Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Not Always the Wright Stuff

May 10, 2011

I never thought I would write an article locking horns with N.T. Wright. Certainly not on a political matter, since he is a New Testament scholar and theologian, not usually given to writing all that much on contemporary political issues, although he has done so on occasion.

Thus if I were to disagree with him, it would likely be over some theological issue. And anyone familiar with his work knows that there are indeed some major areas of theological controversy which have come about because of his writings. But before I get to his recent political remarks, let me say just a bit more about Dr Wright.

He is arguably one of today’s best NT scholars from a basically conservative stance. The English Anglican and former Bishop of Durham is tremendously prolific, with around three dozen works to his credit, both of a scholarly, academic nature, as well as in a more popular vein (as to the former he uses the name N.T. Wright, but with the latter titles he uses the name Tom Wright).

I obviously have a deep appreciation for him, given that I own 22 of his volumes. His monumental 6-volume work, Christian Origins and the Question of God is halfway finished, and the remaining three volumes are eagerly awaited by myself and countless others. But as noted, some of his views, especially on Paul, justification, imputation and related issues, have not pleased everyone.

Plenty of debate has erupted over his stance on these topics, and plenty of volumes for and against have appeared. In 1999 for example Carey Newman edited a collection of essays assessing his work (Jesus and the Restoration of Israel). Various scholars wrote in, followed by Wright offering a concluding chapter.

It may not be oversimplifying things too much to say that Wright responded in part by saying, “Hey, you guys haven’t really read me! You guys misunderstand what I have been trying to say!” And in 2007 John Piper wrote an entire volume critiquing his view of justification (The Future of Justification). Of course Wright came out with his own volume, Justification, in 2009. The debates continue.

However what I do want to address here are some of his recent remarks concerning the death of Osama bin Laden. While he is without doubt a world class NT scholar, that does not automatically make him an expert in international relations, geopolitical affairs, international law, or military ethics.

He tends to come from the centre-left when he discusses various social and political issues. Here he obviously wants to distance himself from some of the more conservative writers on this incident. He wrote a brief letter on this a few days ago in which he sounds not unlike many other critics of America’s action.

And sadly, he seems just as morally confused. He offers a scenario of British agents coming into America to take out some IRA terrorists holed up there. This is not a frightfully new objection. I already dealt with a very similar criticism in my comments section a week ago: (comment on May 3).

Just as that commentator was amiss in her thinking, can I respectfully suggest that so too is N.T. Wright. The simple answer I would give to both of these folks is this:

If a known mass murderer and terrorist was holed up in the US, actively involved in ongoing acts of terror around the world, and had killed 3000 innocent people in London, but the US was unwilling or unable to do anything about it, and English intelligence discovered his whereabouts, and sought to take him with a bare minimum of collateral damage, then I would say ‘go for it’.

Of course in this fictitious scenario, we would not know if in fact any collusion between the English and American governments took place regarding this raid. In the same way, we just do not know, and for various security reasons, may never know, just how much involvement – if any – the Pakistani government had with this operation.

Wright blasts “American exceptionalism” and trots out the usual leftist rhetoric about America being the world’s policeman, etc. Indeed, he rather foolishly labels the US action as “vigilantism”. It is disappointing that Dr Wright starts engaging in this rather juvenile leftwing silliness.

As I have written so often now, seeking to ensure some international justice in the war against terror is not vigilantism, is not revenge, and is not hatred. Retributive justice operates every day both within and between nations, and it is part of the God-given means whereby social order can be maintained in a fallen world, and evil can be curtailed in a just fashion.

All this has been seriously thought about for at least two and a half millennia now, with oceans of ink already spilled on such things as political philosophy, justice in international relations, just war theory, international governance, and so on. This is not cowboy America just going out for a joy ride here Dr Wright.

This is about protecting innocent men, women and children from more such terrorist attacks. Of course killing one terrorist mastermind and ring leader will not mean the end to terrorism, but it will put a major dent in it. In the same way, taking out a major drug dealer or child pornography ring will not end all of that activity.

But certainly for the victims involved, it is a very good thing indeed that some of these evil perpetrators were dealt with. NT Wright closes by upholding Jesus, “who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”.

I have already spoken at length, as have others, of the rather elementary distinction which the NT makes between personal ethics, as found in the Sermon on the Mount, and social ethics, as found in Romans 13. Surely a great NT scholar such as Dr Wright can make these rather basic distinctions.

Is he really a pacifist? Does he really believe that there can never be a just and moral use of the sword? Does he really believe that the use of force is always counterproductive? As to the first question, a small minority within Christendom has chosen that option, and he is welcome to do so as well if he so desires.

