UPDATE: Wright responds

Matthew Miller of Christianbook.com interviewed N. T. Wright recently and asked him about this review. Here is the exchange:

Matthew: In a recent review, Michael Horton, writing for Christianity Today, was generally supportive of your book. Yet, he took issue with your, at times, negative articulation of the Reformation and its impact on Christian ethics stating, “in addition to caricaturing Luther’s positions, [Wright’s] criticisms lack any nuance in distinguishing between Reformation traditions.” He argues that your critique is actually more characteristic of “Wesleyan” tradition, rather than the Reformed or Lutheran.

How do you respond to this critique?

Wright: I’m not a church historian and defer to those who are, from whom I hope to learn. I was fascinated by the critique of the medieval ‘virtue’ tradition I found in various sixteenth-century writers, and tried to note that as I went by. I wasn’t trying to give a systematic account of how the different post-Reformation traditions have understood virtue, but was hoping rather to show that the cultural pressures towards a romantic ‘spontaneity’ and an existentialist ‘authenticity’, both of which I see as radically undermining a proper appropriation of NT ethics, have gained (spurious) validation in many quarters by appearing to say what the Reformers say. Some have indeed argued that Luther paved the way for the Enlightenment.

There is a sense in which I think this is true – just as, more obviously, Luther paved the way for Rudolf Bultmann. But life is always more complicated than these over-simplifications. I am much, much more concerned by the fact – and it is a fact – that the Reformers, whom I love and revere, and their various would-be successors to this day, have caricatured St Paul and failed to distinguish different things in his thought. That’s a larger debate I suspect Michael Horton and I ought to have some day. I’ve never met him but I think we would have an interesting conversation.

Christianity Today has posted a review by Mike Horton of N. T. Wright’s newest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Horton’s review of this latest book by Wright follows a similar trajectory to his reviews of his other recent books: there is much to be appreciated, especially the way in which Wright paints his word pictures; but Wright’s constant mischaracterization of the Reformers and the confessional traditions that emanated from them is frustrating.

In spite of a few quibbles, I was impressed by this book’s popular presentation of themes that I have come to appreciate in Reformed theology. The eschatological emphasis on cosmic renewal (resurrection, not escape) as the impetus for our lives here and now, the emphasis on the church—in fact, just about everything in After You Believe was a fresh way of exploring many familiar truths.

Hence my surprise at the jarring, frequent caricatures of the Reformation, even when the author articulates long-standing emphases in that tradition. As in his other works, indictments of the Reformation rarely come with footnotes. Wright seems to read the Reformers through the distorted lens of liberal existentialists (Rudolf Bultmann and company) or evangelical pietism. Oddly, he blames the Reformation for the romantic, spontaneous, and existentialist view of the Christian life.

In spite of the rich and varied discussions of virtue by the Reformers, the Puritans, and a host of Protestants since, Wright asserts, “Basically, the whole idea of virtue has been radically out of fashion in much of Western Christianity ever since the sixteenth-century Reformation.” Since we are justified through faith apart from works, “why bother with all this morality? … That, in fact, is more or less what Martin Luther declared, thumbing his nose at the long medieval tradition of virtue.” A footnote to Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brought in as a witness, but there is no footnote for Luther’s alleged proposal.

With many evangelicals, we appreciate Bishop Wright’s work on the historical Jesus but we remain perplexed by his refusal to deal substantively with the Reformation on its own terms in his books on Paul, justification, and now even ethics! At some point one wonders if it’s more than just a difference of opinion; is there an axe to grind?