There are two kinds of Christians: those who are comfortable with some version of traditional orthodoxy, and those who worry that their religion has gone off the rails.
Bishop N.T. Wright (‘Tom’ to his friends) belongs in the second category. And it is American-style evangelicalism, with its “Left Behind” eschatology and heaven-hell soteriology, that concerns him the most.
Wright thinks Christianity is in trouble because the faithful focus on isolated proof texts and ignore the big story, the “metanarrative” of Scripture. We jump from the sin of Adam to the cross of Christ as if Abraham, Moses and the prophets hardly mattered. Our creeds leap from “born of the virgin Mary” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as if all the bits in between were window dressing.
God has set us an impossibly stiff moral test, most Christians believe, and we have all flunked. As a consequence, God is burning mad and wants us to fry in hell for all eternity. Fortunately, God decided to vent his wrath on Jesus so the rest of us get to swap our just deserts in hell for an eternity in heaven.
Few preachers or theologians put it that crudely, Wright admits, but for most Christians that’s the take-away.
Wright’s understanding of hell owes much to The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis’s portrait of an insubstantial and desiccated semi-existence found in the cracks of a super-real heaven. When he isn’t being lauded as the world’s leading New Testament scholar, Wright is hailed as the successor to Lewis who, before he wrote all those Narnia books, penned a spate of extremely popular (and slim) volumes of popular theology.
But Wright is a biblical theologian and C.S. Lewis was not. Between 2003 and 2010, Wright served as Bishop of Durham, the fourth most important post in the Anglican Communion. He has taught at Oxford University (his alma mater) and a number of other top-tier schools (including McGill in my native Canada) and is presently professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Wright’s normal pattern is to write an academic opus like Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) or Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013) followed by several popular books that translate his big ideas into the vernacular. Each popular book sparks a speaking tour, most commonly in the United States, where he has become the closest thing to a theological rock star one can imagine. Wright reads fast and writes even faster: he once polished off a popular commentary on Acts in a single week.
In his writing and public speaking, Wright returns again and again to 1 Corinthians 15:3,4: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures … and … was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” “According to the scriptures” doesn’t suggest that we have located a few scattered proof texts in the Hebrew Bible pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul means that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the consummation of a grand narrative stretching back to the creation stories in Genesis. When John begins his Gospel with “in the beginning was the Word,” that’s exactly what he’s saying. When Paul talks about new creation he is making the same point.
In a recent interview with Christianity Today Wright sketched out the real problem. “God gave humans a vocation: to reflect his image, to be … a kingdom of priests, summing up the praises of creation and reflecting the creator’s wise rule into the world.” That, as the Adam and Eve stories of Genesis make clear, was our job. The problem isn’t that our rejection of our true vocation made God mad; the problem is that “God’s larger purposes for creation are not going ahead as intended.”
Following his friend, the late Walter Wink, Wright defines sin as idolatry, selling the authority and power God has given us to false gods of power, sex and money. These “powers” enslave us, make us miserable, and set us at odds with the healing love of God. That’s the problem!
Genesis begins in a garden-temple in which earth is infused with heaven. Adam and Eve, representing an intransigent humanity, abandon their role as stewards of God’s good creation and are quickly enslaved by non-divine “powers.” Genesis describes the rapid unravelling of God’s loving intention, culminating with the tower of Babel. Then God calls Abraham and the rescue mission is underway. This restorative process continues with the liberation from Egyptian slavery, the building of a wilderness tabernacle, and (ultimately) the temple of Solomon where a blessed but fragile interchange between earth and heaven is reestablished.
Israel was sent on a rescue mission to the world, but the ambulance got stuck in a ditch. The Old Testament’s redemption story slams into a Babylonian brick wall and never recovers. Second Temple Judaism was haunted, Wright says, by the painful awareness that the glory that departed Solomon’s temple in a chariot of whirling wheels (that’s what Ezekiel’s vision means) had never returned and would not return until God found a way around the sinful idolatry of his chosen people.
The teaching and healing ministry of Jesus unfolded against the backdrop of this glorious and gloomy narrative. “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons,” Jesus says in Luke 11:20, “then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Everything in the Gospels tells the same story: the second exodus has begun, and the kingdom of God is among you.
