On Some Preachers’ Love of N. T. Wright

Many preachers in churches of Christ readily employ the works of N. T. Wright in their writing and preaching, which ultimately tells just how influential his works have become in their minds and understanding of Christianity. Wright is an Anglican churchman who’s at various times been either solely a clergyman in his vocation or an academic. He used to be the Bishop of Durham, but his focus now is in the academy. This is nothing altogether new because there has for some time been a tension between the church and the academy, but Wright has navigated it pretty well as have others (e.g., J. I. Packer). Because of the frequent citation of Wright, some in the churches of Christ have become suspect of him altogether and have—fairly or unfairly—branded the lovers of Wright as progressive or liberal.

I’ve read several of Wright’s works and have found them informative and enjoyable, but I’ve also found disagreement with them as well. One of my mentors and teachers, Phil Sanders, used to always say in classes he taught, “Eat the fish and throw away the bone.” As with any writing that isn’t divine Scripture, we must use discernment. However, those who might label others because of their “love affair” with Wright ought to take caution in their evaluation, especially if they haven’t read his works themselves. Wright has been accused by some of introducing novel concepts into Christian theology, but those who would levy this assertion are only familiar with Reformed and Stone-Campbell theology and not necessarily historical theology. What Wright often asserts isn’t anything new, especially when it comes to eschatology. Rather, his assertions in the realm of eschatology are actually more ancient than Reformed–Restorationist theologies, as are some of his other understandings.

There are plenty of areas where I would disagree with Wright, however. For example, I would disagree with his ecclesiology because it mirrors the Ignatian mono-episcopacy where the head of the church, for Wright, is the Archbishop of Canterbury—despite the monarch being Defender of the Faith. (You can read about the primitive ecclesiology here and here). Despite disagreeing with anyone in any area, that doesn’t mean that they’re always incorrect on everything. Those who often are critical of our brother-preachers who use Wright often quote J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, and various other evangelical scholars, so the issue becomes not so much quoting non-members of the churches of Christ but a battle of the scholars. We could each use those more learned than ourselves whose understanding already fits our preconceived interpretation and bolster them against others, or we can allow them to help us along the journey of learning.  

In my studies, I was privy to classical philosophy and church history which you may have picked up on in reading any of my material here at Start2Finish. I am able to follow Wright because of this previous learning. Since he desires to be more historical and ancient in his theology and understanding of Christianity, he unpacks a lot of the intellectual baggage that pervaded around the advent of Christ. Something we must do as Christians who seek to restore primitive Christianity is also to adopt an ancient mindset and not believe that our way of understanding things would have been how they understood things then. On this note, I want to commend to you two books that may be helpful in understanding the intellectual history of the first century.

John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.