One thing my college principal taught me was, when confronted with a list of references, to check them out, and make sure they really did support the argument being made. It was good advice, and it has stuck with me, which is why I checked out some of the quotes Rob Smith gave us from Tom Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said, in his three highly critical articles (Briefings 228, 229, 230). And I was troubled by what I found.
In summary form in the first article, and more extensively in the second, Rob says that according to Wright, the basis of ‘getting in’, or being right with God, is both the objective work of Christ and the subjective work of the Spirit, which Smith identifies as ‘the error of Roman Catholicism’. To support this charge, he quotes Wright on p. 129 of What Saint Paul Really Said: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to Rom 2.14–16 and 8.9–11) on the basis of the entire life”. This looks bad.
However, Wright has gone to great lengths to say that, as he understands the biblical material, justification is precisely not about ‘getting in’, but rather is about the declaration by God that one is already ‘in’. Now whether or not you agree with this (and Rob Smith certainly doesn’t), one thing it means is that whatever Wright is talking about in the previous quote, he is not talking about ‘getting in’, as Rob says he is. When it comes to ‘getting in’, the forgiveness of sins and acceptance by God, what Rob didn’t tell us is that on the previous page, Wright comments in regard to Rom 3.21–31: “The passage is all about the covenant … the purpose of the covenant, which was to deal with the sin of the world, has been accomplished in the cross of Jesus Christ the Lord.” Wright goes on on the next page: “Justification means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family; which means of course that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant.” Or again, a little earlier, Wright says: “I must insist, right away, that if you come upon anyone who genuinely thinks that they can fulfil Pelagius’ programme (which he describes as ‘trying to pull yourself up by your own moral bootstraps’, and I think is what Rob means when he uses the term ‘the error of Roman Catholicism) in whichever form or variation you like, you should gently but firmly set them right. There is simply no way that human beings can make themselves fit for the presence or salvation of God” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 116). These significantly alter what would otherwise be implied by the bare quote we are given by Rob Smith, and which a fair reading of Wright’s book would seem to demand.
Another point Rob makes much of is Wright’s contention that justification “is not so much about salvation as about the church” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.119). Again, as it stands, such a statement looks wrong. But what Rob didn’t tell us is that that just 5 pages earlier, Wright had written: “In terms of the place of justification within Paul’s thought, I have already indicated that it cannot be put right at the centre, since that place has already been taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship. But this does not mean that justification becomes a secondary, still less an inessential, matter … Rather, when we understand what Paul did mean by ‘justification’, we will come to see that it is organically and integrally linked to what he meant by the gospel. It cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.114–115). Again, this significantly changes our impression of Wright.
Finally, in summing up his criticism, Rob sweepingly charges that a consequence of Wright’s views is that “the cross of Christ is significantly diminished”, and refers the reader to 3 different quotes in What Saint Paul Really Said. But once again, this is a very unfair reading, especially when compared to this statement: “It is an obvious truism to say that the cross stands at the heart of Paul’s whole theology”, and goes on to comment that “It is however, revealing to see how several treatments of Paul, both at the most serious and at the more popular levels, fail to treat it as central”, and after recalling a litany of ways in which the cross is portrayed in Paul’s writings, comes to a finale, “And towering over almost everything else, the death of Jesus, seen as the culmination of his great act of obedience, is the means whereby the reign of sin and death is replaced with the reign of grace and righteousness (Romans 5.12–21). The gospel is indeed the announcement of a royal victory” (What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 46–47).
I could cite further examples, but at the risk of not dealing with every point Rob makes, and for the sake of brevity, will leave it there.
My point is this. Tom Wright may well be wrong on many matters, and I certainly disagree with him in some areas. Clearly so does Rob Smith. But, to quote him so selectively as to distort the picture of what he actually says serves no good, certainly not the good of defending the gospel of truth. As Don Carson has famously said: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text”, and proof texts are more useful for mud-slinging than genuinely and Christianly debating important matters. Wright claims repeatedly to be an evangelical, and is certainly leading the charge against those like Barbara Theiring and Bishop John Spong who would radically distort the picture of the historical Jesus. Like any Christian brother or sister, (or like an opponent for that matter), he deserves better treatment than this.