N. T. Wright

The Right Reverend
Nicholas Thomas Wright
Professor of
New Testament and Early Christianity [1]
at the University of St Andrews

Wright speaking at a conference
in December 2007
In office 1 September 2010 – present
Other posts
Ordination 1975
Consecration 2003
Personal details
Birth name Nicholas Thomas Wright
Born (1948-12-01) 1 December 1948
Morpeth, Northumberland, England
Nationality British
Denomination Anglican
Spouse Maggie[2]
Children Four[2]
Education Sedbergh School
Exeter College, Oxford
Alma mater Merton College, Oxford

Nicholas Thomas Wright (born 1 December 1948) is a leading British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop. In academia, he is published as N. T. Wright, but is otherwise known as Tom Wright.[3] Between 2003 and his retirement in 2010, he was the Bishop of Durham. He then became Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Among conservative New Testament scholars, Wright advocated for the necessity of scriptural evidence in regards to views on theological matters such as justification,[4] Christ’s bodily resurrection[5] and second coming.[6] He opposed both the ordination of openly gay Christians and the blessing of same-sex partnerships and marriages in the US Episcopal Church.[7] He has criticised the idea of a literal Rapture[8] and traditional Christian views on life after death.[9] He co-authored a book of contrasting views, The Meaning of Jesus, with friend and prominent liberal opponent Marcus Borg,[5]; wherein Wright argued that Jesus did rise from the dead and was seen by many witnesses. Wright is associated with the Open Evangelical movement and New Perspective on Paul, both of which are seen as controversial in many conservative evangelical circles.

Early life

Wright was born in Morpeth, Northumberland. In a 2003 interview, he said that he could never remember a time when he was not aware of the presence and love of God and recalled an occasion when he was four or five when "sitting by myself at Morpeth and being completely overcome, coming to tears, by the fact that God loved me so much he died for me. Everything that has happened to me since has produced wave upon wave of the same."[10]

He was educated at Sedbergh School, then in Yorkshire, Wright specialised in classics. In the late 1960s Wright sang and played guitar in a folk club on the west side of Vancouver.[11] From 1968 to 1971, he studied literae humaniores (or "classics", i.e. classical literature, philosophy and history) at Exeter College, Oxford, receiving his BA with first class honours in 1971. During that time he was president of the undergraduate Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. In 1973 he received a BA in theology with first class honours from Exeter.

From 1971 to 1975 he studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, receiving his (Oxford) MA at the end of this period. He was later awarded a Doctor of Divinity (DD) degree by Oxford University.[12]


In 1975 he became a junior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford and later also junior chaplain. From 1978 to 1981 he was a fellow and chaplain at Downing College, Cambridge. In 1981 he received his DPhil from Merton College, Oxford, his thesis topic being "The Messiah and the People of God: A Study in Pauline Theology with Particular Reference to the Argument of the Epistle to the Romans".

After this, he served as assistant professor of New Testament studies at McGill University, Montreal (1981–86), then as chaplain, fellow and tutor at Worcester College and lecturer in New Testament in the University of Oxford (1986–93).

He moved from Oxford to be Dean of Lichfield Cathedral (1994–99) and then returned briefly to Oxford as Visiting Fellow of Merton College, before taking up his appointment as Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in 2000.

Between 1995 and 2000, Wright wrote the weekly Sunday's Readings column for the Church Times. He has said that writing the column gave him the "courage" to embark upon his popular For Everyone (SPCK) series of commentaries on New Testament books.[13]

In 2003, he became the Bishop of Durham. On 4 August 2006 he was appointed to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved for a period of five years.[14]

He retired from the See of Durham on 31 August 2010 and took appointment as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary's College, St Andrews in Scotland, which enabled him to concentrate on his academic and broadcasting work.[15][16]


New Testament doctrine

Wright’s doctrinal perspectives, with reference to the New Testament, are expressed throughout his writings. In his popular book Surprised by Hope, he outlines the scriptural emphasis on resurrection as the blessed hope of all Christians. Though critical of the North American church’s overemphasis on "going to heaven when you die" and underemphasis on the resurrection from the dead, he does not deny the teaching that one’s soul lives on after death. He advocates a reunion of soteriology and ecclesiology, commenting that such a connection is often neglected in Protestantism. In addition, he is critical of various popular theological ideas, such as the dispensationalist doctrine of the rapture.[17]

