Volume 19 - Issue 3
My Pilgrimage in TheologyBy Christopher J.H. Wright
With this issue I come to the end of my period as General Editor of Themelios. My successor is not yet appointed, but we look forward to his or her guidance of the journal, with the same support from the associate editors, contributors, reviewers and readers as I have enjoyed.
It happened in the Spring of 1969. Not my conversion (this isn’t a testimony!), but my awakening to the excitement of biblical theology. A rather dog-eared essay in the battered file proclaims the date ‘April 1969’ after the title, ‘The theology of Ezekiel’. I still remember the joy of discovery and the opening up of fresh insights that accompanied the preparation of that one essay. I was in the final term of my first degree at Cambridge University and was doing one year of the Theological Tripos after two years of Classics. I had already crammed in a lot of biblical studies on the one hand and even some of what I thought was ‘theology’ on the other (Systematics was probably the weakest part of the course in those days), but had not really connected the two. It seems quaint, looking back, that the very title of the essay was a new thought to me.
I was brought up in a Christian home (this still isn’t a testimony!) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, came to personal faith in my early childhood, and grew steadily in biblical knowledge through home, church, and Crusader class. It was the kind of environment where Bible knowledge was valued for its own sake. There were quizzes and competitions and prizes and silver cups, and a few came my way in those years. So I knew my Bible at one level extremely well and am forever grateful for the saints who ingrained it in me. I knew some doctrine too. Doctrines were long words like justification, sanctification, inspiration, etc., followed by catechism definitions and biblical references. But I had never thought of theology in the Bible. Theology was what came after the Bible. Theologians were people like Calvin (not that there was anyone quite like Calvin; it was a Presbyterian home). ‘Ezekiel’ was the name of a Bible book, not of a theologian. It was a novel thought, and an exciting discovery, to explore Ezekiel as a living human being with his own life, historical context, struggles, and theological perspectives. I suppose what I was experiencing was an awakening to the humanity of Scripture, never having doubted its nature as the word of God. What had always been ‘true’ for me was now also alive, and the excitement of that discovery has never worn off. Since then, it has always seemed to me that the greatest crime in Christian ministry must be the ability to make the Bible dull and boring—an ability some seem to have perfected. And conversely, that the greatest service one can do for believers is to bring it to life by the imaginative and creative sketching of the real life characters and contexts out of which the word comes.
Once people catch that excitement (even without the discipline of an essay on the theology of Ezekiel!), then their attention to the Bible becomes a self-motivated fascination. More importantly, their ears and eyes are open to God. So it is to these roots that I trace what is probably the dominant motivation of my life and certainly what ceaselessly gives me the greatest thrill and satisfaction in preaching, teaching and writing, namely bringing the Bible to life and seeing the sparkle in people’s eyes when they say something like ‘I never knew there was so much in it!’
Like many young evangelical theology students, I grappled with the disturbing new world of critical scholarship. Pastorally I was sustained by the company of other evangelical theology students, such as Robert Gordon and Andy Knowles, who were my seniors at St Catherine’s, by the wider encouragement of the CICCU and TSF, and by the atmosphere and integrity of evangelical scholarship at Tyndale House where I researched my essays under the fatherly eye of the then Warden, Derek Kidner. Intellectually, I learned two things. First, as my essay on Ezekiel and others like it proved to me, I could see the immense value in the proper use of critical questions applied to the text. My conviction regarding the divine origin and purpose of Scripture was not threatened by exploring the enormous diversity of its human origins and the processes through which we have received it, any more than my faith in God as the creator of the universe was threatened by scientific discoveries about its natural processes. I had Christian friends reading Natural Sciences. The scientific method in itself did not conflict with their faith. The views of some scientists did, but that’s another matter, and usually involved huge, unrecognized jumps from one category of discourse to another via many logical non sequiturs, comparable to arguing that once we have discovered and explained all the theory of music, harmony, instrumental qualities and acoustics, we can no longer believe in the concept of Beethovian composition of the Fifth Symphony. On the contrary, the more you understand about musical methods and processes, the more you appreciate the genius of a Beethoven. Likewise, the more one could discover about the background, context, sources, literary forms, compositional and editorial processes, etc., of the biblical texts, far from eliminating the concept of divine inspiration, the more one could appreciate the rich complexity of its results.
