Posts Tagged ‘N.T. Wright’

Lost World

April 21, 2015

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.

When I first read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God the experience was like that described by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. Chesterton imagines an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculates his course and discovers England “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton claims to envy this yachtsman, for, “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

In reading Wright, I found that I was looking at all the familiar landmarks of the synoptic gospels but seeing them from a very different angle. Nothing was discarded, in the way that liberal readings are apt to do, but all was heightened and clarified. It took me three or four readings before I began to feel comfortable in this new country that was actually so familiar.

I’m having a similar experience reading John Walton’s two books on Genesis 1-3. Walton is a very conservative Christian—he taught for years at Moody Bible Institute before moving to Wheaton College–who takes every word of Scripture as indispensably true, but he reads this seminal text in a way that is entirely new to me.

It’s difficult to get a clear understanding of the whole argument without reading the whole book, which deals with many nuances of Hebrew, with many Ancient Near East texts, and with careful readings of the Pauline writings on Adam and Eve. Let me try, however, to give a few aspects of Walton’s argument that I found helpful, and that may pique your interest in reading more.

Walton starts by saying that we are a very materialistic age, and that we therefore read the text seeking an explanation of the material universe.  But in the ancient Middle East, he says, people took the material as a given: they were more interested in power and organization. All origins texts of that period, including Genesis, place the components of the universe in their roles and explain their purposes.

Walton argued in his first book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that Genesis 1 tells how God made the whole universe to be his temple. There is no interest in when and how, but strictly who and for what. All the players are summoned in an orderly fashion to their roles in the temple, including human beings who are made to represent God’s image and in that role to preside over his temple, keeping it and caring for it. Walton says there is nothing in the first chapter suggesting how long this took, or by what physical process it was done, or whether human beings were made in a single pair or by the thousands.

He makes the point that when God pronounces this “very good,” he does not say “perfect.” “Good” in the context means, “well-functioning.” All the pieces are in their places and are in play. There is no reason to assume that there is no death among the creatures: well-functioning creatures do die.

I particularly like one image that Walton uses to describe the nature of the story that Genesis 1-3 tells. He suggests that we differentiate between a “house” story and a “home” story. We have read Genesis 1-3 looking for the “house” story—how the building was constructed. We think it is all about wooden beams and concrete foundations and floor plans and roof joists. Instead, Walton says, we should read it as a “home” story. When a family moves into a house, they bring in their furniture, their decorations, their equipment. They assign rooms to different people and to different functions. Jill’s room and Kevin’s room, the dining room and the den are not defined by their physical characteristics but by the people who inhabit them and the way they use them. People humanize the house and make it their own. It then serves for family life, for hospitality, for renewal, for family rituals—for whatever purposes the family endorses. The “home” story is much more interesting—and much subtler–than the “house” story.

If Genesis 1 is a “home” story, what is Genesis 2? Walton reads it not as a repeat of and detailed account of the sixth day of creation, but as a subsequent series of events. He believes Adam and Eve are real historical creatures, but not necessarily the first homo sapiens. Rather they are chosen by God (like Abraham, later on) to be representative and archetypal human beings to extend God’s rule. They are placed in a garden where they fellowship with God, name the animals, discover the meaning of sexual differences (Walton argues that the description of God making Eve from a rib and presenting her to Adam may be Adam’s revelatory dream of the value and purpose of marriage), and are given two trees—one a tree of life, so they need never die, and one a tree of wisdom, which they are warned not to eat. They seize wisdom, rebelling against God. (Perhaps, in God’s good time, he meant to share it with them. But they wanted it for themselves, immediately.) Their expulsion from the garden means that, just like all the other creatures, they cannot eat from the tree of life. And so they bring death to the whole human race, because we cannot enter the garden that they were evicted from.

This understanding of the fall turns the original sin upside down—not as an introduction of death, but as a rejection of life. That leaves room for an interpretation of our world where God’s good intentions are shown not in a perfect original creation—one without death, suffering, pain, earthquakes, disease, predation—but one that is well made with an end in mind. That end is that image-bearing humans in fellowship with God (through the One Man, the Image of God) might achieve a perfect new earth and heaven.

