When Wright is Wrong:
A Reformed Baptist Critique
of N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul
Review by Chuck Ivey
Griffiths, Phillip D.R., When Wright is Wrong: A Reformed Baptist Critique of N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul. Eugene: Resource Publications, 2019. 240 pp. $31.00
Biographical Sketch of the Author
Phillip D.R. Griffiths is a retired teacher living in Bethlehem, Pembrokeshire with his family. He holds degrees in philosophical and systematic theology and is a graduate of The London School of Theology. His other books include From Calvin to Barth: A Return to Protestant Orthodoxy and Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective.
What is the “New Perspective on Paul”? While the answer to this question is complex, opponents of this view (NPP) really have boiled it down to a very simple concern. What does God’s Word, and the letters of the apostle Paul in particular, teach about the doctrine of justification? You can listen to my friend George Alvarado and I discuss this subject at the Things Above Us Roundtable here and here. While there have already been some helpful responses to the NPP by Reformed pedobaptists, When Wright is Wrong holds the distinction of critiquing NPP from a confessional Reformed Baptist perspective.
In the preface, the author has some positive things to say about NT Wright. He admits that has learned from Wright and praises him for possessing “that rare gift of making complex ideas intelligible and extremely interesting.” (25). Most importantly, the author affirms Wright as a genuine Christian (viii). I think the author is wise to follow Tom Schreiner’s balanced approach, not falling into “uncritical adulation of his scholarship” or “uncritical denigration.” (26).
Griffiths makes clear that he believes Wright and the NPP have misread Paul and the Bible’s teaching on justification. In the author’s assessment, two of the primary errors of NPP advocates are that they misidentify the true Israel and ultimately teach “aberrant doctrines” that are at odds with Reformed convictions on justification, imputation, and works of the law (xv).
The book is divided into two parts, made up of 13 total sections. These sections are not numbered, so I hesitate to call them “chapters.” There is an extensive Bibliography included, but disappointingly there are no indices at all. At 240 pages, I think the length is appropriate for the subject matter.
In Part I on Methodology, the author begins by explaining the so-called “Old” perspective on Paul. All of God’s people are and have been saved by the covenant of grace (COG) revealed in the New Testament, those before Christ looking ahead and believing in God’s promise fulfilled in Christ (6). Along the way, there were what Griffiths calls “subsidiary covenants.” The “Old Perspective” was that of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Paul himself.
Griffiths then moves on to “The New Perspective(s)”, noting that there are several, depending on the scholar. He provides a concise, well-documented introduction to the major players in the NPP movement including Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and most notably, NT Wright (15-45). As he points out, each of these scholars contributed different ideas which the others built on and expanded.
One surprising discovery I came across in this book was a major admission made by Sanders. The claim of Sanders and other NPP proponents has been that Paul could not have been reacting against justification by works since that was not the view in Second Temple Judaism. Yet, Sanders admitted that works-based righteousness was taught in Second Temple Judaism (24). This being the case, we can be confident that Paul was responding to such teaching.
The author asserts that a major failing of Wright has been his willingness to criticize the “old” perspective, the Reformers in particular, without engaging with the primary sources (28). This practice has resulted in Wright’s misrepresentation of what the Reformers were saying. Not only this, but Wright has accused others of imposing a system onto Scripture, while he himself “has taken a preconceived idea and galloped through the New Testament with it.” (32).
The author includes a brief section on “The Covenant of Works”, laying out the biblical basis for the Reformed understanding of the doctrine. He calls on John Bunyan’s view of the COW as the idea that “The law, as it is a covenant of works, doth not allow any repentance unto life, to those that live and die under it.” (49). Going back even further, Augustine taught that Adam is the federal head and sinner who brings death, while Christ serves as the righteous federal head who brings life (50).
In “The Application of Salvation”, Griffiths unpacks how God’s people were saved and concludes that “all believers were members of the new covenant” (53). The section that follows, “The Sinaitic Covenant (The Old Covenant)” includes many direct quotes from Wright in which he asserts that the Judaism of Paul’s time was not teaching works-righteousness. Instead, as per Sanders, “The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace-not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in.” (65, emphasis original). This apparent distinction without a difference has lead many to see the NPP as teaching a grace plus works formula for justification despite their denials. Citing Exodus 19:5-6 and Joshua 24:19, Griffiths responds that the old covenant was conditioned on national Israel’s obedience, which they were incapable of rendering (66). They were in need of Abraham’s seed, the perfect law-keeping second Adam who would fulfill the conditions (67).
Part Two begins with the author’s assessment of Wright’s treatment of Galatians and Romans. Griffiths reiterates the Reformed Baptist view of the covenants as a singular and conditional Abrahamic/ Mosaic covenant and the covenant of grace, synonymous with the new covenant (85). In “Wright and Romans”, more of Wright’s odd claims come to light. For example, when Paul says he is “not ashamed of the gospel” in Romans 1:16, he is not referring to salvation but is “announcing Jesus as Lord of the world.” (115). Wright also rejects penal substitutionary atonement in favor of the Christus Victor perspective. Griffiths continually to present Wright in his own words, demonstrating that although the NPP affirms an initial justification by grace, it ultimately claims that Paul “God’s final judgement will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led-in accordance, in other words with works.” (116, emphasis added).
The author’s “Refutation of Wright’s understanding of Romans” is the lengthiest section, allowing him to respond to several areas involved (121-189). The Reformed Baptist perspective (though admittedly not exclusive) is that the main purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans was to address salvation (121). All stand condemned, guilty of sin, and deserving of God’s wrath (cf. Romans 3:10-23). The gospel “antidote” if found in the work of Christ, accessed by the sinner through faith (cf. Romans 3:21). Citing, Martin Lloyd-Jones, the author demonstrates the inseparable nature of God’s wrath against sin and his love for unworthy sinners (122).
If as Wright claims, the gospel is essentially the announcement that Jesus is Lord, it would not be good news (124). As Griffiths sharply puts it, “Every soul suffering the miseries of hell is fully aware that Jesus is Lord.” The truth that finally set Martin Luther free was not the fact that Jesus is Lord, it was the knowledge “that God would forgive him and pronounce him righteous on the basis of faith alone.”
When arriving at the thorny issues surrounding the section on “Baptism and Sin”, the author does not disagree with Wright’s starting point of union with Christ as the means by which believers receive all that Christ accomplished (176). The problem comes when Wright goes on to say, “we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith” (177). As Griffiths points out, Wright has apparently made union with Christ dependent upon baptism. On the one hand, Wright agrees that “the sacraments are not magic. They don’t automatically bring you salvation.” And yet confusingly, he goes on to claim that “Paul sees baptism itself as the means of entering the (Messiah’s) family.” (emphasis added) As the author points out, Wright’s statements seem to promote baptismal regeneration and beg the question of how Abraham and those before baptism were brought into God’s family (178). The author provides an effective response to Wright but the lack of distinctively confessional Baptist arguments in this particular section was somewhat disappointing.
Before concluding, the author devotes a section to “Other New Perspective Motifs” including heaven, the believer’s place in this world, the “exile” of Israel, and the Kingdom of God (190-211). Griffiths then examines “Miscellaneous Verses” from Paul’s letters (212-225) and returns to “Penal Substitution and/ or Christus Victor” (226-231).
When Wright is Wrong is a significant contribution to the growing list of critical responses to NT Wright and the “New Perspective on Paul.” The author’s stated goal was to offer a critique of NPP from the Reformed Baptist perspective but anyone wishing to better understand and defend the “old perspective” can benefit from this book. I highly recommend this book.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.