This is a transcript of my podcast interview with N.T. Wright on Thursday, November 15, 2007 at Asbury Seminary. The audio podcast of this transcript can be found here.
This post contains the entire transcript.
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar whom Christianity Today has described as one of the top five theologians in the world today. After serving three years as the canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, Wright became the Bishop of Durham in 2003 – the fourth highest ranking position of authority in the Church of England.
Tom Wright has spent his life studying the history surrounding the New Testament and early Christianity. He has written several widely-acclaimed books on the historical Jesus as well as many on the Apostle Paul and the New Testament epistles.
Wright has received both praise and criticism for his work. Anne Rice, the author of the Interview with a Vampire series, has credited Wright’s work on the historical Jesus with bringing her back to her Christian faith. Reformed theologian J.I. Packer has described Wright as “brilliant” and “one of God’s best gifts to our decaying Western Church.”
As Bishop of Durham, Wright has been a lightning rod for controversy from both conservatives who take offense with his political views and from liberals who reject his traditional views on homosexuality.
As a New Testament scholar, Wright has faced criticism from both sides of the theological aisle. Liberal scholars, such as those who make up the infamous “Jesus Seminar” decry Wright’s work on the historical Jesus as much too conservative and traditional. Conservative scholars appreciate his strong defense of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.
But many conservatives of the Reformed persuasion are perplexed by Wright’s views on the doctrine of justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Several well-known theologians, such as D.A. Carson, Mark Seifrid, Guy Waters, and now pastor John Piper, have written extensively to refute the “New Perspective on Paul” that Wright advocates.
In our interview with N.T. Wright, we will ask questions that will help illuminate the current discussions within Reformed circles on the legitimacy of Wright’s exegesis of the New Testament texts.
Trevin Wax: Would you tell us about your spiritual journey, how you came to faith in Christ?
N.T. Wright: Interesting. The phrase “spiritual journey” is one that I’ve only become familiar with comparatively recently. We wouldn’t have put it like that when I was a kid.
I grew up in a church-going family, a very sort of ordinary, middle-of-the-road Anglican family where nobody really talked about personal Christian experience. It was just sort of assumed like an awful lot of things in the 1950’s were just sort of taken for granted. So you went to church. It was assumed you said your prayers. You read your Bible.
Within that context, and with having lots of members of my family who were in ministry in one form or another, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that at quite an early age, I was very, very conscious personally of the love of God.
I remember one particular moment (I don’t actually know how old I was, but I guess around 7 or something like that) when I remember actually weeping. I was by myself in a room in the house, and I was just crying because I realized how much Jesus loved me. I have a clear memory of me as a little boy doing that. I’ve no idea whether it was [because] I’d heard a sermon or something in a hymn or just something had come home to me.
I knew around that time that I had to be a preacher. I had to be a minister, which was a puzzle to me because my dad was a businessman. It was a family company and I assumed that I would take it on from him. So I kind of agonized as a small boy about how that was going to work. And then when it became clear that in fact my father was saying, “It will be interesting to see what you want to do when you grow up,” I realized that there was no pressure on that front. And I remember huge relief: Hey, I can go and do what I really know I have to do!
Throughout that time and then different stages through my teens… Through my teens, I was very much in contact with the evangelical movement through Scripture Union and Boys’ Camps that I used to go on as a teenager and then through into my early twenties. And that would be twice a year… go off to Scotland and stay under canvas and go climbing and sailing and canoeing and all that stuff… but really good Bible teaching, morning and evening. And gradually I started to take a part in leading Bible studies and all of that.
Through my teens, my own personal Christian experience was just growing in a variety of ways – and basically learning how to pray and finding my way around the Bible. Funny but, for me, the Bible was a hobby before it was a serious study. It was the thing I’d sneak off and do on the side, feeling rather guilty because I wasn’t doing my real school homework or whatever… and never thinking I would make it a life’s work.
So I was enormously fortunate in all of that. I was ordained in my mid-twenties.
I guess, as an Anglican, there’s always room to move, which can be a dangerous thing, but also a very healthy thing, because bits of the great biblical tradition which you haven’t fully plugged into before you’ve got the space to grow into… not least, the sacraments. You know there’s very little about the sacraments in the teaching I received when I was in my teens, but in my twenties, working with folk for whom that was actually really very important, in a very biblical way… it gave me the space, enabled me to grow.
That’s probably far enough I guess. I don’t have a Damascus road experience to record. I don’t have anything like that. It’s kind of a steady growth with some wonderful movements in the middle of it.
Trevin Wax: Why is it that you have never pursued exclusively an academic post? Why have you chosen to remain so connected to the local church?
N.T. Wright: It’s a good question. When I was at seminary in my early twenties, one of my teachers said to me, “You’re going to have to decide. Either you’re going to be an academic or you’re going to be a pastor. You can’t be both.” I remember thinking, Rats! I want to be both! Why are you telling me I can’t do these two things?And so I have kind of oscillated to and always wanted to do both.
It’s partly that I’m an extrovert and that I like being with people. If you shut me up in a library with nothing else around for weeks on end, I’d go mad! I have to sort of go out… and…
When I’ve had sabbatical time when I’ve really had the whole of sort of three months to organize entirely as I want, I could stay in the library or at the desk all the time, but by the middle of the day, I’ll find myself wandering downtown and going and sitting in a café with a notebook just to get the buzz of some people. So I’m a people person. I like being with people. So I like being a teacher, and so on.
For me, actually, being a bishop in a bishopric where there’s an academic tradition (going back to people like Lightfoot and Westcott and so on) gives me this fascinating, challenging, but open invitation to say, “We want you to be a scholar. We want you to go on doing this. But do it as a bishop!” And looking back to the earlier centuries of the church, most of the great teachers were also bishops and vice versa. It’s only fairly recently that the church has had this great divide.
