Andrew Fulford Archive Sacred Doctrine

Is N. T. Wright a Threat to Classical Protestantism?

Some time this year Dr. N. T. Wright’s long-awaited fourth big book will be out. No doubt its eventual release will provide fodder for scores of blog posts and comments, along with, of course, published reviews, and responses in other books. At present, though, there are no particular Dr. Wright controversies in the blogosphere, so I thought I’d try my best to start one. (That was an attempt at humour, folks.)

Is Dr. Wright’s theology a threat to Protestantism? We have been hearing for years now that it is. Yet for some time I have been convinced that Dr. Wright’s academic work is ultimately beneficial to the Protestant cause, and I want to provide a brief argument here as to why I think that is the case.

I should note, before I begin, that what follows is somewhat tentative. This is for two main reasons.

First, while I have read many of Wright’s works, including most of his academic works, it has been some time since I did so. So, I should say in honesty, it is possible I have forgotten statements by Dr. Wright which may mitigate the force of my arguments here, though I recall no such statements. But I offer this piece in a spirit of humility. I am open to correction.

Second, some of my comments below will be speculative (and the reader will easily detect when this is the case). I think, however, that my speculations are correct.

Protestant principles

Philip Schaff famously postulated that Protestantism has two basic principles: the formal principle, sola scriptura, and the material principle, sola fide. In this post I’m going to focus mostly on the latter principle, though at the end I will make a brief note about the first one. I think it can be easily demonstrated that Dr. Wright’s vision and claims are consistent with the material principle of Protestantism, justification by faith alone.

Before I get to Dr. Wright, though, I need to say a bit more about Protestantism. A shallow observer may not notice that the two principles named above are connected; but that observation would be mistaken. Both principles, at their heart, issue a protest against identifying the judgments of human institutions with the judgments of God. And when one sees Protestantism in that light, the truly protesting nature of the faith manifests itself. This spirit was present in the beginning of the faith, and has been the life-blood of the movement ever since; the spirit also animates the teachings of Protestantism on matters besides special revelation and divine forgiveness.

A short time ago I linked to a piece by Mr. Brad Littlejohn which helpfully summarized the Protestant doctrine of two kingdoms. Condensing Mr. Littlejohn’s summary slightly, I would put his six points this way:

  1. Protestantism severed the absolute link between the state and God; the state was desacralized, and could not claim to be perfectly transparent to will of God. Political authorities, the Reformation reminded us, can err and sin.
  2. The Reformers said the same about the church. It was not infallible, even when Popes and Councils were speaking in it. It thus had no intrinsic right, qua visible institution, to use temporal coercion.
  3. Consistent with these points, Protestantism rejected attempts to immanentize the eschaton. It resisted any agenda to bring eschatological ultimacy into any earthly institution.
  4. Following upon these points, Protestantism treated freedom of conscience as sacred. God’s will could be distinguished from what the church and state declared, and God’s proper rule was through the Word and Spirit alone, received by the conscience.
  5. The magisterial Reformers refused to overextend sola scriptura to rule out the value of natural reason and prudence, including in the practice of politics.
  6. In all these ways, the Reformational two-kingdoms thinking provided a religious foundation for liberal institutions.

Now, it is of course true that (6) did not happen immediately or seamlessly. There were, amongst some of its defenders, practices and theologies inconsistent with the “Principles of Protestantism”. However, the contributors to TCI (and other scholars) would argue that this basic outline was the most consistent with the basic insights of the Reformation, and I would agree with them.

Dr. Wright defended from the imputation of an unreformed soteriology

So, if this is Protestantism, I return to my original question: does Dr. Wright present a threat? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Dr. Wright affirms that initial justification comes upon the basis of faith, and that faith is the badge of covenant membership (What Saint Paul Really Said [hereafter, WSPRS], 129). He also declares that justification includes forgiveness (WSPRS, 129), and is the divine declaration that the believer is “righteous”, which he calls the forensic aspect of covenant vindication (WSPRS, 131). This justification is one received in union with Christ (WSPRS, 121–22; see also this post comparing Dr. Wright and R. L. Dabney on imputation, as well as the Rev. Mark Horne’s post on related themes), a truth which John Calvin also emphasized (cf. Calvin on James 2:14).

