Reading N.T. Wright is delightfully invigorating. He is surely the most influential, and perhaps the most prolific, living New Testament scholar of our day, and an evangelical Christian to boot.
This has made Wright into the darling of millennial Christian thinkers, who look to someone like an N. T. Wright, as having the academic smarts, challenging the critical voices against Christianity in the 21st century, as well as possessing a cheerful, pastoral giftedness. N.T. Wright puts the often complex world of contemporary scholarship closer near the “bottom shelf,” where mere mortal, everyday Christians can appreciate and apply a more learned approach to the New Testament, as opposed to simply reading the Bible on their own, with little to no oversight to guide them.
N.T. Wright: Scholar, Pastor and Popularizer
Otherwise known as “Tom” Wright, in his more popular writings, it has been often said that N.T, or Tom, Wright writes faster than most people can read. How he has found time to write as much as he has, while at one time serving as an active Anglican bishop, who only in recent years is now focused again on scholarship, is a wonder on its own.
Beleaguered by top notch critical scholars for several generations now, that appear to want to rip the Bible to shreds, thoughtful evangelicals take comfort in the fact that N.T. Wright has gone up against the brightest and best in the world of academia, and he has come out relatively unscathed. Even more so, he stands out with his good-natured, jolly British demeanor, as he declares his scholarly view of a wholly trustworthy and reliable Holy Bible. For a younger generation of evangelicals, N.T. Wright makes you feel like, intellectually, he has your back.
Wright earns the respect of non-believing and believing intellectuals alike, being read by everyone from British historian Tom Holland, to former editor-in-chief at Newsweek, Jon Meacham, just to name a few. Aside from Michael Licona’s brilliant work, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, N.T. Wright remains today’s most capable defender of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, through his highly cited academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Culminating in Wright’s multivolume, comprehensive series Christian Origins and the Question of God, we find the “go-to” academic, contemporary treatment of critical issues in New Testament scholarship, correcting misguided efforts among intellectuals to take down historic Christian faith, starting with the infamous “Jesus Seminar” of the early 1990s.
I remember twenty years ago reading N.T. Wright’s written dialogue with liberal scholar Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus. Borg was known for dismissing every miracle of Jesus in the New Testament as fictitious, and yet, Wright had an answer for him at every turn. Still, the two men remained friends. I was left thinking, “Evangelical Christians need more scholars like N.T. Wright!”
N.T. Wright is also a popularizer, engaging well with the wider culture, relating particularly to a more skeptical crowd, like a modern day C.S. Lewis. Along with New York City PCA pastor, Timothy Keller, N.T. Wright has been a featured speaker at Google’s headquarters, capable of speaking Christian truth to a largely sophisticated, unbelieving audience. Never parochial, always irenic, Wright receives invitations to speak at places, where more explosive and abrasive evangelical figures, such as an Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham, would never find a welcoming reception.
Rudolph Bultmann, the German liberal scholar, who would have us “demythologize” the New Testament, was the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Yet it would be fair to say that N.T. Wright enjoys the same stature, as Bultmann’s, for the early 21st century.
There is evidence to support this claim. N.T. Wright delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, in 2018, an academic honor in Scotland. Wright is the only New Testament scholar to have delivered those lectures, since Rudolph Bultmann did so in 1954 to 1955.
Like Bultmann, who was regarded as having the preaching ability of a Billy Graham, despite Bultmann’s complete rejection of the supernatural claims of the New Testament, N.T. Wright has an appeal in his delightful written prose and public preaching persona. In a world where orthodox Christian faith appears to be being pushed to the side, in a secularizing society, on an almost daily basis, Wright’s presence as a public intellectual, engaging the toughest critics of Christian faith, is a welcoming sign that the Gospel is not completely lost in the era of post-modernity.
N.T. Wright’s greatest expertise is in the life and theology of the apostle Paul, which makes it a wonderful treat to finally have from Wright a popular level biography of the great apostle, Paul: A Biography. In Paul: A Biography, Wright constructs for the reader a very illuminating, and even quite entertaining, portrait of Paul. Wright follows the path of Paul’s career, along the contours of the Book of Acts, while interacting with the best of today’s scholarship of the first century. Wright places the writing of each of Paul’s New Testament letters, within this narrative, serving as an introduction to the entire range Paul’s writings in the Christian Bible. Nevertheless, despite the accolades, Wright’s superstar status has raised questions, particularly among his own evangelical brethren, as will be discussed in this review.