Of course, that means that there’s lots of stuff that I can’t do. I don’t do much book-reviewing, for instance, which ordinary scholars do quite a bit. I’ve just had to say to myself, I haven’t got time to do that. And I miss that. I should be doing that, but I’m not. So, it’s a choice.
In terms of personality type… I don’t know if you know the Eneogram and that sort of thing, but on the Eneogram, I’m a number 7. One of the images for number 7 is the butterfly – the little creature that hops from plant to plant because it’s so fascinated by this one, and then it’s so excited by that one, and then it really likes that one too. And that’s very much who I am.
Trevin Wax: How is the worship of the church central to your calling?
N.T. Wright: That’s like saying, “Tell me why breathing is so important to you.” I think if I stopped doing it, I would fall down, or something. I have to look in the mirror and say, “Why is worship important?” Well, it’s what I do. And it’s only comparatively recently, in the last maybe 15 to 20 years that I’ve reflected on why worship is important, which is like somebody who’s always enjoyed eating all their life suddenly reading about the theory of how food works or that sort of thing.
The theory now, which is the sort of intellectual “why,” is that when you worship the God in whose image you’re made, you are renewed as a human being, as an image-bearing creature. I now know that with my head, but that simply corresponds to what I know as a lifelong thing.
And I’m fortunate in that I’ve grown up in a worshipping tradition which is quite rich musically (and music is very important to me) and has a wonderful resource of hymns from all sorts of different parts of the Church… and to go to church and be able to sing that stuff and listen to a Bach motet or indeed some charismatic choruses. I’m very eclectic, musically as in other things! But also to frame the hearing and knowing of Scripture within a context of worship, which is what Anglican liturgy does, just seems to me such a very complete and compelling thing.
Trevin Wax: Could you give us a brief definition of “the gospel”?
N.T. Wright: I could try taking a Pauline angle. When Paul talks about “the gospel,” he means “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” Now, that’s about as brief as you can do it.
The reason that’s good news… In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor came to the throne, there’d obviously been a time of uncertainty. Somebody’s just died. Is there going to be chaos? Is society going to collapse? Are we going to have pirates ruling the seas? Are we going to have no food to eat? And the good news is, we have an emperor and his name is such and such. So, we’re going to have justice and peace and prosperity, and isn’t that great?!
Now, of course, most people in the Roman Empire knew that was rubbish because it was just another old jumped-up aristocrat who was going to do the same as the other ones had done. But that was the rhetoric.
Paul slices straight in with the Isaianic message: Good news! God is becoming King and he is doing it through Jesus! And therefore, phew! God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s world is going to be renewed.
And in the middle of that, of course, it’s good news for you and me. But that’s the derivative from, or the corollary of the good news which is a message about Jesus that has a second-order effect on me and you and us. But the gospel is not itself about you are this sort of a person and this can happen to you. That’s the result of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.
It’s very clear in Romans. Romans 1:3-4: This is the gospel. It’s the message about Jesus Christ descended from David, designated Son of God in power, and then Romans 1:16-17 which says very clearly: “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation.” That is, salvation is the result of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself.
Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?
N.T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.
And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.
The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be the means by which the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.
So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.
Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed in advance of that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!
And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.
So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.
And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.
Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But that is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.
Trevin Wax: You have said in many of your books that justification is not how one becomes a Christian but a declaration that one is a Christian. What language do you use to explain how one becomes a Christian?
N.T. Wright: Let’s be clear about this because many Christians in the evangelical tradition use words like “conversion,” “regeneration,” “justification,” “born-again,” etc. all as more or less synonyms to mean “becoming a Christian from cold.” In the classic Reformed tradition, the word “justification” is much more fine-tuned than that and has to do with a verdict which is pronounced, rather than with something happening to you in terms of actually being born again. So that I’m actually much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize.
Let me put it like this. In Paul (and this is really a Pauline conversation, after all), what happens is that the word of the gospel is announced. That is to say, Jesus Christ is proclaimed – one-on-one or in a large meeting or out on the street or whatever, and even though that message is crazy (and Paul knows it’s crazy; he says it’s folly to Gentiles and a scandal to Jews), some people find that it grabs them and they believe it. This is bizarre. I shouldn’t be believing this. A dead man got raised from the dead and he’s the Lord of the world. I really shouldn’t believe this, but it does make sense. And it finds me and I can feel it changing me. Paul’s analysis of that is that this is the power of the word (he has a strong theology of the word), and another equal way of saying it for Paul is that this is the Holy Spirit working through the gospel. He says, no one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
So, the Holy Spirit is the One who through the Word does the work of grace which is the transformative thing, and the first sign of that new life is faith.
Now then, the point of justification is not God making you right. The irony is that some of my critics at this point have accused me of a sort of semi-Pelagianism. But that’s precisely what I think I’m not doing. The verdict of justification is God saying over faith, “This really is my beloved child.”
Now part of the difficulty we face is that because different Christian traditions have used the word “justification” to denote either different stages within that process or sometimes the whole process itself. (Hans Kung’s book on justification is really a book on how to be a Christian from start to finish. And so for him, justification means the entire process: from being a total pagan to being a finally saved Christian, and that’s really not helpful in Pauline terms, but there’s been a lot of slippage.) So when people say, “he says that justification is this, but I’ve always thought it was that” it’s probably because we’re denoting a different point in the process.
My only agenda here is to be as close as I can possibly get to what Paul actually says. And I really don’t care too much what the different later Christian traditions say. My aim is to be faithful to Scripture here.
Trevin Wax: Some evangelicals within the Reformed tradition have taken issue with your division of present and future justification and your statement that on the Last Day, we will be justified “on the basis of the whole life lived.” Does this mean that our good works contribute to our salvation? Or is it that our good works prove our salvation?
N.T. Wright: It’s interesting that you shift from justification to salvation there because, though those aren’t the same thing… we have to train ourselves to use words accurately. And there’s so much loose Christian talk, for which I’ve no doubt been as guilty as any. We just trip over our own feet on this.
