Nearly Everything Wrong with N.T. Wright Summed Up in One Chapter Heading

John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton and author of the Lost World of Genesis 1, has a new book coming out this Spring. The new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debateis summarized this way by the publishers:

For centuries the story of Adam and Eve has resonated richly through the corridors of art, literature and theology. But for most moderns, taking it at face value is incongruous. And even for many thinking Christians today who want to take seriously the authority of Scripture, insisting on a “literal” understanding of Genesis 2–3 looks painfully like a “tear here” strip between faith and science.

How can Christians of good faith move forward? Who were the historical Adam and Eve? What if we’ve been reading Genesis—and its claims regarding material origins—wrong? In what cultural context was this couple, this garden, this tree, this serpent portrayed?

Following his groundbreaking Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton explores the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 2–3, creating space for a faithful reading of Scripture along with full engagement with science for a new way forward in the human origins debate. As a bonus, an illuminating excursus by N. T. Wright places Adam in the implied narrative of Paul’s theology.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand this foundational text historically and theologically, and wondering how to view it alongside contemporary understandings of human origins.

While there is much to be said about this book and the theological positions taken by the author (you can read the chapter headings here), what caught my attention was the “illuminating excursus by N.T. Wright.” Here is the full heading for Wright’s chapter, “Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins.”

This single chapter heading is truly amazing. It has successfully encapsulated almost everything that’s wrong with Wright’s theology. Let me explain what I mean. This chapter heading contains Wright’s low view of Scripture, his re-interpretation of Paul’s writings, his minimizing the importance of the salvation of individuals, his emphasis on the redemption of the cosmos, and his belief in the evolutionary origins of humanity.

First, the chapter heading illustrates Wright’s low view of the inspiration of Scripture. He speaks, here and in his other works, of “Paul’s use” as if Scripture is mainly the work of the human authors. It may seem like a stretch, but over and over again the repeated use of “what Paul means” or “Paul’s use of the Old Testament” or “Paul’s purposes,” etc. emphasizes the human author and de-emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the writing and preserving of Scripture.

As far as inerrancy is concerned, Wright would not call himself an inerrantist and views the debate on inerrancy and inspiration to be an American preoccupation:

“…the insistence on an ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ Bible has grown up within a complex cultural matrix (that, in particular, of modern North American Protestantism) where the Bible has been seen as the bastion of orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism on the one hand and liberal modernism on the other. Unfortunately, the assumptions of both those worlds have conditioned the debate. It is no accident that this Protestant insistence on biblical infallibility arose at the same time that Rome was insisting on papal infallibility, or that the rationalism of the Enlightenment infected even those who were battling against it.” Simply Christian (183)

Of course, Wright also believes the debate over the historicity of Adam is mainly an American preoccupation, so I’m not sure why he felt called to address it now.

Second, re-imagining and re-interpreting what Paul really meant is what Wright does. Wright has made his mark as part of the New Perspective on Paul. It should come as no surprise that Wright’s contribution to Walton’s book would be to explain to us how we’ve misunderstood and misused what Paul wrote.

What have we misunderstood this time? Two main things are mentioned in the chapter heading:

  • The effect of sin on the cosmos is more important than the effect of sin on humanity.
  • Paul had nothing to say about human origins.

I read an article this week that critiqued Wright’s “overstatement” on the importance of the cosmos as compared to humanity. The author is convinced that Wright simply overstated his case and that everyone knows that Scripture teaches that humans are more important than things. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the importance of the cosmos is part and parcel of Wright’s theology.

Wright truly does believe that the cosmos are more important in the grand scheme of things. He believes that we have become way too focused on saving people and lost sight of our role in redeeming the cosmos:

to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. Surprised by Hope (164 ebook)

Not only have we misunderstood the purpose and overarching theme of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the Gospel. When Scripture says that Jesus came to save His people from their sins, Wright believes that it’s not so much about individuals being saved from their moral failures, but rather, that Jesus had to come to put God’s rescue plan for creation back on track.

God has made a plan to save the world. Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite. This (Jesus) is what God has now provided. Justification (68)

And,

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. … It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought.

