I had the privilege of meeting him (though I use the term very loosely, as you will see below) and listening to him speak this past Tuesday, when three of my elders and I attended lectures by him at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. For those of you who are not familiar with N.T. Wright, he is the fourth-highest ranking Bishop in the Church of England and is widely considered the leading scholar on the New Testament in the world today (so says Time and Newsweek - though I don't usually rely on those publications for my religious commentary).
Oxford trained, his latest book, Surprised by Hope, has caused a lot of commotion because he has turned the common understandings of heaven, the resurrection, and the church's mission, on their heads. Some of his "rethinking" has not shocked everyone, though. When he candidly admits that the Bible does not say that a person goes to heaven after he or she dies, Adventists have applauded.
I wanted to share some reflections on the four lectures he gave, which were entitled, "Between God and the World: Reading John in Tomorrow's Church." The day was absolutely amazing.
- I admire the fact that Wright approaches the Bible believing that it is the Word of God. It is very common these days for people of his ilk to approach the Bible with a secular perspective (or, as he calls it: "18th century presuppositions"). And, quite often, they may put on a good show, but privately admit that they don't believe what they are saying. I did not sense this at all from him. At the beginning or end of some of the lectures, he would pause and say, "We need to pray. I just cannot proceed without soaking this concept in prayer." He seems to be the real deal to me, a completely sincere disciple of Christ.
- His depth of knowledge is amazing and humbling. Though he is a New Testament scholar, his knowledge of the Old Testament seems exhaustless. It seems apparent that he believes the New Testament is a continuation of the Old Testament, and that the OT is the foundation of the NT. So many these days would like to divorce the two.
- The advice that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave him when he was appointed Bishop of Durham is priceless. It goes along beautifully with a previous post of mine. Williams told Wright: "You really only understand how to be a theologian when you become a bishop [pastor]." How true it is!
- He seems to do something that I have the habit of doing: exegeting songs (especially contemporary "praise" songs). Before he spoke, some students led the audience (about 500 in attendance) in two songs. We first sang "How Great is Our God," and then "In Christ Alone." This latter song is one that I have been intending to write about for a while, and I still will in the future. But he picked up on something that I had not noticed. He got up and said, "There is something about this song that doesn't sit well with me whenever I sing it, though I do enjoy the song. The song says, 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.'" And then he said, "Doesn't John say that God loved the world? Maybe the words should instead read, 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied.' "
- For Jews, around Jesus time, they were anticipating the glory of God being revealed. This was what the OT prophets looked forward to, and everyone in Jesus' day was eager for God's glory to be revealed. Of course, as Wright pointed out, when Jesus showed up and revealed God's glory, it wasn't the way they were expecting it. But, quite interestingly, Wright pointed out that "God's glory was fully revealed when He went to the cross." This is a profound idea, and one that many people - who like to emphasize God's glory - seem to forget. God's glory is not necessarily about His sovereignty, His grandeur, His bigness. It is about His humility, condescension, and love.
- Though I don't necessarily go exactly where Wright goes in his estimation of the Sabbath, he noted that when Jesus said, from the cross, "It is finished," He wasn't primarily talking about His work of salvation. Instead, this seems to be in relation to creation, when, on the sixth day (the same day of Jesus' death), God "finished" His work. Thus, Jesus' death was in fulfillment of a new creation.
- He noted that when Jesus washed the disciples' feet, there was a profound message in this act - echoing the truth of Philippians 2:5-8. I like that connection - which I have made before myself. But he also commented that there is something wonderful about a church that takes part in the footwashing experience, saying, "Of course Jesus meant the footwashing metaphorically, but you learn the metaphor by doing it literally."
- He also noted that John 13 - which records the account of the footwashing - is really the origin of Christian missiology. This, probably, isn't the origin we would expect. Jesus showed that serving others is the church's true mission.
- This rethinking of the church's mission is somewhat controversial in many people's minds. Instead of focusing solely on converting and baptizing, we need to also focus on being the hands and feet of Jesus. Hope should not simply be about the future, but about the present as well. As he asked, "What does it mean to be signmakers and seedsowers for the kingdom in our day?"
- As I've learned a little bit about N.T. Wright recently, I've come to realize that many within the "Emerging" movement cite him as an inspirational figure. Many in the emerging movement, of course, would like to take away any future hope, and imply that all we should be concerned about is the here-and-now, focusing solely on a temporal or "realized" mission. So I wanted to know, point blank, what his throughts were in relation to Christian mission. So during the Q & A session, I worked up my courage and approached the microphone. When my chance came, I asked him, "How does your 're-thinking' of the mission of the church and the kingdom compare to the traditional methods within Christianity, and specifically Evangelical Christianity?" His answer was essentially thus: "Well, if by 'traditional Christian methods,' you take it back to William Wilberforce, then my views are not a whole lot different. Wilberforce emphasized things like discipleship, and salvation, but he also talked about abolishing slavery. So he combined the future hope with the present hope." He then went on to explain that sometime in the last 200 years there has been a divide between what he labels the "Gospel Christians" and the "Epistle Christians." The "Gospel Christians" want to talk only about the here-and-now: hunger, education, equality, etc. The "Epistle Christians" want to talk only about heaven, salvation, forgiveness, etc. He said that what he sees in the Bible, and therefore, what his vision for the church is, is a combining of the two. I was very satisfied with his answer.
- This wasn't my only interaction with him, however. During one of the breaks, I had him sign my copy of Surprised by Hope, which I have begun reading prodigiously since Tuesday. I will have a review of the book (hopefully) sometime in the future.
It also reminded me of how much I enjoy academia. I love it. I could have sat at his feet all day, every day. There is nothing quite like listening to an energetic and knowledgable Biblical scholar. The insights they share are so fulfilling, and it helped me see how much I enjoy such a setting. Perhaps there is something in the future for me in this type of life.