NT Wright

Bishop Wright on Bishop Robinson

RobinsonIn recent days, I’ve been lecturing on Christianity without God and the Nihilism of the Secular. We’ve mainly been looking at Mr Feuerbach and his children Karl (Marx), Sigmund (Freud), Don (Cupitt), Lloyd (Geering), Karen (Armstrong) and Alain (de Botton), as well as their much-abused and massively-misunderstood neighbours, especially Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. After I’d written my lectures – isn’t that so often the way these things go! – I came across a very helpful article by Tom Wright. Doubts about Doubt: Honest to God Forty Years On’ (published in the Journal of Anglican Studies in 2005) is Wright’s insightful reading of John Robinson’s most controversial (and, in some ways, his least interesting) book Honest to God and the theo-cultural milieu which gave rise to it and which goes a significant way to explaining its popularity and ongoing incarnations. Wright’s concluding paragraph provides what I think is a tempting taster to the whole essay:

Robinson had his finger on a real problem in postwar UK church life and, in a measure, theology. I believe the problem was mostly or largely caused not by the New Testament and historic Christianity itself, but by the way in which the post-Enlightenment world had assimilated and re-expressed the Christian faith. What Robinson referred to when speaking of supra- or supernaturalism belonged within an essentially deist or Epicurean framework, and he was struggling with the unwelcome consequences of people being unable to relate to their absentee landlord, and simultaneously puzzling over the fact that some people did not find this a problem. The huge popularity of his book shows that he struck a chord with a great many people. The tragedy of Honest to God, as I perceive it, is that Robinson did not see that what he was rejecting was a form of supernaturalism pressed upon Christianity by the Enlightenment; that he did not therefore go looking for help in finding other ways of holding together what the classic Christian tradition has claimed about God, the world, and Jesus; that in addressing these ontological questions he never laid out the parallel moral ones, or explored the ways in which, centrally, the Christian Scriptures and tradition address them; and that in consequence his high modernist construct now looks very shaky in the cold light of a postmodern dawn, as well as in the warmer light of the mainstream Christian alternative. The good news is that, precisely once the postmodern critique has done its work, we can see that there are other ways of retrieving the ancient Jewish and early Christian witness and faith – a daunting and difficult task, no doubt, but one still full of promise and possibility. In honouring John A.T. Robinson, we should perhaps evoke the famous saying of his seventeenth-century namesake: God has yet more light to break out of his holy word.

There is always, of course, much more that Wright could have said; he has a habit of stopping one or two stations short of the station with the best coffee (i.e., he’s theologically undercooked). But I found his article very helpful in framing some of the larger and social contexts of Robinson’s book. I’ve uploaded a copy of the article here.

NT Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’

It was nearly four years ago now when I had the joy of hearing NT Wright lecture in St Andrews. It was one of the James Gregory Public Lectures, and his topic was ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’. Since then, of course, Tom Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at that same university, and where just last week he gave his Inaugural Lecture titled ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here’s a snippet:

The four gospels … are thus appropriately named ‘gospel’, in line both with Isaiah 40 and 52 and with the contemporary pagan usage. They themselves, in telling the story of how God became king in and through Jesus, invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong? Suppose there’s a different way, and suppose that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has brought it about?’ And the gospels themselves, of course, contain stories at a second level, stories purportedly told by Jesus himself, which were themselves, in their day, designed to break open the worldview of their hearers and to initiate a massive imaginative leap to which Jesus gave the name ‘faith’. The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today. For too long gospel study has been dominated by the attempt to make the gospels reflect, simply, the faith-world of the early church. Why, after all, the radical critics used to say, would the early Christians have been particularly interested in miscellaneous stories of what Jesus actually said or did, when all that really mattered was his saving death, making the gospels simply ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’? The conservative response has been that early converts would naturally want to know more about this Jesus in whom they had come to place their faith. But this stand-off, on both sides, has usually failed to reflect the larger question: that the gospels tell the story of Jesus not out of mere historical anecdotage or faith-projection, but because this is how Jesus launched the kingdom of God, which he then accomplished in his death and resurrection. Even to hold this possibility in one’s head requires, in today’s western church, whether radical or conservative, no less than in the non-Christian world, a huge effort of the imagination.

This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom.

You can read the whole lecture here.

‘Piping songs of peasant glee’: Around the aether

Are images of Jesus idolatrous?

It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:

# 1. Violation of the second commandment

There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)

Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?

# 2. All attempts are false representations

Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.

# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like

Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.

# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism

The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:

‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.

Regarding this council Philip Schaff, in History of the Christian Church. Volume IV: Mediæval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VI; A.D. 590–1073, writes:

The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)

This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:

  • Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
  • That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
  • That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
  • That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
  • ‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
  • ‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!

So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)

For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.

One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.

So NT Wright:

‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).

Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.

Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:

Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).

Two items of note …

Two items of note:

1. Some historians of the Presbyerian tribe will be keen to know that the latest issue of The Historical Journal includes an article by Alasdair Raffe on ‘Presbyterianism, Secularization, and Scottish Politics after the Revolution of 1688–1690’ (Volume 53, Issue 02, June 2010, pp. 317–337). Here’s the abstract:

‘This article assesses the significance of Presbyterian ideas of church government in Scottish politics after the revolution of 1688 intrinsic right of the church: its claim to independent authority in spiritual matters and ecclesiastical administration. The religious settlement of 1690 gave control of the kirk to clergy who endorsed divine right Presbyterianism, believed in the binding force of the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), and sought to uphold the intrinsic right. An ambiguous legal situation, the criticisms of episcopalian clergy and politicians, and the crown’s religious policies helped to make the Presbyterians’ ecclesiological claims a source of instability in Scottish politics. Meetings of the general assembly and, after 1707, the appointment of national fast and thanksgiving days were particularly likely to spark controversy. More broadly, the article questions two narratives of secularization assumed by many previous scholars. It argues that Scottish politics was not differentiated from religious controversy in this period, and that historians have exaggerated the pace of liberalization in Scottish Presbyterian thought’.

2. The other breaking story is that N.T. Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews.

As the professor snips the richest bud for his lapel, his scalpel of reason lies on the tray: some weekly wanderings

NT Wright’s Lambeth Lecture: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’

NT Wright’s lecture from the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Wednesday, July 30) is available. The topic: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’. I thought it was a good piece and was worth reposting here:


My theme today has obviously been designed to go with today’s Indaba group work on our use of the Bible. This is an opportune time, as our Conference quickens its pace, to reflect on how we use scripture, not least how we Bishops use scripture as part of our vocation, as in the main theme of this Conference, to be ‘bishops in mission.’

Let me draw your attention to a book of mine which is foundational for what I’m going to say. Scripture and the Authority of God grew directly out of my work on both the Lambeth Commission and the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. It was published in America under the strange title The Last Word – strange, because it certainly wasn’t the last word on the subject, and also because if I was going to write a book called The Last Word I think it ought to be about Jesus Christ, not about the Bible. But such are the ways of publishers.

The puzzle about the book’s title, though, points forward to the first thing I want to say this afternoon, which is about the nature of biblical authority and the place of the Bible within the larger edifice of Christian theology and particularly missiology. I turn to my first main section.

1. Scripture and the Authority of God

a. Scripture as the vehicle of God’s authority

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world.

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match. From very early on in the church, it became clear that those entrusted with God’s mission included some who were called to write – to write letters on the one hand, and to collect, edit and write up the stories about Jesus, and the story of Jesus, on the other hand. The composition-criticism of the last few decades has moved us on a long way from the old half-truth that the biblical authors ‘didn’t think they were writing scripture’. Paul certainly believed that God had entrusted him with an authoritative mission, and that his letter-writing formed part of that Spirit-given, Christ-shaped, kingdom-bringing activity. And the gospel writers, in their different ways, write in such a manner as to say, with quite a rich artistry: here is the continuation and culmination of the great story you know from Israel’s scriptures, and this is how, through its central character, it is now transformed into the narrative of God’s dealings not just with Israel but with the whole world. Any first-century Jew who has the nerve to begin a book with ‘In the beginning’, weaving the themes of Genesis and Exodus, of Isaiah and the Psalms, into the story of Israel’s Messiah, and doing so in such a way as to provide a framework around and energy for the mission and life of the followers of this Messiah – anyone who does something like this is either astonishingly un-self-aware or is making the definite claim to be writing something that corresponds, in a new mode, to the scriptural narrative of ancient Israel.

