Jesus people, loving people

Talking to Tom Wright (Pt 1)

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. He talks to James Stacey, a leader in the Jesus Fellowship.

Read Talking to Tom Wright (Part 2)

Tom WrightThanks for giving us your time, Tom. It would be good to hear something of your own story, your own journey of faith.

I had a very ordinary English upbringing – about as middle, middle class and as middle, middle Anglican as you could get. I was born and bred in Morpeth, in Northumberland. I grew up in a family where church was normal, prayers in the evening were normal, singing hymns around the piano on a Sunday afternoon was normal.

I ran into a more evangelical strand of the Christian faith in my early teens at Scripture Union boys’ camps in Scotland (that’s where I really learnt to love Scotland – not that it’s difficult to fall in love with Scotland!) It was rock-climbing and canoeing, and in the morning and evening there would be prayers and a short talk based on the bible. At school I helped to start a little group who would meet weekly for bible study and prayer. By my late teens I was starting to lead them – and the whole business of making the bible my own, and then the excitement of helping other people making it their own, became important to me.

Within that faith journey, I was aware from an early age that I was being called to ordained ministry. I just realised that this is what I had to be. My mother’s father was a clergyman so I could identify with that. What I didn’t know until I was a student, an undergraduate, was that I would actually develop an academic side. I don’t think my contemporaries at school would’ve thought of me as a budding scholar! I spent far too much time on sport and music.

What sport, and what music?

Oh everything! Anything involving a ball to hit, kick, whatever, particularly cricket and rugby, but also squash, tennis. I played the piano and the guitar from an early age, and picked up the trombone at school. Think sixties – so the Beatles, jazz, and lots more. I love music.

Let’s fast forward: you were Bishop of Durham for seven years. I imagine that is a very busy role – but then you returned to academia. Why was that?

When I was at theological college, I told my tutor I wanted to combine academic and pastoral vocations. He said I had to choose; I couldn’t do both. I’ve spent the last forty years trying to prove him wrong! It both has and hasn’t worked. A hundred years ago there were lots of nice little parishes, where a clergyman could be a perfectly good pastor to two hundred and fifty people while writing a book about the New Testament (or butterflies or ancient history) on the side. Those days are over. When I was in Durham I did write some books, but that was mostly from ‘old stock’, based on previous work.

“Getting your hands dirty living out the New Testament on a very daily basis is important.”

The Church of England has always, in theory, believed that it’s good to have some people in senior leadership who are academically qualified, who could be professors of theology – though it’s hard.

Music is a good analogy. Some musical people teach music as an academic subject, but often conduct a choir or an orchestra on the side: I think everyone recognises that that’s good for both the practical and the academic sides. In the same way, I think such combined vocations ought to be possible – certainly for a biblical scholar. The New Testament is about the real life of the early church. If you sit in a study all day and don’t actually do anything with the actual church, the real problems that people have, then it’s easy to dream up theories which don’t actually have traction on the ground. Getting your hands dirty living out the New Testament on a very daily basis is important.

Durham was hugely busy. When I started – finally – to write my big book on Paul, I quickly realised that the book was going to stay as a pile of papers on the floor: there was simply no space in the diary for it. You can’t write a book of that scale while doing a job like that.

So Paul and the Faithfulness of God was a key factor then in your decision?

It was a big factor. A book of over a thousand pages does take time!

You must write fast!

I enjoy writing. It’s a quirk, like a genetic oddity, that words come quite easily to me. It’s like a double-jointed thumb – not down to any virtue on my part. What took the time was catching up with where the scholarship had got to. The previous detailed work I had done on Paul was several years earlier and there had been several major developments in that time.

A poemIt must have felt good when it was done!

It was wonderful. We had a great launch in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey. Without me knowing, my wife had commissioned a friend, the poet Michael O’Siadhail, whose poems feature in the book, to write a poem in celebration – and also the artist Makoto Fujimura to do an illustrated version of that poem. They presented me with them that night; it was very moving.

