An Argument With N.T. Wright

I spent last night in a frenzy. Let’s just call it a nerd frenzy, because there’s only about 13 of us in the world that would do it. I heard something awhile back and, for some reason, it crossed back into my mind, debilitating my ability to actually relax or sleep. I had to get the the bottom of it! A few months back, I heard N.T. Wright say the following words: “…as a good Calvinist…”

What the?!?!

So, I’m aware that the Reformed tradition in general and even the Calvinist tradition is much larger, broader, flexible, and open than what the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd make it out to be.  Still, while I knew Wright fell largely within the Anglican tradition as a Reformed theologian, the “Calvinist” label through me for a loop. I needed to get to the bottom of it.

Alas, I didn’t get to the bottom of it. I called friends, opened up a thread, scoured the internet. What kind of Calvinist is he?! Obviously he and Piper disagree on a good bit, but does Wright actually think that God elects some individuals to salvation while electing the 99% of everybody else who has ever lived to eternal damnation?! Wright had never given me any reason to think so, but his “as a good Calvinist” just ninja-punched my brain.

Though I didn’t get to the bottom of it, I did decide one thing: that man is more slippery than an eel dipped in olive oil. 

That’s not to say that he’s not brilliant.NT-Wright-Full-BW He absolutely is. In my opinion and many others, he is the greatest New Testament scholar currently writing today, he has taken both the scholarly world and the popular world by storm and challenged us with new ways of thinking about God and being Christians, and he even once landed himself on the Colbert Report (which just proves it in and of itself!). As a friend of mine remarked, while the last generation was known as being for or against Rudolf Bultmann, this next generation will be known as being for or against Wright. I agree.

Nonetheless, his “question behind the question” and his focus on foundational epistemological assumptions led me to one other question: what must it be like to watch an argument between him and his wife?! Of course, I’ve never met the guy, so obviously I’ve never seen his private life bickering. But Wright is human; and he is a male; and…well, that’s enough. So, I created an argument for them. Here you go.

Wife: “Tom, did you take out the trash?”

Tom: “Dear, if by “trash” you mean one of the central symbols of God’s judgment upon sin and evil, then we must understand that the Jewish narrative pointed forward to the coming Messiah who would judge those realities. Gehenna was a growing eschatological symbol in the Jewish world, of course, but equally a forecast of what God had promised, and still promises, to do with evil in and through the person of Jesus. The trash was a first century symbol; one of the concrete metaphors by which Israel understood God’s judgement of the world and one which Jesus saw himself calling the world away from.”

Wife: “Tom, I asked you to do this last night! Now there are ants absolutely everywhere. It’s gonna take me an hour to clean this up?”

Tom: “Sweetheart, that is the whole point of the Gospel, the point on which everything turns and finds its true significance: God is the one who puts things right, not you or I. The grand metanarrative, which Scripture points to time and again, is one which speaks of God entering into Act 5 to clean up the mess with and through his people. If eschatology was one of the central points of Jesus’ own self-understanding, and it surely was, then we must understand that our hope is found in what God did in Him and promises to do in us! We find ourselves as characters in Israel’s story, where God has promised to deal with the Trash in himself. The resurrection, first of Jesus and later of us all, is the point where the Trash is finally dealt with. But we are equally called to participate in that work of redemption in the here and now. Perhaps the question should not be, “Has Tom taken out the trash? but, rather, “Is the Church taking out the trash? or, even more specifically, “Are we participating in Jesus’ own recycling (or more appropriately restoration) project?”

Wife: “I’m getting real tired of this Tom! Everything is not a metaphor! I just want a straight answer: Did you take out the trash? I know you didn’t, I just want to hear you say it.”

Tom: “It all depends on what you mean by “trash”? In one sense, absolutely. But in another sense, the answer is clearly no. I think we have to get back to the real foundational assumptions of the matter: where do we find our starting point? The post-Englightenment worldview would, of course, demand that the answer to your question is an either/or: either I did take the trash out or I didn’t. But in the resurrection, we are offered a new eschatological starting point: the now and the not yet. So, in a sense, I have already taken the trash out but in another sense, a thoroughly modernist sense which I think we are called to reject as having the only epistemological value, then the answer is…ummm….no.

