Tom Wright for Everyone: Putting the Theology of N.T. Wright into Practice in the Local Church
London: SPCK, 2011.
Available at Amazon.com
In this volume Stephen Kuhrt (Vicar of Christ Church in New Malden, Surrey UK) offers an engagement with the work of N.T. Wright (henceforth NTW). Specifically, Kuhrt looks at how NTW addresses some weaknesses in contemporary evangelicalism and how NTW’s project might be applied to the local church. Wright writes the foreword giving a short summary of what he is trying to pastorally achieve in his works. Chapter one provides a summary of NTW’s career to date and includes some facts I was unaware of. Wright for a time served as secretary of Latimer House and published a Latimer study called Evangelical Anglican Identity: The Connection Between Bible, Gospel and Church based on research he did on behalf of the COE Evangelical Council. The first book he contributed to, The Grace of God in the Gospel, was published by Banner of Truth! Kuhrt emphasizes here that NTW lives in the two worlds of academia and the church.
In chapter two Kuhrt talks about “Theological questions awaiting an answer” where he discusses some of the gnawing thoughts he had growing up as a middle class evangelical Anglican PK who went into ministry. These include the Christian hope and whether it is more than going to heaven when you die. Theological significance of the resurrection. A basis for holistic mission. Developing notions of evil and sin so that the gospel is good news for the poor. On the atonement, how does Jesus’ death address the wider issues of injustice, and how does it relate to the transformation of the believer. He also notes his struggle with evangelical ambivalence to creation care, sacraments, and the church. He thinks engaging with NTW will significantly help evangelicals who want to work out a theology that touches upon these areas.
Chapter three is the longest chapter of the book and provides a summary of NTW’s theology covering Jewish background, Jesus, Paul, Resurrection, Ethics, Church, etc. Probably the best summary of NTW’s main theological tenets I’ve ever read. (But see also Nijay Gupta’s “N.T. Wright for Everyone – The Apostle Paul” and Kevin Hanks’ “. N.T Wright for Everyone -The Historical Jesus”.) He concludes his summary of NTW: “Rather than restricting the gospel to being about individuals ‘going to heaven when you die’, the Church’s role is to live within the story of Scripture, demonstrating, by word and deed, radical and Spirit-filled signs of the resurrection life that Jesus Christ has come to bring. This will make it clear that the summons to belong to Jesus, live under his lordship and become part of this life is for everything and everyone” (p. 64).
The rest of the book endeavours to give encouragement to the process of showing how NTW’s theology can shape church life. In chapter 4, Kuhrt gives the example of how NTW’s view of Christian hope and heaven can be applied to ministering to the bereaved and explaining mortality to children. Chapter 5 tries to use NTW as a template for a holistic idea of mission that integrates evangelism and social projects. Rather than see social projects like a homeless shelter and a lunch club for the poor as “hooks” for evangelism, they are regarded as ways of building the kingdom by showing the love of Jesus to others; and in this context people felt freer to talk about things like faith and God. Kuhrt writes: “While this holistic approach to mission at Christ Church has completely reinforced the need for personal conversion, it has done so by setting it in a broader context: an understanding of the gospel as the proclamation that Jesus is Lord … In terms of our evangelism, proclaiming Jesus as Lord rather than simply a ‘personal Savior’ has brought about not only a more holistic approach to mission but also a far greater integration of the call to live radically reshaped lives. In the suburban context of New Malden this has resulted in an approach to evangelism similar to that which Paul delivered to the pagans in Thessalonica” (p. 81).
Chapters six and seven deal with further hands on examples for how NTW has shaped Christ Church. Kuhrt gives examples of how NTW’s view of justification has impacted their understanding of fellowship with others and concern for outreach. Following NTW’s lead, Kuhrt has attempted to bring a more trinitarian focus into preaching and cultivate key virtues among the congregation. Kuhrt makes the point that inclusiveness is not open ended. He states that “reflection on the male and female, together and united, representing the image of God, has if anything strengthened my conviction that a move toward an endorsement of homosexual and lesbian practice would not be right”. He also notes that he does in fact disagree with Wright in some areas like the fate of the lost (Kuhrt is an annihiliationist) and male headship in the marriage (NTW believes a husband takes the lead over his wife). In the final chapter, Kuhrt sets forth the challenge that NTW has for the church and shows how NTW helped set the agenda for a centrist evangelical anglicanism in the UK. He concludes:
“The theology of Tom Wright has, therefore, emerged at a really vital moment for the Church. Christians everywhere face the challenge that Wright has issued to review the inadequate aspects of our traditions in the light of his fresh and explosive interpretation of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the New Testament. It would be much easier and seemingly safer to continue the avoidance of engaging with Wright’s theology that many at both ends of the theological spectrum appear to be determined to maintain. But for the sake of the worship, mission and unity of the Church in the twenty-first century, it is vital that this proper engagement occurs” (p. 108).
This is a very readable, enjoyable, and helpful book. It shows how a pastor of a church is trying to apply the stuff he’s learned from NTW among his congregation. There are some good ideas here about church life and capturing a vision for the church to be biblical, sacramental, compassionate, and missionary. Themes of resurrection and new creation loom large. Now I’m a big fan of NTW, that should be clear. I think he does for evangelicals in our day, what Bultmann did for the liberals in the 1950s and 60s, i.e., give them biblical resources for a fresh theological vision. And I for one much prefer Wright over Bultmann any day! But the adulation that is poured upon NTW is a bit over the top at times. I would hardly say that NTW has been ignored and I hardly think engaging with NTW should be top of our agenda for our churches today. What I do think is good is that Kuhrt is drawing attention to some of the ways that NTW’s biblical and theological works can enable Christian leaders to rethink mission and church in light of wider biblical themes that NTW has brilliantly exposited. At the very least I hope this book leads to a popularizing of NTW’s work among audiences less conversant with trends in Christian scholarship. After all, putting a copy of Surprised by Hope into the hands of lay leaders is going to benefit them far more than handing on a copy of The Shack.