Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) hosted its thirtieth “January Series” in January 2017. Appearing, he informed his audience, for the fifth time, N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in England, and current research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, gave a speech in connection with the (Henry J.) Stob lecture series with the title, “The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross,” on Tuesday, January 24.
Wright is the most popular contemporary proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), so it is not surprising that he is now offering a fresh (or new) perspective on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Wright’s “New Perspective” on Paul
Before we report on his latest speech, we should review the main tenets of Wright’s NPP.
First, Wright redefines the concepts of “justification” and “righteousness.” The Reformed, biblical, and creedal explanation of justification is that righteousness is a legal status in which one is in harmony with or in conformity to the standard of God, which is summarized in God’s law. To be justified is to be declared righteous, that is, to be declared to be in harmony with God’s standard, on the basis of the perfect work of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Jesus Christ, namely, His lifelong obedience and His atoning sufferings and death, is imputed or reckoned to the account of the sinner, and that righteousness is received by faith alone without works.
Wright denies the possibility or the necessity of the imputation of God’s righteousness in Christ. For Wright righteousness is simply God’s covenant faithfulness, by which He puts right what evil has done in the creation and keeps His promises to His people. Justification for Wright is not so much a matter of personal salvation, but is to be declared, on the basis of faith, to be part of the covenant community—the New Israel—that God vindicates now and on the Last Day.
Moreover, Wright understands Paul’s fierce polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians and elsewhere not as a battle between justification by faith alone versus the notion of justification by the works of the law (because, argues Wright, Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never believed in salvation by works in the sense that the Reformers understood), but as a controversy over how one is declared to be part of the vindicated (or justified) community. Therefore, according to Wright’s reading of Paul, the apostle argued that one is declared a member of the church on the basis of faith, while the Judaizers insisted that one cannot be declared a member of the church—that is, justified—without circumcision and obedience to the (ceremonial) laws of Moses. For that reason, argues Wright, when Paul disputed about circumcision—even to the point of anathemas—he was not disputing about salvation, but about who was a member of the church.1
How, then, is one personally justified according to Wright’s NPP? By believing that Jesus is Lord, one is brought into, and declared to be a member of, the new covenant community, the church. At that point, on the basis of faith, one is “justified.” However, to remain one of God’s people, a believer must continue to believe and to be faithful. That is, continued justification and salvation—and final justification and salvation—depend on good works. On this point, Wright writes:
This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.2
Thus Wright’s position, which includes a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner, is simply a scholarly version of the old heresy of justification by faith and works.
Wright’s “Fresh Perspectives” on the Cross
Having dismantled the great gospel truth of justification (dismantled, at least, in his own mind—in reality, the truth stands), Wright is now bringing “fresh perspectives” to the cross.
Wright reinterprets the cross so that it is no longer seen as penal, substitutionary atonement. Dismissing that as a “theory,” Wright urges us to embrace a story or a “narrative.” Penal, substitutionary atonement is the truth that the Son of God in our flesh suffered the punishment (penal) due to us for our sins in our place (substitution). That view of the cross means that God imputed our guilt to Jesus Christ, which view Wright rejects because, remember, he dislikes imputation—both the imputation of our sins to Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us.
Instead, Wright views the cross through the lens of Genesis and Exodus. He sees Jesus as the one who has come to bring Israel and the world out of darkness. Drawing from Exodus, Isaiah, and John, he describes the world as “in the grip of the Pharaoh, the dark Babel-gods, and the ruler of this world.”3 Jesus, proclaims Wright, came to “accomplish the new exodus for which Israel had longed.” Tragically, laments Wright, the church has misread the gospels and misconstrued the cross:
When Paul, quoting the early formula, says that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, it is this complex narrative full of doom and glory that he has in mind. Proof texts are for the birds, or more accurately, for neo-Marcionite rationalists. What matters is the story, the true story.
Referring to John 12, where Jesus prophesies the casting out of the prince of this world because of His death and resurrection, Wright remarks,
Jesus’ death will be the means by which the power that has gripped the world of Greek and Jew alike will be overthrown by the greater power, the power the world never imagined, the revolutionary power of a royal love which loves its own and loves them to the end. Then it will be time for the Greeks to come in, freed from the powers that have hitherto enslaved them.
