Jesus people, loving people

Talking to N. T. Wright (Part 2)

N.T. (“Tom”) Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews. Formerly bishop of Durham, and recognised as one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Tom is also a prolific author. His books include the hugely popular For Everyone series on the New Testament and the magisterial series Christian Origins and the Question of God. This is Part 2 of an interview with James Stacey, a leader in the Jesus Fellowship; in Part 1 they discussed the resurrection and new creation.

Read Talking to Tom Wright (Part 1)


N.T.Wright and James StaceyLet’s talk about Paul. You’ve written a book about justification – and that comes up a lot in the big Paul book as well. Some of what you’ve written is viewed as groundbreaking, even controversial. What did Paul mean by justification?

Almost always in theology, one is seeing an imbalance and trying to correct it. You’ve seen something that’s been missed out and you’re trying to put it back in. That’s difficult when you’re talking about a subject which is many-sided and complex because you have to say everything all the time otherwise people think that you have deliberately missed something out!

The way justification works in the three principle places that occurs – Romans 3, Galatians 3, and Philippians 3– always has a context of God constituting the church in unity as the new humanity: “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female”. It is the unified church that God has justified, has declared, “These are my people.”

Take the letter to Philemon. Though the word ‘justified’ is not mentioned, it is about justification because it’s about God declaring that a Christian slave and a Christian master are brothers in Christ and should be reconciled. Justification and reconciliation, for Paul, are ultimately two ways of getting at the same big thing. And just as reconciliation isn’t just reconciliation between humans, it’s reconciliation between humans and God, so justification isn’t just about the unity of the church, it’s about the astonishing, breathtaking announcement by God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that all those who believe are forgiven, that they are rescued from sin, that they’re rescued from death.

The antithesis people often try to set up between ‘justification as forgiveness of sins’ or ‘justification as Jew and Gentile coming together’ misses the point. For Paul they are absolutely stitched together.

And here’s why (and again this is something people find so difficult to understand): for Paul, with his classic Jewish perception, when God wanted to put the world right He called Abraham to start a family. And Abraham is pointing forwards into the darkness of the future, as it were, but with hindsight we can see that what Abraham is pointing forward to is Jesus. What God does in Jesus is what He promised to Abraham. So the big question (as in Galatians 3, one of the main justification chapters) is: “Who really are the children God promised to Abraham?”

But most Christians today, in the west at least, don’t think to themselves “Wow, I’m a child of Abraham!” Yet that’s the whole crunch of Paul’s argument! So it’s rather lost on them.

In order to understand justification, we have to take it out of its medieval and Reformation context and put it back into Paul’s context. When we do that we don’t actually lose anything the reformers are trying to emphasise. It is still all about how God deals with sin and death, which were the problem in the first place – but the way He does that is through the existence of this family that finally we realise is shaped by and constituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So you’ve got the death and resurrection of Jesus, resulting in freedom from sin and death: fine! That’s traditional justification. But the reason it means that is because Jesus is the Messiah who has fulfilled the destiny of Israel, fulfilled the purpose for which God called Abraham.

And here’s the important point that can be lost in some of our modern traditions: the result of justification is not a bunch of little individuals, each one saying “Ooh isn’t that nice, I’m forgiven”, but a family, who demonstrate by their family-ness to the world that Jesus is Lord and that God is God.

So that’s why unity among Christians is so important to Paul?

Unity and justification are absolutely part of the same package. This is the great irony of the Reformation splitting the Church on the doctrine of justification. I understand why that happened. I’m not knocking them. Those guys were brave, biblical reformers, and good for them! But, in Galatians 2 which is the first place Paul articulated justification, the whole point of justification is that Jews and Gentiles, if they’re in Christ, belong at the same table.

Justification isn’t simply a doctrine we should be able to agree about: it is the doctrine which says “You’re all part of the same family.”
Some of Tom Wright's books

Heaven. Justification. Big topics! How might some of these things affect the way today’s churches proclaim the gospel, the way they approach evangelism?

There’s nothing wrong with addressing questions about what happens after death. That is part of the message. Some people need to be confronted with that even when they don’t want to be. Others suddenly become anxious about it either because a relative has died or they’re ill. It’s perfectly appropriate, and part of the whole thing. But it’s not the main thing. The good news, ultimately, is that in Jesus Christ, God has rescued and renewed the whole creation, and you’re invited to be a part of it. But in order to be a part of it there’s something pretty drastic has to happen because at the moment you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The call to ‘repent and believe’ is not so much ‘unless you do this you’ll be damned forever’ –  though damnation is something the New Testament also affirms – but God is doing this great new thing, this project to renew the world: come and be part of it.

A lot of people just know in their bones the way we do stuff at the moment is not working, it’s not right. We saw that in this part of the world with the Scottish referendum. People reached for independence as though that would solve all the problems. I thought, and said at the time, that that was the wrong answer to the right questions. There shouldn’t be poverty, social deprivation, injustice. God is even more passionate about that than we are. The problem is that we all mess up because we’re sinners. Through forgiveness, through the gospel, God begins to sort us out so that we can be part of His project.

Now you can say that in a million different ways, and you do it in a million different ways. Evangelism, it seems to me, must be rooted in what the local church is doing in the local community –  producing signs of healing, signs of hope, signs of beauty.

