N.T. is certainly a tricky fellow. He has just enough credibility as a biblical scholar to take him seriously. On the other hand, in my opinion, the man is not a credible theologian. He has good things to say on Christ and the historical resurrection. Yet, the theology he develops from that is dangerous. I think Doug Wilson says it best concerning N.T. Wright, “One of the worst of the lot in this regard is N.T. Wright who cannot come within ten feet of a timeless truth without getting out his old cricket bat and taking a swing or two.”
We see it with Wright’s view of justification. That it is not soteriological (not about salvation) but ecclesiological (church membership). In simple terms justification is not about salvation by grace through faith. In his mind it is not about “getting in.” It is about “table fellowship” between Jew and Gentile and faith is “the badge of covenant membership.” He believes that the church has misunderstood Paul during the Reformation. It wasn’t until E.P. Sanders, James G.D. Dunn and himself recovered “What Saint Paul Really Said” in regards to justification. Quite an arrogant thing to say in my opinion. Here is an area where Bishop Wright comes within ten feet of a core biblical truth (justification) and brings out his old cricket bat and hacks away.
I believe this is why some in the Federal Vision (Doug Wilson is excluded here) like Wright’s novel understanding of justification. Others such as the Emergent folks love him even more. If justification is not salvific then it can be put on the back burner. Evangelism (as far as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel is concerned) is not a priority- “Kingdom living” is or that the Christians duty is “building for the kingdom.” Another way to say it is our works are the emphasis of “building for the kingdom.” Wright’s confusing understanding of justification coupled with his misunderstanding of God’s kingdom is a theological recipe for disaster. Hence, his two understandings of the kingdom and justification are heavy upon our works. He has stated that our justification is on the basis of our works. Admittedly he does not exclude the work of Christ but yet he finds a way to smuggle in our own works.
These two things, with a few others, are why the Emergent crowd will embrace N.T. Wright. They loathe the doctrine of justification by faith alone and highly emphasize our works in the matter of “kingdom living.”
Now, no Christian in their right mind would deny the importance of good works. Simply put, if there is no good fruit there is a rotten root. Yet what passes for fruit in much in Emergent theology is really not good fruit. For it divorces the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from their works. They aim to do things, it seems to me, to make Christianity palatable to the natural man.
The bond between Wright and the Emergent crowd (more from the Emergent side than Wright’s) gets even stronger when it comes to the issue of heaven and hell. For the Emergent people hell is here on earth when we fail to believe in Jesus for whatever reason, with salvation (deliverance from the wrath of God and reconciliation to God) being the most unacceptable in their minds, and do things God’s way. One way it has been put by one person is, “Repent and stop thinking bad things about yourself. God doesn’t want you to think that away.” Hell, to them, is here and now apart from Jesus.
Couple that with Wright’s denial of an eternal conscious torment, hell primarily being about losing the image of God in our humanity. And you have a marriage meant for heaven (pun intended) and probably not from Wright’s perspective. Here is how he puts it (you can find the full interview with Trevin Wax here):
So, I’ve struggled to take seriously the whole “heaven coming to earth” theme as the great wonderful renewal. But at the same time, I’ve struggled to take seriously what the Bible says about the possibility and the actuality of final loss for those who persist in rebellion against the gospel. Romans 2 says it all. For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury, tribulation, distress… Paul is talking about those who are persisting in saying “no” to God, at whatever level that is, (and there are different ways of saying no to God).
It dawned on me several years ago that when somebody says “no” to God and refuses to worship the God in whose image they are made, saying “I’m not going to worship that God,” then what happens to their humanness is that it progressively ceases to bear the image of God. You become like what you worship. You reflect the one you worship. It’s one of the great truths of spirituality.
So my way of describing it is that once this life is over, people who have decided not to worship God cease to bear God’s image. The thought of an ex-human being is something that some people find shocking and horrifying. In a sense, it is shocking and horrifying. Think about people we know! I’m sure most people, unless we live in very enclosed worlds, must know some people (if we truly hold to a theology of hell) who are going there! That should give us pause. That should cause us to pray for them and to weep over them. So I don’t say this with any relish at all.
My description is neither an annihilationist view nor an eternal conscious torment view, because it seems to me that to cease to be image-bearing is actually to reduce the scale of what’s going on. This is a creature which will be a memory, a sad memory, an abiding ex-humanness. That is something that the biblical language of hell may be pointing to. But I don’t want to be dogmatic on this. This is merely a way to go to try to hold on to the two things that the Bible is saying. 1. The reality of loss for some and 2. the absoluteness of God’s victory over the whole creation.
What you don’t want to end up with is the picture that some theologies have of a wonderful, glorious countryside with a concentration camp in the middle with people being tortured. I think the 19th century rightly reacted against that image, and I don’t think there’s any way back to that except perhaps by closing our hearts to the sort of pity and love which we are told is at the heart of God himself.
The false caricature aside (something Wright and the Emergent crowd are notorious for) the last paragraph tickles the hearts and ears of Rob Bell and company. They are looking for credible scholars to throw their lot in with.
Now Wright has, rightly, been accused of an overly-realized eschatology (an emphasis of the age to come being about here and now). For him heaven is here and now. By this time the Emergents are shouting for joy and jumping up and down. They too have an over-realized eschatology. Their emphasis is on here and now thinking social justice is helping build the kingdom of God. They accuse most of Christendom of having a view of heaven as being some ethereal place with us being spirits floating around on clouds playing harps. Granted there are indeed many Christians which have an impartial or naive view of heaven. But none that I know of who believe what Wright and the Emergents accuse us of.
Perhaps now we can see why they would use Wright. No mention of judgment or God’s wrath in the Gospel, an over emphasis on works (social justice), minimizing justification (from a false view of it), an over-realized eshatology having heaven and hell about being here and now- right now and now they have someone they believe to be theologically credible in the academic realm.
I have not critiqued their views here. I will simply direct the readers attention to this review of Wright’s book Surprised By Hope by Dr. Tom Schreiner. Here is a quote:
All this is to say that the call for Christians to evangelize remains more pressing than any call to work in the political sphere, even though all our work in this world is significant. Wright emphasizes that the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, but, as John Piper has pointed out, this isn’t good news if you’re still a rebel against God; its terrifying news. The New Testament is permeated with the message that we must turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ. Wright does not disagree with the need to do so, but he seems to be most excited about our work in the political and social sphere (emphasis mine).
Two books that I recommend relating to the discussed issues: What is the Mission of the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. You can find it here. The other book is Heaven is a place on Earth by Michael Wittmer. Found here.
N.T. Wright has some good stuff to say, in particular to the historical resurrection of Christ, among a few other things. But he also has some really bad stuff to say that I believe far outweighs the good. But what do I know I am only a “reductionist?” As for the faulty accusations of the orthodox position of heaven. We say “amen” when we read:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pe 3:10–14).
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,