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NT Wright on Biblical Theology

NT Wright on Biblical Theology

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Published by Kfever
A brief introduction to NT Wright on Biblical Theology.
A brief introduction to NT Wright on Biblical Theology.

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Published by: Kfever on Feb 17, 2010
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N.T. Wright for Everyone: Biblical TheologyBy Kyle T. Fever
1
 
[In preparation for the annual Wheaton Theology Conference (April 16-
17, 2010) the topic of which is “ATheological Dialogue with N.T. Wright,” this essay aims to introduce Wright‟s basic views
on a particular issue.]
Talking about N.T. Wright on Biblical Theology is no simple task, for two reasons. First,what is Biblical Theology? The concept is vague and scholars seem to have differing perceptionsof it. Second, Wright has not written much on the subject
 — 
at least explicitly. But he hasindirectly addressed the issue, or at least one can glean some element
s of Wright‟s Biblical
Theology from a number of writings.
2
One must put together a puzzle from pieces scattered in anumber of different p
uzzle boxes. In fact, describing Wright‟s ideas on Biblical Theology is a bit
like doing Biblical Theology itself (minus the nature of the authority given to the material!).Fortunately, and perhaps
unlike
Scripture, finding consistency is not mind-bending.One way to go about
“N.T.
Wright on Biblical Theology
 
might be to discuss Wright‟s
perspectives on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, justification, and the church. But this would bedoing it in a very
un
Wright manner.
3
 
For the purposes of this brief summary, which simplycannot justly explain Wright on Biblical Theology, I will be concerned with how Wright sees theBible as a whole, two key elements to his reading, and how he explains the nature of therelationship between the Old and New Testaments.
4
 
What Bible?
Before going further, it is important to be clear that
Wright‟s Biblical Theology concerns
the Christian Bible, and one may be even more precise to say that it concerns the ProtestantBible. At least in his writings, Wright does not give a positive sense that the version of the Bibleassumed in his Biblical Theology includes the apocrypha. I suspect that introducing theapocrypha into the mix would change things little, if at all.
The Narrative of God
 
Wright‟s starting point for Biblical
theology is the idea of narrative or story. This is notanything distinct, as interpreters have for some time read the Bible in terms of a grand narrative.This is how Wright walks the line between dogmatic theology and pure a-theological history.
5
 Rather
than falling into the ditch of equating Biblical Theology with “large chunky doctrines”
6
 Wright insists on paying attention to the lives and contexts of the Biblical writers. And ratherthan fall into the other ditch of pure historicity, Wright insists that all of the writings of the Bible
1
Kyle is a PhD candidate in New Testament/Early Christianity at Loyola University, Chicago. He is
currently writing his dissertation on the law in Romans 2, trying to interpret Paul‟s statements in conversation with
Diaspora Jewish literature. He is writing under the direction of Thomas Tobin (
 Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts
 [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004]). He serves part-time as an adjunct instructor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, andwas Visiting Lecturer in New Testament in 2008-09. He and his family live in Stillwater, MN.
2
Principally his
 NTPG
,
 JVG
,
 JRG
, and select essays. Wright‟s understanding of the Old Testament is very
derivative. That is, we have no book or essay in which Wright directly attempts to give a more systematicexplanation of how he understands the Old Testament. We have only passages and statements scattered about hisinterpretation of the New Testament.
3
Based on
Wright‟s
comments in
 NTPG
, 126-44.
4
 
Taking cues from James Dunn‟s brief comments on biblical theology in his recent
 New Testament Theology: An Introduction
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 3-4.
5
 
 NTPG
, 121-44.
6
 
“The Bible for the Post
-
Modern World.”
 
 
are inherently
theological
. To treat them as less is to not listen to them. To shoot past history for
theology, or theology for history, is to misunderstand the target. In Wright‟s words: “We need to
do both history and
theology.”
7
Understanding the Bible in terms of a grand narrative means thatone must properly place the parts in their historical contexts, but also recognize the greatertheological purpose or narrative to which they point. As for Christian doctrine, Wright explainsthat his understanding does not dismiss doctrinal concepts. Wright suggests that Christiansrecognize that doctrines
are “portable stories”— 
they are something like suitcases in which acertain narrative is packed.
8
Doctrine must presume and po
int to God‟s grand story.
 For Wright, this narrative is n
ot necessarily about “salvation”
understood in terms of theindividualistic salvation of the soul or salvation of the individual from sin. Wright puts it mostcompletely in this way:
The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos toOrder, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant torenewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seenbut which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at.
9
 
Wright describes this story about God‟s redemption of the world in more detail in terms
of a five act play. The five acts are: (1) creation, (2) fall, (3) Israel, and (4) Jesus, and (5) theNew Testament.
10
This fifth act is important, for while its beginnings are found in the NewTestament (including the gospels), the act continues beyond to this day, right up through to theend of the story. In their diverse ways, the writers of Scripture work within this story. They donot necessarily tell this story self-consciously, however. They may have been aware enough of the story to the point of their writing, but not necessarily aware of all the parts.
11
It is thisunawareness that marks this s
toryline as particularly “extraordinary.”
12
 
