Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Unprofessional Book Review: Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

While I'm sure that the Rob Bell and Anne Rice blurbs for N.T Wright's Simply Christian should have been a clue as to the quality of theology I would be getting myself into, I gave the book a chance, and now I'll tell you precisely why you should stay away from Wright's much lauded book.

In the book, Wright argues that all human beings yearn for four basic things: justice, spirituality, relationships, and beauty. He addresses all four of these categories of need and argues that only in Christianity can one find the fullest expression of fulfillment.

From a literary perspective, Simply Christian harkens so strongly towards C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity that Rob Bell's comparisons between the two writers on Amazon's web page are, in my opinion, warranted. (Hey look; something I agree with Rob Bell on!) The good bishop writes like a true Englishman, and his love of Lewis shows through in his writing style. This is especially true in the opening chapters of the book where he is attempting to introduce the uninitiated to Christianity via their moral sense that justice in this world is important.

Everyone knows that Wright is a truly gifted writer, but he shines very brightly in this book. He offers brilliant illustrations of the Christian faith. His story of the springs being cemented over is one of my favorites and I felt it adequately illustrated the spiritual thirst which exists within modernity as well as postmodernity. Like Lewis, Wright really shows himself to be in strongest form when he is talking worldviews. He is at his weakest when he gets into the specifics of theology.

Here enters the crux of this book. In my opinion, Wright wanted so much to sound like Lewis' own literary classic that he aped him in many of the wrong aspects. The greatest strength of Mere Christianity is Lewis' very broad appreciation of Christianity - from the Catholic tradition all the way to the wackiest Pentecostals. Lewis wrote a book that all could agree with, but in doing so he limited his message to the broadest brush strokes and left us with an elementary portrait of the faith. Lewis was fuzzy on atonement, sanctification, regeneration, and a host of other features of Christian faith, and what we were left with was a portrait of a religion which was uncertain of most of its central beliefs.

When we come to Wright's Simply Christian we find the same sorts of problems plaguing the book. I should, say, this is not, in my opinion, by design, as it was for Lewis. In the case of N.T. Wright, the man is so confused on the meaning of the Gospel that he can't help but give us only the muddiest picture possible of what Christ came to accomplish. Time and again, Wright tells us that the Gospel is the message that "Jesus has come to set the world to rights." To be a Christian means to "be a partner in God's rescue of the world."

He does talk about sin and salvation, he describes sin as missing the mark, and he he doesn't exclude the more traditional notion that sin needs forgiven (he even defines "justification" as "God's declaration that a person is right"), but he hammers so much on the fact that salvation is so much more than just going to heaven when we die. But if he believes in Heaven and an afterlife, shouldn't he at least talk a little bit about not going to hell and about spending eternity in the presence of God? After all, Wright tells us that he does believe those things, he just doesn't want to "reduce" the Gospel to being saved from a justly deserved eternal damnation. But a new believer who reads this book should probably learn about it, shouldn't he? Wright just takes the "traditional" view for granted and tells us that real salvation is so much more! Too bad for the newcomer who wants to learn more about this "fleeing from the wrath of God" stuff.

When it comes to his view of Scripture, Wright says that it is a modern invention to speak of the "inerrancy" or "infallibility" of Scripture. Therefore, he rejects it. He doesn't replace it with another view, however. Instead, he quotes Barth when he said essentially, "It doesn't matter if the serpent [in the Garden of Eden] was real; what matters is, what did he say?"

The book was 95% good, but the stuff that was bad really ruined the rest of it for me. His explanation of what it is to be a Christian is so broad and fuzzy that I was getting badly frustrated, wondering if I was simply missing something. What was it that Wright was saying and newly un-Christian Anne Rice grasped, but it just wasn't getting through my thick skull? John Ortberg said in his blurb for the book that "[no one] has done more to clarify what Christianity looks like in our day than Tom Wright." Were we reading the same book?

For my money, it seems like if I were to give somebody a book introducing them to the faith, I could do better than Wright's book. For example, I would sooner give them a copy of D.A. Carson's new book The God Who is There.

Ultimately, my conclusion is that John Piper is absolutely right about how confusing N.T. Wright's gospel is. If there's something orthodox in there, it's wrapped in cheese cloth, covered with cement, and buried somewhere below where my attention span can penetrate. Sorry for the polemical book review, everyone. My review of Marsden's biography of Edwards should be ready by the end of the week, and it will be nicer. Much nicer.


  1. I just found your blog today. I was looking for information about NT Wright's view on the inerrancy of Scripture. Love the post. I've been attempting to make sense of Wright's books and find his arguments labored and incoherent.
    What I noticed in reading him (Surprised by Hope, Justification, and a couple of articles "Jesus and the Identity of God" and "Jesus' Self Understanding") is that there seems to be a deeper problem with his ideas.
    Certainly he has a very big problem with what exactly the gospel is and justification by faith, but I'm noticing a theme that focuses on the humanity of Jesus. He seems to be saying that Jesus is the son of God, but I'm beginning to think that he means something other than the orthodox meaning.
    Is this something you've noticed? Am I over-reading him?

  2. Well Rachel, I simply don't have a take on his Christology. I'm far from a Wright expert. Other than perusing his book on Justification and having finished half of John Piper's book that he wrote in response to Wright, Simply Christian is the only Wright book which I've read completely and given any real attention.

    Actually, I do remember one thing that Wright said about Christ's nature that gave me pause. At one point in the book, he talks about how Jesus didn't realize he was the Messiah, and he only discovered his role in God's plan after studying the Old Testament. I thought that was odd.

    The problem I've noticed with Wright is that he uses language deceptively, in my opinion. In one instance he will use the legal language to refer to justification which we Reformed folks like, but in the next instance he will talk about imputation being a "legal fiction," which is exactly the claim Roman Catholics repeatedly make in debates with Protestants.

    All that to say, there's a lot to be bothered by.

    Thanks for reading, by the way.


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