The word “salvation” denotes rescue. Rescue? What from? Well, of course, ultimately death. And since it is sin that colludes with the forces of evil and decay, sin leads to death. So we are rescued from sin and death.
Now those may be the same event as the present and future justification. But the word “salvation” and the word “justification” are not interchangeable.
It’s as though, supposing we have a class that starts at 9:00 in the morning and suppose that 9:00 in the morning also happens to the be the moment when the sun rises in the middle of winter. Now you can say “sunrise” or you can say “the beginning of class.” Those denote the same moment, but they connote something quite different. One is a statement about things that are going on in the wider world. Another is a statement about something very specific that’s happening this morning in my educational experience. They may be the same moment.
In the same way, justification present and future correspond to salvation present and future, but they’re different language systems to talk about different sorts of events that happen to be taking place at the same time. That’s hugely important. And it happens when we’re reading Isaiah, as well as when we’re reading Paul actually.
People have often said, “Your idea…” (pointing to me) “…that future salvation will be based on the whole life led.” I say, Excuse me. I didn’t write Romans 2:1-16! Romans 2:1-16 is Romans 2:1-16. The evangelical tradition has screened out Romans 2 because it didn’t know what it was there for. Because the great evangelical tradition to which I’m hugely indebted tends to say, “We know a priori that Romans 1:18-3:20 basically says, ‘You’re all sinners and that’s it’ in order that then, 3:21 and following can say, ‘You’re all saved by grace through faith.'” And so they screen out the fine tuning of what 1:18-3:20 is actually about.
And chapter 2 particularly has been very controversial, not only for evangelicals but actually for liberal scholars as well. Ed Sanders really doesn’t know, didn’t know when he wrote his two books on Paul what Romans 2:1-16 was all about. But it’s quite clear. It’s a typically Jewish statement of a future judgment day on which God will reward or punish according to the entire life led. And in case you should think that Paul is saying “This is an odd Jewish idea which I’m rejecting,” he anchors it with the fact that it is Jesus who is going to be the Judge on that last day.
And so, I would say, please don’t think this is something I invented. Again, it’s not a flash in the pan. He says it again in 2 Corinthians 5 and again in Romans 14. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that we may each receive what was done in the body, whether good or bad.” Now, frankly, if people have a problem with correlating that with justification by faith, it’s Paul they have a problem with, not me.
But I think it’s very easy to correlate it with justification by faith, because the whole point of justification by faith in Romans 3 is that that is something that happens in the present time and then in order to explain how it is that the present verdict issued over faith alone can be sure to correspond to the future verdict that will issue over the whole of life, Paul writes Romans 5-8 which ends up, “There is therefore now no condemnation” because of the Spirit, because, etc… with warnings attached. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
So things are much more complicated and happily much more interesting than the rather logic-chopping post-Reformational over-formulated systems would allow. Fortunately, Paul is much more interesting than most of his interpreters, myself included.
Trevin Wax: You mentioned earlier Hans Kung. How would you distinguish your views on justification from that of official Roman Catholic teaching?
N.T. Wright: Well, it’s a nice question as to what official Roman Catholic teaching really means these days.
I remember once, after there’d been an official agreement on the doctrine of salvation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, I went to do a public debate with Ted Yarnold who’s one of the great Catholic theologians at Oxford, sadly dead now. We went off to a big ecumenical gathering in Reading, between Oxford and London, and we chatted in the car about who would speak first. I said, “Well, you’re the senior here. You better go first and lead off.” So he did. He began by saying, “Let’s just remind ourselves what the doctrine of justification is. It is that there’s nothing whatever we can do to earn God’s favor. It must come entirely from God’s grace. And the only thing that we can possibly do is nothing of ourselves, merely believe in the astonishing goodness and grace of God.” And I stood up and said, “We might as well go home because obviously we’re on the same page here. If your chaps had been saying this 400 years ago, we mightn’t have got into all this problem.”
I think there’s been an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I have met many Roman Catholic theologians who will emphasize as much as any good Protestant preacher that everything comes from the love and grace of God.
The problem again and again has been terminological. And of course at the Reformation, there were many in the Roman system who just didn’t get it and who had been so corrupted by some of the nonsenses that were going on in the late medieval period that they really did believe you had to do all these extra bits and pieces and works of supererogation. And it was hooked into the doctrine of purgatory and all of that.
But in terms of the sovereign grace of God, you’ve got that in Thomas Aquinas just as you’ve got it in John Calvin. I think it’s time to stand back and take a much longer, harder look at what’s going on.
There’s a great deal about Roman Catholicism that I basically disagree with. For instance, the doctrine of Mary which… I have studied that stuff and I simply don’t think that has any mileage at all biblically, theologically, and I’ve got some friends who are very disappointed that I say that. So I’m not saying, let’s go and agree with Rome for the sake of it. But I’m saying that actually, though Rome did get completely twisted up a few hundred years ago, the way things are now, there’s room for all kinds of dialogue and I find an open readiness.
What I don’t find however is the meaning of justification in Galatians 2, because in Galatians 2 the meaning of justification is: if all those who believe in Jesus are declared to be in the right, they belong at the same table. And Rome still balks at that. “We will not have Eucharistic fellowship until you’ve all signed up and agreed on this and this and this.” So, I bang on about this to my Roman friends and say, sorry… according to justification by faith, we ought to be sharing the Eucharist. What’s wrong with that? And they, of course, get worried about that.
Trevin Wax: How does the doctrine of sola Scriptura influence your work and your method?
