There is perhaps no biblical scholar alive today or in recent history that has had as much popular appeal as N.T. Wright. He’s written a voluminous amount of material on the Gospels, Paul, eschatology, resurrection, and New Testament theology. Part of his appeal comes from the fact that he’s such a polarizing figure; some cling to his every word, while others (many in the evangelical community) see him as a dangerous figure. I probably belong to a third category of people who believe he is writing great scholarship that benefits the church and yet is wrong about some important things.
I considered titling this post “5 Things N.T. Wright Gets Right,” but decided I don’t have the credentials, as a mere blogger, to pontificate on the views of someone much more learned than I.
N.T. Wright isn’t the only one who’s said the following, but his writings have brought them to the fore for me in a powerful way.
1. Cultural context and worldview matter when doing theology. This relates to some of what I’ve already said on the need to listen to different voices. In his book The New Testament and the People of God, Wright says,
“… even a video camera set up at random would not result in a completely ‘neutral’ perspective on events. It must be sited in one spot only; it will only have one focal length; it will only look in one direction. If in one sense the camera never lies, we can see that in another sense it never does anything else. It excludes far more than it includes” (82-83).
His point is that we are all selective in how we view and interpret the past. In trying to make sense of the world (and the Bible), we must necessarily emphasize some things while understating or ignoring others.
I think this is precisely why the church in America needs to see the value in raising up theologians from different ethnic backgrounds. To use Wright’s analogy, the cameras of the West have their own tendencies and may turn (to their detriment) solely to one angle. The experiences and stories of people from different backgrounds can help mitigate the tendency to look in only one direction.
2. Stories are the warp and woof of life. Wright says,
“Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about ‘bare facts’ … Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview” (NT and the People of God, 38).
So much of Western theology (whether rightly or wrongly) lives and breathes in the arena of propositions. Wright understands the stories we as humans tell to exist at a more fundamental level than our beliefs. To put it another way, we form our theology or our worldviews based on our stories. This may seem obvious to some, but few biblical scholars have taken this insight and used it to question the propositions held dear by so many for so long. And the reason why some cling so closely to their received theology is because those theological propositions are wrapped up in unspoken narratives guiding the beliefs and aims of every person.
3. Biblical Studies doesn’t need to be boring. My church history professor was recently comparing the works of John Calvin and Theodore Beza and noted how Calvin’s numerous commentaries garnered appeal because they were concise and clear, unlike the long-winded and highly technical works by Beza. In a similar way, though Wright is certainly not one to be concise (his book on Paul tops 1500 pages!), he is certainly clear and, unique among biblical scholars, fun to read.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power that writing style has on influencing popular opinion. Wright’s writing is often very polemical, but he attacks others in such a playful way that I just want to keep reading, even if I’m the one in his crosshairs.
4. Abraham’s role in the gospel. In his new book on Paul, Wright says,
“God’s way of [remaking the creation] is through the covenant … the creator God called Abraham to be the means of rescuing humans and the world” (PFG, 927-28).
Some of my Reformed readers might roll their eyes and say, “We’ve heard this before!” And sure enough, Reformed theology all the way back to Calvin has always emphasized the covenantal structure of the Bible and the important role Abraham plays in God’s purposes for his people. But few in the Reformed tradition (at least in recent memory) have so closely tied the role of Abraham to the gospel itself. We often think of the gospel in terms of propositions we can offer to lost sinners, and it is surely that, but it is also much more. The gospel of God involves the story of how God is overturning the effects of the fall by fulfilling the promises he made to Abraham.
5. The gospel’s implications for ecclesiology. By “ecclesiology,” I simply mean the doctrine of the church or the doctrine of the people of God. Ecclesiology answers questions such as: Who makes up the people of God? What does it look like for God’s people to be gathered together? What should God’s people get busy doing during their short pilgrimage on earth?
Some have accused Wright of conflating ecclesiology and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Whether they’re right or not, what I’ve learned from Wright is that, at the very least, the gospel influences the way we think about who makes up the people of God. He writes,
“The point of Paul’s whole theology … was that through God’s people the one God would provide the solution to the larger human plight. And that would be also the solution for God’s people themselves, since they too shared in the plight” (PFG, 970).
The Apostle Paul himself writes in Gal 3:8:
God … announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (NIV)
Few gospel tracts include this verse as a definition of the good news, but the bringing in of people from all ethnicities (“nation” in Greek is ethne) into the one people of God is at the heart of God’s purposes for his creation.
This means that in preaching the gospel, we should stress not only the individual, vertical dimensions of being made right with God, but perhaps even more strongly the corporate, horizontal dimensions of being made right with one another as we are brought into God’s family. I say we should perhaps stress this more strongly, because I rarely see this stressed at all.
In light of all that’s happening across our country, we may need to hear this gospel that was preached to Abraham now more than ever. In Christ, God is fulfilling his original purpose for his creation and bringing in people from all ethnicities into one family.
Thank you, N.T. Wright, for bringing these things to the fore for me in a fresh way.