New Perspective on Paul

An overarching assumption that motivates Wright’s interpretation of the Pauline letters is his membership within a movement of Pauline scholarship known as the New Perspective on Paul. The method of this group can be traced to the work of Krister Stendahl, who in 1963, “warned against imposing modern Western ideas on the Bible, and especially on the works of Paul.”[18][19] Stendahl argued that biblical interpreters have imposed on biblical authors modern problems and considerations that may have never existed in the context in which the biblical authors lived. Wright fits directly into this camp in the presuppositions he holds toward Pauline scholarship, offering that Paul cannot be ignored by any serious Christian and that, through this central place within the New Testament canon, Paul has come to be abused, misunderstood, imposed upon, and approached with incorrect or inappropriate questions about the Christian faith.[20] Wright offers, "Paul in the twentieth century, then, has been used and abused much as in the first. Can we, as the century draws towards its close, listen a bit more closely to him? Can we somehow repent of the ways we have mishandled him and respect his own way of doing things a bit more?"[21]

This question reflects the key consideration for the New Perspective on Paul and a fundamental aim of Wright’s scholarship: to allow the apostle Paul to speak for himself without imposing modern considerations and questions upon him and in so doing, seeking to ascertain what St. Paul was really trying to say to the people he was writing to.[22] From this, Wright contends that by examining the Pauline corpus through this unique perspective, difficult passages within the text become illuminated in new ways, his letters gain coherence both in their particularities as well as with one another, and it provides an overall picture of what Paul was about, without doing violence to the little details within the letters.[23]

The content of the new perspective can be traced to the work of E. P. Sanders and his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[24] In this 1977 work, Sanders argued that the prevailing view of first-century Judaism in the New Testament was inaccurate. He described it instead as "covenantal nomism", which emphasized God’s election of a people and adherence to the Torah as a way of "staying in" the religion (rather than a way of "getting in"). Pauline scholars such as Wright who adhere to Sanders' reading of Judaism see Paul's "problem" with law adherence not as a rejection of the attitude that God’s favor depended upon the fulfillment of the requirements of the law, but rather was a rejection of the law’s function of dividing Jew from Gentile.

Paul and Justification

In speaking on justification, Wright contends, “the discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”[25] In this way, the Church, according to Wright, has subsumed discussions surrounding the reconciliation of man to God under the label of justification, which has subsequently given the concept an emphasis quite absent from what he believes is found within the New Testament.[25] This leads Wright to argue that this incorrect perception of justification has done violence to the text for hundreds of years[26] and that the text itself should be the starting point in determining what Paul seeks to say about justification.[27]

Through his attempt of returning to the text to allow Paul to speak for himself as he suggests, Wright offers a definition of what he believes the apostle means by ‘justification,’ which is contrary to popular belief. In crafting said definition, the interpreter identifies three pieces, which he believes to be vital to this consideration: that justification is dependent upon covenant language, that it utilizes law-court language, functioning within the covenantal setting as a strong explanatory metaphor of justification, and that it cannot be understood within a Pauline context as separate from eschatology.[28] Through the inclusion of covenant language, justification alludes to the presence of sin and wickedness in the world and the way in which the covenant was instituted to bring about salvation. Within this context, the law-court metaphorical language acknowledges God’s role as judge who is to put the world to rights, to deal with evil and to restore justice and order to the cosmos. Finally, Wright’s definition of ‘justification’ within Paul’s letters acknowledges that the term is not associated, as has commonly been perceived, with one’s personal needs necessary to attain salvation, but instead with what marked someone as a member of God’s people.

Secular utopianism

In 2008, Wright criticised "…secular utopianism," accusing it of advocating "the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people..."[29] Times columnist David Aaronovitch challenged Wright specifically to substantiate his claim that any secular group does indeed advocate the killing of elderly people, leading to an ongoing exchange in which Wright held to his main point.[30][31][32][33]

Historical Jesus

Regarding the historical Jesus, Wright stands broadly in the tradition of Albert Schweitzer (thoroughgoing eschatology), against what he sees as the thoroughgoing scepticism of William Wrede (famous for his thesis on the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark as an apologetic and ahistorical device) and the Jesus Seminar, Wrede's modern-day counterparts.[34] Wright also argues for a 'very Jewish' Jesus who was nonetheless opposed to some high-profile aspects of first-century Judaism. Similarly, Wright speaks of Jesus as 'doubly', 'multiply', 'thoroughly', and 'deeply' subversive, while at the same time distancing Jesus from other known seditious and revolutionary movements within first-century Palestine. In some ways his views are similar to those of such scholars as E. P. Sanders and the lesser-known Ben F. Meyer (whom Wright calls "the unsung hero" of New Testament studies).[35] However he disagrees with the view of Sanders that the Pharisees would not have exhibited the violent opposition to Jesus depicted in the Gospels.[36] He also thinks it is a mistake to say that Jesus expected the imminence of the end of history, as Schweitzer thought,[34] but rather thinks that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as something both present and future. He has also defended a literal belief in the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead as central to Christianity.[6]

