Mixing It Up With N.T. Wright

Mixing It Up With N.T. Wright November 30, 2014

My favorite New Testament scholar of the 20th century was the British scholar F.F. Bruce. Bruce was a “bright and shining light” in 20th century evangelicalism. He was prolific, churning out high quality work year after year. He had the rare ability to write academic books as well as popular (accessible) books. Bruce’s specialty was Jesus and Paul.

F.F. Bruce also understood the importance of chronology in New Testament studies. Consequently, he published a translation of the New Testament that put all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. (Yes – cough — F.F. Bruce was a major inspiration for me. Hence, I credit him in my Untold Story of the New Testament Church.)

In addition, Bruce was a powerful apologist, substantiating the historicity of the Gospels in the face of 20th century liberalism. To top it off, F.F. Bruce was a capable theologian as well as a New Testament exegete (a rare combination).

Enter N.T. Wright. Another British evangelical scholar.

N.T. Wright is the 21st century equivalent to F.F. Bruce. What Bruce did for evangelicalism in the modern world, Wright is doing for evangelicalism in the postmodern world.

Like F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright is remarkably prolific, he has the rare ability to write academically as well as popularly, he specializes in Jesus and Paul, and he is an effective and compelling apologist. (Wright has brilliantly excoriated the arguments of liberal scholars who traffic in historical Jesus studies.)

Like Bruce, Wright is both a theologian and an exegete, and he wrote his own translation of the New Testament (though not in chronological sequence).

To my mind, N.T. Wright is the new F.F. Bruce.

Meeting N.T. Wright

I had the privilege of spending time with Wright in 2007 when we were both featured speakers at a conference in the (cough) . . . Bahamas. (Yes, it was a notable hardship to accept the invitation. But some people must suffer for the kingdom.)

All jesting aside, Wright and I spent several hours talking about various and sundry topics of mutual interest. During the event, we shared a boat ride that lasted one hour each way. We sat together on both legs of the trip and filled our time schmoozing about the New Testament and theology.

All told: I was pleased to discover that Wright and I had a lot more in common than I expected. For instance, we agreed that Paul was the author of Ephesians, that Galatians was Paul’s first epistle (i.e., the South Galatian theory), and other views that are in the minority among New Testament scholars today. We talked about the eternal purpose, the work of C.H. Dodd, the role of the Old Testament narrative on the New Testament story, etc.

In getting to know Tom (N.T.) Wright, and in reading much of his work, he has become one of my favorite contemporary New Testament scholars (just after Craig Keener). You can find many of my favorite titles by Bruce and Wright in my Best 100 Christian Books Ever Written and my Best 100 Academic Christian Books & Commentaries pages.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting F.F. Bruce. But I am happy to have met and befriended Tom Wright.

With that as a background, what follows is my interview with N.T. Wright with a special focus on what I consider to be his best book, Simply Jesus.

What follows is the uncut, unedited, and unrated version of the interview. But because of the uniqueness of the interview, I’d encourage you to share it with others by clicking the “share buttons” at the bottom. Enjoy!

Frank Viola: Tom, you have written a small library on the historical Jesus. What motivated you to write Simply Jesus, and how does it differ from your other volumes on Jesus?

N.T. Wright: I was asked to do it as a follow-up to Simply Christian. It’s over ten years since I last wrote a book about Jesus (The Challenge of Jesus); that one was really an attempt to say, much more briefly, what I’d said in Jesus and the Victory of God, adding a couple of closing chapters about the resurrection and the application of the whole thing to some of the tasks facing particularly young academics in the postmodern world (that project originated as lectures at an InterVarsity graduate conference).

