Missing the Point of N.T. Wright
In the 2019 issue of the theological journal Integrity, Welch College Old Testament professor Matt McAffee offered a critique of N. T. Wright’s theology along with a warning concerning Wright’s expanding influence on evangelicals. This topic is of particular interest to me due to Wright’s own impact on my thinking. After a careful reading of McAffee’s article, I feel compelled to provide my own appraisal of McAffee’s critique.
My Own Biases
I first picked up N.T. Wright after recommendations from two sources. The first was a missionary and Bible teacher in Indonesia. The second was from listening to the brilliant missiologist, Timothy Tennent. I first listened to several lectures from Wright and was enthralled. He approached the Bible differently than most people I had heard. His outlook was steeped in the culture, history, and literature of the first century and he brought that knowledge into the reading of every text. For years I had been taught that our hermeneutical goal should be to recover the meaning of the text for the original audience. Now, Wright was doing it better than most.
I graduated from audio lectures to books. While I’ve only dabbled in Wright’s scholarly monographs, I’ve read much of his semi-scholarly works. The ones that stand out the most are How God Became King and Surprised by Hope. Both of these works contribute significantly to the lessons I have taught and the articles I’ve written in the past. Surprised by Hope particularly has been an incredible source of comfort in times of intense personal loss.
I tell my own experience with Wright for two reasons. First, to show that I can speak to this topic with a decent knowledge of the subject. Secondly, to lay my own biases on the table. Before reading McAffee’s article, I was predisposed to come to Wright’s defense. I was proverbially ready to draw my own sword and slice off McAffee’s ear. In that same spirit of zeal, I will begin with the problems of McAffee’s approach, which I believe are significant. Lastly, I will discuss some areas of agreement with McAffee and disagreement with Wright.
The Problem with McAffee’s Approach
The most significant problem with McAffee’s critique of Wright is his methodology. Rather than approaching Wright through the lens of Biblical theology, McAffee makes the strange choice of using the systematic theology of Leroy Forlines as a lens by which to critique Wright’s conclusion. This was a bizarre choice.
Moreover, it totally fails to appreciate the appeal of N. T. Wright. Wright has drawn followers because of his commitment to the Biblical texts. He has illuminated the worldview of Second Temple Judaism and has shown his modern audience what these texts meant to their original audience. Wright’s raison d’être is to peel away centuries of possible misconceptions and to arrive at the New Testament texts through first-century eyes. In essence, Wright’s method is a version of the Ad Fontes of the Renaissance or the Sola Scriptura approach the Reformers. In light of this, it seems strange indeed to measure his work by the yardstick of Leroy Forlines’ theology.
It is this issue, more than any other that inspired the writing of this essay. I have nothing but respect for Dr. McAffee and I have even more respect for Leroy Forlines. Forlines has greatly shaped my theology both directly, though sitting under him at Welch, and indirectly, through my father who taught Forlines’ theology for several decades overseas.
Yet, despite my admiration, I am unimpressed by what appears to be the need to hold Forlines up as the north star of theological purity. Forlines, it seems, is to some Free Will Baptists what the Westminster Confession is to Reformed Christians. This approach has never been a part of our history nor should it be a part of our present. We can certainly learn much from Forlines and it is no harm to do comparative theology, but it does a disservice to both Wright and Forlines to judge one by the other.
Wright is not a Systematic Theologian
It is problematic to argue that Wright’s biblical theology falls short of Forlines systematic theology. Each theologian is attempting to do different things. McAffee bemoans the lack of systematic theology in modern evangelicalism and sees Wright’s popularity as a correlation to this trend. He quips: “There is a tendency in evangelicalism to hold up a loosely connected collection of theological ideas…This problem is exacerbated when this shoot-from-the-hip style of theology encounters the likes of an N. T. Wright.” (49)
McAffee’s solution is the need to “exercise greater care in fostering their own systematic approach to theology…” (49) McAffee is not wrong, but his argument is unnecessary. In short, McAffee argues that when compared to Leroy Forlines, N. T. Wright theology is less than systematic. As I stated earlier, this misses the point of N. T. Wright’s work entirely. Wright is not trying to do systematic theology. While there is certainly a need for both, it is unhelpful to evaluate Wright using this standard.
The real question should not be: “How does Wright compare the Forlines?” but rather: “How does Wright interpret the Bible?”
McAffee, however, skirts this question because of his a priori preference for Forlines’ theology specifically and systematic theology generally. What he calls a “shoot-from-the-hip” style of theology could also be known as occasional theology, which is exactly the kind of theology the authors of the New Testament produced. Every epistle of the New Testament is a work of occasional prose–a work written to address an issue or crisis. Similarly, Augustine and Martin Luther wrote their greatest works in response to certain events or issues that arose. If Wright is too unsystematic, he is in good company.
Wright’s Eschatology and Orthodoxy Questioned
Aside from the overall methodology of McAffee’s critique, his article errs in summarizing Wright’s eschatology in Surprised by Hope. McAffee sees it as “overly realized” with a tendency to “see all things ‘new creation’ too much in the ‘now.’” (48) While McAffee levels this accusation he does little to prove it. In fact, McAffee points out that in many respects Wright’s Eschatology is very much in agreement with that of Forlines. (41) It is difficult to conclude that Wright’s focus on the future resurrection of the dead is an over-realized eschatology. McAffee’s problem with Wright’s eschatology is not so much in the conclusions but in the emphases.
