Perhaps the most prolific theological writer of the past 20 years has been Nicholas Thomas (N.T.) Wright, past Anglican Bishop of Durham and now the Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Wright’s production has been nothing short of amazing, especially his multivolume series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” which represents some of the best biblical scholarship and New Testament historical research of our time. Serious Christians everywhere are grateful for Wright’s masterful defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and his contention that Christian faith has strong historical and reasonable support.
But the good Bishop has not limited his work to scholarly audiences. He has published a host of books for educated Christian laypeople including what I think is perhaps the best book on eschatology that I have read in my lifetime, “Surprised by Hope” (Harper One, 2008). While this reviewer deeply respects Wright’s work — that does not mean that everything he writes merits agreement. That is true in terms of his understanding of the doctrine of justification where I think Wright misinterprets Martin Luther to some degree. And in this book, a collection of essays on different biblical, theological and ethical subjects, I am sure that readers will find much to like and some to not like.
Wright establishes his framework for engagement of these desperate matters in the preface. Christians, secularists, indeed all of us whether we know it or not have uncritically embraced the core teachings of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. “I have come to the view that, unless we glimpse the roots of what today is taken for granted in our world, we will not understand why we see problems the way we do, and will not appreciate what the Bible might have to say about them. When people think of “living in the modern world,” very often what they are doing is embracing one particular ancient philosophy (Epicureanism) in a modern guise (x). For Wright, this ancient philosophy dressed up in Enlightenment garb is “the worldview in which God, or the gods, may perhaps exist, but if they do, they are far away and remain uninvolved with the world” (6). And it is a worldview that those who are well-off economically and socially whether they are Christians or secularists seem almost unconsciously drawn to.
Uncritical embrace of an Enlightenment/Epicurean worldview has not only led to oppositional conflicts in the political realm of life in the United States and Europe, but they gave rise to the Fundamentalist-Modernist debates of the early 20th century as well as the ongoing oppositional debates we see among Christians over a host of matters. Nowhere is this seen more than in how many Christians and secularists perceive the relationship between science and faith. Because of this, many Christians and secularists do not read Genesis 1 and 2 in the way that the text intends and that the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers see them. Wright sees Paul as integrating the first three chapters of Genesis into his writing in 1 Corinthians 15 with the point being “that God put his wonderful world into human hands; that the human hands messed up the project; and that the human hands of Jesus the Messiah have now picked it up, sorted it out, and got it back on track” (35).
Wright challenges Christians and secularists both to reject this Enlightenment/Epicurean worldview and do the hard intellectual work that gets beyond casting them in oppositional terms. One of the best places for that to happen is in terms of what we say about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wright passionately argues that Jesus was raised in bodily form and that his resurrection was not hidden but public in a historical sense. “What I am suggesting,” according to Wright, “is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort is not blind belief that rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply … a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere” (61). Instead, it is shaped by our faith in the God “who has raised Jesus from the dead within history” with evidence that can be investigated by all people, scientists included. Faith and history are not divorced from one another because God acts in human history, and Resurrection provides a paradigm for our own resurrection at the return of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom of God.
Wright’s chapter regarding the second coming of Christ is a nice summary of “Surprised by Hope,” and his argument that our Lord’s future return does not negate our responsibility to care for the earth. As followers of Christ, we are citizens of God’s kingdom and our kingdom citizenship means that we start “to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation” even if only in an imperfect sense before the return of Christ. “We should take responsibility in the present time for God’s groaning creation … We are not to regard the created order as random, nor to see its present disarray as somehow its own fault, but to understand it in terms of an initially good creation now radically spoiled [by the fall] but awaiting redemption” (90) as expressed in Genesis 1. We sin when we abrogate our responsibility for the welfare of creation. Hence, Christians must care about environmental matters like global warming and abuse of the earth’s resources simply because that is integral to our fundamental identity as humans created in the image of God. Too often, many evangelical Christians have seen environmental stewardship as some kind of “liberal plot” and while I agree that proposals related to matters like global warming should be carefully critiqued, Wright’s corrective to our dismissive tendencies is important.
Finally, Wright challenges his readers to engage Scripture in an integrated as opposed to a truncated manner. First, we need to read Scripture in its proper narrative and literary context. Many people (including many in our churches) assume that science and technology provide the only real knowledge and that theology, poetry and art are merely soft knowledge, “subjective musings without any purchase on solid reality” (133). Nothing is further from the truth, according to Wright as Scripture in all of its narrative and literary forms speaks to the reality of God, his creation and our human existence.
Second, when we read the Bible, we often assume a “split-level” understanding of reality that divorces the spiritual from the natural. When this happens, “the Bible is first privatized, then dismembered.” Modern biblical criticism of both liberal and conservative varieties tends to reinforce this dichotomy and force us away from reading Scripture in ways that speak to our living in the world in which we find ourselves. The problem is that when we read Scripture in this split-level way, we miss the essence of its message which is the Gospel message, “that this is the story of how the creator God launched his rescue operation for the whole of creation” (138).
The consequences of these truncated readings of Scripture are represented in our “all-or-nothing” descriptions of events and realities within creation. “We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability, conceptually as well as practically, to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed” (176). Indeed. Wise words as we engage in a presidential election year. And politics is only one arena where a lack of integrated Christian thought damages both church and society.
In the past several months I have heard Christians claim that in response to the Supreme Court decision regarding homosexual marriage, churches need to be communities of resistance to cultural trends like this and that we should encourage Christians to disobey this ruling. My response to this line of thinking has been, “It will never work!” Why? Because as William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas argued 25 years ago, you cannot build an alternative community when the church is culturally compromised in so many areas of life and when our unconscious habits of life are shaped more by Enlightenment reason than by Holy Scripture. We live with a truncated understanding of life and faith, and according to Wright we will need a holistic understanding of Christian faith as both private and public. Here Wright echoes the 20th century missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin who described the gospel as “Public Truth.”
Seeing the gospel as “public truth” means that Christian faith does speak to environmental concerns, to how we educate our children and young people, to why we condemn racism and discrimination, to the immorality of war and violence, and to the various issues that relate to human life. In all of this, we learn to become “people of hope.” We can become people of hope because Jesus Christ has been bodily raised from the dead. Because Jesus is alive, we can simply follow him and bring the gospel to bear on all of life. We don’t have to conform to some left-wing or right-wing political orthodoxy. Resurrection cannot be reduced to ideology.
By Dr. Robert J. Mayer
(Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Assistant Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.)
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. New York: Harper One, 2014.