Is N. T. Wright a Heretic? A Guest Blog by Vincent EaganAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apologetics, Books, N.T. Wright, Sectarianism
Earlier in the summer of this year (2016), the well known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (or Tom Wright as he likes you to call him in person) was publicly branded as a “heretic” by my good friend, and brother I genuinely love, Greg Tidwell, editor of the Gospel Advocate. I was not sure if mere hyperbole was being used or what.
Being in the position he is in many began to parrot the Advocate. I publicly asked Greg to explain what he meant by such terminology. I have never received an explanation. So I sent out challenges in numerous media and a dozen “Church of Christ” Facebook sites and even personal conversation with those that repeated the charge. I still received nothing.
So I gave an open ended challenge to any takers: I will buy representative books by N. T. Wright, allow you to read them and write a review of your honest opinion of them (with no changes made for good or ill by me) to be placed on my blog to be read by thousands of people. The only requirement was 1) you must deal fairly with the material 2) if you claim there is some “heresy” you must document with title and page number 3) and demonstrate some understanding of the argument (thus no drive by shootings). Beyond this the writer was free to develop his or her piece anyway of their choosing and say whatever they wanted.
This blog is not and an attack upon either the GA nor Greg. It is hoped that it is simply an invitation to the table and discuss this. That is my own agenda. Unity is good, biblical, and in fact part of the Gospel itself.
Vincent Eagan is the only person that responded (saved me a lot of money I guess!). What follows is his “review” of N. T. Wright and two books.
I chose two books Simply Christian and Simply Jesus. Both are best sellers. Both are representative of the primary teaching of Wright. We have used Simply Christian in university settings with Ambassadors for Christ at the University of Arizona.
It is my prayer that this kind of exercise will do two things. First I pray that it will facilitate genuine dialog between various folks within our fellowship. Second I pray it will help us to watch our speech and accusations of people. With this I need to say a word about the word “heresy” and “heretic.” Simply because a person is an Anglican hardly makes them a heretic. I do not recall, at anytime, in our collective history Martin Luther, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, James Dobson, etc ever being labeled a “heretic” or a purveyor of “heresy.” Heresy is the denial of a cardinal doctrine of Christianity. Examples may be the denial of the humanity of Christ, the denial of the deity of Christ, a denial of the sacredness of creation (this one is interesting given the charge of heresy thrown at NTW), a denial of the atonement, etc. These are examples of genuine heresy. You are not free to invent definitions as you please.
Finally. In an effort to accomplish the goals I stated above, I hope there is lively discussion below. But there will be NO ad hominem assaults on Vincent, Greg Tidwell or anyone else from the right or the left. Such comments will be deleted immediately. Lets keep the atmosphere brotherly and sisterly – you know lets behave like we are actually family – as if we genuinely believe we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit of God. I do not agree with everything Vincent says and that is part of the point. Read. Join the dialog, I plan too.
You can find some of my earlier interactions with N. T. Wright, especially my review of his epic Resurrection of the Son of God here.
Recently, there has been a shift in some in the brotherhood of the Church of Christ to hear denominational speakers and read denominational works. Some brethren have come out strongly against this, while others have defended the practice by saying that something doesn’t necessarily have to be untrue simply because the source is among those we define as “denominational”.
The latest center of this controversy seems to be N. T. (Nicholas Thomas) Wright, a retired Anglican Bishop and well-known Bible scholar. It seems many brethren scurry to get their pictures taken with him to post proudly on their Facebook accounts, as though he were some sort of celebrity.
I was intrigued by this. I am not one to write someone off without first looking into their teachings. That got me into all kinds of trouble years ago when everyone wanted to make Rubel Shelly disappear. Because I myself have been “marked” (which seems to mean to some brethren, “Write the brother up in every brotherhood publication!”) unfairly and slanderously by certain others, I am very slow to do so to anyone else. I am also not one who believes that everything we do or say has to come from “brotherhood material”. Paul used secular and cultural material in his teachings, as did John, and also Jude. Even Jesus made use of the current events and teachings of those with whom he was not in 100% agreement.
In addition, if you are an adult and come to my house for dinner, and I serve you fish, I expect you to be able to spit out the bones. There are many truths we can harvest from denominational sources that are profitable for us to use in teaching truth – we just have to be able to discern when truth ends and opining begins. Then again – we should be doing that with brotherhood sources as well!
My friend and fellow-laborer, Bobby Valentine, saw me struggling to gain an understanding of why some adore and some abhor Mr. Wright, and invited me to read and review two of his books, the review to be published without changes on his blog. The only requirement was that it be done with accurate documentation to any “heresy” I challenged. In addition, he sent me links to several sermons and messages delivered by Mr. Wright to supplement the reading. I did some of my own research as well. I also asked those who seem to abhor Mr. Wright why they do, and must report that none of them seemed to know why they do. They were not able to produce any answer as to what exactly he teaches that they find so dangerous.
Reading two books, researching to the extent I have done, and listening to a few messages does not make me an expert on N. T. Wright. It does appear to mean I’ve done more homework than some. I am fully aware that there are plenty of other works by Mr. Wright out there in which may reside these dangerous teachings that no one seems to be able to put into words … but I have not found them.
The books Bobby Valentine sent me are entitled Simply Jesus and Simply Christian. I liked the titles right from the beginning – I am of the belief that we need simply Jesus, and we should be simply Christian. I don’t know if that’s actually what Mr. Wright intended to convey, but that is what I took from it. I was concerned about the subtitle on “Simply Jesus” … “A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, And Why He Matters“. I’m not convinced we need a new vision – I am all for going back to the oldest vision as that would be the correct one, but perhaps that is what he meant – our current cultural vision of him certainly is not correct.
I will start with “Simply Christian“, as that was what he wrote first, and followed it up with “Simply Jesus“. The two need to be in the right order. In this book, Wright makes a bid to answer many of the questions that come up in modern life, and how Christianity answers them. The subtitle is, “Why Christianity Makes Sense”.
I have to admit, I expected an apologetic from the title of the book, but that is not what I got. To some extent, I was let down, because while he laid out the arguments in some cases, he never really summed them up and gave a solid answer to the challenge. I was not particularly moved by what was written, and I didn’t think it was anything like, “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis.
I also saw some level of suggestion that there should be no division over denominational differences. First, it is hard to describe the “Church of Christ” (note that I used a capital “C” for church there) without resorting to making it something of a denomination itself. Often we get questions like, “Are members of the Church of Christ the only people going to Heaven?” It is impossible to answer that in the affirmative without making it a denomination, and a sectarian one at that, since the questioner is not asking about the “church of Christ” – that being the universal church belonging to Christ that God adds all Christians to when they obey the gospel – they are asking about the groups in those buildings that have “Church of Christ” above their doors. Then one has to go a step further and define which is being asked about of those …. do we mean Non-Instrumental vs. Instrumental, One-Cup vs. Multiple Cups, “Anti” (Or, Non-Institutional) vs. Mainline (Or, Institutional), Non-Cooperative, Non-Bible Classes, Non-Located-Preacher, or any one of a dozen more “Nons”?
While viewing it from that perspective, I get Wright’s idea that the petty squabbles should be ignored. However, in some cases, there are very real differences between the teachings (or doctrines) of some denominations, and it appears Wright bypassed coming down in favor of one side or another in many of those cases. It was almost like he wanted to chide Christian folk for getting involved in any debate over doctrine whatsoever, but some MUST be had, since the differences are too distinct to overlook.
It is highly unlikely that any one group has everything right. Wise brethren have said of those issues that we must depend on Jesus’ grace and mercy regarding that which we understood wrong. If that is the case, how can I then turn around and deny that same grace and mercy toward some brother that I feel didn’t get everything right? I am as dependent upon mercy as he is.
On the other hand, there are some teachings that are, for lack of a better word, heretical. Those teachings must be challenged, else we are no longer distinctive, but just a hodge-podge think tank without any true purpose. I do not believe that every doctrine Wright wanted to overlook (example, the Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist, pgs. 153-157) can be accepted.
All that said, the book does raise some understanding and may help to renew the faith of some when they are reminded that when we are Christians, Christianity must stand most outright in all of our thought patterns, so that every important decision we make and every thing that we do exudes Christ and is influenced by him. I especially liked his example of a small window (pg. 151) and how when one stands far away from the window, he can only see a very small part of what is out there. When he comes closer to the window, he can see the big picture …. and in the same way, when the Christian comes closer to God in worship, he will be able to see the bigger picture of living the Christian life.
I would suggest it is a good book for the Christian to read – but I would not count on it as an apologetic to convince the non-Christian. That does not seem to be his purpose, though one might think so from the sub-title.
The book “Simply Jesus” suggests by its sub-title that it is, “A new vision…” It is not. It is a vision that may have been forgotten and is definitely not understood by many today (Jesus was a Hebrew …. everyone seems to forget that), but it is an old, vintage view of Jesus. Further, it is one that is needed.
One should not overlook the deep study of certain ideas connected to the cross – propitiation, redemption, atonement, etc. – but in so doing, once can not forget to give even more attention to the man called Jesus, placing him within the time that he lived and the culture in which he existed. If we don’t get the culture, and we miss the historical Jesus, we won’t be able to understand the deeper connections.
Then, even in the midst of being such a “simple” discussion of the historical Jesus, Wright takes on some extremely deep subjects by looking at what Jesus said about them. Examples such as, “When did God’s kingdom on Earth begin?” (pg. 117), and, “Where does God Dwell?” (pg. 132), and, “What did Jesus mean by, ‘It is finished’?” are addressed, among other examples.
I found it interesting that he hinted at a belief that one of the most prominent premillennial doctrines – that of the “rapture” – is far overblown. “Don’t believe everything you read about the Rapture. In fact, don’t believe most of what you read about the Rapture.” (pg. 199) I would have liked to have seen more detail on what Wright himself believes about the second coming and why though.
In all, this is a much better book from an apologetic standpoint. It takes the gospel and puts it in the right setting to be understood. I would suggest this book both for several groups – those who are thinking about becoming a Christian, those who have just become Christians, and those who have been Christians for awhile and have been so bogged down in deep study that it has become a distraction. It will help the latter group to remember what is relevant.
From both books, I perceive that Wright is a good writer. I liked that the books showed his own mind, rather than being heavy with research regarding what others think. Such books are better for understanding an individual’s own ideas and thoughts.
Again, I found nothing deeply doctrinally troubling in these books. I am still unaware of why some find Wright objectionable, other than a, “He’s Anglican, so he’s not on my team!” mindset. Maybe that is enough for some people “of my tribe”. Perhaps this review being published will push some of those people to tell me just what they think is so bad about N.T. Wright. If they can back it up, I welcome their input. Just be aware that I gave plenty of time and asked plenty of naysayers before I finished this article, and not one deemed it important enough to bother with my questins then.
In The Service Of The Mighty King,
Dr. Vincent J. Eagan, III
Evangelist/Writer † † †
I am the Charlotte Biblical Examiner. See my articles at: http://www.examiner.com/biblical-in-charlotte/vincent-eagan-III
I am the Spiritual History Examiner. See my articles at: http://www.examiner.com/spiritual-history-in-national/vincent-eagan-iii