Book Review: When Wright is Wrong: A Reformed Baptist Critique of N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul

| April 19, 2019

We’re told in Scripture that Satan is prowling around the earth as a lion, seeking someone to devour. We so often think of that in terms of temptations toward personal sin, but there’s also a reality in which we see this in the realm of evangelical theology. Some of the most dangerous heresies in the history of Christ’s church have come about through subtleties that often swim around in the evangelical river unnoticed. Either that or we all see the deadly fish in the water, but, out of naivety or a lack of a proper approach, continue to go about our business, without much thought as to the damage that the fish is causing downriver. This is the kind of danger we see flowing from the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), championed by the distinguished professor N.T. Wright. Now, Wright is not an unnoticed fish; he’s in fact one of the most well-known New Testament scholars on the planet. Many have sought to interact with his writings regarding Pauline and New Testament theology, and many have come away with the conclusion that, while his writings are erroneous in many of their assertions, they are not too big of a deal. Many see the big fish in the water but neglect to properly deal with it. This is why Philip Griffiths’ recent critique of NPP from a reformed, covenantal Baptist perspective is desperately needed in the larger conversation of the level of danger underlying the teachings of NPP. In my estimations, only a distinctly reformed, covenantal Baptist position is able to properly deal with the teachings of NPP, and Griffiths’ work does not disappoint.

Griffiths begins his work by giving a historical introduction to what is considered the Old Perspective on Paul. This is the view championed by the Protestant Reformers, dealing particularly with the biblical teaching of an imputed righteousness for the Christian. Griffiths reminds his readers that it is vital to understand the Old Perspective, because Wright often caricatures the arguments of the Reformers in his quest to lay down a new path regarding what justification language means in Pauline literature.

He then moves into a historical survey of the works of the NPP. He moves from Krister Stendahl, to E.P. Sanders, to Dunn, and finally lands on the focus of this book, N.T. Wright. It is important to look at all of these authors in sequence, as they tend to build off each other until Wright most clearly packages the teachings of NPP in a way that the average lay member of your church can understand. Griffiths rightly shows how Wright, in his vitriolic disavowal of the Old Perspective, undermines his own argument by neglecting to deal with the actual primary source material from the Reformers. For a scholar who so boldly refutes the teachings of the Reformers, he doesn’t give much evidence that he’s actually read them. This kind of straw-man building is rampant throughout Wright’s works, according to Griffiths, and is helpful to keep in the back of one’s mind as one reads Wright. Griffiths finishes this historical survey by transitioning toward the heart of the discussion: Wright’s understanding of the righteousness of God and the justification of the Christian.

Wright is of the opinion that justification has nothing at all to do with soteriology (how one is saved) but rather it is about ecclesiology (how one identifies with the covenant family of God). Justification is not about gaining an eternal favor with God, but rather it is about fellowship in God’s new covenant people. In Wright’s own words, “Righteousness is not a quality or substance that can thus be passed or transferred from the judge to the defendant.” His wording cannot be clearer. Righteousness is not something that can be imputed or credited to the Christian, for that would be theoretically impossible, for Wright, in a forensic law-court situation. The judge cannot gift his own righteousness to the one on trial. Tragically, Wright has allowed an Enlightenment rationalism to blind him to what God teaches regarding the nature of righteousness and justification in His Scriptures.

The next several chapters are then Griffiths’ attempt to show how Wright wrongly views covenant theology, which then causes the snowball effect of the misinterpretation of key texts in both Romans and Galatians regarding the righteousness of God and justification.

