Critical Review of N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began

Dane Ortlund acknowledges that N.T. Wright is one of our strongest writers who has been instrumental for his own development in understanding the Bible. He acknowledges that he has learned much from Wright but concludes: “The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright’s other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn’t.”

The reasons for his concerns include:

1) False dichotomies -This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

2) Caricatures – Wright unfairly caricatures the conservative evangelicals’ view of  (a) heaven and hell and (b) God’s holiness, wrath and divine judgment on sin.

3) Doctrinal vagueness – Wright is unclear on how the cross does what it does, that is, how does Christ’s death constitutes a victory, how the covenant is renewed, how “the cross establishes the kingdom of God through the agency of Jesus”, how “Jesus in himself, and in his death, is the place where the one God meets with his world, bringing heaven and earth together at last”, how Christ’s death brings forgiveness of sin, and how indeed, does Christ’s death begin a revolution? We appreciate Wright’s emphasis on the multi-dimensional benefits of the cross, but the question remains,”HOW”?

Amazingly, Wright doctrinal evasiveness arises because he thinks the New Testament is itself vague with the answer. Wright writes: “Nowhere here does Paul explain why or how the cross of the Messiah has the power it does, but he seems able to assume that’ (p. 230). A few pages later he writes of ‘modern Western expectations’ and the ‘supposed central task of explaining how the punishment of our sins was heaped onto the innocent victim’ (p. 232). Later, speaking of 1-2 Corinthians, ‘At no point does [Paul] offer anything like a complete exposition of either what the cross achieved or why or how it achieved it’ (p. 246).

The writer offers a “street-level” test for Wright’s book which is purportedly written for lay people:

At the end of the day here’s the question to ask of a book that claims to be a popular level book on Christ’s crucifixion. A street-level test for someone trying to track with Wright in this book would be: If your college-aged son or daughter came to you in abject distress at their idolatry or sinfulness or addictive behavior or enslavement to the world’s priorities, and sought your counsel, what comfort would you have for them according to this book? Beneath all the clever cuteness about how all reformed evangelicals have been asking the wrong questions, after all the ornate assembling of the Bible’s storyline, what is the actual comfort of Christianity for your beloved child? What can you give them? What can you say? This book does not give you much to latch onto. And that is a problem, a problem of a fundamental and not peripheral nature, especially for a book pitched at a general Christian population.

To read the full post: N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: A Few Reflections

Related Post: N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement