Thanks N. T. Wright for helping me see a Bigger Gospel!

I want to invite you to join a Facebook group I started called, Thanks N. T. Wright for helping me see a Bigger Gospel! This is a way to acknowledge how Tom Wright has influenced you in various ways, and a chance to exclusively discuss his work with like-minded facebook friends (well, hopefully they become your friends!).

I want to tell the story of how N. T. Wright totally changed my way of viewing the Gospel of Jesus.  I grew up in a typical evangelical setting.  I say that, and instantly there is one of two reactions: 1) what’s so bad about that… do you have to spit venom? OR 2) ya, me too and now I’ve moved way past such a polarized simplistic faith.  I want to make clear that I still consider myself an evangelical (but as some have said, with a small “e”).  Anyway, I grew up viewing the Christian life as a moral evacuation plan.  God would come back to gather up the moral/faithful/set apart/believers and would rapture us away from this evil world.  In high school (I attended a great Christian one), I read several books in the Left Behind series and found myself enraptured in their storyline.

This all began to change back in about 2004 while I was interning at a church in college.  I had been exposed to issues of social justice.  I had developed a growing compassion.  But my theology of evacuation and rapture, my cosmological dualism [physical = bad (world, the flesh, etc.), spiritual = good (all things pertaining to our 'real home' in a disembodied heaven)], did not give me a proper theological framework for managing such passions.  Then one day, my boss introduced me to an audio series called “Velocity 2004″ by Ron Martoia, which challenged my thinking about church and theology in many ways; especially his talk titled “Improvising the 5th Act.”  This particular message to pastors explored a narrative approach to Scripture using the 5 Act play model of some random theologian from England: N. T. Wright.  This was completely revolutionary to me so I began to explore the free resources on http://ntwrightpage.com and discovered a plethora of audio resources that I could listen to (and re-listen to) while I drove to school, work, and wherever else.  I think the first and greatest discovery I made because of this was the middle-second half of Romans chapter eight!

So, after much wrestling, I came to understand that the bible is a narrative that has a flow to it.  It is one that begins in Genesis with creation.  This was a good creation… in fact, “very good!”  It is a story of how God has remained faithful to his WHOLE creation project.  The word “story” doesn’t mean “fairytale,” but is a way to understand the big picture of what the Bible reveals to us about God’s interaction within history.  Here is a basic layout of how this approach to the bible breaks down:

Act 1: Creation – God creates the universe and declares it to be “very good.”  His creation project is not static, but designed to flourish with humanity as God’s gardener/image bearers. (Genesis 1-2)

Act 2: Crisis – The powers of evil and human rebellion have damaged God’s good world.  God doesn’t give up on the creation project at this point, which demonstrates his grace toward what he has created.  (Genesis 3-11)

Act 3: Community (Israel) – God calls Abraham to be the beginning of the solution to the problem of sin, by forming a new human family that has been “blessed to be a blessing.”  (Genesis 12)

Act 4: Christ – Israel has not lived up to her calling to bless the world, so God sends his Son into the world to be everything that Israel failed to be.  He is gathering a “new Israel” community that is called to be a blessing in the world, driven by their salvation they receive because of the resurrection of the Messiah!  (the Gospels)

Act 5: Church – The community that gathers around the risen King Jesus was formed in the first century and has been forming ever sense, to be the “new humanity” that God has always had in mind.  This community is an ambassador of grace, justice, and hope for a broken world! (New Testament Writings).  But, the critical part is that it does not end there.  In act five it seems that we are missing a few scenes (these are the scenes of the narrative that we now improvise in faithfulness to what came before it toward what is to come).  And then, the final scene, the new heavens and new earth (meaning “renewed”) are also given to us in scripture.  God has not given up on his creation project.  He has promised to return one day to renew the cosmos, to bring heaven and earth together, and to rule the world where there is “no longer any morning, crying, or pain.”  This will be the ultimate completion of God’s creation project! (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22, Colossians 1)

Based on this reading, the role of the church is to be a signpost of God’s future world (this world restored to God’s intention, flooded with restorative justice).  All evil will be judged and condemned, and the cosmos will once again experience the holistic shalom of God’s grace!  Therefore, every time we live empowered by God’s Spirit as a signpost of God’s future intent for this world, we witness to the whole gospel of the kingdom (through proclamation, social justice, ecology, etc.).  This world is not something to be escaped, but something God intends to redeem!

For a starting point into N. T. Wright I suggest the following two part series from the European Leaders Conference 04:

1. Jesus’ resurrection and God’s new creation.mp3

2. God’s power, God’s salvation, God’s justice.mp3

How has N. T. influenced you… if at all?  If you are new to Wright, what are you thoughts on the summarized version of his reading of Scripture?