Why has the church, according to Wright, got the cross so tragically wrong? First, “we have erected a different structure with Israel’s Scriptures as merely a source for random prophecies, which can be fitted into the redemptive narrative which we have gleaned or constructed from elsewhere;” and second, “we have misread the sacrificial tradition of ancient Israel”:
Animals were not being subjected to a vicarious death penalty. They were killed so that the blood, itself a gift from God, would cleanse the sanctuary and maintain the heaven and earth reality in the midst of an as yet unredeemed world.
Wright lays three charges against the church—we have Platonized our eschatology, we have moralized our anthropology, and “we are in danger of paganizing our soteriology.” In explanation of that third charge, Wright declares,
Instead of hearing that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, they [the people of the world] hear [that] God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.
What, then, did the cross of Jesus do or accomplish? According to Wright,
The dark powers have been defeated so that the powers of love may flood the world.
Jesus draws unto himself, as if by a magnet, all the evil in the world. Evil is gathered into one place and does its worst.
Jesus, representing Israel, representing thereby the whole human race, and equally representing and embodying the Creator God himself, took upon himself the weight of evil hanging over all flesh.
“And,” Wright adds, “this, not some cheap and logic-chopped scheme, is why there is forgiveness of sins, why Gentiles are now freed from the enslaving powers to become members of God’s family.”
Somehow, then, Jesus took to Himself all human evil (and even all cosmic evil), and by His death He conquered evil for everyone. This does not explain, that “Christ died for our sins.” If He did not bear the punishment due to our individual transgressions of God’s law, what did He, in fact, accomplish in His death? And why is Christ’s death of personal benefit to us? Wright rejects the caricature of his own making: “this in no way implies…that God is an angry malevolent tyrant who demands someone’s death, or someone’s blood, and is indifferent as to whose it is.”4
Reformed Christians teach that (1) God is angry—that is why propitiation, or the turning away of His wrath is necessary; (2) God is not malevolent—He is perfectly holy, righteous, and good; (3) God is not a tyrant, although He is absolutely sovereign; (4) God is not indifferent as to whose blood or death is required to satisfy His justice—only one who is true God and true righteous man, that is, only the incarnate Son of God, qualifies to be the Mediator; and (5) the giving—and even killing—of God’s Son is not hatred, but love: God loves us by giving His Son in our place, and the Son loves us by giving His life in our place in loving obedience to His Father, so that we might be saved.
Wright’s view is not a “new” or “fresh” perspective on the cross. Certainly, he emphasizes part of the truth. Christ did, by His death, conquer evil, crush Satan’s head, cast out the prince of this world, and spoil principalities and powers (). But His death accomplished that because the power of death is sin (I Cor. 15:56), which Christ removed by satisfying the justice of God against our sins. Wright’s view is really a version of Gustaf Aulén’s (1879-1977) Christus Victor theory, which presents Christ as the victor or conqueror who has defeated the powers of darkness by His death on the cross, delivering man from the power of Satan, without satisfying God’s justice against sin.
Wright is an eloquent and engaging speaker, and undoubtedly when many heard him expatiating upon “a larger vision of the biblical narrative,” they hung spellbound on his every word. But for all his rhetorical flourishes Wright leaves us with no real atonement, no gospel and, consequently, nowhere to hide on the Day of Judgment.
How shameful that Calvin College continues to allow Wright to propagate his errors on the campus of a college and seminary named after the great Reformer!
1 Notice Wright’s avoidance of the phrase “by faith alone,” a fatal omission, and his use of prepositions—justified on the basis of faith. The Reformers, following Scripture, teach that justification is by or through faith alone. Faith is not the basis. Faith is the means or instrument of justification.
2 N. T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 258; cited in John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham, IVP, 2008), 100. Notice the basis of justification is “the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit”—Believing reader, the life that you lead in the power of the Spirit is the imperfect obedience that you, out of sincere love, but in much weakness, have rendered to God in gratitude for your salvation. Will you dare appear before God on that basis, instead of on the basis of the perfect obedience and atoning sufferings and death of Jesus Christ? That is where Wright’s theology would lead you, which will issue in damnation on the Day of Judgment.
3 The speech was streamed live on January 24, 2017. I was able to listen to the speech on Calvin College’s website, http://calvin.edu/directory/series/n-t-tom-wright, from which speech I have quoted extensively in this article.
4 N. T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 476; cited in Piper, The Future of Justification, 52.