Tag Archives: N. T. Wright

My Complements…

The good folks at Christians for Biblical Equality provided me with a copy of N. T. Wright’s 2004 talk, “Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church.”

Wright introduces his talk by making some observations as an “outsider” to the American Evangelical way of framing the issue and holding the debate. In particular, Wright hesitates about the language we’ve adopted to demarcate our “sides.”

“Complement is too good a word to concede to the other side.”

That was the heart of his concern.

Women should be admitted to the ministry, not on the grounds that in all things they are the same as men, but on the grounds that in many ways we evidence tendencies toward difference.

The presence of both is what makes the church stronger.

Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning

In practicing a narrative theology, the overarching conviction is that the revelation of God is a story: the story of the creator God, at work in Israel, to redeem and reconcile the world through the story of Jesus.

Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

This is one point at which I differ from N. T. Wright.

Regularly in Wright’s writing we will find statements such as, “This is what God was up to all along.” I don’t disagree here. But what often goes unspoken, and where I think we need to be more clear, is that one only knows “this is what God was up to all along” once one is already convinced that “this new thing is actually what God is up to.”

The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

Image courtesy of The Open Fiction Project tofp.org

This brings me to a point at which my version of narrative theology differs from the work of some practitioners of what is sometimes called “theological interpretation of scripture.” Here the specific example who comes to mind is Kevin Vanhoozer.

Confronted with the incongruity between “behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son” as it is used in Isaiah and in Matthew, Vanhoozer appeals to authorial intention to say that the Matthew meaning was, in a sense, the meaning intended for Isaiah as well. Of course, by “authorial intention,” Vanhoozer means God as author.

This, it seems to me, is cheating.

Instead, I propose a multiple-reading strategy. Allow the text to mean what it meant in its first context, as much as we can determine this. Do the historical critical work that sheds light on why, for example, an eighth century BC audience would formulate matters just so–and then recognize the freedom of later readers to reread those texts differently in light of later events.

Reading Vahoozer or Dan Treier, I sometimes fear that theological readings become a way to circumvent critical issues. But even if the demands of the church push us toward a final, post-critical reading, where we reincorporate the difficult message of an earlier day into the story of the church by a dramatic rereading of the text, I want to contend that we must still be first critical in order to be post-critical.

To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier. We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

Reading a book on theological interpretation by a scholar across the pond, I was struck by a claim that we are to read the Bible as a book addressed to us–that the ideal audience is those who proclaim and profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

This, it seemed, to me, was half right.

Yes, we are like the first and ideal audience: those expected to respond in faithful following of Jesus.

But we are also not like them: we are not first-century Romans; we are not first-century Jews; we are not fifth century Jews in Babylon. There is a specificity to the particular audience that sets us apart from them. To the writer, there would have been a hope that first-century Galatians would respond by “kicking out the slave woman and her son,” even as Abraham did. That word is not directly addressed to us in the same way.

What I propose for reading the Bible itself also pertains to reading it for our communities. We are part of a long story. This means that the retellings will involve some measure of transformation.

And this is, itself, faithful and living renarration of the story of God.

Missional Institutions?

An idea has been rumbling around, if ill-formed, in my mind for the past couple of months.

There we were, seminary professors, church pastors, and Christian leader types, having some pretty awesome and fun and challenging conversation about the missional calling of the church. And something about the setting, the gathering of folks I was truly honored to be on stage with, made me wonder if we were the group of people whom folks should be listening to about the church in mission.

Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.

Yesterday’s stop on the blog tour raised questions about how definitive cruciformity is of our Christian calling. The fact of the matter is (moving on from yesterday’s conversations) that my attempts at fidelity to Jesus very rarely, if ever, look like the cross. Many folks have influential positions and large followings–they have power. Well… I guess I might say, we have power, to a certain extent.

And as I reflected on this yesterday, I wrestled with the impossible possibility of cruciformity being institutionalized. Self-giving, self-sacrifice, death–these are not the principles of faithful administration of a large organization.

Let’s see if we can put these things together.

During the Newbigin conversation, N. T. Wright brought up the need for the church to speak truth to power, to which Pamela Wilhelms replied, “We can’t do that because we are power–or at least, dependent on it.” Our churches, our denominations, our seminaries are funded by the very power dollars that everyone complains about getting the free ride during the financial crisis; the 1% underwrite the very possibility of our having such a meeting, of churches sustained to the extent that we can have large buildings, multiple persons on staff, heavy educational requirements, and the like.

So here’s where I was sitting somewhat uncomfortably, and would love some discussion with you: to what extent can those of us who work within, depend upon, and serve through large Christian organizations speak meaningfully about “the mission of God”?

Are we free enough from the needs of self-preservation to tell the church that the mission of God is a holistic, cosmic mission of reconciliation that the church is too small to contain?