Wright’s emphasis in Surprised by Hope is on the reality of Christ’s resurrection and its inauguration of God’s New Creation. Wright goes to great lengths to dispel an unbiblical notion of a disembodied state and replaces it with the hope of the apostles–the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps, McAffee is correct that this emphasis ignores verses like 2 Corinthians 5:8-9, but I find it difficult to fault Wright for emphasizing the same doctrine as the apostles. (41)
McAffee dislikes Wright’s desire for novelty.
“New” and “Fresh” perspectives may sell books, but usually don’t make for good theology. He argues that Wright’s “entire research program from the ground up has been at pains to settle old scores with the traditional view on just about every topic he explores.” (48) Wright’s eschatology, according to McAffee, is no exception. While part of me agrees with McAffee’s appraisal here, most of Wright’s eschatology is as traditional as one could get. His de-emphasis on escaping to heaven and re-emphasis on the resurrection is consistent with just about every orthodox Christian confessional statement. While most of his eschatology will not be popular among premillennial dispensationalists, it would be among the Apostles and Church Fathers.
Finally, McAffee asserts that Wright’s covenantal approach to soteriology goes too far in its corporate emphasis that it serves to “move us outside the confines of orthodox Christianity.” (49) One wonders exactly what is meant by this statement, but it appears damning. Using Forlines as the standard for orthodoxy is a strange test that most of the church universal would fail in some areas. If McAffee does not intend to hold Forlines up as this standard, he offers no other rubric by which to evaluate Wright’s orthodoxy. In the end, it is unfair to question a theologian’s orthodoxy in a passing and dismissive comment. While still finding some areas of disagreement, most Arminians would welcome much of Wright’s covenantal/corporate approach to election.
Areas of Agreement with McAffee
Despite my misgivings with McAffee’s argument and some of these conclusions, his research does have great merit. Like C. S. Lewis, Wright has been of great value to my own understanding of God and his word, but there are some serious flaws that need to be addressed. In many ways, McAffee addresses them aptly. To avoid echoing McAffee’s article less needs to be said about these areas of agreement. Still, it is reasonable to summarize them briefly.
First, McAffee correctly calls into question Wright’s understanding of justification.
He argues that “Wright reduces God’s call for sinners to be saved (covenant) and the call for believers to live in obedience to Christ (covenant stipulations) into one thing…” (34) He continues by saying that: “Wright’s insistence on reinterpreting the righteousness of God in the general sense of ‘faithfulness to the covenant promise’ is unnecessarily dimensional and at best vaguely defined.” (36) It is difficult to disagree on this point. I have read and reread Wright’s arguments against a historic Protestant understanding of justification. While it is clear that Wright does not simply understand justification as being declared righteous by God, it is less clear how he actually understands the term. Perhaps the term means more than what we have traditionally understood, but it certainly does not mean less.
In some ways, Wright’s emphasis on being a member of the “covenant community” over the salvation of the individual is refreshing and Biblical. It does seem, however, that Wright’s tendency to over-emphasis ignored truths can lead to the mishandling of Scripture. How are we to assess an individual’s standing and accountability before God if we are only dealing with a corporate understanding of salvation? The Scripture certainly makes room for both and it doesn’t force such sharp dichotomies as we tend to see in Wright. (35)
Secondly, McAffee does well to challenge Wright’s view of final judgment as presented in Surprised by Hope.
In Wright’s defense, final judgment and hell are not the primary topics of the book but since he does address them, they are fair game. McAffee points out: “On the one hand, he challenges the traditional view of “going to heaven when you die” with the Bible’s emphasis on the resurrection. On the other hand, he questions the validity of affirming the fiery torments of hell by counterclaiming a more generalized final judgment, but less clearly defined.” (47) Whereas Wright makes the Christian hope all the more real for his readers, he seems to make damnation much less real. Similar to Wright’s view of justification, his view of hell is vague, confusing, and ultimately unhelpful.
Conclusion and Common Ground
McAffee finds common ground with Wright on many issues. Both parties have a strong covenantal framework of the history of redemption. Wright’s reading of the narrative of redemption into the gospels and Pauline epistles is brilliant and welcomed. McAffee also finds Wright’s emphasis, although overstated, on the corporate aspects of election are inline with a Reformed Arminian view.
These points of critique and common ground are valuable to the student of theology, but the article as a whole misses the point. By critiquing Wright through the theology of Leroy Forlines rather than on his own terms of Biblical theology, McAffee will find it hard to persuade Wright’s followers. Those that appreciate Wright’s dedication to understanding Scripture as it was understood in the first century will find replacing this method with Forlines’ systematic approach a hard sell. While fans of Wright would do well to listen to McAffee’s critiques, this method will only serve to cause Forline’s followers to question Wright. It will do little to persuade Wright’s disciples to evaluate his conclusions Biblically. Like the Bereans, it is this task that we most need to perform.
All quotations are taken from:
Matthew J. McAffee, “The N. T. Wright Effect: A Free Will Baptist Assessment through the Theology of F. Leroy Forlines,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought 7 (2019), 25-50.
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One thought on “Missing the Point of N.T. Wright”
Well-written, David, and invites further analysis and research for scholars and others. Thank you.