N.T. Wright And The Emergent Crowd

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,


About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
This entry was posted in Emergent Church, New Perspective on Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to N.T. Wright And The Emergent Crowd

  1. rfb says:


    We have been laid up with some medical issues but I just wanted to continue to encourage your writings. I (we) read them regularly and do not want to become obsequious by remarking on every post. With that said…excellent work!

    Hope to,see you soon.


  2. lalvin1517 says:

    Thank you, brother.

    You're comments are always encouraging and insightful.

    I pray all is well with your medical issues. Hope to see you soon.

  3. Brooke Duncan says:

    Thanks for this post. I was just reading up on Wright myself and also read the Wax interview. I was alarmed, but not surprised. Let's keep on holding fast to the Word of truth and our hope in King Jesus, our high priest!

  4. n00bie51 says:

    With love and admiration of God our Father, I would like to present alternative perspectives:

    You make Wright to be some sort of self-help moralist bent on saying that we merit our salvation, but the truth is he would probably the first to tell anybody and everybody that it's 100% grace. Without God, what works would anybody have to earn salvation anyway? No, Paul was not speaking about imputed righteousness in 2 Cor 5:21. No, Paul and the early Christians were not obsessed with justification by alone as much as the Reformers. The Greek “dikaoisune” needs to be understood as neither “made righteous” or “justified (forensically),” but “righteoused,” which carries both a forensic and a sanctifying overtone. For every prooftext one might show that argues for double imputation, Wright comes along and points to something like Romans 2, that God will render to everyone according to their works and it's not just bonus, it's their straight up vindication. To Wright, God will vindicate people based on their works… but that's only insofar as the human has received totally unmerited mercy and grace to have the Holy Spirit to produce good fruit in the first place!

    I'm not saying I agree 100% with Wright, but I don't think you're giving him a fair assessment. He will be the first one to say private devotion and piety is essential; he spends time in prayer along with his studies. He just points out the sore places for improvement, that we've focused TOO much on individual salvation, not that individual salvation or personal relationship is something he's trying to trivialize.

  5. n00bie51 says:

    I challenge anybody to throw up everything they believe up into the air, read some commentaries about Sheol, Tartaroo, Gehenna, and study church history, and then come back to the discussion on Hell.

    As far as I can tell, the notion of eternal conscious torment of the soul is an innovative doctrine that Paul and most of the early Christians did not care for, otherwise we would see it more and more in the Scriptures. The Jews didn't think of Sheol as eternal conscious torment, did they? Paul, a Jew of Jews, how did he somehow come to believe that it was any different, then? Only in some intertestamental literature do we see some stuff about people suffering in some sort of postmortem state/location.

    All this philosophical fluffy “debate” of one side going “God wouldn't do something like that, He's too loving” vs. the other side saying “You're putting your own human finite ideas over God” is the totally wrong way to tackle it. We look at the Bible, study history and interpretations and context, and find out whether or not the authors actually refer to eternal conscious suffering as the literal reality for those who reject God. Because when I do that, after taking a course on Revelation, every single prooftext people would use to argue for “Hell” (involving the lake of fire or something else) has become dismantled before me. The whole thing uses powerful apocalyptic imagery which makes me want to “tap the brakes” before I make the call and say “This is obviously expressing a literal reality for eternal conscious torment” when it could just be using powerful language to describe how awful God's judgment is against those who reject Him but not expounding upon an actual theological reality.

  6. n00bie51 says:

    Now, if you want to use that passage in 2 Peter (ignoring the monster of a controversy when most of scholarship, even a number of evangelicals, consider it pseudepigraphal) as a proof text for your view of “Heaven,” then you have to explain away the physical bodily resurrection, which has been the REAL orthodox view of post-postmortem existence since the beginning until people started changing their tombstones from something like “I'll be returning soon” to “Gone home” a couple centuries back.

    What's that about the “meek shall inherit the Earth”? What's that about the perishable putting on the imperishable? What's Romans 8.23 talking about, that our wispy ghosts will fly around in an ethereal state for eternity? You have 2 Peter 3.10-14; I have 1 Corinthians 15.

    I strongly doubt Heaven and Hell are real. They are mostly the result of Greco-Roman Pagan gnostic/dualist beliefs creeping into the church for centuries. It's bodily resurrection or NOTHING.

    The REAL Heaven is here–when God comes to dwell with His people forever, in the Consummation. The REAL Hell will be here–when God slays and destroys all who dared to reject Him and choose their own ways.