From very early on the first Christians discovered that the church was to be shaped, and its mission and life taken forward, by the work of people who were called to write about Jesus, and about what it meant to follow him in his kingdom-mission. The new dispensation, the Messianic age, did not mean the abandonment of the notion of being shaped by a God-given book, but rather its transformation into something new, new genres and themes developing out of the old. But this already indicates that the Bible was not something detached, an entity apart from the church, simply standing over against it. The Bible as we know it, Old and New Testaments, was, from the first, part of the life of God’s people, and remained so as it was read in worship, studied in controversy, and made the basis for mission. But this did not mean then, and does not mean now, that the Bible can be twisted into whichever shape the church wants at a particular time. You can’t say, as some have tried to say, ‘the church wrote the Bible, so the church can rewrite the Bible’. Paul would have had sharp words to say about that, as would the author of Revelation. From very early on, all the more powerful for being implicit and not yet much thought through, we find the first Christians living under scripture, that is, believing that this book is its peculiar gift from its Lord, through the work of his Spirit, designed to enable the church to be the church, which is of course as we have been thinking throughout this Conference not a static thing but to be the church in mission, to be sent into the world with the good news of God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the power of that same Spirit.

b. God’s Authority and God’s Kingdom

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’. As the late great Phil Ochs sang during Vietnam,

And they argue through the night,

Black is black and white is white,

And walk away both knowing they are right;

And nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.

I know that quoting a Vietnam protest song dates me, but I guess that I’m not the only one in this room radically shaped by the events of the late 1960s . . .

The real problem with the Deism that infected so much of the western world in the eighteenth century and dominates it still – thank God for our brothers and sisters from elsewhere who didn’t have that problem! – is that it lives by serious reaction against the whole notion of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. (Actually, much Protestant theology couldn’t really cope with this idea either, perhaps in reaction against the perceived worldly kingdom of mediaeval Catholicism, which is why it privileged a particular reading of St Paul over against the gospels, a problem still with us in the guise of the Bultmannian legacy.) But when we re-read the gospels and the kingdom-announcement we find there into the centre of our own life and thought, we discover that God is not a distant faceless bureaucrat handing down ‘to do’ lists, our ‘commands for the day’. The God of scripture is with us in the world, his world, the world in which he lived and died and rose again in the person of his Son, in which he breathes new life through the person of his Spirit. Scripture is the vehicle of the kingdom-bringing ‘authority’, in that sense, of this God. That is why the Left, which prefers a detached Deism so it can get on and do its own thing, disregarding instructions that seem to come from a distant God or a distant past, gets it wrong, and why the Right, which wants an authoritarian command from on high, doesn’t get it.

There is a particular problem here, because our Anglican formularies speak of scripture and its authority in terms of ‘things which are to be believed for eternal salvation’. Living as they did within the late mediaeval western view, our Anglican fathers rightly saw scripture as the norm which guided you towards God’s promised salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; but, like everyone else at the time, they saw that salvation less in terms of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven and more in terms of being rescued from this earth for a ‘salvation’ somewhere else. We can’t go into this in any detail, but I just want to note that part of the exciting work today of re-integrating gospels and epistles and rethinking the whole notion of the kingdom and particularly new creation and resurrection is not without its effect on the place and role of scripture in the whole process. Basically, I believe that scripture is the book through which the church is enabled to be the church, to be the people of God anticipating his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, and that this fleshes out what our formularies say in a three-dimensional and energetic fashion. I have said more about all this in the relevant section of Surprised by Hope. And to say more about it I move to my third sub-section.

c. Scripture and the Story of God’s Mission

So how does the Bible function in the way I have described? Answer: by being itself; and ‘being itself’ means, primarily, being itself as story. I do not mean by this what some have seen as ‘mere story’, that is, a cheerfully fictive account to be relegated to the world of ‘myth’. The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos to Order, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at. Speaking as a student of ancient literature, I am continually astonished by the shape of scripture, which can’t simply be explained away as the product of some clever decisions by a third- or fourth-century Council. Of course scripture contains many sub-plots, and many parts which are not in themselves ‘narrative’ at all – poems, meditations, wisdom sayings, and so on. But the narrative shape continues to stand out, and indeed to stand over against all attempts to flatten scripture out either into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom, which deconstructs the stories, or into a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions, which also deconstructs the stories but from a different angle.

And this raises the question, how can a narrative be authoritative? This is the right question to ask, and it raises some exciting possibilities. As I have set out at length elsewhere, scripture offers precisely the unfinished narrative of God’s heaven-and-earth project, God’s great design, as Paul puts it, echoing the Law and the Prophets, to join everything in heaven and earth into one in Christ. And the unfinished narrative functions like an unfinished play, in which those who belong to Jesus Christ are now called to be the actors, taking forward the drama towards its intended conclusion. This is actually a far stronger, and more robust, version of ‘authority’ than the one which simply imagines the Bible as a source-book for true dogmatic and ethical propositions. Of course such propositions are to be found in it, and they matter; but they matter as the tips of a much, much larger iceberg, which is the entire drama. And it is by soaking ourselves in that whole drama that we, God’s people in Christ Jesus, are to live with and under scripture’s authority, not simply by knowing which bits to look up on which topics, but by becoming people of this story, people formed and shaped in our imaginations and intuitions by the overall narrative, so that we come to know by second nature not only what scripture says on particular topics but why it says those things. And living under scriptural authority, contrary to what has been said by liberalism ever since the eighteenth century, does not then mean being kept in an infantile state, shut up to merely parrotting an ancient text, but rather coming alive, growing up, taking responsibility for seeing how the narrative has gone forward and where it must go next. We are, in short, to be improvisers, which as any musician knows doesn’t mean playing out of tune or out of time but rather discerning what is appropriate in terms of the story so far and the story’s intended conclusion.

This, I submit, has a strong claim to be an intrinsically Anglican way of thinking about scripture, insofar as there can be said to be such a thing. I am always intrinsically suspicious of claims to discover a specifically or intrinsically Anglican approach to anything, not just because of the myriad of local variations but because of the characteristic Anglican claim that Anglicans have no specific doctrine of their own – it’s just that if something is true, Anglicans believe it. The truth behind that old joke is that we have tried over the years, when it comes to scripture at least, to nourish a tradition of careful scholarship, rooted in philology, history and the early Fathers, hand in hand with a readiness to let the Bible resonate in new ways in new situations. As an example of this I cherish Brooke Fosse Westcott, Bishop of Durham a hundred and ten years ago, who is buried close to J. B. Lightfoot in the great chapel at Auckland Castle. Westcott is known, of course, for his meticulous textual criticism, and his magisterial commentaries on John and Hebrews. But in Durham he is also remembered for being the Bishop who, before the days of trade unions, settled a long and damaging miners’ strike by negotiating so hard with the mine owners that eventually they met the workers’ demands. For Westcott, careful biblical scholarship and hard street-level work for God’s kingdom were two parts of the same whole, and we should be proud when Anglicanism reflects similar combinations.

All this is of course nurtured by the straightforward but deeply powerful tradition of the daily offices, with the great narratives of scripture read through day by day, preferably on a lectio continua basis, so that ‘living prayerfully within the story’ is the most formative thing, next to the Eucharist itself, which Anglicans do. Classic mattins and evensong, in fact, are basically showcases for scripture, and the point of reading Old and New Testaments like that is not so much to ‘remind ourselves of that bit of the Bible’, as to use that small selection as a window through which we can see, with the eyes of mind and heart, the entire sweep of the whole Bible, so that our ‘telling of the story’ is not actually aimed primarily at informing or reminding one another but rather at praising God for his mighty acts, and acquiring the habit of living within the story of them as we do so. That, I suggest, is the heart of Anglican Bible study.