This time I stood back and reflected, after spending the best part of the last decade as a busy bishop, on what I was now thinking about Jesus and what he was and is. It wasn’t easy to keep it ‘simple’, because Jesus is always challenging and sometimes we oversimplify him! But some of the earlier themes stand out more clearly – for instance, Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God, coming back to rescue his people and reclaim his sovereignty over the whole world. That then leads into some quite new reflections, in the last (quite long) chapter, on the ‘so what’ issues – in dialogue, by implication, with a number of writers, not least James Davison Hunter in his To Change the World.

Frank Viola: The following statement comes from the book: “Part of the difficulty is that Jesus was and is much, much more than people imagine. Not just people in general, but practicing Christians, the churches themselves” (p. 4). And the publisher’s press release says, “Wright makes the startling claim that Jesus’ story has been mistold and misunderstood, even by those who think they are Jesus’ most ardent defenders.”

I agree with these statements and have made similar ones myself. But what do you say to those who would suggest that these statements are arrogant, and they imply that only now in the 21st century do some people understand the story of Jesus correctly while everyone has gotten it wrong?

N.T. Wright: There is always, of course, a danger of arrogance. But my point is not that everyone else has got it wrong and I’ve got it right, but that in recent years there have been various cultural movements in the western world that have distorted our reading of Jesus and the gospels and that we can witness this happening and do something to correct it. You can see it rather obviously in the fact that for many Christians it wouldn’t matter if Jesus had been simply born of a virgin and died on a cross, doing more or less nothing in between. His ‘identity’ would be secure; he could still be our savior and lord. But the four gospels would protest: you’ve missed out the heart of it! Many would-be ‘biblical’ Christians simply have no idea why ‘all that stuff in the middle’ is there. I have been eager to find out, and to interpret the whole biblical Jesus, not simply the beginning and end of his earthly story.

Frank Viola: One of the main points of your book centers on reclaiming the prophetic witness of the church to speak to those in power when they are violating God’s will. What would you say to those who would argue that in the NT, we only see the apostles speaking to power when they are being prohibited from preaching the gospel? Are there exceptions to this in the NT? If there aren’t, why should we assume that the church should speak to power on matters outside of prohibiting the gospel from being proclaimed?

N.T. Wright: As soon as anyone announces that God is becoming king, they are speaking the truth to power whether or not the powers realize it. Paul in Acts ends up in Rome speaking of Jesus as Lord and God as king, right under Caesar’s nose, with nobody stopping him. Of course, this comes out even more clearly when the authorities try to stop the apostles bearing witness to Jesus, but it’s there all through, following the mandate given in John 16 about the Spirit convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. The Spirit does that, of course, through the church.

Frank Viola: You argue in the book that part of the church’s ministry is to help the poor and feed the hungry. What is your response to the person who says that if this were the case, wouldn’t we see examples of the church helping the poor of the world in the book of Acts and in the Epistles? We do see examples of this in post-apostolic history. And in the NT, we see the church helping the poor who are part of other churches. But we don’t see any examples in the NT of the church helping the poor of this world (so the argument goes). What is your response to this line of thinking?

N.T. Wright: Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem in Acts 11 with aid for the poor because of the famine. At the end of their visit (if that’s the same visit as Galatians 2.1-10, which I think it is), the Jerusalem apostles ask them to ‘go on remembering the poor’, and Paul comments ‘which very thing I was eager to do’. A recent remarkable book by Bruce Longenecker, (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World) shows that care for the poor was much closer to the heart of the Pauline mission than we have normally thought.

Of course, the early church was a very small community, and the first imperative was to be sure to look after any poor Christians that needed it. But already in Galatians (6.10) Paul is telling folk to ‘do good to all, especially those of the household of faith’; and in Philippians he urges the church to ‘let everyone know how gentle and gracious you are’, which may well have a sense of Christians reaching out in love to serve their neighbours.

Frank Viola: In the book, you make several key statements about God’s passion to help the poor. You also make a few statements about how the “powers that be” often neglect the poor. In my country right now (USA) there is a huge debate over this issue among Christians. One aspect of the debate revolves around the question, “Who are the poor exactly?” Some Christians argue that there is a distinction between the poor who are trying to find work and/or who are working (but cannot make ends meet) versus the indigent who refuse to work and expect others to support them.

