Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Flawed Theology of N. T. Wright

Published in Commentary Magazine on May 12, 2011



One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright is a man from whom a great deal can be learned about church history and Christian theology. When he ventures from his specialty into areas he does not know very well—international affairs, for example—Bishop Wright is unfortunately prone to silly statements motivated by a brittle political ideology.

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Wright criticized the United States for practicing a “form of vigilantism” and providing “‘justice’ only of the crudest sort.” America acts as the world’s “undercover policeman,” according to Wright, and he doesn’t much like it. And then he added this:

And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

Wright is falling into a common error, which is to assume the Sermon on the Mount was intended to articulate a political philosophy and blueprint for how the state must conduct itself. In plain fact, the moral duties placed on persons are, in important respects, different from those placed on the state. Indeed, within Judaism and Christianity the state has invested in it powers and responsibilities that are different from, and sometimes denied to, persons.

In Romans 13, for example, St. Paul—to whom Wright has devoted several books—makes it clear that human government is divinely sanctioned by God to preserve public order. If the standards of the person are simplistically applied to the practices of the state, it would follow that, because persons are called to “turn the other cheek,” the state must do the same—thereby making the criminal-justice system unworkable and invasions by foreign powers inevitable.

Collapsing the distinction between person and state represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of government, which has granted to it powers of life, death, and coercion denied to individual persons. And these powers can be used to defend innocent lives and establish social order. They can also create the conditions that allow the church to exist, Christians to minister, and good works to be done. For this reason, the callings of soldier, policeman, and president are not merely permissible for Christians, but honorable.

By the logic of Wright’s argument—Jesus told us to love our enemies and those who take up the sword will perish by the sword—we should never retaliate under any circumstances: not against bin Laden, Mugabe, Pol Pot, Saddam, Hirohito, Hitler, or anyone. Proportionate and discriminate force would never be justified. What kind of moral world does Bishop Wright conclude would emerge from his political theology? And would he, who attended Oxford and now teaches at St. Andrews, be willing to live (or to ask his children and grandchildren live) in it?

The Christian response to tyranny is not nearly so simple-minded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. His American friends helped him escape in 1939, but he believed that he had to return to Germany to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians there. “I shall have no right … to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr.

Once an avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer joined an organization that was at the heart of the anti-Hitler resistance, became an advocate for the assassination of the Nazi dictator, and was eventually executed for his role in the plot. The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of the execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brace and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Bonhoeffer’s decision reflected “the finest logic of Christian martyrdom,” Niebuhr declared, and belongs “to the modern Acts of the Apostles.”

Quite apart from his obvious valor, Bonhoeffer displayed tremendous integrity, sophistication, and deep understanding when it came to Christian ethics. It would be beneficial for N. T. Wright to reflect upon, and to learn from, Bonhoeffer’s example.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and was deputy assistant to the president under George W. Bush.

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