James White is Right vs Wright on the NPP

James WhiteIn his Dividing Line show yesterday, Dr. James White talked about an radio broadcast that he shared with N.T. Wright, of “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) fame.

In the course of the show, Dr. White mentioned that he believes he must spend more time on this topic, and for this I’m grateful. Noting that the NPP (rather, NPPs) have been a bridge for people into Roman Catholicism (and through the related Reformed phenomenon, the Federal Vision), he especially points to the fact that the people who most know what they’re talking about, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and “Tom” Wright himself, have not moved into Roman Catholicism.

Citing a JETS paper that Wright published in 2011 (and I didn’t get the specifics, but I believe it was March 2011), Dr. White made the point of clarifying what N.T. Wright actually says on certain issues.

In what follows, I’ll try to blockquote his direct citations of Wright, and I’ll try to transcribe (or tightly paraphrase) what Dr. White is saying.

Wright:

The point is not that “the Reformers had a faulty hermeneutic, therefore the Catholics must be right. If you get the hermeneutic right, and you will see that the critique [of Roman Catholicism] is all the stronger. Just because they used a faulty hermeneutic to attack Rome, that does not mean there was nothing to attack, or that a better hermeneutic would not have done the job better”.

Dr. White goes on to say that NT Wright believes that he, and almost he alone, but that he is defending Sola Scriptura, and that we who hold to what he would call the Old Perspective, are not being consistent. He believes that he is defending Sola Scriptura against us.

“And folks, if I am going to be sensitive to anything, it’s that I am going to be sensitive to the charge that I am not practicing Sola Scriptura. Scripture always has to be the norm that norms all others.”

Dr. White quotes Wright as saying:

“On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist their official theology, are in fact “neo-Catholics”.

Dr. White then surmises that he is talking about D.A. Carson (?). [I take this as a reference to followers of the Old Perspective]. Following from this, it is always important to remember that the New Testament Scriptures, the original first-century apostolic testimony to the great, one-off [“unique”] fact of Jesus himself, the doctrine of the authority of the Scripture itself is part of the belief that the living God acted uniquely and decisively in, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah to die for sins and to rise again to launch the New Creation. Again, [this is] a central Protestant insight that has happened once for all, “ἐφάπαξ”, right out of the book of Hebrews.

It does not have to happen again and again.

He says that Wright notes that in the 16th century, “some Roman Catholics were asserting that Jesus had to be sacrificed at every Mass”, perhaps because official Roman doctrine is that Christ’s sacrifice is “re-presented” in the Mass, or if he was saying that was one stream of thought.

“It is true that some people in the first century were asking some questions that were analogous to the things that Luther was asking. The rich young ruler wants to know how to inherit the age to come. Not ‘how to go to heaven’ by the way. Jesus does not answer as Luther would have done. He sends him back to the commandments, and tops it off by telling him to sell [everything] and become a disciple. Part of the problem is that Luther’s question was conceived in thoroughly Medieval terms, about God, grace, and righteousness. Put the question that way, and Luther’s answer was the right one. The fact that the words are biblical words does not mean that theologians in the 1500’s meant the same things that biblical writers in AD 50 meant by them, or rather by their Greek antecedents.”

Dr. White then says, “you’ve got to accurately represent the guy, or he will rip your lips off”.

What follows, now, is really important:

“One word in particular about the big story of Scripture, the story that is presupposed throughout the New Testament: the Big Story is about the Creator’s plan for the world, and this plan always envisaged human beings being God’s agent in that plan, human sin, that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, his plan for the world is thwarted, so God calls Abraham to be the means of rescuing humankind, then Israel rebels, that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan to rescue humans, and thereby the world, is thwarted. So God sends Israel in person, Jesus the Messiah to rescue Israel, to perform Israel’s task on behalf of Adam, and Adam’s on behalf of the whole world …”

This is where you get a sense of his narrative interpretation. Wright wants to talk about “the big picture”, the big purpose from beginning to end.

We [Reformed] talk about covenants, and the concepts that are woven throughout the text of Scripture.

