N.T. Wright, Calvinism, and Scripture

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we continue our discussion of N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God as part of our series on learning the love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

Now, last week we hit something of a snafu when, in commenting on Wright’s kingdom-focused view of sovereignty, I wrote that “N.T. Wright is not a Calvinist.” Several of you noted that this might not be entirely true, reminding me that Wright considers his views consistent with the Reformed tradition and pointing me to a 2003 address on the New Perspectives on Paul in which Wright said, “Let me, as a good Calvinist, offer you five points about Paul which I regard as crucial in the present debates.”

While I think Wright was being somewhat facetious in that comment, I realize I may have misrepresented his position...or at least overstated it...so last Wednesday, I reopened the conversation to see if you had any insights regarding this matter. As always, you responded with insight, wisdom, and some great links.

I’m no expert on N.T. Wright, but from what I gather from your comments and the articles you shared, Wright is first and foremost and Anglican. He was, after all, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England until his retirement in 2003. So, I highly doubt that if asked to identify his denominational affiliation, Wright would begin with Calvinism. 

Of course, Anglicanism falls within the broader Reformed tradition, and as many of you mentioned, the Reformed tradition is incredibly diverse.  While some Reformed Christians have embraced Wright’s teachings, others, most notably John Piper, strongly disagree with Wright on Pauline theology and justification. In fact, Wright is speaking about these disagreements in the address referenced above when says, “I am aware that fresh interpretations of Paul, including my own, have caused controversy in evangelical circles, and particularly reformed circles.”  

I suspect this is why Wright makes an effort in this address to find some common ground with Calvin, asserting, “if I had to choose between Luther and Calvin I would always take Calvin, whether on the Law or (for that matter) the Eucharist.”  But Wright goes on to argue for a new way of reading Paul, one that does not necessarily align with many modern interpretations of Luther and Calvin. 

“I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many others would tell us to read scripture afresh," says Wright, "with all the tools available to us—which is, after all what they did—and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and I believe I am honouring them thereby.” 

Given this context, I think it would be misleading to say that N.T. Wright is entirely NOT a Calvinists and misleading to say that N.T. Wright is PRIMARILY a Calvinist. Clearly, he acknowledges and respects the fact that, as a biblical scholar, he stands on the shoulders of John Calvin. But he doesn’t seem to think that biblical scholarship reached its culmination with the famous Reformer.

The brand of Calvinism with which Wright seems most at odds is the evangelical brand of Cavlinism, popularized by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor, and the Gospel Coalition.  As I mentioned last week, I have something of a blind spot when it comes to Calvinism, mainly because most of my interactions with it have been with this particular variety.

Until last week, I was under the impression that anyone who identifies himself or herself as a Calvinist would interpret “election” to refer to individual salvation from hell—that God chooses some before the foundation of the world to encounter Jesus and spend eternity in heaven while choosing others for irreversible damnation in hell, with no hope or possibility of salvation. I knew from past reading this was not how N.T. Wright interpreted Romans 9, or at least not what he emphasized about it, and that instead, Wright seems to think of election in more corporate terms. However, as many of you pointed out, even within Calvinism there are differences in the interpretation of “election.” So just because someone identifies himself or herself as a Calvinist does not mean they believe in double predestination...and, conversely, just because someone thinks of election corporately does not mean that they cannot think of it individually as well. Apparently, there are a lot of theological colors and shades with which to play here, and I still have a lot to learn—about both Wright and Reformed theology. 

But to bring us back to the original point from Scripture and the Authority of God: When Wright speaks about sovereignty, he is referring to kingship. 

According to Wright,  “To speak of God’s Kingdom is  thus to invoke God as the sovereign one who has the right, the duty, and the power to deal appropriately with evil in the world, in Israel, and in human beings, and thereupon to remake the world, Israel, and human beings.”

I like how Andrew put it in the comment section: “Picture a traveler, coming into a foreign country, and asking the first person they meet, ‘Who's the sovereign here?’ What they're asking is, ‘ Who has authority here? Who's jurisdiction am I in? Who's concern is this place?’ The sovereign doesn't have complete control over the traveler. The traveler is free to come and go. But if, while in the area of the sovereign's... uh ... sovereignty, the traveler steals something, or kills someone, or generally makes a mess of things, the sovereign is going to have something to say about it."

This is key to understanding what Wright means when he refers to the authority of God when it relates to Scripture, which I suppose is why we’ve now spent three posts discussing it! Next week we’ll move on to the next chapter. I promise! 

Thank you once again for all your insightful comments and helpful links. Is there anything else that needs to be added to the conversation?

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