Heavy Theological Dude Mistakenly Talks to Us

12/17/2007


The Wittenburg Door Interview: N.T. “Tom” Wright

By Becky Garrison

N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham, England—the home of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.

He’s also the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. Among his forty plus books include such provocative titles as Simply Christian, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, The Last Word, Paul, and Evil and the Justice of God. He taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford universities.

Wright became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and served on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Commission on Communion. (For our non-Anglican readers, this group crafted the Windsor Report, which is a document designed to help the Anglican Communion resolve its conflicts about homosexuality, ordination and pastoral blessings for gay couples.)

NT Wright books

In short, Tom Wright is a big hitter in a big league. We grabbed him at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) in Washington, D.C., where we were selling souvenir palm-buzzers in the lobby.

WITTENBURG DOOR: What does it mean for us to be living in the fifth act: the time of the church?

N.T. WRIGHT: In The Last Word, I explain that we can understand the Bible best if we read it as a five-act play, the five acts being Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and Church. We are not living in an unfallen creation; or in a fallen world without promise; or in the time of Israel BC; or, indeed, in the time of Jesus himself. We are living in the fifth act, and have to improvise, under the guidance of the Spirit, in such a way as to bring this narrative—not some other one!—to its appointed and proper conclusion. In other words, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thus to anticipate the promise of new heavens and new earth.

DOOR: Why do we need the Bible?

WRIGHT: The Bible is here to equip God’s people to carry forward His purposes of new covenant and new creation. It is there to enable people to work for justice, to sustain their spirituality as they do so, to create and enhance relationships at every level, and to produce that new creation which will have something of the beauty of God himself. The Bible isn’t like an accurate description of how a car is made. It’s more like the mechanic who helps you fix it, the garage attendant who refuels it, and the guide who tells you how to get where you’re going. And where you’re going is to make God’s new creation happen in his world, not simply to find your own way unscathed through the old creation.

DOOR: So, how do we balance the experience of the church with the authority of scripture?

WRIGHT: Um, this is starting to sound like an oral exam.

DOOR: Sorry, but you did write a lot of books. There’s a lot of theological turf to cover here.

WRIGHT: As we read scripture, we struggle to understand what God is doing through the world and through us. The phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.” When we examine what the authority of scripture means we’re talking about God’s authority which is invested in Jesus himself, who says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18, NRSV)

DOOR: Of course, this “authority” phrase is one of the many scripture quotes that have been misused throughout history by those religious leaders who want to justify their stance on a given socio-political position.

WRIGHT: In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the Church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthands enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point in doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.

DOOR: How do you respond to those who interpret scripture using the lens of personal experience?

WRIGHT: Experience is a slippery slope philosophically and spiritually. It’s a fog in which all sorts of worlds can bump together. Now, no one wants to go to extremes. Some lines are drawn in the sand. For example, no one in their right mind would endorse mass murder. But we need to follow a path of wisdom and have standards.
     When you come into the life of the Church, there is a way of life followed there. There are codes of conduct. It’s like when you come into someone’s home. You take off your muddy boots when you enter the house. N.T. Wright
You don’t take tea and pour it down someone’s back. There are standards in how we live together. Experience needs to be affirmed, redirected, and rebuked by God’s authority. Because of our propensity to self-deception, we constantly need to check against scripture, whether we are allowing the word of God’s grace in the gospel, and God’s reaffirmation of us as made in his image, to validate what is in fact an idolatrous and distorted form of humanness. When, through letting scripture be the vehicle of God’s judging and healing authority in our communities and individual lives, we really do “experience” God’s affirmation, then we shall know as we are known.

DOOR: That means that there are the inherent dangers in viewing, say, the Letters of Paul through the lens of contemporary culture.

WRIGHT: There are massive anachronisms when one makes assumptions about the things going on in this world that weren’t in his world. This requires that we read Paul faithfully and go between these two worlds. As I hinted earlier, the fifth act, in which the Church is called to live and work, is characterized by two things. First, it has firm and fixed foundations, including a definite closing scene which is already sketched in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1 and Revelation 21 and 22.
     Second, it has the command, under the spirit, to improvise through the unscripted period between the opening scenes and the closing one. No musician would ever suppose that improvising means playing out of tune or time. On the contrary, it means knowing extremely well whether one is in the implicit structure, and listening intently to the other players so that what we all do together, however, spontaneously, makes sense as a whole. That is the kind of hermeneutic I envisage as I read, and preach from, Paul’s letters today.