Let’s fast-forward again – to a hundred years’ time. What would you like your legacy to be, what would you like to be remembered for?

I think Groucho Marx said, in answer to a similar question, “I hope they’ll be saying how well the old boy is looking for his age!” …I would like to think that people would say, “He opened up the New Testament and showed us what was there all along. He enabled us to grasp it in a way that made sense rather than just a few verses here and there, and the rest is fuzzy.” I would love to think that both at the academic level and the popular level, people would say, “Thanks for helping us see the message of the New Testament in a fresh way” – and I hope an accurate way.

I often get asked, “If Paul was here today, what would shock him most?” I am sure that the answer is disunity in the church. Not only fragmented, but cemented fragmented! At the end of Romans Paul wrote, “Welcome one another that you may with one heart and voice glorify the God and Father of Jesus”. Paul would have said that having separate services just down the road from each other on a Sunday morning is a denial of the Gospel: God has created a new humanity and you’re breaking it up!

So 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.

Your popular series on the New Testament is called For Everyone. That’s very broad! Did you have any particular kind of reader in mind?

The For Everyone books were designed for the person who might come to church fairly regularly, but tends to sort of sit at the back and not ask any questions, and regards the Bible as something that they mention ‘up front’. I want to say, “No, it is for you, and if you can read an average newspaper you can read these.”

Various things followed from that: no technical terms, no long words. Where I had to use technical terms (like ‘Pharisee’ for instance) they’re in a simple glossary. The New Testament text was my own translation. If we’d chosen any of the existing translations, sooner or later I would have had to have said, “What a pity this version says this – a better translation of the Greek is…” And that sort of sentence just puts people off.

How can we do justice to the complexities of the New Testament without losing people?

You’ve got to start where people are. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I’ve fed you with milk, not solid food because you weren’t ready for it.” People are ready for things at different stages, there are levels of teaching. That’s not elitist, it helps people grow and mature.

The real challenge is that not only is the New Testament set in a very different culture from ours, but that our modern western Christian culture has developed its own ways of reading certain texts which are probably not what they originally meant.

I’m a bad golfer. I’ve developed all sorts of bad habits. When I, very occasionally, have a golf lesson the trainer will look at me and sigh, and I think, “I know what he is going to say! – ‘Your hands are in the wrong place, you’ll never be able to hit the ball straight’.” And so with reading the New Testament, it’s a matter of unlearning bad habits, what we think it’s about, as well as fresh learning.

You’ve written a big book about Jesus (and few small ones!) A prominent theme in them is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. What does the kingdom of God mean for us in the 21st century?

The kingdom of God means today what it always meant. According to Jesus, God is now in charge of the world in a whole new way. God is redemptively in charge. Wasn’t God always in charge? Yes, but things had to happen through which God’s sovereignty over the world could be exercised in a new way – and that came about by way of Jesus dying on the cross.

People will still say, as they said to Jesus, “What do you mean God’s in charge? Look out of the window, read the newspaper – it’s obvious God isn’t in charge! Why is all this bad stuff happening?” The Gospels are devoted in large part to Jesus going around doing and saying things, which reinterpreted the whole question of what it would mean for God to be in charge. This is what it looks like when God is in charge: people who are meek, merciful, peacemakers, justice-hungry. They’re the ones through whom God’s kingdom is happening.

Tom Wright in lectureIt’s not that God loves these people specially so he’s just going to have them for himself and forget everybody else. God calls people to be kingdom people so that through them – rather than through the bullies, the powerbrokers and the people with heavy duty weapons – God will establish His reign.

Why doesn’t God send in the tanks and sort out these idiots who are messing the world up? The answer is “Sorry, that’s not what the Kingdom of God looks like; it looks like somebody planting seed in a field; it looks like a father welcoming back a son…” This is how it happens; this is how the world is changed.

