People who are asked to write about N. T. Wright may find they quickly run out of superlatives. He is the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis. He has written the most extensive series of popular commentaries on the New Testament since William Barclay. And, in case three careers sound like too few, he is also a church leader, having served as Bishop of Durham, England, before his current teaching post at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

But perhaps the most significant praise of all: When Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus, and lives are transformed. A pastor friend of mine describes a church member walking into his office, hands trembling as he held a copy of Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. "If this book is true," he said, "then my whole life has to change."

The superlatives are striking, considering Wright's goal in his teaching and writing is to massively revise the way Christianity has been articulated for generations. Christian faith, for Wright, is not about going to heaven when you die. It is not about the triumph of grace over the law of the Old Testament. He says its key doctrine is not justification by grace alone, the cornerstone for the Protestant Reformers. The church has misread Paul so severely, it seems, that no one fully understood the gospel from the time of the apostle to the time a certain British scholar started reading Paul in Greek in graduate school.

A friend describes a church member walking into his office, holding a copy of Wright's Surprised by Hope. 'If this book is true,' he said, 'then my whole life has to change.'

"Apologist" and "revisionist" usually don't fit on the same business card. A significant New Testament scholar told me of the time he first heard Wright speak. "He sounds like the voice of God," he told a friend on the way out. Then he overheard someone else leaving the same lecture quip, "That guy thinks he's the voice of God." Which is Wright: divine emissary or grandiose misleader?

For Church and Academy

As with everything, the answer depends on your vantage point. Wright speaks with people who come with a wide spectrum of agendas. He has written point-counterpoint books with liberals like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. He and Reformed pastor John Piper traded book-length ripostes and have kept bloggers busy (and nasty) for years. Bart Ehrman, Barnes & Noble's favorite Bible disdainer, told me, "He's a very bright and learned scholar—deeply read, widely knowledgeable, and rigorous. And I disagree with about everything he says."

Article continues below

Wright's newest accolade is that he has written the most extensive work on Paul in the history of Christianity. The two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) spans 1,519 pages. It is joined by two companion volumes, also from Fortress Press: Pauline Perspectives, a collection of essays dating back to the late 1970s, and Paul and His Recent Interpreters, a running engagement with the leading Pauline scholars of the past several generations. For most academics, either companion volume would serve as a magnum opus. For Wright, they were only his second and third most important publications of the year, culminating a 40-year career of Pauline work dating to his (unpublished!) dissertation on Romans.

Writing a profile of Wright is difficult in part because he is ordinary. He comes from what he calls a "middle, middle, middle church home, of a sort that probably doesn't exist anymore." He and his siblings were raised in the Church of England, where they learned to attend to parish life and pray daily, or at least often. Wright describes hearing a lecturer early in his career appeal for more evangelicals in scholarship. So Wright shifted his career aims from church to academy. Later, a tutor at Oxford told him he had to choose between the two. At that moment, Wright knew he would never do any such thing. He still has not. He and his wife, Maggie, have four grown children. In Surprised by Hope, as well as other works, he describes himself as one of the least bereaved people he knows.

Wright has the balding pate, the wrap-around beard, and the bass voice Americans expect of their favorite British academics. He moves with the athletic gait of the one-time rugby player he is. He engages new people with a surprising informality. "Hi guys," he'll say to strangers, as if they are friends who have been waiting just for him.

Wright's manner could come off as paternal and Gandalf-like, or grating and haughty, depending on your vantage. To open a stateside lecture a decade ago, he spoke of a colleague in the House of Lords who, bedecked in a wig and robes, stepped into a Parliament hallway full of American tourists. He saw his friend Neil down the hall, raised his hand, and shouted, "Neil!" The Americans, beholding this near-mythical sight, heard "kneel." They promptly did. Wright's implication was clear: Americans may think it appropriate to address him as "your grace," but when it comes to classroom and church, "Tom" will be just fine.

