This fall, our church has been conducting a Bible study on the first eight chapters of the Book of Romans. We have been using a study guide written by an Anglican New Testament Scholar teaching at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, N.T. Wright, Romans (N.T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides).
I need not give you a biography of N.T. Wright, other than to say that Wright is perhaps one of the most influential evangelical scholars of our day. In the 1990s, Wright wrote about and impressively critiqued the rather infamous Jesus Seminar, that sought to determine the “truly” authentic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels simply on the basis of majority vote among the Jesus Seminar scholars. Wright also wrote perhaps the best contemporary defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Resurrection of the Son of God (the only other book that comes anywhere close to exceeding Wright’s work is Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). He has been a bishop, and he regularly speaks all over the world, appealing to conservative and liberal-minded Christians alike, along with interested skeptics and seekers. N.T. Wright writes faster than most humans can read… and he is overall an excellent and engaging writer, writing for both academia and also for the popular audience, as with his C.S. Lewis-like introductory book to the Christian faith, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. For the intellectually inclined, Wright is very much like a C.S. Lewis for our times… and he even has a great English accent to listen to!
But Wright also disturbs many of his fellow Christians, particularly those from a Reformed theological background. Now, the study of Romans is incredibly rich and rewarding in and of itself, but if you are not familiar with N.T. Wright, you might find yourself perplexed by some of the things N.T. Wright argues for in his study book. Consider a note on Romans 1:17 that Wright gives us on pages 13-14 of the Romans study guide:
Here Paul introduces a word and theme that will be critical throughout the letter. The Greek word and its variants are often translated as “righteous,” “righteousness,” “just” or “justice.” The problem is that Paul (though writing in Greek) has Hebrew words and meanings in mind, which English translations often overlook…..the phrase “the righteousness of God” [refers] to God ‘s own faithfulness to his promises to Israel, to his covenant…He keeps his word and thereby shows his trustworthiness, justice and righteousness…. What does this mean for what Paul is saying in Romans? [God] does not impart or impute or transfer his righteousness, his just character [to the believer]….”
and here is this remark on page 26:
The phrase often translated “righteousness of God” … is not, as some have argued, a righteous quality that God gives or imparts to humans. It is God’s own righteousness, his being true to the covenant. This covenant faithfulness carries with it more of the overtones that Paul is trying to highlight, referring back to God’s covenant promises to Abraham to undo the problem caused by the sin of Adam. But Israel failed to both keep the law and bring the message of God to the nations.
For evangelical Christians who read this, those who have grown up hearing sermons about the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, primarily through Christ’s “active obedience” to the Mosaic Law, thus enabling God to see us clothed in Christ’s righteousness instead of our sin, sentences like those above from N.T. Wright are frankly startling. It can even be downright maddening! So then, what is N.T. Wright up to here? (CAUTION: you might need to put your thinking cap on!)