Why N.T. Wright is the Most Important Theologian Alive Today

N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He has been at the front of historical Jesus research for a generation as well at the front of Paul scholarship during the same time. It isn’t every generation of Christians who gets A) a world-class Bible scholar who is also B) a passionate, evangelical follower of Jesus, C) a very skillful writer with wit and color,  and D) an extremely wise person who can remain gracious and Christlike in the midst of controversy. Many generations get people who are 2 or 3 of these things together, rarely all four. You know you are on your game when publishers come to you to ask you to write the 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ works (Simply Christian as the Mere Christianity for the postmodern world). There are certain Christians whose life’s work affects our understanding of the Gospel for a generation, or even multiple centuries. Wright’s work falls at least into the first category.

Specializing in the literature of the first century, Wright counsels us to read the New Testament in light of how people were writing and talking during that same time period. What were their expectations? What did they mean by certain words? How did they understand the Old Testament? Without careful attention to such things, Wright reminds us we are likely to simply read our own assumptions and theological ideas into the text. Or read the ideas of our favorite Reformation theologian from 400-500  years ago into the text.

Wright’s scholarship – and its ramifications – concerning Jesus, Paul, the Kingdom of God, and what the Gospel is even about, are landmark, groundbreaking. Entire sections of Scripture, Wright contends, have been mistaken to be about one thing when they are really about another. The results are big. For example, if you think Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings are about the end of the world, you expect certain things, the kinds of things prophecy preachers love to talk about. And these theological assumptions have deep social-political real world results:  fast-tracking weapons to the Middle East makes sense in that worldview, you are contributing to fulfilling prophecy! (BTW Is it alarming to you that evangelical church attendance correlates in statistical studies with approving of the use of torture?) However, if you think Jesus’ words are about the destruction  of Jerusalem in 72 AD and they are NOT about the end of the world, a whole other future comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture, a future written about, but which has been skipped over and ignored, due to the way we interpreted Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.

For those who have inherited a Christianity which has not been able to answer adequately certain kinds of questions, or gives answers that are largely unsatisfying, N.T. Wright might be a life saver. Among other things, he opens the door to a larger, grander Gospel than many people grew up with.

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Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.

How “narrow is the door” ?

“Narrow is the door.” The way this verse was often used when I was a kid was that you better get serious about church attendance or you’re toast. This makes this verse essentially into an old call for works righteousness –  get better at your discipleship or you’ll get Left Behind! Sort of an unspoken slogan “My yoke is hard and my burden is heavy!” Alternatively, some have used this verse to indicate that if someone is born at the wrong time in the wrong place, (say southern Africa,  2nd century AD), they are on their way to hell, outside the range of God’s grace. They use it as a proof that no Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or animist will ever be saved. The New Calvinists like John MacArthur make it sound like if you don’t get all your doctrines straight (i.e., believe what they believe – their particular version of Calvinism) you’re lost. This of course means it turns out that your ability to get the answers right on a theology test is what saves you, not Jesus.

But look at the context. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about the impending doom of Jerusalem and his generation’s headlong rush into insurrection and war with the Romans.  Next he tells a story about a fig tree. In the OT, these kinds of parables are about Israel, not individuals. The assumption all around him is that as long as my birth certificate says “Jewish” I’m automatically in with God. Jesus, in challenging his generation’s assumptions about civil religion, nationalism, religious violence, and pedigree, is talking about genuine relationship with God rather than religio-ethnic superiority complexes. If N.T. Wright is correct, this whole chapter is about Israel and Jesus’ call for his generation to follow him down a different Way.

To make this into a restrictive idea that God’s grace is only for the super-achievers spiritually or some other narrow slice of humanity is to fly in the face the portrait of God and his Kingdom that Jesus offers us, not least Luke 13: 18-21 – the Kingdom is a mustard seed grown huge and a leaven working through the whole batch of dough –  the words immediately preceding the ‘narrow door’ comment! If God were interested in making it difficult (narrow) to earn your way into heaven, no need to send Jesus. We already had difficult.  

Somewhere in The Shack, Mack asks “does this mean all roads lead to you?” Jesus replies,
“not at all; most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, a man who worshipped a false god Tash kneels before Aslan expecting death. But Aslan says to him “The oaths you kept to Tash I count kept to me…” These modern day parables are images of a God burgeoning with love, seeking people wherever they are. The ways the narrow door comment are often treated picture a God who lays out a tiny escape hatch in a maze for those who can find it. Which picture of God is true?

I’m afraid that the way these words of Jesus are typically used, we get simply one more old picture of a tribal god who only has love for his favorites or the super-accomplishers, not the God who loves all the world and sends His Son to save it. Would you want to love a favorites-only god?  Or would you only serve him out of dire necessity?

