Book Review: Simply Christian, by N. T. Wright

Review
03.05.2010

It is the unique privilege and responsibility of every generation of Christians to explain Christian faith—the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ—clearly and simply to the unbelievers with whom they share their time on the earth. It is also entrusted to every generation of Christians to protect that eternal message from corruption. The first of these two responsibilities is extramural, and causes us to probe the minds and hearts of our unbelieving neighbors to see what unique obstacles Satan has erected that make the gospel unintelligible to them. The second of these is intramural, and causes us to study the words we use to articulate the unchanging gospel and to align those words with the perfectly straight canon of Scripture to be sure they are faithful and true. Christianity must be simply explained, but it must be done in a way that is faithful to the Scripture. Otherwise, it will be simply damaging.

Many experts are promoting N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian as a primary resource for explaining Christianity to skeptics and unbelievers. The dustcover promised “This will become a classic.” Christianity Today heralded it as a worthy successor to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as a ready-made tool to slip into the hands of unbelieving coworkers. While such tools are extremely helpful in our evangelistic mission, it is  essential that they be faithful to the biblical articulation of the gospel. If the tools we use contain errors, faulty articulations, misleading images and analogies, and harmful oversimplifications, then they do more harm than good. This is especially true if such a book becomes a “classic,” trusted and embraced by a majority of the gospel-loving church.

It is my earnest prayer that a better book be written, appraised, embraced, and disseminated than this one. Wright’s book does have some remarkable merits. Its overall conception and purpose are praiseworthy: an attempt to simplify Christian doctrine and explain it in a comprehensive but accessible way to skeptics and unbelievers. Wright is a witty, thoughtful, and self-aware writer. He uses compelling images and word pictures. He is exceptionally concerned to give the “Big Picture” of the story of redemption of the universe, and therefore is a helpful corrective to the isolationistic individuality of Western Christianity. And he is remarkably thorough in his topical coverage for such a brief book. For these and other strengths we can be grateful.

But for all of Wright’s laudable efforts and obvious gifts, Simply Christian clearly fails to articulate some key fundamentals of the faith: the deity of Christ, the Old Testament prophecies about his coming, God’s purposes in Israel’s history, the purpose of the Law of Moses, Christ as King over the kingdom of heaven, the substitutionary atonement in Christ’s blood shed on the cross, the perfection of the word of God, the Great Commission of gospel preaching to every tribe and language and people and nation, justification by faith alone, progressive sanctification by the power of the Spirit, Judgment Day, the personality and power of Satan and his dark kingdom, and the eternity of hell’s torments. Most pointedly, I do not believe Simply Christian tenderly and clearly warns individual sinners of their peril or calls upon them to flee to Christ and to his cross as the only remedy for personal guilt and sin before a holy God.

GENERAL OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK

Simply Christian is divided into three main parts. In part one, “Echoes of a Voice,” Wright isolates four “voices” left in the human soul which point toward God: the yearning for justice, the thirst for spirituality, the craving for relationships, and the attraction of beauty. The handling of these “voices” is an excellent and useful initial foray for communicating with unbelievers anywhere in the world.

In part two, “Staring at the Sun,” Wright takes his readers through a conversational journey of Christian doctrine concerning God, Israel, Jesus and the Coming of God’s Kingdom, Jesus: Rescue and Renewal, God’s Breath of Life, Living by the Spirit. This section is more uneven and problematic, as I will highlight below. However, Wright does an excellent job of wrestling with the transcendence and immanence of God as he describes a universe in which God is neither identical to his creation (pantheism) nor aloof from it (deism), but rather actively involved in it in such a way that heaven and earth vitally overlap and intersect. This image of heaven and earth overlapping and intersecting becomes a central one for Wright’s book, for he claims that the most important point of intersection is Jesus himself.

In part three, “Reflecting the Image,” Wright also finds worship, prayer, Scripture, and the sacraments to be other vital ways that heaven and earth intersect. His call for personal repentance and faith in chapter 15, “Believing and Belonging,” is rendered powerless, as I will mention, because of his rejection of the law as a diagnostic for sin. He likens regeneration to “waking up from sleep.” The Bible speaks more of “being dead and being raised to life by the power of God” (Eph. 2:1-4). He culminates his book with a call for Christians to be active in bringing about the advance of God’s program for the new heaven and the new earth such that heaven and earth will be perfectly overlapped, as Revelation 21 says will happen.