N.T. Wright’s Delightful and Engaging Portrait of Paul
I can not improve upon the excellent review given by British pastor-teacher, Andrew Wilson, at The Gospel Coalition website. But I can add some commentary on what I learned the most from Wright, in this sweeping biography, while registering a few cautions here and there.
For example, I have always been a bit bothered about the reigning academic consensus, that contends that several of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament, were not actually written by him, such as Colossians and Ephesians. Yet I have never fully understood the evidence used to support this consensus view.
Wright cheerfully dismantles such claims against Pauline authorship, but does so by advancing Wright’s own provocative argument, that these letters, along with Philemon, were written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus. Most scholars have traditionally believed that Paul wrote these letters while in prison in Rome, or perhaps Caesarea in Palestine, if he wrote them at all. But Wright’s proposal of an Ephesian imprisonment, a minority view for decades among scholars, actually makes better sense of the available historical data.
An Ephesian imprisonment implies that the letter “to the Ephesians” (Ephesians 1:1) could have been more of a circular letter, distributed among the small church communities, that were growing and adding new members in and near Ephesus (Ephesians 1:15), the second largest city in the ancient Roman empire. Likewise, with Colossians, the letter to the church in Colossae, a city no more than a 100 miles from Ephesus, it stands to reason that Colossians, too, could have been easily written from an Ephesian prison, as both Ephesians and Colossians share similar characteristics, along with Philemon.
Wright’s adoption of an Ephesian imprisonment for Paul is based on his reading of 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, which speaks of Paul’s despairing affliction that he experienced in Asia. But there is more here to suggest that an imprisonment in Ephesus makes for a substantially better case for the location of where these letters were written, as opposed to a Roman imprisonment. With respect to the written style of these letters, something that most lay persons who do not understand New Testament Greek would never know, the evidence indicates a certain Asiatic style of writing, common around Ephesus, as opposed to a more Roman style of writing.
A more clear cut piece of evidence surrounds Paul’s relationship with Aristarchus and Epaphras. In Colossians 4:10, Paul records that Aristarchus was a “fellow prisoner” with Paul. The evidence here leans away from a Roman imprisonment, as Acts 19:29 tells us that the mob that seized Paul also seized Aristarchus, in Ephesus. Furthermore, the likelihood of Aristarchus even going to Rome is reduced when we consider Acts 27:2, where we learn that Aristarchus is from Macedonia, and that he accompanies Paul on a ship which stops at ports in Asia. This particular detail suggests that Aristarchus is on the ship on his way home to Macedonia. While it is still possible for Aristarchus to continue onto Rome with Paul, Aristarchus simply disappears from the story after this point.
We also know that Epaphras, who is from Asia (Colossians 4:12), was also a fellow prisoner of Paul’s (Philemon 1:23). It would have been more likely for Epaphras to have been imprisoned with Paul there in Ephesus, as opposed to Rome, considering that we have no evidence of Epaphras making any journey to Rome. Furthermore, even if both Aristarchus and Epaphras accompanied Paul to Rome, there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that either one of them were actually imprisoned with Paul there in that city (A cumulative case is laid out for an Ephesian imprisonment more fully in Benjamin W. Robinson’s essay, _An Ephesian Imprisonment of Paul_.)
However, the strongest argument for me is the unlikelihood that Onesimus, the runaway slave of Philemon, would have been able to travel such a long distance from Colossae (most probably Philemon’s home) all the way to Rome to meet up with Paul, and not get caught. It is much more likely for Onesimus to travel that one hundred miles to hide in a big city like Ephesus, instead of risking capture crossing the Ionian sea. In Philemon, we also read that Paul was making plans to send Onesimus back to Asia to be with Philemon. The effort in sending a runaway slave back to their master would be far more difficult if Onesimus had actually made it to Rome, as opposed to traveling the much shorter distance, with less obstacles, to Ephesus.
On the other hand, the biggest drawback to Wright’s proposal is that Luke in Acts does not mention Paul being in prison in Ephesus. Nevertheless, Wright is able to put the pieces together, in a manner that explains why liberal, critical scholars of previous generations have erred in thinking that Paul could not have written Colossians nor Ephesians. Simply brilliant.