DOOR: Is that why you once described relationship between Jesus and Paul as that of composer and conductor, medical researcher and doctor, and architect and builder?

WRIGHT: The composer writers the music. If the conductor decides to write some on his own account, that would be a way of saying he didn’t want to play that composer’s music, but some of his own instead. His job is to play the music the original composer has written. The doctor takes the results of the research and applies them to the patient. Her job is not to do more research on the topic, or, if she thinks it is, it isn’t because she’s is being loyal to the original researcher but because she is being disloyal. The builder takes the plans drawn up by the architect and builds to that design. It isn’t his task to draw a new building; or, if he does, it’s not because he is filled with the admiration for the original design but because he isn’t.

DOOR: Got it. On the other extreme, how can stuff like The Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code inform the Christian faith?

WRIGHT: What we can see in this current passion for Gnosticism is a hunger for spirituality and purpose. We have to ask why our culture is so hungry for different kinds of spirituality.
     Also, the appeal of second century Gnosticism is that people in our culture are eager to find anything to rebuke or replace traditional Christianity. This myth—what I call “the new myth of Christian origins,” according to which Jesus was just an ordinary person who taught a new type of spirituality, that He didn’t die for our sins or rise again—is what’s lurking behind the Jesus Seminar. Many people in our culture don’t like traditional Christianity and are eager to find anything else at all to go with instead.

DOOR: You call the Jesus Seminar a “fantasyland.”

WRIGHT: They want to liberate the Bible from poor, oppressed fundamentalists. The Seminar has had to reinvent itself after the death of Robert Funk. Its new project is to tackle the origins of Christianity. But most scholars who have written about Jesus—whether they are Jewish, Christian, agnostic or whatever—never signed on to the Jesus Seminar in the first place. Most have held aloof, rightly seeing it as a wacky distraction from serious scholarship. Only a few great minds, like Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg and Walter Wink have stuck with it in the hopes of making something good out of it.

DOOR: Bless their little hearts. Moving on to your book Evil and the Justice of God, why do you say we’re facing a “new problem of evil?”

WRIGHT: We ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does, so, we then react in immature and dangerous ways as a result. For example, Western politicians knew perfectly well that Al-Qaeda was a force to be reckoned with; but nobody really wanted to take it too seriously until it was too late. But then the astonishing naiveté which decreed that the United States as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former, is a large-scale example of what I’m talking about—just as it is immature and naïve to suggest the mirror image of this view, namely that the Western world is guilty on all respects, and that that protesters and terrorist are therefore completely justified in what they do.

DOOR: How do you balance these two extremes?

WRIGHT: We need to acknowledge that there are evil people out there who kill. People sometimes try to engage in “dialogue” as though nothing bad has really happened. But justice without forgiveness is revenge. And forgiveness without justice is appeasement.

DOOR: Please elaborate on the statement you made in this book that “the Gospels tell the story of how evil in the world reached its height and how God’s long term plan for Israel finally came to its glory?”

WRIGHT: The Gospels tell the story of the political powers of the world reaching their full, arrogant height. All early readers of the Gospels knew perfectly well that the word “gospel” itself—never mind any teaching about “God’s kingdom”—was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as “good news.” Also, the Gospels tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become a central part of the problem. The Gospels then tell the story of the deeper, darker forces which operate at a suprapersonal level, forces for which the language of the demonic, despite all its problems, is still at the least inadequate. And the story the Gospels tell is a story about the downward spiral of evil.
     These five points lead us to say that the story the Gospels are trying to tell us is the story of how the death of Jesus is the point at which evil in all its forms has come rushing together. Here I refer to the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil.

DOOR: Is that why you write that “the call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love?”

WRIGHT: The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar—the template, the model for what God now wants to do by his Spirit in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won.

DOOR: So where does forgiveness fit in?

WRIGHT: Some people believe that when it comes to forgiveness, you just draw a line and forget it even though it’s tough and messy. But this is too simple. In Miroslav Volf’s excellent book Exclusion and Embrace, his basic argument is this: Whether we are dealing with international relations or one-on-one personal relations, evil must be named and confronted. There must be no sliding around it, no attempt—whether for the sake of an easy life or in search of a quick fix—to present it as if it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both the evil and the evil doer have been identified as what and who they are—this is what Volf means by “exclusion”—can there be the second move towards the “embrace” of the one who has deeply hurt and wounded us or me.
     If I have named the evil, and done my best to offer genuine forgiveness and reconciliation, then I am free to love the person even if they don’t want to respond.

DOOR: Any examples of putting this into action?