Are we free enough from the power of wealth to speak the prophetic word that, at times, needs to be spoken when an economic system becomes a source of injustice? or a hindrance to justice more generally?

Does the fact that are already filled, already rich, already kings (to paraphrase Paul’s mockery of the non-cruciform Corinthians in 1 Cor 4) render our voice mute when it comes to awakening people to the call of the mission of God?

Wright on Jesus

Yesterday’s second N. T. Wright event at Fuller Northern California entailed a talk about Jesus and the Kingdom in front of a packed house of well over 700 attendees.

He reflected on the problem that was the driving force behind Scot McKnight’s recent King Jesus Gospel: what is the gospel of the Gospels? Why do we have these stories about Jesus’ life?

Wright set up the problem like this:

For many Christians, Jesus could be born of a virgin and die for our sins, and that would be enough.

What, then, do we discover in the Gospels?

He suggested that there are four “speakers” that need to be properly adjusted in volume so that we can get the full, stereoscopic effect of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus:

  1. The Gospels show Jesus as the climax to the story of Israel–not merely isolated prooftexts, but the whole grand narrative. This speaker, Wright suggests, has been on mute for too much of the church’s history–and still today.
  2. The Gospels depicts Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. This speaker, Wright argues, has been turned up far too loud–and perhaps played with no little distortion as well. The point should be less Jesus as second person of the Trinity and more Jesus as the God who renews covenant (Isa 54) and redeems the whole world (Isa 55) by carrying our sins and bearing our sorrows (Isa 53).
  3. Jesus is the start of the movement that became the church. Again, Wright sees this one as turned up too loud inasmuch as it causes us to look past Jesus’ actions on earth far too quickly. The forward-looking reading can make us, too, look forward and thereby forget that Jesus is inaugurating the kingdom in his life and death.
  4. The kingdom of God calls the kingdoms of this world to account. This speaker, too, Wright thinks has been too low–perhaps disconnected and stuck in a corner. Wright looks at Jesus and Pilate debating kingship and truth, at Paul proclaiming Jesus is Lord in Caesar’s own city, and sees the gospel calling the kingdoms of this world to account, to a better way of rule.

At the end, Wright strove to connect this four-fold reading of the Gospels to both life and death of Jesus. Perhaps my mind was wondering after a long day. I didn’t find this part to be as clearly laid out. Perhaps my problem was that I couldn’t quite see how there was an inherent connection, how cross drove the kingdom vision or enabled it to come about.

After a day with Wright, and seeing how he can pack out a house, even in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, I was poised to have N. T. Wright thoughts in mind when I read this morning’s blog post by Seth Godin.

The blog post talked about being “the best”–essentially, it says, being the best is a distraction that keeps us from taking our “better than most” and becoming well known for our unique contribution.

As I’m about to go to the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I think about N. T. Wright and think that there are probably any number of people who could rightly claim to be “better” New Testament scholars than Wright. They are more careful exegetes, know their history a bit better, or some such.

But what Wright has done is to take his “better than most” and parlay it into “most influential,” such that his overall project ends up being one of, if not the, most important biblical theology projects because people actually listen to what he is doing.

That’s where Wright has been able to become great: he has made the effort, and succeeded, in speaking to the masses. And the church’s and academy’s readings of the Bible are becoming, and will continue to be, better for it.

Conference Week: Day 1

It’s conference week. Day 1.

I’m at Fuller Sacramento today. N. T. Wright is getting ready to take the stage to talk about Paul for the 21st century.

The follow up panel discussion will be moderated by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. I’ll be on the panel with Peter Rodgers, Libby Vincent, and Chap Clark.

Stay tuned for a full debrief. This is your warning: blogging for the next week will be heavily tainted by biblical studies, and the Society of Biblical Literature conference in particular. Stay tuned…


This afternoon, N. T. Wright addressed the significance of Paul for the 21st century church. He began by a sort of brainstorming of various issues that confront us in the 21st century: wealth and poverty, e-generation and its impact on relationships; the standoff between secularism and fundamentalism.

With the table set, Wright addressed three issues where Paul speaks and transforms our understanding: God (monotheism); People of God (election); and Hope (eschatology: one glorious future awaiting the world).

Each of these, Wright argues, is reworked around Jesus and the Spirit in Paul.

God is the God and father of Jesus Christ; Jesus is Lord, the Spirit works the works of God.

The people of God are those who are the one, holy people of God–the body of Christ.

And as for eschatology: there is a hope present among us because new creation has begun with the resurrection of Jesus.

There was lots of great stuff here; nothing new for those who know Wright’s work, but great reminders about who God is for us in Christ, and who, then, we are supposed to be.

