What Wright writes, Wax reads. (Say that three times fast. I dare you.)
In all seriousness, N. T. Wright has been a favorite author of mine for more than a decade now. His work always challenges me to take a step back and analyze my overall approach to interpreting Scripture, and his ”big picture view” usually reveals things I’ve missed. That said, when I get back into the nitty gritty of textual study, I discover aspects of the biblical story Wright doesn’t do justice to — emphases and themes prominent in the storyline that are sparsely treated in Wright’s work. In the end, I go to Wright for the forest, but to others for the trees.
Part of the challenge of reading Wright is that one can hardly keep up with his output. I am still plodding through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright’s massive book on the apostle’s theology and worldview. (My take so far: While the “old / new perspective” on justification may get the lion’s share of attention, the lasting contribution of this volume may be Wright’s defense of Paul’s high Christology. He makes a persuasive historical case that, from the beginning, the early Christians saw Jesus as Yahweh come to His people. What Wright did to bolster our historical confidence in Christ’s bodily resurrection, he has now done for early Christianity’s high Christology.)
I took a break from the big book(s) on Paul to read through Wright’s newest popular-level work, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good, which could have also been titled The Gospel according to N. T. Wright. Long-time readers won’t find much new here, but that’s only because Wright has been writing on issues related to the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and Pauline studies for so many decades now that there’s no way to miss these themes in his previous works.
An Eschatological Gospel
In a Christianity Today article in 2009, I summarized the contrasting views of Wright and John Piper in regards to Pauline theology. In that article, Wright summed up the gospel this way:
“The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
In Simply Good News, Wright builds on that definition, but here he emphasizes the gospel’s triple pattern:
- Something happened.
- Something will happen.
- Something is happening now among those who believe.
This is a thoroughly eschatological presentation of the gospel, and I find it helpful on two fronts. First, it helps prevent the de-historicizing of the gospel announcement that reduces the message to a personal message about spirituality. Secondly, it inoculates us to the strangely persistent idea that the historicity of the cross and resurrection doesn’t matter (the ghost of Bultmann is never far from Wright’s sharp critique).
A Gospel about Jesus, For Us
Gospel-centered folks like myself read Simply Good News and are glad to see Wright offering such a strong contrast between “good advice” and “good news.” In a society awash in what sociologist Christian Smith dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” this clarification between advice and news is essential. At the same time, it’s frustrating to see Wright put ”how to get saved” into the “good advice” category, as if focusing on how the gospel becomes good news to us is somehow missing how the gospel is good news, period. (Parts of the book reminded me of the “soterian” / “story” conversation I’ve had with Scot McKnight.)
Likewise, Wright believes atonement is “at the heart of the good news of God” (139), and that forgetting “the forgiveness of sins” means we’ve lost the gospel (158), but he doesn’t devote much space to explaining how the atonement works or why it is necessary, an omission that, to me, fails to give the personal aspect of forgiveness and faith the weight the New Testament does. Wright assumes his religious readers already understand the gospel of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and so he focuses his attention elsewhere, perhaps to fill out a sometimes-truncated version of the gospel. But what if Wright is wrong to make this assumption? And what if holistic gospel approaches that give short shrift to what was once “assumed” wind up being truncated in other ways?
Wright’s treatment of the Reformers is also perplexing. At times, the Reformers are the ones who’ve rescued us from the medieval distortions of salvation. Other times, they’re the ones from whom we’ve inherited caricatures of God’s love and justice.
What’s Good about Simply Good News
So, what did I like most about Simply Good News?
Wright is at his best when he is puncturing the Western myth of progress (see the chapter “Wrong Future, Wrong Present”). Some readers may be surprised to see an emphasis on Christianity and culture take up space in a book about the gospel, but we should remember that, according to Wright, the gospel is historical and brings about public ramifications, not just private transformation. Wright sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin here, although his cultural analysis doesn’t always take the same shape as Newbigin’s.
If you read Simply Good News, make sure to savor the final chapter: it’s the dessert that sweetens the whole project. In “Praying the Good News,” Wright returns to the Lord’s Prayer, giving it his most extensive treatment since his little book, The Lord and His Prayer came out in the 1990’s. This is where Wright the lively theologian sits down and as a pastor says, “Let me show you who God is and why He is good.” As he works his way backwards through the Lord’s prayer, he leads us inward and upward into the heights of the good news:
The good news is primarily that God – the generous God, the loving God – is being honored, will be honored, has been utterly and supremely honored, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (166).
Simply Good News serves as a potent reminder that the gospel is an announcement of a past event, and the reality of this event ensures the future and transforms the present. In a world of competing allegiances and rivals for cultural dominance, Wright steps in to say, “Jesus is Lord.”