A SUMMARY OF THE STRENGTHS

Wright’s fierce grasp on this all-consuming vision of the full redemption of heaven and earth is biblical and appropriate. The world will be put to right (justice), and God will dwell directly with us (spirituality) in perfect relationship with him and others (relationship)—a climax that will be ravishingly beautiful (beauty). Wright opposes a pale salvation in which individuals are rescued from this wretched dying planet and whisked away to “heaven” in some other dimension of reality without any concern for God’s glorious “big-picture” plans in redemptive history, and rightly so.

Wright also does well in articulating and embracing Jesus’ bodily resurrection, strongly rejecting any comparisons between Christ’s resurrection and those of the old pagan religions with their “dying and rising corn gods.”

The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is likewise well defended, especially in calling the Bible “The Book that God Breathed” and supporting that claim from 2 Timothy 3:16.

And Wright does an outstanding service to the church in defending monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only God-ordained holy pattern for sexual relationships. These are just some of the many strengths of his writing.

A SUMMARY OF THE DANGERS

However, if the church accepts this book as a primary articulation of its core faith, we have reason to be scared about the future of the church. Let’s draw out some of the main flaws and explain why they are so significant.

1) The Deity of Christ

The question here is not so much, “Does Tom Wright believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” My instinct is that he does, just as Peter did in Matthew 16. The question is, has Wright written a book that will clearly lead unbelievers to make that confession themselves? Does the verbiage in this book clearly and biblically proclaim the deity of Christ?” I must sadly answer, “No.” The primary data on the deity of Jesus in the book is in chapter eight: “Jesus: Rescue and Renewal.” (As an aside, one noteworthy flaw is that Wright chose not to use “Christ” as a name for Jesus. For the most part, you see “Jesus” or “Jesus of Nazareth.” This is not accidental on Wright’s part, since he seeks to establish that “Christ” is a title, not a proper name. But why not give Jesus his title? He earned it with his blood! The New Testament certainly gives it to him throughout, from Matthew 1:1 through Revelation 20:6.) Concerning the deity of Christ, Wright chooses to delve into Jesus’ own sense of his deity and mingle it with the kind of “call” a person has to be anything else in life: “I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was divine’ in the same way that we know we are cold or hot, happy or sad, male or female. It was more like the kind of ‘knowledge’ we associate with vocation, where people know, in the very depths of their being, that they are called to be an artist, a mechanic, a philosopher” (p. 119). Wright seems to think that Jesus read the Messianic passages in the Old Testament, saw the triumphant Son of David and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and “combined the two interpretations in a creative, indeed explosive, way. The Servant would be both royal and a sufferer. And the Servant would be… Jesus himself. Isaiah was by no means the only text upon which Jesus drew for his sense of vocation, which we must assume he had thrashed out in thought and prayer over some considerable time” (p. 107-8).

This is rather shocking. The image of Jesus reading Isaiah’s Suffering Servant passages, “thrashing it out in thought and prayer over a considerable time,” then concluding, “Oh, I am called to be a suffering Messiah, and, also the Son of God as well!” is foreign to Christ’s self-statements, especially in John. Jesus used the Scripture to prove and support his calling to other people, but there is no clear indication that his mission came from anyone but God himself, not through reading but by direct speech and revelation: As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11).

Other prophets certainly had direct calls from God. They didn’t merely read the Scripture and have some vague internal sense that God was calling on them to do something about Israel’s sin. Rather, “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah” (Jer. 1:1), and so it did with Ezekiel, Joel, Jonah, Micah, etc. These prophets all had a direct encounter with the living God, and they were called to be prophets. Jesus entered earth from heaven and, while the miracle of the incarnation called on him to enter life as a helpless baby, yet his heavenly Father had educated him as to who he was by age twelve (Luke 2:49), probably by the same kind of direct speech we saw in his baptism account cited above “You are my beloved Son.” Christ didn’t thrash this out in prayer over an Isaiah scroll. His identity was revealed to him directly by the Father, who then gave him his work to do and his words to say. The Gospel of John in particular makes much of Jesus’ constant reliance on the Father for every aspect of his ministry, and especially for the evidence of his deity and call to be Messiah: “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me” (John 5:36-37). Jesus went to the Father directly for even the very words he was to speak to the people: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10).