    May we acknowledge each other in love, patience, grace, and the humility and wisdom to seek the truth no matter what it looks like.

    soli Deo gloria,

  7. lalvin1517 says:


    You have stated your conclusions without substantiating how you came to them. Making assertions isn't helpful unless supported. Simply saying that Paul or the Jews didn't believe in an eternal conscious torment is to state what you need to prove.

    I have and do study church history. The idea of eternal conscious torment is found there. But above all it is determined by Scripture. Scripture interprets Scripture. Commentaries whether they be on Sheol, Tartarro and Gehenna are helpful but not final. And what commentaries? Further more, not everything the Jews believed or believe is authoritative. In fact what did the majority believe about Christ in the incarnation? Should we then deny the deity of Christ because the Jews of His day rejected Him as Messiah because of their assumptions about Messiah? How do the majority of Jews view Him today?

    You place a far great emphasis on external evidence. Dangerous hermeneutic if you ask me.

    As for how I make Wright out to be- well he did not say that our works will be our vindication in justification. No, he said that our justification will be on the basis of our works. There is a huge difference. Now he does say salvation is all of grace but who doesn't say that? The fact that he said justification is on the basis of works and is not soteriological and places a great emphasis on works is the reason for any confusion about his theology and (is quite wrong) needs to clarify himself. But his whole view of justification is indefensible. He can't do it apart from E.P. Sanders work. Many scholars and theologians have asked him to clarify but he just restates his position.

    Since we are on the topic of church history can you direct me in to any writings by credible Church Fathers that take Wright's position? The fact is that two books in the N.T deal significantly with justification in forensic terms. Simply saying it should be understood as “rightoused” doesn't help the discussion. It does cause confusion, though.

    As for my position on heaven, you assume that I deny a restored earth.You brought your own wood to the chopping block. My citing 2 Peter was to prove that what the text says. There will be a New Heavens and a New Earth. The debate is how that exactly is going to happen. To start completely new or by purification. If you have read G.K. Beale then you will be familiar with my position.

    You say that you do not agree with Wright 100% but it sure sounds like 99%. 🙂

  8. n00bie51 says:

    “I have and do study church history. The idea of eternal conscious torment is found there.” Yeah, when and where and with who? Origen?

    Look, the doctrine of the resurrection is CENTRAL to the Christian faith–I would say there is evidence in the OT for resurrection, and that while someone like Moses didn't know about it, that doesn't mean it doesn't become a legitimate theological revelation as time goes by. However, I doubt we can say the same thing about eternal conscious torment. Hey, maybe there IS eternal conscious torment, but so much of what we get from that can be traced back to Dante, back to Greco-Roman Pagan influences in Plato, etc. creeping into Hellenistic Judaism/early Christian theology. Jesus talks about Himself and vindicates Himself in His resurrection–that's real, that proves He's Messiah. But everything He says about Hell refers to Gehinnom, the valley outside Jerusalem where they used to burn garbage and sacrifice children to Molech or something. It's just not clear.

    Here are a couple of resources:
    Bauckham, Richard. “Hades, Hell.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. Vol. 3. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.




  9. n00bie51 says:

    “Scripture interprets Scripture”? Would you please tell me where in Scripture it says that? Would you please tell me where in Scripture it says we have to rely on the historic-grammatical method and that alone should be sufficient and we can't look at any evidence outside Scripture? Would you please tell me where in Scripture you can tell me that the authors of the text said anything about not studying extra-Biblical literature?

    You and I are trying to do the same thing: Find out what the Bible says, i.e. what did the authors mean when they wrote [insert passage here]? These are occasional documents. They were written for a specific group of people at a specific period of time. Of course, much of the stuff the texts say can apply to us in some way, but it seems to me we assume so much we know what Paul is talking about in this or that verse when we are missing MOUNTAINS of contextual understanding.

    I'm not saying God doesn't use the Bible anyway to do His will, but this is the situation we're living in, the 21st century, trying to wrestle with what the Bible is saying in light of the limits of the tools God has given us.

    “You place a far great emphasis on external evidence. Dangerous hermeneutic if you ask me.” Sorry, God has not told me which hermeneutic to use, and He has not told me I shouldn't look at external evidence to understand what Paul was saying. People call such historical criticism dangerous, risky, subjective… so our own lens limited by time and space (albeit led by the Holy Spirit) is superior exegesis? Doesn't make sense to me.

    “As for how I make Wright out to be- well he did not say that our works will be our vindication in justification. No, he said that our justification will be on the basis of our works. There is a huge difference.” I'm sorry, I don't understand how it's different. Would you please elaborate further?

    Btw this is where I get much of N.T. Wright's understanding of justification:

    “Now he does say salvation is all of grace but who doesn't say that?” I thought Pelagians, but I could be wrong since I haven't actually studied him myself.