Objections answered

All this is well and good, some may say (though some may not), but there are comments Dr. Wright sometimes makes elsewhere which could suggest he undermines these Reformation teachings.

First, he will occasionally also use sacramental language about baptism which could frighten some. It should be noted, however, that Calvin himself could speak of baptism as efficacious, while still holding to justification by faith. I think we need to allow Protestants to be flexible in their language here, given that scripture itself can sometimes speak in a way that could be misconstrued as supporting an ex opere operato doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The reason we believe it does not, is what it clearly teaches elsewhere about the relation between justification and faith. And that teaching is recognized by Dr. Wright. Some evidence that Dr. Wright interprets baptism along Reformed lines (i.e. as not causing regeneration in the technical sense) appears in his comments about infant baptism:

Baptism signifies membership in Christ … of course the follow-up question is always, how can children have the faith which is the sole badge of that membership, and part of my answer (only part, but it needs to be said) is that as a parent I know I can communicate with a tiny child, can give and receive love – and if God, the father of all, from whom all families take their name, cannot likewise give and receive love, then I am shocked and surprised.  And how might God do that?  Well, perhaps it might have something to do with bringing the child into the family of the church under the sign which speaks powerfully of the death and resurrection of Jesus….

Note: (1) Dr. Wright clearly says baptism “signifies” membership in Christ, and (2) he justifies infant baptism not by suggesting baptism automatically saves the baptized, but rather by making a brief argument for paedofaith. He even goes so far as to say that (3) faith is the sole badge of covenant membership. This does not reveal the mind of a person who teaches a sub-Protestant view of baptism.

Second, Dr. Wright clearly teaches some form of final justification in accordance with good works. But, frankly, I am not convinced this conflicts with the Reformation view of justification. I have noted before that Wright has precedent for this within the Reformed, at least in the person of John Diodati. And I cannot see how such a doctrine, if explained along Diodati’s lines, is a threat to Luther’s insight. Protestantism teaches that Christians make real moral progress in life. It also teaches that God knows all things. Is it a threat to justification by faith if God, at the end of time, declares publicly what he knows, that is, that believers have done good works and have not apostasized? Someone may respond, of course, that this declaration implies meritorious works save us. But it does not. Augustine himself, the arch-nemesis of all merit theology, taught that God crowns the works that he does within us. And Dr. Wright affirms that this final declaration will take God’s mercy into account; a divine verdict of “righteous” on the last day does not somehow imply the one receiving it never sinned. Rather, God means it as a public statement about the direction and tenor of the life lived (see page 60 of Dr. Wright’s lecture, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever“). Dr. Wright also is quite clearly opposed to any idea of Wesleyan perfectionism (WSPRS, 143), which eliminates the possibility of a final justification based even on a presently perfect character. All of this is entirely consistent, again, with the Protestant view of sanctification that says true Christians will make ethical progress in this life because of the work of the Spirit in their hearts. And it perfectly reflects the Christian hope that, on the last day, we will hear the words (Matt. 25:23), “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

Protestant credentials confirmed

Two other lines of thought in Dr. Wright confirm his Protestant credentials. First, while he differs from Luther on the precise meaning of Paul’s phrase “works of the law”, he still affirms that the Law failed because of a problem with human nature. In other words, it is because humanity is fallen, and because the Jews are part of humanity, that the Jews cannot be saved by Torah (WSPRS, 130). Human sin and guilt is the ultimate problem that Dr. Wright’s theology of justification solves. Second, Dr. Wright teaches a distinctively Calvinist (as opposed to a Lutheran or a Wesleyan or a type of Reformed Anglican) view of the perseverance of the saints. This view is visible in his treatments of the warning passage in Hebrews 6 (cf. his Hebrews for Everyone commentary), and of Paul’s warning to the Gentiles in Romans 11 (cf. his NIB Romans commentary). That Dr. Wright holds this position is explicitly revealed in a conversation he had with Dr. J. D. G. Dunn, here. Implied in this view of Dr. Wright’s is the teaching that initial justification, received by faith alone, can never be lost. And this has further implications, which I will draw out below.