The one question I raised, and perhaps slight concern I had, was that Wright talked a lot about hope and resurrection with little mention of the cross as the road to our promised future, the source of obedience that secures our resurrection hope.

All told, it was a great afternoon, with almost 500 in attendance. Tonight’s gathering on Jesus is a few hundred stronger and getting started now.

Great stuff going on at Fuller, Sacramento!

Leadership for the Church in Mission

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, or are coming to town for SBL, you need to be aware of a fantastic opportunity on Nov 17-18.

The Newbigin House of Studies is hosting a conference entitled, “Leadership for the Church in Mission,” with N. T. Wright as the keynote speaker.

But the slate of speakers and participants extends beyond Wright to encompass pastors and church planters as well as theologians of various flavors.

Check out the website, register, and I’ll see you there!

Law in Romans: For Sin

Paul says things about the Law that seem to stand in stark opposition to each other. Some would say that Paul contradicts himself about the Law and its place in the story of Israel. If this were an easy question it would be no fun to discuss and, more importantly, scholars would have nothing left to write about.

When I want to explore Paul’s arguments, however, I hold off on asserting “contradiction” until every other explanation has been exhausted. So here as well. Somehow, I want to see how the things he says about the negative place of the Law in the story of Israel coincide with the praise of the Law as holy, righteous, and good.

Yesterday we outlined the promissory function of the Law, as Paul speaks of it in Romans. Then I put up some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the role of the law, where he attempts to give an account for the apparently negative things Paul says about the Law’s function–and how those are resolved in the Christ event.

Today we need to visit that negative thread.

As I see it, here is what we need to hold together: (1) the Law is holy, righteous, and good. But to ascribe such goodness to the Law is not to say either (a) what its purpose is; or (b) what its effect is when it comes to a world ruled by sin and death.

This is where I see the conversation in the comments butting up against each other. I have been focusing on questions (a) and (b), and the things Paul says about the effect and purpose of the Law, as Law, in Israel’s story seem to stand in tension with the goodness of the law. But our task is to figure out how and why this good law can come as an instrument of death, as something that causes the trespass to increase so that the power of sin is magnified.

I see the problem with some of the conversation as this: rather than explaining how both are true, a number of folks are clinging to the “Law is good” part in order to deny what Paul says about its function in the story. But this is precisely why he says the good stuff: because he has to give an account of how a good law can play a role other than life-giver and grace-bringer for Israel.

Paul’s starting point is the Christ event. And this is why he can say that if life comes through the Law, if the grace of God is revealed through the law, if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly. So if it didn’t bring righteousness and life, what did it do?

In Romans 2, Paul doesn’t deal with the Law’s purpose per se, but he does chide Israel as Law breakers: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law do you dishonor God?” Again, this is not about purpose, but an assertion about reality as Paul sees it.

In Romans 3, Paul says that having the oracles of God (including Torah, no doubt), is an advantage to the Jews–but one they did not take advantage of. In fact, it is not God’s response to Israel’s fidelity that puts God’s righteousness on display; instead, it is God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here the paradox of Israel’s failure in God’s redemptive story begins to peek through.

As the chapter goes on, Paul draws closer to giving a negative purpose of the Law. He quotes a whole bunch of OT texts about the sinfulness of humanity. And here is his surprise: these texts, many of which bad-mouthed Gentiles, are not written to condemn Gentiles, but to shut the mouth of Israel: “Whatever the Law says it speaks to those under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped”–not just the mouths of those Gentile bad guys–“and all the world may become accountable to God.” The Law renders culpable those who are under it.

As in the beginning of ch. 3, though, so here also, Israel’s culpability under the Law provides a pointer to a new, decisive intervention by God in order for people to be holy and righteous: “But now, without Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested… through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Our unrighteousness puts on display the righteousness of God, Paul had said, and this is where.

As Paul explains how it is that God enters to act where Israel failed, he gives an indication that Israel’s culpability under the Law does not make it especially liable to judgment, despite its transgression: “in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed.” This is an important moment in the argument: while much of what Paul does is aimed at showing how Jews are equally guilty, the added guilt itself becomes an occasion for grace, as God passes over in light of the time when righteousness will be brought about by the Christ event.

Tomorrow we will at last get to that troubling verse in ch. 5 where Paul says that the purpose of the Law is for increase of trespasses. But here already the pattern has been set: the saving righteousness of God comes where Israel’s unrighteousness precedes it.

And this is our hint toward how the negative and positive things hold together: the purpose of the Law can, in one sense, be seen as the increase of transgression–but this is because the Law is only penultimate in the purposes of God. The ultimate plan of God is to bring about saving righteousness in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Side Notes on Law in Romans

There are a couple of loose ends from earlier comment threads that I haven’t been able to wrap up. One has to do with Wright’s claim about the law’s purpose being to focalize sin upon Israel, the other with what Paul means by Law.