Wright’s presentation is thoroughly Israel-centric, or as Dr. White puts it, “Israel-dominated”.

“For N.T. Wright, THE KEY narrative concept for the interpretation of all the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is the concept of the exile. Israel in exile. That is for him what gives cohesion to the interpretation of everything else. I don’t agree with that, I don’t necessarily think that Daniel 9 is what’s in the background of Paul’s thinking everywhere, but that’s one of the main issues that comes up.”

Citing Wright again:

“The point of the covenant with Israel in the whole of Scripture is that it is the means by which God is rescuing the children of Adam and so restoring the world”

That is N.T. Wright’s understanding of covenant theology.

He notes that Wright claims to have spent more time distancing himself from Sanders than agreeing with him – and he points out that there are as many variations within the “new perspective” as there are scholars writing on the subject.

He claims of Romans 10:3, indicating that:

Paul’s critique of his fellow Jews was not that Israel were legalists, trying to earn merit, but nationalists, trying to keep God’s blessing for themselves, instead of being the conduit of those blessing to flow to the Gentiles.”

Dr. White then criticizes that view, saying “you can’t cut apart the motivations of the Jews, so that they have solely a nationalistic issue going on, and that they do not have a works-righteousness issue going on. It just flattens Paul out too much to try to make the Wright paradigm fit. You have to flatten too many terms out, [and we those of us involved in Biblical interpretation can tend to fall into that error when we don’t think through what all these terms mean], … and so we’ve got to be consistent, and recognize that we’re doing that, but it also requires the reading of particular texts in a very unusual way. In facts, sometimes [Wright] suggests that the reading that he suggests, has never been suggested by anyone else before. And that got us into some interesting discussion.

He qualifies that Wright is pointing out true things; the problem is giving them a proper weight or emphasis. Wrights emphases are far outside the mainstream of historical “weighting” of these texts.

Wright’s suggests that it is wrong of thinking of the Jews as thinking of “old Pelagianism”, that man can pull himself up by his boot-straps, without the need for grace at all.

Dr. White re-asserts that the issue of the Reformation was never the necessity of grace. It was the sufficiency of grace. “And I did get to mention, that New Perspectivism as a whole, and even N.T. Wright’s position individually makes me wonder how he can avoid a synergistic compromise of sovereign grace in salvation. He will say he doesn’t, but I did raise the issue.”

Dr. White believes that one of the attractions to Wright comes from people who reject the “me and my bible” kinds of evangelicalism that is very widely manifested today. But he asserts that we need to know God’s greater plans, and to understand the meaning of God’s grace. “Only God’s people are looking for the gracious God. It all goes together”.

One of biggest problems with Wright’s viewpoint, he says, is that Wright’s “paradigm” in Romans 8 it is a two-party law court: God and sinner, whereas clearly, in Paul’s mind, it is a three-party law court: God, sinner, and Jesus the intermediary, interceding for the sinner.

He says: “This is the newness of the New Covenant”, which Wright misses.

At this point, we are more than half way through the DL broadcast, and I’ll leave that to those interested to follow up with it. But I’ll be watching closely for follow-ups on this topic.

2 thoughts on “James White is Right vs Wright on the NPP

  1. “Part of the problem is that Luther’s question was conceived in thoroughly Medieval terms, about God, grace, and righteousness.”

    Having been working through the “Hedielberg Disputation,” Luther would certainly know the difference between “Medival” (i.e., “scholastic”) and Biblical theology. This is a poor rendering of Luther who had a cogent knowledge of bothe scripture and tradition.

    Wright is merely creating a straw Luther here to rail against. The real Luther transformed the theology of millions of Medival Catholics within his life time! Wright underestimates Luther’s “Theo logic of the Cross!”

    Do we have another scholar on the Road to Rome in Wright? Thanks to White for challenging him!

    In the Lamb

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    1. Thanks SamWise, I am looking forward to Dr White’s further interaction with this. Scott Clark, too, has written about Wright’s relative inexperience with Luther. If you search “Wright” on this site, you may find a link to it.

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