Article continues below

Though some find Wright uppity, he has no problem giving others their due. When I mentioned former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to Wright, he positively gushed. There were often times when just the right thing needed saying among the bishops, he said, "and Rowan did it. And I would think, well, that's why he's archbishop." Arrogant or not, Wright has no trouble deferring to another's intellect and greatness.

He also has a pastoral side. Fans flock to Wright for words of blessing, as they did at a recent scholarly conference in Baltimore. Grant LeMarquand, an Anglican bishop and former student of Wright's, speaks of entering Wright's office one afternoon, distraught over his faith. After a question or two, Wright said, "Let's take a walk." They spent the afternoon together, breaking down the crisis. "He could have written a book that afternoon," LeMarquand jokes. Instead, he helped a student think, and kneel.

Even so, Wright is a celebrity on the U.S. lecture circuit. When I saw him recently, he immediately noted he had been on the road 14 days straight (leaving one to wonder how often he is at St. Andrews). One Bible scholar explained the trouble in reading him: "Wright's a show. There is so much going on." So it is in his speaking. He is a bishop, he has that accent, he writes so much. American Christians have long imported intellectual heft from Britain. That also causes some misunderstandings. When Wright weighs in on social issues, for example, he is acting as a bishop in the Church of England. American divides between religion and politics have never held sway in the United Kingdom, and Wright's theology explicitly ignores them.

How do we weigh Wright's contribution to biblical studies, to the church, and to the wider world? For the first, step back in time with me a generation.

Bigger Than Bultmann

My parents and their siblings are about the same age as Wright. They attended colleges founded by confessional Christians. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, these schools famously shifted, such that their required religion classes taught students to sneer at Scripture. And my family learned well. An aunt told me about the opening prayer her first day of class: "Oh God—if there is a God." She still finds this edgy and interesting.

Article continues below

Now picture Wright as a student attending similar lectures. How could one overturn this status quo? What scholar could dethrone, say, theologian Rudolf Bultmann? Not so much in the weeds of Bultmann's thought—he's hardly read that carefully any more, and two generations of theologians and biblical scholars have critiqued and overturned him. But more for Bultmann's position of eminence—the way he turned subsequent scholars into modernist questioners. Wright mentions Bultmann like an upstart prizefighter speaks of the reigning champ, as if he were saying, "Let me at him." For Bultmann, Scripture is true only in our souls, and always wrong in its claims about history, miracles, and politics. Who could overturn him?

The scholar would have to be prolific; to return to the biblical default would require more than a monograph or two. Tenure at a world-class institution would not be enough. The scholar would have to be readable, urgent, and intense. He or she would have to be compelling to college sophomores and Ehrman readers alike. To pass through the challenge of historical criticism (which scissors out Scripture that doesn't fit modern beliefs about historical reliability) and come out the other side—to be more critical than even the critics. And he or she would have to exalt Jesus as Lord. Threading such a needle would seem impossible.

Except that it's now been done.

I asked Richard Hays, the New Testament scholar (to whom PFG is dedicated) and dean of Duke Divinity School, whether Wright is Bultmann's heir as the go-to scholar for intro Bible courses. Hays believes his friend has surpassed Bultmann. Wright has published more, in more areas, with more influence, than the one who had so impressed the professors who taught my family members. Soon students in Bible courses may sneer less and worship more.

Hays and I traded stories of Wright's prolific output. I saw Wright at a session of the Society of Biblical Literature, where he was one of the featured speakers on C. S. Lewis's legacy. He walked in with a blank legal pad. While the first two presenters read their papers, Wright scribbled notes. Then he took the microphone and spoke with nary an "um" for 25 minutes on all he had learned from Lewis. Hays shared a story of Wright staying at his house before preaching at Duke Chapel. He awoke at 5 a.m. on Sunday and, coffee in hand, proceeded to write a sermon he would deliver six hours later to a thousand people, again with elegance. How does he do it?

Article continues below

"The simple answer is the man is a genius."

I laughed. Hays did not. "I'm serious about that."