WRIGHT: Two examples here. The first is Desmond Tutu and his work on the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. I have no hesitation in saying that the fact of such a body even existing, let alone doing the work it has done, is the most extraordinary sign of the power of the Christian gospel in the world in my lifetime. We only have to think for a moment of how unthinkable such a thing would have been 25 years ago, or indeed how unthinkable such a thing would still be in Beirut, Belfast or—God help us—Jerusalem to see that something truly remarkable has taken place for which we should thank God in fear and trembling.
     The second example is the killing of the Amish school children. The families of the girls who were killed extended forgiveness to the man and comforted the family. Also, these families insisted that some of the money raised by the Mennonites to support them be given to support the family of the shooter, who killed himself. These countercultural examples show how the Christian community can react.

DOOR: Finally, how do we reach people for whom church is not part of their vocabulary?

WRIGHT: All human beings are made in God’s image, and it is this image which is the bridgehead to God. People know this in their bones even if they don’t consider themselves to be religious. And let’s not forget that church wasn’t in people’s vocabulary when Christianity first started.

DOOR: Hmm. This doesn’t really fit with the majority of evangelicals who say that once you become a Christian, “the big issue” has been taken care of. Meaning, of course, that you’re assured a spot up in heaven and nothing else really matters.

WRIGHT: This is unfaithful to the Lord’s Prayer which states, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place than this after we die. Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of the Christian hope is such that it plays back into the present life. We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights, which has already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not simply beneficiaries but also agents.


Comments(76)

Anonymous | 10:10 am on 4/02/2011

We ofttimes heard system aid during foregather imbecility, but tardy there had been a Commonwealth activity I try the administration meliorate unoriginality also be implemented. A defined seism neighboring the majuscule that fallen a infirmary, a add and the sapient abidance shook Spay
love quotes

Sven | 03:59 pm on 2/16/2008

Richard Harty,

"And, historically, Chrisitans have created far more pain than they have relieved."

Oh my! Rather than mouthing claptrap would you please cite historical scorecards to back up that statement?

Richard Harty | 02:48 am on 4/12/2008

Here is a link for a short list.

http://exchristian.net/exchristian/2002/10/how-many-people-have-been-kil...

Some estimates for total killed for Christian religious reasons goes from 15 to 50 million people. Fortunately Christianity has been forced to collide with the enlightenment and has been forced to alter its ethics in regard to violence.

One simply can read the Church fathers to find the doctrinal basis for a just war to kill the unbeliever. Read Augustines rational for the just war and you will find the motivation for the early destruction of any sect of Christianity that didn't line up with the official version. This extended to any group that did not agree with what the official doctrines of Christianity were. This started very early in Christian Church history and reached its peak in the inquisition. Life was intolerable for most of the time under Christianity. At least Rome had predictable motivations such as greed and power, but Christians killed based on some imaginary future life after death and technicalities involving complex doctrinal views.

So maybe you have a score card of people helped by Christianity?

Jon | 05:02 pm on 5/01/2008

"So maybe you have a score card of people helped by Christianity?"

Of course not. On the other hand, there are a few things to think about.

Christianity today has about 2 billion (2 * 10**9, to avoid any ambiguity) adherents; if only 10% of them express their Christianity through helping others -- and I would bet the percentage is greater -- then that alone is 200 million, and that's just the ones living now. How many people has the Salvation Army helped? Samaritan's Purse? World Vision alone "ssists about 100 million people in nearly 100 countries throughout Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas," assuming their web site has the numbers right. Add in the dozens, if not hundreds -- of other Christian relief organizations and you get a pretty hefty number. And that, of course, does not include those who choose to help others via secular organizations, such as several of my Christian friends.

Then there are less tangible aspects, such as comfort in time of loss and grief, hope in time of distress, and so on.

All of this addresses the "more people hurt than helped by Christianity" claim; I'll leave the vaporous contention that "Life was intolerable for most of the time under Christianity" for another day.

Richard Harty | 12:45 pm on 5/12/2008

"All of this addresses the "more people hurt than helped by Christianity" claim; I'll leave the vaporous contention that "Life was intolerable for most of the time under Christianity" for another day."

Well, fortunately, we have been under a secular government, though there certainly are those who would like us to be under a Christian government again. When Christianity has been the state government, life for anyone who wasn't in agreement was intolerable for most of that time.

We are critical of Muslim based governments, but we only have to look at the inquisition or the the Era of Witch burning to find the worst examples of human behavior we have today. The practices of torture and so called "Justice" done based on Christian "principles" exceeded the cruelty of any pagan practice that I know of. The sick thing is that we know about these practices because the people carrying them out recorded them because they thought they were doing God's work.

