N.T. Wright is the worlds foremost New Testament Scholar today. Over the past two decades, he has been dominating evangelical Biblical scholarship and New Testament Theology, as well as stirring quite a few pots among the American fundamentalist and reformed crowd. But besides his prolific amount of scholarly work, what has made N.T. Wright such a powerful influence on many evangelicals is that he is not afraid to engage with scripture in light of modern culture and allow the Bible to speak into the emerging culture with fresh insights. Wright is a pastor at heart and much of his writing, though scholarly, is very accessible and pastoral, making it easy to understand for the lay person and theologian alike.
Over the past four years, N.T. Wright is one of the theologians who have had tremendous impact on my personal theology and spirituality. I have interviewed Wright six times, been to eight of his lectures, and have reviewed his last six releases, including his most recent tome Paul and the Faithfulness of God. When I first learned about Wrights upcoming book Surprised by Scripture a few weeks ago, I was giddy with excitement. This new book, which releases on June 3rd in bookstores everywhere, is an accessible guide that addresses a number of contemporary struggles within modern day evangelicalism- from the ordination of women, to the historical Adam, to evolution, to politics. As soon as I received my copy in the mail, I dove straight into the text and was richly blessed and challenged by Wrights insights as always. After reading the book, I shot Dr. Wright a series of questions that arose as I worked my way through each chapter, and he has graciously taken time to answer them for us of The Revangelical Blog. This is Dr. Wrights fourth interview with us on the blog and it is so good to have him back! Check out our conversation:
BR: The first question that we are all wondering is how in the world do you have time and the mental capacity to write so much? You just finished your huge books on Paul and less than a year later, here is another book. How do you do it?
NT: Silly question! I have been lecturing and teaching for many years. As you’ll see in the book, this is a collection of articles and lectures that I have done over quite a long period….
BR: In your new book – Surprised by Scripture – you tackle a number of very controversial topics for evangelicals and Christian in general. One major topic you address is the ordination of women. As far as I know, this is the first major publication that you’ve released that deals with this issue. Why did you feel the need to write about this issue now and why is this issue so important?
NT: This is still a major issue for many in the USA in particular. In the UK there is a strong but small minority for whom it’s still a big issue. Since my various articles, and writings in various commentaries, may not have reached those people, I thought it was a good chance to try to ‘get through’ to them. But I’m not saying anything here that I haven’t said in commentaries and smaller publications over the last decade or so.
BR: Another topic that you address in the book surrounds the escapist theology that is typical of dispensational evangelicals (very prevalent in American Evangelicalism) and how that affects the way Christians view the environment and steward creation. Do you actually think rapture theology has had a tangibly negative effect on the environment? Why should we reconsider our view of creation care?
NT: The first I really knew about ‘rapture theology’ was when, many years ago, I was doing some lectures on Jesus for a Canadian congregation and it quickly became clear that they had been bothered by people saying ‘we don’t need to care for the planet because Jesus is coming soon and will destroy it all anyway’. Actually I think sometimes it works the other way: people who hold a dualist view of the universe (that the space/time/matter world is basically bad and will be destroyed) are more likely to embrace a ‘rapture’ theology. The two elements feed off one another.
BR: In the book you devote three chapters to dealing with science and the Bible. How has the protestant doctrine of the Bible (i.e. sola scriptura, inerrancy etc.) stunted Christianity’s interaction with science? How do you deal with the clash that often comes between the Bibles claims and modern scientific findings? Can science inform and build up our faith?
NT: It isn’t so much that the protestant doctrine of the Bible has stunted Christianity’s interaction with science. Protestant Christians through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries were very active in science. ‘Sola scriptura’ never stopped anyone investigating God’s world (read the Psalms!); ‘inerrancy’ is a nineteenth-century rationalist position, but even that wouldn’t stop science. Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion, including scripture, puts things together to see what they mean. The ‘clash’ many people see today is the result of particular historical and cultural factors, in America in particular, as I describe in the first chapter.
BR: One of the most fascinating sections of the book is when you deal with Christians and political engagement. This question has been of particular interest to me as I’ve been trying to rethink and reform the way evangelicals engage in the politics of America. So can you give us a taste of what you say in the book? Is it important for Christians to be involved in politics? If so, how do we do that without getting the kingdom of God and the Kingdom of man all tangled together?