But secondly, I found myself unhappy and unconvinced by many of the then dominant theories that critical scholarship presented in answer to the critical questions. Inevitably, as a young student in need of the security of an identifiable ‘position’, some of this was bound up with the traditional battle-lines between ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’ views. But I remember deliberately trying to think harder than merely cheering evangelical Davids against the liberal Goliaths, and to assess the arguments on the various issues for myself. And often I felt genuine scepticism over the validity of the arguments used to support the then classical critical positions on, e.g., the documentary hypothesis, the date of Deuteronomy, the conquest, Isaiah, etc. Too often it seemed that sophisticated guesswork was dressed up as assured fact; that reconstruction of what may have happened mysteriously metamorphosed by the end of a monograph into what unquestionably had, or must have, happened, and then other possible scenarios were built on top of that, and so on. Source criticism seemed particularly prone to dubious arguments and I found many of the standard criteria of the documentary hypothesis, for example, frankly implausible, and still do. So in some ways I remained relatively conservative in my own critical judgements, but tried to avoid merely anti-critical prejudice. You may disagree with the theories a critical scholar purveys, but you must do so on other grounds than whether or not he or she shares your belief in divine inspiration. You may reject someone else’s answer, but the critical questions are still there to be faced. At Tyndale House I was meeting and being impressed by evangelical research students and scholars who were wrestling with the critical questions, and as my own undergraduate excitement with biblical theology reached its climax in final exams, I wondered if God’s will for my life might lie in that direction. ‘There is a great need for first rate evangelical minds in the world of biblical scholarship,’ was a message we heard at many a CICCU and TSF event. I didn’t feel like one of those just yet, but I think I wanted to become one.
After graduation in 1969 I taught Classics and RE in Grosvenor High School, Belfast. Looking back, those school teaching years were wonderful training. In my view, anyone who ventures into pulpits and lecture halls for a living should be forced to face fourth form RE classes and find ways of holding their interest, or battle to communicate the excitement of learning Latin (in a school where it was amazingly still compulsory for the first few years). Communicate or sink were the only alternatives in the classroom.
Belfast Bible College runs evening classes, and I was asked to take several courses, as a squeaky clean theology graduate. One term, the principal Victor Reid (now principal of Redcliffe College), asked me to take a course on Christian Ethics. Not having done such a course in Cambridge, I turned to all the books I could find. I thought it reasonable to start with some lectures on Old Testament ethics, but was frustrated to discover almost no help at all in the textbooks, other than very ‘obvious’ treatments of the ten commandments. So I did my own thing for the lecture course, and began to wonder if this might be a field for doctoral research, if Cambridge would have me back. I wrote to my undergraduate supervisor to ask if OT ethics would be a viable subject for a PhD, and he wrote back to say it probably would be, since nobody had written anything worthwhile on it for 50 years! Thus began the great love-affair of my life with the ethical study and relevance of the Old Testament. A suggestion of my doctoral supervisor, Ronald Clements, that I focus on the economic ethics of the OT (ethics of land, wealth, property, etc.), proved fascinating and seminal.
In the mid-1970s, evenagelical concern with social ethics was reviving after a long dormant spell, stimulated by the epoch-making Lausanne Conference and Covenant of 1974. In Britain, the Shaftesbury Project (later merged into Christian Impact), co-ordinated a number of working groups on evangelical responses to a variety of social issues and I was invited along to them to give papers on the contribution of the OT to issues as varied as criminal justice, war and peace, and overseas aid. Almost unconsciously my hermeneutical tools were being shaped and sharpened in the forge of those energetic discussions. In the same years (the late 1970s), I was involved in the discussion that led to the launch of Third Way, and contributed some early articles on OT ethics and the relevance of the jubilee year; I participated in the National Evangelical Conference on Social Ethics; and joined the team of writers who worked together to produce the Grove Ethics Booklets series. In all these ways, I found outlets at street level for the academic research I was doing. The relevance of the OT’s ethical teaching and modelling was reinforced in my mind, as was the amazing scope of the issues it could address and shed light on. The idea (which I once vaguely shared) that the OT could not be applied today, or at least not beyond the bounds of the church as God’s people, simply disintegrated as I engaged time and again with people in secular fields, lawyers, medics, economists, vets, political activists, etc. and witnessed their excited response to the supple challenge and moral nutrition that the OT brought to their Christian involvement in their fields of expertise. I also realised during those years of interaction between my research on OT economic ethics and my indirect engagement with contemporary social issues through such groups, that it was inadequate just to skim the surface of the OT for a verse or theme that seemed vaguely relevant, or even merely to apply a generalized decalogue morality. My research took me into the whole socio-economic system of biblical Israel, their theology and practice of land-tenure; their kinship patterns; their political and institutional arrangements that reflected their community ideals; their passion for justice and their judicial systems; their preventive and restorative economic welfare mechanisms in response to poverty and debt, etc. I began to realise that the ethical power of the OT was bound up with this whole package. Israel as a whole was intended by God to be an ethical model or paradigm and this was part of what it meant for them to be ‘a light to the nations’. I tested this conviction in a number of lectures and conferences, and then, encouraged by the response, congealed it into a book published by IVP in 1983, Living as the People of God: The Relevance of Old Testament Ethics (in the USA, it was published under the title, An Eye for an Eye—not my choice!). It has survived the decade and seems to have vindicated its own subtitle. My actual dissertation was published much later in 1990 by Eerdmans/Paternoster as God’s People in God’s Land.