Finally… I invite you to share your stories here and then to crosspost them to the FB page here!

UPDATE: My Friend Jon (who is an excellent blogger out of Malaysia) pointed me to an excellent download-able resource from the Conference held in Wright’s honor at Wheaton College.  Follow this link.

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  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, Amen Kurt. Good to read your story how Tom Wright has influenced you.

    “The Challenge of Jesus” by his revolutionized my theology, around 2002 more or less. And set me on a journey in which eventually I’ve gone back to my Anabaptist roots. I don’t agree with him, or better put, follow him on all his thoughts, and have some open questions (or at least one), but in essence I think he hits the nail on the head. And one of my favorite moments was when I was able to shake his hand and express my appreciation for his work.

    Great idea, and I’m in (the facebook club you started)!

  • churchedunchurched

    Fantastic post, brother. I am totally on with this, and I had much the same experience while within the Faith.

    What is most interesting to me is that most people in the evangelical world, like us, think that Wright’s teachings are completely brand new. But really, I believe Wright’s following suit with the continual reformation of the Church as a whole. And his rooting is far more comprehensive, historical and Church-wide than the material we used to know as young’uns in the Faith.

    For example, how many times have we heard sermons or theological points that seem to ignore other parts of Scripture, and how often has that caused us distress? I don’t find my questions with Wright having anything to do with ignoring Scripture, because his approach is narrative and comprehensive, and I find that refreshing.

    I’d be interested in starting a discussion posting on his new book; any ideas for that? Let me know.

    -Michael Spencer Harmon

    Eco-Justice Pastor

    Churched, Unchurched: Confessions of Grace
    http://churchedunchurched.wordpress.com/

    “A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest [church authority] without it.” – Luther

    • http://vorpfresno.com jason ekk

      I agree with you in that it is interesting how we call people “new” when really they are saying stuff that have been around. We just need to open our eyes and ears…

      Kurt, my favorite book of his is “Evil and the Justice of God” as it engages in one of my all-time favorite topics “restorative justice.”

  • Jessica

    You have me intrigued..I’m going to have to read more on this. The first time I heard the Bible be described as a “narrative” was from one of the interviews on TheOoze with Brian McLaren.

  • Eric Helgesen

    I’m interested in your definition of social justice which seems pretty prevalent these days. I’ve learned that it heavily involves redistribution of wealth which comes from the Marx school of thought. I’m curious to see how it fits within the church as well.

  • churchedunchurched

    Eric,

    My definition of “social justice” (NB: not “Social Gospel”) is whatever God commands in the Scriptures to do for the poor, the alien, the orphan, the widow, the “Samaritan,” whoever is “my neighbor,” and whoever is “the least of these.” Obviously, I don’t have enough space to give a list of those verses.

    What I’m interested in is how you learned that the social justice concept is Marxist. Could you share your sources for that information?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mickle7 Michael Miller

    First, I think this is an excellent explanation of what the church should be about. I think that the church has acted shamefully in not fulfilling even the minimum standards set forth by Christ. However, I believe that the idea of social justice is a double-edged sword that must be carefully wielded. Like Paul, in his statements about salvation for all, and yet the necessity of a response on our part, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” We find that the world has co-opted the term and uses the sword to force a pseudo social-justice on the population. This is Marxism. It attempts to institute Christian standards of justice by the edge of the sword. It couches its threats of force in appeals to fairness and equality but when it meets resistance, it resorts to ever increasing amounts of force, up to and including killing the resister.

    Unfortunately, many Christians are duped into supporting this, thinking that since Christ commanded it, and a majority supports it, then it’s alright, but the Kingdom of God cannot be brought about by force of arms. “Not by might, nor by power but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts!” Michael Moore, in interviews about his movie on Capitalism said that Christianity requires the equal and fair distribution of resources and he believes that this distribution can’t be done privately but must be done collectively. This necessitates forcing some who don’t want their money used for that purpose to be robbed so that their money can be used to support something that they don’t want to support.

    Additionally, everything the government takes away to give to others, it thereby takes away their ability, and thus the responsibility of the person to put to it good use, and nearly half of what it takes these days goes to buy weapons to destroy people’s lives. There can be no virtue in a forced compliance and “that which is not of faith is sin.” In light of these things, how can we support any government plan for the redistribution of wealth? The apostles didn’t turn to the governments of their day to take care of the poor; they simply took care of each other. Shouldn’t our stance be one of holding the government as irrelevant and demonstrating the living Kingdom of God through our lives, not by turning to the government to take care of the poor for us but that we build the structural elements necessary to bring true justice to our world, not by force, but through a faith that can, like the apostles of old, turn the world upside down?

