Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Misreading Luther with Bishop Tom Wright

Like Jesus, Bishop Tom Wright (aka N. T. Wright) is everywhere. The shelves of my local Evangelical and Catholic bookshops both groan under the weight of his oevre, to which he seems to add a new paperback volume every couple of months. He appears to have taken up the mantle of William Barclay as everyone's favourite Bible commentator. Bishop Wright is a  scholar as well as a populariser, so I'm sure there is much we can learn from him, not least how to write theology engagingly for the intelligent lay person.  I think the "democratising" of theology is a good thing... provided we're talking good theology, of course! And this is why I question whether Bishop Tom's widespread popularity is an entirely helpful development. For example  - leaving aside Wright's espousal of the "New Perspective on Paul" for the moment, as it requires more than a blog post to do it justice - every time I read something Bishop Wright has written or said about Luther I come away scratching my head and thinking 'Has he even read Luther?!' For example, here's Bishop Wright on the 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] 
Thanks for that insight, Bishop Tom. Now here's Luther himself 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", right down to using the same descriptors!

Clearly, Wright has misread 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 a variety of antinomianism, which Luther rejects in numerous places, most forthrightly in Against the Antinomians (1539; LW 47:107ff), in which Luther declares it "most surprising ...that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments, since there is available, in more than one edition, my exposition of the Ten Commandments, which furthermore are daily preached and practiced in our churches."  

A lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary in Adelaide, once wisely said, "If you want to understand someone's theology, 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 and Biblical commentator writing today, whose works are peppered with this sort of egregious misrepresentation of Luther. Bishop Wright should really know better. 

Yes, like Jesus, Bishop Tom Wright is everywhere...unlike Jesus, he is not infallible. Caveat lector!    


Martin Yee said...

Great post! NT Wright is anything but right on Luther. Take comfort. In Australia you can at least humanly try to keep your distance physically from hearing such things uttered. But over at my end, it is not evenly humanly possible. I have to endure such Evangelical utterances day in day out.

Acroamaticus said...

Commiserations, Martin!

Peter McKeague said...

There is something of a difference between Wright's work on the historical Jesus (evangelicals seem to love him for that) and his work on Paul, which divides opinion strongly. What surprised me in your quote about his upbringing is his branding it Lutheran. Most evangelical Anglicans are more or less Calvinist; strange he wasn't exposed to that. As you may know he will be in Australia in July and will be delivering two full day workshops on Paul at Ridley College Melbourne on 16th & 17th, the focus of one of them being his soon to be released magnum opus on Paul. I plan to be there so I'll keep my ears pricked for any references to Luther or Lutheranism.

Acroamaticus said...

I too was surprised by Wright's labelling of his early Anglicanism as "Lutheran". I gather, though, from some comments I have read from English theologians writing in the early 1960s, that there was confusion on Law and Gospel in those circles at that time (I've just tried to find the quotes but can't -will keep looking). Perhaps there was a reaction against Calvinism that went too far? Calvinism does seem to inspire such reactions.

ELP said...

Mark, great article!

Wright represents a real challenge to the Biblical definition of the Gospel. I think that when Wright refers to his "Lutheran" youth, he just means that he grew up in a "solafidean" (oh, the horror) milieu.

Carl Trueman wrote a very good article on the NPPers view of Luther, here it is:


Acroamaticus said...

Merci Thomas and thanks for the link!
Trueman is always worth reading.