More of Craig on Wright (and a rant)

John Bowling
6 min readAug 6, 2020

“Unfortunately, the traditional thinkers whom we have discussed have been misrepresented and even pilloried in the secondary literature.[11]

[11] The most unfortunate example in my acquaintance is the impression given by N. T. Wright in his The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion… that traditional atonement theories are “paganized” theories of the atonement. … Wright erects this straw man to serve as a foil for the presentation of his own account of the atonement (which turns out, ironically, to be fairly traditional). Remarkably, Wright is unable to furnish a single example of either a scholar or a popular writer who espouses this supposedly widespread neo-pagan theory of the atonement. The closest he comes is the example of a minister who said, “Someone had to die,” an expression of a necessitarian view of satisfaction which hardly merits Wright’s horrified disapprobation. …

— Craig, Atonement and the Death of Christ. p. 143, fn. 11

This stuck out to me because just a few pages earlier N. T. Wright is exactly who came to my mind as I read this:

On Turretin’s view … Justification consists in the imputation of righteousness, not merely a righteousness of innocence but a righteousness of perseverance… That righteousness is won by the lifelong obedience of Christ, whereby he completely fulfilled the law.

— Craig, p. 135

This reminded me of something I had read in Wright last year. Compare the above with Wright’s misleading portrayal in Jesus and the Victory of God:

The gospels [were] turned into repositories of the same ‘timeless truth’. … All this culminates, of course, in the event to which the gospels really do point, the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is to be understood not as the execution of an awkward figure who refused to stop rocking the first-century Jewish or Roman boat, but as the saving divine act whereby the sins of the world were dealt with once and for all.

This divine act, however, did not have very much to do with what went before. The fact that the gospels reached their climax with the death of Jesus seemed to have little to do with any significance to be drawn from his life … The reformers had very thorough answers to the question ‘why did Jesus die?’; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question ‘why did Jesus live?’ Their successors to this day have not often done any better. But the question will not go away. If the only available answer is ‘to give some shrewd moral teaching, to live an exemplary life, and to prepare for sacrificial death’, we may be forgiven for thinking it a little lame.

The hypothesis I shall propose shares the reformers’ concern for theology, but not their uncertainty about the value of the history of Jesus’ life in relation to the theological and hermeneutical task.

— Wright, p. 13-14, 16

The most that could be said on Wright’s behalf is that the reformers did not have his fleshed out view of Jesus as Israel’s messiah. But to give such a slanted view of how the reformers (and their successors to this day!) struggled to find significance for Jesus’ life is absurd (but, as I’ve mentioned in the past, typical of Wright’s method). After all, consider how Wright summarizes his own book!

Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is the one given by all early Christians actually known to us (as opposed to those invented by modern mythographers): Jesus was raised from the dead. … The resurrection, however we understand it, was the only reason [the apostles] came up with for supposing that Jesus stood for anything other than a dream that might have come true but didn’t. It was the only reason why his life and words possessed any relevance two weeks, let alone two millennia, after his death. … Jesus interpreted his coming death, and the vindication he expected after that death, as the defeat of evil…

— pp. 658–659

Following that, it would be easy to say that Wright hardly escapes what he sees as the reformers’ “problem”— especially in the context of his broader corpus (e.g., Simply Jesus, section on The New Exodus), where Wright clearly sees the “defeat of evil” as dealing with an individual’s sins (Wright would no doubt describe this pejoratively as “lonely individualism” when summarizing an opponent — cf. around page 200 of J&VG). The fact that Wright speaks in more general terms (Wright would describe this pejoratively as “abstract ideas” when summarizing an opponent — cf. NTPG around page 100) doesn’t escape the fact that when he has to be more specific about what exactly the “defeat of evil” and the coming of God’s kingdom entails he ends up pretty much where those “lonely individualists” with their “abstract ideas” did!

Compare what Wright says about the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the proclamation of the kingdom with what Calvin says in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Tim. 3:16,) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. … Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God: as when Mark says that Joseph waited for the kingdom of God, (15:43,) he undoubtedly refers to the coming of the Messiah.

… Again, the four histories, which relate how Christ discharged the office of Mediator, have with great propriety received this designation [of “Gospel”]. As the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ contain the whole of our salvation, and are therefore the peculiar subject of the Gospel…

The power and results of his coming are still more fully expressed in other books of the New Testament. And even in this respect John differs widely from the other three Evangelists: for he is almost wholly occupied in explaining the power of Christ, and the advantages which we derive from him; while they insist more fully on one point, that our Christ is that Son of God who had been promised to be the Redeemer of the world. They interweave, no doubt, the doctrine which relates to the office of Christ, and inform us what is the nature of his grace, and for what purpose he has been given to us; but they are principally employed, as I have said, in showing that in the person of Jesus Christ has been fulfilled what God had promised from the beginning. They had no intention or design to abolish by their writings the law and the prophets; as some fanatics dream that the Old Testament is superfluous, now that the truth of heavenly wisdom has been revealed to us by Christ and his Apostles. On the contrary, they point with the finger to Christ, and admonish us to seek from him whatever is ascribed to him by the law and the prophets. The full profit and advantage, therefore, to be derived from the reading of the Gospel will only be obtained when we learn to connect it with the ancient promises.

— pp. xxxvi–xxxviii

At most, Wright might nuance things differently (e.g., “heavenly glory”), but overall Wright hasn’t managed to sketch a significantly different summation of Jesus’ work, such that the reformed view is shown to be deficient.

And if one objects that I’m doing Wright a disservice by choosing to focus on the selected quotes while ignoring other passages I might have quoted for Wright, then how much more could this criticism be leveled at Wright — which is my point regarding Turretin. And as for the reformers’ successors to this day, we could give the same defense:

Matthew Barrett:

What are these “works” ([John] 5:36) that the Father has sent his Son to accomplish? Evangelicals have been quick to answer that question by turning to the cross. That is a biblical instinct yet one that needs some nuance lest the whole life of Christ be considered irrelevant to the Son’s mission. If Jesus is the second Adam (Romans 5), then it is not only his death but also his whole life that is redemptive in nature. Here the church father Irenaeus is insightful, reminding Gospel readers that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in all their diverse emphases, agree that the Son recapitulates the work of Adam and Israel but with an entirely different outcome than what Adam and Israel achieved. His mission is not only to die on behalf of sinners but to live on their behalf as well.

— The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls, Kindle loc. 552–557

Frank Thielman:

As important as the death of Christ was for the forgiveness of humanity’s disobedience to God (3:24; 4:6–9), however, it was far from the only element of Christ’s existence that was important in the deliverance of human beings from sin.

— Romans (ZECNT), p. 762



John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.