What do you say to this debate? And how do you think Christians should square Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 that if a person “doesn’t work, neither should he eat” with the injunctions in Scripture exhorting God’s people to help the poor?

N.T. Wright: Of course, whenever people discover that other folk are going out of their way to give handouts, some will get lazy and simply try to trade off this goodwill. It’s a telling point, actually, that this was already a danger in the very early church – because you only get that problem arising if the church is being generous. The line between ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’ is very, very hard to draw, and one of the things about poverty, whether one has work or not (some jobs pay so little that the people who do them are still well within the poverty trap), is that it is depressing, and actually saps the energy and nerve and vitality in ways that people like me, who have never been out of work and never been truly poor, can only appreciate by being with and ministering to people who are genuinely and chronically poor.

There is a real danger that in a go-getting country like the USA those who have initiative, energy, advantages of birth and education, can easily look down on those who have none of those things. It simply isn’t the case that every human starts at the same level point so that the rich are those who’ve worked for it and the poor are those who couldn’t be bothered. Throughout the Bible God seems to take special note of those trapped in poverty, and we should do the same.

Frank Viola: A related question to the above: In my country (USA), many Christians wish to help the poor more. But they are bitterly divided as to how to do that. Some Christians believe it’s the government’s job to aid the poor, and Christians should back those politicians who support programs which seek to aid the poor and rebuke those who do not.

Other Christians feel that the government doesn’t really help the poor, but creates a system that perpetuates poverty by keeping poor people stuck in their impoverished state. For such people, helping the poor is the church’s responsibility, not the State’s. Given the practical implications of your book – that Christians should hold earthly governments accountable when they run contrary to God’s will – what do you say to Christians on both sides of this debate?

N.T. Wright: One of the real problems we face in the western church is that ever since the C18 at least the ‘state’ (that’s a very modern idea, by the way) has taken over the running and administration of things that used to be done purely or mostly by the church – I’m thinking of hospitals and other medical facilities, and of course of education. Certainly care for the poor comes into that category. Part of the Enlightenment problem is that the ‘state’ has squeezed out the church.

Granted, the church has made a come-back; in my country, the Hospice movement was started purely by Christians and is still run, very successfully, by volunteers and donations almost all through the churches. Now it may be that God is pleased to work through ‘secular’ authorities – though that brings other problems in its wake, often enough. And of course, whether it’s the church or the ‘state’ that’s helping the poor, locally and globally, it is vital that this be done wisely and shrewdly, with the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove, to avoid any chance of the trap you mention happening, perpetuating poverty (e.g. by large handouts to foreign countries that then put local folk out of business).

But that danger must not be used as an excuse – as, sadly, it sometimes has been – for saying ‘so there’s nothing really we need to do’. There is plenty, but it calls for serious and urgent study and prayer – and, pretty certainly, some serious reshaping of western capitalism and banking. It isn’t rocket science to see that if a few people are being paid millions in bonuses while others are struggling to survive on a few dollars a week this does no honour to the God of love and justice we know in and as Jesus Christ.

Frank Viola: When you talk about carrying on Jesus’ work in our time, our brothers and sisters in the Charismatic movement will respond, saying, “Yes! But Jesus’ work includes casting out demons, healing the sick (supernaturally), and raising the dead. So we are to do the same.” What do you say to this?

N.T. Wright: God is the healer and hasn’t stopped healing. But, as in ancient times so today, (a) many healings take place through regular doctors and nurses (the early Christians were good at nursing people), and (b) healing always was a mystery (why some not others: note Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, and his concern over Epaphroditus in Philippians 2.25-30 – clearly Paul didn’t just say a prayer and heal him). Yes, people sometimes were raised from the dead; but other people die, in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, and nobody tries to raise them. There are well reported instances of this on the mission field to this day but I don’t know anyone who seriously says we should be trying/hoping to do it day by day. Yes, casting out demons still happens; that is a specialized and dangerous and difficult ministry and we should pray for those who are called to it. I know (as a bishop) enough about that to have the highest respect for those who engage in it and the highest gratitude that I’m not called to it.