If Jesus only arrived at his sense of Messiahship from reading Scripture (Scriptures that read the same to every Israelite), there was the chance that he was deluded. Rather, the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as receiving the highest possible testimony (testimony weightier than that of John): the Father himself spoke to him, and did so continually. Therefore, to take Wright’s view of Christ’s conception of his own deity is harmful.

Now, to his credit, Wright doesn’t pull back from ascribing full language of the deity of Christ to the apostles within one generation of Christ’s life. Wright here flies in the face of liberal attacks on the gospels which state that ascriptions of deity to Christ came long after Christ was dead, and were part of the predictable mythologizing process the church did generations later. Wright rejects that completely (p. 117).

2) The Atonement

One of the greatest flaws of this book is the tacit denial of penal substitution, of the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ, of propitiation of God’s just wrath by the shedding of Christ’s blood. Anyone even partially connected to New Testament scholarship over the last decade knows of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) and of N.T. Wright’s leading role in that controversy. While Wright does not directly discuss those issues in Simply Christian, his “new perspective” on the Law of Moses and on justification is still pervasive.

For example, when Wright traces out the history of Israel, he masterfully draws out the major themes worthy of notice by someone investigating Christianity: the king, the temple, the law (Torah) and the new creation. He is even more skillful at linking these four themes to his original four “voices”:

The God of Israel is the creator and redeemer of Israel and the world. In faithfulness to his ancient promises, he will act within Israel and the world to bring to its climax the great story of exile and restoration, of the divine rescue operation, of the king who brings justice, of the Temple that joins heaven and earth, of the Torah that binds God’s people together, and of creation healed and restored. (88)

However, it is amazing that Wright barely mentions the animal sacrificial system, the Day of Atonement, the Passover Lamb, or any of the symbols of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. The animal sacrificial system, as pointed out clearly in the book of Hebrews, was meant to be a shadowy picture of the reality found in Christ, whose blood sacrifice has atoned once and for all for the sins of all who would believe in him. But Wright sees the Temple merely as the place of union between heaven and earth, and the Torah as merely a pattern describing how Israel was to live together as the family of God.

Therefore, blood sacrifice never shows up in Wright’s book—a significant omission. Even worse is the omission of Christ’s actual work on the cross. In the aforementioned Chapter 8, “Jesus: Rescue and Renewal,” Wright follows a more or less chronological description of the final week of Christ’s life. He spends one paragraph on Jesus’ purposeful arrival at Jerusalem during the Passover feast, another paragraph on his cleansing of the temple, three lengthy paragraphs on the Last Supper (in keeping with Wright’s sacramental bias), and a mere one paragraph on Christ’s final hours of suffering. Of that single paragraph, half of it is spent on Gethsemane and the trials Christ underwent. The actual death on the cross is mentioned quickly and without much elaboration. For the central event in the Christian faith to be handled so lightly is puzzling.

Even worse, however, is how Wright discusses the significance of Christ’s work on the cross. Over and over through the rest of the book, he uses the same kind of expression: Christ “exhausted the powers of evil” by his death. The impersonal “powers of evil” are never named, and how Christ’s death “exhausted” these powers is never really explained. While this theme is a rich one and supported in Scripture, Wright, as he seeks to explain Christ’s death in simple terms to unbelievers, leaves out some major doctrinal themes that are needed to complete the biblical picture of Christ’s atonement.

Christ’s accomplishment on the cross is so overwhelming, so infinitely rich and deep, that one image or one metaphor can never capture all its truths. So the New Testament uses a variety of language to capture it. For example, there is the forensic (courtroom) language, in which Christ’s death is described in penal terms: a law transgressed, a righteous penalty (death) required, an offended Lawgiver whose penalty must be upheld, a court trial undergone, etc. This language is especially strong in Romans 1 to 3 and Galatians, and it is precisely what Wright wants us to gain a “new perspective” on. Therefore, Wright totally avoids any language of this kind.

There is also battlefield language in which Christ’s death is seen as a military victory over an evil foe. This is the language closest to Wright’s. However, when this language is used in scripture, there is always a sense in which Christ triumphed over Satan, a personal enemy with an evil kingdom:

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:15)

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb. 2:14-15)

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8)

Oddly, I found only one reference to the devil or Satan and his organized kingdom of evil in the entire book, and that was an allusion to what people mistakenly thought about Christ. It seems odd that, if Wright is going to make so much of Christ defeating the power of evil, why was there almost nothing about the serpent whose head he had come to crush (Gen. 3:15)? Instead, evil seems to be a vague, impersonal force which rears its head mostly in major world-shaping movements (mindless materialistic capitalism, religious fundamentalism, crushing beast-like governments, etc.). This impersonal force finds an echo in individual human hearts, but it’s not primarily there. Individuals seem more like unwilling victims of this impersonal “evil” which Jesus’ death somehow “exhausts.” So Wright employs even the “battlefield” language of the atonement only partially.

