N.T. Wright — If you have not heard of him by now, you are certainly part of the minority in the Christian (and secular) culture today. TIME magazine called him “one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought” and Newsweek identified him as “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” Christianity Today recently featured him as the topic of their cover story, playing off the title to his new book and calling their story “Surprised by N.T. Wright.”
Needless to say, Wright has made quite an impact in the church worldwide, as well as popular, secular culture today. And with his new book on Scripture, he is certain to once again spark controversy with one group of people, and admiration with another. The new book is titled Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues, and in it Wright compiles several essays from articles he has written, talks given, and lectures taught in order to dive into the waters of some of the most hot-topic current debates in Christianity today in order to see what Scripture has to say (in his opinion) regarding those topics.
So what’s the “surprise” that the title speaks of? Wright answers:
“The ‘surprise’ in the title thus refers both to the fact that many people may not expect the Bible to have much to say on these topics in the first place, and also, second, to the fact that when it does speak to them it may not say what people have imagined” (x).
So what are some of the topics that Wright tackles? There are 12 chapters total, but some of the most “hot button” ones include whether or not we need a historical Adam, an argument for ordaining women, a plea for environmentalism in light of Jesus’ return, and the relationship between science and religion.
For a while now, I have had sort-of mixed feelings on Wright. Why have I liked Wright? First off, he is a great writer. From a pure writing standpoint, Wright is among the best. The guy cranks out books like they’re hot-cakes, and he’s good at it. Pure and simple, his writing is enjoyable to read. Secondly, he has written some very good and helpful works. His work on the resurrection is top-notch, perhaps the best scholarly work on the resurrection to date. He has also been quite helpful in my own understanding of the new heavens and new earth, as opposed to the all-too-popular view of heaven where we’re all floating around on clouds and plucking harps.
With that said, another part of me has also been quite critical of some of Wright’s other works, most notably his views on Paul (labeled the New Perspective on Paul), justification, works/law, etc. This isn’t the place to go into that debate, but I have read Wright extensively on these topics and am not convinced by his arguments, and think that they can be down-right dangerous.
The Tipping Point
But now with this book, Wright has tipped my feelings toward him even more toward the latter, viewing his teaching as erroneous and dangerous at points. He has, in a sense, shown his cards a little more fully in regards to his views on some of these contemporary issues. His first chapter in the book on healing the divide between science and religion was quite troubling to me, where he seems to argue that it’s almost irrelevant whether you hold to evolution, theistic evolution, creationism, etc … it’s not the central issue, he argues. I couldn’t disagree more. And the troubling chapters continue. In chapter 2, Wright argues that it’s not necessary that we have a historical Adam in the sense that Adam and Eve were the first, and only, created humans through whom the rest of the human race comes. Rather, he says:
“Just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purpose to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, was to be taken forward” (37-38).
He goes on in chapter 4 to make, what he calls, a “biblical case” for ordaining women, whereby he completely re-interprets (and re-translates) pretty much every passage dealing with the issue of man/woman relationships and roles in the church. At one point he even says, “I fully acknowledge that the very different reading I’m going to suggest may sound initially as though I’m simply trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture” (79), to which I reply: It doesn’t just sound that way … that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Chapter after chapter in this book were troubling and frustrating to read. Sadly, not many of these chapters outright surprised me (since I sort-of knew his views on inerrancy, as well as some of the other issues), though they did help clarify in my mind how I should think about Wright as a Bible scholar to turn to and glean insight from on the Bible. In short, I would not recommend this book to you, nor would I recommend N.T. Wright as a consistently reliable, sound Bible teacher/scholar. Certainly, he has some good things to say and has written some quite helpful works on various doctrines (and I’m sure he will do so again in the future). However, there are many others who have written similar things and who will be much more consistent in their views on the inerrancy and authority of the Scripture, and therefore much more consistently reliable and faithful teachers to turn to regarding the Bible.
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank HarperOne Publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.