Nearly Everything Wrong with N.T. Wright Summed Up in One Chapter Heading

John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton and author of the Lost World of Genesis 1, has a new book coming out this Spring. The new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debateis summarized this way by the publishers:

For centuries the story of Adam and Eve has resonated richly through the corridors of art, literature and theology. But for most moderns, taking it at face value is incongruous. And even for many thinking Christians today who want to take seriously the authority of Scripture, insisting on a “literal” understanding of Genesis 2–3 looks painfully like a “tear here” strip between faith and science.

How can Christians of good faith move forward? Who were the historical Adam and Eve? What if we’ve been reading Genesis—and its claims regarding material origins—wrong? In what cultural context was this couple, this garden, this tree, this serpent portrayed?

Following his groundbreaking Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton explores the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 2–3, creating space for a faithful reading of Scripture along with full engagement with science for a new way forward in the human origins debate. As a bonus, an illuminating excursus by N. T. Wright places Adam in the implied narrative of Paul’s theology.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand this foundational text historically and theologically, and wondering how to view it alongside contemporary understandings of human origins.

While there is much to be said about this book and the theological positions taken by the author (you can read the chapter headings here), what caught my attention was the “illuminating excursus by N.T. Wright.” Here is the full heading for Wright’s chapter, “Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins.”

This single chapter heading is truly amazing. It has successfully encapsulated almost everything that’s wrong with Wright’s theology. Let me explain what I mean. This chapter heading contains Wright’s low view of Scripture, his re-interpretation of Paul’s writings, his minimizing the importance of the salvation of individuals, his emphasis on the redemption of the cosmos, and his belief in the evolutionary origins of humanity.

First, the chapter heading illustrates Wright’s low view of the inspiration of Scripture. He speaks, here and in his other works, of “Paul’s use” as if Scripture is mainly the work of the human authors. It may seem like a stretch, but over and over again the repeated use of “what Paul means” or “Paul’s use of the Old Testament” or “Paul’s purposes,” etc. emphasizes the human author and de-emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the writing and preserving of Scripture.

As far as inerrancy is concerned, Wright would not call himself an inerrantist and views the debate on inerrancy and inspiration to be an American preoccupation:

“…the insistence on an ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ Bible has grown up within a complex cultural matrix (that, in particular, of modern North American Protestantism) where the Bible has been seen as the bastion of orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism on the one hand and liberal modernism on the other. Unfortunately, the assumptions of both those worlds have conditioned the debate. It is no accident that this Protestant insistence on biblical infallibility arose at the same time that Rome was insisting on papal infallibility, or that the rationalism of the Enlightenment infected even those who were battling against it.” Simply Christian (183)

Of course, Wright also believes the debate over the historicity of Adam is mainly an American preoccupation, so I’m not sure why he felt called to address it now.

Second, re-imagining and re-interpreting what Paul really meant is what Wright does. Wright has made his mark as part of the New Perspective on Paul. It should come as no surprise that Wright’s contribution to Walton’s book would be to explain to us how we’ve misunderstood and misused what Paul wrote.

What have we misunderstood this time? Two main things are mentioned in the chapter heading:

  • The effect of sin on the cosmos is more important than the effect of sin on humanity.
  • Paul had nothing to say about human origins.

I read an article this week that critiqued Wright’s “overstatement” on the importance of the cosmos as compared to humanity. The author is convinced that Wright simply overstated his case and that everyone knows that Scripture teaches that humans are more important than things. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the importance of the cosmos is part and parcel of Wright’s theology.

Wright truly does believe that the cosmos are more important in the grand scheme of things. He believes that we have become way too focused on saving people and lost sight of our role in redeeming the cosmos:

to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. Surprised by Hope (164 ebook)

Not only have we misunderstood the purpose and overarching theme of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the Gospel. When Scripture says that Jesus came to save His people from their sins, Wright believes that it’s not so much about individuals being saved from their moral failures, but rather, that Jesus had to come to put God’s rescue plan for creation back on track.

God has made a plan to save the world. Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite. This (Jesus) is what God has now provided. Justification (68)

And,

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. … It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought.

But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed (The Meaning of Jesus, 98).

And that is how we get to the final point from the chapter heading, Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about human origins. In a review of Wright’s book, Surprise by Scripture, the author explains how Wright’s understanding of salvation and his re-interpretation of Paul’s use of Adam are connected:

There is a commonly held approach to salvation which posits that a perfect creation was marred through Adam’s sin, and Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin, thereby allowing us to go to heaven when we die. Adam’s role in that story is crucial: “no Adam” means “no reason for Christ to come.” But according to Wright, that is not the story that Paul tells, and it is a distortion of the Gospel. Instead, Paul connects our salvation to the story of Israel—their being placed in the Promised Land, given a commission to bless all nations, then breaking the Law and being exiled. Paul uses Adam to retell Israel’s story: “placed in the garden, given a commission to look after it; the garden being the place where God wanted to be at rest, to exercise his sovereign rule; the people warned about keeping the commandment, warned in particular that breaking it would mean death, breaking it, and being exiled. It all sounds very, very familiar” (p. 37). Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account. Lots of other Jewish authors around the time of Paul appropriated Adam to get their points across too. The genre of this literature was not historical journalism.

