c) 2012' name='copyright'/>Michael DeShane Hinton: December 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Critique of NT Wright

I have posted below some characteristic quotes by NT Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity, St. Andrews. Wright taught Biblical studies at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities.  He is a popular author and speaker but does not understand the Gospel as he should.

In an interview in Christianity Today in 2007, for instance, Wright said, "Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, and how we’ve managed for years to say the Lord’s Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious."

Of course, escape is a completely valid way to conceive of the Gospel message.  It is the very word used on numerous occasions in the literature:

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33 ESV)

But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36 ESV)

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:3 ESV)

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (I Corinthians 10:13 ESV)

While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (I Thessalonians 5:3)

[T]hey may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (II Timothy 2:26 ESV)

[H]ow shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, (Hebrews 2:3 ESV)

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25 ESV)

The most powerful of human instincts, which all living beings possess, is to survive.  All living things have some form of intelligence that serves that desire.  But human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, are also spiritual beings; therefore, we utilize rational self-interest at cosmic and complex levels to seek our eternal welfare. That kind of thinking is called in the Greek phronesis; it is a learned behavior and required to understand Scripture.  The beatitude of Scripture is that God wants us to maximize our chances of happiness, which ultimately means to live forever with him, which is the first duty of man.  Therefore, God communicates to us the facts as he sees them, calling us to “flee the wrath to come.” (Luke 3:7 and I Thessalonians 1:10)

What must we do to escape?  The first word of the Kerygma (proclamation of the Gospel) is repentance, the reason being the immanent destruction of the world and all the sinners in it, which, according to Biblical prophecy is an essential prerequisite for the coming kingdom.  When we pray for the kingdom to come on Earth as it is in Heaven we are asking for the end of this world and the dawn of the age to come.  Therefore, to enter the kingdom we are called to escape judgment, the sin that causes it to fall upon us, and finally, the proximate causes of sin, namely: the world, the flesh, and the devil.  That’s why the Lord’s Prayer asks that we not be led into temptation but delivered from evil.

A faithful exposition of the New Testament would address these root causes of sin – first, the world, because confusion about the world hinders truly effective Christian ministry and discipleship.  Repentance with regard to the world is detachment (see I Corinthians 7:31 below).

The Christ event is meant to transform us individually, who, like Jesus and in following him, die to the world as the world dies to us (Galatians 6:14) by the renewal not of the social environment but of our own way of thinking about things (Romans 12:1-3).  There is no prospect of our transforming the world because that is not God’s plan.  God’s plan is to destroy this world in favor of a new one, populated by a new kind of humanity, which he is now preparing through Christ, who will return to execute the judgments of God and complete the salvation of his people.  This lack of an apocalyptic vision is the chief weakness of Wright’s thought.  So, let us review what Scripture actually says about the nature and subsequent fate of world as we know it.

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ESV)

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (II Corinthians 4:4 ESV)

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14 ESV)

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— (Ephesians 2:1-2 ESV)

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— (Colossians 2:20 ESV)

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost. (I Timothy 1:15 ESV)
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. (II Timothy 4:10 ESV)

In these passages it seems that Paul has no interest in “making the world a better place.”  He conceives of Jesus saving sinners and folding us into a Church.  In the Greek “church” is ekklesia, referring those “called out” of the world.  But what might others say?  Is the Church an ark of salvation, for instance?  It appears so.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7 ESV)

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-38 ESV)

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4 ESV)
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly … For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. (II Peter 2:4-5 & 20 ESV)

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (II Peter 3:5-7 ESV)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (I John 2:15-17 ESV)

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (I John 3:1 ESV)

Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (I John 3:13 ESV)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 ESV)

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (I John 5:4-5 ESV)

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (I John 5:19 ESV)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.  (II John 1:7 ESV)

That’s enough, or should be enough, to show that the world is beyond hope, doomed, in the power of evil, and that we should not waste our time trying to make it a better place.  Rather, we ought to do as Jesus did, who came to seek and save lost souls, yes, to escape the world, its temptations and entanglements.

In the Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering … Wright says, “Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…”

I suppose that if the world ever “discovered its fallenness” there might be hope of love and trust but that is not the Gospel analysis as the passages above indicate with undeniable clarity.  One might forgive an individual that is merely na├»ve about the nature of the world and its future.  But in the quote to follow we see an agenda.  In Surprised by Hope Wright says, "Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.”