Of course, genius does not make one faithful, as Bultmann, Borg, and other great Bible scholars have shown. So what does Wright actually teach about Paul?

PFG, for all its sprawling complexity, is elegant in its simple structure. The first and last chapters explore Greek philosophy, Roman religion, and Jewish faith, thereby moving toward, and away from, the place and culture in which Paul wrote. These sections read like textbooks in the best sense. They're sprawling and encyclopedic, drawing on primary sources and dueling with other scholars in the footnotes (Wright studied classics at one time). The middle portion examines Paul's worldview—not so much the things Paul looked at, but the spectacles he looked through.

Then the crown jewel: three chapters on the heart of Paul's theology. Here the sum is greater than the very impressive parts. Theology, argues Wright, is something Paul pioneered. Jews and Romans could talk about spiritual matters such as fortune, or unseen powers that require our placating. But theology does work among the earliest Christians (and us) that it never had to do for their predecessors. Theology does the work for Paul that circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath did for the old Paul, the zealous Jew Saul of Tarsus. It marked out a community as distinct from the world. It still does—just not nearly as biblically in most cases as Wright thinks it should.

Essentially, Paul laid a perfect founda­tion. But over time, says Wright, the church built the house on sand.

What Wright Really Teaches

If this description of Wright's work sounds strange, you are not alone. It belongs to something called the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP), a relatively recent theological discussion about what Paul really taught about salvation. NPP scholars—like E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and Ben F. Meyer—believe that, instead of introducing anything "new" to church doctrine, they are going back to Scripture without the church fathers or the Reformers themselves, and all the unbiblical teachings they added on. The new perspective, says the NPP, is a rather old one.

Article continues below
Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say Wright and others, Paul is centrally teaching about God's faithfulness to Israel.

According to the NPP (a phrase coined by Wright), Paul was not worried about where believers' souls would go after death. Christians of the late medieval period were worried about hell and felt they had to earn entry to heaven with works. This is the theology Martin Luther taught and wrote against, helping to ignite the Protestant Reformation.

But Jews of Paul's time were nowhere near so individualistic, so obsessed with the next life, so unfamiliar with grace as were the late medieval Christians. Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say the NPP scholars, Paul is centrally teaching about God's faithfulness to Israel. He is showing that Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises, and so can be trusted to fulfill his promises in history. NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God. Paul doesn't say not to do them because you'll go wrong and think you're earning salvation. He says not to do them because the Messiah has come and the world is different now. All people can worship Israel's God and should do so together without ethnic division.

In defense of the NPP, I can't remember the last time I heard Israel included in a presentation of the gospel—even a long one. It leads one to wonder: What was God doing all that time with his chosen people? Wasting time?

Since the calling of Abraham, Jews had been unique in three ways: for their monotheism (established in the Shema—"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one"—the founding prayer that faithful Jews say to this day), election (God calls a specific people), and eschatology (God will save his people on the last day). Wright shows how the resurrection of Jesus reworks each of these central Jewish beliefs.

Wright argues that Christians believed Jesus was Lord very early in church history—not centuries later, after councils had "decided" that he was so. So when Paul invokes Christ in 1 Corinthians 8—"one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live"—he is referring to the Shema, reworking it in light of Christ. Paul is altering the Bible's cornerstone prayer to include Jesus of Nazareth.

Article continues below

And Paul doesn't even have to argue for it. Within a generation of the Resurrection, a Christology that ranks Jesus with the jealous God of Israel is not controversial. It simply is "common coin," to use a Wrightian phrase. So, too, with the Holy Spirit. The shekinah that is God's presence in the Scripture of Israel is the "spirit" (the lowercase reflects Wright's usage throughout PFG).

Election is similarly reworked in light of the Resurrection and the spirit. The relentless drumbeat driving this volume is that Paul's teachings are deeply Jewish. According to the NPP, Paul is clinging to his Jewishness. He has not rejected one religion for a brand-new one. In fact, he believes that the law is God's good gift of grace.

