August 3, 2009
There have been two noteworthy recent critiques of N. T. Wright’s latest book and his scholarly project in general. The first is by Paul Helm (Regent College) in a series of posts at his blog, with the most recent: “Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be).” This is an excellent critical assessment of Wright — clearly written and clearly focused. In sum, Helm faults Wright for being a historian and not a dogmatician. Wright’s narrative trumps any substantive doctrine of God. Helm:
“Sure enough, God’s attitude to sin, his grace, the provision of forgiveness, the vindication of men and women by Christ – is part of what it means for God to be righteous. But this does not exhaust God’s righteousness, it (merely!) expresses it. God is faithful to the covenant of grace and redemption from sin that he has righteously established. It is for this reason that Piper thinks that Wright’s insistence that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness is a ‘belittling’ of it, as Wright puts it (74). Rather, it must be filled out, by understanding God’s righteousness as an essential feature of his character. If anyone ‘belittles’ it is Wright, who reduces the righteousness of God to a set of God’s actions. But God acts (and must act) consistently with his nature.”
Helm goes on to relate this with Wright’s weakened and inadequate doctrine of justification.
The second recent critique of Wright’s book is from Gerald Bray (Beeson Divinity School) in the latest issue of Churchman, an evangelical Church of England journal. Bray’s editorial is more of a survey than a rebuttal. Nonetheless, he is not a fan of Wright’s work:
“Bishop Wright’s views on Paul, Israel and justification have been known for many years, and have often been debated in scholarly circles. As this latest book makes clear, those views have not been widely accepted — indeed, they have been openly opposed by almost everyone engaged in the field, from the most conservative Evangelicals to the most ardent liberals. In response to this, Bishop Wright has gone on digging his heels in ever deeper, and has defended his corner with great determination, despite the fact that his disciples seem to come mainly from the ranks of those who have not studied the subject in any depth. Many of them are students who are bored with traditional ideas that their elders expect them to absorb in parrot fashion, and who are therefore responsive to an alternative voice, like Bishop Wright’s, whose powerful rhetoric has carried them along and helped them across whatever hurdles may be thrown up by the facts.”
That’s pretty harsh, but I think this and the rest of his assessment is correct.
I’m old school in my atonement theology (I agree with Drs. Helm and Bray), but I hope this wave of criticism does not result in a new fashionable dismissal of all things “historical,” “narrative,” “biblical theology,” “redemptive history,” and so on. Surely we have learned a lot from these approaches, even if we find them (some of them) inadequate.