NT: This is particularly difficult for Americans because the US constitution emerged from Jeffersonian Epicureanism in which God (if he exists) is a long way off and doesn’t get involved in the world. That is a modern version of the ancient philosophy known as Epicureanism, which was always opposed by both Christians and Jews. Many N American evangelicals have bought into this from the other side: Jefferson got rid of God upstairs so he and his friends could run the ‘downstairs’ world, while many evangelicals in America get rid of politics and social action so they can enjoy a detached spirituality in the present and a hope of a disembodied ‘heaven’ in the future. Over against both, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, and in Matthew 28 he declares that he already has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth.’ Yes, there is a problem about getting God’s kingdom tangled up with human kingdoms, but there is a much greater problem about denying Matthew 28 (and many other passages too) in trying to keep them artificially apart. After all, from Genesis 1 onwards it’s clear that God wants humans to look after his world for him. That’s the basis of all political theology; it involves, of course, holding actual rulers to account, as we see Jesus doing in e.g. John 18 and 19. The western church has by and large forgotten not only how to do this but the fact that this is part of our calling…
BR: One topic that is glaringly missing from this book is the question of sexuality and specifically how Christians should approach and deal with homosexuality. Why did you choose not to address this topic in the book? And, if you’re comfortable, can you give a brief insight on how you view the Bibles teaching on this very pressing issue?
NT: This wasn’t a book written ‘to address current issues’; it was a compilation of things I have been asked to speak about over the last few years. I have never lectured or written about sexuality, except when it has come up in the course of writing biblical commentaries, and then only briefly.
There are no surprises on this in the Bible. For Jews, homosexual behavior wasn’t an issue, except as part of a larger whole to which Jesus refers in traditional biblical terms. For non-Jews, such as those addressed by Paul, it was an obvious issue, since every possible kind of sexual expression was well known in cities like Corinth and Rome (there is a popular belief just now that the ancients didn’t know about lifelong same-sex relationships, but this is easily refuted by the evidence both literary and archaeological). The danger then is that we think of things in this area as ‘rules’; for the Jew, it was a matter of living in accordance with the covenant, which was the means of God rescuing creation from the mess into which it had fallen. For Paul, it was a matter of living in accordance with the covenant that had been renewed in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which God had launched his project of new creation. People often suggest that since Paul believed in grace, not law, all the old rules were swept away in a new era of ‘tolerance’, but this is a shallow and trivial view. Paul (and all early Christians known to us, right through the centuries) stuck with the Jewish view: no worship of idols, no sex outside marriage. And marriage of course meant man/woman. There’s much more to say about this but this is for starters. I do not plan to write more about this any time soon; it’s complex and (obviously) contentious and it wouldn’t be a short book. Richard Hays’s chapter in The Moral Vision of the New Testament is still the best short treatment available.
BR: I can imagine that one critique that this book will receive from Evangelicals will be that on many points you are reinterpreting scripture to accommodate changes in the culture. How would you respond to this criticism, and how you think Christian should engage with culture? Should our theology be evolving? (No pun intended!)
NT: It’s the other way around. We have allowed our cultural prejudices, especially as post-enlightenment westerners, to squash our reading of the Bible in demonstrable ways so that we can no longer hear what it’s saying. The Bible itself challenges our culture very deeply. Of course, at some points the biblical message may happen to coincide (though for other reasons) with things that other people in our culture are saying. But at other points the Bible will radically challenge where our culture is going. We urgently need to uncouple our would-be Christian views from the false polarisations in our culture. We need to study Paul’s speech in Acts 17, figure out what he was doing there, and then figure out how to do the same in our own culture. I have written a bit about this in Paul and the Faithfulness of God ch. 14.
BR: The undergirding theme of the whole book is the value and relevance of Scripture even in our modern day world. Many young evangelicals are struggling to give the Bible the central place in our faith that it has been given over the past 500 years since the Reformation. We struggle with things like inerrancy and infallibility. We struggle to see how a book written in a culture and world so different than ours could ever be relevant to our faith and life. What advice would you give to those of us who are struggling with the Bible in this way?
NT: Read my book Scripture and the Authority of God . . .! I have said there most of what I want to say on all this. The Bible tells an open-ended story, gives us strong clues as to where it’s all going, and invites us to live within that story and take it forward. Our problem is not cultural difference but the captivity of so much western culture, not least in America, to the split-level world of the Enlightenment, so that even Christians reacting against liberalism do so from within the same cultural prison. Fortunately the Bible gives us the key to get out of that prison, not into a fantasy land or a private world but into the real, world-transforming new creation launched at Easter and energized now by the Spirit… I have a ‘high’ view of scripture – that is, I think God wanted us to have exactly this book and that we must take every word of it seriously – but this is not well served by long words beginning with the letter ‘in…’ — except for ‘inspiration’ itself.
BR: What is your hope for those who read this book? What do you want people to walk away with?
NT: A sense of excitement that the Bible is alive and relevant in ways they might not have imagined; a sense that the cultural battles into which we have allowed ourselves to slide have obscured what the Bible was really all about; a sense of God, God’s creation, God’s good purposes in redemption, as bigger and more demanding and exhilarating than we had supposed…
Happy reading to one and all!
BR: Thanks to Dr. N.T. Wright for joining us on the blog again today!
N.T. Wright’s new book Surprised By Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues is published by HarperOne and will be available on June 3rd on Amazon and wherever books are sold!