Seeing the Bible in terms of its great story enables us, in particular, to develop a layered and nuanced hermeneutic which retains the full authority of the whole Bible while enabling us to understand why it is, for instance, that some parts of the Old Testament are still directly relevant to us while others are not, and how this is not arbitrary but rooted in serious theological and exegetical principle. In the book I have developed the model of the five-act play, with Creation and Fall as the first two acts, then Israel, then Jesus himself, and then the act in which we ourselves are still living, whose final scene we know from passages like Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 and 22. The point of this model is partly to explain the notion of ‘improvising’ I mentioned earlier – when living within the fifth act, we are required to improvise our way to the necessary conclusion while remaining completely faithful to the narrative, and the characterisations, of the earlier acts and indeed to the opening scenes of our own present act, i.e. Easter and Pentecost. But it is also partly to provide a way of understanding how it is that though, for instance, the book of Leviticus is part of our story, a non-negotiable part of that story, it is not the part where we presently live. When you live in Act 5, you cannot repeat, except for very special effect, a speech which was made in Act 3. Thus we do not offer animal sacrifice; the Letter to the Hebrews makes that abundantly clear. A similar argument is mounted by Paul in Galatians about God’s gift of the Mosaic law: it was good and God-given, but those of its prescriptions which separate out Jews from Gentiles are no longer appropriate, since we are not any longer in Act 3 but in Act 5, and with that eschatological moment the old distinctions are done away. This could be pursued at much greater length, but let me just make one particular and important point. There are of course a good many features of the Pentateuch which are not only retained but enhanced in the New Testament; one cannot assume that because some features of Mosaic law are abolished that all are equally redundant, just as it would be a bad mistake to suppose that the reason some parts have become redundant is simply because they’re old or because we now ‘know better’. Things are not that shallow. In fact, it gradually becomes clear that the OT is continually calling Israel to a way of life which is about discovering a genuinely human existence, and that, granted the achievement of Jesus the Messiah in Act 4, a good many features of the Mosaic law are not only retained but enhanced. This holds true for the Decalogue itself, with the sole exception of the sabbath law, and it certainly holds for the codes of sexual conduct, as a great wealth of scholarship has shown again and again. In the whole Bible, what men and women do sexually resonates with larger cosmic issues, and particular commands and prohibitions are not arbitrary, detached rules, but tip-of-the-iceberg features revealing a deep and structured worldview underneath. I commend the five-act model to you as a creative and fresh way of understanding and using the Bible for all it’s worth.

But it is of course particularly designed to explain how the great story of the Bible is designed to point us to our mission and to equip us precisely for that mission. The story begins with the creation of heaven and earth, and it ends with their eventual marriage, their coming together in fulfilling, God-ordained union. The biblical story reaches its climax of course in Jesus Christ, where this union of heaven and earth was inaugurated, modelled and accomplished – against all the powers that would keep them apart – through his death and resurrection. And the mission of the church in the power of the Spirit is to implement the achievement of Jesus and so to anticipate the eventual goal. Mission, in other words, takes place within the overall narrative of scripture, and is reinforced and kept in place by the reading and studying of the text that speaks this way, drawing together all features of wider culture that point in this direction and standing over against all features of wider culture which point elsewhere. It is only by living within this overall narrative that we, as bishops committed to leading the church in mission, can keep our bearings when so many elements of our own culture and our various traditions would threaten to sidetrack us this way or that. As I have written elsewhere, the larger biblical narrative offers us a framework for developing and taking forward a wholistic mission which refuses to split apart full-on evangelism, telling people about Jesus with a view to bringing them to faith, and full-on kingdom-of-God work, labouring alongside anyone and everyone with a heart for the Common Good so that God’s sovereign and saving rule may be glimpsed on earth as in heaven. Anglicanism has tended to oscillate between these two, between a primary reading of the epistles as being about private and personal salvation and a primary reading of the gospels as being about ‘social justice’. The two need one another, and in the best Anglican traditions they join up, like all the other complementarities in God’s world. So my point at this stage is this: a serious Anglican reading of scripture can and should generate a five-act hermeneutic in which our goals in mission are greatly clarified and our energy and sense of direction for that mission reinforced, as the Spirit uses our telling and retelling of the story to shape the habits of our hearts, minds and wills. And to say that is of course to say that, at the very heart of it all, the point of scripture is to root, form and shape our spirituality as a people and as individuals. We are to be a scripture-shaped praying people, which of course means a Jesus-shaped praying people, which of course includes being a scripture-shaped and Jesus-shaped eucharistic people. It is out of that scripturally formed well of personal and corporate spirituality, continually confronting, transforming and directing us, that we draw water to be refreshed as we find our way forward in the service of God, his gospel and his kingdom. But all this points us on to our present culture and the challenges it presents. How can scripture form us for mission in tomorrow’s world?

2. Scripture and the Task of the Church

a. Foundation: Bible and Culture

The confrontation between Christian faith and contemporary culture, between (if you like) Jerusalem and Athens, is as old as the gospel itself. It is rooted in turn in the confrontation between the Old Testament people of God and the surrounding cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Assyrian, Babylon and then, later, Persia, Greece, Syria and eventually Rome. Indeed, cultural confrontation and the complex negotiations it generated are woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. Jonathan Sacks, who we so revelled in listening to last night, wrote an article the other day about the way in which languages without vowels, such as Hebrew, tend to go from right to left, driven by right-brain intuition, whereas languages with vowels, such as Greek, tend to go from left to right, as the left-brain passion for getting things worked out accurately drives from that side. I asked him at dinner whether he’d had any feedback on the article, and he said rather disappointedly that he hadn’t; but he drew the moral, which I now develop, that part of the power of the early Christian faith was to take a right-brain religion such as Judaism and express it within a left-brain language like Greek. (Of course, you could argue that the Rabbis made up for lost left-brain time with the Mishnah and Talmud, but that would be another story.) From the very beginning Christianity was engaged with its many surrounding cultures, and no one model – Niebuhr, you recall, explored five in his classic book Christ and Culture – will catch all the nuances we might wish. Even in a short address such as Paul’s on the Areopagus we can see all kinds of different things going on. Paul is in head-on collision with the great temples all around him, and the endless stream of sacrifices being offered at them, yet he can begin from the Altar to the Unknown God and work up from there, quoting Greek poets on the way. And, reading between the lines, we can see how the message he brought could say both Yes and No to the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Academic. The Stoic supposes that all is predetermined, that divinity is simply suffused within the world and working its purpose out. Well, says Paul, you are right that God is not far from any of us, but wrong to suppose that God and the world are the same thing. The Epicurean supposes that God, or the gods, are a long way away, and that the best thing to do is make such shift as we can in this world. Well, says Paul, you are right that God and the world are not the same thing, but you are wrong to suppose that God is not interested in the world, and us human creatures. The Academic sits on the fence: there isn’t really enough evidence to be sure about the gods, so it’s best to keep the old state religion going just in case (a position not unfamiliar, alas, to some Anglicans).Well, says Paul, you are right that there hasn’t really been quite enough evidence to be sure of anything; but now all that has changed, because there is a man called Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and he is going to sort everything out from top to bottom.

Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.

