Tag Archives: N.T. Wright

The pastor-theologian

“When I was at seminary back in the early 1970s, my tutor told me firmly one day that I would have to choose between being an academic and being a pastor. I decided, sitting there in his office, that I was not going to make that choice… That has resulted in a lifetime of shifting from one foot to the other, as it were, in a world for which for whatever reason — and this is odd in the history of the church…theologians of the past have mostly been pastors — think of Augustine or Luther or whoever — they were pastors, they were preachers, they were teachers, they worked with people, they prayed with people, they didn’t sit in a study and do a cerebral thing away from that, and I fail to see why we should collude with this split world of post-Enlightenment ‘either the brain or the heart’…”

N.T. Wright, here.

Paul and “the Gospel”

I’m still not quite sure how to approach linking to posts I’ve written on the other blog. I don’t want to cross-post here and have two sets of comments. It seems redundant to post here with comments closed so that if you want to comment you would have to do so there. Yet I don’t want to simply link there without some kind of “teaser”.  So here it is:

In What St. Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright takes our understanding of “the Gospel” to what it would have meant for Paul and his contemporaries. Modern Christians–evangelicals in particular–have tended to define “the Gospel” as having to do with how people are saved. It is, to modern ears, primarily a soteriological concept. To some degree, then, “the Gospel” leans heavily towards being about us (this is my conception, not Wright’s).

Wright argues that for Paul, the Jews and the people of the first century Roman world, “the Gospel” would have been understood as something quite different–or perhaps it could be better phrased: something much bigger than just soteriology in a narrow “how are we saved” sense…

Read the rest at I Heart Barth.

Thy will be done (thoughts on hell inspired by a children’s story)

I started reading The Chronicles of Narnia with Madeline last week and came across an interesting passage in The Horse and His Boy.  Two things to know: The animals in Narnia are friendly and able speak, but Digory’s Uncle Andrew is unable to understand them–their voices just sound like animal sounds to him and he’s terrified of them. Uncle Andrew has a major Narnia-based economic scheme in mind and Digory wants Aslan to set him straight. Aslan has this to say:

I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good! (The Horse and His Boy, 158)

There’s no question that Lewis’ theology shows up in his writing, but I couldn’t figure out what Aslan’s words reminded me of. Then I remembered: something N.T. Wright said in Surprised by Hope. This forms part of a discussion on purgatory, paradise, and hell, and Wright is writing in response to the popular (in “liberal” circles, anyway) notion of hell eventually being empty (i.e. some form of universalism).

I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis puts it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own (Surprised by Hope, 180).

Wright goes on to suggest his own view contrary to the traditional view of hell*, saying that

one of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around…. My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse the whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all (Surprised by Hope, 182).

If I have to give a name to one of my hobby-horses, I suppose it would be “soteriology”–or at least that part of it that wonders who can be or is saved by the work of Christ (I should have written a thesis on the topic while Terry Tiessen was still the theology professor here). I suppose I would call myself a hopeful universalist. I find many of the arguments for Christian universalism quite compelling.

Christian universalism is considered by many to be a cop-out in the face of discomfort with the notion of eternal conscious torment. But I can’t help but wonder if Wright’s view isn’t exactly the same thing. Yet it will not face nearly the opposition Christian universalism does, because at least people are eternally punished in some way (why do we wnt this so much?). And not only that, it may just have less scriptural or historical basis than Christian universalism. (In fairness, in the next paragraph he does consider his view speculative.)

I am also doubtful of his reasons for rejecting universalist ideas. The horrors that he lists may make him wish that there are people beyond redemption, but it doesn’t follow that it will be so.** Just because Joe Despot did some horrendous things, it does not automatically follow that there must be some kind of eternal punishment for him.

Further, we do believe that God’s grace is sufficient to atone for even the sins Wright lists. If (hypothetically speaking) the perpetrators of these sins were to repent, under the traditional view of things, they too would be saved. It seems to me, therefore, that the horrors we see in this world don’t necessitate punishment beyond, perhaps, that suffered by Christ (but that’s another discussion).

Wright–or any of us, frankly–might not be able to imagine it otherwise, but again that doesn’t make it so.

Wright is usually pretty good letting scripture shape his views. In this case he merely alludes to his readings of the New Testament. This isn’t particularly helpful, but then these “last things” are in general speculative.

[PS. I'm not saying Wright is wrong (heh heh), just that I don't think he's given good reason, scripturally or otherwise, for his position.]


*I have the feeling that Wright’s view actually might have its origins in Lewis as well, but I can’t say for sure as Wright does not credit him in any way.

