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Many Western Christians on both sides of the political spectrum feel called to ‘biblically transform’ society. How much should we do in this regard?

R Scott Clark has many resources on the Reformation concept of two kingdoms (2K), divine and civil, which Lutherans and Calvinists largely adhere to, although there are exceptions. Many Catholics also separate their church and civic lives.

In an April 2010 Heidelblog post, Dr Clark discussed the 2K concept with one of his readers, Tim. Tim asks the following by way of explanation (emphases mine):

I just returned from a weekend visiting friends and their emergent church that they go to. The person, “the grassroots pastor”, who leads this emergent community reads a lot of Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, Brian Mc[L]aren, especially Greg Boyd, and surprisingly N.T. Wright. In fact, almost every spiritually conversation I had, someone mentioned something about N.T.Wright. And in those same conversations the favorite phrase that always jumped out most was “the kingdom of God”. Now here is a reactionary community that is rebelling from pietistic fundamentalism which taught them their Christian lives are only as meaningful as their involvement in evangelism. This same emergent community now seeks to justify all their lives in terms of the service and being “agents of the new creation” to spread the “kingdom of God.” On Sunday morning the “grassroots pastor” said “the kingdom of God” essentially means everybody doing their share and “serving their brains out”. At the end of the service, the pastor pointed to the table in the back where United Way provided hundreds of ways to volunteer in their local city. And he encouraged everyone to sign up for at least one volunteer organization. The “grassroots pastor” said Christians are in the business of serving people, of volunteering, of ushering in the kingdom of God, of being conduits of the new creation. He said Christians are to be “ministers of the reconciliation.” This was a sermon full of imperatives. And I left feeling condemned especially because I am not “serving my brains out.” So my questions are:

1.To what extent does God call us to be agents of new creation involved in spreading the kingdom of God?
2.Does preaching like this, with emphasis on “serving our brains out”, fall under preaching Law and not Gospel?
3.Does serving the poor or doing other charitable work means someone is being a “minister of reconciliation” or does this phrase have a different meaning in the Bible?
4. What would you add to better explain what Guy Waters meant with his quote above?

To which Dr Clark replies:

… This is a category of analysis that the emergent guys, who are really just pietists with hip glasses, don’t have. They assume a transformationalist model of social engagement. My question is this: where in the NT is social transformation unequivocally taught? I can show where we are clearly and unequivocally taught to do our work in this world quietly but I’m hard pressed to find a single, clear, unequivocal command to transform society.

No question whether God is sovereign over all things. The question is: how has God willed to administer his sovereignty over all things? I would say that he has willed to do so in two distinct spheres. The KOG [Kingdom of God] is primarily (solely?) manifested in the visible, institutional church to which he has given the keys of the kingdom. Christians also live in what we may call the common realm or which Zacharias Ursinus called the kingdom of God most broadly considered — that is the realm of his general providence. In that realm Christians serve Christ but not by “transforming” the common but by being faithful in the common realm to their vocations and to the Lordship of Christ. Christians are Christians 7 days a week but not everything they do is under the Kingdom narrowly considered

Tim seeks clarification:

So McLaren insists we are to seek justice. Or as N.T.Wright would say, ” putting the world back to rights.” Furthermore, emergent types will go to passsages like Mat[t]hew 25:31-46 and say, “Look there, Jesus says “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” So they will say helping the poor, the powerless, the widows, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned is a major part of spreading the KOG. Another words as the “grassroots pastor” mentioned, “serving our brains out” is the way the KOG spreads. How would you respond to these issues I raised above? Thanks.

Dr Clark responds:

I wouldn’t trust Brian McLaren to help me understand anything let alone God’s Word … The truth is that the whole over-realized eschatology proposed by BM is no more than modern day revival of the Anabaptist eschatology [‘end times’ study].

Show me one concrete, unequivocal, passage where were are called to transform society. I didn’t ask for a deduction or an inference. It can’t be done because it doesn’t exist. The NT never once called Christians to transform anything. They are called to be transformed. The church as such is called to be transformed and Christians are called to fulfill their vocations in the world before God under his Lordship.

And this is but one of the exchanges and blog posts from Dr Clark — as well as his colleagues at Westminster Seminary California and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia — which got me interested in Calvinism.

Now, there are derivatives of John Knox (Calvin asked him to dial down the rhetoric and persecution) as well as Cromwell, not to mention today’s American Evangelicals in strange attire who are well meaning but are largely agenda-driven. They are derivatives of Christianity to such an extent that they are unbiblical.

And this is where we find ourselves today.

We Christians must choose our battles wisely.

This is what makes many wary of so-called ‘prophets’ and ‘believers’ of the past few decades who dishonour Christ and His redemptive power with their efforts to transform society through legalism, whether Left or Right.

For the past several days, I have been running a series on N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP).

NPP is error-ridden and works-based. Today’s post concludes with four more articles — from two pastors and a theologian.

Over the past week, I have received some feedback on these posts indicating that those who criticise NPP have not read the many marvellous books written about it. How dare people criticise 20th and 21st century revisionism?

Critics have the books, all of which point to semi-Pelagianism and a misunderstanding of St Paul. For those who wish to remain in their error — have at it, if you must, but please do not expect the rest of us to follow blindly.

The Revd Gary Gilley of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois, tells us in Part 1 of 2 in his series on NPP that this theology is revisionism borne of the 20th century. NPP denies legalism then cloaks itself in it. Furthermore, Gilley cautions us about the postmodernist thinking therein:

There are other developers and promoters of the NPP including James Dunn of the University of Durham, but it is important to note that all of the aforementioned scholars would be considered liberal in their theology and understanding of Scripture. Enter now N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and leading New Testament scholar (author of 43 books) who claims to be an evangelical and is accepted by many as such. It is Wright who has become the conduit through which the NPP teachings have entered the evangelical church. For this reason, as we examine the NPP, it is the writings of Wright with which we will interact, principally his book What Saint Paul Really Said.

NPP is about salvation which the Christian maintains through church membership. In Part 2 of his examination of NPP, he tells us that this is called covenental nomism (emphasis in the original):

One does not earn a place in the covenant through works (except the work of baptism). However to maintain one’s position in the covenant requires obedience to the laws of the covenant. One enters the covenant by faith but stays in by works.

Dr Wright has furthermore stretched St Paul’s epistles to include reconciliation with the Jewish people. I have explained my position on this previously and conclude, as has been the case with my spouse, in-laws and me, that we do so individually by the grace of God.

On this and the subject of works, Gilley says that the NPP contingent assert:

Paul is not really concerned about the individual’s standing before God. His concern is about the status of Gentiles who are now joining the Jews in the covenant community. Paul is laying down boundary markers for those in the community (the church); badges that tell who is “in,” not requirements for getting “in.” Since those who practiced Judaism were already in the covenant community, so say the NPP scholars, the only issue is how to integrate Gentiles into the already-established community.

So, we must therefore become Pharisaical through ‘works’ and obedience to the Law as they see it. Clearly, Jesus Himself told us that this was not the case. Please see my passages from John’s gospel for further reference (Christianity and Apologetics page near the bottom).

And there is the political activist-theonomist dimension as Gilley notes (as did Michael Horton). Emphases mine below:

I see many things wrong with this definition of the gospel; two are outstanding. First, it transfers the focus of God’s people from the proclamation of redemption to social enhancement of the planet. For, as Wright points out, His gospel is not merely the announcement that Jesus is Lord (something true before the cross, by the way) but the rallying point from which the church is to “bring the whole world under the lordship of Christ.” Our mandate under the NPP is not to rescue people “from the domain of darkness, and transfer them to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). Rather our mandate is to rescue the planet and ultimately to crown Christ as lord over all earthly systems and structures. God’s people are to set up the kingdom which Christ began. This is a clear “kingdom now” perspective found in postmillennialism. That is, we are in the kingdom now and our job is to advance the kingdom to the point where Christ can declare kingship over the earth and ultimately reign in person. For now this shakes out to be a social agenda.

This becomes even clearer when vital aspects of the true gospel are either minimized or eliminated altogether. Thus, my second concern is even more serious, for in elevating the social agenda the redemption agenda is devalued. Take the all-important doctrine of justification, for example. Conservative Christians have agreed that justification is defined as Christ forgiving and taking away our sin and giving us God’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). The NPP rejects this definition replacing it with Christ’s eschatological victory for the nation of Israel.

Yet, recall that Jesus said (John 18:36):

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The gospel message has nothing to do with a vulgar (Isaiah 64:6) manmade let’s-help-Christ-save-Himself construct. It is to do with salvation, not politics, theonomy, interpersonal harmony or the environment, however else NPP proponents would like to paint it.

More significantly, Gilley posits that (emphasis in the original and mine in the second sentence):

one enters the covenant by faith plus works (baptism), is sustained in the covenant by involvement in the church, and is maintained in the covenant by obedience. You can understand why many see the NPP as merely a thinly disguised road to Rome.