Frank Viola: What are the three main objections (or misrepresentations) of your work among evangelical Christians, and what are your responses to those objections or misrepresentations?

N.T. Wright: People have sometimes said, ridiculously, that I don’t believe in the second coming, because I insist that in the New Testament a reference to ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’ is to Jesus’ vindication (in resurrection, ascension, and not least in the destruction of the Jerusalem that had opposed and rejected him) rather than to his return. The second coming is taught all over the place, and I have expounded it, I hope biblically, in Surprised by Hope.

Second, people have sometimes said that I downplay the divinity of Jesus (someone once accused me even of denying the virginal conception). This is a serious misunderstanding. I have done my best, rather, to oppose modern forms of Docetism (the view that Jesus wasn’t really human, but only ‘seemed’ to be). Some modern Docetists, not surprisingly, see this as a denial of Jesus’ divinity. I hope the present book, and its sequel How God Became King, will put the record straight on this one.

Third, many have been puzzled at my embrace of (one form of) what has been called the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul. Actually, one of the key things about the NP, at its best, is that it take seriously the larger vision of God’s purposes for his people and for the whole creation that we find precisely in the four gospels. Often evangelicals have offered a would-be ‘Pauline’ gospel which not only doesn’t do justice to Paul but leaves no room for the four gospels. That has to be wrong, and I’ve tried to show how.

Frank Viola: You are one of the most prolific authors of our time. Talk about your writing routines. What does a normal day and week look like in your writing?

N.T. Wright: Sadly there is no such thing as a ‘normal day and week’. I wish there was but life isn’t like that. There is teaching, grandchildren, chickens to feed and clean out, shopping, examining Ph D theses, and all the other fun of family and academic life. But, left to myself (as has happened all too rarely!), I get up very early (5ish), say my prayers, have breakfast, and ideally am at the desk by about 6.30 or 7. Then I can have a really good morning before a late lunch, perhaps a walk, then back to work mid-afternoon, with supper around 7.30, read something for an hour or two, prayers and bed by 10.30 or 11.

However even within this (highly idealized) scenario, sometimes the ‘work’ will consist of simply writing, as fast as I can; sometimes of reading, slowly and carefully, a major new commentary or monograph; sometimes of a mixture of the two plus combing through journals, reviews, online materials … of all of these I prefer the writing task, because of the sheer joy of words and language and the delight in finding a creative way of saying something. The week in my life which most nearly corresponds to the ideal was the week, in spring 2006, when I wrote Acts for Everyone. I began it on a Saturday, had most of the Sunday off, and finished it in the small hours of the following Sunday. I have no idea how many thousand words that was but all I had to do was to sit down at the desk and turn on the tap. It was exhilarating.

Frank Viola: Your next book, How God Became King, releases in March. From the cover, it looks like a companion volume to Simply Jesus. In what ways is this upcoming book different from Simply Jesus?

N.T. Wright: The new book is a deliberate companion piece: SJ is about Jesus, this one’s about the gospels and the sort of story they think they’re telling. It starts with the challenge of the creed: there’s a big hole there between the virgin birth and the cross, but the gospel seem to think that stuff in the middle is hugely important. What happens when we implicitly trust the creed rather than the gospels? Of course, the creeds weren’t written as a syllabus for teaching, but they quickly became that . . . and we forget the kingdom of God! I then offer four ways of listening to the gospels which, today, have either been forgotten or seriously distorted. When we get these in proper balance, we can ‘hear’ the story the gospels are really telling – and then we can rediscover new ways of understanding the Creeds as well . . .

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