Navigating through N.T. Wright’s World
Two of his points are worth quoting at length:
2. I should try not to think about NT Wright himself. The reason I had sort of forgotten how helpful NT Wright is, is that his relentless airplay had distracted me from Wright’s arguments and made me look at Wright’s public persona. That public persona is not something I enjoy. Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug. He is at his worst in the field of controversy, where he indulges in describing his critics as people who just don’t quite believe in heliocentrism. He constantly complains that anybody who disagrees with him hasn’t read him fairly. Hardly the happy warrior of Wordsworth’s poem, he tends to adopt a Nixonian tone (“The media’s out to get me… they even attacked my little dog Checkers!”). His book on Hope is vitiated by an “everything everybody has ever believed about heaven is wrong, and only I speak unto you the truth” tone of voice. It just makes my eyes cross; I can’t read on.
So far my rule of thumb has been that NT Wright’s big books are great, but his small books are to be avoided. That’s still not a bad guideline: make some time to study through any of the Wright books that top 500 pages, and you’ll get a blessing. The smaller books (where he can’t show all his work) give him too much opportunity to indulge in cutting a figure, in putting himself out there and invoking his own credibility. From these performances I will avert my eyes when possible. Life is too short, and reading time too precious, and the big books too good, for me to read the little ones with the regrettable passages. Your response to the Wright literary persona may be different; I admit this is subjective. But in the future, I’m not going to let my Wright annoyance factor cheat me out of benefiting from Wright’s plentiful good stuff.
3. NT Wright’s big idea is smaller than I thought. Somewhere in the second hour of panel discussion, it became clear to me that what Wright is insisting on in the justification debate is that there is such a thing as conversion, getting saved, and being forgiven by God, but the dikaio- word-group doesn’t refer to it. Here is a parallel: There is such a thing as growing in grace as a Christian, moving on from being oppressed by sin to living in victory over certain sins. The New Testament knows of that process and progress. But it doesn’t call it sanctification, as Protestants tend to in popular discourse. In other words, the hagio- word-group doesn’t refer to it in the NT. “Sanctification” in the NT tends to refer to a divine action in which he sets something apart for special use, or renders it appropriate for God’s presence. Now, I’ve noticed that, but I don’t correct people when they say things like “After being justified, do you go on to make progress in being sanctified?” I especially don’t correct them over the course of thousands of pages in which I warn them that they are seriously distorting the biblical message and are enslaved to traditions. Again, I speak here as somebody who is barely paying attention, so I could be wrong about everything. But I have provisionally made a different decision about how much it matters that the dikaio- word group does not map onto traditional Christian usage in a straightforward way. I decided it is not one of the major issues facing us today. I’m well aware that New Testament experts speak with greater precision than the rest of us about things like this, and I’m glad that they have epic battles amongst themselves about very precise matters. I want to learn from them, and to be accountable to them as the relevant experts. But precisely because there are hundreds of such arguments, I don’t norm all of my communication by the standards of that guild.
I don’t think this third point is quite right—it makes it sound like this is just semantics and technical issues and where to put the emphasis—but the larger point remains helpful, in my opinion.