Another article, by Dr Carl Trueman, Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, is called ‘A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian’ and is published on Dr R Scott Clark’s Westminster Seminary California faculty page.

Trueman contends that N T Wright and the other NPP authors have not read St Augustine or Martin Luther properly:

For Protestants, the issue is particularly acute. Given the role of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith both in the theology of the Reformation, and as perhaps the defining feature of Protestantism over against post-Tridentine Catholicism, the kind of revision being proposed by the New Perspective involves a fundamental re-definition of what Protestantism, at least in its conservative, confessional form, is.


We should, after all, not lightly throw out at least 500, if not 1500, years of church teaching. We need to be acutely sensitive to the magnitude of the moves we make in this area and thus proceed with modesty, caution, and careful scholarship.

He goes into a useful historical précis (see subhead ‘Luther in the New Perspective: A Brief Historical Overview’). Trueman says that, although N T Wright is more prominent in NPP circles, James Dunn is the NPP proponent who has hit Luther the hardest. That said, neither Wright nor the others are off the hook in this regard.

Then, Trueman points out, we are faced with the stigma of ‘individualism’. What do NPP authors mean by that word? Trueman observes (emphases mine):

When, for example, does it begin? With the arrival of knives and forks rather than a communal eating pot? Perhaps the man who invented knives and forks was the first individualist. Or was it with the advent of the Cartesian principle of doubt? With the development of the genre of autobiography? Or with the development of copyright legislation or the notion of personal property, intellectual or otherwise? I have not time to discuss these in more detail; but I do want to make the point that the complexity of issues which even this brief litany of questions brings to the surface underlines the fact that we must think beyond cliches if we are to do justice to the nuances of intellectual history in general and the church’s theological tradition in particular

Given that the term has no obviously given meaning, what exactly does Dunn mean by Luther thinking of justification in distinctly individualistic terms? It would appear that what he sees Luther as doing is emphasising the vertical dimension of salvation between God and believer as taking such prominence within his soteriological scheme that the corporate aspects of salvation and Christianity are weakened and eventually eliminated (this process reaching its terminus in the existentialist reading of Luther found in the work of Rudolf Bultmann).  This development is seen as the logical outworking of Luther’s theology and not necessarily something which was explicit in Luther’s own work or even of which he was consciously aware.

Trueman readily acknowledges the horrors of the Holocaust, but traces those back to the Enlightenment, which was as important in Germany as it was in England, France and early America:

Nevertheless, even if we allow the ideas of particular individuals a significant role in the formation of a nations social, political, and cultural values (and that in itself is a philosophically contentious position with which I am profoundly unhappy in such a bald form), Luther’s Christianity is by no means the sole candidate for criticism as far as Germany’s recent history goes: the philosophy of Hegel and Bismarck’s policy of Realpolitik are also significant intellectual sources of modern Teutonic totalitarianism.

As far as works-based holiness movements and denominations are concerned, Trueman observes:

Now, we all know that Luther’s analysis of the Christian life, as found, for example, in his Commentary on Galatians, came to exert a profound influence on the popular piety of later conversionist evangelicalicalism, partly through its impact and appropriation by John Bunyan and John Wesley, whose writings and life stories were to have such an effect upon shaping eighteenth and nineteenth century popular piety; but we must beware of blaming the earlier Reformers for problems that develop in later tradition. The Reformers felt no tension between their emphasis on infant baptism and that upon justification by faith; and it is illegitimate for us to import such tension back into their writings or to impute the problems of later Protestant theology to questions which they allegedly left unanswered. One can hardly leave a question unanswered which was never asked in the first place.

Trueman concludes that NPP is great — for those who have not read the New Testament or its supporting texts:

It too must be beautiful, but only if you don’t know the primary texts …

It is on the basis of their consistent and careful application of these procedures that these scholars ask me to trust them when they tell me that the whole of Christian tradition is basically wrongheaded over salvation, that the Reformers were more guilty than most in the perversion of the gospel, and that I should trust them as the only people since Paul to have understood what the gospel is all about. Well, in those areas of their writings where I am competent to judge their application of historical procedure, I find them sadly deficient.

Finally, the Revd Charles E Hill, a pastor with Third Millennium Ministries (‘Third Mill’) published an article, ‘N T Wright on Justification’. He presents an exegesis of Paul’s epistles. In laymen’s terms, he concludes:

What does this redefinition do for Wright? It keeps justification (reckoned righteousness) at the point of “ecclesiology” [church membership] rather than “soteriology.” [salvation] Justification is for him the presentation of your card at Costco: Are you a member? Here’s my card. I pronounce you justified, come in. This happens every time you go to Costco.

But for Paul justification is not a test of a membership already possessed, a test which can be repeated each time your “righteousness” is called into question. It is the eschatological pronouncement of God, once and for all, that those who believe in Christ stand before God as fully forgiven, fully righteous, on the basis of Christ’s propitiation for them. This reckoned righteousness is not an abstract thing. Elsewhere Paul says that our righteousness is not our own, not based on law or works, but is the gift of God (e.g. Rom. 3.24; 4.4; 10.3-4; Phil. 3.9).

What difference does Wright’s redefinition of justification make? I think it risks minimizing the importance of sin and of the atoning significance of Christ’s death. I’m not saying he denies the atoning significance of Christ’s death. But when you minimize the central importance of sin, you necessarily call into question the centrality of Christ’s atoning death …

The whole coherency of justification as meeting the problem of the wrath of God against sin, and therefore as being absolutely grounded in the substitutionary atonement by Christ which diverts that wrath from us, is lost or obscured in the membership interpretation. These things may not yet be denied by Wright, but there is no intrinsic connection between them and justification, as I see it, in Wright’s view.

I hope this has helped many — whether from the left-wing or right-wing of Protestantism — to understand the error of New Perspectives on Paul. Whilst realising that NPP wishes to right 20th century wrongs, it is going about it in the wrong way — revisionism.

You might also like Dr Ligon Duncan’s forensic examination of the various NPP authors, their theology, why they are popular and more on the error of NPP.

End of series

Continuing a series on N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s New Perspective(s) on Paul, today’s post features excerpts from an article by Dr Sinclair B Ferguson, a Presbyterian who argues concisely that ‘the old wine is best’ when it comes to the doctrine on justification.

Dr Ferguson is the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. In 2010, he wrote an article for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk entitled ‘What Does Justification Have to Do with the Gospel?’ Much of his article follows below, emphases mine.

First, a quote from N T Wright — a possible candidate to replace the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.
—N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 132–33

It’s mindnumbing to see a historian attempt to undo over five centuries of Reformation theology. The Reformers were much closer to the original manuscripts than we are and had no political — only an ecclesiastical — ‘agenda’.  (Wright intends for Paul’s letters to prove political and ecumenical points as a spur for works-based action.) Ferguson notes that Wright takes this one step further into church membership — ‘in the covenant community’ — signifying one’s salvation. A cursory reading of the New Testament tells us that church membership does not signify salvation. People died from misuse of the Sacrament (1 Corinthians 5, 1 Corinthians 11) as well as deceiving the Church (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5).

However, the first paragraph below gave me pause for thought. I have never heard of or read in a Protestant — or Catholic, for that matter — context a worry over being justified through a belief in justification by faith. Is Wright just twisting terminology or ideology here? One wonders.  Please note that Ferguson himself is an ex-Evangelical.  He points out Wright’s specious reasoning:

Is this perhaps the longed-for antidote to evangelical individualism and a cure for subjectivism? Clearly Bishop Wright and others believe so. Elsewhere, Dr. Wright confesses the great relief he felt in discovering that we are not justified by believing in justification by faith.

But this already suggests that the plausibility of this perspective is scarcely matched by the reality. These words seem to describe an escape from the theological immaturity of an earlier evangelicalism. But having been reared at the same time in that same evangelicalism, I seriously question that such teaching ever existed in any serious form. This should make us reconsider the apparent plausibility of what is being said here. At the end of the day, it may turn out to be a sleight of hand — for several reasons. What follows are three of them.

First, there is a false dichotomy suggested in the notion that the gospel is not justification by faith but the latter is “implied” by the gospel. But this “either-or” way of thinking expresses the logical fallacy tertium non datur (if not A, then necessarily B). Thus, the gospel is Christ OR it is justification by faith.

This is falsely to abstract justification from Christ, the benefit (the implication of what Jesus did) from the Benefactor (the person of Jesus who has accomplished His work). But as Paul notes, Christ Himself is made righteousness for us (1 Cor. 1:30). Justification cannot be abstracted from Christ as if it were a “thing” apart from or added to Him. Christ Himself is our justification. We cannot have justification without Christ! Nor can we have Christ without justification! Insofar as this is true, we cannot say that Christ, not justification by faith, is the gospel.

