N. T. Wright, Evangelicals, and Tradition

Christianity Today’s recent cover story about N. T. Wright discusses both his broader contribution to the church and his most recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

One particular line in the article struck me, because it reflects a sentiment among evangelical critics of Wright that I find troubling.

Wright’s opponents ask, wisely: Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Now, Wright does indeed say things in such a way that “no one has ever seen this or said this before,” but it’s often the case that he’s truly bringing to light a neglected theme. Further, this is just good public speaking, reflecting his challenging of a dominant interpretation.


Photo Credit: Sophie Gerrard

It seems to me, however, that it is inappropriate for evangelicals to register this objection to Wright’s work (or, to anyone’s, for that matter).

It is part and parcel of evangelical identity to question received wisdom, tradition, and practice. We have no creed but the Bible and we question everything on the basis of further study of Scripture.

We quote constantly Luke’s commendation of the Berean Jews who “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Our history reaches back to the reformers, who challenged corrupted church practice and its theological underpinnings. It includes the radical reformers, who continued to press the issue when the reformers didn’t reform enough. More recently, American evangelicals left institutions and denominations they viewed as corrupt.

Because of this history, it seems hypocritical to me for a movement that has challenged at every turn the received wisdom of the Western church to ask the question: “Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Further, it is naïve. Many of the theological and biblical issues treated by Wright, including justification by faith, imputation, Paul and the Mosaic Law, have been abiding difficulties for scholars. And there are fundamental disagreements over these issues among traditions in the Western church.

Lutherans and Calvinists differ over the relationship of the Law and the Gospel. I first learned about eschatological aspects of justification from good Calvinists, not from N. T. Wright. And when I found out that Wright didn’t affirm imputation as “righteousness transfer,” I shrugged. I had already changed my view on this after a Reformed friend who was also a good evangelical challenged me to find it in the Bible (Hint: it isn’t there).

This is just to say that I find it incomprehensible when evangelicals render this sort of objection.

After forging a history of questioning the received wisdom of the Western church, it is tragically ironic that evangelicals turn to Wright and ask how he can possibly question the received wisdom of the Western church.

19 thoughts on “N. T. Wright, Evangelicals, and Tradition

  1. dyfedwyn

    Slowly going through PaFoG at the moment. I find it quite inspiring.

    I wonder whether the attitude you describe is part of the shift from evangelicalism to fundamentalism we are seeing?

    1. timgombis

      I’ve wrestled with this, given the posture of some of his critics among evangelicals. I can’t say for sure, but I’m inclined to label it fundamentalist, though I can’t tell if it’s driven by some other impulse (institutional power-maintenance? immaturity? fear?).

  2. Craig Benno

    I think this is the most in your face post you have made.We need to be challenged on our world views; because its only then, we can truly take up the reforming mantle.

      1. Craig Benno

        Great point about being challenged to return to the text. How often do we hear that from the pulpit, not to take the preachers word for it; but instead to check it out for ourselves. Do we really mean that?

  3. Josh

    Reblogged this on pro Rege et Regno and commented:
    More good stuff from Tim Gombis. Relevant to a conversation I had with a fellow student just yesterday. Do evangelicals have any right to accusingly ask N.T. Wright “Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?”? Gombis doesn’t think so. I’m inclined to agree.

  4. Pingback: Interesante comentario de Tim Gombis | Cosmovisión y Contexto

  5. Greg Johnston

    “Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Luther took up his pen?”

    I could go on and on with this reduction ad absurdum about what the Holy Spirit has “allowed” within Christendom through the ages. In my opinion, the statement you quoted is flirting with taking the Lord’s name in vain. It attempts to shift the responsibility for doctrinal error from those who formulate and perpetuate it to the Holy Spirit. Where in the Bible does it assign the job of protecting the church from doctrinal error to the Holy Spirit?

    The answer to the question is logically simple: If NTW is correct, then yes, the Holy Spirit seems to have allowed it. If he is not correct, then we have the opposite answer. The task then for those of us who have the Holy Spirit is to do as Tim recommends: to search the scriptures to determine whether the things Wright says in PFG are true. And for now, let’s just leave the name of the Lord out of the discussion.

  6. deeplygrateful

    I don’t take that quote as fundamentalist, or naive, or hypocritical, but to be what you have precisely defined evangelicalism to be about. Instead of rushing to accept everything which as a scholar says to be true, there ought to be a skepticism about whether or not he is being true. And if part of someone’s rhetoric is “no one has ever seen this or said this before,” then it almost seems to be inviting people to ask the question of “why hasn’t this been seen or said before?”
    It may be the case that this sentence that you find offensive in a Christian article is using the same kind of writing method to grab the reader as Wright is using when he uses superlatives. Or it might be an honest question that sincere Christ followers are asking.
    In the end, both NT Wright, the author of the article, and the evangelicals the writer is representing all seem to be asking the same questions of “what did God say?” and “how do we follow God rightly?” It seems of little profit on all sides represented to be angry (or piously annoyed) about the other side asking these good questions.

    1. timgombis

      It’s not that I’m offended by the question. It’s that it doesn’t seem to me to represent an evangelical impulse. We don’t represent tradition but are always questioning it in order to be always reforming. Not only that, but it’s a question that has no answer, so it seems pointless to ask it, anyway. And I say it’s naive because it doesn’t reckon with the great theological diversity with “the Western church.”

  7. Jaime

    Why not ask this question:
    “Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Luther took up his pen?”

  8. imaginewithscripture

    Hey Tim, great reflections. I have friends from both ends of the theological spectrum who don’t like N T Wright. But then there are others who find him most refreshing. Like you, I benefited from Tom Wright’s works a lot. Great scholar.

  9. Andrew T.

    Or how about giving credit where credit is due, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit that ran amok in the 2000 years since but, but church leaders who accepted uncritically an ecclesiology that was by its very nature established to stand in constrained to Israel.

    In other words, it was the Holy Spirit at fault, but the unquestioned traditions of men. It’s surprising to see Evangelicals come out in defense of tradition. Oh how The Reformation has cultivated its own popes.

  10. Andrew T.

    Automatic Spell correction, error correction:

    … stand in contrast to Israel.
    … wasn’t the Holy Spirit at fault.

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