Friday, July 17, 2009

The Wright Stuff

Kevin DeYoung has been critique N.T. Wright's new book Justification, which I too hope to read this summer. You can read his critiques part 1, part 2, and part 3.

This excerpt from DeYoung I think reflects my overall position on Wright:

In the interest of long-windedness allow me to digress. My main critique of Wright is that he gets the big picture right but then forces that big picture on the individual verses in such a way that doesn’t do justice to all the important points Paul is making along the way. Often Wright says a whole book or an entire section is about this, therefore if you talk about this other specific thing, you aren’t really paying attention to the context. But the context in any given section may have its own crucially important point, a complementary or even more important point.

For example, the Wizard of Oz is all about Dorothy trying to find the Wizard who can help her get home. But along the way there are all sorts of other things that happen. They are part of the bigger story, but they have a point themselves. The scene with the flying monkeys is, on the most basic level, about how flying monkeys can really weird you out. But I can imagine Wright arguing, “But we must keep in mind that the Wizard of Oz is about the Dorothy-to-the-Wizard-so-she-can-get-home story. The flying monkey scene is not about how we must all avoid aerodynamic primates, it’s about how Dorothy’s attempt to reach the Wizard and through him to get home has once again been put on hold by the Wicked Witch.” Well, yes that’s true. But flying monkeys are still scary. It does no injustice to the rest of the story to think that monkeys zooming in the sky is freaky stuff. The scene is about the Witch trying keep Dorothy from reaching the Wizard and about how flying monkeys are scary. To leave this last crucial fact out in an effort to do justice to the Dorothy-to-the-wizard-so-she-can-get-home story does not preserve the story. It flattens it.

Paul is capable of defending his apostolic ministry and talking about some very specific theological truths in the midst of that defense. My contention, then, is that Wright cannot see the imputation trees because he only has eyes for the God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world forest. But I digress.

In an early post, DeYoung says:
Wright claims, “In ways that the Western tradition, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist–yes, and Anglican too!–has often failed to recognize, Scripture forms a massive and powerful story whose climax is the coming into the world of the unique Son of the one true Creator God, and, above all, his death for sins and his bodily resurrection from the dead” (250). I love Wright’s summary of the story, but I’m puzzled. Has the whole Western tradition missed this story? Really, we are just now seeing it by virtue of the Sanders revolution? Did Ridderbos miss this? Or Vos? Or Edwards with his massive history of redemption? Haven’t thousands of preachers for hundreds of years gone through Ephesians 2 and preached on justification by faith alone and the mysterious inclusion of the Gentiles? Much of the theology I read predates the New Perspective and it gets many of the same “discoveries.”

Wright is at his best at the macro-level. There are insights in the 'New Pespective' that hit hard on the nature of redemptive history, that I would argued are found in the best of the Reformed Tradition: Vos and Ridderbos. Even Gaffin, I believe, would echo a number of this points. There are areas of agreement at the macro-level. Granted there remains important distinctions and such. However, N.T. Wright is not the first theologian to see the larger scope of redemptive history.

N.T. Wright is brilliant, no two ways about it. He should be read by pastors and laymen who can critically access Him. Let me site one example of a Reformed Theologian using Wright profitably. In his work, The God Centered Preacher, Robert Reymond discussing how a preacher should 'do the work of an evangelist, writes:

Nor is the "proclamation of the gospel' merely the recounting of the details of a salvific system whereby people are saved, that is, the delineating of an ordo salutis or an ordo applicatio, though it should and will eventually get around to this at some point. No, the proclamation of the gospel is most directly the proclamation of that the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah is King and Lord of the universe who now reigns from heaven, and that in that capacity he has authoritatively summoned the whole world to repent of its idolatrous pretensions to works-righteousness (Acts 17:30) and to obey him through placing faith in his active and passive obedience for men and for their salvation (Rom. 1:5). [p.170]

Now I believe N.T. Wright would take issue with the whole notion of active and passive obedience and imputation, which is a bit ironic because Wright comes close to it in his whole notion of 'the faithfulness of Christ' and the recapitulation of Israel in Christ's work. However, in the larger section, Reymond focuses on the Lordship aspects of Christ along with heralding that reign. He doesn't fall prey to the individualized gospel although he makes it clear all must repent. On page 171 n.3 he writes "I am indebted to N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 41-5 for some insights of this section." This is the section in Wright's work that deals with the Isaianic background of euangelion and how in Paul's ministry it confronted the Roman world. I doubt anyone could fairly accuse Reymond of compromising the Reformed Faith.

Where Wright is strongest, you can find others in his footsteps or whose steps he's followed. Again we might note: Vos and Ridderbos but add Carson, Westerholm, Yarborough and the collection of essays in Justification and Varigated Nomism: The Parodoxes of Paul. This is not to say there is no difference on the marcolevel. Even here there are important differences about the nature of salvation history. As a whole, I would concur that Wright gets the big picture right. He is frustrating when he uses that to overrule certain details of the text. I think the best of Reformed Tradition has always had a both/and where Wright wants to make it either/or. He seems to argue at points that if one maintains his insights (and he has many) one must inherently reject certain insights from church history and contemporary Pauline scholarship. It is unfortunate that certain 'readings' of the text are used to undo certain important details of the text.

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