In Paul’s summary… the law functions to intensify the sin of Adam… (“the law came in on the side in order that the trespass might increase,” 5:20)… Torah, instead of lifting up Israel to a level above the rest of the human race, simply throws a bright spotlight on the fact that Israel, too, is “in Adam,” is “fleshly,” is “sold under sin.”…

“In the very place where sin abounded, grace also abounded.” Here is the rhetorical argument of the letter in a nutshell. Yes, the Torah simply intensifies the sin of Adam in the people of Israel. No, this does not lead to Marcionism… (“Romans and the Theology of Paul, 46-47)

Wright sees ch. 7, where Paul defends the Torah, as being the point where Paul works things out a bit more fully (pp. 52-53 of the same essay):

  1. Covenant was put in place to deal with the sin of the world. This is, thus, Torah’s ultimate purpose.
  2. Torah came in order that sin might abound (Rom 5:20)–“That is, the divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full height precisely in Israel.”
  3. This is repeated in 7:13: “in order that sin might become exceedingly sinful”
  4. God draws all this sin on Israel in order to pass it on to Israel’s Messiah and there deal with sin once and for all: “‘Sin’ is lured into doing its worst in Israel, in order that it may exhaust itself in the killing of the representative Messiah, after which there is nothing more it can do.”
  5. Thus, the apparently negative force of Torah (to draw in and focus sin over Israel’s head) has as its ultimate purpose God’s final dealing with sin, once and for all
  6. “Israel’s ‘failure,’ therefore, was part of the strange covenant plan of the creator god whereby this god intended to deal with the world’s sin.”

What I have liked about this articulation of things is that it places the dying of Christ within the story of Israel. Moreover, it takes seriously the idea that for Paul nomos in Romans often refers quite specifically to the Torah, the Law given to Israel as such.

This leads to the second point.

Yes, in Paul, Torah comes to play a part in the cosmic story of the powers that govern the earth.

But no, it is not inclusive of the cosmic powers that govern the sun, moon, stars, and Gentile morality. At least, not in Romans.

When Paul enters his complex discussion of Law in chs. 5-8, he begins by telling us that Adam trespassed, and that the thing called “law” comes in with Moses. He has specific events in mind, specific Torah given by a specific God to a specific people–and not to others. Without this piece in place, it becomes impossible to make sense of how Paul’s articulation of the gospel is, in fact, for the Jew first–and even through Israel, which was entrusted with the very words of God.

Put differently, it is not the “law” of the planets in orbit that bears witness to the crucified and risen Christ, but the Pentateuch.

The Death of Jesus–some wonderings

In Rom 3, Paul says that God publicly displayed Jesus as a hilasterion.

Some of our Bibles translate this “sacrifice of atonement,” some “a propitiation.”

The other option is that this word is being used as it was employed in the Greek Old Testament (LXX): a place where sacrifice is made. The point would be here that God’s patience and passing over of earlier sins comes to an end when he publicly displays Jesus as the place where humanity is reconciled with God, the mercy seat.

This reading has the advantage of fitting into the argument Paul has been making for 2.5 chapters and will make for another full chapter afterward: God is not only the God of Jews. God did not make final atonement in a hidden, secret inner room of the Temple. He made it in public, on the cross. Or, as Paul says in Gal 3: “Before your eyes Jesus was publicly placarded as crucified.”


The other wondering I had was tied into questions of law, sin, and atonement. As it is laid out in some of its renditions, the penal substitution idea begins with the twin premises that God is holy and we are unholy–the latter being more clearly articulated as, “we are law-breakers.”

But Paul doesn’t seem to think that the appellation “law breaker” applies to all of us.

Just Jewish people.

In Rom 5, the one place where the notion of sin being “imputed” to someone is spoken of, what we hear is that sin is not imputed where there is no law. The points are that (a) Adam did break a rule from God; (b) death still reigned even over people who had not broken any kind of law; and (c) there is still a sense of all people sinning–despite not having a law to break.

So it seems to me that Penal Substitution, and a number of Christian theologies in general, have some work to do in reframing how it is that all people are guilty. It’s not by breaking some law–that’s what happens to Adam, what happens in Israel, but not to everyone.

It also seems to me, that as much as I want to avoid it, I keep coming around again to N. T. Wright’s claim that the purpose of the law is to exacerbate sin and death within Israel per se, so that God could disarm them where they were strongest. Sin is not reckoned where there is no law, and that is why God gives a law–so that through Israel’s faithlessness God’s faithfulness might abound (3:1ff.), so that within a world that manifests God’s wrath God’s righteousness might be made known (1:16-19).