Is N.T. Wright’s Book on the Psalms a Dangerous Gateway Drug?

What do you do with a helpful book on an important subject written by a man who is in serious error in a central and crucial area of Christian doctrine?

I started reading Wright’s book on the Psalms a few days ago, not really expecting much from it, and was immediately overwhelmed by the power of his prose, the force of his arguments, the startlingly fresh insights, and especially the beauty of his writing. I posted a couple of quotes on social media and within minutes: “How can you quote a heretic?” emails started arriving.

 

What do you do with a helpful book on an important subject written by a man who is in serious error in a central and crucial area of Christian doctrine? In this case, the error is so fundamental that some would even call him a heretic, or at least that he believes or teaches heresy in this one area.

I’m talking about N. T. Wright who has written a short book on the Psalms and why we should sing them, a subject that is especially dear to my own heart. He writes so eloquently, so originally, persuasively, so TRUTHFULLY.

And yet Wright has also been responsible for popularizing one of the most dangerous and devastating redefinitions of justification by faith in history, a distortion that is continuing to wreak havoc in churches and in individual lives.

I started reading Wright’s book on the Psalms a few days ago, not really expecting much from it, and was immediately overwhelmed by the power of his prose, the force of his arguments, the startlingly fresh insights, and especially the beauty of his writing. I posted a couple of quotes on social media and within minutes: “How can you quote a heretic?” emails started arriving.

I’d love to review the book on this blog, summarize Wright’s insights, provide sample quotations, point to strengths and weaknesses, etc.

But should I?

What are the options?

1. Don’t read anything by Wright on any subject because he’s in such error in a central Christian doctrine. But that would rule out people like C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Alexander Whyte, and Thomas Chalmers, all men who wrote outstanding Christian books, and yet who made serious errors in other important areas, at least at some points in their lives.

And where do we draw the line? Is John Piper off limits because he believes in continuation of the charismatic gifts? Is Tim Keller off limits because he believes in some version of theistic evolution?

2. Read the book and learn from it, but don’t tell anyone, share anything from it, or review it favorably. For my work, I have to read quite a lot of books that I wouldn’t want to publicly discuss because of the possibility of younger Christians reading them without discernment.

It’s been argued: ”We have other reliable articles and books on Psalm singing. OK, they are not very accessible or enjoyable, but at least they are sound.”

Soundly unread.

Whatever else the Wright conundrum teaches us, it’s that we need to work and pray for far better communication skills. Why is it that the devil is so skilled at dressing up ugly error in beautiful clothes, while we seem to be experts at covering up beautiful truth in ugly layers of literary mediocrity?

3. Read, review, and even recommend the book but repeatedly point out that Wright is in error on justification (though it doesn’t appear in this book). The problem with this is that some may not pick up on the warnings. They might hear, “Oh David Murray recommended N. T. Wright on the Psalms,” go off and buy it, enjoy it as much as I did, and it becomes a gateway drug to theological heresy. Throughout his book on the Psalms, Wright repeatedly references and recommends other books he’s written, all of them attractively titled, but some of them containing dangerous error.

So I’m torn; pulled in different directions. Wanting to bless people by using this book to advance the cause of Psalm singing. Yet, terribly afraid of being a curse to people by opening the door to soul-destroying error.

I started out this post inclining towards #3. But as I close, I’m inclining to #2. Much though I’d love more Psalm-singing, you don’t need to be a Psalm-singer to get to heaven. But go wrong on justification by faith, and the consequences are terrifying.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article  first appeared on his blog, Head Heart hand, and is used with permission.