It’s Wright’s covenant theology that forces him to make exegetical roughshod of Romans and Galatians. Wright, as a paedobaptist, holds to the covenantal framework that categorizes the Old Covenant as an earlier administration of the Covenant of Grace, which reformed, covenantal Baptists would disagree with, at least in the tradition of the 17th-century Particular Baptists. Wright, though, often goes where the typical paedobaptist is unwilling to go. He argues that all Israelites did not keep God’s law in order to get in, but in order to stay in. Griffiths responds by stating that, “For Wright to suggest that obedience sprang solely out of gratitude is to believe that all Israel was already “in” when the truth was quite the opposite. Yes, they may have been “in” the old covenant, but most were excluded from the new covenant because of their unbelief.” This misunderstanding of the nature of the Old Covenant on Wright’s part then affects his interpretation of texts like Romans 4:9, on which Griffiths spends substantial time later in the book. For Wright, the justification of Old Testament saints, like New Testament saints, lies in their ability to stay in the covenant by their obedience to it (i.e. covenantal nomism). Wright argues that because Israel largely failed in his covenant obedience, the gospel was prevented from going out to the whole world as planned. Thus, Christ had to come in order to make it possible for the gospel to go out to the Gentiles. This plays not only into Wright’s view of what the exile was meant to portray in the Old Testament, but also into the very work of Christ Himself. The work of atonement was less about satisfying God’s wrath, and more about simply bringing mankind back to a place where the good news of the kingdom could go out to the world.

In regard to Galatians, Griffiths shows again that Wright’s understanding of covenant theology forces him to miss the point for which Paul is arguing in the letter. For Wright, the problem in Galatia is not one of legalism, or any other form of a works-righteousness, but rather one of mere table fellowship. Paul is not arguing against the Christian having to do works in order to be justified, he’s merely arguing against doing the works of Torah, the Jewish law in particular, in order to be brought into God’s covenant family. Again, for Wright, justification has very little to do with soteriology, and everything to do with ecclesiology in Paul. Paul is telling the Galatians that a Gentile does not have to become Jewish in order to be in the family of God. That, in essence, is all that Paul is seeking to communicate in his letter to the Galatians. But Griffiths rightly states that, “Nowhere in this epistle is the law spoken of as piecemeal, e.g., one cannot do, as Wright, Dunn, and Sanders have done, namely, take circumcision and divorce it from the rest of the law. Paul is not only demonstrating the fact that none can be justified by the law of Moses, but also that if one accepts part of the law then one must accept the entirety.” Paul is using the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law in particular here in Galatians to argue for the larger principle that no human being can justify himself before God by his obedience. Wright misses this entirely due to his faulty categorization in regard to what justification is.

Griffiths then moves into Wright’s exegesis of Romans which, like Galatians, seeks to take his reader’s gaze away from justification as an element of soteriology. Wright begins by stating that the righteousness of God merely refers to, “God’s faithfulness to the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.” By narrowing the definition of the righteousness of God in this way, Wright is then allowed to define justification as the way in which a Christian seeks to uphold that plan of God through his or her obedience. Israel failed to uphold this plan; thus, Israel needs Christ to right their wrong. The cross then, for Wright, is not about Christ taking on the curse of sin for the world, but only for the nation of Israel, who was still under the Deuteronomic curse. Jesus’s work then re-levels the playing field for both Jews and Greeks, giving them the ability to then fulfill God’s plan for the world by their own works that will be the basis for their end-times justification before God. Griffiths spends the rest of the section on Romans rightly showing how Wright’s exegesis seems to be just an elaborately intellectual attempt at sanitizing the cross of Christ and the wrath of God against sin. This sanitization then fleshes itself out in a semi-Pelagianism that leads to an unbiblical understanding of both the righteousness of God and justification.

Griffiths finishes the book by critiquing the NPP understanding of other motifs, such as the kingdom of God, heaven, and eschatology. The proponents of NPP, with Wright as chief among them, believe they are initiating a theological revolution. Griffiths convincingly shows, however, that their exegesis is flawed from its beginning. A flawed hermeneutic regarding covenant theology will lead one down the path of making flawed exegetical decisions regarding the nature of the righteousness of God and justification. It is only a distinctly reformed Baptist understanding of the covenants that allows one to refute the teachings of NPP, while also upholding the biblical understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

So What?