  • http://alienationchurch.blogspot.com darin collins

    I too had the pleasure of meeting Wright at my seminary, Andover Newton. I was still very new to seminary in general, not terribly familiar with the scope of Wright’s work and more than a little intimidated. So I asked him what he thought about Revelation, having been raised, it sounds, in a church very much like Kurt’s. I’m paraphrasing a bit but his basic response was; ‘I get the beginning of Revelation and the End, I think, but the middle, I don’t know about that!’

    I’ve learned so much from Wright and been so influenced its hard to pinpoint the specifics. The fact that he will argue against Rapture theology and still for the virgin birth lets say, really helps me keep my evangelical roots in touch with the more liberal branches that have developed in my life.

    Great Post Kurt! and thanks for adding me to your blog roll.

    If I may jump in on the social justice conversation. Looking to Michael Moore for help understanding social justice is a bit like looking to Glen Beck. I do believe that the Marxist influence in Social Justice thought comes through Liberation theology. There are some Liberation theologians (don’t ask me to name them)who were influenced by Marxist thought. For my own two cents, having read some Marx myself, his critique of capitalism does have some compelling points. When he talks about what can go wrong with capitalism, symptomatically I find him very interesting. When he begins to diagnose the symptoms (private property) I find his arguments much less compelling.

  • churchedunchurched

    Hey all,

    I’m honestly still concerned about using the term “social justice” and then getting into talks about Liberation and Marxism. Those things came in form of a very different term here in the States: “Social Gospel.” So, Michael, your post is fantastic, and I hope you give more thoughts out here; and you had a point that people fall into it. But that is because the wrong terms are used, so let’s clarify that for certain.

    The two terms are entirely different. Social Justice, rightly defined, is only what God commands to do for the groups I mentioned in my second response. It has nothing to do with overthrowing government systems, equalizing wealth (regardless of need, mind you), or letting property become entirely communal. It has to do with empowering the poor, least, orphaned, etc.

    So really, Social Gospel might make better “firey talk” material, but let’s use that term when we talk about Marxist influence, instead of Social Justice. :)

  • http://alienationchurch.blogspot.com darin collins

    churchedunchurched

    you uncover a significant issue and that is the definition of terms
    It seems to me that this was part of the Glen Beck flap last week. Language takes on different shades of meaning in different contexts, so what social justice means outside the church and what it means inside the church are different things. Differing contexts mean differing definitions.

    the problem is, even within the church there are differing contexts and Wtherefore definitions. who gets to determine exactly what ‘rightly defined’ is? Liberation theology is certainly interested in social justice. and some forms of Liberation theology are informed by Marxism. I don’t think that can be denied.

    The Social Gospel finds its roots in my own Baptist tradition and the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, who was not Marxist at all and pre-dated liberation theology. So I completely disagree with your assessment of Social Gospel.

    Social Justice is not just one simply defined phenomena. it is a complex field of theology and biblical interpretation that is quite diverse. that’s not ‘firey-talk.’ I agree with Michael that standards of justice should not be coerced or enforced by the sword, absolutely. What is really great about these discussion is that we can work out exactly what defines social justice within the Christian context. But that can’t be done dogmatically in my point of view… there still should remain some room for diversity as we work out the definition.

  • http://kevinwalkerblog.com Kevin Walker

    Thanks so much for this! N.T. Wright blew me away about a year ago, and I’m still working through to an understanding of all of this. I’ve read “What St. Paul Really Said,” “The Challenge of Jesus,” “The Last Word,” “Simply Christian,” “Surprised by Hope,” and some of “Jesus and the Victory of God.”

  • churchedunchurched

    Thanks for the correction, Darin. :)

    What I’m concerned about it people lumping biblical calls to justice in with whole systems of theology that may leave a bad impression; that causes people to ditch the call to justice. I think Scot McKnight believes that the “social” prefix to the term can lead to a distortion, and perhaps he’s right. But the term “justice” covers a wide range of things, most of which Christians readily agree with without engaging social, workable empowerment of those who have less (in other words, to help them be self-sufficient wherever reasonable).

    All I’m really trying to get at is how people think that call is Marxist. I think that’s anachronism and eisegesis, instead of solid exegesis to follow God’s command. It’s a lot like you saying just now that Rausch predated Liberationism, and therefore should not be confused with it: God predated Marxism, and therefore he should not be conflated with that system.

    What “social justice” means, I agree, in some respect needs to be worked out in community; but since I’m not a Baptist (else I would have known about the roots of Rauschenbusch), I also think there’s something to be said for following a real authoritative definition given by leaders in the church, like Wright, and working out not just the definition but the practice.

    Enforcing by the sword is obviously not a biblical call, given that Jesus told even Peter to “put the sword away.” But the biblical call to help those who have less than the rest of society does exist, and those who follow Christ should feel challenged to help in that way rationally, eventually.

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