Second and perhaps more surprisingly, given N.T. Wright’s extensive commentary on Romans, Paul himself provides us with what he calls “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16). But this gospel is saving power (1:16–17) — thus “being saved” is part of the gospel. In addition it includes not only Romans 1–3 but Romans 4–16 as well. More pointedly, it includes Romans 12–16. In technical language it includes not only kerygma (the proclamation of Christ and His work) but also didache (the application of that work in and to the life of the believer and the community).

Earlier, Paul believed that the distortion and falsifying of the gospel taking place in the Galatian church involved the application of redemption. Justification by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, is as much part of the gospel as Christ becoming a curse for us on the cross (Gal. 3:13).

Finally, unless we are familiar with the context of Wright’s words quoted above, we may not notice a further sleight of hand taking place.

In the statement “when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people,” “justification” itself is being radically redefined. Here it no longer means “counted righteous in God’s sight although a guilty sinner in oneself.” It means “being regarded as members of His people.” Justification no longer belongs to the definition of the gospel as such, to pardon and acceptance, but refers to membership in the covenant community.

But this faces insurmountable problems. It is an eccentric understanding of Paul’s Greek terms. Were “justification” the antithesis of “alienation,” the argument might be more plausible. But “justification” is the antithesis of “condemnation.” Its primary thrust has to do with transgression, guilt, and punishment — relatedness to God’s holiness expressed in legal norms, not primarily relationship to the community.

Membership, therefore, is an implication of justification; it is not what justification means. That is why the gospel confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) must never be understood apart from the interpretation given it in 1 Corinthians 15:1–3 — that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This Paul specifically calls the gospel. It deals first and foremost with our sin, pollution, and guilt as the reasons for exclusion from the presence of God. Yes, justification is relational language. But it is no less forensic language for that reason — since it deals with our relationship to the holy Lord and Lawgiver!

It is right to be concerned that the objectivity of the gospel should never be swallowed up by subjectivity, or the church community destroyed by individuality. But the understanding of the gospel and of justification in Luther and Calvin, in Heidelberg and Westminster, provides all the necessary safeguards. The old wine is best. It satisfies both the requirements of biblical teaching and the deepest hunger of the awakened human heart.

It would appear as if Wright has fallen prey to what he has previously expounded on as the 18th century Enlightenment embrace of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism — in part, the separation of God from everyday life — in attempting to separate justification from Christ, placing it into what seems, by comparison, to be a mundane category of membership. This can lead only to semi-Pelagian attempts at self-salvation.

The epistles of Paul, John, Peter as well as Acts point to false teachings and grave sin on the part of early Church ‘members’. These ills still exist today.

Justification is not the equivalent of church membership.  Paul and the other apostles would affirm that today — from personal experience.  Read the New Testament and see for yourself.

I only found out about New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) a couple of years ago when I read about the controversy in some American Presbyterian denominations concerning an ultra-conservative splinter movement called Federal Vision.

I thought Federal Vision was strange. Now that I have been reading about NPP, it is equally unorthodox. It isn’t quite Catholic, it isn’t quite Arminian, it certainly isn’t Lutheran or Calvinist, but some odd theological confection which turns Paul’s epistles on their head and then spins them around. Reading about NPP is like going down a rabbit hole; you never know what you’ll find next. I am still  unsure how Federal Vision embraced NPP; maybe it is the call to political action (works!) which appeals to both conservatives and left-wing churchgoers.

The disturbing thing is that N T ‘Tom’ Wright could well be a candidate for the post of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Even more disturbing is that he is the leading champion of NPP, which has been around since the 1960s but has gained traction over the past decade or so.  By now, an increasing number of  Reformed and Evangelical pastors and laypeople have been reading and recommending N T Wright’s books on the subject.

Today’s refutation of NPP is by Dr J V Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He wrote a lengthy essay entitled ‘The New Perspective on Paul: Calvin and N T Wright’. It’s an excellent study of how unorthodox NPP is. I would recommend that anyone thinking of reading NPP books read Fesko’s piece first.

What follows are excerpts and the principal ideas, which Fesko fully explores in his article, which he wrote for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk.  Emphases mine throughout.

Despite the fact that Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] tells us that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1.9), in recent years a school of Pauline interpreters have raised their banner declaring they have a new perspective on Paul.  What exactly is the nature of this new perspective?  One of the earliest proponents of the new perspective, E. P. Sanders, argues that the historic Protestant interpretation of Paul is incorrect.  Paul did not face opposition from pharisaical legalism; rather, the Judaism of Paul’s day was a religion of grace, not works ..

It is this description of first century Judaism that Sanders has called covenantal nomismIt is this pattern of salvation by grace, argues Sanders, that dominates the Judaism of Paul’s day—not rank legalism as is commonly argued.  A simple description of Sanders’ case is that Jews in Paul’s day entered the covenant by God’s grace but they maintained their position in covenant by their obedience.[2]  Sanders’ initial work in this area of Pauline scholarship, however, was only an opening volley.

Subsequent to the publication of Sanders’ work James D. G. Dunn carried the case for the new perspective several steps further.  While Sanders’ work focused upon the literature of Second Temple Judaism, Dunn’s own work focused on the writings of Paul himself—most notably his epistles to the Romans and Galatians.[3] …

The problem, then, in the churches of Rome and Galatia, is not one of soteriology but rather of ecclesiology and sociology.  The ‘works of the law,’ argues Dunn, have to do with maintaining Jewish identity and not legalism.  Paul’s mission in both epistles is to break down the cultural elitism and help the Jews understand that Gentiles are equal partners in God’s covenant.[5]  Though this is a brief thumb-nail sketch of the new perspective, this nonetheless gives us a rough framework out of which we can introduce the writings of one of the most prolific new perspective writers.

In recent years N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, has written numerous works from the new perspectiveHis works have echoed the same charge as Sanders and Dunn, namely the Protestant reading of Paul has been influenced by alien theological issues … 

Now, this is not to say that Wright agrees with Sanders and Dunn on every point; the overall agreement on the major premises, however, is evident.

we will first survey N. T. Wright’s views on Paul’s doctrine of justification.  Second, we will then compare and contrast them with the views of John Calvin, one of the chief second-generation reformers.  By this comparison, we will be able to evaluate whether the claims of the new perspective, at least as they come from the pen of N. T. Wright, are valid.  Lastly, we will conclude with some general observations about the new perspective on Paul and its growing influence in the Reformed community.

N T Wright on Justification

The Righteousness of God

When we come to the new perspective from the pen of N. T. Wright, one does not find himself on familiar terrain.  This is due to the fact that Wright does not take anything for granted in his formulation of justification.  He writes that the “popular view of ‘justification by faith,’ though not entirely misleading, does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul’s doctrine, and indeed distorts  it at various points.”[8]  We can begin the survey of Wright’s understanding of justification by an examination of his concept of the righteousness of God.  When one reads the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’ (dikaiosu,nh qeou/, dikaiosune theou) Wright argues that it must be read as a subjective or possessive genitive.[9]  In other words, the righteousness of God is not something that He imputes to the Christian believer but rather it is a quality that belongs to God …


… justification is not, according to Wright, about imputing the righteousness of God, or more specifically Jesus Christ, to the individual believer.  In fact, with allusions to the Reformed tradition, Wright essentially rejects the concept of imputed righteousness … 

Rather than imputation, justification is about the righteousness of God, or His covenant faithfulness, to vindicate and mark those people who belong to Him ...

Wright contends that “‘justification,’ as seen in [Romans] 3.24-26, means 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.”  He goes on to conclude that “the gospel—not ‘justification by faith,’ but the message about Jesus—thus reveals the righteousness, that is, the covenant faithfulness, of God.”[16]  This, as one can see, is very different from the traditional Reformation reading of Paul on the subject of justification.  Wright is clear to point out his disapprobation for the traditional reading at various points, especially as justification relates to the works of the law and the debate between Roman Catholicism and the reformers.

The works of the law

Though not in every detail, Wright follows Dunn in his analysis regarding the meaning of the phrase, ‘the works of the law.’  Wright does not believe that Paul refers to crass legalism but instead to the cultural markers of the Jews—circumcision and Sabbath observance

Wright’s contention parallels Dunn’s belief that the works of the law were not the attempt of the Jewish people with whom Paul dealt to earn their salvation.  Once again, Wright’s analysis is replete with the allegation that Protestant exegetes have imported the Augustine-Pelagius debate into Paul’s writings.  Moreover, by contaminating Paul with these alien issues, argues Wright, both Protestants and Catholics have used the doctrine of justification as a weapon of polemics rather than ecumenism

Calvin on Justification

The righteousness of God

To see a good comparison between N. T. Wright and Calvin let us proceed to examine Calvin’s doctrine of justification along the same issues that we examined Wright’s understanding.[19]  This examination will facilitate the task of comparison and contrast between the two theologians … 

Now, it is important that we note not only what Calvin says about this important phrase but also the contrast with Wright’s own analysis.  Unlike Wright, who reads the ‘righteousness of God’ as a subjective or possessive genitive, i.e., a quality that belongs to God, Calvin reads it as either an objective or genitive of originIn other words, the righteousness of God is something that is given to man.  Calvin notes that the righteousness of God brings the remission of sins and the grace of regeneration.  This, just as with Wright, has important implications for Calvin’s understanding of justification.