Even as I write this brief summary I am aware that you can take exception to Walton’s exegesis at many points. It’s hard material to interpret—and it’s not just Walton’s grasp that one might question; any interpretation you care to summon up raises its doubt and questions. Walton doesn’t skip over hard questions. He tries to deal with every word of the text, including New Testament writings that are relevant. (In one chapter on Paul’s view of Adam, N.T. Wright himself adds a brief section.)

I found it stimulating stuff. Perhaps the most significant contribution is to bring Genesis 1-3 into the literary world of its period. When we do that, Walton says, we find that many of the material questions we want to ask are not addressed at all. Instead, a worship-oriented view of the cosmos as God’s home and temple emerges. That clearly connects to the rest of Scripture, as a material history does not.

As for the possibility that science’s evolutionary story of origins is true, Walton simply makes the case that nothing in Genesis 1-3 rules it out. How and when God created the living creatures, including humans—Walton says Genesis does not address those questions. We can believe the science or not, on its own evidence.

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Paul’s World: #3 Quotations from N.T. Wright

February 25, 2014

 Here are more quotes from N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These have to do with the symbolic world that the apostle Paul sees as replacing the symbolic world of the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus.

Theology itself plays a new symbolic role in Paul’s worldview. It takes the place, within his revised worldview/symbolic universe/social imaginary (or whatever we want to call it), that had been occupied by more tangible things in the world from which he came.  [352]

First, the Temple….You are the temple of the living God, he says,: not to the Philippians he loved so much, not to the Thessalonians in the midst of their suffering and danger, but precisely to the recalcitrant, muddled, problem-ridden Corinthians. This is not, in other words, a sober judgment based on the noticeable holiness, or gospel-inspired love or joy, of this or that ekklesia. It is simply, for Paul, a fact: the living God, who had said he would put his name in the great House in Jerusalem, has put that name upon and within these little, surprised communities, dotted about the world of the north-eastern Mediterranean. Unless we are shocked by this, we have not seen the point. [355]

Their point was not so much that the old Temple was corrupt or wicked, though those who were running it might be, but precisely that the one God was doing the new thing he had always promised…. This, I believe, is at the heart of the theology of Acts itself, in which Jesus himself has become the place where, and the means by which, heaven and earth are brought together, so that the Pentecost-scene in Acts 2 takes the long-awaited place of a second-Temple scene in which Israel’s God comes back at last to live with and among his people. [356]

The holiness of the ekklesia comes to be, in itself, a central part of Paul’s positive symbolic world, and here is the reason: this community is the transformed new reality to which Paul saw the Jerusalem Temple itself as the advance signpost. [357]

…Paul’s point was not that there was anything wrong with the original promise or symbol. Far from it. When you have arrived at your destination, you switch off the engine and park the car, not because it has not done its proper job but because it has. It is eschatology, not religious superiority, that forms the key to Paul the apostle’s radical revision of the symbolic world of Saul of Tarsus. [367]

The final Jewish symbol to be examined here…. is scripture itself. ….Though scripture was of course put to many different kinds of use by the many varieties of Jewish life in this period, one central strand of these uses was to see scripture as the great, controlling story through which Israel understood its own existence: to see it, indeed, as a story in search of an ending, an ending whose shape and content would not be in doubt (the fulfillment of the promises, the coming of the Messiah and so forth) but whose conditions and hence whose timing, were open not just to doubt but to centuries of agonized searching and questioning. [373]

…Paul’s always-astonished awareness that when he worshipped the God of Israel he now knew that this God had a human face, that he had lived a human life and died a human death. The resacralization of the world begins with Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop there…. whereas the Stoic aimed at living “in accordance with nature,” what Paul envisaged was a radical transformation of “nature” itself–human nature, and the entire cosmos–by the powerful indwelling of the divine spirit. [378]

It turns out that some of the greatest, most central themes of Paul’s deepest teaching–those to do with Jesus the Messiah as the revelation of Israel’s God, as the place where God’s people were summed up and their story brought to fruition, as the one before whom, now, every knee was summoned to bow–grew visibly out of Jewish traditions; they were not, in other words, invented to match or to square off against, the imperial rhetoric. And yet they did in fact confront that imperial rhetoric at point after point. Jesus is “son of God”; he is “lord of the world;” he is “savior;” the worldwide revelation of his rule is “good news,” because through it “justice” and “peace” are brought to birth at last. He is the one who “rises to rule the nations.”