Even under Protestant rule the life of anyone that came under the eye of the Church became intolerable. Simple read what John Calvin did while he was in control of Geneva. They had to restrain people over night to prevent them from committing suicide because the torture was so painful.

So I'm sick of the the high and mighty attitude of Christians who think that they have some "better" way to live life when their history is so sick. Its great that people are helping each other, but the idea that its because they are Christian doesn't mean that their helping is any better than someone else.

We don't need Christianity to be kind. All you need is love and empathy. That is freely available, fortunately, to all people. If it wasn't for secularism and the enlightenment, we would still be under the iron rule of the church.

PeteAtomic | 10:07 am on 5/22/2008

"We don't need Christianity to be kind. All you need is love and empathy. That is freely available, fortunately, to all people."

I agree. It's unfortunate that the 100,000 Burmese who have recently suffered, died & been washed away are now facing infinite torture (according to the view of literalist Christians). Like being drowned wasn't bad enough.

"If it wasn't for secularism and the enlightenment, we would still be under the iron rule of the church."

...and don't forget the complexities of the German class/economic system of the 16th century that allowed the spread of Lutheranism. Various feudal princes particularily in central Europe had it in their best interests to get out of under the thumb of ecclesiastical authority (which naturally included greed for more power & control).

Anonymous | 11:54 am on 3/06/2008

N.T. Wright is the spirit of anti christ he has denied the immortality of the soul along with the biblcal doctrine of Justification.

joey aszterbaum | 02:00 am on 5/14/2008

I don't know which Bible you're reading.

Mine says that the spirit of the anti-christ are those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh.

Wright is the best writer I've been reading on what the ramifications of that strong incarnational belief are.

Anonymous | 10:34 am on 8/18/2008

You are a nutjob.

Greg | 09:04 pm on 3/15/2008

Anonymous

You might want to read more of Wright before making a comment like that. He is totally committed to being true to scripture. I have no idea where you are coing from when you say that he denies the"Immortality of the soul". His view on God re-creating a the New Heavens and the New Earth to form an eternal New Creation are true besed on scripture. The concept of going to a disembodied heaven for eternity isn't.

He would agree that we are justified by faith, but he would also say that what we actually do in this life actually does matter.

Wright does not negate the personal aspect of salvation through Christ but he does say that once we have that relationship and are part of the "Kingdon of God", we are to go out, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring God's truth, justice, mercy and love to the world.

SRebbe | 04:47 pm on 3/19/2008

i tell you what i want to
never more than what is safe
i show you what i want to
and the rest i hide away
sometimes i can feel myself leaning
towards the basest of things
am i just a liar? or a killer? or a beast?

should i sit in judgment?
do i have to judge me?

i couldn’t tell you why good people suffer
i couldn’t tell you why the bad ones run free
G-d showers blessings
on the righteous and the wicked
i only know that that covers me

why good people suffer stavesacre (c)2002

Anonymous | 07:21 pm on 3/29/2008

All credibility *gone* when he said Marcus Borg is a respectable mind. What became of Anglicans with a brain? All extinct?

The Faith Voice | 11:02 am on 4/19/2008

At www.thefaithdebate.com you can discuss this issue, share your opinions with others and get to know what other people have to say. Be a part of the debate!

Greg Robinson | 11:09 am on 4/26/2008

"----Anonymous | 07:21 pm on 3/29/2008
All credibility *gone* when he said Marcus Borg is a respectable mind. What became of Anglicans with a brain? All extinct?---"

Maybe you should read "The Meaning of Jesus" where he vigorously debates Borg on things like bodily resurrection. Maybe you should read "The Resurrection of Jesus" where he is in debate with Crossan.

I've read Borg, and as much as I disagree wityh his conclusions, (he essentially denies the miraculous", he is very far from not having a good mind.

There is a great deal of good Christian scholarship in the Anglican church. I am of the belief that Wright is the best example of that. I also believe that much of the Anglican church has been secularized, but there is still much of it left that hasn't been.

stephen | 08:41 pm on 4/29/2008

Some of the comments above about NT Wright indicate that there are people who are not in any way interested, in paying attention to what he says, they are rather looking for slip-ups.
This says more about them than about Wright.
It would be foolish to base your total understanding on the above interview alone. Where he was avowedly "grabbed" by your interviewer, so there is a certain caution that shoudl be adopted any way.
His writing is fine, his scholarship thorough,he is evangelical in orientation...and highly regarded by many people across a range of positions.