There is of course a very particular Anglican spin to some of this. Many parts of the older Anglican world, not least here in England itself, have become very used to going with the flow of the culture, on the older assumption that basically England was a Christian country so that the Church would not be compromised if it reflected the local social and cultural mores. That strand of Anglicanism has always been in danger of simply acting as Chaplain to whatever happened to be going on at the time, whether it was blessing bombs and bullets in the first world war or going to tea at Buckingham Palace. Within that world, the Bible has often been quietly truncated. We don’t like the bits about judgment, so we miss them out. We are embarrassed by the bits about sex, so we miss them out too – and then we wonder why, in a world full of hell and sex, people imagine the Bible is irrelevant! The Bible is a kind of spiritual Rorschach test: if you find you’re cutting bits out, or adding bits in, it may be a sign that you’re capitulating to cultural pressure. Equally, of course, there are many parts of the Anglican world where nothing but confrontation has been possible for a long time, and there people may have to learn the difficult lesson that actually the world is still charged with the grandeur of God, and that the biblical Christian must learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, no matter who they are, what they believe or how they behave. It is crucial to our vocation, and to our particular vocation granted our particular histories, that we rediscover the art, which itself is rooted in scripture, of discriminating (as Paul says) between things that differ, and of affirming what can and must be affirmed and opposing what can and must be opposed. Those of us who are involved in the business of politics and government know that this is a difficult and often thankless task, but it must be undertaken.

b. The Bible and Gnosticism

All this brings us to three particular features of tomorrow’s world which stand out particularly and call for a biblical engagement as we take forward our God-given mission. I am here summarizing the Noble Lectures I was privileged to give at Harvard University two years ago, which are yet to be published. The three features are gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which fit together in fascinating ways and which provide a grid of cultural and personal worldviews within which a great many of our contemporaries live today. I speak particularly of the western world, and I regret that I am not qualified to do more of a ‘world tour’. But I remind all of us that, whether we like it or not, when the West sneezes everyone else catches a cold, so that cultural trends in Europe and North America will affect the whole world. (I notice that, though the current American election will affect everybody on the face of the earth for good or ill, only Americans get to vote. This strikes me as odd, though of course we British were in the same position for long enough and didn’t seem to mind at the time.)

Addressing these three issues could sound like an abstract intellectual exercise, but believe me it isn’t. This is the real world where people struggle and sin and suffer, and it is fatally easy for the church to be pulled down into the cultural assumptions of the day and so have no gospel, nothing to offer, no basis for mission or content to it either.

The first of the three makes this point graphically. When I was in college we studied Gnosticism as a strange ancient phenomenon, little imagining that it was already alive and well in western culture and that it would sweep through our world dramatically, not only in obvious thing like The Da Vinci Code but in the subtext of half the Hollywood movies and, more sadly, half the would-be theological thinking in our church. Two features stand out. First, a radical dualism in which the created order is irrelevant because we, the enlightened ones, are just passing through it and can use or ignore it as we please. At this point the Gnosticism of the right says, We can do what we like with our planet, because it’s all going to be destroyed soon and we’ll be snatched away to a distant heaven. And the Gnosticism of the left says, We can do what we like with our bodies, because they are irrelevant to the reality within us. And both are held in place by the larger Gnosticism of the western Enlightenment itself which has said, for the last two hundred years, We westerners are the enlightened ones, with our modern science and technology; we can make up the rules, we can saunter around the world exploiting its resources and its people, we can drop bombs on people to make whole countries do what we want, and it doesn’t matter much because we, the enlightened ones, are the natural possessors of justice, freedom and peace so those other people don’t matter as much as we do.

Along with the radical dualism goes Gnosticism as a religion, not of redemption, but of self-discovery. This is the real ‘false gospel’ at the heart of a good many contemporary debates. The Gnostic does not want to be rescued; he or she wants to discover ‘who they really are’, the inner spark of divine life. There is even a danger that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered (at this point the existentialism and romanticism of the last two hundred years reinforce the underlying gnosticism). This is a religion of pride rather than of faith, of self-assertion rather than of hope, of a self-love which is a parody of the genuinely biblical self-love which is regard for oneself, body and all, as reflecting the image of the creator.

And this false religion, though it often uses the language of Christianity, makes it impossible for people to have real Christian faith, or for that matter real Jewish faith; because in the Bible you discover ‘who you really are’ only when the living God, the creator, is rescuing you and giving you a new identity, a new status, a new name. The Bible is itself the story of, and the energy to bring about, the redemption of creation, ourselves included, not the discovery within ourselves of a spark which just needs to express itself. Gnosticism hates resurrection, because resurrection speaks of God doing a new thing within and for the material world, putting it right at last, rather than God throwing the material world away and allowing the divine spark to float off free. And it is resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus in the past, and of ourselves in the future – which is the ground of all Christian ethical life in the present. Christian ethics is not a matter of ‘discovering who you truly are’ and then being true to that. It is a matter, as Jesus and Paul insist, of dying to self and coming alive to God, of taking up the cross, of inaugurated eschatology, of becoming in oneself not ‘what one really is’ already but ‘what one is in Christ’, a new creation, a small, walking, breathing anticipation of the promised time when the earth shall be filled with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. A biblically-based mission must learn from the great narrative of scripture to set its face against all Gnosticism, because it cuts the nerve of the mission both to the world of politics and society and to the life of every man, woman and child.

c. The Bible and Empire

Second, Empire. We British had an empire on which the sun never set, and we have spent the last hundred years puzzling over what went wrong and counting the cost. As I have said often enough, I hope and pray my beloved American friends don’t have to do the same. Let’s be clear: there is nothing absolutely wrong with empire in itself; empires come and go, they always have done, and the point is not ‘wouldn’t it be a better world without empires at all’ but ‘how can empires be called to account, be reminded that God is God and that they are not?’ All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now. Who will be next, and are we ready for that with a biblical narrative of empire that will say, with Colossians 1, that all the powers in heaven and on earth were created in and through and for Jesus Christ and were redeemed by the blood of his cross? Are we ready, in our biblically-shaped mission, to transcend the futile rhetoric of left and right – a very recent invention, in fact itself an invention of the Enlightenment – and to understand power the way the Bible understands it, as given by God to bring order to his creation on the one hand and, on the other, to anticipate in the present that final putting-to-rights of all things which we are promised? If we are thinking biblically we have a narrative which encodes a mission, the mission of God both to the rulers of this age and to those whose lives are either enhanced by them or crushed by them, or quite often simply confused by them in the middle. We in the West need to learn from our brothers and sisters who live under regimes which are deeply hostile to the church and would prefer that it disappeared altogether. And, dare I say, we need to learn these lessons quite quickly, because people are already talking about the next great superpower, and whether it is India or China we can be sure that, unless something truly extraordinary happens, the world will be dominated for the first time since ancient Rome by a superpower that does not stand within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which will see that tradition as a threat. If we don’t prepare ourselves now for the future reality, and if we don’t learn the biblical lessons here and now of what Christian mission looks like under empire, we will fail not only the world of our own day but also the world of our children’s and grandchildren’s day.

Notice how empire and Gnosticism go together. Gnosticism arises under empire, because when you are powerless to change anything about your world you are tempted to turn inwards and suppose that a spiritual, inner reality is all that matters. Carl Jung put it nicely if chillingly: who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. Welcome to the world of navel-gazing. That’s why second-century gnosticism arose when it did, following the collapse of the final Jewish revolt in 135 AD. And the empires of the world are delighted when people embrace gnosticism. Again in the second century the people who were reading the Gospel of Thomas and other books of the same sort were not burnt at the stake or thrown to the lions. That was reserved for the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest. There is a massive lie out there at the moment, which is that the canon of scripture colludes with imperial power while the gnostic literature subverts it. That is the exact opposite of the truth. Caesar couldn’t care less if someone wants to pursue a private spirituality. But if they go around saying that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the crucified and risen Jesus, Caesar shivers in his shoes. And going around saying that is at the heart of Christian mission, which is sustained and energised by scripture itself, the book that will keep not only individual Christians but whole churches steadfast and cheerful in that mission when everything seems bent on blowing them off course.

c. Postmodernity

Whenever I mention postmodernity my wife either groans or yawns. Sadly she’s not here today to demonstrate the point, but before you have those same reactions let me say what I mean. We live in a world – the western world, but increasingly the global community – where truth is at a discount. Relativism is everywhere; there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. Facts don’t matter, spin is all that counts. Likewise, and deeply worrying for the church, because we easily get sucked into this, argument and reason are set aside, and instead of debate we have the shrill swapping of hurt emotions. ‘I am a victim; you are prejudiced; end of conversation’. Or, in one of those worrying irregular verbs, ‘I am speaking from the heart, you are prejudiced, he or she is a bigot.’ My friends, this entire way of thinking – a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream – is an affront to the biblical world, to the Anglican world, to the world of scripture, tradition and reason. Reason is not the same as emotion or indeed experience. Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom. The reaction against scripture within postmodern Christianity is no worse than the reaction against reason itself. And ‘experience’, which for John Wesley when he elevated it alongside scripture, tradition and reason meant ‘the experience of God the Spirit at work transforming my life’, has come to mean ‘whatever I feel’ – which is no more a safe guide to anything than a glance at the English sky in the morning is a safe guide to the weather later in the day.