…As far as I can discover, one of the extraordinary innovations in the imperial claims of the Caesars was the production of a “salvation-history,” a thousand-year narrative designed, like the new streets in Ephesus, to lead the eye inexorably upward to the imperial glory. All those years of the republic were a preparation for… this! For the first time, the great Jewish narrative which had lain at the heart of the worldview of Saul of Tarsus, and still lay at the heart of that of the apostle Paul, found a story which matched it, so it seemed, and backed up its claim with an impressive public record. Paul does not mention this story explicitly, any more than he speaks of the imperial claim made by coins, statues and other obvious imagery. Yet we should not ignore the subversive nature of the retold Jewish story which undergirds so much of his writing. If this–the story of Adam, Abraham and Israel, climaxing in the Messiah!–is the grand narrative of the creator’s design for his world, then the grand narrative of Virgil, Horace and Livy, and the visual symbolism which went with those writings, cannot be true, or the ultimate truth. [382-3]

We are simply asking the question: what were the main symbols, and symbols-in-action, of Paul’s newly envisaged and constructed world? And we are about to find, large as life, on the basis not of a theological a priori but simply by asking this question, scratching our heads, and looking around, that the primary answer is the ekklesia: its unity, holiness and witness. [385]

The Messiah’s people are a single family, and must strain every nerve to make that a reality that goes all the way down into their hearts and minds. The way they will do that is by allowing the Messiah’s own “mind,” as worked out in his own astonishing career-path of “giving up” status and rights, to shape their own. [390]

More N.T. Wright on Paul

January 14, 2014

Continuing my earlier post, here are more quotes from N.T. Wright’s blockbuster, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These have to do with the Greco Roman context within which Paul preached. 

“Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two… is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the words ‘god,’ we think at once of a distant, detached divinity–as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do–we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos.” [213]

“A world full of gods generated a human life full of… well, let us go on calling it ‘religion’ for the moment. Did the lightning strike to the left or the right of the path? Did you remember to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon before you got on board the ship? Hope you enjoy the meal; this splendid beef was from a sacrifice in the temple down the street, so it comes with a special blessing. How were the planets aligned on the night you were born? Don’t forget the festival tomorrow; everyone will be there, and the neighbors will notice if you don’t show up. Have you heard that Augustus has now become Pontifex Maximus? I know I was due to arrive yesterday, but some god must have had it in for me, or perhaps someone put a curse on me: the roads were all blocked. Don’t you like the new temple in the city square? Isn’t it good that they’ve reorganized the streets so you can see it from every angle! My nephew tells me he’s been initiated into this new cult from the East; he says he’s died and been reborn, though I can’t see much difference. Oh, and don’t forget; we owe a cock to Asclepius. This is not philosophy, though the philosophers regularly talk about it. Nor is it politics as such….Call it ‘religion;’ and judge not, lest we be judged.” [251]

“… The great festivals mattered, the proper performance of regular religious rituals (particularly sacrifices) mattered, and the appropriate investigation of omens and auguries mattered. To neglect those was to jeopardize the polis itself, and potentially to cast a blight on particular enterprises the polis might be conducting. ‘To refuse sacrifice was to refuse the gods.’ ‘Impiety’ like that might or might not be associated with the possibility of some kind of divine punishment in a future life, but that was a different matter; the more important charge would be that one was endangering the state by either ignoring or insulting one of the divinities involved in the civic life and in that particular project.” [275]

“Whereas for Christians, starting with Paul, ‘belief,’ and in particular belief about who ‘God’ really was, took center stage, this had never been the case for the Greeks and the Romans. For them, religio was something you did; ;even the idea of personal ‘belief’ (to us, a self-evident part of religious experience) provides a strikingly inappropriate model for understanding the religious experience of early Rome.'” [276]

“The Jews would not pray to the gods of Rome, but they would pray (to their one God) for the health and well-being of Rome; that principle had been well established as one of the ground rules for Jews in exile, as long ago as Jeremiah. Under the empire, Jews would not pray to the emperor, as everyone else had to do, but they would pray for the emperor. Why not? According to their creational monotheism, with its remarkable role for humans as the imagebearers of the one God, this one God desired and intended that rulers should rule, and would hold them to account according to the wisdom and justice, or otherwise, with which they had exercised power. The Christians, from the start, behaved not as a new variety of pagan religion but as a new and strange variety of Judaism, though with the added puzzle (for the watching world) that while the Jews (like everybody else) offered animal sacrifices the Christians did not.” [277-8]

“Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die.” [284]

“The events surrounding Augustus’s coming to power are therefore ‘good news,’ euangelia…. not merely a nice piece of information to cheer you up on a bad day, but the public, dramatic announcement that something has happened through which the world has changed for ever and much for the better.” [327]

“When we find, during Augustus’s lifetime, an inscription dedicated to him as ‘to god, son of god’, and then similar language used in turn for Tiberius during his lifetime, it is hard to suppose that the average Greek speaker, reading such an inscription, was saying to himself or herself, ‘Of course, this is a translation of the Latin divus, so it doesn’t really mean ‘son of god’ but only ‘son of the deified one.’ Even if anybody did say that to themselves, it is not clear what practical difference such a conclusion might make.” [327-8]

“When Paul speaks of the Thessalonians turning away from idols to serve a living and true god and to await the arrival of his son, it would be very strange if he had not meant to include Roma and the emperor among those false deities.” [330]

“Augustus and his family were the new, and powerful, gods to be faced in city after city. Including, of course, the ones to which Paul went, and to which he subsequently wrote.” [339]

“The overall picture of [the emperor] as a model of pietas, leading his people in traditional worship while also being himself identified, in flexible ways, as the recipient of worship, enables us to glimpse a far more integrated world than most westerners have imagined since at least the eighteenth century. ‘The emperor may have been a god, but he was also the mediator between his empire and the Other World.’

“… the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

“That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way the Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel.” [342]

N.T. Wright on Paul

December 3, 2013

Reading N.T. Wright’s scholarly work is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. As far as I am concerned, it is a fire hose spouting good wine. I am a few hundred pages into his massive two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a book he has been pointing toward for decades. It’s a pleasure.

I won’t try to describe his argument, but I thought I would pass on a few memorable quotes.

p. 12 “For Paul, much as he valued freedom, the mutual reconciliation of those who belonged to the Messiah mattered more than anything else. For Philemon to have responded angrily to Paul’s letter by giving Onesimus his freedom but declaring that he never wanted to set eyes on him again would have meant defeat for Paul. Reconciliation was what mattered. That is why Paul wrote this letter [Philemon].”

p. 20. “Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’ God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.”

p. 32 “Slavery was, for both Philemon and Paul, simply part of the worldview. It was how things got done. It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”

p. 42 “The distinction between ‘faith’ in the Reformers’ sense and ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ has by no means always been clear, producing as we saw the problem whereby ‘justification by faith’ has come to mean ‘justification by believing in the proper doctrine of justification,’ a position which, in attempting to swallow its own tail, produces a certain type of theological and perhaps cultural indigestion.”

p. 50 “The reason history is fascinating is because people in other times and places are so like us. The reason history is difficult is because people in other times and places are so different from us. History is, to that extent, like marriage….”

pp. 96-7 “The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself…. The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary,’ the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected. When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven.’ You were actually there. That was the point. Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap. There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.”

p. 181 “Like Marx, ancient Jews seem to have thought that the point was not to explain the world but to change it.”

p. 203 “In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other. ‘Politics,’ for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; ‘religion’ is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.”

The End of the Guilty Conscience

June 26, 2013

While writing notes on the psalms for God’s Justice, I am re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis’ reflections seem a trifle strange to me this time. He focuses on aspects of the psalms that seem repellant to him as a modern, Christian reader. He makes me think that times have changed, or I have anyway.

For Lewis frequently invokes the guilty conscience, which approaches God in fear and trembling not because of God’s might but because of God’s judgment. With such a mindset the worst thing is to presume on God, to speak brashly and self-confidently. And this is, generally, the puzzzling feature of the psalms for Lewis: they are brash. Lewis’ first chapter is on the psalmists’ longing for God’s judgments to rain down on the earth. To Lewis “the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.  Hence he prays, ‘judge my quarrel, or ‘avenge my cause.'” [p. 10]

