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January 19th, 2009 at 11:09 am

My Journey with NT Wright

I have decided to open a new category devoted to grappling with the teaching of the New Testament scholar NT Wright, also known as Tom Wright.

I do so with fear and trembling. To many of my reformed brethren NT Wright is anathema. This is because Wright has challenged the way us reformed folk tend to read Galatians and Romans. In doing so he has suggested a different meaning for the word group that includes the word “justification.”  He does not so much deny the traditional Protestant notion of justification; he just doesn’t think that that is the notion Paul is getting at in his major epistles. Well, as goes the traditional read on justification there goes – it seems – the single core affirmation of Protestantism – the idea of “imputed righteousness.” Wright affirms the notion of imputed righteousness but he does not see it falling under the category of “justification.” Rather he sees it fitting better under the category of “union with Christ.” I will get to this matter in due time.

As for myself I was first exposed to NT Wright just before I left Vancouver in May/June of 1989. I had a week on my hands to wrap up some work, and for some reason I decided to listen a tape series Wright had done on the book of Galatians. Subsequently I have had opportunity to read most of Wright’s corpus.

I cannot say that I have understood all that I have read. Indeed, Wright is not a great writer. He could use a dash of Packer’s pithiness (but who am I to talk?). But I don’t think it is Wright’s verbosity that makes his work rather opaque. No, I think that it is the topic itself that is opaque.

When we open up our Bibles to the New Testament we find soon enough that we are in a world quite different than our own. We are cast into the midst of first century Palestinian Judaism with all sorts of colorful characters and wide ranges of theological assumptions. Though I think that the writings of the Apostles (including the Gospels) are clear enough for any person to come to faith in Jesus Christ, in another sense these same writings are assuming a certain shared worldview, shared cultural mindset, and shared historical experiences. They assume an “insiders” understanding of the day and time.

But we are not insiders. We are now far removed from that day and time. It is hard for us to go back and understand the various issues and forces bearing upon Palestinian Judaism in the first century AD. We struggle to grasp the historical flow of the “intertestamental” period as it is called, the period between the last of the prophets of Israel and the coming of Jesus.

Jesus was not dropped by His Father (as it were) into just any old place and any old time. Jesus was not some uber-spiritual guru up on a mountain telling timeless truths equally accessible to all comers. No, Jesus was a Jew. His teaching could not and cannot be fully understood apart from the story of Israel as whole, nor can it be fully understood apart from the various political and religious forces of his day.

I say “fully” understood because I do think that 1) what is said about Jesus and 2) what Jesus says are clear enough for any person to be deeply moved to faith and repentance and to embark on a new life. However, just because it is possible to come to saving knowledge of Jesus upon a cursory reading of the Bible does not mean we should leave our knowledge at that. We are to “grow in the knowledge of God.” We are to allow our faith to continue to “seek understanding,” especially our understanding of the Old and New Testaments.

It is very hard to work ourselves into the skin of a member of the Pharisee party in 30 AD. It is hard to feel the deep impact that Hellenization and the subsequent the Roman occupation had on the nature of Judaism. It is hard for us to get a handle on the scandal that Jesus’ teaching was for so many of his countrymen. How could he dare talk about the temple being destroyed? How could he talk about the food laws being abolished? How dare he take unto Himself a place reserved for God alone? How could He claim to be the Messiah and yet not seek Roman blood? And how could the New Covenant people of God possibly include in it non-circumcised Gentiles? It blew the mind then. It needs to blow the mind now.

I do not think Wright’s writing is complex and occasionally opaque because of any inherent characteristic of Wright. Rather I think it is complex and occasionally opaque because the topic is complex and occasionally opaque.

But, I believe, what Wright is doing is absolutely important and significant. For too long we have read the Bible through the grid of theological and historical controversies of periods much later in time. For too long we have tried to read our ideas and doctrines and catch phrases into the Bible rather than seeing what bubbles up from a more historically well grounded reading of the Bible.

In some ways Wright’s opaqueness is his gift to the church. He is forcing us as it were to grapple with these ideas, to try to understand what was going on in Jesus’ day and time, and to try to understand Jesus’ life and ministry in light of it. And Wright is too prolific and too influential to ignore. He can be consigned to a corner. If we ignore him or read him too casually we will have missed the opportunity and challenge that Wright offers to the Christian Church circa 2000 and beyond.

I have read several critiques of Wright’s work that, in my view, seem not to understand even the clearer parts of what Wright is saying. I have read too many reviews that seem shallow and predictable, almost rote. I wish more reviewers would withhold judgment until they have seriously grappled with Wright’s work.

As for myself, I certainly don’t agree with everything Wright says but he has forced me to read the Bible differently. Indeed I have not been able to read it the same since that quick run through Galatians – 20 years ago now – down in the basement library of Regent College. Wright has rocked my world. He has shaken me from my theological lethargy. He has made me think, and think more, and think even more until my brain hurt. Only Meredith Kline has had as much impact on how I read the Bible.

In short I think that NT Wright is the most important English speaking theologian of my generation. This does not mean that he is right about everything. But it may mean that we have to grapple with the ideas he has brought to the table if we want to be right about things ourselves.  I look forward to “thinking out loud” about his work.

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3
  • Sofie
    6:00 am on December 27th, 2014 1

    Hi Ana,You are welcome to join us at any of our cruhch meetings which meet every Sunday morning at 9:30 and 11:30. We also have another cruhch meeting on Wednesday nights at 7pm. We have free conversation clubs on Wednesday morning 10:30 till noon and then on Friday afternoons 2:30 till 4:30. You can also watch our web site and Facebook page to see the other activities that we have and participate in those.I look forward to meeting you soon.Rick HeilmanCalvary Chapel English Service Lima

  • cialis No Prescription
    3:34 am on March 28th, 2015 2

    That’s an expert answer to an interesting question

  • Jind
    8:14 am on April 1st, 2015 3

    Hello. I am a married American-Peruvian faethr of 2 living and working in Chorrillos. I am looking for a new church. My wife and children aren’t fluent English speakers so I would like to know if you are associated with Spanish speaking church where I can visit with my family. By the way, I was an English teacher at ICPNA for many years and now I have my own Christian elementary school in Chorrillos.

 

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