**Ignoring the question of at what point a sin is grave enough to warrant mentioning in this discussion.  That is, under Wright’s scheme, which sins are bad enough for us to expect eternal punishment?

(Cross-posted at I Heart Barth)

Evil and the Justice of God

From N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God:

It is not enough to say that God will eventually make a new world in which there will be no more pain and crying; that does scant justice to all the evil that has gone before. We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all previous generations could be overlooked or even justified, as in the appalling line in a hymn: “Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good,” a kind of shoulder-shrugging acquiescence in evil which the New Testament certainly does not authorize.

What N.T. Wright is rejecting here is the idea which, I think, led  to Dostoyevski’s Ivan in The Brothers Karamzov (as described in David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea) rejecting God. Perhaps I did not understand his argument (which is quite possible–it’s a very dense little book), but it seemed that at the end of The Doors of the Sea Hart had done just this–shrugged his shoulders.  He can do this, of course, because ultimately death and suffering have no meaning whatsoever. But still, shrugging the shoulders.

Wright goes on:

No, all theories of atonement adequate to the task must include both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented. Otherwise the cross becomes merely an empty gesture, ineffective unless anyone happens to notice it and be influenced by it to act in a particular way (97).

So he’s saying that evil is heaped up on the cross.  And yet it’s still there.  Something isn’t clicking for me. But this is a helpful reminder: “The “problem of evil” is not simply or purely a “cosmic” thing; it is also a problem about me (97).

Good point. Evil isn’t just something “other”, something “out there”, but it’s right here beside me and inside me as well. No use pointing fingers at this and that wondering why in blazes God doesn’t intervene there, when one could just as well ask the question of me. I’m reminded of the lyric from Sufjan Stevens‘ song about the John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the Chicago serial killer. The song, which I’ve mentioned here before, gives a short but heartbreaking account of Gacy’s life, actions and victims and then ends quite suddenly with these haunting words:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Of course, God is intervening–in me and in the world–but just not in the way I might expect or want him to.

We’ll see what else the good bishop has to say…

Wright talks about Philemon & Frye talks about Jesus and Women

Go here for a remarkable sermon by N.T. Wright on Paul’s letter to Philemon (there is both an audio and a video option–it’s just over 14 minutes long).  I just read Philemon a couple of times last week (it’s very short).  Afterwards I thought, “OK, Paul is embracing this former slave as a brother, but I’m not sure what else this letter is about.”  Wright does a nice job elucidating.  (It’s also an example in the value of being familiar with the historical context of a passage.)

* * *

John Frye, in his post “Jesus and Expectations: Part 7- Women“:

Whatever the debate is today, it is undeniable that Jesus had very liberal views and relationships with women in his 1st century Jewish culture. Whatever his culture’s boundary markers were, he broke them. I will present three episodes of Jesus’ relationship to women. (Link)

The three episodes are Jesus speaking “publicly and theologically” to the Samaritan woman at the well (in John chapter 4); the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume (in Luke chapter 7); and Mary anointing Jesus with myrrh (inMark chapter 14).  John ends the post with this:

Jesus’ relationship to women did not follow the cultural scripts. Neither does the Gospel follow cultural scripts. The Gospel liberates women to their rightful place with their brothers in the work of the kingdom of God. Phoebe was a leader, a deacon. Junia was an outstanding apostle. Priscilla was an effective discipler of Apollos. Many other women were co-workers, not sub-workers, with Paul in the ministry of the Gospel. It all got started with Jesus. (Link)

What has been interesting the learn in the last couple of years is that it’s not only Jesus’ words that are his teaching, but also his actions.  Both his teaching and living are theological.  (And, once again, a fine example of the necessity of being familiar with context.)

Like John does in the post, I highly recommend Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.  I grew up in what was officiallycomplementarian home (I’ll let Wikipedia explain the term), though it wasn’t something I saw in practice very often.  Over the years I’ve slowly moved away from that view, and McKnight’s book was the proverbial nail in the coffin for any remaining complementarianism (I think).

(McKnight’s book is not, incidentally, about gender roles and the church or, for that matter, about the symbolism of Jesus’ actions.  The book is about how we read the Bible; women in church ministry is his chosen case study for that reading.)

In the discrepancies in the recorded words of Jesus

Yesterday morning I jogged alone.  Not having a conversation partner (yes, we talk while we jog), I listened instead to half of a lecture Jesus by N.T. Wright.  He made a remarkable observation about the differences between the Gospel records of Jesus’ words–remarkable and so obvious that I wonder why hadn’t thought about it myself.

