Saturday, 16 August 2008

Theology, 'shmeology' - who cares about Tom Wright, anyway?

I must admit to being very disappointed by the reaction so far to my posting on Bishop Tom Wright’s understanding of the ‘order of salvation’ — or rather the lack of reaction.

First, I was hoping for some help in understanding precisely what is being put forward. I am far from sure I am understanding Wright correctly.

But secondly, the theology of salvation is surely far more important for the future of the Church of England generally and Evangelicalism in particular than who speaks at mini-NEAC. Yet when I look at the balance of comments, it seems the latter evokes far more interest (29 comments) than the former (2 comments).

Perhaps it would have ‘helped’ if I’d been more political — if, for example, I’d headlined the piece ‘Tom Wright is not an Evangelical!’. Then, maybe, it would have got the attention of the people who are worked up about NEAC.

Well, I didn’t (and don’t) want to go down that road.

But it is true that an Evangelical’s theology may not itself be Evangelical. And that is why I think this is so important. Tom Wright may be an Evangelical, but if (repeat, if) I’m right about the theology of salvation, the generations who follow this theology won’t be.

One of the features of religious life is the problem with passing on the vitality of one generation to the next. And one of the reasons for this is that theological errors take time to ‘mature’.

Rather like a rocket going off course, the first generation which deviates from the truth may hardly notice the effects. Several generations down the track, whole denominations may have gone off the rails, as I believe happened with the Quakers. George Fox’s small deviation was to believe he could speak ‘apostolically’ beyond the Bible. Nevertheless, for many years, the Quakers were exemplary in the way they lived the Christian life and rigorously applied the Bible. Today, however, Quakerism is a haven for people who find ‘doctrine’ itself an anathema, which is a shame.

It may be perfectly true, then, to say that someone is themselves an Evangelical, but that their theology, at least in some respects, is not. And if that person is an influential teacher or speaker, then the results for later generations may be very serious. (To take an historical example, look at the problems created for the Church of England by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s views on the role of the Head of State in the economy of God. It seemed like a good idea at the time!)

My concern, then, is not with Tom Wright, but Tom Wright’s theology — but it is a serious concern. If my analysis is wrong, fair enough. But if it is right, then Wright’s theology is, at a fundamental point, not Evangelical. And if it is influencing a generation of Evangelicals who, with good reason, are enthusiastic about Tom Wright as a teacher, the results need not be that they cease to be Evangelicals themselves, but down the line their descendants will certainly have done so.

John Richardson
16 August 2008

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  1. I guess people are picking and choosing in Wright's theology. Many evangelicals will be happy with his methodology of critical realism (turning form criticism on its head) and the defense of the Resurrection, while others won't really grasp what he's saying about justification.
    But a number (especially Stateside, but also people like Simon Gathercole in the UK) have begun to dissent on this.
    What I'd like to see is the Fulcrum people appraise this aspect of his theology, since he seems to be their 'theologian in residence'.
    I think Wright has promised a reply to Piper; I hope it is not as turgid as his reply on 'Pierced for our Transgressions'. Maybe you could post some summaries of responses.
    The point about error having longterm consequences is fair. Consider how so many of the Congregationalist churches in the NE USA, which had been through revival in the 18th century, succumbed to unitarianism in the 19th.

  2. Hi Mark,

    I think we all 'pick and choose' amongst our theologians, and in some respects this is a mark of maturity - and indeed of spiritual obedience. We are to call no one 'teacher', and so it is very important not to defend everything they teach, just because they teach it.

    I love Martin Luther and his theology, but what can you say about his later attitude towards the Jews? Yet should one dump anything else he said, just because he was quite wrong (and un-Christian) in some areas?

    So I hope people won't leap to defend, or attack, 'Tom Wright'. It is the ideas that we should focus on.

    Yet at the same time, because we are 'personality' focussed, we are often needlessly critical or heedlessly uncritical.

  3. I must admit to being very disappointed by the reaction so far to my posting on Bishop Tom Wright’s understanding of the ‘order of salvation’ — or rather the lack of reaction.

    I read what you said, and I love theology.

    But why should I be interested in Tom Wright? You've explained some things about why he's wrong, and that seems to be the end of the story.

  4. Hi Gordon,

    In response:

    a) I'm not sure I've got my analysis of Tom Wright correct, so it may not be the end of the story!

    But also,

    b) Tom Wright's influence is enormous - and in some respects, rightly so. So if he is wrong on such a vital issue, we need to be clear about this, both for our own sakes and for future generations.

