N.T. on C.S. (or, Tom on Clive)

I love Reformed people. And I well should — they’re Christians just like me, and I’m a Calvinist just like them. I love this Young, Restless, Reformed movement too; college students committed to the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God in salvation. I read Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Edwards, Spurgeon, MacArthur, Keller, Driscoll, Carson, Schreiner and Piper (especially Piper) like the rest and best of them.

But some things become fashionable for some wrong reasons. And in the Young Reformed camp, it’s become fashionable to rail on N.T. (Tom) Wright — the most popular (but far from the only) evangelical voice in favor the New Perspective on Paul.

If you’re not familiar with the debate over this term, here’s an entirely simplistic and unfair summary: A few scholars challenge Lutheran and Reformed interpretations of Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification, other scholars take umbrage, the scholars have their scholarly cat fight for a decade or three, then enter Tom Wright who tweaks the NPP scholars a bit and offers a new reading of Paul, which finds it’s way into pop Christian (sub)culture, an alarmed Calvinist pastor named John Piper writes a book about how Wright is wrong, Wright writes a book in response about how Piper is wrong about Wright, the two talk past each other for awhile, culminating in what was supposed to be an epic Piper-Wright cage match in Atlanta this fall.* It’s an extremely complicated debate and you would do well to read extensively if not exhaustively before offering your opinion on it.

As critical as this debate is, I think it’s easy for we Reformed folk to turn Tom Wright into the crazy liberal theologian of our time. This is unfair. Wright is one of the most gifted and accessible Christian thinkers alive, and it’s a shame that we (myself included) have so vilified him. He’s a prolific author (and unlike many theologians, he’s actually a really good writer), a gifted musician (he wrote an oratorio!), what I’ve read in his ” *blank* For Everyone” series has been incredibly helpful, his insights into Jesus have been formative for my thinking, and he wrote one of the most thorough reasonable treatments of the Resurrection available.

So, while I still have my reservations about justification, Tom Wright is on our side. It’s silly to suggest otherwise. I was reminded of this today as I read an article he wrote about C.S. Lewis for Touchstone after re-reading Mere Christianity, “Simply Lewis.”

I think Lewis and Augustine have something remarkable in common: pretty much every Christian demographic claims them as influences. There are surely a number of reasons for this, but for Lewis this is even more curious. As Wright points out, he was leery about penal substitution, wishy-washy on election, didn’t care about or believe in inerrancy, and allows for salvation through Christ-figures in other religions (most famously at the end of his final Narnia book, The Last Battle). If he sets aside so many Evangelical linchpins, why do so many Evanglicals like him?

Wright, who writes that he thinks differently than Lewis on a number of issues, offers this: Sometimes we give Lewis a fair listen (even if we end up disagreeing) because we don’t just want to know where he’s going, but how he’s going to take us there:

Part of the reason for the appeal of Mere Christianity is of course that—like virtually everything Lewis wrote—it remains a splendid read. Lewis is feisty and lyrical, funny and moving, full of brilliant images, similes, and extended metaphors.

Even when they don’t work as well as they might … they take our minds darting to and fro, leaping over hedges and ditches, constantly glimpsing the countryside from new angles and with the fresh air of intelligent argument in our lungs.

Reading someone like this, you want to believe him—a dangerous position, perhaps. He takes us, as it were, into his confidence, drawing us aside gently by the arm and whispering, “You and I aren’t concerned with things like that. . . .” We are flattered to be his companions on the way, to know (because he tells us) that this isn’t simply a “religious jaw” (remarkable how dated that language sounds, and yet how easily today’s reader skips over it) and that we who think like this are actually in the know while some—including some clergy, because Lewis isn’t above a quick jibe in that direction—are missing out.

And, even more convincingly, this: Often, he pretends to be “one of us.” Or is he pretending?

There’s a good reason why we allow Lewis to lead us on. There is a real, not a pretend, humility about his “only-a-simple-layman” stance. For some of the time, as I shall suggest, he is a professional pretending to be an amateur; for much of the time, he’s a gifted amateur putting some of the professionals to shame; sometimes he’s an amateur straightforwardly getting things wrong (and note what he says about paying attention to Freud when he’s on his professional topic but not when he’s writing as an amateur!).

But he constantly says, “If this doesn’t help, go on to the next bit, which may,” and he seems really to mean it. In particular, when he’s talking about the struggles and strains of trying to live as a Christian, we know we are listening to someone who has been struggling and straining.

Finally, one of the great problems I have with Lewis is regarding the logic of his apologetics. It doesn’t always really make sense. Wright provides a possible reason:

So to the first section, where Lewis, as often elsewhere, uses a kind of the moral argument for the existence of God. We all know the moral law; and we all know we break it; and isn’t this odd? I think this is powerful and important, and indeed I paid homage to Lewis when I wrote Simply Christian by beginning with a similar, though not identical, argument about justice, and then extending it to the puzzles we find today about spirituality, relationships, and beauty.

But I’m not sure that Lewis’s point ultimately works as an argument. I think drawing attention to this kind of phenomenon alerts us to questions that should be asked, but not necessarily to a line ofreasoning that will then automatically lead the thinker inexorably upwards, as Lewis tries to do, first to the affirmation of God and then to the affirmation of the Christian God.

The virtue of this first section, I think, lies not in the fact that it makes a convincing argument as such, but that it highlights features of human existence that are puzzling and interesting and point beyond themselves. Thus this first section performs its function, it seems to me, despite its actual intention.

Lewis was trying to argue step by step, but I think he succeeds in engaging and interesting people sufficiently to move them forwards despite the fact that the logic doesn’t quite work. I would be interested to hear what other apologists say about this.

Again, read the excellent piece here. And Reformed friends: take it easy. Hold your convictions, but remember: Like we do with Lewis, in 50 years Christians may well be reading a lot more of N.T. Wright than of John MacArthur. And you know what? That really is okay.

*This is the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting on justification, and Wright and Piper were supposed to be the plenary speakers. Sadly, Piper took a leave of absence and so will not debate Wright after all. Tom Schreiner is going in his stead (a good *trade*, IMO, but that’s for another post).

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