Anonymous | 03:31 pm on 5/28/2008

sigh...
what next???
how many angels dance on the head of a pin???????

live_life | 12:19 pm on 5/29/2008
cam | 04:50 pm on 7/11/2008

what a hoot, another scholar who doesn't know the bible. The Amish and Tu Tu as examples of forgiveness? You don't forgive unless they repent, turn around, we are not called to be doormats. hey let's forgive Hitler all the way to Poland! Man is not created in God's image, Adam was, he fell. Eve was created in Adams image, for a scholar he seems to not know the writings all that well.

Don | 02:10 pm on 7/20/2008

cam- Your arrogance is just the sort of example that reinforces the distaste many have toward evangelical and fundamental Christians. Many of Wright's works are accessible to people who haven't studied at Cambridge. I suggest you try "Surprised by Hope" or "What Saint Paul Really Said". It really is helpful to stretch your thinking a bit. You might also benefit by contemplating the difference between loving discernment and self-righteous vitriole. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Anonymous | 12:58 pm on 3/18/2009

None of this matters.

I deny jesus,

Maybe I am the anti christ.

who cares?

you seem to forget that what you believe is FAITH not FACT.

So, continue to argue among yourselves and let the world fall apart, then tell us it’s our fault for not loving your imaginary friend.

rubysings | 07:11 am on 8/02/2009

I have had imaginary friends, even had an imaginary family since
I was an adopted only child, but they weren't and aren't always
there loving and keeping me alive like JESUS

Kevin Blow | 06:37 pm on 6/01/2009

I am reminded of a chorus from the mid 80's. 'I'm Accepted, I'm forgiven, I am loved by the true and living God. It acknowledges upon whom we are dependant. It leaves no room for arrogance or smug self congratulation. Yes, I am forgiven, but that is the starting point of my journey. Micah 6v8 reminds us, 'act justly, love mercy, walk humbly before your God'

C. Barton | 06:23 pm on 7/05/2009

Dude, if the Word of God is a lamp, this guy is, like, shining the high-beams in your face, man!
Um, our image isn't a "bridgehead", Jesus is. This sounds creepily like the new pagan ethic which is pitter-pattering around the side aisles today.
As the saying goes, once you're Born Again, you can't unborn yourself.
As for political justice, try not to be toooo Pre-Milleneum, OK?

Anonymous | 08:20 pm on 8/09/2009

I think he's talking about the same thing Paul talked about, with people's intuitive understanding of God. Course, that's not enough to actually lead people to relationship with him, only a source of reprimand for not trying. Our way in is that through how they were created people can get the idea of God, the spirit can convict them of sin, and we can display Christ to people! Not to mention the innate power of the gospel of the kingdom, which is as infectious as the meme-ists fear, but a lot more beneficial!

There's always a need for justice, acting out of love. Stand up for the oppressed and those who cannot speak for themselves, and seek a world where we can peacefully get down to business, showing the goodness of God.

JOSHUA | 06:34 am on 12/24/2009

Tom Wright stands in the long tradition of godly writers who strive to understand the move of God in their lifetime. I will add the following to this wonderful forum.
1.The devil did not introduce sin into this world . Adam and Eve did. Also "evil" should be put in proper context as "disobedience to God as our Creator" and not only those things we find abhorrent to us. Conversely, when God said mankind was created "very good", it was in reference to Himself. He is always good for God is love and He created us to mirror his goodness in the creation.
2. We are charged with continuing the work of Jesus who said "since the beginning I and my Father have been working" and the work goes on. We as followers of Jesus are commanded to take not only His message of salvation and redemption but of social justice and love to the world. Hence we are light when we bring the Gospel to those bound in the dark prison of sin but also like salt when we when we heal the wounds of injustice and preserve the fabric of love on earth.
3.Finally, eternal life is not about a destination or place in time but being in the presence of God. Like the Psalmist said "I rather be a doorman at your temple" portrays the fact that I want to be where God is and the bible makes it clear that we do not know where that will be or how it will look like. God said "behold I make all things new" at the end of the book of Revelation and like the guest with the wrong clothes for the wedding in the parable Jesus told, it not enough to want to show up( for all are invited-whoever will may come) but we have to be appropriately attired(clothed by the grace and Spirit of God).
Grace, peace and love

Mark | 08:04 pm on 4/04/2011

Thou shalt not shout "get in the hole!" at a tournament, or surely the Lord your God shall curse thee and thy children to the third and fourth generation. I,ve advertising this post on my site...

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