I am always suspicious of those that demonize the rich/powerful and link those persons with “unscrupulous” behavior … and then want to “transform the world” … all in one sentence!  I suppose it’s because the carnal poor and the carnal rich look the same to me.  But carnal vs. spiritual is not the primary distinction in the Marxist religion as it is in Christianity.  Christian cosmic and moral dualism is the shift that the death and resurrection of Jesus inspire, not transforming the world.

How might we explain Wright’s error?  I think that the bishop represents a kind-of cultural Christianity that fails fully to embrace the future judgment of God upon the world.  He serves in an official national Church and may be deceived by the historic sanction of European monarchs, Constantine, Theodosius, and Henry VIII, to name the succession.  Calling that kind of political entanglement “a transformation of the world” is highly questionable from a historic perspective.  While the advancement of Western culture was facilitated by the Church and, conversely, the Church provided its major themes and motifs, it is difficult to ignore abuses such as suppression of the Donatists, the Crusades, Inquisition, Indulgences, and the crimes of Conquistadors in the New World.  The Christianization of Roman law and administration counts as wisdom in most cases but it hardly satisfy the Biblical injunction to make disciples of all nations.  In fact the geo-political definition of “nations,” as Wright well knows, is not the New Testament teaching at all.  In Biblical parlance “nations” simply means all kinds of non-Jewish folk.  At one point the Jews themselves became just another “nation” that needed conversion (Acts 4:23-31).

But again, whereas traditional Western society has its problems, new Left Wing political regimes, aided and abetted by the Higher Critical Method in Biblical studies, are in no way a manifestation of Christian morals but are a positive evil in the world, which will suffer the wrath of God for their atheistic murderous thefts and revolutionary outrages against the demonized “rich.”

What we must realize is that Wright not only represents a national Church but a liberal one.  All of Western Europe and the mainline denominations of America have embraced the Social Gospel with its Marxist analysis, defining the kingdom of God in socio-economic terms.  Scripture says, though, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  (Romans 14:17)  Jesus told Pilate that the kingdom was “not of this world.”  (John 18:36)  Jesus never uttered a word about social justice.  His ethical admonitions, from the Golden Rule to the Sermon on the Mount to the Great Commission to the Law of Love, are a personal and ecclesiastical rule.  Standing before Herod, Jesus might have harangued him about social justice but said not a word, indicating no respect whatsoever for a man that murdered his cousin.  That is what the world always does; and so, we might get a clue – this world is not a nice place and according to Christian prophecy never will be.

I understand the temptation to shoe-horn Jesus into the prevailing ethos of a particular Church group.  But when that group is fundamentally flawed, as is the Church of England and others to which I’ve alluded, one must take a prophetic posture, not necessarily an academic one.  A prophetic posture is not possible unless one understands the eternal divine consequences of bad doctrine and morals.

In Surprised by Hope, Wright misses that mark entirely, saying, “All Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist.”
No, the signposts accurately describe what will happen and several things are quite clear, taken at face value.  Jesus says, for instance that the Gospel must first be preached to all nations (understood as above as all kinds of people) then the end will come (Matthew 24:14).  He also says that there will be astronomical and meteorological events that serve as signs.  He never says anything about the nation-state of Israel but puts forth the rough outline of Christian prophecy in terms of our being both persecuted and effective in spreading his word (Mark 13:11).  The hope he gives is that we will be raised from the dead as he was (I Corinthians 15).  But if some of us are alive at his coming there will be a rapture, as it has been called.  The rapture is not the prelude to a new dispensation, though.  It is merely a practical answer to what happens to us when Christ returns if we are not yet dead and buried:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV)
Finally, there is the fearful prospect of judgment by fire.  We know, of course, that Scripture uses fire metaphorically with two meanings: purification and judgment.  But let us suppose for an instant that some references to fire in the New Testament, especially in Christian prophecy, are meant literally.  With the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology the metaphors morph into credible threats to human existence.  The only thing required to set it off is a complete moral and diplomatic breakdown among nations.  Similarly, one needs only to look at the Moon to see the effects of near Earth asteroids.  We know that some have hit the Earth before.  What happened to the dinosaurs could happen to us!  Additionally, helio astronomers tell us that a massive solar flare could annihilate planet Earth.  Catastrophism is a valid interpretive principle when considering Christian end time predictions.  I will close with three of them:
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28 ESV)
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 ESV)
They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:4-13 ESV)