N.T. Wright on ‘The Whole Sweep of Scripture’

“Until we wrestle with Scripture like that we are not really honoring it. If this is the book God meant us to have by the Spirit, then it is important we actually take that seriously instead of just snipping it down to make it digestible; like somebody with a huge banquet in front of them who insists on going to the back room and just making a peanut butter sandwich instead.” N.T. Wright

Below is a really great video from ‘The Work of the People’ with N.T. Wright on how to read the Bible. In it he touches on a problem that I take to be rather rampant in North American Christianity – that of picking and choosing verses here and there to the neglect of the whole story.

The holes in North American hermeneutics are revealed in the pursuit of agendas (whether consciously or unconsciously) of making the Bible merely into a source of raw data and proof texts for personal systematic theologies and apologetics (like the HCSB Apologetics Study Bible), a ‘life application’ instruction book (a la the Life Application Study Bible), or a self-help manual (have you seen the Joel Osteen Hope for Today or Joyce Meyer Everyday Life Bibles?). [Yes, I realize I probably just picked on some people’s favorite ‘study helps’ in this paragraph.]

Americans love control and I personally believe these (again, whether consciously or unconsciously) are ways that Scripture is held a bay and at a safe distance … one verse at a time.

Instead Wright encourages us to get swept up in the ‘whole sweep of Scripture’ and compares reading the Bible to listening to a symphony. One of the points of course is that one doesn’t merely listen to a symphony ‘one note at a time’ – one necessarily listens to and experiences the whole thing. To do otherwise simply doesn’t make sense and is to miss the point of the symphony itself. And it also occurs to me that the thought of a ‘note of the day’ devotional is rather odd; its inconceivable that one would think they can get swept up in the symphony in this way. Yet ‘verse of the day’ devotionals seem to be the steady diet of a great many North American Christians.  Are we settling for peanut butter sandwiches when there is a banquet available?

I say let’s put away the daily verse approach and really ‘press our noses against the window’ of Scripture.

The Whole Sweep Of Scripture from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

N.T. Wright on ‘The Shape of Paul’s Theology’

Below is a very good video in which N.T. Wright gives a fifteen minute introduction to the shape of the Apostle Paul’s theology. There are some things, I think, of particular note as you watch.

First, there is what Wright does not mention – in this case neither Paul’s theology of justification or the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (and no, the two are not coterminous as some assume). This will be troubling to a great many evangelicals who consider justification in some form to be the epicenter of Paul’s theology. On this we should remember however, that even the conservative Reformed theologian Thomas Schreiner does not think justification is Paul’s theological center. Schreiner says that what God has done in Christ and Jesus himself is Paul’s center. (See for instance his chapter in Four Views on the Apostle Paul and his interview with Credo magazine.)

Second, Wright does us a great service by placing Paul in his first century context as the Jewish theologian he was. Too much of Paul talk has simply read Martin Luther’s problems with personal guilt and his issues with the medieval Catholic church back onto PauI. I think this sort of anachronism has overdetermined how Reformed and Evangelical theology since has treated ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ and ‘justification’ – these things being stripped from their narrative context and ‘systematized’ as it were, such that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith became basic shorthand for and equated with the gospel. (For more on this see Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.)

The problem here, of course is that Paul was not a first century Martin Luther and the Judaism of Paul’s day was not the first century equivalent of the medieval Catholic church. Now, Paul surely does have a theology of justification by faith and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith does say some things that are true. However, I would still say that 1) we get justification in Paul wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification and 2) we get the gospel itself wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification (which in American evangelicalism becomes further reduced to something like the ‘plan of individual salvation’).

Third, Wright’s mention for Christians to speak truth to power is instructive for the church in the U.S. during an election year when too many Christians are content to be pandered too with superficial God talk and do not have the wherewithal to avoid being used as pawns in American politics (left, right, and in between). Pay special attention here to Wright’s comments with Romans 1:14-16 in the background. I think here we get some important background that informs as to precisely what ‘gospel’ Paul was not ashamed of in Romans (and it has very little to do with our modern plan of salvation). Wright’s comments on I Thessalonians 5:2 concerning ‘peace and security’ as a Roman state slogan and a ‘giant con’ and a ‘protection racket’ I think has an important parallel for present day American Christians who embrace too readily the peace, security, prosperity, success, or happiness of the civil religion of Americanism or one’s political platform. As Wright states, ‘Jesus is the reality of which Caesar [and the Democrats, Republicans, or any other political ideology] is the parody.’ The gospel of the cruciform King Jesus should call into question ALL other political ideologies. ‘Jesus is Lord [King], Caesar is not’ forms the basic identity forming ‘politics’ and paradigmatic narrative for God’s people in Paul’s thought.