But this is where things get interesting. Wright so emphasizes the good news of God's electing grace that, in a friendly parody he passed on to me in our interview, "God so loved the world that he sent it Abraham." The Pauline phrase beloved by the Reformers—"the righteousness of God"—is actually Paul's way of referring to the covenant people extended to include Gentiles as promised in Genesis 12:1–3, "the one family of Abraham," says Wright. To belong to Abraham's family is to be marked as those who will be justified on the last day. This is what it means to be saved.

It is important to stop and note how dramatically Wright has reworked things here. It means, in part, that the evangelist at summer camp who asked me, "If you died tonight, why should God let you into heaven?" was wrong when he provided the answer, "For no reason other than that Jesus died in my place."

Righteousness in Scripture does not refer to the righteous Judge passing his righteousness to the defendant. According to Wright, passages like Romans 4 (God "justifies the ungodly"); Galatians 2 ("a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ"—though Wright and other scholars now say this is better translated "by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ"); and 2 Corinthians 5:21 ("[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," ESV) are not about imputed righteousness. Instead, they are about God fulfilling his promises to Israel in Christ to remake the world through one Jew-plus-Gentile family.

Article continues below

Wright insists often on what he told an overflow audience at Wheaton College in 2012: "I love the doctrine of justification." But it is not everything in Paul. It appears in only a few places in his letters. It is the wheel of the car, Wright says—not the whole vehicle.

'Clever in the British Sense'

So if Paul's courtroom metaphors are not about imputed righteousness, what are they about?

They have a much narrower frame of reference, says Wright. In Jewish tradition, all people will stand before the judge on the last day, after their bodies are resurrected. For the Jews who came before Jesus, those who kept Torah will be judged faithful on that day—saved, in the truest sense. The badge of their faithfulness is observing Torah. Here, studying Jewish sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls helps to clarify the Bible's references. For those "in the Messiah," faith, ratified in baptism, is the only badge that marks out in advance our judgment on the last day. So Paul's courtroom references mean only that the judge rules the defendant is in the right, vindicated over against any accusation, and assured of resurrection on the last day.

This is where fellow Christians have objected most strenuously. Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler has called Wright "clever in the British sense"—that is, too much by half. Theologian D. A. Carson and his colleagues and students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School have generated a sort of anti-NPP publishing factory, often pointing out that Paul can stridently disagree with his fellow Jews, especially regarding their legalism. Being part of the historic covenant people is not salvation. John Piper's book responding to Wright (The Future of Justification) cites endless quotations from Paul and the Reformers suggesting that indeed we have been "saved." Wright starkly dismissed these rejoinders in his 2010 book Justification: "We are not in dialogue."

D. A. Carson and other critics are right in one way: Many portions of Scripture sound much closer to the traditional understanding of Paul than Wright ever lets on.

In The Future of Justification, Piper accuses Wright of loving the new for its own sake. Academics are inclined to such enthusiasms, while the church is bound to tradition in a way the academy scorns. Yet Wright is not drawing only on obscure and recently unearthed texts. He is drawing on the Bible. Psalm 106 mentions Phinehas, a high priest of Israel who is willing to do violence to uphold the law. In Numbers 25, Phinehas drives a javelin through an Israelite caught in the act with a Midianite lover. Paul is heir of this tradition, a zealot ready to do violence to be "reckoned righteous" on the Lord's day (Ps. 106:31). But one Jew has already been raised up, vindicated, shown to be in the right: Jesus. Now God is drawing all people to himself. "God is acting in a surprising new way—as he always said he would do," Wright says, paraphrasing a graduate student.

Article continues below

Yet Carson and other NPP critics are right in one way: Many portions of Scripture sound much closer to the traditional understanding of Paul than Wright ever lets on. For example, Luke 18 contrasts a penitent sinner with a proud Pharisee. Romans 4:5 sure sounds like God justifies the ungodly, and 2 Corinthians 5:21 sounds like a wonderful exchange of God's righteousness for our sin. If we deem Wright correct, we as Western Christians will indeed have to redo much of our accepted thinking on atonement, justification, salvation, and church. Wright's opponents ask, wisely: Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Why are conservative Protestant Christians bothering to read Wright anyway? If he is sidelining the courtroom—one of their key metaphors for explaining salvation and justification—why flirt with heresy?