When Calvin defines justification he writes that it is “the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men.  And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[21]  We see in Calvin’s definition of justification the repeated theme of the remission of sins.  We also see that when Calvin explained that the righteousness of God brings the grace of regeneration that he specifies the means of obtaining that grace—namely, imputation.  The idea of imputation is a concept that Wright rejects … 

For Wright, God does make a forensic declaration in justification—namely, God eschatologically [concerning the end of the world, the Final Judgment] defines who belongs to His covenant people.  Wright says that this includes the forgiveness of sins, but he does not specify the way in which this is accomplished.  By contrast, Calvin argues that justification is a forensic declaration where God declares a sinner pure and righteous.  He bases his argument on 2 Corinthians 5.19-21 and the parallel that exists between the declaration of a guilty or innocent verdict in a court room.  The contrast between Calvin and Wright is evident.  This leaves one other issue to be explored.  Namely, what understanding does Calvin give to the phrase ‘the works of the law?’

The works of the law

In Calvin’s treatment of Romans 3.27-28 he excludes the possibility that man can in anyway earn or merit salvation.  In contrast to Wright, yes, Calvin does invoke a debate that was current in his day—the debate over condign and congruent merit.  This is, of course, a distinction that Calvin rejects.  He only briefly mentions this issue and then moves forward in his analysis … 

Now, the contrast between Wright and Calvin on this point is again evident.  Wright believes that the works of the law refer to those cultural boundary markers such as circumcision and Sabbath observance whereas Calvin believes that it is a general reference to human effort.  Now that we have set forth both Calvin and Wright on these points, while noting the contrasts between the two positions, we can analyze the differences and determine whether there is any weight to Wright’s claims regarding the Reformation reading of Paul.

Analysis of Wright’s Claims

Even to the untrained eye, one can notice that there is a great degree of divergence between Wright and Calvin on the doctrine of justification.  Moreover, the fact that Calvin does mention the debate with Catholicism over condign and congruent merit appears to lend some credence to Wright’s claim that the reformers, at least Calvin, imported foreign ideas into their exegesis of Paul.  Rather than exegete Paul with the first-century context in mind they had their own sixteenth-century issues by way of the Augustine-Pelagius debate informing their exegesis.  A careful analysis of Wright’s claims as well as delving more deeply into Calvin’s treatment of Paul, however, will reveal that Wright’s critique is incorrect.  Moreover, it will reveal the shortcomings of Wright’s own interpretation of Paul on justification.  We will begin the analysis of Wright’s claims with some general observations and then delve into the specifics of Calvin’s exegesis of Paul.

Deficiencies in Wright’s methodology

When we survey Wright’s critical statements of the Reformation interpretation of Paul there is a striking absence of any reference to primary sources.  For example, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, we find Wright approvingly cite Alister McGrath in his survey of the doctrine of justification …

Whether McGrath is correct is beside the point; he has based his statement upon primary source evidence, whereas Wright has not.  Wright does not cite any primary source material to demonstrate where the traditional exegesis of Paul is wrong or where the reformers have eisegeted the Augustine-Pelagius debate into the text.[25]  This is not uncommon among advocates of the new perspective.

In Dunn’s critique of Martin Luther, for example, he does not cite primary sources to substantiate the claim that Luther eisegeted his own conversion anxieties into his interpretation of Romans 7.  To substantiate this charge, Dunn cites Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, not Luther’s writings directly.[26]  This, to say the least, is defective methodology.  To disagree with a position is certainly within the realm of responsible scholarship, but to critique apart from evidence is unacceptable.  Because Wright does not examine primary sources and their historical setting, his claims of distortion lack cogency; they are suspended in mid-air apart from any factual foundation.  Let us turn to the historical context of Calvin’s exegetical work on Romans, for example, so that we may see that he was not simply eisegeting Scripture.

When we survey the sixteenth-century milieu in which Calvin wrote his commentary on Romans, there are many factors to consider that mitigate Wright’s claims.  David Steinmetz notes that in the sixteenth century there were over seventy Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, and Radical theologians who published commentaries on Romans.  In addition to this, there were partial or complete commentaries by Patristic authors from Origen to Ambrosiaster as well as a handful of medieval works.  While Calvin did not consult all of the available commentaries on Romans, his work certainly reflects interaction with this body of literature.[27] …

The advocates of the new perspective do not take into consideration that the reformers were familiar with the writings of the apocrypha—the writings of inter-testamental Judaism.  For example, Calvin interacted with the apocrypha in response to its use in support of various Roman Catholic doctrines

Specific exegetical observations

In our previous exposition of the views of Wright and Calvin, we were able to detect some differences between the two theologians.  We brought out three major areas of comparison to give us a framework in which to work: (1) the interpretation of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God;’ (2) the nature of justification; and (3) and the meaning of the phrase ‘the works of the law.’  Now, while we do not want to enter a full-fledged dissection and refutation of each issue, as others have done this elsewhere, we can make some observations about Calvin’s exegetical method in contrast to that of Wright.[34]

Regarding the issue of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God,’ we must ask whether Paul means to convey a moral quality that God possesses, i.e., Wright’s covenant faithfulness of God, or whether it is something that God imparts to His people, i.e. Calvin’s forensic righteousness.  This phrase, of course, is found in Romans 1.17 and is one of the most debated phrases in New Testament exegesis.[35]  While we can not enter into a detailed exegesis of this phrase we should note that Calvin echoes Paul where Wright is silentWright conveys that the ‘righteousness of God’ is exclusively a category that belongs to God.  Calvin, on the other hand, notes that it is not only a category that belongs to God but that it is also something that God communicates to the believer

… This brings us, however, to the second issue between Calvin and Wright, namely the nature of justification.

It is important that we note that Wright would agree that Romans 3.26 does state that God is both the just and the justifier.  Where Calvin and Wright, however, would disagree is on the nature of the justification in relation to the believer.  We have already seen that Wright believes that justification is God’s declaration that a person is part of His covenant people and that this is primarily tied in with the ultimate eschatological vindication of the people of God at the consummation of the age.  Calvin, on the other hand believes that justification is the actual imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer through faith. 

In the cursory exposition of the views of both theologians several factors emerge that demand our attention—namely the greater doctrinal issues that are connected with justification.  It was B. B. Warfield who observed that the doctrines of the Bible are part of an organic whole; yes, they can be discussed individually but ultimately they can not be divorced from one another.[37]  This is something that is a marked contrast between the positions of Wright and Calvin.

For example, let us compare their respective definitions of justification; first, Wright defines justification in the following manner: “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God.  It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.”[38]  Calvin, on the other hand, defines it as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men.  And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[39]

The divergence between the two men is evident.  Wright’s definition speaks of identity—who belongs to the covenant—or in other words, Wright speaks from ecclesiology [pertaining to the Church].  Calvin, on the other hand, speaks about sin, the need for righteousness—or in other words, Calvin speaks from soteriology [salvation].  What makes the critical difference between the two is that Wright virtually by-passes all discussions that pertain to soteriology effectively divorcing it from other doctrinal considerationsCalvin, on the other hand, makes the connection between soteriology and ecclesiology knowing that the two are interconnected.  We can see this point by several examples from each writer.

For example, when it comes to the ministry of Christ, argues Wright, Jesus did not come to deal primarily with issues of soteriology.  Rather, Christ presents ecclesiological and eschatological issues—namely, how to bring about the final vindication of God’s covenant people.  Wright contends that Christ’s “first aim, therefore, was to summon Israel to ‘repent’—not so much of petty individual sins, but of the great national rebellion, against the creator, the covenant God.”[40]  According to Wright, first century Judaism offered three main options for bringing about the ultimate justification, or vindication and victory, of the people of God: (1) the separatism of the Qumran community, (2) political compromise like Herod’s with Roman, and (3) the militaristic approach of the zealots.[41]  These options were all specious interpretations of bringing about the promised kingdom of God’s covenant ..

Wright by-passes discussion of sin and soteriology and makes reference only to ecclesiology and eschatology.  Repentance simply constitutes abandonment of misinterpretation of the tradition as it relates to covenant and eschatology.  Absent are the concepts of personal morality, sin, and soteriology, which are inextricably linked with justification, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

When we turn to Calvin, on the other hand, we see a full-orbed and organic treatment of justification in contrast to Wright’s analysis.  For example, Calvin argues that justification is intermIt is important that we notice that Calvin’s treatment of justification rotates on an entirely different axis than that of Wright.  Notice how Calvin connects matters of soteriology, regeneration, faith, guilt, repentance, and sanctification, to justification.  Moreover, Calvin emphasizes the individual believer whereas Wright does not.  Does Calvin, however, over-emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body?eshed with a host of other doctrines.  He writes that “Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.  These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies.”[44]

It is important that we notice that Calvin’s treatment of justification rotates on an entirely different axis than that of Wright.  Notice how Calvin connects matters of soteriology, regeneration, faith, guilt, repentance, and sanctification, to justification.  Moreover, Calvin emphasizes the individual believer whereas Wright does notDoes Calvin, however, over-emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body?

