"Mark for Everyone and Luke for Everyone" by N.t. Wright

John J. Bombaro
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Sep/Oct 2002

With their "for EVERYONE" books, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) launches a major new series of guides to the New Testament. The first two volumes available in the series, Mark and Luke, issue from the pen of prolific author and Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, England, N. T. (Tom) Wright. The remaining books of the New Testament are to follow over the next several years, all by the same author.

This new series touts highly accessible expositional commentaries from a world-renowned and respected New Testament intellectual but with minimal esoteric language, no scholarly apparatus, lucid expositions, fresh (i.e., original) translations of the entire texts by the author, very readable discussions with background information, and thoughts as to how the explanations and suggestions may be relevant today. The publisher's intent is that these nonspecialist guides, which assume that the reader may have little or no knowledge of the Christian Scriptures, would be used for personal or group reading, the format lending them to evangelistic endeavors and daily study.

The first thing to be said is that the format chosen for the series should be applauded. Stripped of all the bells and whistles that typically accompany daily devotional materials in the form of snappy titles and summaries, decorative graphics, snippets of poetry, and synthetic life-application questions, the "for EVERYONE" approach unadornedly sets forth the biblical text in its natural divisions (be it four or twenty-four verses) and immediately follows with Wright's three- to six-page expositions. This is a no nonsense approach that many readers will welcome, if for no other reason than its tendency to lend itself to quiet, concentrated contemplation.

The series is also very easy to manage for those unaccustomed to the Bible's and, therefore, the Christian community's characteristic vocabulary. Words such as "covenant," "gospel," "justification," "parousia," and "repentance," are distinguished by bold type throughout the text to indicate a glossary reference where a simple description explains what they mean. The same glossary and map of Palestine in New Testament times are reproduced in each volume.

As one would expect, Wright's historical insights are one of the chief benefits of the books. These contributions consist of contextualizing respective biblical texts within their historical/ political/social/economic/religious settings. As such, they consistently assist the reader in deciphering many of Christ's sometimes difficult sayings and symbolic actions, especially with reference to the nature of the kingdom and the "end of the age" (e.g., Mark 13, Luke 21:5-19). Thus, the fruits of Wright's well-established work are readily gleaned by the reader and frequently prove themselves illuminating and learned, though never recondite. To the author's credit, he is able to draw the reader into a conceivable historical setting for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the text at that time, yet without ever losing vision of the timeless quality and nature of Scripture's kingdom message and salvific purpose. What is more, he does this while sustaining the impression that the reader stands present in the midst of an unfolding historical drama. This impression is then challenged through suggestive applications: the reader is present as a spectator for the announcement and inauguration of the kingdom, but also present in its twenty-first century reality, with the added responsibility to worship and serve in the kingdom accordingly.

Despite these commendations, however, this is a project with a number of serious deficiencies. To begin with, though the author's lucid prose makes for interesting reading as he typically opens his expositions with some anecdote or illustration relevant to his purposes, it must be lamented that the publishers opted to incorporate the same writing style for a contemporary "translation" of the Scriptures. Admittedly, this is the least of the problems with this series, but its effect reverberates throughout the guides and thus is worth mentioning.

Baldly stated, Wright's translation can be dire at times, even awkwardly strained. For instance, John the Baptist's declaration in Mark 1:7-8 reads, "'Someone a lot stronger than me is coming close behind,' John used to tell them. 'I don't deserve to squat down and undo his sandals. I've plunged you in the water; he's going to plunge you in the Holy Spirit'" (Mark, 1). Wright's mastery of New Testament Greek could have been a tool advantageous to the reader. Instead, his fashionable translation stands as an obstacle to the richness of the text. This causes one to wonder why he would offer a glossary for genuine biblical terms when such a "translation" is offered as bona fide biblical text? The reasoning behind this kind of radical contemporarization (viz. "The [translation] I offer here is designed for … one who mightn't neces-sarily understand the more formal, sometimes even ponderous, tones of some of the standard ones") neither seems consistent, nor necessary, nor warranted if there is a biblical vocabulary to be learned. Indeed, as George Lindbeck has stressed time and again, authentic Christianity is a community with its own language; being part of that community, insofar as that community is to be distinguished from other communities, necessitates learning the language peculiar to it. The mine for the riches of the Christian community's language is Scripture: so let readers wrestle not only with the dynamic message of the kingdom, but also with the literal medium of the kingdom.

What would be of particular interest to ministers and students of theology and New Testament studies is Wright's treatment of the gospel. Regrettably, however, the content of these volumes will offer little reprieve for the debate surrounding Wright's controversial interpretation of "the righteousness of God," by which he understands Pauline justification.

Although Wright's What Saint Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion, 1997) and other publications have received poignant responses from confessing Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Lutherans alike, all who call for more deference from the author to the Reformation tradition's doctrine of justification by faith alone, yet Wright remains unmoved from the James D. G. Dunn – cum – E. P. Sanders camp. As he states elsewhere, the gospel has little or nothing to do with a "romantic or existentialist" Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. Instead, it is a matter of God vindicating his kingdom claims through Jesus Christ, as well as the vindication of those who believe those kingdom claims (see The Challenge of Jesus [London: SPCK, 2000]).

With respect to the "new perspective" on Paul and first-century Judaism, then, Mark and Luke for Everyone recommend no variation in Wright's position on justification and, lamentably, must be appraised as further disappointments. Here we have two gospel accounts from the New Testament and only one reference to justification between them: none in Mark; and one in Luke when Wright comments on the tax collector "who went back to his house vindicated by God" (Wright's translation, Luke, 212). Wright's commentary is acutely insufficient as he provides only one dimension of justification's theological connection: "'vindication' or 'justification' here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour. This word 'justification', which we meet a lot in Paul but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one's favour at the end of the case" (Luke, 212). True enough, there is the forensic declaration of juridical vindication present, but as Wright's glossary definition shows, he has no intention of even hinting at alien righteousness and imputation: "justification[:] God's declaration, from his position as judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin. This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Rom. 2.1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through his cross (Rom. 3.21-4.25); the means of this present justification is simply faith" (Mark, 233). As it stands, this definition is unsatisfactory to all Reformation theology confessional standards.

Troubling omissions from the glossary include such elemental terms as "sin," "transgression," and the like, which may be said to be reflective of their inconspicuous role in Wright's commentary. Indeed, sin, as such, is rarely and only tangentially discussed. And when brief commentary is offered it regularly stands objectionable. A case in point would be the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. As an explication of verse 5, "And Jesus seeing their faith saith unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins are forgiven" (ASV), Wright says: "Jesus himself was the unlucky householder who has his roof ruined that day. This opens up quite a new possibility for understanding what Jesus said to the paralyzed man. How would you feel if someone made a big hole in your roof? But Jesus looks down and says, with a rueful smile: 'All right-I forgive you!'" (Mark, 16-17). Christ's "symbolic" action for Wright concerns the forging of a new social standard of forgiveness and healing, which we ourselves can emulate by finding "ways of bringing healing and forgiveness to our communities. It can be done-think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa-but it is enormously costly" (Mark, 18). This would hardly qualify as an orthodox representation of the biblical doctrines of sin and forgiveness, or, for that matter, the relation of forgiveness of sins and guilt to faith.

In a similar vein (and perhaps consequently), one also fails to find discussions worth mentioning on Christ's substitutionary atonement or the doctrine of propitiation or Jesus Christ's role as "Mediator," again, none of which are items worthy of the glossary. This is unfortunate because Wright on a couple of occasions approximates orthodox pronouncements concerning Christ's work of representation, the cruciality of the cross, the need for reconciliation, the justness of divine judgment, expiation, and even on one occasion, the cup of God's wrath. Commenting on Mark 10:32-45, Wright happily links Christ's death with "a kind of baptism – going down beneath the waters of death, so that sins might be forgiven" (Mark, 141). But then he pulls short – this is only suggestive, a way that "some very early Christians understood their own baptism in relation to that of Jesus" (ibid). Thus, Wright never seems to lay his cards on the table concerning soteriology, biblical anthropology, or the sacraments. (In the reviewer's estimation, a telling symptom of the malaise affecting neo-evangelicalism.) As a result, the reader is left wondering what doctrines the Gospels might hold.

Consequently, the effectiveness and usefulness of the guides are comparatively impoverished due to the diminished radical character of sin, the only cursory allusions to Christ's sacrifice as such, an exclusively "new perspective" rendition of justification-as-vindication, and the failure to develop adequately either Luther's description of Christ by the twofold office of king and priest or Calvin's and Reformed theology's conception of Christ's three offices, which adds that of prophet to his work as covenant Mediator. In short, the guides suffer because Wright does not flush out his Christology and soteriology in a manner worthy of the Reformation tradition and, more importantly, Scripture itself.

On the whole, then, while the project's format and Wright's style and historical illuminations make the guides attractive and at times insightfully beneficial, especially when Wright articulates the kingdom motif of the gospels, yet the "for EVERYONE" series thus far faintly but surely misleads theologically. The guides themselves are a good idea, but prospective readers must be conscious of the "new perspective" agenda that omits (or substitutes!) more sacred theology than it promotes.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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