I just backpacked Pine Creek Gorge with my son

Every year before he goes back to college my oldest son and I go backpacking somewhere for two or three days. This year we climbed the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon/ Pine Creek Gorge into the Natural Area and then packed down to the creek and camped under the hemlocks beside the stream. Juvenile Common Mergansers, a bald eagle and perhaps the nicest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught were some of the creatures we shared the Gorge with.

Each year we take along a couple copies of a recent theology book and have a blast reading it simultaneously laying in the tent at night and talking back and forth about it.  This year we took N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, a book that’s been out for quite some time, but which Tanner had never read. I heartily recommend it:  it’s one of the best introductions to what we really mean by Christian spirituality for the postmodern world. Wright is the leading New Testament scholar on the planet, an Anglican who has been at the forefront of both Pauline and historical Jesus research for more than two decades.

As we were soaking up the extreme beauty of the Gorge we talked about the bizarre Left Behind version of Christian eschatology in which they imagine God abandoning  His good creation – the earth – and destroying it. “Why would anybody be attracted to such an ugly and disheartening  story?” I asked my son rhetorically as we stood in the creek. We commented what a joyful addition to our lives the biblical doctrine of the renewal of all things has been for us. That is, the Bible teaches that, rather than betraying it, God intends to renew the world, healing Creation of all its ills – and all of the mountains, rivers, dolphins, bluejays, wildflowers  et etc  will still be around for us to thrill to enjoy in the Age to Come. What a better, more Gospel “Good News” story than the toxic, twisted Left Behind plotline.

In the next blog I’ll cite the biblical references for the healing of all Creation.

Why SOME older, Modern Christians are encouraged by Postmodernism or ‘Why Postmodernism is a good culture for the church to evangelize in’

  Quite a few Christian leaders are actually encouraged, seeing the postmodern world as one where Christianity will fit in much better than it did in the modern, rationalistic, science-as-god worldview. No one needs to prove that the dominant modern secular worldview was utterly skeptical of ‘spiritual experiences,’ or ‘religion’ for that matter. While spirituality fell out of vogue in the modern world, except as sort of an upscale hobby for people into that sort of thing, the postmodern world is unapologetically spiritual. Have you noticed? Name a type of spirituality  and it’s probably growing.

My favorite summary of why postmodernism could be a good thing for Christianity comes from Baptist Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. If I can sum up his description, drawing from some of his colorful turns of phrase, it is this:  ‘God took a beating in the modern world’, relegated more and more  to the edges of the universe. Church leadership migrated from being about otherworldy insight and spiritual rites to being a scholar of antiquities and eventually a CEO with organizational science being the chief qualifications. Science and technology increasingly  shifted the modern practice of Christian faith to focus around head-knowledge. As a result ‘the North American church is largely on a head trip’. ‘We have a rational faith. The test for orthodoxy typically focuses on doctrinal stances, not character and spiritual connectedness to God and others.’ Consequently, most modern discipleship is heavily unbalanced: revolving around acquiring facts rather than following Jesus.

Just about the time the (evangelical, in this case) church had thoroughly imbibed everything modern, the culture went looking for God. We scrubbed sanctuaries of religious symbolism while the culture started searching for sacred space. About the time we adopted business models the culture is searching for spiritual communities. After we erased the mysticism that was at the heart of most of Christian history for a head-oriented fact finding mission, the culture rediscovered the deep human thirst for spirituality. And so, McNeal contends, much of the modern church is less spiritual than the culture around it! We need to get back out in the culture, he says, because room for God is growing in, (and increasingly even central to), the postmodern worldview. We no longer have to argue that there might be value to spiritual life. Postmoderns already get that.

One of the laments of the church in the modern world was that people were obsessed with materialism and consumerism and not interested in matters of the spirit. But in postmodern culture we find a renewed desire for meaning and purpose beyond materialism and consumerism. Methodist Robber Webber saw these shifts as well suited to Christianity and welcomed the responses emerging from the church (see his books The Younger Evangelicals and Ancient-Future Faith).

So some older evangelicals are heartened that the ancient Christian faith finds itself once more in a cultural milieu where it thrives: surrounded by other gods and competing faith claims, Christian spirituality can point people already interested in ‘spirit’ to the one who made their spirits:  Jesus.

New Testament Scholar NT Wright has said it like this:

“We Western Christians mostly bought a bit  too heavily into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for a while… the answer to the challenge of postmodernity is not to run back tearfully into the arms of modernism. It is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance, of modernity and to look and pray and work for …  Christian mission in the postmodern world… and enabling our world to turn the corner in the right direction.” (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 168).

In the postmodern worldview which deconstructed, and no longer buys into, the meta-narratives modernism had sold, Wright (one of e/E/p folk’s favorite theologians) calls us to living out the true metanarrative of Scripture’s story of God, Israel, Jesus and the world.

Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed…. And our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion. (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 183-184).

Many Christians believe the cultural milieu of postmodernity is fertile ground for people to hear the gospel – more fertile, in fact, than the modern era was.  Which brings us to the subject of what street-level postmodernism is NOT.