For the psalmist insists–against all the instincts of a Christian like Lewis–that he is in the right. God knows, he says repeatedly, that he is blameless. He sometimes lists the things he has not done: “Though you probe my heart, though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil; my mouth has not transgressed. Though people tried to bribe me, I have kept myself from the ways of the violent through what your lips have commanded. My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not stumbled.” (17:3-5)

That is the sort of thing that Lewis takes as incipient Pharisaism. It sounds too cocksure, it sounds arrogant and insufficiently conscience-stricken. Better the more introspective (though rarer) confession of Psalm 51: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me…. surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (51:3-5)

I suspect that the influence of N.T. Wright has gradually drawn me to be comfortable with the psalmists’ proclamations of innocence. They are not claiming to be perfect, but they are claiming that they are on God’s side and have acted like it. Similarly, the apostle Paul: “as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” [Philippians 3:6]

The medieval Christian, I am given to understand, approached God with great fear; he was afraid of hellfire because of his many sins. That was Luther, who to his everlasting relief and joy discovered God’s mercy. Luther thought of God’s justice with something like terror; whereas the psalmists too obviously thought of God’s justice as the sweetest thing. They longed for it, they dreamed of it.

When the psalmist claims to be blameless, he is not exactly saying (if I read him correctly) that he therefore deserves to be vindicated. He has not been so perfect as to put God in his debt. That idea would be nonsensical to him. Rather, he is saying that his blamelessness puts him squarely on God’s side. He is saying he is no traitor and no hypocrite. He has stuck to a God whose very nature is justice, who has promised great things to his chosen people, who will set the whole world right with peace and justice to the benefit of the poor and oppressed and those whom he has rescued from slavery in the Exodus. That is the side the psalmist claims to be on. He is a loyal subject to the God of justice. Let justice reign.

It’s a way of thinking–outward, historical, communal, confident–very different from the introspection and caution of Lewis’ model Christian. Lewis sees it as something pre-Christian, which we can learn lessons from but utterly cannot imitate. I am not so sure. It actually sounds to me not so unlike Peter and Paul and–Jesus.

At any rate, I think western culture has turned firmly away from the guilty conscience. I’m not so sure you can make Billy Graham’s appeal of “peace with God” any more. The postmodern person doesn’t feel a need for it. It’s a language he doesn’t understand.

He does, however, understand the language of justice. He sees that the world needs putting right. The mind of the psalmist need not, I think, seem so alien as it did to Lewis a generation ago.

Appreciation of N.T. Wright

May 31, 2013

I am in the early stages of working on God’s Justice, a Bible with notes on… drumroll…. God’s justice. At the moment I am slugging my way through Romans, one of the five biblical books I am using for a prototype we will publish in September.

For Romans I am using Douglas Moo’s commentary–a well written, thoughtful, irenic but fairly traditional Reformed view. And, I am using N.T. Wright, through his Romans commentary and a variety of his books on Paul and justification by faith.

Romans is rich, dense stuff, and while Wright is a fluent writer I sometimes feel as though I am drinking from a fire hose. Largely that is because he is presenting a new paradigm. For someone like me, who has read and studied Romans many times, it is hard to escape your prior readings. You try to hold in your mind the argument that Wright is making, but your mind keeps slipping back into comfortable categories.

Wright is trying to read Romans within a Jewish thought-world, which is to say: he sees it as addressing salvation from within the Old Testament narrative in which God’s creation has gone wrong and he has promised (to Abraham) to redeem it through Abraham’s children. For a highly traditional Jew like Paul, there are many, many crucial questions to understanding how these promises come true in Jesus. Questions about Abraham, circumcision, the Law. Romans addresses such questions, extending the story from Adam to Abraham to David to Jesus to us–both Jew and Gentile.

This is very much in line with what Wright did with Jesus in his scholarly works on the gospels. But in some ways the task was easier, because Protestants have never had a very developed understanding of the gospels. (Ask any good Protestant, for example, how the sheep and the goats can be divided on the basis of their treatment of the needy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 25, given that we are saved by grace.) In writing about the synoptic gospels Wright got substantial resistance to a new paradigm built around a Jewish story for Jesus, but nothing like he gets regarding Paul, where his fellow Protestants have a very well-developed, highly theological understanding. Whew! Some circles are very hot!