So there you have it. According to Wright, there’s no need for a historical Adam. Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the review appeared on the BioLogos website. Wright and Walton both are featured on BioLogos and share their belief in an evolutionary explanation for human origins. For all three, Wright, Walton, and BioLogos, I truly believe their interpretation of Scripture is driven by their commitments to science, politics, and their own worldviews rather than the reverse.

And that brings us back full circle to the first point. Everything hinges on your view of Scripture. Either Scripture will be the lens through which you view the world or the world (science, politics, worldview, etc) will be the lens through which you view Scripture. Ultimately one or the other will be your authority.

12 thoughts on “Nearly Everything Wrong with N.T. Wright Summed Up in One Chapter Heading

  1. William says:

    The thrust of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” is that God’s plan is much bigger than the common and deviant gospel message of today which focuses primarily on an individual getting to heaven. Wright emphasizes that God’s goal is the resurrection of individuals in a ressurected new world: “Behold, I am making all things new.” Our destiny as believers is wrapped up with a new earth not a distant heaven. In this respect Wright makes a valuable contribution toward restoring a more accurate gospel message and a corresponding gospel life. As Christians we should seek to restore the centrality of ressurection to the gospel message.

    • Rachel Miller says:

      Sorry, William. I’ve read Wright’s Surprised by Hope (and several other books), and his message is that human salvation is not as important as the redeeming of the cosmos. It is not a deviant gospel message to proclaim the importance of individual sinners being saved and being restored to a right relationship with God. Consider the parable of the lost lamb. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Each of God’s children are precious and nothing in this world is more important than their salvation.

      As for Wright’s contribution regarding the resurrection, it’s such a red herring. All orthodox Christians from the time of the early church have proclaim, confessed, looked forward to the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” It’s a basic tenet of orthodox Christianity. That Wright believes in it, instead of jettisoning it like most liberal theologians, is not really that special. Whatever good things he believes in, he undermines by his complete and total reworking of justification by faith, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc.

      And yes, God is making all things new. We are not co-redeemers in that process. Also, God is not merely remaking the earth, but a new heavens AND a new earth. Regardless of Wright’s reinterpretation, the restoration of right relationship between God and His people is the central message of the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22.

      • William says:

        Rachel, Proverbs 10:19 states “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable…” N.T. Wright has written many books, therefore his probability of error is very high. Nevertheless, we should not let these errors—to which we all fall prey—divert us from receiving benefit. I’ve only read two of Wright’s books: “Suprised by Hope” and “After You Believe”, so I’m no N.T. Wright expert. That said, I don’t recall any minimalization of individual salvation in these works. Again I state, the uniqueness I see in Wright is his emphasis on the Lord’s plan for all of creation. This runs counter to the common gospel presentation of our day which posits God saving man for a life in Heaven. Wright posits God saves man for a life on Earth—present and future. Christ comes “to restore all things”. Heaven is not home for the believer. In Wright’s message, the Lord retains the same emphasis He placed on man and woman in the beginning.

      • Rachel Miller says:

        May I suggest that you read some of my other posts on N.T. Wright, particularly the one on his Christology. Some theologians mistakes are severe enough to warrant avoiding altogether.

      • William says:

        Rachel, just read your post “Is N.T. Wright Wrong on Jesus?” The way you frame it, Wright’s position on the diety of Christ does warrant serious concern, as he seems very vague on Christ as God in the flesh.

        Wright became aware of a blatant error in accepted dogma — a preoccupation with Heaven that biblically doesn’t exist. When errors of this magnitude are discovered by an individual, it’s a common tendency to doubt all remaining accepted confession and to lose confidence in traditional theologians. The individual tends to “throw the baby out with the bath water” and begin leaning on his own understanding. It appears Wright may have fallen into this trap in regards to Christ.

    • Edward A. Hara says:

      Wright misses the point of the palinogenesis precisely because he, (in my never to be humble opinion) does not understand God’s covenant relationship with mankind and what the Fall did. If he did, he would never make such a statement.

      Adam, acting as the covenant head over all Creation, brought sin, death, and destruction upon the entire Creation by his action in the Garden. The created order was neutral, and could not do this to itself. Therefore, since God deals with mankind as the covenant representative between God and Creation, the restoration of mankind to that position of covenant headship is the summa bonum of Christ’s salvific work. Without man being redeemed in Christ Jesus. Creation is doomed. Man is head over all Creation, given that authority in the Garden by God the Father/King, and restored in the New Covenant King, Jesus.

      Mankind, in Christ Jesus, now rules. It strikes me that the statements that Wright makes are more in line with an environmentalist liberal than a Christian believer.

      Just my .02.

  2. Bhim says:

    You go girl. Attagirl. N.T. Wright is gone Wrong once again. If you push the limits of Wright’s thinking that Paul thinks of Adam cosmologically rather Covenantly then surely you can even say Christ died for creation not the Church. You see, Wright is inconsistent and misleading. The main stress of Paul using the two Adams teaching in Romans is to teach us the Covenantal aspects of first Adam and second Adam. Paul does talk of creation waiting for redemption but only under the new covenant headship of Christ who died for his people. Most common people understand Paul better than the so called “scholars” of the New Perspective.

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