Dr. Wright and Protestant two-kingdoms theology

How does Dr. Wright match up with the material principle of Protestantism as it worked itself out into Protestant two-kingdoms theology? Dr. Wright holds that justification comes upon faith at the moment of faith; he also holds that this faith can never cease. This immediately implies (1) that neither the state nor the church functions as an intermediary for initial salvation (no work of baptism or act of state recognition is necessary), and (2) that neither the state nor the church can take away salvation. Thus, Dr. Wright must agree with the first two points of the six-point 2K theology summary when it comes to the means of salvation. Further, I don’t think I need to argue Dr. Wright teaches that states can sin. Nor do I think anyone seriously wonders if Dr. Wright believes the church is infallible in any sense. He is clearly a Protestant on this point. But this entails that he must support point 3 of the 2K summary. Point 4 follows from the previous 3, and frankly I have never seen Dr. Wright even hint that coercion should be used to attempt to compel the conscience. This leaves only point 5, and it brings me to Dr. Wright’s approach to the formal principle of Protestantism, sola scriptura. Dr. Wright does not believe in an infallible church of any kind; in fact, he doesn’t even believe in an infallible Bible in the classical sense. So there’s certainly no reason to think he is tempted by a kind of theonomic or precisianist approach to natural revelation. He also affirms in his Romans commentary (on Rom. 1) both that there is a natural revelation of God, and of God’s moral will.

What does all this amount to? To my mind, it means that it’s about time to give up the argument that Dr. Wright is somehow a threat to the Reformation. He really isn’t. If he is, it’s because of his doctrine of scripture, not justification. But even while, from my point of view, he does have an erroneous view of the Bible, his instincts are really never to challenge scripture. Only in a handful of places have I ever seen him suggest something that might be construed as a rejection of biblical teaching, and there I’m willing to give him some charity. But when it comes to his view of the material principle of Protestantism, I see nothing to be concerned about. In fact, I think he has provided Protestants a service by defending their doctrine with their method. It was the Protestants, after all, who championed the cause of ad fontes, of the best of Renaissance humanism which strove to interpret the sources of the Christian faith in their original context, according to the canons of common sense and our best knowledge of history and philology.

There is one area of doctrine where I think Dr. Wright may be leaving a door open to those who would prefer an Anabaptist approach to that of the magisterial Reformation, but it’s not in justification. It’s on the subject of politics. When Dr. Wright discusses Jesus’ ethics, or Paul’s approach to the empire, he will often use the language of church-as-alternative-polis, which can easily be used to demand anarchism or pacifism. But, though Dr. Wright can use this kind of language, he resists applying it in this direction. Dr. Wright is himself not a pacifist, and does not interpret Jesus or Paul in this way. I believe that if he were pressed on points of political theology, he would likely eventually give a two-kingdoms kind of explanation; the reason I am confident of this is that justification by faith and a denial of ecclesial and state infallibility, coupled with a denial of pacifism or anarchism, requires this answer. Probably, too, Dr. Wright would affirm a lot of what his good friend Dr. Oliver O’Donovan has written on political theology, and Dr. O’Donovan is quite close to the classic two kingdoms position in many ways (though, see Dr. Jonathan Chaplin’s criticisms of him in A Royal Priesthood?).

N. T. Wright reckoned a Protestant

Dr. Wright affirms a Protestant view of justification, a Protestant view of revelation (or at least not one in danger of affirming ecclesial infallibility), and a Protestant view of politics, and has spent his life performing a Protestant task (research ad fontes) in the service of establishing these views. So I conclude: if Dr. Wright is not a Protestant, we should start wondering if the Pope is really a Catholic.


For those who have come across this article long after I published it, the following followup posts may also be of interest:

  1. Luther and Wright, Justification and Ecclesiology: here I argue Dr. Wright’s reading of Paul supports the Reformation’s critique of 16th century Roman Catholicism.
  2. Final Justification, Protestantism, and Wright: in this post I show that Dr. Wright’s view on final justification fits within the bounds of Protestantism and Augustine’s views on grace, and has notable defenders among evangelical New Testament scholars today.
  3. Another Precedent for NT Wright on Justification: and finally here I note that John Owen provides something of a precedent for Dr. Wright’s view on final justification.

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