Ligonier Ministries (by Phil Johnson) — My assignment in this hour is to give a critical review of an influential book by Anglican author N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham. The book is titled What Saint Paul Really Said. It’s a fairly thin paperback, fewer than 200 pages, and although Wright is a prolific writer, best known and most influential because of his massive scholarly works, this little book—which is written in a simple style for the serious lay person—has undoubtedly been the most influential (and perhaps the most controversial) of all his published works. One of its aims is to explain the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” in a clear and concise format so that lay readers can grasp the main ideas.
The book is easy to read and thought-provoking. Wright is a gifted writer. He is able to communicate effortlessly on either a scholarly or a popular level, and he moves back and forth easily between the two styles. He seems to feel as much at home writing simple material for lay people as he does when he writes massive tomes for scholars. And he’s prolific. It’s no easy task to keep up with everything Tom Wright publishes.
His style in this book is warm and winsome. He no doubt anticipated that he would have critics when he wrote the book, so throughout the book he makes every effort to disarm his critics. He seems to labor to leave the impression throughout the book that even though he subscribes to a “New Perspective on Paul,” he’s not trying to overthrow the old Protestant confessional doctrinal standards. He claims he is not denying that Christ took believers’ sins and they in turn get His righteousness; he’s simply saying that’s not what the apostle Paul meant when he spoke about justification. Wright claims his concerns are biblical and exegetical, not theological and dogmatic.
Evangelical readers who know Wright’s reputation are likely to read him with great sympathy. In his other works, Wright has skillfully defended the historicity of Jesus and the truth of the resurrection against the skepticism and liberal scholarship of people like the “Jesus Seminar.” Lots of evangelicals know Wright best from his excellent work in this realm of scholarly apologetics, and we do owe him a great debt for the clarity and force with which he has answered the left wing of contemporary scholarship.
Tom Wright’s name and face have become recognized throughout the United Kingdom, mainly because of his frequent appearances on the BBC—where he usually takes the conservative side against the radical skeptics in the scholarly world. People who know him from the popular media usually assume that Tom Wright’s evangelical credentials are impeccable. And (let’s face it) he probably does have much more in common with evangelicalism than the average Anglican bishop these days.
But it is my strong conviction that the position Wright lays out in What St. Paul Really Said is not an evangelical position at all. It’s a faulty and dangerous reinterpretation of Paul and it misunderstands Scripture in a way that fatally undermines the doctrine of justification by faith and the principle of sola fide.
I’m going to show you why I believe that and give you as many biblical reasons for rejecting the New Perspective on Paul as I can pack into this hour.
First, let me acknowledge up front that N. T. Wright has many acolytes and defenders who insist that we can embrace Wright’s version of the New Perspective on Paul and still retain our confessional doctrinal standards. They contend—and Tom Wright makes this claim himself—that Wright has simply given us a bigger and more biblical understanding of the concept of justification. If you accept Wright’s new reading of what Paul meant, they say, you can still keep whatever elements of your confessional theology you like. Here’s what Wright himself says about the doctrine of justification on page 113: “Briefly and baldly put, if you start with the popular view of justification, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well.”Continue Reading on www.ligonier.org