N.T. Wright: Well, in terms of method, sola Scriptura is what I’ve always tried to do, basically. You could put it negatively… If you find yourself thinking down a track where you think, Oh, well, if I go there, that’ll mean ditching this bit of the Bible or that bit, then all sorts of warning lights flash and say, “You probably shouldn’t be going there!” It may be that you’ve misheard your own mind, as it were, and there may be a way through this because there are always puzzles that we hit, but basically, my aim has been to expound Scripture and to expound Scripture in such a way that I do not set one Scripture over against another.
However, I have to say, and my work on the authority of Scripture, which you probably know – a little book called The Last Word in America. Silly title, by the way. That was Harper’s folly to call it that. It wasn’t my idea. Fancy having a book called The Last Word! I mean… it’s very silly. If I was going to write a book called The Last Word it would be on Christology, not on Scripture. “In the last days, God has spoken to us by his Son…”
But I’ve been trying to stress that the risen Jesus does not say to the disciples, “All authority on heaven and earth is given to the books you chaps are going to go off and write.” He says, “All authority on heaven and earth is given to Me.” So that if we say that Scripture is authoritative, what we must actually mean is that the authority which is vested in Christ alone is mediated through Scripture.
That’s a more complicated thing than simply having a book on the shelf, full of right answers that you can go and look up. It’s more a way of saying that when we read Scripture and determine to live under it, we are actually saying we want to live under the sovereign lordship of Jesus mediated through this book.
When you say it like that, then all sorts of other things happen as a result, like what is the sovereign lordship of Jesus all about? Is it simply to fill our heads with right answers to difficult questions? Well, right answers to difficult questions are better than wrong answers to difficult questions. But no, the authority of Jesus Christ is there to transform and heal and save the world, to make the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. So the question then is, how does the authority of Scripture serve that purpose?. And that’s actually much more interesting than simply using Scripture to settle or raise indeed doctrinal disputes within the church.
Trevin Wax: You have criticized very strongly the arrogance of Enlightenment modernism, especially in Enlightenment thinkers’ hasty rejection of the supernatural, Jesus’ resurrection, etc. – an attitude that claims we have needed 1700 years for modern science to tell us that dead people stay dead and so on and so forth. Yet, you are advocating what’s called the “new” perspective on Paul’s theology, a recent innovation in the history of Christian thought. Could it be that, ironically, even as you critique the arrogant attitude of the Enlightenment, you have opened yourself up to the charge at least, that you are sort of embodying that same attitude by discounting years of Christian theology, in effect saying, “Now, finally, we are coming to what Paul or Jesus actually meant to say!”?
N.T. Wright: Good question. There are several parts to it.
First, when I critique the Enlightenment, I critique, I hope, the arrogance of the Enlightenment, but I would agree with the Enlightenment that some questions needed to be asked in the 18th century, which the Church was avoiding, not least the historical question. Insofar as the Enlightenment was saying, “Wait a minute! Do we have to take all this stuff the church is telling us simply on trust because the Church is the Church? Or did it actually happen?” And of course, they said it in a way that was hopefully going to produce for them the answer, “No, it actually didn’t happen. And all that stuff’s rubbish! And we’re free and enlightened! That’s great!”
But actually, the historical question was a great question to ask, and the Reformers at their best would have agreed that you should ask that question. And it’s really somewhere between the early 16th century and the late 18th century that things got much more fudgy in the church.
So I accept the historical challenge, and with that, I accept the essentially Christian position that God always has more light to break out of his holy Word. And there’s all the difference in the world between humbly saying “I want to find more light from Scripture than we have yet had” and saying “I’m going to prove the rest of the Church wrong and do something totally new!”
Now, having said that, two points about the New Perspective.
1. I am an advocate of one form of the New Perspective. But there are as many new perspectives as there are people writing about it. Actually, Sanders, who started it, has been one of the main stalking horses in a lot of what I’ve done. I’ve very consciously been opposing Sanders in a great many ways, so if somebody thinks, Oh, well, Sanders = New Perspective. He’s a liberal. He believes this and that. He thinks Christianity and Judaism are all going the same way. Tom Wright = New Perspective. Therefore, he thinks what Sanders thinks. Come on! Read my lips. This is very, very different and always has been.
Sanders made some points about first-century Judaism which have to be taken extremely seriously and despite a great deal of labor on certain parts have not been overthrown. They need a bit more nuancing, but the idea of Judaism as a religion of grace with works coming in as gratitude for grace rather than to earn grace (OK, there are some rabbis who come in and say some silly things here and there), but substantially that is how it works structurally.
The other thing to say is that the New Perspective actually is not a matter of somewhere between AD zip and AD 2000, they’ve all got it wrong and we’re now getting it right. The New Perspective starts with Ephesians. I actually think Ephesians was written between Romans and Galatians, but whenever you think it’s written, it’s in Ephesians that you get this close correlation between “by grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works” and therefore, “you Gentiles are part of the same family with the Jews.” That’s Ephesians chapter 2. I didn’t invent that. I merely sort of observed.
It’s interesting that many evangelicals have done implicitly what liberal scholarship has done explicitly and put Ephesians and Colossians in a kind of sub-category and elevated their reading of Romans and Galatians to a primacy. Now, the liberal scholarship has said, “Well, Ephesians and Colossians were written later. That’s sort of deutero-Pauline.”
But many evangelicals have actually held that view as well. Because Ephesians and Colossians have a very high view of the Church, which many evangelicals have been suspicious of, and it’s actually often ecclesiology which is driving evangelicals to be suspicious of the New Perspective. That’s why there are questions about Roman Catholicism that sort of bubble up on the edge of all this. If we go this New Perspective way, either we become liberals or we become Catholics, and either way – that’s dire, so we don’t want to do it. And I say, lighten up, guys! This stuff is actually in Scripture! If you believe in the Bible, you’ve got to do business with it and not just screen it out.
Trevin Wax: In your opinion, has scholarly criticism of the New Perspectives in America, such as Carson, Piper, Moo and others, have they been fair? Or have they misunderstood the New Perspective?