Fourth, in the second half of the video Wright sums up the three big themes of Paul’s theology as monotheism (or one God), election (or one people of God), and eschatology (or one future for God’s world). Each of these Wright emphasizes, gains a trinitarian focus as they have been rethought and reworked by Paul in light of the faithfulness of Jesus as the Messiah and the experience of the Spirit. With all this, Wright is summarizing the thrust of much of the argument in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective which has been instrumental in helping me to grasp Paul’s thought here and the integrating my own focus on trinitarian theology with narrative (and even missional) theology. I highly recommend it.

(HT: —of Paper, Pints, and Tweed)

N.T. Wright on Kingdom, Atonement, and Cruciformity

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says,

“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not saying that usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 41)

Wright here speaks to the stark reality one will find as they peruse the shelves at the local evangelical book store. At the store where I work there are plethoras of books and curriculums that talk about ‘the gospel’. There is even somewhat of a cottage industry on books about ‘the gospel’. The only problem is they are almost all subject to Wright’s critique above. They speak of good things, and some really good things, but the vast majority have the effect of minimizing the gospel to various elaborations on the ‘plan of salvation’. This results in what Scot McKnight has called the ‘soterian gospel’ (from the greek word for salvation, soteria – from which we get our word, soteriology, or what is referred to as the ‘doctrine of salvation’) which places emphasis on individualist salvation – which functions as a reduction of the biblical gospel. The effect here is that ‘evangel-icals’ don’t really live up to their name and should properly be called ‘soterians’ – or the ‘saved’ ones. Some features of this reduction of the gospel to the plan of salvation is the misplacement of the story of Israel, the separation of kingdom and cross, a lack of a proper emphasis on cruciformity, and an overly individualized atonement.

Wright most recent work addressing these concerns is How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Below is a video of a lecture Wright gave at Fuller Seminary called Kingdom and Cross: The Forgotten Message of the Gospels which covers much of the same ground as the book. Among the things that Wright covers is the essentiality of the story of Israel to the gospel and the (re)connection of kingdom and cross for the gospel. Additionally, in this video, Wright covers the relationship of atonement to kingdom in which atonement enables us to embody the cruciform nature of the kingdom and describes an alternative, cruciform way of manifesting God’s power in the world.

At the Next Reformation blog, Len Hjalmarson discusses and summarizes Wright’s lecture. He says,

Connecting Kingdom and Cross, NT Wright. This is possibly the best summary of kingdom theology I have ever seen, and Wright makes the connection to the cross explicit at a number of points. (I wish he had also made the connection to shalom, but he does mention the jubilee..) But this video is SO MUCH MORE.

Wright begins by talking about the meaning of the Gospel. To the early church, the Gospel was made clear in the life, words and work of Jesus. But this early Gospel had virtually no concept of the much later Reformers version – “justification by faith.” That word occurs only a single time in the gospels. The early church had only the Old Testament, and preserved the oral traditions that would eventually become the four gospels.

The four gospels preserve the life and words of Jesus, and so we hear Jesus’ declaration of the Gospel: no reference to justification, but rather the declaration that “the kingdom of God” has arrived. But this little phrase is absolutely meaningless apart from the story of Israel – apart from the Old Testament, and in particular Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms.

It becomes crystal clear, as in nearly all Wright’s work, that the Gospel cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel. Implications?

“Jesus died for my sins” — a phrase that sits at the heart of the telling of the Gospel in the west, indeed in some circles has become all that the Gospel is — is a reductionist statement that does at least two things: it abstracts the meaning of Jesus life and sacrifice from history, and it de-politicizes the Lordship of Christ by isolating Jesus from the kingdom.

Other things to note: at the one hour mark, Wright summarizes the relationship of the atonement to the coming kingdom. In evangelicalism we have made atonement all about a personal relationship and a future other-world destiny. Wright argues — and the only conclusion possible in relation to a theology of the kingdom — that in restoring us to right relationship with God the king, the atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (At the cross God himself becomes our deliverer: in God’s kingdom power is used to serve others. Of course there is MORE to say but Wright is hitting at the themes we ignore).

Atonement – from the earliest stories, like Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his only son – demonstrates an alternative to power. It is not meant to take us out of this world but is an entry point into God’s kingdom now.

[At the] 1.00 hour mark – Jesus atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (emphasis in bold mine)

The individualist soterian ‘gospel’ of evangelicalism effectively undercuts the cruciform nature of the atonement and deconstructs the church. Cross … kingdom … cruciformity. The cruciform gospel of the cross necessarily produces a cruciform people or ekklesia who embody and give witness to the cruciform kingdom of Jesus the Liberating King.