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New Horizons

A Review Article: Paul for Everyone, by Wright

J. V. Fesko

N. T. Wright has written a series of popular commentaries on the epistles of Paul, entitled Paul for Everyone, including two volumes on Romans—which we will be reviewing here.[1] Wright presents himself as a Reformed theologian, and elsewhere has claimed to be a "good Calvinist."[2] He also acknowledges that his "fresh interpretations of Paul" have caused "controversy" in evangelical and Reformed circles.[3]

This may come as a surprise, but it is helpful to begin reading Wright's commentary on Romans at the end, not the beginning. At the end, he has a glossary that helps the reader understand key terms. For Wright, faith is defined as "both the specific belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10.9) and the response of grateful human love to sovereign divine love (Gal 2.20)" (1:167). Wright defines justification as "God's declaration, from his position as judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin. This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Rom 2.1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through his cross (Rom 3.21-4.25); the means of this present justification is simply faith" (1:169-70).

When we compare these statements with classic Reformed definitions from the Shorter Catechism, we see some significant differences. The catechism defines faith in Christ as "a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Q. 86). The catechism defines justification as "an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Q. 33).

When we compare these two sets of definitions, we see that Wright is on a different trajectory than the historic Reformed faith. Note that Wright's definition of faith includes the response of love, whereas the Shorter Catechism mentions nothing of love. Wright's definition has more in common with historic Roman Catholic definitions, which state that faith, hope, and charity, or love, are the cause of man's justification.[4] Additionally, note that Wright's definition of justification is significantly different than the catechism's. According to Wright, justification has two stages, the first based on faith, the second based on the entire life (the works) of the believer. It is a declaration that one is "in the right," and it involves only the forgiveness of sins. The catechism, on the other hand, states that justification involves the pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness, and that it is received by faith alone (being complete in Wright's first stage).

Given the differences in these definitions, it is fair to conclude that for Wright, part of Paul's grand message of Romans is justification by faithfulness, whereas for the historic Reformed tradition it is justification by faith alone. Although Wright claims at the beginning of his commentary to give the reader everything that the historic Reformed reading of Romans does, he seems to have forgotten to alert the reader to vital missing portions, such as the imputed righteousness of Christ. In other words, for Wright it is only the cross of Christ that is ultimately necessary, for it brings the forgiveness of sins. For the historic Reformed tradition, however, our justification is secured by Christ's life lived in perfect obedience to the law, his death suffered to pay the penalty of the law, and his resurrection securing the victory over sin and death.

Moving ahead, when we explore various passages of Romans in Wright's commentary, we see that his translations sometimes significantly skew the understanding of the epistle. A quick perusal of the table below demonstrates the peculiar nature of Wright's work. Make no mistake about it, Wright claims merely to restore Paul's original ideas, not offer his own. At the same time, however, Wright's translation of the text and his interpretation of Paul's theology are often unique. Quite literally, no translator or expositor of Paul has offered such views in nearly two millennia.

On core issues, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, Wright stumbles about. He defines the Holy Spirit in the following manner: "In Genesis 1.2, the spirit is God's presence and power within creation, without God being identified with creation" (1:169). Here Wright avoids pantheism (the idea that God is the creation), but leans toward modalism (the idea that God merely takes on different forms, rather than being three distinct persons). Elsewhere he writes concerning the Holy Spirit: "Paul inherited a rich tradition of ways to refer to this presence: God's wisdom, God's spirit, God's glory (particularly as dwelling in the Temple), God's word, and of course God's law. We might even include God's son in this list, in view of the exalted things said about the coming king in 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 2 and elsewhere" (1:143). While one cannot be sure what Wright's personal views are on the Trinity, his statements reveal no concept of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Given this absence, one suspects that Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses would have no problem with his definitions and descriptions of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, what a difference one finds in the simply stated, concise, and precise definition of the Shorter Catechism: "There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory" (Q. 6).

Other problems surface in Wright's explanation of Romans 5. There he avoids the issue of imputation altogether and implicitly questions the historicity of the Fall: "Paul does not discuss, and nor shall we, the question of what actual events lie behind the highly coloured account of Genesis 3" (1:94). If Genesis 3 does not report the "actual events," then what actually happened in the garden? Such a statement seems to reflect a common liberal idea that Genesis 3 is a myth, a fictional story created to explain the present state of affairs-in this case, the presence of sin in the world. Wright claims that predestination is "a mystery which Paul does not attempt to penetrate, either here or elsewhere" (1:156). In his explanation of Romans 16:1, 7, he argues that Phoebe held the office of deacon and that Junia was a female apostle (2:134). In other words, Wright seems to argue that Paul believed that women should hold ordained office.

In this brief survey of Wright's commentary, we find troubling teachings attributed to the apostle Paul: justification by faithfulness, no doctrine of imputation, a denial that the believer requires the active obedience of Christ for his justification, a confusing and bizarre definition of the Holy Spirit, questioning the historical reliability of the Genesis 3 narrative, predestination being too mysterious to discuss, a female deacon, and a female apostle.

It seems laughable for Wright to maintain that his interpretations of Paul retain everything that the historic Reformed tradition has given us in the past and present a whole lot more (1:2). On the contrary, with Wright we lose crucial elements of Reformed, or biblical, Christianity, and we gain many other problematic and even heretical teachings that we have never wanted. It is high time for Wright and his followers to acknowledge that his new interpretations of Paul are incompatible and at odds with the historic Reformed faith. His commentaries should be retitled N. T. Wright for Everyone.


[1] Published by Westminster John Knox, 2004. Each volume (paperback) lists for $14.95. The volumes on Romans are cited in this article as volume:page (e.g., 1:2), and all emphasis in quotations is Wright's.

[2] N. T. Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p. 248.

[3] Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," p. 243.

[4] See the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), vol. 2, p. 96.

The author is pastor of Geneva OPC in Woodstock, Ga. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2007.

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