NT Wright is an Anglican New Testament Scholar who written many things that are very helpful to the church. There can be no doubt that he is a traditional Christian who has defended the faith well in areas such as the resurrection of Christ. But he has run afoul of evangelical Christians in his teaching about Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. To put the debate into is simplest form, evangelicals teach that the doctrine of justification is about individuals being made right with God; Wright thinks justification is about who can become part of the church and how they may do it. Evangelicals think of justification in terms of individual conversion while Wright thinks of it in terms of communal identification.
When defending his position, Wright often starts out by saying “I am just trying to read the New Testament in light of its 1st century context, while my opponents are reading the New Testament in the light of 16-17th century reformation debates or in light of the 18th -19th century evangelical revivals. They are superimposing their theological traditions onto the New Testament.”
There are two problems with this line of argument. 1st, it is the job of every New Testament scholar to read the New Testament in light of its 1st century context. Not to do so would a sign the scholar didn’t even know what their job was or that they were extraordinarily incompetent. Wright’s starting the debate in this fashion comes off as arrogant and patronizing towards those that disagree with him. A better way to start would have been to say, “I believe my interpretation better explains the teaching of the New Testament in its first century context.” This allows that others are attempting to do the same thing he is doing. He just thinks he is doing a better job. This approach is also more humble and gracious. But the way he does start the debate would make you think he has found a new method of approaching the New Testament that no other scholar ever thought of and that is why his way is superior. “He alone tries to read it in its first century context.” Perhaps his interpretation is better, but it’s not because he is doing anything different than other New Testament scholars. He is wrong to imply that his method is different. It gives his argument a rhetorical advantage that it does not deserve.
The 2nd problem with Wright’s position is that he implies that he alone has been able to escape the influence of his cultural background. His opponents, he claims, are trapped by their protestant, reformed or evangelical theological traditions. This does not allow them to see the New Testament in its 1st century context as he does. But this begs the question, what theological tradition is Wright a part of and how has he been able to escape its influence on his interpretation? This is the problem with claiming ones opponents are blinded by their backgrounds. It is often a smoke and mirrors job to keep people from seeing you have your own cultural biases. It is a stronger argument for your position to deal with the biblical and 1st century data instead of attacking your opponent’s backgrounds. But since Wright has opened the door, let us ask how his interpretation may have been affected by his theological tradition. I believe the difference between Wright’s and the evangelical’s understanding of justification in the New Testament is at least partially due to the position they occupy in the sociology of the church.
Let us start with the evangelicals. At least historically, they have been pietistic revivalists/reformers. They are part of the groups that arise to waken up the church spiritually when the church has become too closely identified with society. They call for believers to wake up and exercise personal faith and to not just rely on their social identification with Christianity or the church. They call on faith to be authentically real to the individual. It should not be surprising then that evangelicals tend to locate justification as arising out of the true exercise of faith. Believers are justified, that is made right with God, by authentic personal faith.
Wright is a mainline protestant, a part of the state church of England. Mainline Protestants are much more conscious that they represent an established community that is one of the traditional pillars of society, even acting as the moral conscience of society as a whole. In the case of those like Wright who are members of a state church, at least in the past, membership in the state church was necessary to participate in certain facets of society. Thus considering who could be part of the state church was a big deal for things like voting rights or participating in other aspects of political society. This leads Wright to think of justification in communal terms because belonging to the community is what is important. Even if the above restrictions have been relaxed or lifted in modern pluralistic society, the cultural role of the church from the past persists.
One can therefore see how the respective spiritual traditions of both Wright and the evangelicals can affect their view of the doctrine of justification. Evangelicals want to see justification as something that happens when a person exercises faith. This fits their emphasis that one must have a personal faith in Christ. It is something that applies to the individual. Wright on the other hand is concerned about who can be part of the state church. He is concerned about what the boundary markers are for persons to be part of the church (and thus part of society). He is thus more inclined to interpret justification in communal terms. Whether he likes it or not, Wright is just as much affected by his location within his tradition in his interpretation of justification as are the evangelicals. He is not reading the New Testament in light of the 1st century evidence alone. He is reading it through the lens of his mainline, state church sensibilities.
Let me make it clear that NT Wright does know about the importance of faith and many evangelicals know about the importance of community. But both traditions have things that they emphasize within the corpus of Christian doctrine and those emphases can shape their beliefs in other areas. That is what has happened with the doctrine of justification by faith.
Which view more closely represents the New Testament teaching on justification? Instead of dealing with that question exegetically by dealing with the texts involved which has already done by many, I would like to ask a different question. Were Jesus and the early Christians more like mainline Christians representing the status quo or were they more like revivalist reformers? I think the answer is clear: the Judaism of Palestine represented the status quo and Jesus was a reformer, challenging the status quo, calling people to true faith. He attacked the false spirituality of those in power and called them to personal repentance and renewal. On the face of it, Jesus would seem to be located socially within the stream of the church that evangelicals occupy. Of course, whether his teaching on justification is akin to modern evangelicals has to be determined by careful exegesis of the texts involved, but I believe his position within the sociology of the church gives us a clue as to which way he will lean.
NT Wright has said the evangelical that best understands his position is Douglas Moo from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Moo has said of Wright, that where he is right in his interpretation of justification, he takes secondary matters and makes them primary and takes primary matters and makes them secondary. I bring this up because Wright is absolutely right that there are social consequences to the doctrine of justification by faith, a truth that has often been ignored by evangelicals. For instance, because we are justified by faith alone and not our cultural identity, we cannot self righteously divide ourselves from Christians from other cultures just because they are different. Our cultural identities are filthy rags deserving God’s wrath. We deemphasize them to exalt the righteousness of Christ that saves us and that unites us to Christians from every tribe, language, people and nation. This is a very important tool in uniting the church universal. We can thank Wright to bringing these sorts of ideas to our attention. But in making the social consequences of justification the main teaching, he has taken away the power of the gospel that we are made right with God by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is out of this doctrine that the social consequences flow.