N.T. Wright: I think Carson has misunderstood it. The big book, the first volume that he edited, Justification and Variegated Nomism, a collection of fine essays by fine scholars. But I have to say, in the bit at the end, where Carson sums it up, he actually goes way beyond what those essays actually say. And it’s interesting… he takes a few swipes at me there without even footnoting. It’s as though I’m sort of hovering in the background as a big boogeyman who’s going to come and pounce on people and so, he’s got to ward him off.
And I know Don quite well. We were graduate students together, he in Cambridge and I at Oxford in the 1970’s. We’ve been friends on and off for many years. And I just don’t understand why this is eating him the way it is.
Piper is in a different category. He graciously sent me an advance manuscript of his book which is critiquing me and invited my comments on it. I sent him a lengthy set of comments. I’ve only just got on email about two days ago the book in the revised form and I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. So I cannot say whether he’s being fair or not at this stage.
But I do know that he has done his darndest to be fair and I honor that and I respect that. People have asked me if I’m going to write a response, and the answer is that I don’t know. I’m kind of busy right now. But I maybe should, sooner or later.
Moo is in a different category again. Doug Moo, I would say, is a much greater Pauline scholar than either of the two I just mentioned. One of the things I really respect about Doug Moo is that he is constantly grappling with the text. Where he hears the text saying something which is not what his tradition would have said, he will go with the text. I won’t always agree with his exegesis, but there is a relentless scholarly honesty about him which I really tip my hat off to.
Trevin Wax: Since you are placing the doctrine of justification within a broader doctrine of the Church, perhaps you might have a response to someone who wrote me from India. He said, “How do you think Paul would have reacted to a church congregation that was exclusively for Jews or for Romans? In India, there are many churches based on caste system and community (because of language), and many Christian leaders in India are not willing to address this sensitive issue.” How do you think Paul would react to such churches?
N.T. Wright: It’s difficult. I have never been to India and I am not a specialist on Indian culture, and I would not wish to be heard to be taking swipes at a culture which I’ve never experienced and where I’ve never lived. However, friends of mine who have worked in India… there’s one at the moment who is doing astonishing work among the Dalit people in India, and I get messages from him every few weeks…
It’s quite clear that something is happening in our day which is wonderfully leaping over the caste barrier and provoking a reaction actually from Indian leaders who are saying, “You don’t understand our caste system. It’s really a lovely thing. People are very happy about it and so on.” I don’t think that’s quite fair. So I don’t want to be too critical.
But I think Paul would have grieved over a church that would have colluded with that, just like Paul would have grieved over apartheid South Africa with black and white churches and would grieve over churches in my country, in the UK, which are relentlessly either white or black.
Now, I understand why in the UK, if a bunch of people who come, say from the West Indies… they are living in London. They worship in a particular way. They have a particular style. They try going to English churches and it just doesn’t do it for them, and so they say, “Come on! We want to praise God properly.” So they have basically an all-black congregation with maybe only one or two whites sneaking in because they like the bounce and the style. It’s great stuff! (You know what they say. A black’s definition of a white person is someone who can sing without moving!) They move and it’s fantastic. You get into it!
So, I understand that culturally, there may be times when you have to say… In order to let a thousand flowers bloom and not be squashed, you have to do your own thing. But it must always aim, as soon as possible, at integration with other cultures.
Here’s the trick. It seems to me that since the Middle Ages (it’s not a Reformation thing), all that stuff about Jews and Gentiles coming together in Christ was just screened out. And the screening of that out allowed Martin Luther to be violently anti-Jewish, allowed a whole lot of medieval Christendom and then Catholicism and Protestantism to be happily anti-Jewish without even knowing that there was a problem about that.
And you think… How could they read Romans and Galatians, of all texts, and not notice that this was a problem? And it allowed apartheid South Africa to come up. So, we go way back a long way in the tradition in a way that did not notice that the point of the gospel is the coming together of all things in Christ.
I sometimes say to people… If we had started with Ephesians instead of Romans, and we had read Ephesians 1:10 which says that God’s purpose was to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth, then we wouldn’t have an ecological crisis, we wouldn’t have an apartheid problem, we wouldn’t have this, that, and the other. We’ve allowed our ideologies to condition our reading of Scripture and my goodness, it’s time to go back and let Scripture do its proper work.
Trevin Wax: You have been a firm defender of the doctrine of penal substitution as one of the important atonement motifs found in Scripture, especially in your comments regarding Isaiah 53. Yet, it is puzzling to many conservative evangelicals that you recommend a book by Steve Chalke that seems to deny penal substitution, while calling a book that upholds the doctrine, the book Pierced for our Transgressions “disturbingly unbiblical.”
N.T. Wright: Sub-biblical.
[[Editor's Note: Though Wright sought to qualify my quotation of him in this interview, despite his protest, in "The Cross and the Caricatures," Wright labels Pierced for our Transgressions both "hopelessly sub-biblical" and "disturbingly unbiblical."]]
Trevin Wax: Sub-biblical… I suppose the question I’m slowly getting around to is: how do you define the doctrine of penal substitution and what is its significance for the church today?
N.T. Wright: Let me comment on those two books because I was surprised by the reaction against Steve Chalke. See, there’s a little bit of history here. When Steve was working on that book, he had seized upon my book Jesus and the Victory of God and absolutely ate it up and came and talked to me about it. That was the first time I met him. And it was very exciting to meet, to have somebody with all that energy for youth work and young people’s evangelism, etc. taking seriously a book which is basically about the kingdom of God and the Gospels and all of that.
Then, when I saw his book, and he asked me if I would write a blurb for it, I read it through quite quickly. And page after page after page, he’s just got it. He’s going in the right direction.
