contra Wright

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.



  1. Kevin,

    I’m with you on “against Wright.”

    Have you ever read Simon Gathercole’s book: Where Is Boasting: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5?

    If not you should. He undercuts Wright’s thesis from “within” the same discipline (exegetical). He does so by methodically working through all the pertinent intertestamental lit. (apocrypha, pseudipigrapha) and then of course the Pauline lit (namely “Romans”). He interacts with all the NPP’s primary players (in fact I think his PhD advisor was Dunn), and I think really does a great job at exposing both the historical and exegetical leaps that have been made by the NPP’s.

    Here is a great article by Gathercole in Christianity Today: What Did Paul Really Mean?

    And then here is another short paper, which is really an extract/synopsis of the book I mention above: After the New Perspective

    I think you will enjoy Gathercole’s insights, if you haven’t alread read him, Kevin. Simon Gathercole is a lecturer of New Testament at Cambridge University . . . not Aberdeen, but he did teach at Aberdeen for 7 yrs prior to takin his current post (maybe you came across him during your time at Aberdeen).


  2. I sort of met Dr. Gathercole once at Aberdeen, when he briefly stopped by our history of exegesis class. Anyway, I haven’t read the book, but I did read the CT article back when it was published. I’ll be sure to check out the book.

    I actually think — ever since I first read Sanders as an undergrad — that the NPP, including its moderate Wrightian exposition, has rather obvious problems from a straight-forward reading of Paul. In fact, in the entire history of biblical interpretation, I think the NPP must rank at #1 for the most brilliant and most creative instance of missing the point. I can scarcely imagine how Paul could be any clearer about the law and condemnation.

  3. That’s cool that you had the opportunity to meet Dr. Gathercole (I had some brief email correspondence with him in the recent past, does that count 😉 ).

    And I agree with you on the straight-forward reading of Paul. Creativity isn’t always a virtue.

    • Kevin H.,

      I haven’t read it. What is his latest treatise called? I would be interested in reading it.

      What do you think about Gathercole’s critique of Wright?

  4. Hey Bob,

    Wright deals extensively with Gathercole in Justification, which I think has a different title on your side of the Atlantic (perhaps Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision )

    I am completely unconvinced that Wright strays into the deep waters that people are concerned about, I am completely unconvinced that he has landed on some motherlode of NT revelation in this “fresh” view on Paul but I am equally dubious of the drive from Gathercole and before him, DA Carson (blessed be his name 😉 ) to defend the “old” view. One can’t help but fear they are more concerned with defending their old view than with engaging the text.

    • Kevin,

      I had lost hope that you would respond back 😉 .

      Thanks for pointing me to Wright’s work, I’ll have to check it out.

      After reading Gathercole’s book on Rom 1–5, I cannot help to think that he is just doing just that; dealing with the text, that’s why I found it so persuasive. Just because he, or anybody, follows the more traditional reading; does need necessarily, or logically, mean that his exegetical project is biased to the point of no critical objectivity (I suppose one could say the same about Wright and the NPP[s] — the proof is in the pudding, I guess).

      Thanks, Kevin H.

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