Here is another example: The intriguing “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians has often been interpreted in evangelical circles as a future coming “antichrist” figure. But Wright places 2 Thessalonians within the context of Roman history, within about a decade of the letter being written, when the Roman emperor Caligula, an utterly insane, autocratic ruler, sought to have statues of himself placed within the Temple compound in Jerusalem, reminding the Jews that the Roman emperor is to be worshipped as supreme.
Caligula’s reign was cut short by his death in 41 C.E., aborting Caligula’s attempt to profane the Temple, but it made many of Thessalonika’s Jews worried that another “man of lawlessness,” like Caligula, might rise up again against the Jews and those early Christians. Was this a prophetic reference to the coming emperor Nero, in Paul’s own day, …. or some future antichrist figure, yet to emerge in our present 21st century day?
While such questions often preoccupy curious American believers, Wright tells his readers that Paul’s intent in 2 Thessalonians, was not to set up speculation as to who a future “man of lawlessness” might be, but rather to say that Jesus is still Lord, over even the most blasphemous of Roman emperors, a warning that might benefit Christians today, who tend to obsess over “all things End Times.”
It is page after page of insights such as these that make Paul: A Biography a rewarding investment of one’s time to better understand the world of the apostle Paul. I truly enjoyed this book, and I commend it to others, even if “theology” or “history” books are not your thing.
That being said, N.T. Wright does have his critics, even among evangelicals, and not all are convinced by Wright’s attempts to chronicle the life of Christianity’s greatest apostle. Wright may be able to make the world of contemporary scholarship more understandable to the average Christian reader, but perhaps not understandable enough. And what is understandable draws some rather awkward, unfamiliar conclusions, that cast some doubts on certain features of Wright’s theological project.
N.T. Wright: The Cheerful Polemicist
For example, James Goodman, a British evangelical follower of the great 20th century Welsh preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, gives Paul: A Biography a mere “one-star” review, believing that Wright is a type of trojan horse scholar, smuggling in the unbelieving errors of what Goodman contends is the radical New Perspective in Paul, that seeks to undermine the classic Reformation view of Paul’s teachings, of justification by faith alone. In a more generous and balanced review for Ligonier Ministries, New Testament professor David Briones, while finding many excellent and good things in Paul: A Biography, ultimately finds Wright to be unpersuasive, offering a caricature of the classic, evangelical understandings of Paul, traceable back to the leading lights of the Reformation, like Martin Luther and John Calvin.
So, why the bad marks from defenders of the evangelical Reformed tradition, for Paul: A Biography? For those who believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, N. T. Wright sends up red flags. This “righteousness of God,” which is alien to fallen humans, is applied, or “imputed,” to the Christian believer, as an expression of the love of God, through Jesus’ sacrificial death at Calvary. We as fallen, sinful human creatures, stand condemned before a Holy God, unless this Holy God, does something new on our behalf. The teachers of the Reformation contended that Christ indeed did such a thing, through this concept of the righteousness of God, being imputed to us. This righteousness thus declares the undeserving sinner to be justified by faith and faith alone, through grace and grace alone. Imputation is therefore considered to be the hallmark of true Gospel doctrine.
To Wright’s most conservative critics, Wright’s casually dismissive attitude towards this doctrine of imputation makes him just as complicit in attacking the Bible, as Wright’s liberal critics! To be fair, Wright does not hammer on this “anti-imputation” theme, as much as he has often expounded it in his more academic writings.
But neither does Wright, even in Paul: A Biography, seek to offer much irenic comfort to his Reformed critics, a recurring weakness in Wright’s work, in my view, though Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will find some reassurance in N.T. Wright, in their respective understandings of Paul. Wright’s approach is not completely of disagreement with, but rather one of relative indifference to, classic Reformation theology, which is enough to isolate N.T. Wright from the most conservative corners of the evangelical movement. Though greatly softened in Paul: A Biography, there is still a polemical edge in this popular work of Wright’s, that seeps through from time to time. As Briones argues in his review, hyperlinked above, Wright often redefines the meaning of classic Reformed Scriptural terminology, in a way that can easily confuse the reader. Furthermore, Charles Lee Irons, under supervision by my New Testament instructor at Fuller Seminary, Donald Hagner, has issued a significant challenge to Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as being nearly exclusively synonymous with God’s “covenant faithfulness.”