And the one-liner which he drops in was not, in its origin, a way of saying, “I don’t believe in penal substitution.” It was a way of ruling out of court to one side a distortion of penal substitution which he has heard, which I have heard – the idea of God simply wanting to punish somebody and not caring too much who it was. Oh, well, here’s an innocent man. Let’s punish him and that will be alright, won’t it? Sadly, there are many Christians who preach the doctrine like that.
Steve knows, from his experience on the street, that that just doesn’t do it. People just don’t get it. And if a rather careful conservative evangelical comes back and says, “Well that’s because the gospel is always offensive…” Is it the gospel that’s being offensive? Or is it your distortion of it that’s being offensive? And that’s the question.
I know… I then phoned Steve Chalke and asked last February or March sometime and I said, “Steve, we haven’t talked about this since all the furor, but I’ve just reread your book and I came to that one line, and it seems to me that you were saying, I’m not going with that distortion, but that you weren’t ruling out the kind of thing that I say in chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God, which is a massive demonstration that Jesus had the whole agenda of Isaiah 53 present to his conscious vocational mind.” And Steve said, “Of course, I’m agreeing with that. I was just ruling out the distortion.”
The trouble is, Steve is not a theologian. So, when he gets interviewed, he is an engaging, extrovert, outgoing guy. So he sends sentences winging off into the unknown this way and that, and people then collect them and say, “There you are! He’s denied it again, etc.” So I’ve had people come back to me and say, “This really won’t do.”
Actually, this is displacement activity. The people going after Steve Chalke… the real problem, I really want to stress this, is that we’re looking at an evangelicalism that has forgotten what the Gospels are there for.
And that’s why I want to say Pierced for our Transgressions is sub-biblical. I preached at Oak Hill as Mike Ovey‘s guest just a few weeks ago. He’s a good guy. I get along well with him. He’s heard that criticism and I think he’s wanting to do business with it.
Fancy writing a book, a big fat book, on what the atonement is really about and giving no space at all to Jesus’ own understanding of his own death. But that’s because the whole evangelical tradition has been Paul-based rather than Gospels-based, and it’s been a shrunken Paul-base which has insisted on reading some bits of Paul, privileging them, and simply missing out what the Gospels are really all about.
Part of that, I’m afraid, is a political thing… that if we take the Gospels seriously, we will be forced to take the kingdom agenda seriously. And people say, “Oh, that’s all that old social gospel stuff.” No, you can’t get off the hook that easily! This is about answering the Lord’s Prayer, God’s Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, and until we take the Gospels seriously, we haven’t really got any right to be having this discussion. So that’s what I think is at stake with the Steve Chalke book.
So I come back to it and I say, as I understand Jesus and his mindset as he goes to the cross, I believe that he was aware as a deep vocational calling from the One he called Abba Father, that he had to be the one through whom the whole agenda of Isaiah 40-55 (which is a kingdom agenda) would come to pass.
Isaiah 53 (“pierced for our transgressions” and so on) is the means by which Isaiah 52:7-12 is accomplished. Isaiah 52:7-12 is about the defeat of evil, the return of YHWH to Zion and the exiles being set free. And the result of Isaiah 53 is the renewal of covenant in Isaiah 54 and the renewal of creation in Isaiah 55 and the invitation to the whole world to join in.
If you expound Isaiah 53 so that it isn’t about the kingdom, it isn’t about covenant renewal, it isn’t about the renewal of creation, then you have simply taken a little bit of Scripture to suit a scheme of your own, rather than the great Scriptural scheme. Jesus didn’t do that. You can see he’s got the whole agenda present to his mind.
So we have to understand the doctrine of penal substitution within the Scriptural framework, within which it makes sense, rather than within this very low grade thing that I’ve been a naughty boy, God wants to punish me, and for some reason, he punishes someone else, so phew! I’m alright. OK. For a five-year-old, that’s fine. That’ll maybe do it. But, actually let’s grow up! We’re not talking about five-year-olds here; we’re talking about grown men and women who ought to know better, to be honest.
Part of the difficulty then is political. Part of it is a failure to read the Gospels as what they are. Part of it is actually a failure to see that in Paul as well, Paul mentions the cross a thousand times, and each time he mentions it, he’s coming through from a different angle because he’s making a subtly different point. They all do tie up, but if you screen out all that stuff about Christus Victor and about representation, and so on, then you not only lose those elements, you lose key elements of penal substitution itself. I could go on about this all day.
Trevin Wax: It is becoming increasingly clear in evangelicalism that we have often emphasized the cross as central to the gospel and then treated the resurrection as an afterthought, a vindication of Jesus only. Your massive work on the resurrection has begun to stir up much thought about how we can better integrate the truth of Christ’s bodily resurrection into our theology and into our practice. What is the significance of Christ’s resurrection for us today? I know you’ve got 800 pages right here…
N.T. Wright: Let me put it like this. For many, many Christians, and I’ve heard these sermons down the years, the significance of the resurrection appears to be that there really is a life after death and that if you believe in Jesus you can go there too. Now that is simply not what the Easter narratives are about.
You’ve put it like this. In the New Testament outside the Gospels and the beginning of Acts, again and again, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is closely linked to our own ultimate resurrection, which isn’t life after death – it’s life after life after death. Whatever life after death is, being with Christ which is far better, being in Paradise like the thief, etc, the many rooms where we go immediately… that is the temporary place. The ultimate life after life after death is the resurrection in God’s new world.
But then, in the Gospels you don’t get that yet. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the beginning of Acts, nobody is saying, “Jesus is raised from the dead! Therefore there is a life after death. Therefore we’re going there.” They say, “Jesus is raised from the dead… Therefore, he really is the Messiah… Therefore, he really is the Lord of the world… Therefore God’s new creation has begun… And therefore, we have a job to do!” It’s what John 20-21 are all about. It’s what Luke 24 is all about. It’s this astonishment. The stuff has happened! And that means, we’ve got to take this message out and make it happen out in the world.
It’s about new creation, in other words. It’s about Jesus’ bodily resurrection as the beginning of the recreation of the cosmos. That is so stunning!