Wife: Tom!

Tom: “I like to go by N.T.”

Wife: “Don’t you N.T. me! Just a simple yes or no question!! Did you take the trash out!?!”

Tom: “Well, you see when you approach the question of…”

Wife: TOM!!!!

Tom: No dear…I forgot.

Of course, nobody can really get at Wright’s voice…nor did I want to put 15 hours into trying to do so…The man–he’s brilliant…But I can’t imagine trying to argue with him.

  • Very funny. I think he actually prefers being called “Tom.”

  • >>does Wright actually think that God elects some individuals to salvation while electing the 99% of everybody else who has ever lived to eternal damnation?!<<

    That's a misrepresentation of Calvinism. Calvinism, first of all, doesn't have any official position on how many persons are damned. Some Calvinists are postmillennialists and would hold that the majority of mankind will be saved. But one doesn't have to be postmil to believe that the majority of persons are saved. For instance, many Calvinists believe that persons who die in infancy are saved. And many of these same Calvinists believe life begins at conception. If we take these two things and consider that about 50% of all pregnancies naturally fail, it's not hard to imagine that much, if not most, of humanity will be saved.

    But perhaps 99% of everybody being eternally damned is what an Arminian will actually be the case. So, the Calvinist is wrong in being so optimistic. But if that's a problem for Calvinism, it's also a problem for Arminianism. For why would God create a world knowing that 99% of the people in it will be eternally damned? Molinists like William Lane Craig try to avoid this problem by saying that God creates the world in which the maximum number are saved with the minimum number being lost. But if the minimum number God could possibly lose is 99% of humanity, who in their right mind (by Arminian sentiments) would say it's worth the cost for the 1%?

    Anyway, I know your post isn't about Calvinism, but you're the one who used it as the segue and made the mischaracterization, so I thought it should be addressed.

    • Randy Hardman

      Hey Remington,

      Thanks for the comments–I think your clarification is important. However, as I noted…

      “So, I’m aware that the Reformed tradition in general and even the Calvinist tradition is much larger, broader, flexible, and open than what the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd make it out to be.”

      And

      “What kind of Calvinist is he?!”

      I quite agree with my many Calvinist brothers and sisters that life begins at conception, and so along those lines I would affirm that heaven is full of people that have never lived on this earth. Frankly, on that score I’d be fine (so to speak) if the revoking of libertarian will at least meant we’ll all wind up in heaven. It’s not really freedom that I’m concerned about in that strand of Calvinism; it’s those that are predetermined to suffer eternally for a choice that was made for them prior to even their conception (note, I understand how the Calvinist wants to argue for free will; but I am talking about true libertarian freedom).

      Regarding your statement concerning Craig, Molinism, and the Arminian problem, I won’t for one second suggest there’s not still some element of a problem. Indeed, it’s one of the things that has made me more open to open theology (no pun intended). Still, I think there’s a huge difference between a God which predetermines the actual wills of men to damnation and one who, because of a desire for authentic, loving, free relationship allows men to accept or reject the offer of salvation. Also on this point, as Olson points out concerning consistent Arminianism, God didn’t really step back and look at the world prior to its creation and judge it right or wrong to create based upon what was going to happen. God’s forknowledge only became such in the very act of creating, for without the actuality of creation God’s forknowledge is only forknowledge of potentiality. That is, if God saw the world and decided not to create it because of his forknowledge, he would have never had that forknowledge for there would be no world to create. His forknowledge, therefore, is dependent on the actuality of that knowledge being accurate knowledge for him to know.

      Anyways, we could belabor the conversation further…I am doing a series on why I am not a Calvinist. I’ll be talking more about it as that series progresses (part 2 soon).

  • Glória Hefzibá

    Could you tell me exactly where Wright said he was a Calvinist? Very good article, btw!

    • Randy Hardman

      Hey Gloria,

      I’m glad you found it humorous. He said it once in a 2003 speech (here: http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm) and I think recently in a radio interview with James White.

      • Glória Hefzibá

        Thank you very much, Randy!

  • edwardtbabinsk