If imputation is not critical for Paul’s message of the Gospel, then what does N.T. Wright say is critical for Paul’s message? For N.T. Wright, Paul’s central theme is that God, through His faithfulness to His covenant with Israel, has now extended that same covenant, with those same covenant promises, to the Gentiles, in Jesus Christ. For Wright, the Reformation emphasis on the human sinner, receiving a declaration of being made righteous, so that we might be reconciled to God, is a fine message, and does play some type of role in Paul’s thought, but it is not the central idea that catapults Paul’s ministry. Instead, the Good News of the Gospel that Paul preaches is grounded upon the reality that God faithfully keeps his promises to the covenant people of Israel, and then brings the Gentiles in, to enjoy those same promises as well.
Some readers will take N.T. Wright as therefore actually down playing the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, namely of justification by faith and faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the lost sinner. Concerned evangelicals, like pastor John Piper, at Desiring God ministries, and even more moderate voices, like that of the late John R.W. Stott, take Wright’s tendency to introduce false dichotomies into his work to task, while still greatly appreciating the positive work that Wright is truly offering the church.
Another example may help to explain unease about Wright, in certain evangelical quarters. Wright does exceptionally well in Paul: A Biography, in defending Paul against the common claim that Paul was a misogynist, that he “hated” women. Wright wonderfully shows that women were some of Paul’s most trusted colleagues in ministry, and that Paul valued having women in church leadership. But does this more egalitarian, sympathetic view towards women really undercut Paul’s (often disputed) teaching in the pastoral letters, that the office of overseer, in the local church, is to be reserved for men only? Is there not a possible both/and solution here, as opposed to an either/or, pick-your-side approach to be considered, as offering critical insight into the temperament and teaching of the great apostle? Wright skirts around this most important issue, just as he does in the justification debate, that might offer a third-way rapprochement in the controversial “women in ministry” debate, that divides evangelical churches today.
Wright does a much better job in Paul: A Biography, of establishing a view of Paul as being thoroughly Jewish, as opposed to critics who believe Paul to be the “inventor of Christianity,” one in direct opposition to historic Judaism. Wright’s study of Second Temple Judaism offers a vivid appreciation for Paul’s Jewishness, that previous generations of scholars, both liberal and conservative, have often never fully considered.
Nevertheless, Wright does not fully satisfy his critics in Paul: A Biography, by not adequately addressing the question of what promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically to the Jewish people, if any, remain as valid possibilities for future fulfillment, in the mind of Paul. For example, many conservative evangelical Bible teachers would insist that Romans 11 envisions, at the very least, a great mass turning of Jews towards the Gospel, prior to Christ’s second coming. In Paul: A Biography, Wright does not even provide a hint of anything like that to be the case, proving to be a frustration to at least a few evangelical scholars and Bible teachers.
Towards the end of Paul: A Biography, Wright drops what some might consider to be a bombshell, regarding how one should think of the “End Times,” and beyond. Gone from Wright’s prose is the misty vision of believers, in white robes, with halos over their heads, in a blissful yet ultimately boring heaven, that characterizes many popular views of the Christian afterlife.
Wright brushes this kind of otherworldliness aside. Wright believes this view of a heaven above, as well as its damnation alternative below; that is, hell, to be a product of the Middle Ages, and not something that goes back to the mind of Paul. Rather, Wright sees Paul envisioning a type of new heavens and a new earth, a restoration of what God originally created, to be the future of a redeemed humanity. Wright is surely writing of a necessary corrective here, as millennial author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler agrees, along with an older evangelical, Randy Alcorn, (see Veracity blogger, John Paine’s review of Randy Alcorn), but is Wright overcorrecting too much?
The vast majority of evangelical Christians today, along with the skeptics who mock them, attribute the “end of the world” language, used in much of the New Testament, to be speaking of a literal conflagration of the space-time existence of this present world. In contrast, N.T. Wright sees this “end of the world” language as mostly about anticipating the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, something that actually did take place in 70 C.E.
Wright understands Paul as surely believing in a future bodily resurrection of the dead, as well as a physical future return of the Lord Jesus, but pretty much everything else with respect to the “End Times” was fulfilled shortly after Paul’s death, presumably sometime in the decade of the 60’s C.E., or shortly thereafter.