First, Calvin does not emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body in his doctrine of justification.  As previously stated, Calvin recognizes that doctrine as a whole is organic.  All one must do is see the connections Calvin makes, for example, with his definition of the invisible church as “all God’s elect,” which are those  who receive justification.[46] 

This idea can be further illustrated when we recall that far from the radically individualistic age in which we now live, Calvin lived in a time that was marked by corporate solidarity.  Corporate solidarity was maintained by creeds, confessions, and catechisms.  Calvin, for example, established the practice of requiring all the inhabitants of Geneva to subscribe to a common confession.  This was done to maintain the corporate unity of the city.[47] …

Second, is Calvin in error for emphasizing the concept of individual salvation?  Wright argues, for example, that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is not “a detached statement of how people get saved, how they enter a relationship with God as individuals, but as an exposition of the covenant purposes of the creator God.”[49]  Yet, Calvin simply echoes one of the major themes in Scripture—how a person has peace with God

We have to wonder at this point if Wright, and the advocates of the new perspective, are attributing a (post)modernist reading of Paul to the Reformation, which is highly anachronistic.[51]

With these issues addressed, this leads us to examine the third and final issue, namely the meaning of the phrase ‘the works of the Law.’

Tomorrow: J V Fesko concludes on NPP and presents its doctrinal dangers

Continuing a brief series on the errors of N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul (NPP), today’s post features Michael Horton‘s point of view.

Already we have seen that Dr Wright — today’s foremost champion of NPP — and his fellow travellers (theologians and historians) see St Paul’s epistles as an instruction for ecumenism, works-based salvation and political involvement.  Dr Horton explores these further, calling them Wright’s ‘third way’.  Emphases mine below.

First, here are three quotes from Wright on NPP:

Once we relocate justification, moving it from the discussion of how people become Christians to the discussion of how we know that someone is a Christian, we have a powerful incentive to work together across denominational barriers.
—“New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 261

And, as I have argued before and hope to show here once more, many of the supposedly ordinary readings within the Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote. – Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009), p. 50

[Justification] has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination” – Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 86

Michael Horton responded to these quotes and more in an article, ‘Justification and Ecumenism’, which appeared on Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), a host of the White Horse Inn broadcasts and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Much of ‘Justification and Ecumenism’ follows:

One of the great connections that N.T. Wright emphasizes in his work is the one between soteriology (how we are saved) and ecclesiology (the church: who are the true people of God?). He properly (and repeatedly) reminds us that Paul saw these questions as inseparable. Interestingly, so did the Protestant Reformers, as historians have often observed. As on so many points, however, Wright distorts the Reformation positions and almost never footnotes his sweeping allegations. For example, in his latest book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009), Wright once more complains that the Reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), with the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) becoming one family in Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (p. 43).

A cursory reading of Calvin’s Ephesians commentary tells a different story …

In this, as in his earlier works, Wright practically never offers a single footnote for his manifold assertions concerning Reformation exegesis. However, he hangs much on the slender thread of several quotes from Alister McGrath’s expansive yet controversial study of the history of the doctrine of justification, Iustitia Dei ...

The main point of the Reformation was to stress the distinction between justification and the other gifts of salvation. It was Rome’s confusion of justification and sanctification that the Reformers challenged.

For all of his concern about ecclesiology in Paul, Wright does not seem as concerned about the actual positions that Protestant churches have held. In this murkiness, he is able to put forward his own view as a “third way” beyond the impasse of Rome and the Reformation. As it turns out, his alternative surrenders the doctrine of justification as the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience in favor of a concept of justification as the anticipation of a final justification based on “an entire life lived” — ours, that is.

At the heart of historical criticisms of the Reformation view has been the charge that it does not have any place for human activity. New Perspective trailblazers E .P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn approach Paul from an Arminian perspective (the latter having once been a Calvinist). N.T. Wright claims to avoid such debates (as do Sanders and Dunn), but everyone interprets Scripture from a particular theological perspective. Wright also has a clear agenda to get Christians to transform the world by “living the gospel” (complete with a very specific political prescription). He writes concerning justification: “If Christians could only get this right,” says Wright, “they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 159). Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to make them the same thing.

Far from being suspicious, we should welcome any ecumenical consensus that emerges out of the clear biblical testimony to God’s justification of the ungodly by imputing their sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to them through faith alone. However, the consensus that seems to be emerging in our day, as in other eras, seems to find its core sympathy in a more synergistic (Arminian and Roman Catholic) framework.

The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted the Lutheran and Calvinist views of justification. However, since the Book of Common Prayer was discarded in the 1970s (United States) and 1980s (Great Britain), the Articles and their doctrine have been neglected and are now largely forgotten.  Even before that, however, 19th century religious movements within Anglicanism diluted them. Both Methodism and Anglo-Catholicism emphasised semi-Pelagianism over Spirit-inspired fruits of faith and, in doing so, caused generations of Anglicans to confuse the two. I do not know if Wright grew up with an Arminian (free-will) or an Anglo-Catholic approach to his faith but it seems possible.

What I do know is that most of the Anglicans I meet in Britain are one or the other. Consequently, they have a problem understanding the Doctrine of Grace.  When Christ said ‘It is finished’ as He took His final breath, He meant that He redeemed our sins. The conscious works-based striving for notional holiness and thinking — including works of political activism — is severely misguided.

I shall explore the Doctrine of Grace in a couple of weeks’ time. For now, here is a reminder of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (p. 3 of the link) state on justification and works. There is no ambiguity or mystery about them — and they draw from St Paul’s epistles:

XI. Of the Justification of Man.

WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

XII. Of Good Works.

ALBEIT that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

XIII. Of Works before Justification.

WORKS done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation.

VOLUNTARY works besides, over and above, God’s commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to do, say, We be unprofitable servants.

N T Wright might well be a candidate to succeed Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. It appears that he knows more than the Reformers, including those who put together the doctrine of the Anglican Church.

Next week: J V Fesko, Sinclair Ferguson, Ligon Duncan and Carl Trueman on NPP

Yesterday’s post provided an introduction to the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP), a revisiting of his epistles which started in the 1960s which is championed by a handful of Anglican theologians, principally N T ‘Tom’ Wright.

Robin Brace, a British evangelical specialising in discernment ministry, noted that NPP has a number of unusual and unbiblical elements to it, namely a rejection of the scriptural view of justification. Coupled onto this are the necessity of manmade works as well as an ecumenistic attempt to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Judaism and Roman Catholicism.

Today’s post considers three quotes from N T Wright on NPP and a critique from the prominent Reformed theologian Cornelius Venema. Emphases mine below.

First, the three quotes from N T Wright:

Like many New Testament scholars, I am largely ignorant of the Pauline exegesis of all but a few of the fathers and reformersThe Middle Ages, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had plenty to say about Paul, but I have not read it.  – Paul in Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2006), 13

There has been a whole new movement in the last ten or fifteen years in Pauline studies examining the political meaning of Paul. I have taken part in this. The moving spirit really behind much of it has been Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts. He has argued very strongly – and pulled together teams of scholars from classics and elsewhere in various symposia that he’s edited … we can no longer ignore the fact that when we read Paul saying “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios, Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11, NRSV), we ought to see that there and perhaps in dozens of other passages as well, there is an implicit and sometimes an explicit subversion of Caesar’s world. – Conversation with James D G Dunn [ex-Reformed, now Methodist], 2004

The whole point about ‘justification by faith’ is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3.26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2.1–16).
N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 57

These are certainly evoking memories of my Roman Catholic days and the utter confusion and uncertainty which accompanied them. Works for the sake of works, not the grace-given works which are spontaneous fruits of faith. As far as politicisation is concerned, whatever happened to Jesus’s words ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36)?

Dr Cornelis P Venema presented a concise Reformed perspective refuting NPP in 2010. Venema is president and professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and associate pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.