As to the second, he of course contradicts not only Romans 13, but the very basis of human government as ordained by God way back in the book of Genesis. And as to the third, try telling that to the languishing and dying inmates at Auschwitz.

I have already said how much I appreciate N.T. Wright and his great work as a theologian and NT scholar. I may not always agree with all of his positions, but I am always happy to consume any of his new books as they appear. But sadly I must say that on this issue I don’t think he has really contributed anything much of help here.

He simply trots out the old leftist clichés and displays more of the same anti-Americanism that so many English lefties have displayed for decades now. As to his wading into moral theology in the context of geopolitical realities, I am not all that impressed to be honest.

But to be fair, this was just a short letter. He wrote an entire volume on ethics in 2010 called Virtue Reborn. And I repeat, I will continue to read him eagerly, and you will undoubtedly see more of my reviews or articles about him in the days to come. But on this issue he was quite disappointing.

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19 Responses to Not Always the Wright Stuff

  • I don’t support Wright’s leftism, pacifism, or anti-Americanism (or anyone’s) – but his analogy deals in something many people feel strongly about (in Britain, and maybe elsewhere) whatever their politics: that the protection and implicit encouragement given by the US legal system to evil IRA terrorists was shameful. Many Americans (but not all) contributed to NORAID (an IRA fund-raising campaign in America) (other material assistance came from current-bogeyman Gaddaffi). It is said that if the US had suffered the 9/11 attacks a few years earlier, they might have had some experience of what they were promoting elsewhere. Terrorism can be seen as freedom fighting – until you yourself are on the receiving end.
    John Thomas, UK

  • Thanks John

    I am with you. I don’t think the US should have been complicit with the IRA either.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    What (laws?) do you think governments should be upholding according to Romans 13 and the Bible in general?

    David Roberts

  • Thanks David

    Hey, I had to chuckle when I read your comment. This is the stuff of a PhD thesis, not a brief comment! There are at least two major parts to your question, and both are mega-topics, not easily answered in a short discussion.

    The first part involves a million dollar question – indeed an entire set of questions – which have been discussed for two millennia now. Huge discussions and debates have taken place surrounding them. Questions emerge such as:
    What is the law?
    Which aspects of the OT law carry over, if any?
    What is the relationship between the Testaments?
    How much continuity and discontinuity is there between the two?

    Plenty of other questions arise here. And much of this depends on your theological pre-commitments. If you are a dispensationalist, for example, you will see very little continuity between the Testaments, whereas a theonomist will see heaps. So a lot of this discussion depends on where a person is coming from theologically.

    The second part of your question flows from this to a certain extent. It too involves many other questions:
    What is the biblical blueprint for government?
    Is one type of government better than another?
    What limits if any are on governments?
    When do government overstep their God-given mandate?
    What laws belong to the state, and which belong to the church?

    And of course to answer these many questions we would need far more than just Rom. 13, although it is an important part of it. Again, one’s theological presuppositions will in part determine how we begin to answer these queries.

    As I have spoken to many of these concerns on many occasions, perhaps I can begin to answer you by referring you to my politics section of this website. Also, I encourage you to get Wayne Grudem’s new book on politics and law which I review here:

    I am not meaning to avoid your question, just pointing out what a really big question it is. Maybe I can write some more articles on all this soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill. I’ve read the article and look forward to learning more about these big topics.
    David Roberts

  • I agree that terrorism is disguised in many ways. Most of early Israeli government rose from the ashes of blatent terrorism. They were “killers” in the name of “freedom”. History however is only recorded by the “winners”.
    Scott Kroeger

  • Thanks Scott

    Needless to say I disagree with you here. Respectfully your remarks seem not dissimilar to Wright’s: basically leftist clichés with not a lot of substance. Indeed, you last line is one is one of the biggest leftist clichés of all, and one which happens to be demonstrably false.

    And in your case, you seem to offer a rather unhelpful moral equivalence: ‘Yes Osama was a bad dude, but really, Israel is just as bad, and by implication so are the supporters of Israel, such as America’. I am afraid I just am not buying it. So I guess we will have to agree to disagree here. But thanks for sharing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Just and moral use of the sword. By a Christian?

    I have to say, Bill, I have read John Howard Yoder and am really struggling to find disagreement with his compelling arguments for total pacifism… from Christians.

    But I’ll keep reading and we’ll see where that gets me!


    Alister Cameron, Melbourne

  • Thanks Alister

    You are of course free to embrace Yoder and total pacifism if you like. But it seems to me that you have to side against Scripture to do so.

    And of course I am happy to send you a list of titles which I believe make a compelling – and fully biblical – case against ideological pacifism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill. I too, was disappointed with the article by N.T. Wright. I was also glad to hear that OBL was dead. The general public may never know all the complexities involved in the decision to shoot, when it finally happened.

