In the next Tabletalk article, Derek Thomas asks whether N.T. Wright is a new Luther, whether or not he comes in the spirit and power of Luther.
He begins by noting that the accusation that systematic theology distorts exegesis is not a new accusation, and he quotes a sample from Wright's book on justification. And, as far as it goes, Thomas does not differ with Wright on the point. "And who could disagree with that?" Sola Scriptura means nothing if we do not bring our systematic forumlations back to the Scripture routinely and constantly. Thomas does not differ with that call.
Wright wants to review the context of the Reformation, and ask whether certain battles of the time unduly affected them, and caused them to miss certain themes in Paul. "The 'bias' forced upon exegesis by social, ecclesiastical, and political concerns of the time forces us, Wright insists, to ask, 'Why did they emphasize that point that way? . . . Which bits of the jigsaw did they accidentally-on-purpose knock onto the floor?'"
Thomas makes a sound point when he says that the same questions must be asked of Wright's critical-realist approach. It is not as though the Reformers had to deal with social, ecclesiastical, and political concerns while Wright, the bishop of Durham, floats serenely above all three. "What pre-considerations does he employ when getting at the meaning of a text?" Fair question. It is Bulverism to point out contextual motivations for every position held out there except for your own. Thomas tags Wright for assuming that his view is the view from nowhere -- a "fair-minded, non-prejudicial view that reads Paul firmly within the setting of the time rather than through the (distorted) lens of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century squabbles." Thomas hints that this "sounds too clean, too innocent" but leaves that case to be made by the other articles in Tabletalk. That, alas, given the disparate places those other articles come from, is "too clean, too innocent."
This was the thrust of Thomas' argument in the bulk of his article, which I appreciated. Just a few criticisms though.
First, he states near the end that the "stakes are high" because this is not some "peripheral issue of little or no importance." Now I agree with that completely, but he goes on to say that this is about "the very doctrine of salvation itself, the answer to the most basic question of all. How can a sinner be saved?" Really? The most basic question of all?
I agree entirely that this is a very important question, but it has to be clustered together with other very important questions. It is true that Christ became a man "for us men, and for our salvation" but in the Creed it is an antecedent truth that by Christ "all things were made," and it is also true that Christ was "was made man." Appealing to Romans, is the truth that "of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things" less basic than the question of how a sinner can be saved? One of the glories of the Reformation was that it restored the glory of God as the foundation of all things. It is infinitely more important that God be glorified than that I be saved. Fortunately for us, He is glorified in the salvation of sinners, but for us to put evangelism front and center is one of the best and surest ways to dilute the gospel itself. We have seen this precise trajectory in the evangelical world over the last half century. To make the salvation of sinners "the most basic question of all" is a good way to lose the right answer to that very important question. This is the way to pragmatic evangelism. This is how we got all the technique-meisters. Very important question? Amen. The most basic question of all? Not at all.
Second, Thomas concludes with this. "We are being asked to believe that the church has misunderstood the most foundational issue of all -- until, that is, along came a bishop who saw things clearly." I really wish this objection would be retired. This is how religious establishments always argue. If Wright is mistaken in thinking that he is an heir of Luther, it is unhelpful in the extreme to deploy Eck's arguments against him. What are we doing to disabuse Wright of this mistake? The first eighty percent of this article contained a genuine and substantive argument. But it concludes with the same kind of stale argument that was brought against Jesus (Mk. 11:28), which was a favored argument against the Reformers, and which also fails when applied to Wright.
Now I happen to agree with Thomas that Wright's contributions are not those of a new Luther. The difference (at this point) is that I don't argue against Wright as though he were Luther.