The Bible also uses marketplace language to describe Christ’s work on the cross, in which buying and selling for a price is foremost. Here, the key word is “redemption,” the release of slaves by the payment of a price:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. (Eph. 1:7)

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev. 5:9)

There is also relationship language, in which God is offended by our sin and must be reconciled to us. The key words here are atonement (“at-one-ment”) and reconciliation, but one must also put propitiation in this category as well:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:21-22)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23-25)

In the case of both reconciliation and propitiation, the issue is that our sins have offended a holy God, producing estrangement in the relationship and rendering God as our enemy. In both cases, it is God’s work to propitiate himself and to reconcile us to himself; this infinitely weighty work is beyond our power to achieve by any means. This is what Christ achieved in his infinitely weighty work on the cross–the greatest display of God’s glory in history.

Here is what Wright loses by omitting all this language (and other types) from his discussion of the cross of Christ: the cross is the greatest display of the glory of God in all of history. The cross presents humanity with all the attributes of God put on perfect display: his justice, his wrath, his righteousness, his mercy, his love, his patience, his power, his wisdom, his compassion, his grace, and more and more besides! Sadly for Wright, here he could have found the perfect completion of his “four inner voices”:

  • The yearning for justice is found perfectly at the cross, for God poured out his wrath on his only begotten Son to pay the penalty for the sins of all who would trust in him. It was the greatest display of justice in human history (Rom. 3:26), and there will never be another to rival it;
  • The thirst for spirituality is found here as well, for “a new and living way” is opened into the very presence of God (Heb. 10:20) by which we can draw near to him.
  • Here also we can find a perfect relationship, for by the blood of Christ God is forever at peace with us. We are adopted into his family, and the unshakable foundation of peace between formerly hostile people is laid (Eph. 2:14-17).
  • And finally, the beauty of the cross is found not in the thing itself but in what it makes possible in the universe, for the cross is followed inevitably by the resurrection and the new creation in which all the filthy and ugly effects of sin are purged forever.

In his zeal to avoid the “Old Perspective on Paul,” Wright has missed a full, rich discussion of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. The pale “exhausted the powers of evil” is too vague, and seems untrue, because Wright also avoids strong discussion of personal evil as exposed by the Law of God.

3) Personal Sin, Repentance, and Judgment Day

The omission of talk about personal sin, repentance and Judgment Day necessarily follows from the previous discussion. If the Law is not meant to stand as a judge over our personal behavior, then our sin remains as indistinct and vague as the “powers of evil” Wright speaks so much of. Scripture is not so vague: everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4).

When Wright discusses Israel’s exiles into Assyria and Babylon, he sets up these pagan empires as monsters from which little victim Israel needed to be rescued. Although in a vague way Wright acknowledges Israel’s sin, Daniel was not so vague in his magnificent prayer of confession: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you” (Dan. 9:11) The Law was given so that we might recognize sin in ourselves and seek a Savior (Rom. 3:20, Rom. 7:13), not merely so that we would know how to live together as the family of God.

The great danger here is that Wright’s interested, seeking, but lost readers will fail to flee the wrath to come by repenting and trusting Christ. Passionate personal appeals to turn from sin in all its forms and to seek salvation in Christ are of the essence of the ministry of reconciliation (Acts 2:40, Acts 20:31, 2 Cor. 5:20), but they are muted in Simply Christian. Wright says, “‘Sin’ [he actually puts it in quotation marks here] is not simply the breaking of a law. It is the missing of an opportunity [to come close to God]” (p. 236). This kind of language is overly tame and entirely different from the fiery speeches of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist (e.g. Matt. 3), Jesus (e.g. Matt. 23, Luke 13), and the apostles in the book of Acts.