This “partial preterist” position, regarding the “End Times,” is held by a few other evangelicals, such as the late R.C. Sproul, but Wright does relatively little in Paul: A Biography to fully dissuade the vast majority of evangelicals today, who foresee a future apocalyptic ending of the world, following the script of the popular “Left Behind” films and books. You would have to look to some of Wright’s other books, to learn what he is really talking about, particularly when it comes to the afterlife, which is more along the lines of what you find in something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
A Recommended Biography of Paul, and an Introduction to N.T. Wright’s Grand Theological Project
Though I enjoyed Wright’s book tremendously, there are two, broadly cautionary notes I have with Paul: A Biography, as I reflect on some of the more controversial ideas put forward by this brilliant Anglican scholar. One is the tendency of Wright to possibly overreach in giving the reader a psychoanalytic evaluation of Paul’s mindset. There is simply too much that we do not know about Paul’s inner workings for us to fully evaluate what was really going on inside Paul’s head.
This does not mean that we can not probe. Informed by his competent grasp of Greco-Roman history and Second Temple Judaism, Wright does a masterful job of teasing things out of Paul’s letters, that a casual reading might probably miss. Nevertheless, sparks of insight should not allow us to become too carried away. We still need to be measured and cautious in our judgments, of what Paul really said, and not read certain speculative perspectives in unnecessarily.
Secondly, Wright is driven firmly by his narrative, formed by his moderate New Perspective in Paul paradigm, that focuses so much on the theme of Jewish exile, in a political world at odds with pagan Rome. As a result, Wright fails to adequately point out the gravity of the spiritual dimension of human lostness, as taught by Paul. To be fair, as an evangelical, Wright does not deny the spiritual import of Paul’s message, to the individual; that is, our need for a personal Savior, which Wright surely affirms. But neither does Wright emphasize this as much as he could.
As Susan Grove Eastman comments in her review for The Christian Century, “Wright mutes Paul’s radical diagnosis of the human condition.That diagnosis is far more global than simply viewing Rome as the enemy. In fact, Paul talks very little, if any, about Rome or Caesar. They are not worth his notice, and they are not in view when he uses the language of bondage and freedom. Whereas Wright emphasizes Jewish antipathy to Rome and posits that Paul wanted to plant his gospel of Christ’s lordship in opposition to the imperial claims of Caesar, Paul sets his sights on enemies far greater than any human power or institution. The enemies, as he repeatedly says, are sin and death, and it is the brutal reign of these suprahuman powers that Christ overthrew on the cross, thereby setting humanity free. That is the regime change that truly liberates.” If such a pointed critique came from a stalwart evangelical magazine, like a Christianity Today, that would be one thing. But to hear this from a Protestant mainline publication is unexpected, to say the least.
Still, despite some of the above concerns, many others find Paul: A Biography as being a delightful introduction into the life and ministry of Paul. Robert C. Trube’s review of Paul: A Biography, is a fine example of a Christian reviewer, who enjoys Wright’s captivating portrait of Paul, in terms of illuminating the human side of the man, often obscured by centuries of intractable theological debate.
This is what I appreciated most about N.T. Wright’s vivid portrait of Paul, a description of a man with shortcomings and human limitations, with whom I can relate. This, more humanized side of Paul, typically gets brushed under the rug, when many Christians consider that Paul was also the writer of a large portion of Sacred Scripture. Paul was surely one of the greatest servants of God, but he was still a flawed human being, in need of a Savior, just like you and me.
Wright’s Paul: A Biography may not completely supersede F. F. Bruce’s 20th century classic evangelical biography, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, but it succeeds in a way that F.F. Bruce’s work does not. Bruce’s Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free is more technical in his documentation, whereas I listened to Wright’s Paul: A Biography as an audiobook, and I never felt burdened once while listening.
F.F. Bruce is very solid, and far less controversial in his critical judgments, whereas Wright’s book flows better as great historical literature, with loads of valuable and fresh insights. Time after time, I simply had to stop listening to the audiobook version of Wright’s book and go, “Wow. I have never, ever thought of that before! This is great!” So, despite the above noted cautions, Wright’s Paul: A Biography serves a dual purpose, of being one of the finest biographical surveys of Paul’s life and writings, along with being perhaps the best introduction to the theology of N.T. Wright, an invitation to explore the rest of Wright’s more scholarly work.
Eric Metaxas interviews N.T. Wright on this video podcast: