N.T. Wright's Redeemer Prebyterian Church Lecture
"N.T. Wright made a splash Tuesday night in New York City as the guest lecturer at an event sponsored by the Center for Faith and Work (CFW), the marketplace ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (RPC). Speaking to a packed house of over 500 New Yorkers, most of them young Christian professionals, Bishop Wright spoke engagingly on the topic of Christian character.
Bishop Wrightâ€™s appearance has been the subject of both great anticipation and great consternation on the part of many in the Reformed camp. In particular, the blogosphere has been buzzing with questions on the propriety of a well respected Presbyterian church sponsoring a lecture by one of the leading proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).
Having attended the event, I want to share my notes on the lecture itself and my own thoughts on the appropriateness of having one of RPCâ€™s ministries invite N.T. Wright to speak at their event. I will start with the easy part- summarizing Wrightâ€™s talk; then I will address the more complex issue regarding his invitation to speak Tuesday night.
The lecture was part of a book tour that Wright has been conducting to promote his latest book, â€œAfter You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.â€ He came to this topic of Christian character while writing about the idea of the New Heavens and the new Earth in his earlier book, â€œSurprised by Hope.â€ During that process, Wright realized that few New Testament scholars were writing about Christian character and believed that it was a topic that should be addressed in light of the New Creation.
Referencing C.S. Lewisâ€™ â€œThe Great Divorce,â€ Wright contrasts the â€œsolidnessâ€ of the bodies that we will have in the new heavens and the new Earth with the â€œetherealnessâ€ of the bodies of those who are in Hell. With this promise of future glory in view, Christians are to live substantive and virtuous lives that anticipate our full embodiment in the new creation. We are to demonstrate, with our lives, what it means to be fully human in Christ.
Developing Christian character, also know as sanctification, requires a conscious decision to be virtuous in the little things until being virtuous in the big things becomes second nature to the believer. It is hard work that requires discipline on our part and a commitment to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We do that by availing ourselves of the support of the Christian community and the work of the Holy Spirit via the ordinary means of grace.
Due to time constraints, Bishop Wrightâ€™s talk was engaging but brief. In many ways, the talk served primarily as a â€œtrailerâ€ for his new book and provided inspiration but little details. However, it was effective in challenging those in attendance to consider the importance and eternal significance of Christian character. My one critique would be that reliance upon the grace of God to accomplish our sanctification is assumed by Wright but not discussed prominently; at one point in the lecture, Wright parenthetically reminds us that â€œof course, all this is to be done by [Godâ€™s] grace alone through faith [in Christ] alone.â€ I suspect this oversight is due to deficiencies in Wrightâ€™s understanding of Union with Christ and to his convictions regarding the role of good works in the future justification of believers.
Now to the stickier issue of Wrightâ€™s invitation to speak by a ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Churchâ€¦ as had been promised by a spokesman for the Center for Faith and Work, Bishop Wright focused specifically on the topic of Christian character and did not venture into any discussions, either in the lecture or in the Q&A, regarding his views on Justification or the New Perspective on Paul. Anyone who is unfamiliar with Wrightâ€™s controversial views, and that would include the overwhelming majority of the audience, probably did not hear anything that would have raised any red flags. In fact, judging from the applause in the auditorium and the long book signing line afterwards, Bishop Wright was very well received.
However, I found myself uneasy with what I could only view as implicit and uncritical endorsement of N.T. Wrightâ€™s views. This included the following:
1. The location for the lecture was at the Ethical Culture Society, which is one of the sites that Redeemer Presbyterian Church uses for one of their stated Sunday services. Since this is known to be the case by the majority of the audience, who themselves are Redeemer attendees, this may reinforce the impression that the lecture was a RPC sponsored event, despite pleadings to the contrary by the CFW.
2. Wright was introduced to the audience by one of the directors for the CFW, who also happens to be a Teaching Elder (TE) in the PCA. While he is not officially on the pastoral staff at RPC, he is employed by them and is a member of the New York Presbytery. I believe his introduction of Bishop Wright may be seen as an implicit endorsement that RPC supports the views of Bishop Wright and acknowledges him to be a full partner in Gospel work, without qualification.
3. At the reception that was held after the lecture, a large book table was setup that displayed and sold all of Wrightâ€™s books, including his books on Justification and the NPP; these books were on display with no caveats or warning and actively promoted by the book sellers. Again, I fear that the presence of these books may be construed as an endorsement, and even a recommendation to read all of Wrightâ€™s works.
Full disclosure at this pointâ€¦ I was a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and a Ruling Elder at one of their church plants; currently I am a member in good standing at another one of RPCâ€™s church plant in New York City. I know Dr. Tim Keller and RPC well enough to say without reservation that he and his church are NOT advocates of the NPP. My intent here is not to call into question RPCâ€™s full commitment to a Reformed understanding of Justification by faith, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, my family and I will be forever indebted to the ministry of Dr. Keller and RPC; they were instrumental in helping us understand rightly the glorious Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the preciousness of Justification by faith only.
Having said that, I believe the law of unintended consequences may be at work here. By not only inviting Bishop Wright to speak, but having him introduced by a TE and selling his books which promote the NPP, the CFW may have unintentionally but implicitly endorsed Wright and his views. And given the fact that CFW is a ministry of RPC and that the event was held at a site that RPC uses for Sunday worship, attendees at the event can hardly be blamed if they assumed that RPC endorses Bishop Wright and his views, even if that is not true. Perhaps RPC will come out with a public statement or privately let its attendees know that they do not endorse all of Bishop Wrightâ€™s views, particularly those that are out of accord with our Reformed confessions. My concern is that in attempting to expose the Body of Christ to Wrightâ€™s helpful teachings on Christian character, they may have unwisely exposed that Body to questionable teachings that would undermine its assurance of salvation and proper understanding of Justification by faith alone, the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls."