridderbos, Gaffin, and others. At the very least, there's nothing about Wright's overall picture of justification, if one were to accept it, that necessarily would force us to exclude more traditional understandings of imputation.

Thus, while there's a sense in which Wright "rejects imputation" (in terms of the meaning of logizomai in the New Testament, a view that many biblical scholars share), there is another sense in which Wright's views are quite open to more imputational understandings, in terms of theological exposition and filling out of the biblical picture.

[8] There's also the question of present justification and future justification. Regarding present justification, Wright suggests that there is an ineliminable "horizontal" aspect to justification.

After all, in the writings of Paul, "justification" comes up first of all in Galatians in the context of table fellowship, in connection with the question "Who can I eat with?" Paul's answer is "justification by faith." So, part of the question of justification for Paul, is the question of group identity, what it is that marks out God's covenant people as his forgiven, declared righteous people. And, according to Wright, Paul's answer is "faith alone."

So, for Wright, faith isn't only the means by which one receives and rests upon Christ as savior, but it is also the marker by which God's justified, new covenant people are set apart from the world and set together into Christ. As such, "justification by faith" means that no other boundary markers should be set up to divide those who believe from one another and that we all belong together at the same table. It has to do with ecclesiology as well as (or as a dimension of) soteriology and, on the occasion of Paul's writing of Galatians, the ecclesiological issue was in the foreground.

So, if we really believe in justification by faith alone, suggests Wright, human traditions and even biblically-inspired customs or non-essential doctrines should not divide Christians whether those boundary markers are drinking and smoking, or race and gender, or subscription to the Westminster Standards, or belief in credobaptism or speaking in tongues or transsubstantiation. One can imagine why this might get Wright in trouble with fundamentalists and certain kinds of sectarian Protestants.

[9] Regarding "future justification," Wright notes that in Scripture "justification" isn't what's supposed to happen here and now (though "in Christ" it does), but rather what's supposed to happen on the last day, when all of humanity appears before the divine court and is judged, either to be declared righteous and vindicated or to be condemned and punished. This, at least, is the picture we are left with on the basis of the Old Testament and how that was understood within Second Temple Judaism.

What happened with Jesus, Wright suggests, is that what Jews and the Old Testament saw as the end of history has already happened in the middle of history in the condemnation and vindication of Jesus, so that all who are "in Christ" by faith already have God's final verdict announced over them. But there's still a final judgment that all people - whether in Christ or not - will someday face and this is a judgment that the New Testament everywhere presents as a "judgment according to works" done in the body.

How do we fit this together with justification only by faith in the present?

Wright's answer to this question is that those who believe in Christ now are already justified in the present and that same verdict will be publicly pronounced over them again in the final judgment. These are not two separate verdicts, but two aspects - present and future - of the very same verdict. But the pathway from our present to God's future is one that involves works.

This doesn't have anything to do with somehow earning or meriting our final justification. Rather, it means that those who are justified by faith in the present are united to Christ having been called into that same faith, who have the Spirit working in their lives to give them that faith, and who in Christ by that same Spirit have God at work in them to bear fruit. Thus, at the last judgment, final justification will be, Wright says, "on the basis of a whole life lived."

But for Wright this isn't "on the basis of" in abstraction from the work of Christ as if our own efforts were, in themselves, intrinsically worthy of final justification. Rather, it is an evidentiary basis, that gives evidence of a life lived in Christ and in the power of his Spirit by faith.

Still, a number of Wright's critics see this as re-introducing works-righteousness in through the back door and, moreover, as making present justification something uncertain since it raises the possibility that it might not pan out in the end if we don't work hard enough. I think that's a very tendentious reading of what Wright's trying to say, but that's the concern they have.

There are a number of other criticisms made of Wright's biblical theology than what I've catalogued here (e.g., regarding Jesus' self-consciousness as Yahweh incarnate), but I think I've covered some of the major points of contention.

So, taking things from the other direction, why are Tom Wright's writings so attractive to many evangelicals? It's difficult to make generalizations of that sort (especially without falling into dodgy sociological assertions), but I think we can make a few valid observations.

[1] Wright is an extraordinarily effective communicator. That doesn't mean everything he says is crystal clear or simple, but he is able to present ideas in a compelling way that draws together diverse data into a whole so as to make a great deal of sense, and to do so with a certain directness of language, illustrated with easily grasped examples or comparisons. One can add to this Wright's ability to shift, with apparent ease, between technical scholarly writing, popular level writing, homiletical material, and devotional literature. Thus, there is something attractive about Wright's work on a purely rhetorical level, which for many serves as a model of how we ought to communicate and embody the attractiveness of the Gospel itself in our speech.

[2] Wright is a "big picture" sort of thinker. While not at all ignoring matters of exegetical and theological detail, he is nonetheless able to avoid losing the forest for the trees, thereby presenting the big narrative of Scripture in a way that captures a broad Christ-centered vision of God's redemptive work in the world. Wright may tend to occasionally overdose on certain themes (e.g., "return from exile") or overemphasize one aspect of a theme (e.g., allowing Israel's exile to sometimes eclipse the original exile from Eden). Still, no theological project can do everything or juggle every biblical motif, but Wright's way of bringing together the biblical story is one that many find exceedingly useful in interpreting and understanding various passages of Scripture.

[3] Wright is a "both/and" kind of theologian. Whereas many biblical scholars get caught up in problematic "either/or" propositions that pit one alternative against another that needn't exclude the first, Wright seems to try to hold things together. For instance, where some would pit Pauline use of Old Testament themes against Paul's use of Hellenistic or Roman terminology and categories, Wright sees no necesssary opposition since he reads Paul as polemically deploying a Jewish worldview against that of the Roman empire with which it already resonates. In this way, many find Wright helpful in cutting through the false dichotomies often offered by both liberal and evangelical scholarship.

[4] Wright is an effective apologist for Christian orthodoxy. While he may not always arrive at orthodox conclusions by following the most familiar and well-worn exegetical paths, Wright nonetheless still arrives at those conclusions in a way that handles Scripture and history responsibly. Moreover, he does so in a manner that takes up the concerns and categories of mainstream scholarship and turns those around in order to articulate a winsome case for orthodox Christian belief as intellectually rigorous and historically defensible. As such, Wright's work has an important role to play for many as part of a contemporary Christian apologetic, especially in the context of the academy, but also more widely.

[5] Wright doesn't shy away from "application." One might not agree with every direction that Wright takes biblical passages and themes in terms of practical application, but at least he is trying and is doing so in ways that move beyond the categories of an individualistic moralism. The message of Scripture and the truth of the Gospel have ecclesiological, communal, missional, and political dimensions and Wright helps readers see ways in which various biblical texts speak to those. In a contemporary context where people are no longer content with "What does this mean for me?" and in which Christians are increasingly suspicious of the values of modernity, Wright is one of many authors who are pointing a way forward.

Again, more could probably be said here, but these few points of attraction will suffice.

Though these comments are brief, perhaps for some they will help defuse the overly simplistic notion that Wright is of a piece with some wider "new perspective" movement. These comments might also help clear up some of the common misunderstandings and misconstruals of his work, in order that genuine disagreements can be pursued without unnecessary distraction from the relevant issues.