    What I genuinely fear in this country in particular is people who are, as it were, 'Wrightean' without thinking through the details - people coming into colleges and training courses, for example, who like the idea that there is an alternative to traditionalist Evangelical theology, but who don't understand the theology itself; who just 'trust Tom Wright', like earlier Evangelicals used to 'trust John Stott'.

    That's why I'd like to see some engagement and reaction.

  5. re: balance of postings - is it because Tom Wright is hard to understand - as you rightly say.

    Some of his stuff is very helpful and useful. That's the shame in those he's critisiced (Ovey etc.) who introduced me to NT Wright, as a positive thing.

    But when we say "hang on that's wrong because..." as Piper's book does, he comes back and says, "you've misunderstood me" and says something Piper (me or whoever) would be happy with. Which then begs the question - what is he actually saying that's different?

    If everyone else is struggling at the same level I am - responses will be few!

    Darren Moore

    PS funny posting on Fulcrum about Syndey (that's right all of them, not to generalise) who apparently say, "Wright says, so must be wrong" - as they seem to be saying, "Anyone from Sydney says - so must be wrong". I guess we all play that game.

  6. Yes, I can see why you think it's important, John. For me it's like following a strand of fairy floss to see where it leads.

    1st reaction to fairy floss: Gosh that's big, it must be important.

    2nd reaction to fairy floss: Mmm that tastes great.

    3rd reaction to fairy floss: Ooh, er, I feel sick, maybe I can find something to settle my tummy down.

    Except for the really clever people, who want to take it apart strand by strand. And then people like us who get annoyed by the really clever people.

  7. I guess we all play that game.


    No we don't. Someone is getting it correct, and it's not NT Wright.

  8. An amusing (or frustrating, not sure which) thing I've found when reading Wright is how he thinks everybody's wrong - when anybody says he's wrong, they've misunderstood him.

    Early on in Piper's book he looks at the issue of judgement based on "the whole life lived" and Wright's comment that Reformed theology just ignores the place of works, then quotes a whole bunch of confessions and standards showing how seriously they take it.

    Similarly Luther comes in for a bit of a bashing, but in the footnotes his quotes of Luther are always from a secondary text, never Luther. I'm sure a brain box like him must have read Luther.

    So I'm with Piper, there are a few things to worry about here, especially as we go down the tragectory further. For me a practical outworking is too concerned for this world, not enough for next.

    BUT when presented with this, he'll say something that we'll agree with, which begs the question, what's new/different and why is Luther and everyone else wrong? (according to Wright).

    I've already got in a knot. But are these enough responses to show we do care about theology John?

    Darren Moore

  9. Thank you for posting on this. As a fan of NTW, I do think it is important, and have just got my copy of Piper's book to help me think it through.

    Can you help me, though to understand why there is so much animosity between him and (some?) Sydney evangelicals?

  10. I'd be interested in the conversation but I'm unfamiliar with how you're using some terms, most especially: "if it is right, then Wright’s theology is, at a fundamental point, not Evangelical". What do you mean? And is 'Evangelical' your plumb-line in this? (or "Reformed" which would also need unpacking etc etc)

  11. Hugh,

    Thanks for your post. I'm really not sure if there is animosity between Wright and some Sydney Evangelicals. I don't detect much from Wright's side, and I'm not sure how much there is in Sydney either. I did a quick search of the Anglican Church League site, but couldn't find much there.

    For my own part I wondered why Tom Wright was so obviously cross with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions. I know theology is always personal, but sometimes we should perhaps say to ourselves, "Supposing I knew that the person who had written this was dead. Now how would I feel, and how would that affect what I wrote?"

    Often I think the answer is, "I'd get a lot less wound up about it and would be a bit more objective in my analysis."

    Good luck with yours.

    I wouldn't worry about it myself

  12. Gordon,

    I'd just want to say that one of the reasons I posted about Tom Wright's theology is to find out whether my understanding is correct and my criticisms are valid. I can't really, as a pastor-teacher, give people a 'steer' on it without being sure first of all.

    As to theological debate, who understood Martin Luther's 95 Theses, or followed the debate at the Diet of Worms. Yet aren't we glad they happened?

  13. Sam,

    On the comment about 'not Evangelical', and whether that should be 'not Reformed', I am suggesting that Wright's analysis seems to land us back in an understanding of the 'ordo salutis very similar to that which the Reformation rejected.

    A theology cannot, however, be both rejecting that rejection (which is fundamental to the fact of the Reformation actually happening) and standing in the Reformation tradition.