But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed (The Meaning of Jesus, 98).

And that is how we get to the final point from the chapter heading, Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about human origins. In a review of Wright’s book, Surprise by Scripture, the author explains how Wright’s understanding of salvation and his re-interpretation of Paul’s use of Adam are connected:

There is a commonly held approach to salvation which posits that a perfect creation was marred through Adam’s sin, and Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin, thereby allowing us to go to heaven when we die. Adam’s role in that story is crucial: “no Adam” means “no reason for Christ to come.” But according to Wright, that is not the story that Paul tells, and it is a distortion of the Gospel. Instead, Paul connects our salvation to the story of Israel—their being placed in the Promised Land, given a commission to bless all nations, then breaking the Law and being exiled. Paul uses Adam to retell Israel’s story: “placed in the garden, given a commission to look after it; the garden being the place where God wanted to be at rest, to exercise his sovereign rule; the people warned about keeping the commandment, warned in particular that breaking it would mean death, breaking it, and being exiled. It all sounds very, very familiar” (p. 37). Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account. Lots of other Jewish authors around the time of Paul appropriated Adam to get their points across too. The genre of this literature was not historical journalism.

So there you have it. According to Wright, there’s no need for a historical Adam. Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the review appeared on the BioLogos website. Wright and Walton both are featured on BioLogos and share their belief in an evolutionary explanation for human origins. For all three, Wright, Walton, and BioLogos, I truly believe their interpretation of Scripture is driven by their commitments to science, politics, and their own worldviews rather than the reverse.

And that brings us back full circle to the first point. Everything hinges on your view of Scripture. Either Scripture will be the lens through which you view the world or the world (science, politics, worldview, etc) will be the lens through which you view Scripture. Ultimately one or the other will be your authority.

Original Vision and the Authority of Scripture

In an attempt to better understand the founding of our denomination, I have been reading the newsletters that the Presbyterian Churchmen United (PCU) published in the early 1970s. I have always heard that the inerrancy of Scripture was one of the main reasons the founders of the PCA left the PC(US) and formed the PCA. An essay from the second PCU newsletter confirms that. Here is an excerpt from an address by the Rev. Joe Morecraft III. Given the current discussions surrounding the interpretations of Genesis, it seems to me that there truly is nothing new under the sun:

It has been said that the divisions in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. have been brought on simply because of a difference of emphasis. One side emphasizes the social aspect of the Gospel, and the other side emphasizes the individual aspect, we are told; and for the Gospel to be complete, both sides are needed. Therefore, they say, let us throw down our arms and get together. But that is not the correct evaluation of the situation in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. I wish it were.

The problem is not one of emphasis but of diametrically opposed systems of doctrine – – one leading to the Living Christ of the Scriptures, the other leading away from Him. The differences among us are so deep that they are Irreconcilable, as they stand now, unless one side changes or compromises their present convictions. …

The old, historic and biblical view of the Bible has left our seminaries, our pulpits, and our colleges, to a large degree. In exchange for it we hear such things as: “The Bible becomes the Word of God to me as God sees fit, but no book lying on a table can be called the Word of God,” or “The Bible contains the Word of God mixed with the erring opinions of men,” or “The Bible contains the infallible Word of God clothed in the fallible words of men.”

A southern Presbyterian seminary professor said that he did not care what the Bible said, he wanted to know what God said. Another one said that there were parts of the Old Testament, such as the story of Jericho, which should not be in the Bible. As the result of the prevalent view, I was taught in seminary that when studying Genesis as an historical document, the first eleven chapters were not to be considered at all, and chapters twelve through fifty, as well at the rest of the Old Testament, were to be read with a critical eye. I was taught in seminary that Moses was not the author of the first five books of the Bible, although the bulk of the Bible and Jesus Christ Himself affirm that he was. In other words, Jesus cannot always be relied upon. He too can be mistaken, for He was wrong in His view of the Old Testament.

I was taught in seminary that much of the prophecy of the Old Testament such as Isaiah and Daniel is not prophecy at all, but is texts written in prophetic form after the events took place about which they were to prophesy. That is basic dishonesty.