He said, in effect, that since Jesus was an itinerant teacher he would have probably had similar things to say in different places, much like Wright himself would give a similar lecture in different places.  But when you teach a similar lesson repeatedly, you don’t always say the same things or say them in quite the same ways.  Hence, a reasonable explanation for some of the differences between the gospels.

I suppose, too, you can add the filter/perspective of the various hearers as a factor in the differences as well.  If you and I hear a lecture and then write a report on what was said, our reports won’t be identical.  And that different witness sources would have heard the teachings in different times and places.

For some reason or other, I had never considered the possibility of Jesus teaching the same lesson over and over again in a variety of locations.  My working assumption (albeit unconscious) was that, for instance, the material spoken at the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” was only taught once and in that location.  But there really is no reason that I’m aware of to think that Jesus taught the “Sermon on the Mount” only on the mount and nowhere else.

N.T. Wright does it again!

In other news: my first critical book review was returned to me and I did very well in terms of my grade.  Encouragement always comes at the right time, doesn’t it?

Heaven in the Acts of the Apostles

A bit long, but well worth the read:

I have just finished writing a small popular-level commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. And I was struck right from the start by the fact that Acts, which of course begins with the story of the Ascension, never once speaks in the way those Collects – and the whole tradition which they embody – so easily does. At no point in the whole book does anyone ever speak, or even sound as though they’re going to speak, of those who follow Jesus following him to heaven. Nobody says, ‘well, he’s gone on before and we’ll go and join him’. And for a very good reason. When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered.

Paradoxically, of course, because we have been used to seeing ‘heaven’ as a place separated from earth, somewhere far away, way beyond the blue. But that’s not how the Bible sees it, not at all. Heaven is God’s space, and earth is our space. ‘The heavens belong to YHWH,’ declares the Psalmist, ‘and the earth he has given to the human race.’ But the point of God’s split-level good creation, heaven and earth, is not that earth is a kind of training ground for heaven, but that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock (which is, by the way, the foundation of all sacramental theology, with the sacraments as one of the places where this overlap actually happens), and that one day – as the book of Revelation makes very clear – one day they will do so fully and for ever, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.

And that is why, in the Acts of the Apostles, the point of the coming of the Spirit, which we shall celebrate next week, isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven. That is why Acts is what it is. And in case you think that might lead us into some kind of triumphalism, with the church striding through the world imposing a theocracy on it – lots of people today do indeed think that’s what it would look like to have the Christian faith impinge at all on public life, and tell scare stories about the wickedness of theocracies in order to bolster their own secular vision – in case you imagine that God’s kingdom will be forced on an unwilling world by an all-powerful church, Acts makes it quite clear that the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest.

…I hope it is fairly obvious that we need to learn this lesson today, and need to learn it as a matter of urgency. We live at something of a crisis point in contemporary politics, with a new Prime Minister waiting in the wings but with a country, and a parliament, that has almost forgotten what public debate, not to mention parliamentary debate, actually is, and is drifting this way and that on currents of politically correct opinion, manipulated all too easily by the media and those who control it. And of course, as with the crowds in Philippi, there is a constant desire to accuse the church of being out of step, whether it’s on assisted suicide or marriage and family or campaigning to end global debt or working for proper treatment of prisoners in our jails. And the church has for so long forgotten that it’s normal to be out of step, has for so long supposed that as long as it was getting people ready for a distant destination called ‘heaven’ it really shouldn’t be worrying about what went on on earth, that we have forgotten the real message of Acts, the real message of the Ascension, which is that of course the church, in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures.  (NT Wright – read the whole thing)

You become what you worship

This is what N.T. Wright has to say about final judgment in Surprised by Hope (the book to which the author quoted in the last post was responding):

. . . I believe [the following possibility] does justice to both the key texts and to the realities of human life of which, after a century of horror mostly dreamed up by human beings, we are now all too well aware.  When human beings give their hearfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God.  One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around.  Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers, rather than as human beings.  Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects.  Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns.  These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.  My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, allsignposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.  With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.  There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight.  Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, con no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.  (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 182-3)

Another interesting perspective.  I suspect, however, that this is more speculative even than some would consider Universalism to be.

(It also, incidentally, makes me think of something from a fantasy novel.  First I thought of Gollum, but that wasn’t right.  Then I settled on Ringwraiths.

Oh, and by the way, whenever I say “fantasy novel”, I mean “a book by J. R. R. Tolkien”.)