Wright seems to have a great personal aversion to the doctrines of God’s active wrath against sin and of the propitiation of that wrath through blood sacrifice. He uses especially inflammatory language against propitiation when he actually praises a pantheistic prayer in which a pagan seeks to tune his heart to the “silent rhythms of the world around.” Wright adds provocatively, “That is pantheistic prayer. It is (in my judgment) a lot healthier than pagan prayer, where a human being tries to invoke, placate, cajole, or bribe the sea-god, the war-god, the river-god, or the marriage-god to get special favors or avoid particular dangers” (p. 163). The doctrine of propitiation is that God does in fact have a passionate wrath against sin, and that his wrath is propitiated by the blood sacrifice of his only begotten Son (Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10).

Wright also never mentions hell and the eternity of God’s pouring out of his just wrath on the damned (Rev. 14:11). There are two great displays of God’s justice in the universe: the cross of Christ and hell. At one of those two places, every single transgression in history will have been addressed by the justice of God. Therefore it is right and loving for ministers of the gospel to warn people to flee from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7, Eph. 5:6). Wright never does this, and this is a grave failure.

4) The Scripture

Though Wright does an excellent job of calling attention to the power of the “God-breathed” nature of the Scripture and speaks of it as a major point of overlap and contact between heaven and earth, he does a number of things which undermine one’s confidence in the perfection of the word.

For example, Wright has an annoying habit of speaking of the later editing and assembling of the Law of Moses, or the compilation of the sayings of Isaiah, or the writing of Daniel centuries later than the book’s figure actually lived. These statements are unproven speculations common among biblical critics and play no helpful role in a book for unbelievers.

Wright’s handling of Daniel was especially troublesome. He speaks of the book as though it had been edited and accepted only during the second century B.C. while its visions were being partially fulfilled (p. 176). Concerning the glorious Daniel 7, Wright says,

Although it is quite possible that the passage goes back to an actual person called Daniel who had strange turbulent dreams and longed to interpret them, the book is closely related to a well-known genre that uses the conscious and deliberate construction of fictitious ‘dreams’ for the purpose of extended allegory. (195)

He then likens it to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet that is not how the book of Daniel presents itself. Has he failed to notice that every chapter from Daniel 7 through 11 is rooted in a specific place and time?

Daniel 7:1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream…

Daniel 8:1 In the third year of King Belshazzar’s reign, I, Daniel, had a vision…

Daniel 9:1-2 In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign…

Daniel 10:1 In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision…

Daniel 11:1 And in the first year of Darius the Mede…

Since the whole theme of Daniel is the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God over the rise and fall of human nations, these historical tags are essential. If “all Scripture is God-breathed,” as Wright asserts from 2 Timothy 3:16, did a man named Daniel actually have the dream recorded in Daniel 7 “in the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon”? If not, that verse is false. This is not a minor point.

But it gets worse. He uses Daniel 7 to show how much of Scripture could be interpreted metaphorically and not “literally.” He says the four beasts from the sea did not really exist and no one would claim they did. Well, Daniel himself didn’t think the beasts really existed, but rather that they were in a dream and thus represented realities. Just as the statue in Daniel 2 represented the flow of history from Babylon through the Roman Empire, just as the tree in Daniel 4 represented Nebuchadnezzar himself, just as the ram and the shaggy goat represented Media-Persia and Greece (see Dan. 8:20), so also these four beasts from the sea represented four great world empires. The angel interpreted these beasts in Daniel 7:16-17, so this vision is given with its own internal interpretation, and we are not left wondering what it signifies. Wright picks an artificial bone when he points out that Daniel 7:2 says the beasts came out of the sea but that Daniel 7:17 says the kings arise from the earth, as though there might be some contradiction even within this vision. Again, careful analysis of the words renders this a worthless issue: the beasts do come from the sea, but the kingdoms they represent arise on the earth and will seek to rule the earth. Wright’s whole point here is to reject a wooden “literalism” when it comes to handling the complex richness of biblical language. Fine, but his methods in handling Daniel 7 actually undermine confidence in the word of God.