We’ve been so bombarded with the idea that Christianity is part of the problem, not part of the solution, that we tend to back off from confidence in this idea. We think “Really? The church messes so many things up! We can’t possibly say that God becomes king through the work of His followers, because they’re such stupid people – myself included!” Yet, actually, in the last two thousand years, the world has changed radically and a fair amount of that positive change, radical change, has been through the gospel.

Just one obvious example: in the ancient world, and in many parts of the modern world, forgiveness was not a virtue. Forgiveness is a sign of weakness, it’s a sign for being stupid, that you’re not standing up for your rights, you’re letting your family down and so on. But today? Right across the world, even if sometimes it’s only lip service, people regard forgiveness as something we ought to do. Other examples: schools, hospitals, hospices – nobody dreamt of doing things like that for the population at large. Medicine and education were for the elite in the ancient world. The idea that we had a responsibility to care for one another was a totally new thing, which the Christians introduced – and which is now almost universally accepted.

This doesn’t mean that we are steadily building the Kingdom of God by our own efforts. God builds God’s kingdom in God’s time, but we are doing things in the present which really do reflect the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead, that He is Lord, that He is actually in charge and that one day He will complete the whole thing.

Why is it important that Jesus rose from the dead, and why, in particular, is it important that He rose bodily?

The idea of a non-bodily resurrection was a contradiction in terms in the first century. They had all sorts of words which meant survival in some form after death – a soul going off to heaven or a shade going down into the underworld. But the very specific word, resurrection, simply didn’t mean that. Resurrection always meant somebody who was physically dead being physically alive again. The very modern idea of a “non-bodily” resurrection would make no sense at all.

So the question is: did it happen or didn’t it happen?

First, if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead nobody would ever, ever, ever have said “He really was the Messiah, He really was the Lord, He really did die for our sins.” As Paul wrote, “If the Messiah is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins.” Thousands of other young Jews, bent on some kind of renewal, revolution, or reform, were crucified by the Romans in the first century (and plenty in the century after Jesus). In not one single case did anyone claim, three days or three hours or three weeks later, “Actually, He’s the Messiah”. The resurrection is the only way you can explain the rise of the church. That’s not a new argument, and some people try to get around it, but it remains pretty solid.

The other thing, which I think many in the west don’t realise – the Eastern Orthodox have always hung onto it – is that the resurrection is the beginning of the new creation. The present creation, although it’s beautiful and powerful, is blighted by decay and death. But the time will come when God will renew creation. He’s not going to throw it away. The present world is not just rubbish He’s got to get rid of: God is going to renew this whole world, so that everything which is beautiful and powerful and lovely in it will be even more beautiful and powerful and lovely.

The resurrection of Jesus is both the beginning of that new creation and its driving energy. The resurrection generates a world in which the Holy Spirit is left with us, and it’s through the Spirit – the Spirit of creation, now of new creation – that God will renew the world. Without the resurrection, we have no reason to suppose that God is actually going to do that. Christianity would collapse into being a form of private spirituality. But since we live between the resurrection of Jesus and the eventual renewal of all things, the work that we do as Christians in the present time – whether it’s nursing and healing the sick, or teaching, or praying with anxious people, or whatever it is – is held between those two events and becomes, strangely, part of the work of new creation.

Also, without the resurrection you’re left with an atonement which there’s no reason to suppose was actually real. If Jesus didn’t defeat death, how do we know He defeated sin? The future remains a ‘sort of, let’s hope, one day’ – whereas with the resurrection you’re on solid ground. However bad it gets (and it was bad in the first century! Read Paul, read 2 Corinthians), we’re in the business of new creation. Not because we’re dreaming it up out of our own heads – but because it happened to Jesus.

So new creation is different to heaven? You’ve said on various occasions, “Heaven’s important, but it’s not the end of the world”.

That isn’t an original line, it’s from a book by David Lawrence. I cheerfully borrow it.