I had returned to Cambridge for doctoral studies having married Liz in Belfast in 1970, and we lived in Romsey Town, in the parish of St Philip’s. Our involvement with the church there led on the one hand to us joining the Anglican church, and on the other, to a focusing of the next stage in our lives. During the years of working as a research student at Tyndale House, I began to realize that I was not cut out for the world of professional academic theology alone in a university context, but needed to be in the more applied context either of the pastoral ministry, or in practical training for ministry and mission. This pointed towards ordination and parish experience. So, in 1977, after two years at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, rather stressfully combining the completion of my thesis with ordination courses, I was doctored and reverended in the same year and we moved as a family with three young children to the curate’s house in the parish of St Peter and St Paul, Tonbridge, in Kent.
Life on the staff of a large parish, with four worship centres and a staff of four (a vicar and three curates), was incredibly busy and varied. I enjoyed the richness of pastoral work, the fun and challenge of youth work, the joy and sometimes frustration of team work, and the nagging nostalgia for the measured pace of academic research! Liz and I enjoyed being involved together in ministry, something that has remained true since. Most of all, perhaps, I enjoyed the regular preaching experience, even with the remorseless weekly deadline. I worked at reshaping for the pulpit what I had learnt at the research desk, and bringing the OT to life again in ways that could challenge and motivate God’s people today from the faith and life of God’s people of old. I still find no greater thrill than doing that. I would also offer it as one of the best ways I know for preserving spiritual freshness in the midst of academic or ‘professional’ theology. If you can’t preach it, is it worth it? This does not mean, of course, that expositions are to be filled with critical theory or scholarly debate. But engagement with scholarship should fuel and feed one’s preparation. A sprinter does not visibly carry all the special food he eats in training, or the manuals and programmes of training, or his training clothes or apparatus. For the few, seconds of the race, he is all muscle, energy and concentration. But those seconds are packed with the power of the hours of preparation and discipline—which would have no great joy or purpose as ends in themselves but draw their meaning and value from the race.
Having grown up in the missionary oriented Christian environment of Northern Ireland, and my own parents having been missionaries in Brazil, Liz and I had agreed even before we were married that we would be willing to go wherever in the world God might choose to call us. While in Tonbridge we wondered if the next step might be teaching in a theological college overseas where the need seemed far greater than in Britain. A letter arrived one day from David Wenham (my predecessor as Editor of Themelios), himself teaching NT in the Union Biblical Seminary in India, asking if we would consider coming and teaching OT there for some years. Supported by the Anglican mission agency Crosslinks (formerly BCMS), we agreed and headed for Pune (formerly Poona!) with three just pre-teenage children, and a baby of eight months!
Our departure, however, was delayed by 18 months because of visa difficulties, and thus began both our association with All Nations Christian College and the second of my great passions in the study and teaching of the OT. ANCC took me on as a temporary lecturer-tutor in 1982–83 while we ‘waited for the visa to India. But ANCC is a college exclusively geared to training people for cross-cultural mission of all sorts, and is itself a multi-cultural community (about half its students are non-British). So I had to ask myself, in preparing lectures on OT history, Isaiah, Psalms, Wisdom Literature, etc., ‘What is the, relevance of these texts to mission? Is there a missiological perspective or dimension in the OT?’ The answers astounded me. It was the dawning of a whole new understanding of the Scriptures for me. It suddenly became clear that it was not just a matter of finding an explicit missionary mandate here or there (I knew those verses well enough from childhood), but that the very texts themselves were so often forged at the interface of faith and culture, in the clash of world-views, or in defence of the true Gospel of the living God in an idolatrous or pluralistic context. Furthermore, the theme of God’s great missionary purpose to bless the nations through Abraham and his people excited me as I traced it everywhere, and in its climax in the missionary theology of Paul, apostle to the nations and the second great OT missiologist (after Jesus). Missiology was not another of those post-biblical doctrines of my teenage misunderstanding. The Bible itself was missiological from cover to core.
Our five years in India blended the two passions together. The ethical relevance of the OT came into a sharper focus in relation to the issues and needs of Indian society and church, and I realized that the great OT challenge for God’s people to live in God’s way and by God’s standards was actually the primary meaning of mission in the OT. Genesis 18:19 has become a hermeneutical key text for me, with its purposeful integration of the election of Israel, God’s ethical demand on them, and the missionary purpose of both in God fulfilling his promise to bless the nations. Discerning the integration of ethics and mission in the OT also deeply enriched my understanding of Jesus. The more you understand the OT, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus, in his understanding of his own identity and mission. This conviction led to the writing of Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Marshall Pickering, 1992).
The experience of living and working in, and for our family, growing up in, another culture was tremendously enriching personally. But it was also invaluable theologically. The challenge of thinking through, interpreting and communicating the Bible in a non-western cultural context was stretching and demanding, but also exhilarating. Some of the enthusiasm rubbed off. C.B. Samuel of Delhi told me recently that he keeps meeting former students of mine at UBS who have given their children OT names! And some have gone on to postgraduate studies in OT fields. Now back in the rich cultural mixture of ANCC, the enthusiasm for OT ethics and mission lives on, as it leads me to explore fresh texts and themes. Some day, a book on OT theology of mission …!
Christopher J.H. Wright
Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware