Thursday, 3 June 2010

Misreading Luther With Bishop Tom Wright

Welcome to 'Misreading Luther with Bishop Tom Wright'. (I originally titled this post 'Wright Wrong on Luther' but thought it rather too obvious, so I hit upon the above, which might serve as the title of a series if I have enough time.)

What can I say by way of introduction to the topic? Every time I read something the very influential scholar Bishop N T Wright has said on Luther I come away scratching my head and thinking 'Has he even read Luther?!'

For example, here's Bishop Wright on the 'Lutheran' milieu he grew up in:

"I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, “Whew…the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ.” All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin." [From an interview published in Reformation and Revival Journal, volume 11, numbers 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring 2003), available on-line] [Italics mine]

Now here's Luther on the law:

"In chapter 7, St. Paul says, "The law is spiritual." What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remain sin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good, just and holy." [Italics mine]

Imagine that, Luther actually agrees with Bishop Wright that the law is "good, just and holy"!

-- + --

Clearly, Wright has (mis)read Luther as antinomian, and pegged him as the source of what perplexed him growing up in evangelical Anglicanism, which eventually sent him running to Calvin as his guiding light (although more than a few Calvinists are upset at the direction Bishop Wright's theology has taken since, but that is a subject for another post).

If only Bishop Wright had actually read a text as basic as Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, from which the above quote is taken - not to mention the Small Catechism - he would have known that what he was hearing from evangelical Anglican pulpits as a young man was not Lutheranism at all, but antinomianism, which Luther goes on to reject in the very same little preface, following the Apostle Paul closely, of course.

A lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary in Adelaide, once wisely said, "If you want to understand someone's theology, seek to become familiar with their biography." Alas, it seems that Tom Wright's youthful misadventures with 'Lutheranism' were formative for his theology, which might not matter one iota but for the fact that Wright is probably the single most influential 'evangelical' theologian writing today, and he is well read by Roman Catholics too, as a visit to my local Catholic book shop will testify. Indeed, the local bishop is a Wright fan - and no wonder, I might add, given the implications of Bishop Wright's theology for the magisterial Reformation's doctrine of justification (of which more anon., d.v.).
To the many evangelicals who buy Wright's books, including his series of popular-level New Testament commentaries which are rapidly filling the place once occupied on the layperson's bookshelf by another popularising scholar who abounded in dubious opinions, William Barclay, one can only say: caveat emptor!

-- + --

Sigh! I was tempted to post this under humour; it would be funny if it were not so serious. I mean no disrespect to Bishop Wright, who is clearly a bright man, but it does go to show that even the brightest have their blind spots.


Matthias said...

Luther far more down to earth and his concept of the 5 SOLAS of the Reformation far easier and scriptural than Calvinsims's TULIP

The Midland Agrarian said...

This is an interesting analysis that offers a credible explanation for some things I have read .

I attend one of those parishes in the USA that could be characterized as "Anglo-Lutheran" but definitely not antinomian. I am also a fan of some of Bishop Wright's work, but have some of your reservations. I particularly appreciate his emphasis on the "life after life after death". My pastor explains that Wright is valuable in understanding Jesus and the reality of the Resurrection, but not helpful in understanding Saint Paul. Wright is not as popular or influential in the US ---Actually I wish he was more popular. I would rather see people read Wright than Joel Osteen or Rick Warren :-)

You post serves as a good reminder we cannot take any theologian as an idol.

Look forward to more!

M.A. Henderson said...


What undoubtedly drew Bp Wright to Calvin, or rather Calvinism, was the place the latter gives to the Law as a rule of life in the church and the Christian's life.
The differences between Luther and Calvin can appear subtle because Calvin only ever wanted to be a disciple of Luther, but they are like two railway tracks that start side by side with a slight divergence and thus end up at completely different destinations! Lutheranism is greatly concerned with assurabce of salvation, whereas Calvinism tends to undermine that assurance, and you can see this played out in the history of Calvinism -one day I will post more on this. (Of course, their personal styles are completely different altogether).

M.A. Henderson said...


Thanks for stopping by.

Wright is ubiquitous here - when I go to the Evangelical book shop his books are there, and when I go to the Catholic book shop his books are there; the only book shop that doesn't have them is the Lutheran one!

Yes, Wright has his good points, of course, I would agree with your pastor on that.

We also have Osteen down here, btw. Sigh!

Matthias said...

I agree less of osteen and Warren

Peter McKeague said...

Wright is not alone among proponents of some form of the so-called New Perspective on Paul in their misrepresentation of Luther, and other Reformers as well. Whatever their merits as biblical scholars, Wright, along with Sanders and Dunn, seem not to have engaged with Historical Theology in depth nor read the primary material, especially when it comes to Luther. Perhaps there is just too much specialisation in modern scholarship.

M.A. Henderson said...

I suspect you are correct about the dangers of specialisation, Peter. I understand Bishop Wright is retiring from his bishopric to concentrate on scholarship and writing. Let's hope it also gives him some time to read Luther!

Thanks kindly for your comment.