I can’t sum up a paradigm shift in a paragraph. I’ll just say that I am thoroughly sold on what Wright does. It makes a unified whole out of Romans in a way I have never seen. It ties Paul’s theology into Jesus’ seamlessly, so it’s not Jesus or Paul, but Jesus and Paul. And it fits with my understanding of faith and life, lived practically.

From what I can gather in my interactions with New Testament scholars, lots of people are reading Wright and working through this paradigm shift. Its impact could be very large, not least because it tells a story of global salvation, the flourishing of God’s creation, and the destruction of evil–a much larger and more action-oriented story than what much of Protestantism has fallen into, salvation limited to the forgiveness of personal sins so that I can experience God’s love and go to heaven when I die.

Evil and the Justice of God

February 27, 2013

I very much liked N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. The chapter on the cross struck me most. Here are a few selected quotations:

“[The Last Supper] was Jesus’ own chosen way of expressing and explaining to his followers, then and ever since, what his death was all about. It wasn’t a theory, we note, but an action (a warning to all atonement theorists ever since, and perhaps an indication of why the church has never incorporated a specific defining clause about the atonement in its great creeds). p. 91

“What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.” p. 93

“The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with the problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah. That is why some Christian traditions venerate the cross itself, just as we speak of worshiping the ground on which our beloved is walking. The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.” p. 97

The Spirit

February 9, 2013

I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Justification–a book I’ve had on my list for some time. I’ve read quite a bit of Wright, including all his big, synthetic scholarly works, and I appreciated Justification even though I’m not sure I got it all. As somewhere C. S. Lewis asked, would it have been too much to ask of Paul that he write more clearly? I’m looking forward to reading Wright’s big book on Paul, when it comes out. (We’ve been waiting for a long, long time!)

One element that struck me is Wright’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit and its comparative neglect within the traditionally reformed scheme of justification and salvation. He claims Paul’s theology doesn’t work if you neglect the Spirit, because justification makes a present judgment that we belong fully in the covenant family, but the Spirit equips us to live the kind of life that will affirm that in the final judgment.

What also struck me is how Wright thinks of the Spirit. Here’s a quote from page 189:

“The more the Spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through, to take free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-won habits of life, and to put to death the sinful, and often apparently not freely chosen, habits of death….[Freedom in the Spirit is] a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the Spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I too am doing.”

More normally, I think of the Spirit as…. fluffier. The Spirit in much theology-lite overwhelms us, takes our breath away, makes us giddy, makes us happy. Not so much the way that Wright describes the Spirit.

But–this is my thought–what would we expect from the Spirit of Jesus? Jesus was not fluffy. He was a tough-minded dude. So the Spirit of Jesus must be a tough-minded dude. Jesus made his disciples think; life with him was no swoon. So life with the Spirit will be hard-thought and carefully lived. Jesus expected a great deal from his disciples. He accepted all people on their terms, but those who followed him were challenged to live bigger. So the Spirit of Jesus will lift us to be bigger than we would be without him.

I’m deeply grateful for the way Pentecostalism has re-awakened Christians to the living, powerful Spirit. But Wright made me think of myself, Your Spirit is too small. 

More on Heaven

May 6, 2011

I like this piece from Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. While agreeing completely with N.T. Wright’s stress on the earthly reality of our ultimate destination, he notes two differences in emphasis. One is that the “intermediate” state–life after death with Jesus, but before we are resurrected–is very much to be appreciated, not deprecated. The second is  the reason for the first: our focus ought to be not simply our new sphere of activity in God’s new earth, but the real presence of the Lamb. To be with Jesus, whether in the in-between or in the Kingdom, is devoutly to be desired.

Most Influential Books

March 27, 2010

Ross Douthat’s blog features (here) what he says is a hot blogosphere trend—writing up the ten most influential books of your life. This blog is definitely devoted to hot trends, so here goes.

It’s not a contest over best books, or even favorite books. It’s more autobiographical than that, and may include books that you now believe are awful. I’ve tried, at Douthat’s suggestion, to stay roughly chronological.

Absalom, Absalom (or anything else) by William Faulkner. When I was in high school I stumbled onto Faulkner. Nobody told me to read him; I found him at the library. His detailed, convoluted, passion-strewn, obsessional world caught me like a bee in molasses. I was an introverted boy, living in a society that didn’t discuss art or literature or psychology or rock and roll or really much of anything beyond sports. (Not even girls.) I got from Faulkner that the world offered much more than the bland surfaces of high school.