What follows are excerpts from ‘A Future Justification Based on Works?’ which he wrote for R C Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk:

One of the remarkable features of N.T. Wright’s reformulation of the Protestant doctrine of justification is his emphasis upon a “future justification” on the basis of works. According to Wright, the apostle Paul clearly teaches that believers will be subject to a final judgment “according to works” (Rom. 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10). This future judgment according to works constitutes, in Wright’s opinion, the eschatological completion of the believer’s justification. Wright defines justification as an act of God’s covenant faithfulness that involves an eschatological vindication of those who belong to His covenant family. When God justifies those who are members of His covenant community, He does so in anticipation of their “final justification” at the last judgment. Accordingly, we must recognize that justification occurs in three tenses or stages — past, present, and future … Since Wright identifies the final judgment with the final chapter of the justification of believers, he radically compromises the scriptural teaching that justification is not based upon works or human performance (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:10–14). From an historical perspective, Wright’s position is not unlike that of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which also claimed that the Reformation’s view of justification by faith alone failed to do justice to the biblical theme of a final acquittal before God based upon works. If, as Wright insists, the justification of believers requires a final phase or “completion,” which will be determined by the works of the justified, then it seems evident that he teaches a doctrine of justification by grace through faith plus works. The apostle Paul’s teaching that works are wholly excluded as a basis for the justification of believers is incompatible with the idea that (final) justification will ultimately be based upon works. Paul regards justification as a thoroughly eschatological blessing, which anticipates definitively and irrevocably the final verdict that God declares regarding believers. The notion of a final justification on the basis of works inevitably weakens the assertion that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). A final justification on the basis of works also undermines Paul’s bold declaration that no charge can be brought, now or in the future, against those who are Christ’s (Rom. 8:33–34). Rather than treating the final judgment as another chapter in the justification of believers, we should view Paul’s emphasis upon the role of works in this judgment in terms of his understanding of all that salvation through union with Christ entails. Because believers are being renewed by Christ’s Spirit, their acquittal in the final judgment will be a public confirmation of the genuineness of their faith and not a justifying verdict on the basis of works

NPP counters what St Paul says. It counters the Doctrine of Grace. It diminishes Spirit-inspired works, which are the fruits of faith, at the expense of unbiblical manmade deeds of ‘merit’. It can be easily misinterpreted: ‘You’re not doing enough’. As Dr Venema said, NPP leads to the same unbiblical ambiguities that the Roman Catholic Church espouses. It also encourages ‘ethical’ and political activism instead of the evangelism which Christ asked of us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

I mention NPP only because N T Wright might well be a candidate to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I could be wrong, but I have the impression that his books on the subject might be influencing Anglican clergy; there is a great push in our parishes for ‘getting involved’. Also observe the clergy of St Paul’s who seem to be more interested in political activism than in making disciples of all men.

Tomorrow: Michael Horton on NPP

Robin Brace runs a large English-speaking discernment ministry from the United Kingdom. It is one  — if not the largest — of its kind outside the United States.

Brace, who earned a theology degree after three years’ study from the University of Wales in Cardiff, decided to devote the second half of his life to discernment ministry instead of a pastorate. He is Evangelical and not committed to either Calvinism or Arminianism. That said, he appears to be fully aligned with the principles of the Reformation.

His UK Apologetics site explains error and truth simply and directly.

I found his explanation of the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) easy to understand and insightful. The content below comes from two of his articles on NPP: ‘Beware of the “New Perspective on Paul”‘ and ‘More on the New Perspective’.

Much of this explains N T ‘Tom’ Wright, a possible candidate as a successor to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  You might have disagreed with Wright’s views on Adam and evolution, but that is small change compared with what follows.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

The more recent outpourings on the NPP are from Anglicans:

They mostly come from a British Anglican base: E.P. Sanders (a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Religion at Duke University), James D.G. Dunn (a New Testament scholar based at Durham University) and N.T. Wright (Bishop of Durham and a truly prolific writer) are ‘the main men’ and it is especially Wright who has encouraged evangelicals to join the NPP party.

Actually for a long time Wright, who is a British Anglican bishop, was critical of many of the ‘NPP’ arguments but now appears to have staunchly joined the party. Certainly, in the past, N.T. Wright has won some evangelical favour by defending the historicity of Christ against the amazing liberal excesses of the Jesus Seminar, so he has previously been seen as at least loosely supportive of evangelical theology. Now, however, Wright’s support for the NPP movement is causing many to call his ‘evangelicalism’ into very serious question … In fact an ‘ecumenical spirit’ is strong within the ‘New Perspective’ and many would claim that – at base and root – the movement was only ever motivated by post-holocaust sensibilites, coupled with a desire for closer Anglican – Roman Catholic understanding.

The NPP want to tell us that:

  • Justification in the New Testament is not really a theological matter governing one’s salvation (although probably 90% of the New Testament scholars of the last 200 years would disagree with this); it is much more about the church and who can be considered part of the church. It is, if you will, all about ‘covenant community’.
  • Jesus, and later Paul, were wrong about the self-righteousness of the Jewish religious authorities of the First Century. They did not teach salvation by merit at all (having been a keen student of the Scriptures for 45 years it is obvious to me that neither Jesus or Paul would have claimed salvation by works was any official doctrine of first century religious Jews – rather, the way many of them actually behaved amounted to the teaching of this doctrine).
  • Paul’s main argument with the Judaizers in Galatians, Romans and elsewhere was nothing to do with the doctrine of Justification in a works/grace context, Paul was only concerned about the status of Gentiles who were coming into the church (hmmm! – have the NPP men been reading the same New Testament as I have?)

So what – in my opinion – truly lies at the heart of this new denial of the theology of Justification?

  • The wish to see ecumenical union between Roman Catholics and Protestants (obviously interpretations of ‘Justification’ have long been a cause of disagreement; the NPP says that both sides are wrong, just revise what Paul meant by Justification and a major stumblingblock to the ecunemical movement is removed – hey presto!)
  • The wish to defend Paul and the early church from the charge of anti-Semitism (this is entirely based on modern, post-holocaust liberal sensibilities, and to claim that this is simply an attempt to better understand Paul is disingenuous).
  • The wish to re-introduce, or re-invent, the doctrine of Justification as part of a modern social gospel making it very acceptable to liberals. The NPP people have been striving hard to encourage evangelicals to come on-board to this line of reasoning. I see all of this as firmly based on a desire to heal all inter-Anglican rifts and disagreements and to establish a new common ground somewhere between the current polarites of right-wing evangelicalism and left-wing liberalism – but far closer to the latter.

I do not doubt that some very sincere people are already involved in the NPP movement (as new people will continue to be in the future), but I call on all my fellow evangelicals to reject the NPP for sound biblical reasons: the true message of Justification must continue to be carefully upheld.

Brace observes that the Roman Catholic Church always believed in a doctrine of grace, but one which demanded the believer’s co-operation with God’s grace.

Then, there is the matter of remaining in covenant:

According to the ‘NPP’ the sinner becomes initially accepted into God’s ‘covenant community’ (that is, the church) by faith; but he or she then remains within it by good works; this is actually very close to the Roman Catholic model. Also for the NPP writers the term ‘righteousness’ means something totally different from the view which Protestant confessions have always accepted. A sinner, for N.T. Wright, is “righteous” when he is in the membership of the covenant. Obviously Luther’s explanation is then necessarily attacked. Luther understood righteousness to mean that a person is in a right personal relationship with God through the imputation to him of Christ’s righteousness. To lack this righteousness, Luther taught, is to be under the wrath and curse of God. This is what Luther found terrifying until he got a clear understanding of the Gospel way of salvation. A very careful, step-by-step and painstaking consideration of the relevant verses, especially in Romans, tends to support Luther’s model much more than the NPP model, although the latter is not totally devoid of occasional insights. Furthermore, the usual NPP inference (and sometimes assertion) that Paul the Apostle apparently misused, misunderstood, or at least carelessly employed the ‘dikaiosune’ (justification-related) group of Greek words must be considered ludicrous in the extreme! Paul’s intelligence and grasp of theological essentials is very plain and manifest at numerous points within the New Testament, something nobody has ever questioned, and yet it is seriously suggested that this canny, sensitive but theologically astute man nevertheless misused or misapplied the vital group of ‘dikaiosune’ (justification) words – moreover, that this carelessness later led to multiple thousands (not a few) completely misunderstanding his writings. In effect, this is what Sanders, Dunn and Wright (plus their disciples) expect us to believe. It just does not hold water! Wright seems to willingly make the simple complicated here just in order to establish a point. After all, we can all look up the meaning of ‘justify,’ ‘justified,’ and ‘justification’ in any good dictionary.

And an erroneous point at that.

I’m still trying to get it through my head that it’s Luther’s fault — albeit his anti-Semitic remarks (no excuses, just saying that we should not be interpreting history through a 21st century lens) — that the Holocaust occurred when a fallen Catholic by the name of Adolf Hitler engineered it. To think that a group of British Anglicans should attempt decades later to ‘rectify’ on paper through a reinterpretation of Scripture — via book sales (ker-ching!) — this horrific 20th century event which slaughtered millions! (Talk about semi-Pelagianism! As if the NPP could possibly compensate!) Give over.


The view of most biblical scholars of the last 200 years, is that Paul focuses on observance of the law in its entirety in his use of this expression, and a careful checking of the context of the relevant passages backs them up. Notice Galatians 3:10,

‘All who rely on observing the law (‘works of the law’ KJV) are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”‘

But now continue reading the whole section to see what law or what part of the law Paul is referring to! In verse 17 Paul makes it plain that he is referring to the law “introduced 430 years later” – that is, 430 years after the time of Abraham, at the place of Mount Sinai. That is a reference to the Old Covenant and, almost always, Paul uses the word ‘law’ (Gk: ‘nomos’) to refer to the Old Covenant package. A careful reading of the entirety of Galatians 3 will remove any doubts on this matter. It is especially needful to check verses 17-29. Verse 19, for example, states the following:

What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.’ (Galatians 3:19, NIV throughout).