Of course, postmodernity doesn’t stop with the deconstruction of truth. It deconstructs the self as well. At this point the Gnostic would do well to hide, because in postmodernity there is no such thing as the inner spark, the true inward reality. That’s why, for instance, in today’s debates among the gay community, the essentialist position (‘this is who I am’) is increasingly discounted by the constructivists (‘this is what I choose to be today’) – though you wouldn’t know that from the way the church still talks about the matter. But the greatest deconstruction of all is of course that of the overarching narrative, the great stories. Big stories, like truth-claims, declares the postmodernist, are claims to power. Live within the modernist story and the modernists will end up running the show. That’s how the world has worked for long enough.

And of course that presents quite a challenge to the Christian; because the Bible, as I have stressed, is precisely a great narrative, the huge, sprawling story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant, with Jesus in the middle of it. That is why many Christians today shrink their mission to the mere attempt to give some people, here and there, a spiritual life and a hope out beyond, rather than taking the mission where it needs to go, into every corner of God’s world and its systems and structures. But please note: the deconstruction of power-stories is itself a claim to power. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth’, because for him the only truth was what came out of the scabbard of a sword. Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 and 19 stands near the heart of a biblical theology of mission, though sadly I’m not sure if that will come out in our Bible Studies in the next few days. In other words, though the postmodernist sneers at empire and its grandiose dreams, in the final analysis it colludes with it. It can scoff, but it cannot subvert. All those years of Jacques Derrida, and we still got George Bush. And Tony Blair.

So what does the Bible itself have to say on the matter? How can the great story I’ve been speaking of respond to the postmodern challenge – because make no mistake, if it doesn’t, our mission will shrink into a sad little parody of its true self. The answer is that the story of scripture is not a story of power, but a story of love – genuine love, overflowing love for the world God made. Note carefully what happens at this point.

I said postmodernity had one moral value only, the scream of the victim. That isn’t quite true. It has one other: the duty to, as is often said ‘embrace the Other’. This has come from various sources and it’s sometimes joined up, though I have to say with minimal justification, with some elements of the work of Jesus. This is at the heart of the appeal that we ‘live with difference’, and so on. I have spoken about that elsewhere; it all depends on a decision as to which differences you can and should live with and which you shouldn’t and can’t. There is an enormous amount of begging the question currently on this matter. But when we consider the biblical narrative we discover that here again postmodernity has produced a parody of the reality. In scripture, God makes a world that is other than himself, and that is full of complementarities: heaven and earth, night and day, sea and land, vegetation and animals, and ultimately humans, with the complementarity of male and female growing more evident within that world until it is finally affirmed, producing a picture of a world of radical differences with the differences made for one another. Within the biblical narrative, of course, this reaches its great conclusion when heaven and earth finally come together, with the new Jerusalem as the bride of Christ. This is the biblical story of love: the love of God for his world, the love within that world for that which is radically different from me, from us, the love which really does ‘embrace the other’, not in a casual and floppy sense of ‘anyone who’s a bit different from me’, but in the deep ontological sense of a love which goes out into a different country altogether to affirm the goodness of God’s creation there and to discover, in that affirmation, the greatest delight which mirrors the delight of God the creator, the delight of Christ the lover.

What we desperately need, if we are to pursue a biblical, Christian and indeed Anglican mission in the postmodern world, is the Spirit of Truth. There is no time to develop this further, but it is vital to say this one thing. We have got so used to the postmodern sneer that any truth-claim is instantly suspect. And at that point many Christians have lurched back to the apparent safety of a modernist claim: conservative modernists claim that they can simply look up truth in the Bible, without realising what sort of book it is, while radical modernists claim they find truth in today’s science, without realising what sort of a thing that is either. But we cannot go back; we have to go on; and the Spirit of Truth, often invoked in favour of any and every innovation in the church, is actually at work when we live within the great story, the love story, God’s love-story, and become in turn agents, missional agents, of that story in the world. Truth is not something we possess and put in our pockets, because truth is grounded in the goodness of creation, the promise of redemption for that creation, and the vocation of human beings to speak God’s word both of naming the original creation and of working for new creation – the word, in other words, of mission. The Spirit of Truth is given so that, living within the great biblical story, we can engage in those tasks.


There is much more to say, as Jesus himself said in the Farewell Discourses, but you cannot bear it now. I hope I have said enough to spark off some discussion and open up some topics of more than a little relevance to who we are as bishops in the Anglican Communion and what we should be about in our mission in tomorrow’s world. I have tried to offer a robust account of the way in which the Bible is designed to be the vehicle of God’s authority, not in an abstract sense but in the dynamic sense of the story through which God’s mission in the world goes forward in the power of the Spirit. And within that larger picture, the small details slot into place, not as isolated fragments of disjointed moral or theological musings, but, as I said before, as tips of the iceberg which show what is there all along just under the surface. There are other questions I haven’t addressed, not least the way in which the Bible demands to be read both individually and corporately in each generation, so that each generation can grow up intellectually, morally, culturally and Christianly. We will never get to the point where scholarship has said all that needs to be said and subsequent generations will just have to look up the right answers. Thank God it isn’t like that. But, as we in turn give ourselves to the tasks of being bishops-in-mission, of being biblical-bishops-in-mission, we must always remind ourselves that the Bible is most truly itself when it is being, through the work of God’s praying people and not least their wise shepherds, the vehicle of God’s saving, new-creational love going out, not to tell the world it is more or less all right as it is, but to do for the whole creation, and every man, woman and child within it, what God did for the children of Israel in Egypt, and what God did for the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus: to say ‘I have heard your crying, and I have come to the rescue.’

Source: ntwrightpage.com

NT Wright – ‘Kingdom come: The public meaning of the Gospels’

Kingdom come: The public meaning of the Gospels
by N.T. Wright

In his new book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis describes how as a young man growing up in an evangelical church, he never heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. That telling personal observation reflects a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the epistles themselves.

Indeed, in this respect evangelicalism has simply mirrored a much larger problem: the entire Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and liberal, charismatic and social activist, has not actually known what the Gospels are there for.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all in their various ways about God in public, about the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven through the public career and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The massive concentration on source and form criticism, the industrial-scale development of criteria for authenticity (or, more often, inauthenticity), and the extraordinary inverted snobbery of preferring gnostic sayings-sources to the canonical documents all stem from, and in turn reinforce, the determination of the Western world and church to make sure that the four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say, but will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with.

The central message of all four canonical Gospels is that the Creator God, Israel’s God, is at last reclaiming the whole world as his own, in and through Jesus of Nazareth. That, to offer a riskily broad generalization, is the message of the kingdom of God, which is Jesus’ answer to the question, What would it look like if God were running this show?

And at once, in the 21st century as in the first, we are precipitated into asking the vital question, Which God are we talking about, anyway? It is quite clear if one reads Christopher Hitchens or Friedrich Nietzsche that the image of “God running the world” against which they are reacting is the image of a celestial tyrant imposing his will on an unwilling world and unwilling human beings, cramping their style, squashing their individuality and their very humanness, requiring them to conform to arbitrary and hurtful laws and threatening them with dire consequences if they resist. This narrative (which contains a fair amount of secularist projection) serves the Enlightenment’s deist agenda, as well as the power interests of those who would move God to a remote heaven so that they can continue to exploit the world.

But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God-the God recognized in Jesus-who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness. The trouble is that in our flat-Earth political philosophies we know only the spectrum which has tyranny at one end and anarchy at the other, with the present democracies our dangerously fragile way of warding off both extremes. The news of God’s sovereign rule inevitably strikes democrats, not just anarchists, as a worryingly long step toward tyranny as we apply to God and to the Gospels the hermeneutic of suspicion that we rightly apply to those in power who assure us that they have our best interests at heart. But the story that the Gospels tell systematically resists this deconstruction-for three reasons having to do with the integration of the Gospel stories both internally and externally.