"I have always had a high view of the Scriptures and a central view of the Cross," Wright says. He insists repeatedly that any theory advanced about Paul must be tested with actual exegesis, and he reads the Scriptures as someone happy to be doing so. Most scholars talk about other scholars. Only a blessed few talk about the Bible. Fewer still talk about God.

Wright, while standing on the shoulders of many great scholars, tries to talk about God. And he speaks and writes with an urgency that suggests every sentence is even more essential than the last. If he were to issue an altar call, folks would come.

What We Are Saved For

What would he say? "Paul's message is so extraordinary," Wright enthused at Wheaton College, "so iconoclastic, so God-exalting" that it should, and one day will, draw all people to their knees.

Article continues below
"Paul's message is so extraordinary, so iconoclastic, so God-exalting" that it one day will draw all people to their knees.

What is it? That Jesus Christ is Lord. His resurrection showed his claims to be the Messiah are true. Paul's is a Jewish gospel to a Gentile world, announcing a king not just over a strip of land in Palestine, but over the whole created order. Heralds now go out announcing his reign. All other lords, including Caesar, are false pretenders. And as people submit to his lordship, even the created order, groaning now as it longs for redemption, will breathe a sigh of relief (Romans 8 comes up as much as any passage in Wright's works). Creation longs to be ordered by the gracious stewardship of human beings. "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved," Romans 10:9 (ESV) proclaims. That is central to Wright's reading of Paul and of his gospel. Law court and substitution, yes. And especially lordship and obedience, with resurrection showing that God is faithful to his promises to Israel, and so to the whole world.

"I've always felt in method most akin to the Reformers," Wright says when I ask him to compare himself to Lewis, Barclay, and his Bishop of Durham predecessor, J. B. Lightfoot. He wants to read the text in the original language over against any received tradition, however venerable. He finds it ironic that sons of the Reformation would cite tradition against him, referring to his opponents regularly as "neo-Catholics." This is not the lonely hero standing up against a corrupt tradition, as in some (false) renderings of Luther. Wright's is a newer tradition, the NPP offering a corrective to the ruling Protestant one.

Yet Wright gives back with his left hand what he takes with the right, only better. "It's very Anglican," he says of his hope to make justification, heaven, and Christ's return more biblical. He's engaging critically with a doctrine, saying it's been wrongly understood, then going to the biblical sources and coming back to that doctrine with greater conviction.

In PFG's final chapter, on eschatology, Wright argues that God has acted in Jesus Christ to fulfill his covenant. He would never go back on his word and abandon Adam and Eve. He would never go back on his promises to Israel. The problem is that Israel itself is "in Adam." It is as fallen as the world it was called to save. He compares Israel to a fire truck sent off to fight a blaze only to fall into a ditch. It has to be rescued in order to rescue others. Jesus as the faithful Israelite does what Israel according to the flesh would not do—indeed, in the dark wisdom of God, could not do. And now, his promises made good, God is opening his covenant to us Gentiles. God "puts people to rights" (another favorite Wright phrase) so we could be God's putting-to-rights people here on earth.

Article continues below

"Never get so wrapped up in your salvation that you forget what you are saved for," Wright intoned at Wheaton, again sounding the evangelist. God is saving the world through us, the one united holy church. Our being saved is bound up with our pointing to, and embodying in advance, the forthcoming kingdom.

The kingdom is clearly what motivates Wright in everything he does. And because of Wright's own faithfulness—to the God of the universe, and to his beloved church on earth—it is now motivating many more people besides.

Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina and author most recently of Discerning the Body: Searching for Jesus in the World (Cascade Books).

[ This article is also available in español. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.