So it is very obvious that Paul refers to the entire Old Covenant package in his remarks on the law in Galatians 3. In fact, all seasoned and experienced Bible commentators know that to break the Law down into bits is never a New Testament practice – this is simply what theologians and Christian writers have sometimes done; yet despite this well-accepted rule, the NPP writers do teach that Paul’s use of ‘works of the law’ only selectively refers to certain points of the Law – this is done simply to make one of their highly questionable points. But ‘works of the law’ simply means ‘doing the law’—the law in its entirety. Therefore the issue at stake with ‘works of the law’ is not so much Jewish identity and Jewish exclusivism as the ability of Israelites as human beings to obey the entire law.

Exactly — Jews and Christians break the Law, by which I mean the Ten Commandments, daily.

NPP puts up another wall between Christians and Jews, who are our spiritual ancestors in Christ. In some ways, NPP exacerbates the problem by saying it is the fault of Christians that there has been no reconciliation between the two groups, although, in small ways every day, there actually is a reconciliation. My mother had a number of close, longstanding Jewish friends as did my in-laws and as do Spouse Mouse and I. All of us — Jewish and Christian — felt moved through the grace of God to forge those friendships in different times, in different places, with different generations. We are not alone!

Further, Paul states,

‘…by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20, NASB quoted here).

Brace, concluding this essay in Easter 2008, wrote:

there can be no doubt that the original ‘NPP’ background and foundation of wanting to rehabilitate the popular view of first century AD Jewish religious practice is highly suspicious. While these men were, of course, undoubtedly sincere in feeling such sensibilities, we have to ask whether such motivations should ever be the springboard for a new theological consideration of Pauline teaching! Surely we should only attempt for a better understanding of Paul without carrying any such possibly prejudicial preferential agenda. An ecumenical spirit towards Roman Catholicism has also increasingly pervaded some of the available material on this subject. Again, we have to question the possible imposition of any such foreign influences in searching for a better understanding of the writings of Paul the Apostle.

This is communitarianism writ large in the Church. What is the purpose of a collective atonement for the actions of someone who wasn’t mentally sound, who relied on a destructive pagan mythology to inform his ‘worldview’? Why distort Scripture to achieve this end?

N T Wright — and NPP champion — is a possible candidate for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Be warned!

Tomorrow: A Reformed view of NPP

As Dr N T ‘Tom’ Wright might be a candidate to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s worth finding out what he thinks about the Bible and various issues which have shaped our world. Today’s post has more short videos to help.

Wright discusses understanding ancient texts. Understanding what the author wanted us to learn, he says, is more important than a concrete, literal reading of them. It depends on the literary genre. He compares parables with the record of the Resurrection with the creation story, all three of which are very different types of biblical genres:

In ‘Evolution’ he explores the true background to the faith v science debate, which had its origins in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. Wright explains that Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, lived in Lichfield, England, during this time. He and other scientists were already conducting experiments in what Wright calls ‘an Epicurean universe’. Epicureanism, he explains, separates God from the world and, as such, enabled the deism of the Enlightenment to become popular. Charles Darwin’s discoveries were a natural result of this type of dualistic thinking. Wright notes that this was also prevalent in the early United States (e.g. Thomas Jefferson).

Wright clearly explains that the duality is erroneous. God is not apart from us or a distant Being, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment believed, but here among us in our world all the time. Man is made in His image.  So, although we spend much of our lives in a seemingly secular sphere (e.g. work), we’re still in God’s creation interacting with His people.  Handling this overlap makes life ‘all more complicated’. He says we need to ‘relocate the question’ and put Enlightenment thinking, faith and modern secularism up for examination, otherwise we could well find ourselves in ‘a battle in the dark’:

In an excerpt from a longer discussion on Charles Darwin, he explores more background to evolution from the Enlightenment. Wright says that Darwin was a product of that era and its Epicureanism. Evolution is an Epicurean idea separating the world from God, he says, and became popular among the intelligentsia because of the prevailing worldview carrying over from the 18th century. He cited Malthusianism as another example. (Thomas Malthus, incidentally, was an Anglican priest.) Wright says that Epicureanism is unbiblical because of this duality.

Wright says that with this understood, there might well be nothing wrong with Darwin’s science. We don’t need to dismiss it out of hand just because it came from the Enlightenment.  God is present with us all the time. Darwin’s theories may partly explain how He works on Earth:

Tomorrow: Wright on today’s society

N T ‘Tom’ Wright’s name might well be in the hat as a possible successor to Dr Rowan Williams as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ll find out sometime this year.

The former Bishop of Durham is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.

Dr Wright has made a series of short videos for the BioLogos foundation, where Dr Peter Enns, formerly a professor at Philadelphia’s Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS), interviews him on a variety of biblical topics.

In the following videos, Wright explains the creation story in Genesis. He also discusses the role of Adam in the Bible.

Before we get to these, it should be noted that Christians learn this story in various ways and contexts, depending on their denomination. I learned it in Catholic school, where it was presented not as a record of history but as a story which explained God’s goodness in creating the world and that at some point, Adam and Eve, in whose care He entrusted the Garden of Eden, were tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent. Thus, this was mankind’s first sin — Original Sin.  The nuns and lay teachers did not ask us to accept this as historical record but to draw from it certain lessons:

1/ God is infinitely good.

2/ God created the Earth for His divine purposes.

3/ Man is weak and is prone to temptation by the Devil.

4/ Adam and Eve transmitted Original Sin through every human being and none of us can escape temptation (point 2).

5/ Jesus later came to redeem our sins.

I would also add another point here:

6/ Man inherently trusts in his own abilities instead of in God.

The recent trend in the United States, especially among conservative Protestants, is to accept the story as fact as well as a literal six 24-hour day record of creation.  I have already noted that in the 19th century devout and confessional Reformed theologians believed in the possibility of a longer age of creation. In the Presbyterian Church at the time, clergy could believe either in what we now call a Young Earth or an Old Earth creationism. The belief to grasp from the opening chapters of Genesis was that God is sovereign and that He created the Earth and all that is in it.

Now we come to the trickier prospect of Adam. Dr Enns lost his teaching position at WTS because he did not hold to a historical notion of Adam. This raises the question of how historical our belief in Adam needs to be. More importantly, Christians should know that the whole of the Old Testament, from the creation story onwards, points to Jesus Christ, who would redeem all our sins through His death on the Cross. As sin began with Adam, a belief in him is essential to understand why Jesus is called the Second Adam, an expression I had not run across until a couple of years ago but which is used in Catholic and Protestant theology. Any waffling on this point and the whole of Scripture and Christ as Saviour fall apart.

In ‘What Do You Mean by Literal?’ Wright says ‘literal’ is misused. He says the question is more a difference between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’. We also need to consider the role of metaphor in some Bible stories, such as the parables. He posits that the meaning of the text is more important than interpreting each verse as fact. Wright recommends that we look at genre and a case-by-case interpretation.  What is the lesson we are meant to learn and retain? With regard to Genesis, this becomes significant: God made Heaven and Earth as a place where He wants to dwell with us. The structure of the story itself supports the meaning but should not become the primary focus of the story:

In ‘N T Wright on Adam and Eve’, Wright says Genesis and the creation story is charged with all sorts of socio-political baggage. He finds this a peculiarly American reading of the text. Few other countries are concerned about a historically concrete interpretation of these chapters. He also objects to conservative fundamentalists saying that if one does not believe the verses as fact that means the Christian will not believe other aspects and events in Scripture. He says that ‘myth’ means a story full of power in terms of self-understanding — the world, humanity, our weaknesses, etc. He says that sin did originate with a ‘primal pair’ but that their story is not a factual representation. It is a way of saying that when a good God created Heaven and Earth, He wanted to share the Earth with us. Wright believes that the literal interpretation overrides the significance of the story. Furthermore, he objects to the American uber-fundamentalist view of the end of the world — the notion that we will be spending eternity sitting on a cloud. He believes this is being ‘unfaithful’ to the text itself:

I mentioned earlier that our belief in Adam as the originator of sin is essential in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In ‘Paul’s Perspective on Adam’, Wright says Romans 5 Paul gives a big-picture summary with Abraham’s family up to ours as a forgiven family thanks to Jesus’s sacrifice. Thanks to Jesus, Wright says, Genesis 1 and 2 are then ‘back on track’; Jesus has resolved the difficulty of Adam’s sin had presented since the beginning of humanity. God’s faithfulness to sinful man is fulfilled in Jesus, the truly human One. He adds that anyone who believes in Jesus is also truly human as a result:

Although I disagree on Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul, I do agree with his interpretation here of the creation story and the significance of Adam, even if this First Adam is not a literal, historical figure. It is what he represents that counts; his story is reflected throughout the Old Testament and the Gospels in Israel’s disobedience towards a loving God. Jesus, as the Second Adam, represents what Israel would have been had it not been for Adam’s original sin.