First, the narrative told by each Gospel-yes, in different ways, but in this regard the canonical Gospels stand shoulder to shoulder over against the Gospel of Thomas and the rest-presents itself as an integrated whole in a way that scholarship has found almost impossible to reflect. Attention has been divided, focusing either on Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom and the powerful deeds-healings, feastings and so on-in which it is instantiated, or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus the Gospels, in both popular and scholarly readings, have been regarded either as grounding a social gospel whose naive optimism has no place for the radical fact of the cross, still less the resurrection-the kind of naïveté that Reinhold Niebuhr regularly attacked-or as merely providing the raw historical background for the developed, and salvific, Pauline gospel of the death of Jesus. If you go the latter route, the only role left for the stories of Jesus’ healings and moral teachings is, as for Rudolf Bultmann, as stories witnessing to the church’s faith, or, for his fundamentalist doppelgängers, stories that proved Jesus’ divinity rather than launching any kind of program (despite Luke 4, despite the Sermon on the Mount, despite the terrifying warnings about the sheep and the goats!).

Appeals for an integrated reading have met stiff opposition from both sides: those who have emphasized Jesus’ social program lash out wildly at any attempt to highlight his death and resurrection, as though that would simply legitimate a fundamentalist program, either Catholic or Protestant, while those who have emphasized his death and resurrection do their best to anathematize any attempt to continue Jesus’ work with and for the poor, as though that might result in justification by works, either actually or at the existentialist meta-level of historical method (Bultmann again, and Gerhard Ebeling and others).

The lesson is twofold: (1) Yes, Jesus did indeed launch God’s saving sovereignty on earth as in heaven; but this could not be accomplished without his death and resurrection. The problem to which God’s kingdom-project was and is the answer is deeper than can be addressed by a social program alone.

(2) Yes, Jesus did, as Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world. “My kingdom is not from this world,” he said to Pilate; had it been, he would have led an armed resistance movement like other worldly kingdom-prophets. But the kingdom he brought was emphatically for this world, which meant and means that God has arrived on the public stage and is not about to leave it again; he has thus defeated the forces both of tyranny and of chaos-both of shrill modernism and of fluffy postmodernism, if you like-and established in their place a rule of restorative, healing justice, which needs translating into scholarly method if the study of the Gospels is to do proper historical, theological and political justice to the subject matter.

It is in the entire Gospel narrative, rather than any of its possible fragmented parts, that we see that complete, many-sided kingdom work taking shape. And this narrative, read this way, resists deconstruction into power games precisely because of its insistence on the cross. The rulers of the world behave one way, declares Jesus, but you are to behave another way, because the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. We discover that so-called atonement theology within that statement of so-called political theology. To state either without the other is to resist the integration, the God-in-public narrative, which the Gospels persist in presenting.

Second, the Gospels demand to be read in deep and radical integration with the Old Testament. Recognition of this point has been obscured by perfectly proper post-Holocaust anxiety about apparently anti-Jewish readings. But we do the Gospels no service by screening out the fact that each of them in its own way (as opposed, again, to the Gospel of Thomas and the rest) affirms the God-givenness and God-directedness of the entire Jewish narrative of creation, fall, Abraham, Moses, David and so on. The Old Testament is the narrative of how the Creator God is rescuing creation from its otherwise inevitable fate, and it was this project, rather than some other, which was brought to successful completion in and through Jesus. The Gospels, like Paul’s gospel, are to that extent folly to pagans, ancient and modern alike, and equally scandalous to Jews. We gain nothing exegetically, historically, theologically or politically by trying to make the Gospels less Jewishly foolish (or vice versa) to paganism and hence less scandalous, in their claim of fulfillment, to Judaism.

Third, the Gospels thus demonstrate a close integration with the genuine early Christian hope, which is precisely not the hope for heaven in the sense of a blissful disembodied life after death in which creation is abandoned to its fate, but rather the hope, as in Ephesians 1, Romans 8 and Revelation 21, for the renewal and final coming together of heaven and earth, the consummation precisely of God’s project to be savingly present in an ultimate public world. And the point of the Gospels is that with the public career of Jesus, and with his death and resurrection, this whole project was decisively inaugurated, never to be abandoned.

From the perspective of these three integrations, we can see how mistaken are the readings of both the neo-Gnostic movement that is so rampant today and the fundamentalism that is its conservative analogue. Indeed, if an outsider may venture a guess, I think the phenomenon of the religious right in the U.S. (we really have no parallel in the United Kingdom) may be construed as a clumsy attempt to recapture the coming together of God and the world, which remains stubbornly in scripture but which the Enlightenment had repudiated, and which fundamentalism itself continues to repudiate with its dualistic theology of rapture and Armageddon.

It is as though the religious right has known in its bones that God belongs in public, but without understanding either why or how that might make sense; while the political left in the U.S., and sometimes the religious left on both sides of the Atlantic, has known in its bones that God would make radical personal moral demands as part of his program of restorative justice, and has caricatured his public presence as a form of tyranny in order to evoke the cheap and gloomy Enlightenment critique as a way of holding that challenge at bay.

The resurrection of Jesus is to be seen not as the proof of Jesus’ uniqueness, let alone his divinity-and certainly not as the proof that there is a life after death, a heaven and a hell (as though Jesus rose again to give prospective validation to Dante or Michelangelo!)-but as the launching within the world of space, time and matter of that God-in-public reality of new creation called God’s kingdom, which, within 30 years, would be announced under Caesar’s nose openly and unhindered. The reason those who made that announcement were persecuted is, of course, that the fact of God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world in a way that Gnosticism in all its forms never is. The Enlightenment’s rejection of the bodily resurrection has for too long been allowed to get away with its own rhetoric of historical criticism-as though nobody until Gibbon or Voltaire had realized that dead people always stay dead-when in fact its nonresurrectional narrative clearly served its own claim to power, presented as an alternative eschatology in which world history came to its climax not on Easter Day but with the storming of the Bastille and the American Declaration of Independence.

Near the heart of the early chapters of Acts we find a prayer of the church facing persecution, and the prayer makes decisive use of one of the most obviously political of all the Psalms. Psalm 2 declares that though the nations make a great noise and fuss and try to oppose God’s kingdom, God will enthrone his appointed king in Zion and thus call the rulers of the earth to learn wisdom from him. This point, which brings into focus a good deal of Old Testament political theology, is sharply reinforced in the early chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon.

Psalm 2 also appears at the start of the Gospel narratives, as Jesus is anointed by the Spirit at his baptism. Much exegesis has focused on the christological meaning of “Son of God” here; my proposal is that we should focus equally, without marginalizing that Christology, on the political meaning. The Gospels constitute a call to the rulers of the world to learn wisdom in service to the messianic Son of God, and thus they also provide the impetus for a freshly biblical understanding of the role of the “rulers of the world” and of the tasks of the church in relation to them. I have three points to make in this regard.

First, it is noteworthy that the early church, aware of prevailing tyrannies both Jewish and pagan, and insisting on exalting Jesus as Lord over all, did not reject the God-given rule even of pagans. This is a horrible disappointment, of course, to post-Enlightenment liberals, who would much have preferred the early Christians to have embraced some kind of holy anarchy with no place for any rulers at all. But it is quite simply part of a creational view of the world that God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished-otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh. This is the point at which Colossians 1 makes its decisive contribution over against all dualisms which imagine that earthly rulers are a priori a bad thing (the same dualisms that have dominated both the method and the content of much biblical scholarship). This is the point, as well, at which the notion of the common good has its contribution to make. The New Testament does not encourage the idea of a complete disjunction between the political goods to be pursued by the church and the political goods to be pursued by the world outside the church, precisely for the reason that the church is to be seen as the body through whom God is addressing and reclaiming the world.