The worst moment of all comes when Wright completely botches the glorious and prophetic “Son of Man” vision in Daniel 7:13-14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)

Christ calls himself “Son of Man” throughout his ministry, then quotes this very passage at the climactic moment of his trial:

Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:60-62)

Jesus was calling the high priest’s attention to the clearest passage in the Old Testament on the deity of the Christ. Here is someone other than Almighty God (the Ancient of Days seated on the throne) coming on the clouds of heaven (a distinctly divine posture) into the presence of God, and receiving authority, glory, and power. In Daniel 7, moreover, the Son of Man receives “worship” from every tribe, language, people, and nation. The word “worship” in Daniel 7:14 is always used for divine worship, not merely human service rendered to another human authority figure. It was the very thing that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to give the golden image in Daniel 3. Every time this Aramaic word is used it has to do with worship offered to a deity. This “Son of Man” is therefore a human figure who receives privileges given only to Almighty God. And it is because of this significant word “worship” that I must reject a direct correlation between the “Son of Man” and the “Saints of the Most High.” Yes, both the Son of Man and the saints of the Most High receive the kingdom, but this word “worship” cannot be ascribed to any but God himself. Thus it is strong testimony to the deity of the incarnate Christ. It is for this precise reason that Jesus quoted Daniel 7 at that key moment, as the high priest was about to condemn him to die. Jesus chose the right scripture!

Other passages also allude to the coming with the clouds: Jesus himself used it in the Olivet Discourse, saying that the nations would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). The angels speak to the skyward-gazing apostles who had just witnessed the ascension but lost sight of him in the clouds, and predict that Jesus would come back to earth in the same way he had left it—presumably with the clouds. And John quotes it in Revelation: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Rev. 1:7).

So why does Wright do what Jewish scholars have done with the Son of Man vision of Daniel 7, namely, argue that the “Son of Man” is the Jewish people as they receive the kingdom from God? Wright almost ridicules the idea of Jesus returning with the clouds and gives to the people of God a privilege that belongs only to Christ:

And the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ in 7:13 is interpreted, not in the literal terms of a human figure flying around on a cloud, but in the metaphorical but thoroughly concrete terms of ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ (that is, loyal Jews) ‘receiving the kingdom and possessing it forever and ever’ (7:18).

How can a Christian minister give up the Son of Man vision so easily? Yes, the saints receive the Kingdom, but under Christ. The Son of Man does not represent “loyal Jews.” The phrase “All rulers will worship and obey him” (Daniel 7:27) makes it plain that there will be human rulers who will worship Almighty God while they rule on the earth, but who are not the Son of Man who receives the kingdom. Rather, “all authority in heaven and on earth” is given to Christ (Matt. 28:18) and in his name alone will the saints rule. N.T. Wright’s handling of Daniel 7 greatly undermines the high view of Scripture he espouses elsewhere.

5) Other Issues

There are a number of smaller issues with Simply Christian worth mentioning in a general way. Wright frequently seeks to be irenic and conciliatory to outsiders, but does so by using expressions that should not be used. For instance, he commonly calls Islam a “great” religion. But Islam is a Satanic falsehood that seeks to destroy human souls by denying the deity of Christ and by offering works righteousness in the place of faith in Christ’s work on the cross. What is “great” about that?

He says that Judaism and Islam are “second cousins” or “estranged sisters” of Christianity. But isn’t giving these Christ-denying religions such status harmful to Wright’s apologetic goals?

Wright also uses inflammatory language that would be offensive to politically conservative people: he likens the Pharisees to the “religious right” (p. 102); and he describes those who bomb abortion clinics as evil, but never once speaks about the evil of abortion itself. He also chooses as examples of Christian courage those who stood up for righting social ills, such as William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu, but he never points to missionary martyrs who lay down their lives for the gospel, such as those dying in the Sudan now at the hands of Muslims.

Wright does well to speak of the “New Creation Now” drive for the church, but is very weak on the Great Commission and the drive to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) by preaching the gospel all over the world (Matt. 28:18-20, Acts 1:8).

Finally, Wright says very little about personal spiritual development in Christ (sanctification), and tends to minimize it under the larger issues of worship, sacrament, and work for social justice in the name of the kingdom. Wright’s sacramentalism is also an issue for me as a Baptist. He seems to put the Lord’s Supper at an equal status to the word of God in its power and effect in the church. The Bible does no such thing. Psalm 19 and 119 are both extended paeans of praise for the power of the written word of God, and the primacy of the word is clearly established throughout the Bible. There is nothing close to that about the value of the Lord’s Supper in spiritual formation, even if we are commanded to do it for our spiritual edification.

SUMMARY

N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian is the product of a thoughtful, articulate scholar who is seeking to give the church a tool to communicate Christianity to an unbelieving world. But if the theological and apologetic vision of this book becomes the normative pattern for the church, the results will be grievous for the advance of Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.