Historically Rooted
 
Wright‟s Biblical theology is not simply the result of putting together the pieces of what
the Biblical writers say. In other words, it is not merely an endeavor of finding a common threadthrough Scripture. His Biblical theology is also historically rooted, and this must be so.
Wright‟s Biblical Theology emerges primarily out of the contexts of Second Temple
Judaism. Second Temple Judaism sets the New Testament witness, especially the proclamationof Jesus, in the context of exile and restoration. Wright bases this on a reading of Second TempleJewish texts which, according to his reading, attest that although Jews were no longer in
 physical
 
7
 
 NTPG
, 24.
8
 
“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 62
-64.
9
 
From Wright‟s lecture “The Bible and Tomorrow‟s World,” given at the Lambeth Conference on July 30,
2008. It can be found on the N.T. Wright Page:
. Elsewhere Wright describes it as a story “from the first garden tothe new city” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 61).
 
10
 
 NTPG
, 141-42;
 
“The Bible and Tomorrow‟s World
.
 
11
 
Wright puts it this way: “It is as though engineers from different workshops were invited to produce bits
and pieces of cantilevers which ended up, when put together without the different workshops knowing of it,
 producing the Fourth Bridge” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 61).
12
 
“The canon as it stands…displays an extraordinary, because unintentional to every single individual
writer and redactor involve
d, overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency” (“Reading Paul, ThinkingScripture,” 60).
 
 
exile, they were in waiting for God‟s promises to be fulfilled.
13
 
But it was more than this: “Israel
was (still) ensl
aved to foreign overlords and their pagan culture and customs.”
14
 
This “exile” was
understood through the lens of Daniel 9. As a result of disobedience to the covenant, and failingin their God-
given mission to be God‟s people in the world, God‟s people Isr 
ael were inperpetual exile. But God would be faithful to his promises, and so Israel was waiting on God to
„show up.‟
15
This view of Second Temple Judaism is significant, for it provides the stage set-upwhen Jesus comes on the scene.
God’s Righteousness
 
The “righteousness of God,”
as one might expect, plays a significant role in N.T.
Wright‟s Biblical Theology. Or at least it seems to in current debates.
This leads one to wonder if 
we can, like Schweizer said of “righteousness by faith” in Paul‟s thought
, suggest that
“justification” or “righteousness” is not the center of Wright‟s theology, but a key topic that
receives its significance from debate with others.
16
 It seems
we can place “righteousness” at or near the center of Wright‟
s BiblicalTheology. I hasten to add that
if 
 
one suspects “justification” or “righteousness” is at the center 
that it is
not 
itself the center, but part of a center that includes more than one element.Specifically
it is God‟s righteousness and not human righteousness
or justification. In other
words, the whole of Scripture, as a story of God‟s redemption of the world, is also about God‟s
righteousness.
In this sense, “righteousness” is understood in terms of God being faithful toGod‟s promises.
17
Wright explains this in terms of covenant and lawcourt, in fact
merging
thesetwo.
God being faithful to his covenant was God‟s way of working to “bring justice to the wholeworld.”
18
 
For it was always through God‟s people Israel and his covenant with them that god had
been working to restore his rule in the world.How does Jesus fit? For Wright, Jesus
, according to the gospels‟ proclamation,
 
“embod(ies) in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.”
19
 
He “believed
himself to be the focal point of the people of YHWH, the returned-from-exile people, the peopleof the renewed covenant, the people whose sins were now
to be forgiven.”
20
In the resurrection
of Jesus, sin and death have been dealt a final blow, bringing to fulfillment God‟s covenant plan,
and inaugurating God
‟s new creation.
21
Wright reads Paul through this lens as well. For Wright
the theme of Romans is “God‟s gospel unveils God‟s righteousness.”
22
 
This “righteousness”
13
 
“As long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, the great promises made by this God to the patriarchs, and through the prophets, had still not been fulfilled” (“Romans, 398).
For his full interpretation, see
 NTPG
, 268-79. It is important to note tha
t Wright acknowledged that “we cannot say that all first
-century Jews
thought like this, any more than you can say that all Americans like hamburgers” (
 Justification
, 59). This is animportant point, and raises the question of what Jews did
not 
think like this, and might Paul in particular haveinteracted with them?
14
 
 Justification
, 60.
15
 
 Justification
, 57-63.
16
Albert Schweizer,
The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle
, trans. W. Montgomery (New York: Holt andCompany, 1931), 220-25.
17
 
“Romans,” 398;
18
 
“Romans,”
399.
19
 
 JVG
, 653.
20
 
 JVG
, 538.
This is a result of Wright‟s detailed work on the historical Jesus.
21
 
 RSG
, 726-31.
22
 
“Romans,” 397.
 

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