The joke is, this has been in Scripture all these years. Why haven’t we seen it? The answer is, we really thought the only real story was how do you get to heaven?. Because that’s what the Sistine Chapel told us, and that’s what Dante told us, and that’s what even Bunyan (bless him) told us, and so we’ve forced the stories into our story.
Here’s the trick. Often people see doctrines as a checklist. Here are the following nineteen truths which you’ve got to believe to be a good sound Christian. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and phew! There we are!… without realizing that actually doctrines mean what they mean within a Story, and it’s possible to check all the boxes, but to construct a different narrative which joins them up differently and thereby, even though you are affirming them, you are thereby falsifying what they mean in Scripture. No Christian tradition that I know is exempt from that, including my own.
Trevin Wax: You stress the Christian’s eschatological hope as the new heavens and new earth. You are also very strongly committed to issues relating to social justice as a way of anticipating in the present God’s restoration of the world in the future. Some of your works emphasize social justice and give scant or no attention to evangelism, church planting, discipling, etc. Where does evangelism fit into this task? And how important is it for Christians to actively evangelize unbelieving people?
N.T. Wright: I find it amusing that people have that perception because if you ask people in England where does Tom Wright sit on the theological spectrum, they say, “Well he’s an evangelical of course,” as though, come on, get used to it. And it’s only because, as Stephen Sykes once said, when you’re writing theology, you have to say everything all the time, otherwise people think you’ve deliberately missed something out.
I’ve been speaking from and to a tradition which has traditionally ignored social justice, ecological issues and the plight of the poor, etc. So I’ve banged on about them, but there they are in the Bible! Again, I didn’t invent this stuff! I’ve taken evangelism sometimes for granted, although on other occasions, I’ve been the first up there to say “Come on! We’ve got to do this!”
The new book of mine which is about to appear which is the sequel to Simply Christian called Surprised by Hope- the first main chunk of it is about eschatology: new heavens, new earth, resurrection, etc. But then the last section is about mission. And it’s the missiology which flows from this eschatology.
And I have a chapter there where I’ve done my best to show the full integration of evangelism and what we’ve pleased to call “social action” (that’s a rather clunky term; it’s not a rather good way of saying it). And it goes like this…
As I’ve said before, God is going to fix the whole world. He’s going to put the whole world to rights. But actually, the advance plan for that is to put human beings to rights in advance. And when that happens, which is what happens through the gospel, it isn’t just, Phew! I’m okay now so I’m going to heaven! It’s I am actually being put right, in order that I can be part of that ongoing purpose.In other words, it’s both conversion and call, which as it was for Paul… converted to see that Jesus is the Messiah, which he’d never dreamt of before, called simultaneously ipso facto to be the apostle to the Gentiles. And in the same way, when the gospel reaches an individual, it is so that they can take part in God’s larger kingdom project.
Again, if we’d had the Gospels as our basis rather than simply Paul (and I hope no one will accuse me of downgrading Paul by putting it like that, me of all people), then I think we would not have had this difficulty. But it’s because we’ve shrunk the New Testament to fit these particular, much, much later models that we’ve then allowed ourselves to collapse into the Enlightenment “either-or” of either spirituality or social justice, but not both… and I know the damage that has happened by that division. That’s how I would put it together.
When you announce that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the world, crucified and risen, you are simultaneously saying, “And you need to believe in him for your own present and eternal justification and salvation,” but also “this means that he is claiming the whole creation as his own and wants to renew and restore it and flood it with his justice and his love, and if you’re signing on to believe in him, you’ve got to be part of that project.” If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.
Trevin Wax: So how would you share all of this with an individual in the evangelistic task, if an individual were to come up and to say, “What must I do to be saved?” “How can I become a part of this…”
N.T. Wright: I would want to know a lot about where they were coming from. I mean, if I had two minutes, I would tell very, very simply the story of Jesus.
I once on a train was approached by a Japanese student who saw me reading a book about Jesus. He didn’t know much English. He said, “Can you tell me about Jesus?” I was about to get off the train. I simply told him (he didn’t know the story) that there was this man who was a Jew. He believed that God’s purposes to rescue the whole world were coming to fulfillment. He died to take the weight of evil upon himself. He rose to launch God’s project and to invite the whole world to join in with it and find it for themselves. How long did that take me? 35 seconds? That’s more or less it.
However, when I think of the real people that I meet, I think both of bright university students in Durham University and of unemployed mineworkers in the pit village five miles down the road. Total, total disjunct. And I really believe…
Look at what Paul does in Acts. No two speeches are alike. OK, he will have repeated himself here and there, but he says it the way these people need to hear it.
And though the story is very simple… If someone were to say, “What must I do to be saved?” I’d be inclined to say, “Are we talking about rescuing your mortgage or your marriage or your eternal salvation or what?” because people have layer upon layer upon layer of things to be saved from. We can deal with all of them, but we have to find where the shoe pinches for them and then that’s the point of entry into an authentic grounding of the gospel in their reality.
Trevin Wax: You have been critical of the post-Enlightenment secularization of government and society. What is the proper relationship between a church or a faith and the government? What is the proper status of minority faiths in any given society?
This is a very tricky one. I’m not an expert on this. I merely observe it going on in my culture and get echoes of it from other cultures.
It seems to me that the attempt to separate faith from public life, while I understand why that happens, is usually a matter of buying time to allow things to settle down. But when you say buying time, there is a price to be paid, and when that price is called in, it can be quite ugly.
Example: Turkey at the moment faced with possible Islamic fundamentalism is saying, “No, we are determined to be a secular republic.” And frankly, if I was faced with the choice of living under Sharia law or being a secular republic, I think I’d rather be a secular republic, thank you very much.
