Misreading Luther with Bishop N.T. Wright
Once again, Wright is wrong. In his latest book, Bishop N.T. Wright, for whom even a number of Lutherans have taken a shine, manages to mangle the theology of Martin Luther and the Lord Christ and His Apostles themselves. Here is a well stated blog post by Pastor M. A. Henderson, and following it some other remarks by Michael Horton, who, like Wright, is a Calvinist in theology. Horton states very accurately the problems in Wright’s latest book:
Welcome to ‘Misreading Luther with Bishop Tom Wright’. (I originally titled this post ‘Wright Wrong on Luther’ but thought it rather too obvious, so I hit upon the above, which might serve as the title of a series if I have enough time.) What can I say by way of introduction to the topic? Every time I read something the very influential scholar Bishop N T Wright has said on Luther I come away scratching my head and thinking ‘Has he even read Luther?!’ For example, here’s Bishop Wright on the ‘Lutheran’ milieu he grew up in:
“I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, “Whew…the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ.” All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin.” [From an interview published in Reformation and Revival Journal, volume 11, numbers 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring 2003), available on-line] [Italics mine] Now here’s Luther on the law: “In chapter 7, St. Paul says, “The law is spiritual.” What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remain sin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good, just and holy.” [Italics mine] Imagine that, Luther actually agrees with Bishop Wright that the law is “good, just and holy”! Clearly, Wright has (mis)read Luther as antinomian, and pegged him as the source of what perplexed him growing up in middle-of-the-road evangelical Anglicanism, which eventually sent him running to Calvin as his guiding light (although more than a few Calvinists are upset at the direction Bishop Wright’s theology has taken since, but that is a subject for another post). If only Bishop Wright had actually read a text as basic as Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, from which the above quote is taken – not to mention the Small Catechism - he would have known that what he was hearing from evangelical Anglican pulpits as a young man was not Lutheranism at all, but antinomianism, which Luther goes on to reject in the very same little preface, following the Apostle Paul closely, of course. A lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary in Adelaide, once wisely said, “If you want to understand someone’s theology, try to understand their biography.” Alas, it seems that Tom Wright’s youthful misadventures with ‘Lutheranism’ were formative for his theology, which might not matter but for the fact that he is probably the single most influential ‘evangelical’ theologian writing today, and well read by Roman Catholics as well, as a visit to my local Catholic book shop will testify. Indeed, the local bishop is a Wright fan, and no wonder, I might add, given the implications of Bishop Wright’s theology for the magisterial Reformation’s doctrine of justification (of which more anon., d.v.). To the many evangelicals who buy Wright’s books, including his series of popular-level New Testament commentaries which are rapidly filling the place once occupied on the layperson’s bookshelf by another scholar who abounded in dubious opinions, William Barclay, one can only say: caveat emptor!
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Michael Horton has an interesting review in CT of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.
Horton is essentially positive about the book’s proposals, and yet mystified at Wright’s repeated caricatures of a rich resource for building on, and supporting, the good points made therein.
In spite of a few quibbles, I was impressed by this book’s popular presentation of themes that I have come to appreciate in Reformed theology. The eschatological emphasis on cosmic renewal (resurrection, not escape) as the impetus for our lives here and now, the emphasis on the church—in fact, just about everything in After You Believe was a fresh way of exploring many familiar truths.
Hence my surprise at the jarring, frequent caricatures of the Reformation, even when the author articulates long-standing emphases in that tradition.
Here’s the conclusion:
While there are many good biblical-theological studies that make the same points, Wright—ever the master of metaphor and turns of phrase—is especially effective in communicating the richness of the Bible’s eschatological horizon to a wide audience. Nevertheless, his imprecision about the views that he targets for criticism is careless, depriving him—and his readers—of resources and allies for a message that is on so many points a vital and necessary corrective.
HT: Scott Clark
Via Justin Taylor