Passover bring this message to a soul-rending crescendo. Jesus didn’t “cleanse” the temple in a prophetic rebuke to religious commercialism; he was saying that the marriage of heaven and earth and the forgiveness of sins were no longer happening in the temple, it was taking place in a life-and-death drama that would soon culminate in his own death and resurrection.
Wright is famous for a 750-page book that meticulously shreds all the rational explanations for the early Christian belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The only theory that makes sense, Wright concludes, is that the tomb really was empty and the disciples, beginning with women like Mary Magdalene, really did encounter the risen Lord.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of Wright’s biblical theology. If Jesus was raised on the third day, God has placed his stamp of approval on the big narrative Jesus proclaimed. If Jesus conquered death, the curse of Babylonian captivity has finally been broken, and God’s promises to the prophets are being fulfilled through a New Israel comprised of people from every tribe and nation. If Jesus is the “first fruits of them that sleep” those who die with him in baptism will be raised with him at the last day.
In the process, what we call the Old and New Testaments mesh perfectly into one continuous story and the Gospel writers and Paul are saying the same thing in different ways.
And we have work to do.
Wright speaks of the general resurrection in glowing terms but rarely moves beyond the highly symbolic descriptions of this event he finds in scripture. His focus is present tense. Being a Christian is about participating in the revolution God has unleashed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it isn’t about going to heaven or avoiding hell when you die.
Wright says we have Platonized our eschatology (by making a disembodied heaven the goal of faith); we have moralized our anthropology (by making a failed “works contract” the nub of the human problem); and we have paganized our soteriology (substituting a non-biblical vision of heaven and hell for the revolutionary kingdom of God).
Wright wants to talk about “life after life after death.” He isn’t denying that the faithful go to heaven when they die, but the big show is the marriage of earth and heaven anticipated by a cosmos groaning with the pangs of labor (Romans 8) and celebrating the descent of the New Jerusalem to earth (Revelation 21 and 22).
Wright speaks of an “inaugurated eschatology” gradually unfolding until earth and heaven are one, which establishes a “cruciform (cross-shaped) theocracy.” From the ministry of Jesus until the last trumpet sounds, love is the only arrow in God’s quiver.
When God wants to change the world, Wright says, he doesn’t drop bombs and roll out the tanks; he sends in the meek, the merciful, the humble, the peacemakers, the pure in heart and those who hunger and thirst to see justice done.
The Kingdom of God is about restorative justice. Salvation doesn’t happen when you pray the “sinner’s prayer”; it happens when you join the revolution.
And that, brothers and sisters, isn’t what we learned in Sunday school, is it?
Alister McGrath was right when he famously said that “Wright has lobbed a hand grenade into the world of traditional evangelical theology. It is far too early to determine whether this grenade will explode and cause fatalities or whether it will prove to be the kind of explosion that generates mild and polite interest within academic seminar rooms and fails to impact the broader world of evangelical theology.”
There aren’t many theologians who can put a thousand butts in seats on a Tuesday evening, but I saw Tom Wright do it in Dallas a few months ago, and he’s doing the same thing all over the English-speaking world.
Still, drop the Bishop’s name in your average Baptist church and you will probably encounter a blank stare.
And, as you likely guessed, defenders of “Reformation Orthodoxy” like Al Mohler and John Piper are pushing back with a vengeance. And with good reason. To quote McGrath once again, “If N.T. Wright is right, Luther is wrong.”
Wright didn’t come to his conclusions in studied isolation. The theologically literate will hear echoes of E.P. Sanders, Richard Hays, Dom Crossan, Walter Wink, Walter Brueggemann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, Gustav Aulén, Albert Schweitzer and many other theological luminaries in Wright’s work. But no one says it half as well as the Anglican bishop with the brilliant mind, busy pen and mellifluous baritone.
American evangelicalism has invented pious fictions like “the Roman Road” and the Four Spiritual Laws and the “prosperity doctrine” because they promise everything and ask next to nothing in return. A nod of assent and an eternity in heaven is ours.
The gospel Wright talks about costs everything, but for young men and women who want Jesus but are dismayed by most of his current followers, the more costly article is deeply attractive. Will these people gather themselves into conventional churches? Are conventional churches even capable of embracing a gospel this radical?
Likely not. But the leavening influence of Wright’s big idea can already be felt in our churches (whether people have heard of Tom Wright or not). Growing numbers of evangelical and post-evangelical Christians have discovered an alternative to the thin gruel of American spirituality, and that should make us very happy.