But of course precisely that choice was what was faced in the 18th century by many people in Europe after the wars of religion, where you’ve got different bits of Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, etc. Europe literally killing each other. And of course, one says, “Well that was for political reasons and these religions were kind of excuses, like in Northern Ireland. The Catholic-Protestant thing is actually a sociological, socio-cultural economic divide with religious labels on.” But the religions were fueling it. They were inciting and egging people on. “You must do this because they’re wicked, they’re filthy, rotten Protestants!” “You must do this because they’re awful, they’re the Pope’s armies,” you see. All that was going on to help the energy.
So, faced with that, you can understand why the Enlightenment said, “Kick God upstairs! Make religion a private matter! And then, we can organize the world much more sensibly down here, can’t we?” But of course, the trouble is, what was the next thing that happened? The French Revolution, where they killed thousands of their own secular people, in order to prove the point about liberte, egalite and fraternite. Sorry, but you’ve just falsified your own thing.
In other words, religion has killed its thousands and secularization its tens of thousands! That’s the way it goes. Look at the Gulag. Look at all of that stuff. That was not done in the name of religion. That was done in the name of atheism.
So the “Let’s buy some time by putting religion on hold” actually may give you a breathing space, but you may store up trouble which will come back and bite you… and that’s happened massively. 9/11 is obviously the symbol of that. Stuff that should have never been off the public agenda, namely how you do religion in the public square, came back and bit us horribly.
The trouble is, we in the West are reacting in horribly immature ways to that by this polarization of secularization and fundamentalism. We’ve sort of forgotten that there are wise ways between.
For half of the Middle Ages, Christians, Jews and Muslims – OK, there were some tensions, but often they could live side by side in communities and negotiate how to be a good community with these different religions. It’s been difficult, but it’s not impossible. We just have to learn to do that again.
Here, the great thing we have to work at (and a tip of the hat to the Catholic bishops ten years ago who wrote a document called “The Common Good”), we’ve got to rediscover that there are, as Oliver Donovan says, “common objects of love.”
The great majority of Muslims want to live at peace, want to bring up their children in security, want to be able to worship in the way that means what it means to them, and they really don’t want to be terrorists. However, if we persist on treating all Muslims as if they are basically like Al Qaeda, which is a horrible, vicious, wicked organization… (I’ve been accused of going soft on Al Qaeda… come on, give me a break!). The Muslims I know are not only not like that, they are horrified at that. But they will say, “But I’m afraid what you guys have done in the Middle East has been the best recruiting agent for Al Qaeda that there could have been.” That’s my government as well as yours.
So, yes we have to make it clear that discussions about whether Jesus is the Son of God or not are not discussions about immigration policy. And that to say that if you’re a Muslim you’re not welcome to live in this town or whatever is simply devastatingly bad, because the gospel is about the recreation of the whole world and included in that is lots of stuff about common good which we can actually agree on. And we have to work on that locally, culturally, nationally – to build relationships of trust and mutual respect.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t do evangelism. Paradoxically, it means that if we show that we respect people, we actually earn the right to be heard. If we show that we don’t respect them, we will never be heard.
Trevin Wax: One final question… How is your writing coming along? What is the next book in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series? When do you plan on seeing it hit shelves?
N.T. Wright: How the writing is coming along is at the moment… Two sorts of things happen. 1. That I can take a week or two here and there and write little books very fast. So they’re sort of buzzing in my head and then finally I get a week or two and I sit down and they just…
Trevin Wax: I think you can write faster than I can read!
N.T. Wright: Probably not quite. But I do write quite fast, thank God, and that’s one thing I’ve had to do. Acts for Everyone is coming out very soon, and that was wonderful to write. I really enjoyed that. And then, as I said, the sequel to Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope is coming out fairly soon, but that has been growing on the word processor over the last five years and I’ve done bits and pieces of it as lectures all over the place. And I finally sat down, and (that’s the great thing about word processors) pulled it all together and there it was.
Then, there’s a very little book which has just come out in England and the English title is called The Cross and the Colliery. It’s sermons that I preached in an old pit village which, where the mine had shut down, and the community is in shock and bereavement over that. And I was walking them through the story of the cross as a kind of exercise in corporate bereavement counseling. And I think the American title is simply The Cross and the Christian or something like that. I think they didn’t know what a colliery was.
But, the next book in the big series has not been started yet. It’s been started in my head and on notebooks, but I haven’t done any serious writing for it. That’s supposed to be on Paul. What I want to do is the big book of which that little book Paul: In Fresh Perspective was just a kind of little foretaste.
In other words, what I’m hoping and praying that I’ll be able to do is to do a run-through of Paul’s theology in a reasonably traditional way, but simultaneously show the political side of all that and show how that integrates. Then, I would love at the same time to do, showing how Paul is working with and subverting the philosophical climate of his time, the Stoics and Epicureans and so on. Nobody is basically pulling those three together.
But Paul lived in those three worlds. The Jewish world of the worship of the one true God and figuring out what that meant, the Roman world where he was a citizen, but a very subversive one and then the Hellenistic world, which he knew perfectly well (the Areopagus address, and so on). And I would love to be able to show, not only how those three strands play out, but how they work together. Different bits of the Pauline Studies Guild are doing those different bits. I don’t think anybody’s doing the integration. And that’s a very exciting task.
I may have a sabbatical in 2009. That hasn’t been negotiated yet. But what I need (and if anyone out there is listening and wants to come and apply), I need a research assistant who will actually help me line up the key things I need to work with, because otherwise I could spend all four months of the sabbatical, simply sitting in the library reading the stuff I haven’t yet caught up with, and then the sabbatical will be over just when I was ready to start writing. I can’t afford that time, otherwise, it will be another six years. So that’s where I am at the moment.
Trevin Wax: Thank you very much for being with us. We’re honored that you would graciously be part of this interview.
N.T. Wright: Not at all. Thank you very much and good wishes and God bless you to all who are listening.
Listen to the audio version of this interview.
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