Wright is critical of more liberal theological circles. The Jesus Seminar's Marcus Borg, with whom Wright shares mutual admiration and respect, co-authored with Wright The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions to elaborate their contrasting opinions.[5] In 2005, at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, Wright discussed the historicity of Jesus' resurrection with Jesus Seminar co-founder John Dominic Crossan. Wright and Crossan, who also have mutual admiration, hold very different opinions on this foundational Christian doctrine. For Crossan, the resurrection of Jesus is a theological interpretation of events by the writers of the New Testament. For Wright, however, the resurrection is a historical event—coherent with the worldview of Second Temple Judaism—fundamental to the New Testament.[37]

With the publication of Wright's 2012 book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, Wright has been critical of some ideas concerning the historical Jesus in both American evangelical preaching and the work of C. S. Lewis, who Wright admits was a major influence in his own life. In an interview,[38] Wright summarises this critique: "One of the targets of this book is Christians who say: Yes, the Bible is true. It's inerrant and so on. But, then, they pay no attention to what the Bible actually says. For too many Christians it seems sufficient to say Christ was born of a Virgin, died on a cross and was resurrected—but never did anything else in between. I'm saying: That’s not the way to understand the Gospels."

Homosexuality in the Anglican Communion

Wright was the senior member from the Church of England of the Lambeth Commission set up to deal with controversies that emerged following the ordination of Gene Robinson as a bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.[39] In 2009, the Episcopal Church authorised the clergy to celebrate commitment liturgies for people in same-sex relationships. Wright described the action as a "clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion" in a Times opinion piece.[7]

Wright attracted media attention in December 2005 when he announced to the press, on the day that the first civil partnership ceremonies took place in England, that he would be likely to take disciplinary action against any clergy registering as civil partners or any clergy blessing such partnerships.[40]

He has argued that "Justice never means 'treating everybody the same way', but 'treating people appropriately'".[7] In August 2009, he issued a statement saying:

...someone, sooner or later, needs to spell out further (wearisome though it will be) the difference between (a) the "human dignity and civil liberty" of those with homosexual and similar instincts and (b) their "rights", as practising let alone ordained Christians, to give physical expression to those instincts. As the Pope has pointed out, the language of "human rights" has now been downgraded in public discourse to the special pleading of every interest-group.[41]

Reviews of Wright's scholarly work

Wright’s work has been praised by many scholars of varying views, including James Dunn, Gordon Fee, Richard B. Hays and Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Critics of his work are also found across the broad range of theological camps. Some Reformed theologians such as John Piper have questioned Wright's theology, particularly over whether or not he denies the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Although Piper considers Wright’s presentation confusing, he does not dismiss Wright's view as false. In response, Wright has stated he wishes Piper would "exegete Paul differently" and that his book "isn’t always a critique of what I’m actually saying." Wright also expressed how he has warmed to Piper and considers him a "good, beloved brother in Christ, doing a good job, building people up in the faith, teaching them how to live."[42] In 2009, Wright has since addressed the issue in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul's Vision.[43] He has sought to clarify his position further in an interview with InterVarsity Press.[44] Many conservative evangelicals have also questioned whether Wright denies penal substitution, but Wright has stated that he denies only its caricature but affirms this doctrine, especially within the overall framework of the Christus Victor model of atonement.[45] Despite criticism of some of his work by Reformed theologians, other Reformed leaders have embraced his contribution in other areas, such as Tim Keller who praised Wright's work on the resurrection.[46] Wright has received praise from Catholics,[47] such as bishop Robert Barron, who has cited Wright’s historical scholarship on multiple occasions.[48][49]


He has been awarded several honorary doctoral degrees,[50] including from Durham University in July 2007,[51] the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in April 2008,[52] the University of St Andrews in 2009,[53] Heythrop College, University of London in 2010, and the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary & University in May 2012.

In 2014, he was awarded the Burkitt Medal by the British Academy 'in recognition of special service to Biblical Studies'.[54] It was announced in March 2015 that he is to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE).

