If you want a quick-but-tedious way to separate some of the shallower evanjellyfish from the more theologically-serious evangelicals in your circle of friends, here’s a simple method: call N.T. Wright a heretic. It’s quick because the blowback you will surely experience can be timed in microseconds. It’s tedious because you will be subjected to a series of overweeningly shrill diatribes, accompanied by confident insinuations that anyone who says such a thing is a divisive dolt. But a more effective method is difficult to find.
N.T. Wright is a heretic. There, I’ve said it. Let the ranting begin.
John Piper is a trailblazer when it comes to serving as a punching-bag for online ranters. On February 26, 2011, he tweeted a response to Rob Bell’s promotional video for his hell-denying book, Love Wins.1 It read, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Three words that aroused the theological snowflakes and buttercups of the Internet to levels of digital rage usually reserved for political street mobs. I can only dream of such notoriety.
More than a year later Piper was asked about that episode. It turns out that his comment was not about Bell’s view of hell. He pointed out that he also disagreed with John Stott’s view of hell, but never tweeted about it. Rather it was Bell’s “cynicism concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ as a place where the Father atoned for the sins of his children and dealt with his own wrath by punishing me in his son.”2 I and others like me now have the same issue with N.T. Wright. But for any of us to go into our Twitter accounts and tweet, “Farewell, N.T. Wright”—well, that would be so six years ago, now, wouldn’t it?
And like Bell, it has actually been Wright who has been saying “Farewell” to the evangelical church for quite some time now—a whole lot longer than Bell did!—and it seems as though he’s been quite enjoying himself in the process. Anyone who thinks that Bell and Wright have been ostracized by heresy hunters and doctrinal elitists have simply been ignoring the way the both of them have been [insert reference to crude hand gesture here] to all of evangelicalism for years now.
So, before we get into the latest way Wright has chosen to say, “Farewell,” let’s look at how he’s been doing it for at least the past 20 years. According to Wright…
1. The Gospel is not about “getting saved.”
Wright puts it this way:
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.”3
The problem is, that Paul tells us what he means by “the gospel,” and it seems to have quite a bit to do with how people get saved:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
(1Cor. 15:1-5, ESV. Emphasis added.)
It also has quite a bit to do with faith: “so we preach and so you believed,” (v. 11), and it is quite clear that Paul’s gospel message of Christ’s death is inseparably connected to the question of how we are justified (declared righteous) before God: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Rom 5:9 ESV)
So then, how does Wright think the gospel should be defined? He writes, “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world.”4 Of course, this truth is a necessary prerequisite to the gospel. It is certainly good news (the basic meaning of “gospel”) that Jesus reigns as Lord of all, but how exactly is that good news to me, unless it somehow answers the question of where I will spend eternity?
2. Justification is not about being declared righteous in Christ here and now.
In fact, according to Wright, it’s not even really about being declared righteous at all.
Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong.5
Wright often uses familiar language in describing justification, but he means something very different from what historic evangelical Protestants have meant by the same language. For example, he uses the word “forensic,” to refer to God’s legal verdict, but that verdict is not based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Far from it! (But more on that later.)
Likewise, in keeping with his own brand of the New Perspective on Paul, Wright gives the word “justification” a complete makeover. In spite of being defined in every Greek lexicon as “the act of pronouncing righteous,” or something similar, he redefines it to mean membership in God’s covenant people. In connection with this, D.A. Carson records the following humorous incident:
I cannot resist an anecdote. A few years ago I found myself in prolonged conversation with a retired classicist and expert on the Septuagint. He had heard, vaguely, of the new perspective, and wanted me to explain it to him. I took a half-hour or so to give him a potted history of some of the stances that fall within that rubric, including the view that “justification,” for some, has come to mean something like “God’s declaration that certain people truly belong to the covenant community.” He asked a simple question: “Do those who hold this view know any Greek at all?”6
3. There is a “final justification” by works.
Wright interprets Paul’s statement in Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV), as meaning that at the judgment seat of Christ believers will be justified on the basis of works.7 Never mind the fact that in the very next chapter Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:20 ESV)
As Cornelis Venema has pointed out:
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.8
4. Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to believers.
Wright is very emphatic about this:
If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness.’…But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness.9
Of course, Paul thought otherwise: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21, ESV. Emphasis added)
5. The final judgment of God’s people is not ultimately about salvation from sin.
But then, there is not much need for either legal or personal righteousness in Wright’s system, at least not when it comes to the final judgment.
Note that in our previous citation, Wright was only willing to go so far as to say that at the last judgment, God’s people will have a righteous status “metaphorically speaking,” i.e., only as a figure of speech. Notice also his use of the word “vindicated.” It’s one of his favorite terms.
For Wright, the ultimate point of the final judgement is not that the redeemed are put on display as trophies of grace before the entire universe. Rather, the point is that they are “vindicated as the true people of the one true God.”10 All talk of a “righteous status” is purely metaphorical. What really makes God’s people different is not that they are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (although Wright has never come out and denied that), but that they played for the right team. They didn’t side with those who worshiped idols.