    However, I am not judging Wright's writings by a 'Reformation' plumbline. That is, I am not saying, "If Wright's theology is not in the Reformation tradition it must be wrong." (Though personally I think it would be.)

    Rather, I am asking, "Is Wright's theology essentially similar to the via moderna (or something very close to it)." One would have to then ask whether the Reformation critique also applied, therefore, to Wright's position.

    It could, of course, be argued that even if the position is 'pre-Reformed', there is nothing wrong with that. But first I have to get the initial understanding correct.

    However, to repeat, I can't see, if Wright's theology is, indeed, 'late medieval pre-Reformed', it can be described meaningfully as Evangelical.

  14. Darren,

    I have never had any doubt that you care about theology!

    What I'm really looking for is someone who can either say I've understood Wright wrongly, or who can pick apart the question I raised in the previous post.

    I only really ran this post to try and get some attention to the issues raised on the first one!

  15. "For my own part I wondered why Tom Wright was so obviously cross with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions."

    Because he is at heart an academic theologian, and likes to think he is an important one (well, to be fair, he is). Possibly there's still some pride in there...

    And in Jeffrey et al's use of the category of imputation of righteousness, they pretty much ignored huge chunks of the New Perspective which Wright has spent much of his life on.

    Oh, and because NTW tends to fall into the error of finding a position where the emphasis is slightly wrong, then hugely overreacting in the opposite direction, and the authors of PFOT took one of those positions that Wright had already reacted so strongly against.

    John Allister, Jaboatao

  16. Para 6, last line, surely "this" is an error?

  17. John
    You ask why do people get cross with NT Wright:
    1 as others have said above - his defensiveness when challenged!
    2 the suspicion that he is using his "theological" weight to gain a platform for another agenda, rather like Dawkins who uses his extraordinary "biological" weight to gain a platform for his aetheist agenda..... but at least we know what his other agenda is...
    3 the "NT" affectation which seems rather adolescent for a CofE Bishop, though to give him the benefit of the doubt, it may well have come from his publishers originally originally.

    4 Fundamentally, the extent to which Wright deploys the "you've misunderstood what I wrote/said" defense makes me ask why he hasn't learned to write in understandable language in the first place. There is nothing smart about writing something apparently controvercial at interminable length and in almost opaque terminology. Who is he trying to impress? Does he actually have something to say?

    5 Finally, life is to short for us all to take the kind of time needed to work out what he is saying never mind if he is correct. If He is unwilling to apply himself to making himself understandable albeit with a bit of work then the safest path is to assume that he is in error and ignore him


  18. Ifan

    (1) Agreed. he is too quick to dismiss others in a fairly condescending tone, and can come across as prickly when criticized. Though, he's come in for his fair share of stick on both sides of the Atlantic, and if I were in his shoes I might get a bit defensive.
    (2) I find it helpful to distinguish in my mind Wright the NT scholar, who is often (though not always) very helpful, in my view, and Wright the bishop and social pundit, who is sometimes helpful (e.g., on sexuality), but often deeply misguided and sometimes dangerously wrong (again, imho). Obviously the two can't be entirely separated, but there's a danger of frustration over Wright-as-bishop leading to dismissing Wright-as-NT-scholar. (Not saying anyone in these discussion is doing that, just noting the danger)
    (3) Nicholas Thomas Wright. No more affected than J. I. Packer, or D. A. Carson.
    (4)+(5) Wright writes very accessibly, as it happens. Even his big academic books are models, on the whole, of very clear prose. Sometimes he's not as precise as he should be, and he could avoid misunderstanding by taking greater care to make distinctions, and showing greater willingness to demonstrate that his view matches up with orthodox protestantism. I personally think this is a serious problem. And you're right, the "I've been misunderstood" defence, unless backed up by evidence that this is the case, does wear thin after a while.

    And obviously many people don't need to read him. But some do, and need to take the necessary care to find out what he really says. For starters, he is very influential, and so his views (or some variant of them) will trickle into many, many congregations one way or another. So if he's badly wrong on importnat things, at least some ministers need to be able to say why. And if he's right, and helpful, then why deprive ourselves of the benefits.

    But, hey, that's not for everyone. I just hope that in ignoring him, people can do so cheerfully, and charitably, rather than suspiciously and antagonistically. The fundamental reality about him, after all, is that he is a brother in Christ, loved by our heavenly Father.


    Matthew Mason
    Tunbridge Wells.