To put this first point positively, the New Testament reaffirms the God-given place even of secular rulers, even of deeply flawed, sinful, self-serving, corrupt and idolatrous rulers like Pontius Pilate, Felix, Festus and Herod Agrippa. They get it wrong and they will be judged, but God wants them in place because order, even corrupt order, is better than chaos. Here we find, in the Gospels, in Acts and especially in Paul, a tension that cannot be dissolved without great peril. We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability conceptually-never mind practically-to affirm that rulers are corrupt and to be confronted yet are God-given and to be obeyed. That sounds to us as though we are simultaneously to affirm anarchy and tyranny. But this merely shows how far our conceptualities have led us again to muzzle the texts in which both stand together. How can that be?

The answer comes-and this is my second point-in such passages as John 19 on the one hand and 1 Corinthians 2 and Colossians 2 on the other. The rulers of this age inevitably twist their God-given vocation-to bring order to the world-into the satanic possibility of tyranny. But the cross of Jesus, enthroned as the true Son of God as in Psalm 2, constitutes the paradoxical victory by which the rulers’ idolatry and corruption are confronted and overthrown. And the result, as in Colossians 1:18-20, is that the rulers are reconciled, are in some strange sense reinstated as the bringers of God’s wise order to the world, whether or not they would see it that way. This is the point at which Romans 13 comes in, not as the validation of every program that every ruler dreams up, certainly not as the validation of what democratically elected governments of one country decide to do against other countries, but as the strictly limited proposal, in line with Isaiah’s recognition of Cyrus, that the Creator God uses even those rulers who do not know him personally to bring fresh order and even rescue to the world. This lies also behind the narrative of Acts.

This propels us to a third, perhaps unexpected and certainly challenging reflection that the present political situation is to be understood in terms of the paradoxical lordship of Jesus himself. From Matthew to John to Acts, from Colossians to Revelation, with a good deal else in between, Jesus is hailed as already the Lord of both heaven and earth, and in particular as the one through whom the Creator God will at last restore and unite all things in heaven and on earth. And this gives sharp focus to the present task of earthly rulers. Until the achievement of Jesus, a biblical view of pagan rulers might have been that they were charged with keeping God’s creation in order, preventing it from lapsing into chaos. Now, since Jesus’ death and resurrection (though this was of course anticipated in the Psalms and the prophets), their task is to be seen from the other end of the telescope. Instead of moving forward from creation, they are to look forward (however unwillingly or unwittingly) to the ultimate eschaton. In other words, God will one day right all wrongs through Jesus, and earthly rulers, whether or not they acknowledge this Jesus and this coming kingdom, are entrusted with the task of anticipating that final judgment and that final mercy. They are not merely to stop God’s good creation from going utterly to the bad. They are to enact in advance, in a measure, the time when God will make all things new and will once again declare that it is very good.

All this might sound like irrationally idealistic talk-and it is bound to be seen as such by those for whom all human authorities are tyrants by another name-were it not for the fact that along with this vision of God working through earthly rulers comes the church’s vocation to be the people through whom the rulers are to be reminded of their task and called to account. We see this happening throughout the book of Acts and on into the witness of the second-century apologists-and, indeed, the witness of the martyrs as well, because martyrdom (which is what happens when the church bears witness to God’s call to the rulers and the rulers shoot the messenger because they don’t like the message) is an inalienable part of political theology. You can have as high a theology of the God-given calling of rulers as you like, as long as your theology of the church’s witness, and of martyrdom, matches it stride for stride.

This witness comes into sharp focus in John 16:8-11. The Spirit, declares Jesus, will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment-about judgment because the ruler of this world is judged. How is the Spirit to do that? Clearly, within Johannine theology, through the witness of the church, in and through which the Spirit is at work. The church will do to the rulers of the world what Jesus did to Pilate in John 18 and 19, confronting him with the news of the kingdom and of truth, deeply unwelcome and indeed incomprehensible though both of them were. Part of the way in which the church will do this is by getting on with, and setting forward, those works of justice and mercy, of beauty and relationship, that the rulers know ought to be flourishing but which they seem powerless to bring about. But the church, even when faced with overtly pagan and hostile rulers, must continue to believe that Jesus is the Lord before whom they will bow and whose final sovereign judgment they are called to anticipate. Thus the church, in its biblical commitment to “doing God in public,” is called to learn how to collaborate without compromise (hence the vital importance of common-good theory) and to critique without dualism.

In particular, as one sharp focus for all this, it is vital that the church learn to critique the present workings of democracy itself. I don’t simply mean that we should scrutinize voting methods, campaign tactics or the use of big money within the electoral process. I mean that we should take seriously the fact that our present glorification of democracy emerged precisely from Enlightenment dualism-the banishing of God from the public square and the elevation of vox populi to fill the vacuum, which we have seen to be profoundly inadequate when faced with the publicness of the kingdom of God. And we should take very seriously the fact that the early Jews and Christians were not terribly interested in the process by which rulers came to power, but were extremely interested in what rulers did once they had obtained power. The greatest democracies of the ancient world, those of Greece and Rome, had well-developed procedures for assessing their rulers once their term of office was over if not before, and if necessary for putting them on trial. Simply not being reelected (the main threat to politicians in today’s democracies) was nowhere near good enough. When Kofi Annan retired as general secretary of the United Nations, one of the key points he made was that we urgently need to develop ways of holding governments to account. That is a central part of the church’s vocation, which we should never have lost and desperately need to recapture.

All this, of course, demands as well that the church itself be continually called to account, since we in our turn easily get it wrong and become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. That is why the church must be semper reformanda as it reads the Bible, especially the Gospels. Fortunately, that’s what the Gospels are there for, and that’s what they are good at, despite generations of so-called critical methods which sometimes seem to have been designed to prevent the Gospels from being themselves. Part of the underlying aim of this essay is to encourage readings of the Bible which, by highlighting the publicness of God and the gospel, set forward those reforms which will enable the church to play its part in holding the powers to account and thus advancing God’s restorative justice.

This article is adapted from a lecture N.T. Wright gave at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2007.

[Source: The Christian Century]

NT Wright – ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’ – 2

Back in December 2007, I drew attention to a lecture that NT Wright gave here in St Andrews on the question ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?. This lecture has now been made available for download in a number of formats.

NT Wright – ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’

Last night I attended a packed-out NT Wright lecture, ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’. It was the clearest I have heard the good bishop for a while (of course, this could be because I was the most awake, a rare thing in itself). Those expecting to hear a ‘scientific’ engagement with the issues may have been disappointed; for the historians (and apologists) among us, however, it was great. Nothing at all new but classic apologia – Wright-style.

This lecture has also been made available in a number of formats.

Alastair has saved us some work by posting his excellent summary of the talk here. My notes are considerably more scrappy (resembling the state of my mind) but for the record, here they are:

  • Science can never be enough for a full and flourishing account of human being.
  • Resurrection in the C1st necessarily impinged on the the public world. It meant a real physical act. To talk of resurrection is to do history rather than science because it is a unique, unrepeatable, event.
  • Resurrection is not about life after death; it is about what happens after life after death.
  • Christianity stands with the Pharisees rather than with the Sadducees or Philo on the question of resurrection.
  • The resurrected body – though created out of the ‘stuff’ of the old body – contains new properties. The resurrected body used up all the old properties (hence the empty tomb). The resurrected body has a ‘new kind of physicality’, one equally at home on earth as in heaven. It is not capable of decay or death.
  • Resurrection is not resuscitation, which is merely the return to the corruptible body.
  • No Jewish hope envisaged a two-stage process of resurrection, the second part of which was a general resurrection.
  • The resurrection of Jesus transformed Jewish notions of a messiah. No Jew expected the Messiah to be resurrected because no Jew expected the Messiah to be killed.
  • ‘Death is the last weapon of the tyrant; and the point of the resurrection is that death has been defeated’.
  • Discrepancies in the accounts in the four canonical gospels concerning the resurrection of Jesus is evidence which supports the historicity of the event. If we only had one account – or of the accounts were derived from one another – then the story would be more improbable.
  • The resurrection accounts witnessed to in the gospels are very early, arising from oral traditions.
  • 1 Corinthians 15 is a later revision from the earlier gospel accounts wherein the first witnesses were women. In the C1st, women were considered incredible witnesses. There appearance in the gospels, therefore, suggests that the gospel accounts were the earlier.
  • Christianity appeals to history and so to history it must go. And yet who we meet as we go challenges us to rethink – and reconceive – our worldview, including our understanding of history.
  • Faith does not ignore history but respects and transforms history because it is faith in the Creator-God.
  • When something turns up in science that doesn’t fit the paradigm with which we’ve been working, we must be prepared to change our paradigm even while not rejecting all that had gone before. The faith by which we know is determined by the nature of its object. This corresponds to the methodology adopted by science. Scientific epistemology occasionally requires having to change ways of seeing to that which is more appropriate to the new reality. So too with Christian faith.
  • Hope in the resurrection is actually a ‘mode of knowing’. Wright cites Wittgenstein, ‘It is love which believes the resurrection’; as it was for Peter. The reality of the resurrection cannot be known is we insist on a mechanistic view of reality. Belief in the resurrection requires a full devotion of love. This love-epistemology relates to a new ontology of the resurrection.
  • Unlike with lust, love requires a real other, a real external knower. To believe in the resurrection, therefore, is to believe in the one resurrected.
  • All knowing is a gift from God – no so less scientific and historical knowing – and ought be situated within the arena of knowing established by faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Forthcoming James Gregory Public Lectures are:

