I think N.T Wright is a genius. The first book of his I ever read was Who was Jesus and it still is, in my opinion, a fantastic book. I have read many of Wright’s books on Paul and Jesus as well as numerous articles by the man and I have found that many times Wright illuminates the text where I can see what Paul or Jesus was saying in a way I haven’t been able to see before. But this is not always the case. I do think that Wrights construal of Paul, the gospel and justification distorts the gospel itself. Here is what Wright says the gospel is and is not:

‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense. It is the announcement

1. that the God of Israel is the one true God, and that the pagan deities are mere idols;

2. that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one, is not merely ‘Lord’ in some cosmic sense, but is actually King—King of Israel, and hence (on the Davidic model of passages such as Psalm 89) the King before whom all the kings of the earth shall bow;

3. that Israel’s destiny has been fulfilled, her exile finished, her salvation won, but in a manner which undermines the Jewish ethnic and nationalistic hope that Paul had formerly espoused; and

4. that the rule of the pagan idols, which have kept the pagan nations in their iron

grip has been broken, and that those who follow and serve them are now summoned to share in the blessings of Israel’s ‘age to come’.[1]

Now let’s be clear, I do believe that Wright has given some implications of the gospel here that are true. For example, I do believe that the gospel shows “that the God of Israel is the one true God, and that the pagan deities are mere idols”. But the questions is not whether Wright has outlined some implications of the gospel, the questions is whether or not Wright has been faithful to what Paul (and the Bible) says the gospel is? I don’t think so.

When we look at two places where Paul gives potted summary of the gospel we read:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Galatians 1:3-5

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Romans 1:16

Notice how in both of these potted summaries salvation is front and centre. In Galatians it is Jesus giving himself for our sins. (Notice also how sin is not mentioned in Wrights outline of the gospel!). The gospel and salvation is expressed as rescuing us from the present evil age. So the gospel is to do with salvation.

In the Romans passage, Paul talks about the gospel being salvation and for both the Jew and the Greek. He does not say that the gospel is about breaking down walls that divide the two groups. Now of course the breaking down of racial barriers is an implication of the gospel (see Ephesians 2:11-22) but, for Paul, it is not the heart of the gospel. For Paul the heart of the gospel is salvation.

Here is the issue; to make things that are implications of the gospel (i.e. Jews and Gentiles being together in Christ) the centre of the gospel and to make the centre of the gospel an implication (i.e. an individual’s salvation) is to massively distort the gospel. I do think N.T Wright is a genius and we are in his debt for so much of what he has written but in subtle ways he distorts the gospel and we need to be careful when we read him (as we do when we read others also) to make sure we are not letting our view of the gospel be muddied.[2]

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[1] N.T Wright Gospel and Theology in Galatians in Gospel in Paul (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement), eds. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, 1994. Pgs. 232-233

[2] If you want to read a robust, thoughtful and generous engagement with Wright on Paul see Peter T. O’Brien, ‘Was Paul a Covenantal Nomists?’ in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, eds. D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 283-295


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