So, why is this rather intellectual book on the error of N.T. Wright a must-read for pastors? I believe it’s necessary and important because, as alluded to in the introduction, Wright has effected the river of evangelicalism far more than we realize. His teachings on the righteousness of God and justification can be seen in various other streams that are rising up out of the evangelical waters. For instance, much of what we’re seeing in the realm of critical race theory among evangelicals can be seen latching onto NPP teaching regarding the atonement and righteousness language. The cross of Christ becomes less about propitiation and substitutionary atonement, and more about a cosmic undoing of injustice. Now, while the cross and resurrection do guarantee the victory of God and the cosmic redemption of all things, we’re not to miss Scripture’s thrust regarding the cross as satisfying God’s wrath against the sins of His chosen people through the death of the sinless Lamb of God. God will indeed undo the injustices of the world, but to make that the central thrust of the atonement is to miss the reality that God’s just wrath against our sins must be vindicated. We don’t just need the redemption of the cosmos; we need reconciliation with God that only comes through faith in the person and work of Christ. When we weaken the doctrine of the work of Christ in order to make it more palatable to the broader world, we actually undermine the very power of His work. For the pastor, having a working knowledge of the NPP will only make you more adept at recognizing the theological trends we see bubbling up in our own circles.

Pastorally, Wright’s theology is not just intellectually dangerous for God’s sheep, it’s detrimental to their spiritual health and assurance. To shed the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone is to shed any sure guarantee that God will indeed keep His people to the end. It puts the proverbial ball in the believer’s court, making their hopes of victory dependent upon their efforts. Wright seems at times to pit Paul against Jesus, who states in John 10:28 that, “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” If we desire to uphold the unity of the Scriptures, we must resist attempts to undo this declaration from our Lord. All those who have been given to the Son by the Father will surely be kept by the Father until they are brought into His glorious, consummate kingdom. What Wright is doing is taking the “do this and live” condition of the Mosaic covenant and gluing it onto the new covenant that Christ has brought about. It is, in essence, to bring the covenant of works forward into the covenant of grace. And to make this category error in covenant theology is to again undermine the power of the cross of Christ as mentioned before. The cross doesn’t just make both Jews and Gentiles savable, as long as they keep their end of the deal, but it actually has the power to save to the end those who are brought to faith in Christ. A covenant and an atonement that places the onus on the Christian to keep themselves in the covenant by their works is not good news if one takes biblical anthropology seriously. Are works necessary to evidence our salvation? Yes! Christians are those who bear fruit, but that fruit is never the grounds of our justification or salvation before God. Works never justify, but justifying faith is a faith that works and bears fruit by the empowering of the Holy Spirit within us. Sanctification cannot be collapsed into justification. Caring well for God’s sheep means that we are seeking to faithfully teach what Scripture teaches regarding justification, sanctification, and assurance.

Lastly, Griffiths deduces (and rightly so, I believe) that much of NPP theology is grounded in an ecumenical agenda. If the Reformers made a category mistake in writing of justification as a soteriological issue, then Catholics and Protestants ought to be able to sit at the same table. Ironically, it seems as if Wright is arguing that Protestants are the Judaizers who have put unnecessary requirements on table fellowship with those around them. Now there is to be a genuine catholicity among those who are in Christ by faith alone. I can share Christian fellowship with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists who have genuinely believed upon the person and work of Christ alone. However, we shouldn’t so desire ecumenism that we make first-level theological categories, like justification, a mere matter of ecclesiology. Let’s pursue Christian unity, but not at the expense of shedding the very doctrines that indeed make us distinctly Christian.

Overall, Phillip Griffiths’ critique of Wright and the NPP is both charitable and theologically honest. He doesn’t pull punches with what he reads from Wright, but also seeks to portray Wright’s own theology with accuracy. Griffiths’ example of scholarship is one worthy of emulation. This work, though, is not only one for theological stimulation, but it’s one of rich encouragement as well. I walked away from this book even more grateful for the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, and I pray that you would pick this book up and be encouraged in the rich truths of Scripture as well. To borrow from the great Anglican preacher J.C. Ryle, in the face of new and growing theological fads swimming around in our evangelical waters, let’s stick to those “old paths” that have been tread by faithful Christians throughout the ages.