As I say in Surprised by Hope, if evangelism is talking about a God who cares passionately about injustice, and a God who loves making beautiful things and makes more and more of them, then if the church is seen to be siding with injustice, or seem to be colluding with just crazy ugliness – then it’s much harder to talk about the God we know in Jesus. But if the church is working on these things then people will say, “Why are you doing this, what’s this about?” And those signs themselves will point to Jesus. Then the message, which we must communicate as clearly and biblically as we can will mean what it ought to mean, rather than grinding against the other things we’re doing. I grieve when the church continues to get it wrong in so many ways, because it does get in the way of the message.

So it’s a call to come and belong to people who, together, in God, are doing something great?

Exactly. I remember hearing somebody saying that when people become Christians, the order of events is “belonging, believing, behaving”. I was rather cross about that because it seemed to me it ought to be “believing, belonging, behaving”! But because we’re all different and because communities work in different ways, as long as you come into that circle at some point, where you come in isn’t hugely important.

Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 10, people who belong but don’t seem to believe, and certainly don’t seem to behave – and he’s pretty sharp with them. So just belonging by itself? The time comes when you have to wake up and smell the coffee. Equally, if somebody says “I believe I have this wonderful relationship with God!” but that doesn’t affect either the way they behave, or their belongingness in the Christian community, something’s wrong. Just as being human is a matter of so many different things, quite a bewildering range of things whether it’s music, or love, or food, all that we are and do, so being a Christian, which is a ‘whole person’ thing, consists of all sorts of different things. Different people are ready for different bits of that at different times, which is why one-on-one evangelism, though that’s important, needs to be in the context of a community.

How do you see the work of the Spirit? Gentle guidance or Pentecostal power? Or if it’s both, what’s the right balance between the whizz-bang and the quiet?

Well, the word for ‘spirit’, in both Hebrew and Greek is the same word for both breath or wind –

– One of which is quite a quiet word and one quite a loud word!

Yes. We know all about wind in this part of Scotland. Through the autumn and winter, and early spring, we get wind like you wouldn’t believe. It’s quite dramatic. We have slates blow off the roof. At the moment it’s gentle. But it’s the same wind. As it says in John 3, the wind, the Spirit, blows where it wants, and you hear the sound of it but you have no idea what it’s up to.

It seems to me that a great many Christians are in fact deeply indwelt, filled by, animated by the spirit, in a completely unreflective way. They don’t realise that what they’re doing is actually something that, seen from the outside, one would have to say “The reason this person is like this is the Spirit firmly dwelling in them”. One of the privileges of my life as a bishop was to minister with, and to, and through, people in different communities in the northeast of England who hadn’t been taught very much about the Spirit, but were doing things which had the fingerprints of the Spirit all over them.

Tom Wright speaking

In the sixties and seventies, when I was a student and the charismatic movement swept through, it was hugely exciting – but one sometimes got the impression that the reason God gave people the Spirit was just to give them an exciting experience, a sort of spiritual trip to Alton Towers. God can do whatever God wants to do, and if somebody has been living a tedious and depressing life, suddenly has a sense of release and fresh power, it may well make them laugh, fall down, pray in tongues. Fine, if that’s what God wants to do – but don’t be surprised if later that energy is put to use in something pretty tough. Because that’s going to happen.

What do you see as being the main challenges to face churches in Britain now and into the future?

I think we’re still navigating our way into post-Christian Britain. There’s still a residual sense that, however much people say they don’t really believe, they know the church is there for them. When Princess Diana died where did people go to? They went into churches, they went into cathedrals, they went to sign books of condolence not in the town hall, in the churches. When we had the referendum here in Scotland, the next Sunday some of the party leaders went to a service of reconciliation and commitment to the future of Scotland, in St Giles Cathedral. People know that something about God and Jesus could be, maybe should be, in some way at the heart of national life. There is a place for things like reconciliation, like forgiveness.

Is the glass half empty or half full? I’ve had enough experience of the cathedral and abbey world to know that it sometimes looks half empty, but often it really can be half full. People are reaching out after something, and we have to be able to find them where they are, meet them where they are, and gently lead them – not drag them too fast too quickly – but lead them towards a deeper, fuller realisation.

At the same time of course, there are many people who will be right outside that – probably the majority of our contemporaries in the UK. Cathedrals, abbeys – that would just feel like a fluffy, old-fashioned, ecclesial version of Downton Abbey. But again and again – and thank God for this – through all sorts of new movements, new types of church, new movements of the Spirit, such people find themselves confronted with Jesus. The stories from the Alpha Course are just wonderful. People right outside the churches, hardened criminals in jail, have their lives turned around. People who wouldn’t have ever imagined having anything to do with the church now say, “Yep, this is who I now am and it’s just transformed me.”

God is at work in all sorts of ways. We ought to be looking for and praying for, not an old fashioned revival the way people used to think of it (that’s very much of the culture of the 18th and 19th century), but a different kind of revival in which community and a commitment to justice isn’t a side issue but key to the whole thing.

Traditional churches are under severe pressure, but newer churches, so I understand, are flourishing all over the place. I would love to see these apparently divergent paths recognising each other and trying to find ways of saying, “Let’s celebrate what we share”. As we found in the northeast of England when I was working there, one of the most obvious ways of doing this is shared bible study. Get together with folk from the other churches in your area, groups of ten or fifteen. Don’t even try to do anything too fancy, just read the text together. Take a Gospel and read it together. Tell each other what you’re hearing and share the puzzles that you have. It’s not rocket science, but it might just achieve something!

You share his passion!

I would love to think that some of what I have done might help Christians from very different traditions come together through rediscovering the message of the New Testament that they all share.

Published 24th December 2014 with tags: gospel social justice theology unity

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