And now for the latest.
Sometimes theologians with heterodox beliefs wait for years before they show their full hand. Sometimes they wait until they have field tested their heresies in college and seminary classrooms. Other times they wait until they have built a respectable reputation in the academic community. And then, when they feel the time is right, they spring their “provocative” new “findings” on an unsuspecting church. It is somewhat questionable as to whether N.T. Wright has ever taken this approach.
For the past few decades he seems to have been quite transparent about the manner in which he departs from received orthodoxy. At least until now.
Twenty-five years ago one could honestly say that Wright explicitly taught the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Back then he wrote:
Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.11
And ten years ago it could even be said that he had built up something of a track record in defense of penal substitution.12 But it was right around that time that Wright’s relationship with that doctrine seemed to start going haywire.
It started when he endorsed a book that referred to the penal-substitutionary understanding of the atonement as “cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.”13 And then he panned an excellent book that defends penal substitution and carried the written endorsements of 46 prominent evangelical theologians inside its front cover.14 He labeled it “hopelessly sub-biblical” and “disturbingly unbiblical.”15 (One might be forgiven for wondering whether such endorsers as D.A. Carson, I. Howard Marshall, Roger Nicole, J.I. Packer, Thomas R. Schreiner, Carl R. Trueman, David. F. Wells, and 39 other scholars might be more capable of determining what is “sub-biblical” or “unbiblical” than Wright is.)
So here’s a man who’s gone on record as defending penal substitution, and he’s suddenly endorsing the opposing view while blasting the one he claims to defend. What gives?
Wright keeps his cake and eats it, too.
In his most recent book, The Day the Revolution Began, Wright completes his 180-degree turn on this issue that seems to have been well underway ten years ago. He wrote:
…in much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).16
According to Wright, it is “pagan” to see our salvation as involving “a transaction in which God’s wrath was poured out against his son rather than against sinful humans.”17 “Pagan! Pagan! Pagan!” Wright uses the word “pagan” more than 80 times. He really wants to get this point across, even though it was thoroughly answered by Leon Morris’s classic The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross18 (a book he never mentions) more than a half-century ago.
Wright says that the “real danger in expounding the meaning of Jesus’s death is to collapse it into a kind of pagan scenario in which an angry God is pacified by taking out his wrath on Jesus.”19 And you know what? Every proponent of penal substitution absolutely agrees with this statement! It is wrong to suggest that Jesus came to bear the Father’s wrath so that the Father could then love us. The atonement does not make us “lovable.” We were loved from all eternity, before Christ ever died for us.
The aforementioned book defending penal substitution, which Wright called “sub-biblical,” clearly made this point: “…it was love that motivated God to send his Son to die; love was not somehow generated by the atonement.”20 To say the opposite would, indeed, probably be a “pagan” notion. It is wrong to assert that Scripture teaches that the atonement purchased God’s love—and it would be wrong to caricature the doctrine of penal substitution as teaching such a thing. It’s a straw man argument. And it is one that Wright returns to incessantly, ad nauseum.
And yet all along he claims that he still supports the notion that sin must be punished, and that it was punished in Christ. And, so: see? He really does believe in penal substitution after all!
But what he means by that is utterly different from what most people mean by such words. When the vast majority of people speak of “punishing sin,” it is a figure of speech (a metonymy21 to be precise) that means “punishing sinners.” In the context of Christian theology it refers to Christ willingly taking the punishment of sinners upon himself. But for Wright, it means something so utterly outside our experience as to be a bit bizarre:
Now we see what he means. “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah . . . because God . . . condemned Sin right there in the flesh.” The punishment has been meted out. But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives.22
So it is not Christ who takes our punishment. Rather, somehow, sin itself is “punished.” An abstract concept somehow pays the penalty. Just how is that done? Can it be done? Although Wright somehow manages to extract this notion from Romans 8:3 to use as the foundation of his version of “penal substitution,” we certainly do not find such a concept anywhere in Scripture, and it stretches credulity to think that Paul went so far in his rhetorical personification of sin that he considered sin an entity that can bear punishment. It is a foundation built on exegetical sand.23
And thus, for Wright, Christ Himself takes no punishment as our substitute, because even though He was hanging, suffering on the cross, it was not Him who is being punished, but sin—and yet, somehow, He was still our substitute. And so—Voilà!—Wright has convinced himself (and all his acolytes, I might add) that he still believes in penal substitution! In fact, he says this is precisely how we must “rescue this substitution from its pagan captivity.”24
The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned.25
But after he spent so much time attacking penal substitution as “pagan,” it is puzzling to consider why he wants to keep the term. In any event, it’s okay by Wright to keep using the term “penal substitution,” as long as by it we do not mean that Christ bore our penalty as our substitute, which, of course, is what it’s always meant.
This couldn’t be some kind of slippery rhetorical sleight-of-hand, could it?
But is he a heretic?
