David Mathis Critiques N. T. Wright on Justification

David Mathis has posted a scathing review of N. T. Wright’s most recent book on justification. Mathis identifies five critical areas of weakness in Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, and each one of them is worth the reader’s careful consideration. Not only has Wright failed to engage his most serious critics (e.g., John Piper), he also fails to produce any close exegesis of the relevant biblical texts. Mathis puts it this way:

‘Exegesis has two different flavors for Wright and Piper. Piper wrestles word by word, proposition by proposition, and then paragraph by paragraph. Wright moves much quicker through large chunks of Paul’s thought, refers frequently to whole chapters and paragraphs, and quotes phrases (often as technical terms) seemingly removed from their immediate context. It is surprising that Wright would remind us that “the text is the text” (p. 249) when he has dealt so little with the actual biblical text in its context. For this reason, Wright’s exegetical chapters are a serious disappointment as his exegesis proves to be a kind of hovering above the text—rarely, if ever, landing, while supplying his own meaning for a phrase here and there that contributes to a coherent whole but neglects to explain the connections between Paul’s propositions and paragraphs. Does Wright not see that the discussion cannot go forward if he will not convincingly engage Paul on Paul’s own terms but instead keeps the text at arm’s length?’

Mathis’s review appeared in Themelios, and you can read the rest of it here.


  • Scott

    It’s absolutely amazing how much ink evangelical scholars have devoted to Wright lately! I’m saying that neutrally, without casting judgment in any direction.

    I continue to hear this charge against Wright, but I’ve yet to see anyone interact substantially with his “Climax of the Covenant.” Ironically, this work contains (for better or worse) his most extensive exegetical treatment of the individual text.

  • russware

    I haven’t read the full review, but the obvious question which springs from the excerpt here is, who is to say which exegetical approach is to be favored, generally speaking?

    Piper wrestles word by word, proposition by proposition, and then paragraph by paragraph.

    Fine. Is this the primary way the scripture is intended to be understood and engaged? It is the best way to answer any and all theological questions?

    Along these lines, I might suggest the following restatement of Mathis’ question…

    Does Wright not see that the discussion cannot go forward if he will not convincingly engage the modern exegetes on the modern exegete’s own terms but instead keeps the text at arm’s length?

  • Jonathan Taylor

    Isn’t David Mathis Piper’s executive pastoral assistant at Bethlehem Baptist church? It is a shame Themelios couldn’t get someone with a little more critical distance from the debate to review Wright’s book.

  • TM

    It’s because Wright is not in the Focker-Burk ‘Circle of Trust’, so it doesn’t matter what he writes, he’ll be lampooned. It’s funny how some people, like Piper, have attained such a celestial status that whatever they stand for or against, Burk and Company will rally behind him and just hit ‘repeat’. I’m quite sure if Piper came out this afternoon in support of saving the Palm Cockatoo, this blog would be consumed with writing about it until Piper gets a new groove.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    I’ve been reading through Wright’s book (and just finished Piper’s) and I think he has been interacting with him just fine. In fact, Piper is the one who writes more topically, while Wright is engrossed in the text. I think Piper’s fans (the reviewer works for Piper) wanted a book addressing Piper’s bullet points, and what they got was a summary of Wright’s views about justification. As far as I can tell the discussion is going like this:

    PIPER: Wright is error

    WRIGHT: No I am not.

    That is about as exciting as it gets.

  • Tom 1st

    Yeah, it’s pretty unfair to say he hasn’t engaged Piper.

    Also, Wright works from the structure of a passage down to the details. Structural analysis is a perfectly legitimate way of doing exegesis.

    Furthermore, Wright’s book is entirely about doing exegesis from larger structures right down to the very words. Indeed, 2/3 of the chapter titles are merely named after biblical books and they go on to do a lot of exegetical work.

    I don’t care who one thinks is right or wrong here, but this is a pretty slanted criticism…seriously, I think a freshman in highschool could’ve come up with something better.

  • John Holmberg

    Adam & Tom,

    It was written in Themelios by a Southern Baptist pastor, subsequently posted by a anti-Wright conservative Southern Baptist.

    What did you expect? Did you expect any amount of objectivity?

    For some reason conservatives (especially Calvinists for some reason) think N.T. Wright is the anti-Christ.

    Liberals think he’s conservative.

    I like this guy!

  • Erick

    Wright is not ignorant of the exegetical details of the texts in the Pauline Corpus, but one of the issues associated with his method is too much synthesis and not enought biblicism or sticking to the text. This is why there is alot hashed together in one of his sentences concerning creation, end times, righteousness, justice, etc,etc.

    For instance, it would seem as though he simply ignores the close contrast between “sin” and “righteousness” in 2 Cor 5:21. There is an exchange here. Christ becomes sin and consequently we become righteousness. It may not be referring to the righteousness “of Christ” (understood as all the good deeds he did on earth) but it sure does refer somehow to the quality or state of being righteous.

  • Mark

    I find it humorous that people who are critical of the pro-Piper circle are bannering around Wright and his so-called exegetical masterpieces. I also find it amazing, being formally a theological student myself who has studied the materials written by Dunn, Sanders, etc., think that the NPP view of the law is more biblical. Obviously, many of you who support Wright don’t know much about the issues surrounding Paul and early Jewish uses of the Greek word “nomos.”

  • Mark


    Are there any justifications for restricting “nomos” to merely circumcision, dietary laws, and religious days? This should be good.

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