Anything by C.S. Lewis. Not quite anything—I’ve never cared for his adult fiction. I started reading Lewis in college and, like so many young Christians, I found myself in the company of the smartest thinker and clearest writer I had ever encountered. He was also gracious, widely educated, and glad to find common ground with those who saw life differently. And he was an orthodox, believing Christian! His ideas still influence me, but his writing style and his generous stance do even more.

The Greening of America, by Charles Reich. I read this when The New Yorker published it in 1969. I was studying in France. My economics professor thought it was a brilliant work. I remember feeling vaguely uneasy, though I wasn’t bright or confident enough to disagree. The book seemed too easy. Consciousness I replaced by Consciousness II, and then (right in our decade!) Consciousness III, the world becoming bright and happy as effortlessly as one species evolves into another. Next year I happened to read E.B. White’s delicious send-up (also in The New Yorker, God-bless-em) The Browning-Off of Pelham Manor. I think that was the moment when I realized the whole thing was silly. Ever since I have been much quicker to trust my gut in treating stuff as ludicrous, even when it comes out of the mouth of experts and sages.

Roger Angell on baseball. While we’re on the subject of The New Yorker, it was there, not in books, that I read Roger Angell. I wish I could write as well as Angell, and I hope his prose shaped mine. But certainly the way he read a baseball game, as an artifact to be savored and analyzed as deeply as any ornate Victorian novel, made an immense intellectual impact on me. Among other things I learned that it’s not just the stuff in books and movies that is worthy of study. Life deserves our full attention, even games.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I clearly remember when I fell into Middle Earth. I was backpacking in the southern Sierra, up high where you see mostly rock, ice and sky. Reading every afternoon and evening in my tent, often while the rain came down hard, I found that my backpacking life and the life of Frodo were merging. Carrying my pack up the steep terrain during the day, eating meager meals by a stream at lunch, I got confused. Was I a hobbit, or a human? Almost all of the fiction I had enjoyed (and still enjoy) was realistic, most of it in the twentieth-century style full of disappointing endings and troubled, alienated humanity. Tolkien awakened my intuition and imagination. He suggested a wider world than the twentieth century suspected. Oddly, I believe he prepared me for Victorian novels.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. What can I say? I am suspicious of anyone who does not include this in his list of most influential books. Simply the greatest novel ever written, so utterly engrossing, so utterly human and so utterly hopeful. Discovering this was better than finding a million dollars by the road. I mean it.

Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch. I’ve read a lot of history, but this is by far the most fun of any. It tells the story of the early years of the Civil Rights movement, mainly revolving around Martin Luther King’s participation but with occasional diversions. I couldn’t put it down. I laughed and I cried. I learned our nation’s most heroic moral tale, which gave me hope in the possibility of change.

Hope for society is the most basic difference between liberalism and conservatism. I have a lot of conservatism in my fundamental social philosophy, but Parting the Waters and the story it tells enhanced my liberalism. Without it I might have ended up sour and skeptical about everything, a real curmudgeon.

Foolishness to the Greeks, by Lesslie Newbigin. This little book changed my understanding of the relationship between western civilization and Christianity. I thought we were fighting a rear-guard action to preserve what was left—a losing battle, as it happened. Newbigin helped me see us the western church not as a preservation society but as a mission society—and a mission society preaching to a tough tribe. That’s a very big change in mindset.

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright. Wright made me read my gospels all over again. It induced a true paradigm shift, which had to do with seeing Jesus as a historical character, and thus as a movement leader, a thinker, a politician, a Jew. The texts began to explode in unfamiliar ways.

Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charles Dickens. Okay, I know that’s cheating. I read a few English Victorian novels in college and beyond, but I only really discovered them a decade after leaving school. They changed my life, giving me literature I never grow tired of.  I can’t say that of anything written in the last one hundred years

The Aubrey-Maturin Series, by Patrick O’Brian. Except for this, that is. Twenty books that are really 20 chapters of one book, written in English narrative prose worthy of Jane Austen. They get treated with disdain because they are sea stories. Most women don’t find them interesting. (They are mostly about men and men’s activities). I won’t argue about their value, any more than I would argue about whether my wife is beautiful. I just don’t want to live life without them.