First, let me get one thing out of the way: by calling N.T. Wright a “heretic,” I am emphatically not saying that he is going to hell. This has been a special announcement. We now resume our normal programming.
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought on the subject of what exactly constitutes a heretic in the context of historic evangelical Protestantism. For Alister McGrath, “the nature of Protestantism makes it very difficult to use the term ‘heresy’ to refer to divergent schools of thought within that movement, unless they reproduce ideas that the church as a whole as agreed are unorthodox.”26
Depending on how you define “the church as a whole,” this would mean either that you can’t call anything a heresy that was not addressed by the seven ecumenical councils of the church (ending with the Second Council of Nicaea in AD 787), or that you can’t call anything a heresy that was not addressed by the first three councils (ending with the Council of Ephesus in AD 431), since the Monophysite Churches (e.g., Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc.) opted out of the councils that followed those.
But does anyone really believe that no new heresies were espoused over the past 1,230 to 1,586 years? A far more realistic approach was taken by Harold O.J. Brown:
It is evident that within the broader Christian fellowship there is considerable disagreement concerning which dogmas are essential and must be believed. A certain level of disagreement is compatible with Christianity, and indeed has always existed, but beyond a certain point of disagreement one can no longer speak of a community of faith. When the dogma in dispute is so important that it breaks up a community, it is a heresy. Those on our side, who reject it, thus “keep the faith,” and are orthodox; the others are heretics.27
Historic evangelical Protestantism has always held that justification by faith alone is the doctrine, or “article [of faith] by which the church stands or falls.”28 And essential to any stable doctrine of justification by faith is a proper definition of the object of that faith: the person, nature, and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus penal substitution has stood as an indispensable theological underpinning for the doctrine of salvation as a whole—and Wright has twisted all of this beyond recognition. This has made him a heretic within evangelicalism, albeit one of the most popular heretics, especially among evangelical academics, to come along in a long, long time.
What does that say about the state of the evangelical academy?
The dead branches continue to fall.
Fifteen years ago Ligon Duncan highlighted all the reasons for appreciating N.T. Wright.
Has he not forthrightly contended in manly fashion with the dark forces of the Jesus Seminar? Has he not written one of the best books in defense of the resurrection of Christ? Is he not winsome and charming?
Yes. And the most effective heretics are the ones who choose their orthodoxies most cleverly, and present them in the most attractive packages.
In the end, the popularity of N.T. Wright’s writings, and of all the other versions of the New Perspective on Paul, have actually done the church a service.
It has functioned as a “theological ice storm” to show us where the dead limbs were on evangelicalism’s tree. That’s important pastorally. We needed to know how bad a shape we were in. Now we know and can work to do something about it.29Ω
© 2017, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.
- YouTube video: “Rob Bell Love Wins Short Video for New book.” ↩
- Justin Taylor, “Farewell Rob Bell?” March 30, 2012, The Gospel Coalition. ↩
- Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 132-133. ↩
- Trevin Wax, “Gospel Definitions: N.T. Wright,” September 4, 2008, The Gospel Coalition. ↩
- Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 131. ↩
- Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” in Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds., Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, (Downers Grove, IL, USA and Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press and Apollos, 2004), 50-51. ↩
- “It is strange, above all, that the first mention of justification in Romans is a mention of justification by works—apparently with Paul’s approval (2:13: ‘It is not the hearers of the law who will be righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified’). The right way to understand this, I believe, is to see that Paul is talking about the final justification.” What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI, USA and Cincinnati, OH, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Forward Movement Publications, 1997), 126. Wright also wrote: “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).” Paul in Fresh Perspective, (Minneapolis, MN, USA: Fortress Press, 2005), 57. ↩
- Venema, “A Future Justification Based on Works?” February 1, 2010, Ligonier Ministries. ↩
- Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 99. ↩
- Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 31. ↩
- Wright, The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 51. ↩
- Trevin Wax, “Don’t Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies ‘Penal Subustitution,'” April 24, 2007, The Gospel Coalition. ↩
- Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, 2003), 182. ↩
- Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway Books, 2007). ↩
- Trevin Wax, “Wright on Penal Substitution,” November 18, 2007, The Gospel Coalition. ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, (New York, NY, USA: HarperOne, 2016), Google Books edition, 76-77. Emphasis his. ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Google Books edition, 20. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965). ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Google Books edition, 131 ↩
- Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 288. ↩
- A “figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (such as ‘crown’ in ‘lands belonging to the crown’).” Merriam-Webster. ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Google Books edition, 145. Emphasis added; ellipsis in the original. ↩
- For better explanations of Rom. 8:3, cf. commentaries by Douglas Moo, John R.W. Stott, Charles Hodge, Leon Morris, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, etc. ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Google Books edition, 145. ↩
- Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Google Books edition, 145. ↩
- McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—a History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, (New York, NY, USA: HarperOne, 2007), 230. ↩
- Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 2000), 22. ↩
- articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. ↩
- Ligon Duncan, “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is also available on the Ligonier Ministries web site. ↩