    “'Credible' Church Fathers”? Okay, you got me here, I don't know of any that align up to Wright's position, but I can't think of any Church Traditions or Church Fathers near the first century that talks about justification by faith. I always mention people mention Augustine's view of justification was that Christ's righteousness was imputed to us–but he's centuries after the NT was written. I don't care about Augustine. Is there earlier evidence that tells me early Christians or other people believed in justification by faith alone? And if they did, why aren't they the ones going around telling people to repent or perish in Hell for eternity? Why do we not see people raving about justification by faith and Hell until centuries after? Why are these supposedly major tenets to “historic Orthodox Christian faith” not in the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed?

    To say that God 'righteouses' sounds funny because we only know English. The Greek uses a verb form of the word “righteousness,” but we have no English equivalent. Yes, the term is forensic, but to say dikaoisune is ONLY forensic is to do injustice (lol) to the Greek. Both sanctification and forensic justification can be found in this term–who says it's either or?

    Also, forgive me, I misread you. I am not familiar with Beale's position, so I'll have to look on that.

    Only 99%? If you think me disagreeing with Wright for the consequences of those who reject God (I lean towards conditionalism/annihilationism–Wright leans toward his own weird theory of how people will dehumanize themselves) is only one mere percent, then I guess you're right. (:

  10. lalvin1517 says:

    First, before I go further in this discussion let me ask you if you believe in the infallibility of Scripture?

  11. lalvin1517 says:

    Remember you were the one placing such a heavy emphasis on the study of Church History in regards to hell. Here are a couple of quotes from men before Origen:

    “Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death. how much more if a man corrupt by evil reaching the faith of God. for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him.” From his epistle to the Ephesians (110 A.D.)

    Clement of Rome: “But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, 'There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!” From his epistle Second Clement (150 A.D.).

  12. lalvin1517 says:

    What hermeneutic led them to this understanding of eternal conscious torment? If the biblical teaching is indeed annihilationism how did they drift so far since in so short a period of time. A.D. 110 is not so very far from A.D 95 (if you believe that is the more accurate dating of Revelation) or very shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem (if you believe in the dating of Revelation shortly before then)?

    You can't blame Origen and his “hellenistic” thinking for their views of hell. They were before him. Their historical context is not that different from the Apostle John's.

  13. lalvin1517 says:

    Also, Origen was a restoratationist and did not believe in eternal conscious torment.

  14. J-sun says:

    Really, I think he just wants everyone to stop “lumping” Wright on a “side” in American culture wars; something Wright has been trying to manoeuvre through (as everyone should). “Guilty by quotation” would be an appropriate designation for this post (can I copyright that coined phrase?). I don't think the fullness of his thought has been evaluated since it appears to be pieced from an interview and a book review…

  15. n00bie51 says:

    Get ready for this: I am not an inerrantist. I believe Scripture is sacred but broken. I believe the Bible is composed of different authors with distinct theological contradictory views that cannot be avoided, that two or more different views can be expressed on the same topic. I find myself agreeing with much of what Kenton Sparks says:

    I can already see some possible accusations… “Oh, so we get to choose what we believe?” “So who's the authority, you or God?” “So you're telling me God is a liar and has given us a false word.” Will you say something like these things? Maybe you won't, I'm not sure since I'm prone to misjudging. I'm not saying I have this all figured out! But unless I can find a verse of Scripture that authoritatively addresses me and not some audience in the past (which would be impossible to begin with), I can't be convinced that the Bible tells me that the 66 canonical books it contains compose this solid Gold Book of Inerrancy. I love Scripture, and I want to give it a fair assessment, and I see a broken collection of ancient documents written by broken people. God uses it anyway to speak to us, even if it doesn't always seem clear.

    In my rush to post a reply, I'm afraid I falsely conflated my arguments for the topic on justification as well as Hell. Normally, I only mention the Church Fathers when it comes to justification, not Hell; I actually haven't studied what they say about postmortem consequences. So I back down here.

    Also, I'm sorry I made another mistake–I didn't mean “Origen,” I meant Tertullian. Major error on my part, Origen was indeed restorationalist; Tertullian was the one who mentioned the immortal soul, but his work came later anyways so it doesn't help my argument.

    Finally, I'm with what J-sun said–I just thought it unfair to lump Wright onto one side. The man's contribution to the discussion on the resurrection is massive, and I would argue Paul, Peter, the Apostles and the early Christians focused more on the resurrection and the empty tomb than the cross and justification (which leads us to talk about the King Jesus Gospel vs. the Justification Gospel, if you want to go there).

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