We need to realise that resurrection is ‘life after life after death’. People get puzzled about that so let me explain it. That the ultimate promise that we have is a new heaven and new earth. It’s not escaping earth and going to heaven. The last scene in the bible is not souls going upstairs to heaven but the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. Heaven and earth combine.

Today’s dominant western philosophy is still some form of deism – God is in heaven, but it’s a long way away and it’s got nothing to do with us. There’s a great gap between us and anything divine. Therefore if you believe in the divine or God or heaven, it must be a matter leaving where you are and going there. That’s totally un-Jewish, completely unbiblical. In the biblical worldview, heaven and earth are made for one another; they’re made to work together.

That’s what Genesis 1 and 2 looks like. God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. He’s around. The creation story is like the construction of a temple, in which God and humans are both in their proper place and proper relation. Later, the temple in Jerusalem is the place where heaven and earth meet. When you’re in the temple, and the Holy of Holies in particular, that’s the point of interception of the two circles, the two spheres. It’s where heaven and earth overlap.

And then Jesus does and says things which appear to be upstaging the temple. He implies that everything the temple meant you get if you’re with Him. And Paul describes the church as the new temple because the Holy Spirit dwells within it. This is all about heaven and earth coming together.

The Wright sort of books

So any talk about ‘going to heaven’ as though that’s somehow radically different from what we’ve got on earth implies the wrong way of looking at things. No: God is going to remake the whole world and raise us from the dead, to be part of that new world, and indeed help Him running it.

Of course, the question presses – for instance, at every funeral one takes – “Well, where are those who have died now?” When I think about people that I’ve loved, who have died, what do I think I think about them? I think they’re resting. I think they’re being refreshed. As Paul says in Philippians 1, they’re “with Christ which is far better”.

It’s interesting that the New Testament never uses the word ‘heaven’ either for our final destination, or even for our intermediate state. In fact, it has very little to stay about the intermediate state at all. Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in paradise” – but paradise was never a final destination. Likewise Jesus said “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” – but these are not great palaces which you go and live in forever, but wayside inns where you rest and are refreshed before you continue on your journey.

I explore all this in my book Surprised By Hope. I get more letters, emails, phone calls, people stopping me in the street to talk about it, about that book than all my other books put together. It’s clearly struck a chord with people. It’s released them from the heaven hell dichotomy into a much more positive spirituality and positive evaluation of the created order and of our place within it.

So what will we be doing after our ‘rest with Jesus’?

We don’t get very much of a hint, but we get enough to know something. It’s about being in the image of God – reflecting God into the world and reflecting the world back to God. In Jewish tradition this is ‘royal priesthood’: the ‘royal’ bit is sharing God’s work of stewarding, shepherding, and looking after the world; the ‘priestly’ bit is summing up the praises of creation and presenting them before God.

We’ve been rescued not in order to sit back and do nothing forever; we’ve been rescued in order to be kings and priests. That’s Revelation. And in Romans, Paul has his own version: “Those who receive the gift of righteousness will reign in life” – that’s a royal word. You will be kings or queens. There will be a sense of helping God run God’s world.

Another hint. In a parable, Jesus says, “You made ten coins out of the one I gave you; you will be in charge of ten cities.” These are signposts into God’s future – who knows exactly how it will be. But there is a sense that humans were made to reflect God’s loving care into the world and reflect the praises of the world back to God. Worship and stewardship. It’s there in Genesis 1 and 2, it’s there in Revelation 21 and 22.

It won’t be an idle existence. There’s a lovely line in Chariots of Fire when Eric Liddell says, “God made me, and he made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” That captures something of this, I think. Doing the thing you are made for, a sense of “Yes, this is who I am.” And somebody else, someone totally different, will be saying about something different, “Yes, this is who I am”. That sense of fulfilled vocation is what it will all be about.


This is the end of Part One of this interview. Part Two will be released in a week’s time.

Published 19th December 2014 with tags: author covenant gospel kingdom of God poetry social justice theology


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