Tomorrow: More N T Wright videos

Before I go into Dr N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s lecture on the Resurrection, for those who have not read it already I also posted previously on the Easter story of Doubting Thomas (John 20), who had to see and almost touch Christ’s wounds before he believed that it was He standing before him. This is an altogether human story of faith, even though Thomas — rightly or wrongly — has come in for a lot of criticism through the centuries. Think of those today who doubt Jesus’s resurrection for historical, revisionist reasons. Let us keep these people in our prayers in the hope that they come to a belief in Him as Saviour and Redeemer of the world.

On to today’s topic. As Dr Wright might well be a candidate as successor to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, it seemed apposite to examine his theology a bit more closely. It is clear that he is a man of faith and, indeed, he is a New Testament scholar and professor with a deep understanding of the Bible. He also has an engaging way of communicating it to an audience.

When Dr Wright was the Bishop of Durham, he gave a lecture at Roanoke College, Virginia, in 2007 about Jesus’s resurrection:

The lecture and question and answer period together last an hour and 20 minutes. The lecture begins at 10 minutes into the video.

Misunderstanding Heaven

Wright opens by saying that many Christians lack a theological understanding of Heaven, believing in a body and soul united and transformed immediatly after death. In fact, he explains that this union and transformation will not come until the end of the world at which point a new Heaven and new Earth will be created and conjoined. In the meantime, our souls will go to Heaven (or Hell).

The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the two-stage process of what happens to us after death (emphases mine):

Chapter 32

Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead

1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.

3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.

This is what Wright is addressing. The second stage of a reunified soul with a transformed body will not happen until the creation of a new Heaven and a new Earth when the world ends.

Death and the ancient world

Wright then explored Jewish and pagan thought on death in the ancient world. Pagans believed that death led to the underworld with no way back. The idea of resurrection for them did not exist.

The Jews generally believed that God would look after a soul until such time as He transformed all the bodies of the dead and reunited them to their respective souls. There were exceptions, such as the Sadducees who did not believe in an afterlife and the Jewish philosopher Philo who believed in a disembodied soul.

For the new Christians, the Resurrection moved afterlife to the centre of belief. This extraordinary one-time event meant that as Jesus rose from the dead — signalling the New Creation — so would they one day as His followers. In the meantime, they believed that His Resurrection called them to co-operate with God to help further the New Creation on Earth through holy and ethical living. Wright cites the ancient Greco-Roman physician and philosopher Galen who wrote of his favourable impression of Christian sexual continence.

No other Messiahs?

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Leading a Jewish effort to oppose them was a man named Simon, whom the Romans scourged then executed. Wright points out that people could have thought this man was the Messiah, as he was so closely connected in his attempts to defend the Temple and the Jewish people. Yet, no cult arose around him once he died.

Similarly, he says, people could have said that Jesus’s brother, James (the Apostle), was the Messiah. He was a powerful teacher and a central figure in the early Church. Yet, no one considered him the Messiah.

Paul called Jesus ‘Lord’, therefore, his converts adopted the same term. The concept of Jesus as Lord when the Emperor Caesar was not was revolutionary for the time. Jesus became their heavenly — and overarching — ruler of their lives, not the temporal emperor from Rome.

Wright, therefore, concludes that the Resurrection must have occurred because of the faith and devotion that so many people had in the Risen Christ thanks to the testimony of the disciples.

Inconsistent Gospel accounts

Wright believes that the inconsistency among the Gospel accounts lends credibility to the truth of the Resurrection. He uses the modern-day example of police evidence from various witnesses. Often, their testimony conflicts — exactly when, the number of people involved, sequence of events — however, all point to a significant event which occurred.

He observes that in all the other accounts of Jesus’s life, the Gospel scribes were careful to tie His Messiahship to Old Testament prophecies. However, the Resurrection surprised and astounded them so much that there are no such references in the Easter — New Creation — story. They hadn’t expected the Crucifixion much less the Resurrection.

As to the women being the first witnesses, which all include in their accounts, this disappeared in evangelism by Paul’s time, when women would not have been considered reliable witnesses. Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul airbrushed them out. Still, as the Gospels all have women as the first to see Jesus, Wright tells us that we can be sure it happened that way.

Paul was also the first to add the element of Christian hope as a result of the Easter story. He had never met Jesus and evangelised much later, and, as such, brought a new perspective to the narrative and what it meant to early Christians.

Wright also notes that Jesus’s body was transformed post-Resurrection such that His disciples knew it wasn’t His former body, yet, He was recognisable enough as Jesus and not as a ghost.  Also, an empty tomb would have been commonplace at the time, as there were grave robbers, but their encounters with Him on Easter and afterward confirmed that the Resurrection did indeed occur.

Historical revisionism

In addressing the secular complaint that the Gospel narratives are not objective, Wright counters that no account of any event is ever objective. Every author, historian, philosopher and journalist brings his own bias to the table.

He adds that most of the Apostles gave their life in Christ’s cause. Surely, if there had been anything doubtful about the Resurrection, they would have stopped believing before that point.

Wright also notes the mindset of the secularist who relies on the 18th century Enlightenment to inform his thought. Wright says that to these secularists the Enlightenment was the climax of history. Everything which came before is fiction, uninformed or a fairy tale.  It occurs to me that this is why the confessional Protestantism of the Lutheran and Reformed churches is largely derided in today’s society: ‘Who were Luther and Calvin and how uninformed were they?’ (I would add that Wright himself seems to fall into this trap with his New Perspectives on Paul which imply that Luther and Calvin didn’t know nearly as much about Paul as we do today! However, that topic will be coming up this week — stay tuned.)

The other problems with the Resurrection, Wright says, are twofold. One, the world cannot cope with the idea of a resurrected Jesus.  A dead Jesus is fine to unbelievers; from there they can say that He was a good man who died atrociously — end of story. However, a Jesus who returned to life transformed means that Scripture must have been fulfilled in some sense, which is also evidenced by the growth and continuation of His Church. As such, the Bible puts Jesus into context. That will surely rankle an unbeliever.

Second, the Resurrection is both historical and spiritual. It is likely that unbelievers sense this, even though they are unwilling to admit it. Wright says that the post-Enlightenment mind does not want to know.

He points out that the unbelieving 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said:

It is LOVE that believes in the Resurrection.

(This essay from the University of Reading in England contains the quote and the thinking behind it.)

Therefore, Wright observes, Thomas’s belief in John 20 and Peter’s repentance in John 21 serve as evidence of the compulsion to a new faith (and I would add repentance) in light of Jesus’s New Creation which was the result of the Resurrection. Wright says that the Resurrection is the central event of this New Creation, of which Jesus is Lord, and requires a believer’s complete engagement based on love. This love requires a connection with the reality of our world but in a positive, affirming way.

Wright notes that St Paul said that without the Resurrection, our faith means nothing. It is futile. See 1 Corinthians 15:14:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

Women evangelists

Wright entertained a few questions from the audience after his lecture. One of these concerned the place of women in evangelism.

Someone asked if Luke and Acts — which have the same author — were written by a woman. Wright responded that it was unlikely because too few women were educated enough at the time. Most were illiterate.

Another question concerned the witness by women at Jesus’s tomb and their subsequent airbrushing in St Paul’s accounts. Wright said that men at the time — as the Apostles themselves did — thought that women were easily frightened and prone to exaggeration, essentially distorting a truth. This was why Paul did not mention them as he most probably thought they would detract from the veracity of the story. However, Wright says that this is no reason to discount the significance of their being the first and only ones to go to Jesus’s tomb to find it empty. So, he believes there is certainly a place for women in evangelism. (He explains a bit more in a video I’ll post this week.)

Mark’s Gospel

Readers of the New Testament know that Mark’s Gospel has an abrupt ending. Wright adds that the beginning is also shaky. He believes that the beginning and the end became detached after time from the ends of the scroll on which they were written.

Dispensationalism and the Rapture

Wright has some knowledge of the Rapture (part of Dispensationalist eschatology) and surmises that it came about by a misreading or misrepresentation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

The Coming of the Lord

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Wright says that Dispensationalists read this account out of context and put it into a ‘dualistic framework’. He points out that other heavenly appearances involved a downward movement towards Earth: Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets, Daniel’s Son of Man coming on the clouds (Daniel 7:13), the Transfiguration and the Book of Revelation.

I was interested to read one of the YouTube comments in which a viewer said that the video converted him. I wouldn’t promise that it is a force for evangelism, as it does speak to Christians more than to enquirers. However, Wright’s reasoning can help us to better counter objections to Gospel accounts and to the historical Resurrection.

Tomorrow: More N T Wright videos

Next week: Forbidden Bible Verses returns

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