I was taught in seminary that Paul misinterpreted the Old Testament at some points in his Epistles, thus making his teaching unreliable.

In other words, enough has been said to see that, in our seminaries and pulpits, the Bible is regarded as a book which cannot be relied upon, but which needs human correction, clarification, and supplementation. These opinions that: 1) the Bible becomes the Word of God; 2) the Bible contains the Word of God mixed with human opinions; and 3) the Bible is the infallible Word in fallible human words, make Truth purely subjective. What sounds good to me is truth from God, regardless of how it sounds to you, they say. God could contradict Himself, in that case, in speaking to each of us, and if so we could be sure of nothing we held as being Truth. We would have nothing of which to give testimony.

Again, if the Bible contains the Word of God mixed with human opinion, and if we can distinguish it from error, we would be placing our minds in such an exalted position that papal infallibility would be child’s play.

And if it is true that the Word is always clothed in fallible words, like a mask, then we could never get behind the mask and know the one Living GOD.

Rev. Morecraft goes on to address how this view of Scripture is then applied by the Neo-Orthodox to the doctrine of the atonement:

The Doctrine of the Atonement, if a man’s theology is to have any respect at all, must be clear-cut, certain and rigidly adherent to the truths of Scripture, going as far as they go, and stopping where they stop.

Two generations ago, our seminaries unashamedly taught the following about the Death of Jesus Christ: It was space-time event in history, in which the Son of God turned away the wrath and satisfied the justice of an angry GOD. The Son willingly gave Himself to die because of the Father’s love for sinners. This satisfaction was made by Jesus being put to death as a substitute in the place of many sinners, taking upon Himself the punishment and hell which our sins deserve and which God’s justice required.

If there is any doctrine which enrages Neo-Orthodoxy and which sets its teeth on edge, it is this doctrine which we have just mentioned, called in the Bible—Propitiation. One Presbyterian seminary professor said that propitiation should never be in any translation of the Bible anywhere.

Another seminary professor said without further explanation, “A cross-centered theology is a bad theology.” In Neo-Orthodoxy the Atonement could mean several things: 1) It was the releasing of Christ’s life in which mankind participates; 2) By it Christ lifted the sins of humanity by identification with those sins and overwhelmingly abolishing those sins by His own Deity; 3) In it the Electing God becomes the Elected Man (i.e., in Christ all men are elected), and bearing the rejection of God for the world, Christ becomes the only Rejected Man; 4) In it, God, out of His almighty power, simply says, “I forgive everybody,” with no regard to His Justice and Holiness. If God did this, we surely would stand in respect of His power, but we could never trust His love.

At the heart of Neo-Orthodoxy’s view of the Atonement lies one of three things: 1) repudiation of the supreme importance of the Cross; 2) an implicit universalism saying that all humanity will be saved; 3) the sovereignty
of man, who is able to thwart God’s plan, ruin His purposes and disavow His election.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as lesser biblical miracles, in the minds of many today are seen as being performed not in verifiable human history, which can be given attestation, but in the realm of faith. In other words, if you had been there whenJesus fed the Five Thousand with bread and fish, you would have gone home hungry.

A Presbyterian seminary professor said that it did not matter to him whether or not Jesus arose from the grave, he would still be a Christian. That sounds noble, but what if Jesus Christ is still in the grave today?” He did not genuinely arise from the grave in the same body In which He suffered, we have nothing. The Cross through the Open Tomb gives the Christian religion its power and uniqueness.

Rev. Morecraft concludes his address with a call to stand for the truth even if that means facing persecution and ridicule:

In conclusion, I pray that it can be seen that some things are not negotiable. There are some things which we cannot compromise or give up, even at the cost of peace. For, to compromise in the least degree on what the Bible claims for itself–total and unconditional authority in everything it says; or to compromise at all on what Christ did for us in accomplishing our salvation-satisfied an angry God, is to deny Christ, betray Christianity, and stand with the antichrist.

There is coming a time and now is, when you and I as Bible-believing Presbyterians must publicly and boldly take a stand in the face of persecution, ridicule and mockery, and say with Martin Luther so long ago, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”