February 28, 2008: John Polkinghorne, ‘Has Science Made Religion Redundant?’

April 17, 2008: Bruno Guiderdon, ‘Islam and Science’

Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

NT Wright will be giving a public lecture on ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’ at the University of St Andrews (Scotland) on Thursday 20 December, Physics Lecture A, at 5.15pm. Admission is free, and more information is obtainable from phoning 01334 474 975.

For those who can’t get there, the audio/video of a previous lecture on the same topic is also available from the following:

Tom Wright , Andrew McGowan and Post-Modernity

Is Christianity a rival, an ally or a coping mechanism in the post-modern empire? In this engaging podcast, N T Wright addresses this question in front of Melbourne Anglicans and is joined in the discussion (it’s not a debate) by Rev Dr Andrew McGowan, Director of Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

On the way, Wright talks about postmodernity, 9/11, the current invasion of Iraq, beauty, ‘authenticity’, and the arts.

McGowan (definitely not the Andy McGowan from Scotland) offers us a much more positive view of the relationship between Christianity and Postmodernity, and also a critique of the Church’s relationship with consumerism, a go at conservative Anglicanism (read Sydney? and a ‘Hillsong-style Anglicanism’), and relevance vs authenticity in mission.

Other topics of discussion include immigration policy, the current state of worldwide Anglicanism, and human rights,

The discussion is well worth listening to.

NT Wright on the goodness of creation

Taken from an interview with N. T. Wright from CT.

You say that the Hebrew bible is not largely concerned with what happens to people when they die. That might surprise many Christians.

Yes, but it is not actually controversial. You can search the Old Testament from end to end, and even if you take a maximal view of passages like the “I know that my redeemer liveth” bit in Job, you’re still left with a very small selection over against the vast mass of the Old Testament in which the question is not even raised.

What is the point then?

I grew up with the view that in the early Old Testament period, there was no interest in life after death. In a middle period, represented by some of the Psalms, there were the beginnings of an interest in life after death. And then finally, with Daniel, you get resurrection, as though that’s a progression away from the early period.

The view that I came to is that the main thing the whole Old Testament is concerned with is the God of Israel, as the Creator God who has made a good creation, and that what matters about human life really is that it’s meant to be lived within God’s good, lovely, created world. That is equally emphatic in the early period, where you get agricultural festivals that celebrate Yahweh as king over the crops and the land. It’s equally emphatic there and in the doctrine of resurrection. From that point of view, the idea of a disembodied, nonspacio-temporal life after death appears as a rather odd blip in between these two strong affirmations of the goodness of the created order and the wonderful God-givenness of human bodily life within that created order.

So, instead of resurrection being a step away from the early period, it is a way of reaffirming what the early period was trying to get at: the goodness of creation.

NT Wright on Romans, ‘Simply Christian’, and more

Steve Hayhow (thanks Steve) has linked to three talks on Romans by NT Wright. Also, I’ve been listening to Wright’s talks on his latest book Simply Christian. As on any topic, Wright is well worth listening too. These can all be downloaded here.

On Romans:
God’s Gospel, God’s Son, God’s Righteousness (30.1MB MP3)
New Exodus, New Creation, New Humanity (27.8MB MP3)
‘All Israel’ and the Church’s Task (29.9MB MP3)

On Simply Christian:
Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Part 1 of 2 (68 MB MP3)
Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Part 2 of 2 (38 MB MP3)

There’s also a stack more available from NT Wright’s page which I list here:

InterVarsity Press Conference, January 1999:
Jesus and the Kingdom (8.5MB MP3)
Jesus and the Cross (8.2MB MP3)
Jesus and God (10.4MB MP3)
Jesus and the World’s True Light (9.8MB MP3)

Calvin College, January 2007:
Simply Christian
Space, Time and Sacraments

The Memorial Church of Harvard University, October 2006:
2006 William Belden Noble Lectures

KFUO Radio Interview: Issues, Etc.
The Problem of Evil (9MB MP3)

KFUO Radio Interview: Issues, Etc.
Direct Link (49MB MP3)

Nashotah House, May 2006:
Commencement Address (MP3)

Washington National Cathedral video, May 2006:
Simply Christian

City Church, May 2006:
Open Forum with N.T. Wright

Grace Cathedral, May 2006:
N.T. Wright and Anne Rice: Writing Our Way to God

SHAC Celebration Service, March 2006:
The Power of God vs the Powers of the World (4.6MB MP3)

St Barnabas Anglican Church, March 2006:
Sermon on Worship (4.75MB MP3)

Durham New Testament Seminar, October 2005:
Jesus (7.5MB MP3)
Paul (7MB MP3)
November 2005: Further Thoughts on Romans 10 (10.8MB MP3)

Seattle Pacific University, May 2005: The Bible and Christian Imagination

Pepperdine University, January 2005:
The Challenge of Following Jesus in the 21st Century:
Lecture 1
Lecture 2
Lecture 3

Open Source Theology, September 2004:
Future of the People of God talks

Calvin College, January 2003:
St. Paul in the Big Picture

Baylor Chapel, October 2002: Lecture on Evil

Calvin College, January 2002:
Freedom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Recovering Biblical Worship

Yale University, 1996. The Veritas Forum:
The Jesus of Myth and History (28MB MP3)
So What? (20MB MP3)

BBC Radio interview

BBC Radio 3 Interview, Transcript

Jerry Bowyer interview: N.T. Wright and New Insights on Paul (11.4MB MP3)

Am I wright to wish that I was in OZ at the moment?

I think I left Australia at the wrong time. Not only am I missing the Commonwealth Games, but Tom Wright is visiting there too. Here’s what he’s been saying:

  • ‘We Protestants belittle Paul, the Catholics have marginalised him, the Jews are afraid of him, let’s just get together and read the man again, and we’ll find that he’ll lead us all forward.’
  • ‘Now if you say that the body of Jesus stayed in the tomb, and that the disciples were aware of a spiritual presence of Jesus somewhere, then what you’re saying is this is just a local variation on a new kind of spirituality. It’s certainly not a new creation. The point about the resurrection is not that it’s an isolated, odd miracle, in which God does strange conjuring tricks with bones – as one of my distinguished predecessors in Durham once said. The point about Christianity is that it’s the moment when, through Jesus, the creator God launches the project of new creation and says, ‘OK, guys, come on in.’’
  • ‘The whole Bultmannian movement 100 years ago towards demythologisation was simply a misapprehension. Early Christianity was not like that, it really was rooted in what real people said, that their memories were incidents they’d taken part in.’
  • ‘Trying to get the message of the New Testament without the Old Testament is trying to make a tree stand up without a root system. Many Christians ignore the Old Testament and profit still from the fact that this tree is still flowering and bearing fruit. But in fact if you try cutting off that root system, you’ll find the tree falls down dead pretty soon.’

To read more, go to


There’s also info there about where he’ll be speaking. So if you’re in OZ, get along and hear him. No excuses … not even watching the Games.