Selected works

"Christian Origins and the Question of God" series

Four volumes published, two more planned:

"For Everyone" series

The For Everyone series, a commentary on the New Testament, was completed in 2011:

See also


  1. "NT Wright", Divinity staff, St Andrews.
  2. 1 2 "Bishops", Diocese of Durham, Anglican
  3. See, however, for example, Amazon.co.uk. ASIN 0281064776. and Amazon.com. ISBN 0061551821.
  4. Wright, N. T. (2009). Justification : God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. London: SPCK. ISBN 0-83083863-5.
  5. 1 2 3 Borg & Wright 1999.
  6. 1 2 Van Biema, David (7 February 2008). "Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop". Time. Retrieved 19 May 2010.
  7. 1 2 3 Wright, Nicholas Thomas 'Tom' (15 July 2009). "The Americans know this will end in schism". The Times. London. Retrieved 19 May 2010. Alternate source: Fulcrum website.
  8. Wright, NT, Farewell rapture.
  9. Time.
  10. Amos, Michael 'Mike' (12 February 2003), "Our friend from the North", Northern Echo
  11. Wright, Tom (2013). New Testament Wisdom for Everyone. London: SPCK. p. 8. ISBN 978-0281069378.
  12. "Bishop of Durham", Bishops in Lords, Church of England
  13. Thornton, Ed, "Wright has 'J.K. Rowling-plus' appeal, says SPCK", Church Times, 22 July 2011
  14. The London Gazette: no. 58062. p. 10685. 4 August 2006. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
  15. News & events (news), Durham: Anglican
  16. "Faith", Times (article), UK
  17. "Farewell to the rapture". Bible Review. NT Wright Page. August 2001. Retrieved 20 November 2011. Cf. Wright, NT (2008). Surprised by hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. ISBN 978-0-06-155182-6. When Paul speaks of 'meeting' the Lord 'in the air,' the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn't mean that one is expecting go back to the mother city but rather means that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need he, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights
  18. Allman, James (January 2013). "Gaining Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul". Bibliotheca Sacra. 170 (677): 51.
  19. Stendahl, Krister (1963). "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West". Harvard Theological Review.
  20. Wright 1997, p. 51.
  21. Wright 1997, p. 23.
  22. Wright 1997, p. 8.
  23. Wright 1997, p. 12.
  24. Sanders, EP (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress.
  25. 1 2 Wright 1997, p. 115.
  26. Wright 1997, p. 117.
  27. Wright 1997, p. 113.
  28. Wright & 1997 pp 117–18.
  29. "In quotes: The ethics of embryos". BBC News. 24 March 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  30. Aaronovitch, David (25 March 2008). "Wicked untruths from the Church". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 9 May 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  31. "Bishops speak out on embryos". The Times. London. 26 March 2008. Archived from the original on 12 May 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  32. Aaronovitch, David (31 March 2008). "Who wants to kill the elderly?". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  33. Wright, Tom (3 April 2008). "Euthanasia – a murky moral world". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 6 July 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  34. 1 2 Wright 1999.
  35. Wright, N. T. (1997). The original Jesus: the life and vision of a revolutionary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-4283-6. OCLC 38436317.
  36. Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, pp. 376–383, ISBN 978-0800626822
  37. Stewart, Robert B (2007). Intelligent design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in dialogue. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 0-8006-6218-0. OCLC 148895223.
  38. "N.T. Wright interview: Why Left, Right & Lewis get it wrong". Read The Spirit online magazine. 28 March 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  39. "The members of the Lambeth Commission". The Windsor Report. Anglican Communion. October 2004. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  40. "Gay vicar flouts partnership rule". BBC News. 21 December 2005. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  41. Rowan's reflections: unpacking the Archbishop’s statement, Anglican Communion Institute, July 2009
  42. Wax, Trevin (24 April 2008). "Interview with N.T. Wright on Surprised by Hope". Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  43. Wright 2009.
  44. Wright, NT. "Interview on Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision" (PDF). IVP Academic. Retrieved 3 August 2009.
  45. Wax, Trevin (18 November 2007), Wright on penal substitution
  46. Kell, Timothy (25 February 2008), "An Interview", First Things
  47. "Ten questions for NT Wright regarding Romanism, justification & the Church", Called to communion, November 2009.
  48. Crossan, John Dominic (Mar 2011), "Strange Jesus", Written word, Word on fire.
  49. Catholic News Agency.
  50. Wright, Nicholas Thomas. "Curriculum Vitae". Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  51. "Anniversary accolades for major achievement" (Press release). Durham University. 8 June 2007. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  52. White, James 'Jim' (1 May 2008). "Theologian NT Wright packs the house". Religious Herald. Richmond, VA. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  53. "Honorary degrees". University of St Andrews. 25 June 2009. Retrieved 29 June 2009.
  54. "BURKITT MEDAL FOR BIBLICAL STUDIES 2014". Prizes and medals. British Academy. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
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Church of England titles
Preceded by
Michael Turnbull
Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by
Justin Welby
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