    This piece of creative writing, in response comments to Wright, in ‘Christianity Today’, highlights the type of complexities of which may well have been involved, and I quote:

    “There is a little known background on NT Wright’s social parody….
    Few people know the history behind the Lone Ranger. Prior to dawning mask and gun and becoming “The Lone Ranger,” Joe American was an independently wealthy innovator who had moved to an area of the old west where a lawless bad guy Alberto Kyda (Al for short) was tormenting the towns people. Al had an incredibly large gang that was overwhelming to the local sheriff, whose name was P. K. Stan. Sheriff P.K. Stan and his deputies were grossly under-manned, under-trained, and under-funded to fight the network of Al’s bad-guys.
    Joe America decided to help. Joe met with Sheriff Stan and agreed to provide funding, training and all the necessary resources to rid their region of Al Kyda and his gang. Over the course of nearly 10 years Joe provided approximately 20 billion dollars worth of resources to Sheriff Stan—in fact Joe thought they were the best of friends. (Joe even developed an endearing reference for Sheriff Stan, he called him “Kemo Sabe). The agreement between Joe America and P.K. Stan was a seeming unending supply of resource with the single goal being to rid the land of Al Kyda and his gang. Joe America even assisted in supplying technology for the sheriff to have nuclear capabilities to defend against tribe of Indians that were wanting to take over as well.
    In time Joe America learned that Sheriff Stan had become good friends with the bad guys and even helped provide a place for them to live in safety—a place from which they could operate their ongoing bad guy stuff. All the while the towns-people still suffered from the actions of Al and his gang. The day that Joe dawned the mask and became the Lone Ranger, was the same he discovered Kemo Sabe Bin Lyin about the location of Al Kyda..
    And that’s the true story.”

    Trevor Faggotter

  • The link you gave in your article is not working now. Is this the article to which you are referring?

    Spencer Gear

  • Many thanks for that Spencer.
    I am not sure what happened to my link, but yes your link points to his letter as well. Thanks again.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill
    It really amazes me that people have come out in criticism of America for cutting off the head of a huge serpent. Where is justice and our understanding of it if we cannot rise up and save the weak and innocent from brutality?
    Michael Ntanu, Melbourne

  • Bill,

    I don’t know where the following saying came from, but I’ve always appreciated it.

    “Pacifism is made possible by the sacrifices of those who are not pacifists.”

    Graeme Cumming

  • Thanks Graeme

    Yes that is a good one.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “Most of early Israeli government rose from the ashes of blatent terrorism.”
    Thanks Bill for pointing out that this is just blatant leftist rhetoric and not history at all.
    Russell Boden

  • From this side of the equator I think it’s also worth pointing out that if Tom Wright’s politics had been centre-right rather than centre-left, he might well not have become a bishop and we (in general, as I remember him from the 1980s as a lecturer) might never have heard of him – or at least nothing like as much as we have.

    In other words, his relatively liberal politics helped pave the way for his relatively conservative theology to gain a wider audience.

    Dan Violab

  • As you say, “Wright is wrong.” I get so fed up with these people, who comment on the futility of war on a basis which suggests that wars are started by two groups gathering together to organize the event, as if they were organizing a football match. An aggressor can only be defeated totally by killing him before he kills you or others in your community. Unbelievably US Attorney General, Eric Holder has been touting the idea of prosecuting those CIA agents,for waterboarding those three muslim terrorists, extracting information, which contributed to the discovery of Bin Laden. Obama has already put a stop to waterboarding, which is not real torture, but is always effective. The CIA has known for 12 months that Bin Laden’s location has been protected by military friends in Pakistan, which incredibly receives $2 billion dollars aid per year from the USA – some ally. Eric Holder is the one who needs to be investigated immediately. The Navy Seals were totally justified in taking out this satanic monster Bin Laden, before he murdered anyone else in his and the muslims’ war against the USA and the Western World.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  • Yes Bill, ‘reckless pacifism’ as Churchill termed it, is alive and well – even in the Christian Church. I wonder how these reckless pacifists deal with the account of Christ’s return. I wonder how they cope with “And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb”. I also wonder how they reconcile with God’s express command to Israel to wipe out the Canaanites… Has God never used men to mete out His judgement? Does God not expect Governments to stop global terrorists? Perhaps the “christian, WWJD way”, should have prevailed and the Brits should have capitulated to Hitler?
    Wright is Wrong on this issue. Good on you for calling it. However, the man-worshippers are not going to be happy. Expect to receive a bunch of WWJD bracelets in the mail… (I’m out of line too – could you send me one??)

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